Poul Anderson

The Boat of a Million Years


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

<p>ACKNOWLEDGMENTS</p>

Chapter HI, “The Comrade,” has appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Science Fact, June 1988. Copyright © 1988 by Davis Publications, Inc.

Chapter V, “No Man May Shun His Doom,” does homage to the late Johannes V. Jensen.

Karen Anderson prepared the epigraph, slightly modifying her translation at my request, and as scholar and critic was invaluable throughout.

The “CCCP” is due to George W. Price.

For other kinds of help I also thank John Anderson, Victor Fernandez-Davila, and David Hartwell.


To G. C. and Carmen Edmondson Salud, amor, dinero y tiempo para gustarlos.


May he go forth in the sunrise boat, May he come to port in the sunset boat, May he go among the imperishable stars, May he journey in the Boat of a Million Years. The Book of Going Forth by Daylight (Theban recension, ca. 18th Dynasty)

I. Thule

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

<p>I. Thule</p>
<p>1</p>

“To sail beyond the world—”

Hanno’s voice faded away. Pytheas looked sharply at him. Against the plain, whitewashed room where they sat, the Phoenician seemed vivid, like a flash of sunlight from outside. It might only be due to the brightness of eyes and teeth or a skin tan even in winter. Otherwise he was ordinary, slender and supple but of medium height, features aquiline, hair and neatly trimmed beard a crow’s-wing black. He wore an unadorned tunic, scuffed sandals, a single gold finger ring.

“You cannot mean that,” said the Greek.

Hanno came out of reverie, shook himself, laughed. “Oh, no. A trope, of course. Though it would be well to make sure beforehand that enough of your men do believe we live on a sphere. They’ll have ample terrors and troubles without fearing a plunge off the edge into some abyss.”

“You sound educated,” said Pytheas slowly.

“Should I not? I have traveled, but also studied. And you, sir, a learned man, a philosopher, propose to voyage into the sheerly unknown. You actually hope to come back.” Hanno picked a goblet off the small table between them and sipped of the tempered wine that a slave had brought.

Pytheas shifted on his stool. A charcoal brazier had made the room close as well as warm. His lungs longed for a breath of clean air. “Not altogether unknown,” he said, “Your people go that far. Lykias told me you claim to have been there yourself.”

Hanno sobered. “I told him the truth. I’ve journeyed that way more than once, both overland and by sea. But so much of it is wilderness, so much else is changing these days, in ways unforeseeable but usually violent. And the Carthaginians are interested just in the tin, with whatever other things they can pick up incidental to that. They only touch on the southern end of the Pretanic Isles. The rest is outside their ken, or any civilized man’s.”

“And yet you desire to come with me.”

Hanno in his turn studied his host before replying. Pytheas too was simply clad. He was tall for a Greek, lean, features sharp beneath a high forehead, clean-shaven, with a few deep lines. Curly brown hair showed frost at the temples. His eyes were gray. The directness of their glance bespoke impiousness, or innocence, or perhaps both.

“I think I do,” said Hanno carefully. “We shall have to talk further. However, in my fashion, like you in yours, I want to learn as much as I can about this earth and its peoples while I am still above it. When your man Lykias went about the city inquiring after possible advisors, and I heard, I was happy to seek him out.” Again he grinned. “Also, I am in present need of employment. There ought to be a goodly profit in this.”

“We are not going as traders,” Pytheas explained. “Well have wares along, but to exchange for what we need rather than to get wealthy. We are, though, pledged excellent pay on our return.”

“I gather the city is not sponsoring the venture?”

“Correct. A consortium of merchants is. They want to know the chances and costs of a sea route to the far North, now that the Gauls are making the land dangerous. Not tin alone, you understand—tin may be the least of it—but amber, furs, slaves, whatever those countries offer.”

“The Gauls indeed.” Nothing else need be said. They had poured over the mountains to make the nearer part of Italy theirs; a long lifetime ago war chariots rumbled, swords flashed, homes blazed, wolves and ravens feasted across Europe. Hanno did add: “I have some acquaintance with them. That should help. Be warned, the prospects of such a route are poor. Besides them, the Carthaginians.”

“I know.”

Hanno cocked his head. “Nevertheless, you are organizing this expedition.”

“To follow knowledge,” Pytheas answered quietly. “I am fortunate in that two of the sponsors are ... more intelligent than most. They value understanding for its own sake.”

“Knowledge has a trick of paying off in unexpected ways.” Hanno smiled. “Forgive me. I’m a crass Phoenician. You’re a man of consequence in public affairs—inherited money, I’ve heard—but first and foremost a philosopher. You need a navigator at sea, a guide and interpreter ashore. I believe I am the one for you.”

Pytheas’ tone sharpened. “What are you doing in Massalia? Why are you prepared to aid something that is ... not in the interests of Carthage?”

Hanno turned serious. “I am no traitor, for I am not a Carthaginian. True, I’ve lived in the city, among many different places. But I’m not overly fond of it. They’re too puritanical there, too little touched by any grace of Greece or Persia; and their human sacrifices—“ He grimaced, then shrugged. “To sit in judgment on what people do is a fool’s game. They’ll continue doing it regardless. As for me, I’m from Old Phoenicia, the East. Alexandras destroyed Tyre, and the civil wars after his death have left that part of the world in sorry shape. I seek my fortune where I can. I’m a wanderer by nature anyway.”

“I shall have to get better acquainted with you,” Pytheas said, blunter than he was wont. Did he already feel at ease with this stranger?

“Certainly.” Again Hanno’s manner grew cheerful. “I’ve thought how to prove my skills to you. In a short time. You realize the need to embark soon, don’t you? Preferably at the start of sailing season.”

“Because of Carthage?”

Hanno nodded. “This new war in Sicily will engage her whole attention for a while. Agathokles of Syracuse is a harder enemy than the Carthaginian suffetes have taken the trouble to discover. I wouldn’t be surprised if he carries the fight to their shores.”

Pytheas stared. “How can you be so sure?”

“I was lately there, and I’ve learned to pay attention. In Carthage too. You’re aware she discourages all foreign traffic beyond the Pillars of Herakles—often by methods that would be called piracy were it the work of a private party. Well, the suffetes now speak of an out-and-out blockade. If they win this war, or at least fight it to a draw, I suspect they’ll lack the resources for some time afterward; but eventually they’ll do it. Your expedition will take a pair of years at least, likelier three, very possibly more. The earlier you set forth, the earlier you’ll come home—if you do—and not run into a Carthaginian patrol. What a shame, after an odyssey like that, to end at the bottom of the sea or on an auction block.”

“We’ll have an escort of warships.” Hanno shook his head. “Oh, no. Anything less than a penteconter would be useless, and that long hull would never survive the North Atlantic. My friend, you haven’t seen waves or storms till you’ve been yonder. Also, how do you carry food and water for all those rowers? They burn it like wildfire, you know, and resupplying will be chancy at best. My namesake could explore the African coasts in galleys, but he was southbound. You’ll need sail. Let me counsel you on what ships to buy.”

“You claim a great many proficiencies,” Pytheas murmured.

“I have been through a great many schools,” Hanno replied.

They talked onward for an hour, and agreed to meet again on the following day. Pytheas escorted his visitor out. They stopped for a moment at the front door.

The house stood high on a ridge above the bay. Eastward, beyond city walls, hills glowed with sunset. The streets of the old Greek colony had become rivers of shadow. Voices, footfalls, wheels were muted; the air rested in chilly peace. Westward the sun cast a bridge across the waters. Masts in the harbor stood stark against it. Gulls cruising overhead caught the light on then- wings, gold beneath blue.

“A lovely sight,” Pytheas said low. “This coast must be the most beautiful in the world.”

Hanno parted his tips as if to tell about others he had seen, closed them, said finally: “Let us try to bring you back here, then. It won’t be easy.”

<p>2</p>

Three vessels fared by moonlight. Their masters dared not put in at Gadeira or any part of Tartessos—Carthaginian territory—and kept the sea after dark. The crews muttered; but night sailing was not unheard of on familiar lanes, and to be out in the very Ocean was a strangeness overwhelming all else.

The craft were alike, so they could more readily travel in convoy. Each was a merchantman, though her principal cargo was well-armed men and their supplies. Narrower in the beam man most of its kind, the black hull swept some hundred feet from the high stern, where the twin steering oars were and a swan’s head ornament reared, to the cutwater at the prow. A mast amidships carried a large square sail and a triangular topsail. Forward of it stood a small deckhouse, aft of it lay two rowboats, for towing her at need or saving lives in the worst need. She could get perhaps eighty degrees off the wind, slowly and awkwardly; nimbler rigs existed, but drew less well. Tonight, with a favoring breeze, she made about five knots.

Hanno came forth. The cabin, which the officers shared, was confining for a person of his habits. Often he slept on deck, together with such of the crew as found the spaces below too cramped and smelly. Several of them rested blanket-wrapped on straw ticks along the bulwarks. Moon-tight turned planks hoar, cross-barred with long unrestful shadows. Air blew cold, and Hanno drew his chlamys close about him. The wind lulled above whoosh of waves, creak of timbers and tackle. The ship rocked gently, making muscles flex in a dance with her.

A figure stood at the starboard rail, near the forward lookout. Hanno recognized Pytheas’ profile against quicksilver moonglade and went to join him. “Rejoice,” he greeted. “You can’t sleep either?”

“I hoped to make observations,” the Greek replied. “Nights this clear will be few for us, won’t they?”

Hanno looked outward. Brightnesses rippled, sheened, sparked over the water. Foam swirled ghostly. Lanterns hung from the yard scarcely touched his vision, though he saw their counterparts glimmer and sway on the companion ships. Across a distance hard to gauge in this moving mingling of light and night, a vague mass lifted, Iberia. “We’ve been lucky thus far in the weather,” Hanno said. He gestured at the goniometer in Pytheas’ hand. “But is that thing of any use here?”

“It would be much more accurate ashore. If only we could— Well, doubtless I’ll find better opportunities later, the Bears will be higher in the sky.”

Hanno glanced at those constellations. They had dimmed as the moon climbed. “What are you trying to measure?”

“I want to locate the north celestial pole more exactly man has hitherto been done.” Pytheas pointed. “Do you see how the two brightest stars in the Lesser Bear, with the first star in the tail, form three corners of a quadrangle? The pole is the fourth. Or so they say.”

“I know. I am your navigator.”

“I beg your pardon. I forgot for a moment. Too absorbed.” Pytheas chuckled ruefully, then grew eager. “If this rule of thumb can be refined, you appreciate what a help that will give seamen. Still more will it mean to geographers and cosmographers. Since the gods have not seen fit to place a star just at the pole, or even especially dose, we must make do as best we are able.”

“There have been such stars in the past,” Hanno said. “There will be again in the future.”

“What?” Pytheas stared at him through the phantom radiance. “Do you mean die heavens change?”

“Over centuries.” Hanno’s hand made a chopping motion. “Forget it. Like you, I spoke without thinking. I don’t expect you to believe me. Call it a sailor’s tall tale.”

Pytheas stroked his chin. “As a matter of fact,” he said, low and slow, “a correspondent of mine in Alexandria, at its great library, has mentioned that ancient records give certain intimations. ... It requires deeper study. But you, Hanno—”

The Phoenician formed a disarming grin. “Perhaps I make lucky guesses once in a while.”

“You are ... unique in several respects. You’ve actually told me very little about yourself. Is ‘Hanno’ the name you were born with?”

“It serves.”

“You seem without home, family, ties of any kind.” Impulsively: “I hate to think of you as lonely and defenseless.”

“Thank you, but I need no sympathy.” Hanno mildened his manner. “You judge me by yourself. Are you already homesick?”

“Not really. Not on this quest that I’ve dreamt of for years.” The Greek paused. “But I do have roots, wife, children. My oldest son is married. He should have grandchildren for me when I return.” With a smile: “My oldest daughter is now marriageable. I left arrangements for her in my brother’s hands, with my wife’s advice and consent. Yes, my little Danae too, she may well have a little one of her own by that time.” He shook himself, as if the wind had touched him with cold. “It won’t do to yearn. Well be long gone at best.”

Hanno shrugged. “And meanwhile, I’ve found, barbarian women are usually easy.”

Pytheas regarded him for a silent spell and said nothing about youths already available. Whatever Hanno’s tastes ought be, he didn’t expect the Phoenician would become intimate with any member of the expedition. Behind that genial front of his, how much humanity was in him?

<p>3</p>

All at once, tike a blow to the belly, there the Keltoi were. A dozen tall warriors sprang from the forest and started across the grassy slope to the beach, a score, a hundred, two hundred or worse. More swarmed onto the twin headlands sheltering the cove where the ships had anchored.

Mariners yelled, dropped their work of preparing camp, snatched for their weapons, milled about. Soldiers among them, hoptites and peltasts, most still armored, pushed through the chaos to take formation. Helmets, breastplates, shields, swords, pike heads shimmered dully in a thin rain. Hanno ran to their captain, Demetrios, caught him by the wrist, and snapped, “Don’t initiate hostilities. They’d love to take our heads home. Battle trophies.”

The hard visage fleered. “Do you suppose if we stay peaceful, they’ll embrace us?”

“That depends.” Hanno squinted into the dimness before him. The hidden sun at his back had to be near the horizon. Trees made a gray wall behind the oncoming attackers. War cries went saw-edged over the boom of surf outside the little bay, echoed from cliff to cliff, sent gulls shrieking aloft. “Someone spied us, maybe days ago; sent word to his fellow clansmen; they followed our course, with the woods for a screen; they expected we’d camp at one of the places where the Carthaginians do—we’d see the burnt wood, rubbish, traces, and head in—“ He was thinking aloud.

“Why didn’t they wait till we were asleep, except for our sentries?”

“They must be afraid of the dark. This can’t be their country. And so—Hold fast. Give me—I should have a peeled wand or a green bough, but this may suffice.” Hanno turned about and tugged at the standard. Its bearer clung and cursed him.

“Make him give me this, Demetrios!” Hanno demanded.

The mercenary leader hesitated an instant before he ordered, “Let go, Kleanthes.”

“Good. Now blow trumpets, bang on shields, raise all the noise you can, but stay where you are.”

The emblem aloft, Hanno advanced. He moved slowly, gravely, staff in right hand, naked sword in left. At his rear, brass brayed and iron thundered.

The Carthaginians had cleared away high growth as far as the spring where they got water, a distance of about an Athenian stadion. New brush sprang up to hinder passage and make it noisy. Thus total surprise was impossible, and the Gauls were not yet in that headlong dash which civilized men dreaded. They trotted forward as individuals or small groups, disorderly and deadly.

They were big, fair-complexioned men. Most flaunted long mustaches; none had shaved lately. Those that did not braid their hair had treated it with a material that reddened it and stiffened it into spikes. Paint and tattoos adorned bodies sometimes naked, oftener wrapped in a dyed woolen kilt—a sort of primitive himation—or attired in breeches and perhaps a tunic of gaudy hues. Their weapons were long swords, spears, dirks; some bore round shields, a few had helmets.

One huge man at the forefront of the roughly semicircular van wore a gilt helmet that flared out in horns. A bronze tore circled his throat, gold helices his arms. The warriors to his right and left were almost as flamboyant. He must be the chief. Hanno moved toward him.

The racket from among the Greeks was giving the barbarians pause, puzzling them. They slowed, looked around, damped their shouts and muttered to each other. Watching, Pytheas saw Hanno meet their leader. He heard horns blow, voices ring. Men sped about, carrying a word he could not understand. The Gauls grumbled piecemeal to a halt, withdrew a ways, squatted down or leaned on their spears, waited. The drizzle thickened, daylight faded, and he saw only shadows yonder.

An hour dragged itself into dusk. Fires blossomed under the forest.

Hanno returned. He walked like another shadow past Demetrios pickets, between the hushed and huddled sailors, to find Pytheas near the boats, not to flee but because there the water cast off enough light to ease the wet gloom a little.

“We’re safe,” Hanno declared. Breath gusted out of Pytheas.

“But we’ve a busy night ahead of us,” Hanno went on. “Kindle fires, pitch tents, get the best of the wretched food we have and cook it as well as possible. Not that our visitors will notice the quality. It’s quantity that counts with them.”

Pytheas peered, striving to read the half-seen face. “What’s happened?” he asked unevenly. “What have you done?”

Hanno’s tone stayed cool, with a hint of hidden laughter. “You know I’ve acquired enough Keltic language to get by, and a fair acquaintance with their customs and beliefs. Those aren’t too different from several other wild races’; I can guess my way past any gaps in my knowledge. I went out to them in the style of a herald, which made my person sacred, and talked with their chief. He’s not a bad fellow, as such people go. I’ve known worse monsters in power among Hellenes, Persians, Phoenicians, Egyptians—No matter.”

“What ... did they want?”

“To overcome us before we could escape, of course, take our boats, capture our ships, plunder them. The fact alone showed this isn’t likely their native country. Carthaginians have treaties with natives. True, these might have denounced the agreement for some childish reason. However, then they’d have attacked after dark. They brag about their fearlessness, but when it’s a question of booty more than glory, they wouldn’t care to take unnecessary casualties or risk our being able to stand them off while most of us got away to the ships. Nevertheless they came at us as soon as we were ashore. So they must be afraid of the dark hereabouts—ghosts and gods of the lately slain, not yet appeased. I played on that, among other things.”

“Who are they?”

“Pictones from the east, intending to settle these parts.” Hanno began pacing, to and fro before the eyes of Pytheas. Sand scrunched soddenly underfoot. “Not much like those tame and half-tame tribes hi your Massatian hinterland; but not entirely alien to them, either. They have more respect for skills, for learning, than I’ve generally found your ordinary Greek does. Their ornament, all their workmanship is beautiful. Not only a herald but a poet, any wise person is sacred. I proved myself a magician, what they call a druid, by various sleight-of-hand tricks and occultistic nonsense. I threatened—oh, very delicately—to lay a satire on them if they offended me. First I’d convinced them I was a poet, by a rough plagiarism of lines from Homer. I’ll have to work on that. I’ve promised them more.”

“You have what?”

Hanno’s laugh rang aloud. “Ready the camp, I say. Prepare the feast. Tell Demetrios’ men they’re to be an honor guard. We’ll have guests at dawn, and I daresay the festivities will brawl on through the whole day. You’ll be expected to give pretty lavish gifts, but that’s all right, we have ample trade goods along, and honor will require you receive severalfold the value in stuff we can better use. Also, we now have safe conduct for a considerable distance north.” He paused. Sea and land sighed around them. “Oh, and if we get decent weather tomorrow night, do carry on your star observations, Pytheas. That will impress them no end.”

“And ... it’s a part of what we’re journeying for,” whispered the other man. “What you’ve saved.”

<p>4</p>

Behind lay the Dumnonian tin mines, and the harbor to which no Carthaginians would come while the war lasted, and the three ships. Lykias kept a guard on them and saw to their careening and refitting. Demetrios organized overland explorations of the west and south coasts. The interior and north of Pretania Pytheas claimed for himself.

He came with Hanno and a small military escort out of the hills, onto a rolling plain where, here and there, wilderness yielded to plowland and pasture. A gigantic mound inside a fosse and earthworks dominated it. The chalky crater hollowed on top held armed men and their lodgings.

Its commander received the travelers hospitably, once he was sure of their intentions. Folk were always eager for word from outside; most barbarians had pathetically narrow horizons. Talk went haltingly by way of Hanno and a Dumnonian who had accompanied the party this far. Now he wanted to go home. A man by some such name as Segovax offered to replace him and lead the guests to a great wonder nearby.

Autumn was in the wind, chill and loud. Leaves were turning yellow, brown, russet and beginning to fly away. A trail went onto an upland where trees were few. Cloud shadows and pale sunlight sickled across immensities of sallow grass. Sheepflocks afar were lost in loneliness. The Greeks marched briskly, leading the pack ponies they had gotten in Dumnonia. They would not return to the hill fort but push on. One winter was scant time to range this land. Come spring, Pytheas must be back with his ships.

The sight waxed slowly before him. At first it seemed little, and he supposed people made much of it only because they knew nothing better. As he neared, the sense of its mass grew and grew. Within a time-worn earthen rampart loomed a triple ring of standing stones, perhaps seventy cubits wide, the tallest of them well-nigh three man-heights, slabs almost as huge joining them on top, gray, lichenous, weathered, powerful beyond his understanding.

“What is this?” he whispered.

“You’ve seen megalithic works in the South, haven’t you?” Hanno’s voice was less calm than his words, hushed beneath the wind.

“Yes, but nothing like—Ask!”

Hanno turned to Segovax. Keltic lilted between them.

“He says giants built it in the morning of the world,” Hanno told Pytheas.

“Then his people are as ignorant as we,” the Greek said low, “We’ll camp here, overnight at least. Maybe we can learn something.” It was more a prayer than a hope.

Throughout the rest of the day he devoted himself to his eyes and his instruments. Hanno could give scant help and Segovax hardly any information. Once Pytheas spent a long time finding the exact center of the complex and sighting from there. “I think,” he said as he pointed, “that yonder stone outside—the sun will be seen to rise over it on Midsummer’s Day, But I cannot be sure, and we cannot wait to find out, can we?”

Night approached. The soldiers, who had snatched the chance to idle, started a fire, cooked food, made ready. Their talk and occasional laughter rattled meaningless. They had no reason to fear attack by mortal men, nor to wonder what ghosts might linger here.

The weather had cleared, and after full darkness Pytheas left the camp to observe, which he did at every opportunity. Hanno came along, bearing a wax tablet and stylus to record the measurements. He had the Phoenician trick of writing without light. Pytheas could use ridges and grooves to read instruments by his fingertips, measurements less close than he wished but preferable to none at all. When a stone had blocked view of flames, they were alone in the ring with the sky.

Titan blacknesses walled them in. Stars flickered between, as if trapped. Overhead curved the Galaxy, a river of mist across which winged the Swan. The Lyre hung silent. The Dragon coiled halfway around a pole strangely high hi heaven. Cold deepened with the hours, the vast wheel turned, frost formed hoar on the stones.

“Hadn’t we better get some sleep?” Hanno asked at last. “I’m forgetting what warmth feels like.”

“I suppose so.” Pytheas’ answer dragged. “I’ve learned as much as I can.” Abruptly, harshly: “It isn’t enough! It never will be. Our lives are a million years too short,”

<p>5</p>

After the long voyage north, past land that grew ever more rugged, ever more girded with holms and reefs, the coast finally bent eastward. These were waters as rough as the ground on which their surf crashed; the ships stood well out and cast anchor at sunset. It was better to huddle tireless than dare those unknown approaches. On the fourth day there appeared above haze the red and yellow heights of an island. Pytheas decided to pass between it and the main shore. His vessels battled their way on until dark.

Men saw no dawn, for air had thickened further. Aft of them a whiteness towered from edge to unseen edge of the world. They had a light breeze and visibility of about a dozen Athenian stadia, so they hoisted dripping sails. The sheer island began to fall behind them, and ahead, to starboard, they spied a murk that ought to be a lesser one. Noise of breakers loudened, an undergroundish thunder.

Then the white wall rolled over them, and they were blind. The breeze died and they lay helpless.

Never had they known or heard of a fog such as this. A man amidships saw neither bow nor stern; vision lost itself in smothering, eddying gray. Over the side he could barely make out turbulence streaked with foam. Water settled on cordage and fell off in a wicked little ram. The deck sheened with it. Wetness weighted hair, clothes, breath, while cold gnawed inward to the bone, as if he were already drowning. The formlessness was full of noise. Seas grew heavier, timbers groaned, the hull swayed crazily. Billows rushed and rumbled, surf roared. Horns hooted, crew wailed themselves hoarse, ship called desperately to unseen ship.

Pytheas, aft by the helm, shook his head. “What makes the waves rise when we have no wind?” he asked through the tumult.

The steersman gripped his useless tiller and shuddered. “Things out o’ the deeps,” he rasped, “or the gods o’ these waters, angry that we trouble them.”

“Launch the boats,” Hanno advised Pytheas. “They’ll give some warning if we’re about to drift onto a rock, and maybe they can pull us clear.”

The steersman bared teeth. “Oh, no, you don’t!” he cried. “You’ll not send men down to the demon-beasts. They won’t go.”

“I won’t send them,” Hanno retorted. “I’ll lead them.”

“Or I,” Pytheas said.

It became the Phoenician who shook his head. “We can’t risk you. Who else could have brought us this far, or can bring us home? Without you we’re all dead. Come help me put spirit into the crew.”

He got his men, because Pytheas’ calm words damped the terror in them. They unlashed a boat, dragged it to the side, shoved it over a rail when the deck canted and white-maned waves galloped just beneath. Hanno sprang down, braced calves between two thwarts, took an oar a sailor handed him, fended off while his rowers followed one by one. They fought free at the end of a towline and the next boat came after.

“I do hope the other skippers—“ began Hanno. A dash of brine choked off what nobody heard anyhow.

The ship was gone into wet smoke. The boat climbed a comber that was tike a moving hillside, hovered on the crest, plunged into a trough where men looked up the heights of water around them. Noise rolled empty of direction. Hanno, at the rudder, could only try to keep the hawser unfouled behind him. “Stroke!” he bawled. “Stroke, stroke, stroke!” Men gasped at oars and bailing buckets. The sea lapped around their ankles.

A monstrous grip seized them. They whirled. A cataract leaped out of the fog. It burst over their heads. When they could see again, the ship was upon them. The boat smashed into her hull. The water ground it against the strakes. Wood broke, tore free of nails, shrieked. The boat fell asunder.

Pytheas beheld it. A man flailed arms and legs. The sea dashed him at the ship. His skull split open. Brains, blood, body went under.

“Lines out!” Pytheas shouted. He himself didn’t stop to uncoil any from a bollard. He drew his knife and slashed a sheet free of the slack mainsail. When he cast the end overboard, it disappeared in fog and foam. None of the swimmers he glimpsed, lost, glimpsed again had noticed it.

He signalled for another length. The cut sheet still cleated and in his left hand, he slid over the rail. Feet planted on the hull, arm straining to hold the cordage taut and himself in place, he leaned straight out. With his right hand he swung the second line like a whip.

Now he was visible to those he would save, except when the vessel rose onto that side and a wave fountained across him. A man swung past. Pytheas flicked the loose line at his face. The man caught it. Sailors on deck hauled him aboard.

The third whom Pytheas rescued was Hanno, clinging to an oar. After that, his strength was spent. He got back with the help of two mariners and fell in a heap beside the Phoenician. No others attempted his feat; but no more waifs came to sight in the rage around.

Hanno stirred. “To the cabin, you and me and these two,” he said through clattering teeth. “Else the cold will kill us. We wouldn’t have lived ten minutes in that water.”

In the shelter, men stripped, toweled till blood awoke to stinging life, pulled blankets tightly about themselves. “You were magnificent, my friend,” Hanno said. “I wouldn’t have supposed you, a scholar—tough, but a scholar—could do it.”

“Nor would I have.” Exhaustion flattened Pytheas’ voice.

“You saved us few from the consequences of my folly.”

“No folly. Who could have foreseen the sea in windless air would go so wild so fast?”

“What might have done it?”

“Demons,” mumbled a sailor.

“No,” Pytheas replied. “It must have been a trick of these enormous Atlantic tides, thrusting through a strait cluttered with isles and reefs.”

Hanno mustered a chuckle. “Still the philosopher, you!”

“We’ve a boat left,” Pytheas said. “And our luck may turn. Beseech your gods if you like, boys.” He lay down on his pallet. “I am going to sleep.”

<p>6</p>

The ships survived, though one scraped a rock and opened seams. When fog had lifted and waters somewhat calmed, rowers pulled the three to the high island. They found a safe anchorage with a sloping strand where, at low water, they could work to repair damage.

Several families lived nearby: unshorn, skin-clad fishers who kept a few animals and scratched in tiny gardens. Their dwellings were dry-laid stones and turf roofs above pits. At first they fled and watched from afar. Pytheas ordered goods set out, and they timidly returned to collect these. Thereafter the Greeks were their house guests.

That proved fortunate. A gale came from the west. The ships got barely adequate protection from the bluffs around the east-side inlet, but everywhere else the storm ramped unchecked for days and nights. Men could not stand against it. Indoors they must struggle to speak and hear through the racket. Breakers higher than city battlements hurled themselves onto the western cliffs. Stones Weighing tons broke from their beds in what had been the shallows. Earth trembled. The air was a torrent of spume, whose salt flayed faces and blinded eyes. It was as if the world had toppled into primordial chaos.

Pytheas, Hanno, and their companions hunched crowded together on dried seaweed strewn over a dirt floor in a cave of gloom. Coals glowed faint red on the hearthstone. Smoke drifted acrid through the chill. Pytheas was another shadow, his words a whisper amidst the violence: “The fog, and now this. Here is neither sea nor land nor air. They have all become one, a thing like a sea-lung. Farther north can only be the Great Ice. I think we are near the border of life’s kingdom.” They saw his head lift. “But we have not come to the end of our search.”

<p>7</p>

Eastward oversea, four days’ sail from the northern tip of Pretania, the explorers found another land. It rose sharply out of the water, but holms protected a great bay. On an arm of this dwelt folk who received newcomers kindly. They were not Keltoi, being even more tall and fair. Their language was kin to a Germanic tongue which Hanno had gotten a little of on an earlier wandering; he could soon make himself understood. Their iron tools and weapons, arts and way of life, did bear a Keltic mark. However, their spirit seemed different, more sober, less possessed by the unearthly.

The Greeks meant to abide a short while, inquire about those realms that were their goal, take on fresh supplies, and proceed. But their stay lengthened. Toil, danger, loss had worn them down. Here they found hospitality and admiration. As they gained words, they won full comradeship, shared in undertakings, swapped thoughts and recollections and songs, sported, made merry. The women were welcoming. Nobody urged Pytheas to order anchors up or asked why he did not.

The guests were no parasites. They brought wonderful gifts. On a ship of theirs they carried men who knew only longboats fashioned of planks stitched together, driven by paddles. Those men learned more about their own waters and communities elsewhere than they had dreamed they might. Trade followed, and visits to and fro for the first time ever. Hunting was excellent in the hinterland, and the soldiers fetched plenty of meat home. The presence of the Greeks, their revelation of an outside world, gave new sparkle to life. They felt themselves taken into brotherhood.

This was the country its people named Thule.

Midsummer came, with the light nights.

Hanno and a lass went to gather berries. Alone under the sweetnesses of birch trees, they made love. The long day tired her, and after they returned to her father’s house she fell happily asleep. He could not. He lay for an hour on their bed of hides, feeling her warm against him, hearing her and her family breathe, himself inhaling the fragrance and pungency of the cows stalled at the far end of the single long room. A banked fire sometimes let slip a flamelet, but what made soft dusk was the sky beyond the wickerwork door. Finally he rose, pulled his tunic back over his head, and stole forth.

Above him reached utter clarity, a hue that raised memories of white roses. No more than half a dozen stars could shine through it, atremble, barely seeable. Air rested cool, so quiet that he heard water lap on the bayshore. Dew gleamed on ground that slanted down to the broad argency of it. Inland the terrain climbed toward mountains whose ridges lifted blue-gray into heaven.

He left the village. Its houses nestled together, a double tow that ended at a great barn where grain was threshed, in this rainy climate, and which would serve as a fortress in case of attack. Beyond were paddocks, beehives, small fields goldening toward harvest. He drifted from them, beachward. When he came to grass he wiped off his bare feet the muck that free-running pigs and chickens had left in the lane. The moisture caressed him. Farther on he reached shingle, rocks cold and hard but worn smooth. The tide was ebbing, that mighty pulse which the Mediterranean seas scarcely felt, and kelp sprawled along the strand. It gave off odors of salt, depths, mysteries.

Some distance onward, a man stood looking aloft. Brass gleamed as he pointed his instrument. Hanno approached. “You too?” he murmured.

Pytheas started, turned about, and replied mechanically, “Rejoice.” In the luminous twilight it was clear how he must force a smile.

“Not easy to sleep under these conditions,” Hanno ventured. The natives themselves didn’t much.

Pytheas nodded. “I hate to miss a minute of the loveliness.”

“Poor for astronomy, though.”

“Um, by day I’ve been ... gathering data that will yield a better value for the obliquity of the ecliptic.”

“You should have ample by now. We’re past the solstice.”

Pytheas glanced away.

“And you sound right defensive,” Hanno pursued. “Why do we linger here?”

Pytheas bit his lip. “We’ve ... a wealth of discoveries still to make. It’s like a whole new world.”

Hanno’s voice crackled: “Like the land of the Lotus Eaters.”

Pytheas lifted his quadrant as if it were a shield. “No, no, these are real people, they labor and have children and grow old and die the same as us.”

Hanno regarded him. The waters whispered. Finally the Phoenician said, “It’s Vana, isn’t it?”

Pytheas stood mute.

“Many of these girls are beautiful,” Hanno went on. “Height, slenderness, skin that the summer sun kisses tawny, eyes like the sky around that sun, and those blond manes—oh, yes. And the one who’s with you, she’s the bonniest of the lot.”

“It’s more than that,” Pytheas said. “She’s ... free. Unlettered, unaware, but quick and eager to learn. Proud, fearless. We cage our wives, we Greeks. I never thought of it till lately, but ... is it not our doing that the poor creatures turn so dull that we’re apt to seek sweethearts male?”

“Or whores.”

“Vana is as mettlesome as the liveliest hetaira. But she’s not for sale, Hanno. She honestly loves me. A few days ago we decided she must be carrying my child. She came to my arms weeping and laughing.”

“She’s a dear person, true. But she’s a barbarian.”

“That can be changed.”

Hanno shook his head. “Don’t play tricks on yourself, my friend. It’s not like you. Do you daydream about taking her along when we leave? If she survived the voyage, she’d wither and die in Massalia, like any uprooted wildflower. What could she make herself into? What sort of life could you give her? You’re too late. Both of you.”

Again Pytheas stood mute.

“Nor can you settle here,” Hanno told him. “Only think. You, a civilized man, a philosopher, crammed cheek by jowl with other human bodies and cattle into a wretched wattle-and-dab hut. No books. No correspondence. No discourse. No sculptures, no temples, no traditions of yours, nothing of all that’s gone to form your soul. She’ll age fast, your lady, her teeth will go and her dugs will sag and you’ll loathe her because she was the bait that trapped you. Think, I say, think.”

Pytheas free hand knotted into a fist and smote his thigh, over and over. “But what can I do?”

“Leave. She’ll have no trouble getting a husband who’ll raise the child. Her father’s well off by their standards, she’s proven herself fertile, and every child is precious, as many of them as they lose. Hoist sail and go. We came in search of the Amber Island, remember? Or if it’s a myth, then we want to find whatever the reality is. We have these eastern shores and seas to learn a little about. We mean to return to Pretania and finish circumnavigating it, determine its size and shape, for it’s important to Europe in a way that Thule can’t be for centuries. And then come home to your people, city, wife, children, grandchildren. Do your duty, man!”

“You ... speak harshly.”

“Yes. I respect you that much, Pytheas.”

The Greek looked from side to side, to the mountains athwart that sky which hid the stars in its light, down over woodlands and meadows, out across the shining bay toward unseen Ocean. “Yes,” he said at last. “You’re right. We should have departed long ago. We shall. I’m a graybeard fool.”

Hanno smiled. “No, simply a man. She brought a springtime you thought you’d lost back into your heart. How often I’ve seen it happen.”

“Has it to you?”

Hanno laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Come,” he said, “let’s go back and try to sleep. We’ve work ahead of us.”

<p>8</p>

Weary, battered, faded, and triumphant, three ships neared Massalia harbor. It was a crisp autumn day, the water danced and glittered as if diamond were strewn upon sapphire, but wind was light and bottoms were foul; they moved slowly.

Pytheas beckoned Hanno to him. “Stand with me here on the foredeck,” he requested, “for it may be the last quiet talk we shall ever have.”

The Phoenician joined him in the bows. Pytheas was being his own lookout in this final hour of his voyage. “You can certainly expect a busy time,” Hanno agreed. “Everybody and his third cousin will want to meet you, question you, hear you lecture, send you letters, demand a copy of your book and insist you write it yesterday.”

Pytheas’ lips quirked upward. “You’ll always have a jape, won’t you?”

They stood for a bit, watching. Now as the season of the mariners drew to a close, the waves—how small and gentle, in this refuge from the Atlantic—were beswarmed with vessels. Rowboats, lighters, tarry fishers, tubby coastwise merchantmen, a big grain ship from Egypt, a gilt-trimmed barge, two lean warcraft spider-walking on oars, all sought passage. Shouts and oaths volleyed. Sails boomed, yardarms slatted, tholepins creaked. The city shone ahead, a blue-shadowed white intricacy overspilling its walls. Smoke blew in tatters from red tile roofs. Farmsteads and villas nestled amidst brown stubble fields, pastures still green, darkling pines and yellowing orchards beyond. At the back of those hills, a higher range lifted dun. Gulls dipped and soared, mewing, in their hundreds, like a snowstorm of the North.

“You will not change your mind, Hanno?” Pytheas asked.

The other turned grim. “I cannot. I’ll stay till I collect my pay, and then be off.”

“Why? I don’t understand. And you won’t explain.”

“It’s best.”

“I tell you, a man of your abilities has a brilliant future here—boundless. And not as a metic. With the influence I’ll have, I can get you Massaliot citizenship, Hanno.”

“I know. You’ve said this before. Thank you, but no.”

Pytheas touched the Phoenician’s hand, which grasped the rail hard. “Are you afraid people will hold your origin against you? They won’t. I promise. We’re above that, we’re a cosmopolis.”

“I am everywhere an alien.”

Pytheas sighed. “Never have you ... opened your soul to me, as I have to you. And even so ... I have never felt so close to anyone else. Not even—“ He broke off, and both -turned their glances aside.

Hanno took on his cool tone again. He smiled. “We’ve Been through tremendous things together, good and bad, terrible and tedious, frolicsome and frightening, delightful and deadly. That does forge bonds.”

“And yet you will sever them ... so easily?” Pytheas wondered. “You will merely bid me farewell?”

In a single instant, before Hanno summoned laughter back to himself, something tore apart and the Greek looked into a pain that bewildered him. “What else is life but always bidding farewell?”


1

<p>1</p>

“To sail beyond the world—”

Hanno’s voice faded away. Pytheas looked sharply at him. Against the plain, whitewashed room where they sat, the Phoenician seemed vivid, like a flash of sunlight from outside. It might only be due to the brightness of eyes and teeth or a skin tan even in winter. Otherwise he was ordinary, slender and supple but of medium height, features aquiline, hair and neatly trimmed beard a crow’s-wing black. He wore an unadorned tunic, scuffed sandals, a single gold finger ring.

“You cannot mean that,” said the Greek.

Hanno came out of reverie, shook himself, laughed. “Oh, no. A trope, of course. Though it would be well to make sure beforehand that enough of your men do believe we live on a sphere. They’ll have ample terrors and troubles without fearing a plunge off the edge into some abyss.”

“You sound educated,” said Pytheas slowly.

“Should I not? I have traveled, but also studied. And you, sir, a learned man, a philosopher, propose to voyage into the sheerly unknown. You actually hope to come back.” Hanno picked a goblet off the small table between them and sipped of the tempered wine that a slave had brought.

Pytheas shifted on his stool. A charcoal brazier had made the room close as well as warm. His lungs longed for a breath of clean air. “Not altogether unknown,” he said, “Your people go that far. Lykias told me you claim to have been there yourself.”

Hanno sobered. “I told him the truth. I’ve journeyed that way more than once, both overland and by sea. But so much of it is wilderness, so much else is changing these days, in ways unforeseeable but usually violent. And the Carthaginians are interested just in the tin, with whatever other things they can pick up incidental to that. They only touch on the southern end of the Pretanic Isles. The rest is outside their ken, or any civilized man’s.”

“And yet you desire to come with me.”

Hanno in his turn studied his host before replying. Pytheas too was simply clad. He was tall for a Greek, lean, features sharp beneath a high forehead, clean-shaven, with a few deep lines. Curly brown hair showed frost at the temples. His eyes were gray. The directness of their glance bespoke impiousness, or innocence, or perhaps both.

“I think I do,” said Hanno carefully. “We shall have to talk further. However, in my fashion, like you in yours, I want to learn as much as I can about this earth and its peoples while I am still above it. When your man Lykias went about the city inquiring after possible advisors, and I heard, I was happy to seek him out.” Again he grinned. “Also, I am in present need of employment. There ought to be a goodly profit in this.”

“We are not going as traders,” Pytheas explained. “Well have wares along, but to exchange for what we need rather than to get wealthy. We are, though, pledged excellent pay on our return.”

“I gather the city is not sponsoring the venture?”

“Correct. A consortium of merchants is. They want to know the chances and costs of a sea route to the far North, now that the Gauls are making the land dangerous. Not tin alone, you understand—tin may be the least of it—but amber, furs, slaves, whatever those countries offer.”

“The Gauls indeed.” Nothing else need be said. They had poured over the mountains to make the nearer part of Italy theirs; a long lifetime ago war chariots rumbled, swords flashed, homes blazed, wolves and ravens feasted across Europe. Hanno did add: “I have some acquaintance with them. That should help. Be warned, the prospects of such a route are poor. Besides them, the Carthaginians.”

“I know.”

Hanno cocked his head. “Nevertheless, you are organizing this expedition.”

“To follow knowledge,” Pytheas answered quietly. “I am fortunate in that two of the sponsors are ... more intelligent than most. They value understanding for its own sake.”

“Knowledge has a trick of paying off in unexpected ways.” Hanno smiled. “Forgive me. I’m a crass Phoenician. You’re a man of consequence in public affairs—inherited money, I’ve heard—but first and foremost a philosopher. You need a navigator at sea, a guide and interpreter ashore. I believe I am the one for you.”

Pytheas’ tone sharpened. “What are you doing in Massalia? Why are you prepared to aid something that is ... not in the interests of Carthage?”

Hanno turned serious. “I am no traitor, for I am not a Carthaginian. True, I’ve lived in the city, among many different places. But I’m not overly fond of it. They’re too puritanical there, too little touched by any grace of Greece or Persia; and their human sacrifices—“ He grimaced, then shrugged. “To sit in judgment on what people do is a fool’s game. They’ll continue doing it regardless. As for me, I’m from Old Phoenicia, the East. Alexandras destroyed Tyre, and the civil wars after his death have left that part of the world in sorry shape. I seek my fortune where I can. I’m a wanderer by nature anyway.”

“I shall have to get better acquainted with you,” Pytheas said, blunter than he was wont. Did he already feel at ease with this stranger?

“Certainly.” Again Hanno’s manner grew cheerful. “I’ve thought how to prove my skills to you. In a short time. You realize the need to embark soon, don’t you? Preferably at the start of sailing season.”

“Because of Carthage?”

Hanno nodded. “This new war in Sicily will engage her whole attention for a while. Agathokles of Syracuse is a harder enemy than the Carthaginian suffetes have taken the trouble to discover. I wouldn’t be surprised if he carries the fight to their shores.”

Pytheas stared. “How can you be so sure?”

“I was lately there, and I’ve learned to pay attention. In Carthage too. You’re aware she discourages all foreign traffic beyond the Pillars of Herakles—often by methods that would be called piracy were it the work of a private party. Well, the suffetes now speak of an out-and-out blockade. If they win this war, or at least fight it to a draw, I suspect they’ll lack the resources for some time afterward; but eventually they’ll do it. Your expedition will take a pair of years at least, likelier three, very possibly more. The earlier you set forth, the earlier you’ll come home—if you do—and not run into a Carthaginian patrol. What a shame, after an odyssey like that, to end at the bottom of the sea or on an auction block.”

“We’ll have an escort of warships.” Hanno shook his head. “Oh, no. Anything less than a penteconter would be useless, and that long hull would never survive the North Atlantic. My friend, you haven’t seen waves or storms till you’ve been yonder. Also, how do you carry food and water for all those rowers? They burn it like wildfire, you know, and resupplying will be chancy at best. My namesake could explore the African coasts in galleys, but he was southbound. You’ll need sail. Let me counsel you on what ships to buy.”

“You claim a great many proficiencies,” Pytheas murmured.

“I have been through a great many schools,” Hanno replied.

They talked onward for an hour, and agreed to meet again on the following day. Pytheas escorted his visitor out. They stopped for a moment at the front door.

The house stood high on a ridge above the bay. Eastward, beyond city walls, hills glowed with sunset. The streets of the old Greek colony had become rivers of shadow. Voices, footfalls, wheels were muted; the air rested in chilly peace. Westward the sun cast a bridge across the waters. Masts in the harbor stood stark against it. Gulls cruising overhead caught the light on then- wings, gold beneath blue.

“A lovely sight,” Pytheas said low. “This coast must be the most beautiful in the world.”

Hanno parted his tips as if to tell about others he had seen, closed them, said finally: “Let us try to bring you back here, then. It won’t be easy.”


2

<p>2</p>

Three vessels fared by moonlight. Their masters dared not put in at Gadeira or any part of Tartessos—Carthaginian territory—and kept the sea after dark. The crews muttered; but night sailing was not unheard of on familiar lanes, and to be out in the very Ocean was a strangeness overwhelming all else.

The craft were alike, so they could more readily travel in convoy. Each was a merchantman, though her principal cargo was well-armed men and their supplies. Narrower in the beam man most of its kind, the black hull swept some hundred feet from the high stern, where the twin steering oars were and a swan’s head ornament reared, to the cutwater at the prow. A mast amidships carried a large square sail and a triangular topsail. Forward of it stood a small deckhouse, aft of it lay two rowboats, for towing her at need or saving lives in the worst need. She could get perhaps eighty degrees off the wind, slowly and awkwardly; nimbler rigs existed, but drew less well. Tonight, with a favoring breeze, she made about five knots.

Hanno came forth. The cabin, which the officers shared, was confining for a person of his habits. Often he slept on deck, together with such of the crew as found the spaces below too cramped and smelly. Several of them rested blanket-wrapped on straw ticks along the bulwarks. Moon-tight turned planks hoar, cross-barred with long unrestful shadows. Air blew cold, and Hanno drew his chlamys close about him. The wind lulled above whoosh of waves, creak of timbers and tackle. The ship rocked gently, making muscles flex in a dance with her.

A figure stood at the starboard rail, near the forward lookout. Hanno recognized Pytheas’ profile against quicksilver moonglade and went to join him. “Rejoice,” he greeted. “You can’t sleep either?”

“I hoped to make observations,” the Greek replied. “Nights this clear will be few for us, won’t they?”

Hanno looked outward. Brightnesses rippled, sheened, sparked over the water. Foam swirled ghostly. Lanterns hung from the yard scarcely touched his vision, though he saw their counterparts glimmer and sway on the companion ships. Across a distance hard to gauge in this moving mingling of light and night, a vague mass lifted, Iberia. “We’ve been lucky thus far in the weather,” Hanno said. He gestured at the goniometer in Pytheas’ hand. “But is that thing of any use here?”

“It would be much more accurate ashore. If only we could— Well, doubtless I’ll find better opportunities later, the Bears will be higher in the sky.”

Hanno glanced at those constellations. They had dimmed as the moon climbed. “What are you trying to measure?”

“I want to locate the north celestial pole more exactly man has hitherto been done.” Pytheas pointed. “Do you see how the two brightest stars in the Lesser Bear, with the first star in the tail, form three corners of a quadrangle? The pole is the fourth. Or so they say.”

“I know. I am your navigator.”

“I beg your pardon. I forgot for a moment. Too absorbed.” Pytheas chuckled ruefully, then grew eager. “If this rule of thumb can be refined, you appreciate what a help that will give seamen. Still more will it mean to geographers and cosmographers. Since the gods have not seen fit to place a star just at the pole, or even especially dose, we must make do as best we are able.”

“There have been such stars in the past,” Hanno said. “There will be again in the future.”

“What?” Pytheas stared at him through the phantom radiance. “Do you mean die heavens change?”

“Over centuries.” Hanno’s hand made a chopping motion. “Forget it. Like you, I spoke without thinking. I don’t expect you to believe me. Call it a sailor’s tall tale.”

Pytheas stroked his chin. “As a matter of fact,” he said, low and slow, “a correspondent of mine in Alexandria, at its great library, has mentioned that ancient records give certain intimations. ... It requires deeper study. But you, Hanno—”

The Phoenician formed a disarming grin. “Perhaps I make lucky guesses once in a while.”

“You are ... unique in several respects. You’ve actually told me very little about yourself. Is ‘Hanno’ the name you were born with?”

“It serves.”

“You seem without home, family, ties of any kind.” Impulsively: “I hate to think of you as lonely and defenseless.”

“Thank you, but I need no sympathy.” Hanno mildened his manner. “You judge me by yourself. Are you already homesick?”

“Not really. Not on this quest that I’ve dreamt of for years.” The Greek paused. “But I do have roots, wife, children. My oldest son is married. He should have grandchildren for me when I return.” With a smile: “My oldest daughter is now marriageable. I left arrangements for her in my brother’s hands, with my wife’s advice and consent. Yes, my little Danae too, she may well have a little one of her own by that time.” He shook himself, as if the wind had touched him with cold. “It won’t do to yearn. Well be long gone at best.”

Hanno shrugged. “And meanwhile, I’ve found, barbarian women are usually easy.”

Pytheas regarded him for a silent spell and said nothing about youths already available. Whatever Hanno’s tastes ought be, he didn’t expect the Phoenician would become intimate with any member of the expedition. Behind that genial front of his, how much humanity was in him?


3

<p>3</p>

All at once, tike a blow to the belly, there the Keltoi were. A dozen tall warriors sprang from the forest and started across the grassy slope to the beach, a score, a hundred, two hundred or worse. More swarmed onto the twin headlands sheltering the cove where the ships had anchored.

Mariners yelled, dropped their work of preparing camp, snatched for their weapons, milled about. Soldiers among them, hoptites and peltasts, most still armored, pushed through the chaos to take formation. Helmets, breastplates, shields, swords, pike heads shimmered dully in a thin rain. Hanno ran to their captain, Demetrios, caught him by the wrist, and snapped, “Don’t initiate hostilities. They’d love to take our heads home. Battle trophies.”

The hard visage fleered. “Do you suppose if we stay peaceful, they’ll embrace us?”

“That depends.” Hanno squinted into the dimness before him. The hidden sun at his back had to be near the horizon. Trees made a gray wall behind the oncoming attackers. War cries went saw-edged over the boom of surf outside the little bay, echoed from cliff to cliff, sent gulls shrieking aloft. “Someone spied us, maybe days ago; sent word to his fellow clansmen; they followed our course, with the woods for a screen; they expected we’d camp at one of the places where the Carthaginians do—we’d see the burnt wood, rubbish, traces, and head in—“ He was thinking aloud.

“Why didn’t they wait till we were asleep, except for our sentries?”

“They must be afraid of the dark. This can’t be their country. And so—Hold fast. Give me—I should have a peeled wand or a green bough, but this may suffice.” Hanno turned about and tugged at the standard. Its bearer clung and cursed him.

“Make him give me this, Demetrios!” Hanno demanded.

The mercenary leader hesitated an instant before he ordered, “Let go, Kleanthes.”

“Good. Now blow trumpets, bang on shields, raise all the noise you can, but stay where you are.”

The emblem aloft, Hanno advanced. He moved slowly, gravely, staff in right hand, naked sword in left. At his rear, brass brayed and iron thundered.

The Carthaginians had cleared away high growth as far as the spring where they got water, a distance of about an Athenian stadion. New brush sprang up to hinder passage and make it noisy. Thus total surprise was impossible, and the Gauls were not yet in that headlong dash which civilized men dreaded. They trotted forward as individuals or small groups, disorderly and deadly.

They were big, fair-complexioned men. Most flaunted long mustaches; none had shaved lately. Those that did not braid their hair had treated it with a material that reddened it and stiffened it into spikes. Paint and tattoos adorned bodies sometimes naked, oftener wrapped in a dyed woolen kilt—a sort of primitive himation—or attired in breeches and perhaps a tunic of gaudy hues. Their weapons were long swords, spears, dirks; some bore round shields, a few had helmets.

One huge man at the forefront of the roughly semicircular van wore a gilt helmet that flared out in horns. A bronze tore circled his throat, gold helices his arms. The warriors to his right and left were almost as flamboyant. He must be the chief. Hanno moved toward him.

The racket from among the Greeks was giving the barbarians pause, puzzling them. They slowed, looked around, damped their shouts and muttered to each other. Watching, Pytheas saw Hanno meet their leader. He heard horns blow, voices ring. Men sped about, carrying a word he could not understand. The Gauls grumbled piecemeal to a halt, withdrew a ways, squatted down or leaned on their spears, waited. The drizzle thickened, daylight faded, and he saw only shadows yonder.

An hour dragged itself into dusk. Fires blossomed under the forest.

Hanno returned. He walked like another shadow past Demetrios pickets, between the hushed and huddled sailors, to find Pytheas near the boats, not to flee but because there the water cast off enough light to ease the wet gloom a little.

“We’re safe,” Hanno declared. Breath gusted out of Pytheas.

“But we’ve a busy night ahead of us,” Hanno went on. “Kindle fires, pitch tents, get the best of the wretched food we have and cook it as well as possible. Not that our visitors will notice the quality. It’s quantity that counts with them.”

Pytheas peered, striving to read the half-seen face. “What’s happened?” he asked unevenly. “What have you done?”

Hanno’s tone stayed cool, with a hint of hidden laughter. “You know I’ve acquired enough Keltic language to get by, and a fair acquaintance with their customs and beliefs. Those aren’t too different from several other wild races’; I can guess my way past any gaps in my knowledge. I went out to them in the style of a herald, which made my person sacred, and talked with their chief. He’s not a bad fellow, as such people go. I’ve known worse monsters in power among Hellenes, Persians, Phoenicians, Egyptians—No matter.”

“What ... did they want?”

“To overcome us before we could escape, of course, take our boats, capture our ships, plunder them. The fact alone showed this isn’t likely their native country. Carthaginians have treaties with natives. True, these might have denounced the agreement for some childish reason. However, then they’d have attacked after dark. They brag about their fearlessness, but when it’s a question of booty more than glory, they wouldn’t care to take unnecessary casualties or risk our being able to stand them off while most of us got away to the ships. Nevertheless they came at us as soon as we were ashore. So they must be afraid of the dark hereabouts—ghosts and gods of the lately slain, not yet appeased. I played on that, among other things.”

“Who are they?”

“Pictones from the east, intending to settle these parts.” Hanno began pacing, to and fro before the eyes of Pytheas. Sand scrunched soddenly underfoot. “Not much like those tame and half-tame tribes hi your Massatian hinterland; but not entirely alien to them, either. They have more respect for skills, for learning, than I’ve generally found your ordinary Greek does. Their ornament, all their workmanship is beautiful. Not only a herald but a poet, any wise person is sacred. I proved myself a magician, what they call a druid, by various sleight-of-hand tricks and occultistic nonsense. I threatened—oh, very delicately—to lay a satire on them if they offended me. First I’d convinced them I was a poet, by a rough plagiarism of lines from Homer. I’ll have to work on that. I’ve promised them more.”

“You have what?”

Hanno’s laugh rang aloud. “Ready the camp, I say. Prepare the feast. Tell Demetrios’ men they’re to be an honor guard. We’ll have guests at dawn, and I daresay the festivities will brawl on through the whole day. You’ll be expected to give pretty lavish gifts, but that’s all right, we have ample trade goods along, and honor will require you receive severalfold the value in stuff we can better use. Also, we now have safe conduct for a considerable distance north.” He paused. Sea and land sighed around them. “Oh, and if we get decent weather tomorrow night, do carry on your star observations, Pytheas. That will impress them no end.”

“And ... it’s a part of what we’re journeying for,” whispered the other man. “What you’ve saved.”


4

<p>4</p>

Behind lay the Dumnonian tin mines, and the harbor to which no Carthaginians would come while the war lasted, and the three ships. Lykias kept a guard on them and saw to their careening and refitting. Demetrios organized overland explorations of the west and south coasts. The interior and north of Pretania Pytheas claimed for himself.

He came with Hanno and a small military escort out of the hills, onto a rolling plain where, here and there, wilderness yielded to plowland and pasture. A gigantic mound inside a fosse and earthworks dominated it. The chalky crater hollowed on top held armed men and their lodgings.

Its commander received the travelers hospitably, once he was sure of their intentions. Folk were always eager for word from outside; most barbarians had pathetically narrow horizons. Talk went haltingly by way of Hanno and a Dumnonian who had accompanied the party this far. Now he wanted to go home. A man by some such name as Segovax offered to replace him and lead the guests to a great wonder nearby.

Autumn was in the wind, chill and loud. Leaves were turning yellow, brown, russet and beginning to fly away. A trail went onto an upland where trees were few. Cloud shadows and pale sunlight sickled across immensities of sallow grass. Sheepflocks afar were lost in loneliness. The Greeks marched briskly, leading the pack ponies they had gotten in Dumnonia. They would not return to the hill fort but push on. One winter was scant time to range this land. Come spring, Pytheas must be back with his ships.

The sight waxed slowly before him. At first it seemed little, and he supposed people made much of it only because they knew nothing better. As he neared, the sense of its mass grew and grew. Within a time-worn earthen rampart loomed a triple ring of standing stones, perhaps seventy cubits wide, the tallest of them well-nigh three man-heights, slabs almost as huge joining them on top, gray, lichenous, weathered, powerful beyond his understanding.

“What is this?” he whispered.

“You’ve seen megalithic works in the South, haven’t you?” Hanno’s voice was less calm than his words, hushed beneath the wind.

“Yes, but nothing like—Ask!”

Hanno turned to Segovax. Keltic lilted between them.

“He says giants built it in the morning of the world,” Hanno told Pytheas.

“Then his people are as ignorant as we,” the Greek said low, “We’ll camp here, overnight at least. Maybe we can learn something.” It was more a prayer than a hope.

Throughout the rest of the day he devoted himself to his eyes and his instruments. Hanno could give scant help and Segovax hardly any information. Once Pytheas spent a long time finding the exact center of the complex and sighting from there. “I think,” he said as he pointed, “that yonder stone outside—the sun will be seen to rise over it on Midsummer’s Day, But I cannot be sure, and we cannot wait to find out, can we?”

Night approached. The soldiers, who had snatched the chance to idle, started a fire, cooked food, made ready. Their talk and occasional laughter rattled meaningless. They had no reason to fear attack by mortal men, nor to wonder what ghosts might linger here.

The weather had cleared, and after full darkness Pytheas left the camp to observe, which he did at every opportunity. Hanno came along, bearing a wax tablet and stylus to record the measurements. He had the Phoenician trick of writing without light. Pytheas could use ridges and grooves to read instruments by his fingertips, measurements less close than he wished but preferable to none at all. When a stone had blocked view of flames, they were alone in the ring with the sky.

Titan blacknesses walled them in. Stars flickered between, as if trapped. Overhead curved the Galaxy, a river of mist across which winged the Swan. The Lyre hung silent. The Dragon coiled halfway around a pole strangely high hi heaven. Cold deepened with the hours, the vast wheel turned, frost formed hoar on the stones.

“Hadn’t we better get some sleep?” Hanno asked at last. “I’m forgetting what warmth feels like.”

“I suppose so.” Pytheas’ answer dragged. “I’ve learned as much as I can.” Abruptly, harshly: “It isn’t enough! It never will be. Our lives are a million years too short,”


5

<p>5</p>

After the long voyage north, past land that grew ever more rugged, ever more girded with holms and reefs, the coast finally bent eastward. These were waters as rough as the ground on which their surf crashed; the ships stood well out and cast anchor at sunset. It was better to huddle tireless than dare those unknown approaches. On the fourth day there appeared above haze the red and yellow heights of an island. Pytheas decided to pass between it and the main shore. His vessels battled their way on until dark.

Men saw no dawn, for air had thickened further. Aft of them a whiteness towered from edge to unseen edge of the world. They had a light breeze and visibility of about a dozen Athenian stadia, so they hoisted dripping sails. The sheer island began to fall behind them, and ahead, to starboard, they spied a murk that ought to be a lesser one. Noise of breakers loudened, an undergroundish thunder.

Then the white wall rolled over them, and they were blind. The breeze died and they lay helpless.

Never had they known or heard of a fog such as this. A man amidships saw neither bow nor stern; vision lost itself in smothering, eddying gray. Over the side he could barely make out turbulence streaked with foam. Water settled on cordage and fell off in a wicked little ram. The deck sheened with it. Wetness weighted hair, clothes, breath, while cold gnawed inward to the bone, as if he were already drowning. The formlessness was full of noise. Seas grew heavier, timbers groaned, the hull swayed crazily. Billows rushed and rumbled, surf roared. Horns hooted, crew wailed themselves hoarse, ship called desperately to unseen ship.

Pytheas, aft by the helm, shook his head. “What makes the waves rise when we have no wind?” he asked through the tumult.

The steersman gripped his useless tiller and shuddered. “Things out o’ the deeps,” he rasped, “or the gods o’ these waters, angry that we trouble them.”

“Launch the boats,” Hanno advised Pytheas. “They’ll give some warning if we’re about to drift onto a rock, and maybe they can pull us clear.”

The steersman bared teeth. “Oh, no, you don’t!” he cried. “You’ll not send men down to the demon-beasts. They won’t go.”

“I won’t send them,” Hanno retorted. “I’ll lead them.”

“Or I,” Pytheas said.

It became the Phoenician who shook his head. “We can’t risk you. Who else could have brought us this far, or can bring us home? Without you we’re all dead. Come help me put spirit into the crew.”

He got his men, because Pytheas’ calm words damped the terror in them. They unlashed a boat, dragged it to the side, shoved it over a rail when the deck canted and white-maned waves galloped just beneath. Hanno sprang down, braced calves between two thwarts, took an oar a sailor handed him, fended off while his rowers followed one by one. They fought free at the end of a towline and the next boat came after.

“I do hope the other skippers—“ began Hanno. A dash of brine choked off what nobody heard anyhow.

The ship was gone into wet smoke. The boat climbed a comber that was tike a moving hillside, hovered on the crest, plunged into a trough where men looked up the heights of water around them. Noise rolled empty of direction. Hanno, at the rudder, could only try to keep the hawser unfouled behind him. “Stroke!” he bawled. “Stroke, stroke, stroke!” Men gasped at oars and bailing buckets. The sea lapped around their ankles.

A monstrous grip seized them. They whirled. A cataract leaped out of the fog. It burst over their heads. When they could see again, the ship was upon them. The boat smashed into her hull. The water ground it against the strakes. Wood broke, tore free of nails, shrieked. The boat fell asunder.

Pytheas beheld it. A man flailed arms and legs. The sea dashed him at the ship. His skull split open. Brains, blood, body went under.

“Lines out!” Pytheas shouted. He himself didn’t stop to uncoil any from a bollard. He drew his knife and slashed a sheet free of the slack mainsail. When he cast the end overboard, it disappeared in fog and foam. None of the swimmers he glimpsed, lost, glimpsed again had noticed it.

He signalled for another length. The cut sheet still cleated and in his left hand, he slid over the rail. Feet planted on the hull, arm straining to hold the cordage taut and himself in place, he leaned straight out. With his right hand he swung the second line like a whip.

Now he was visible to those he would save, except when the vessel rose onto that side and a wave fountained across him. A man swung past. Pytheas flicked the loose line at his face. The man caught it. Sailors on deck hauled him aboard.

The third whom Pytheas rescued was Hanno, clinging to an oar. After that, his strength was spent. He got back with the help of two mariners and fell in a heap beside the Phoenician. No others attempted his feat; but no more waifs came to sight in the rage around.

Hanno stirred. “To the cabin, you and me and these two,” he said through clattering teeth. “Else the cold will kill us. We wouldn’t have lived ten minutes in that water.”

In the shelter, men stripped, toweled till blood awoke to stinging life, pulled blankets tightly about themselves. “You were magnificent, my friend,” Hanno said. “I wouldn’t have supposed you, a scholar—tough, but a scholar—could do it.”

“Nor would I have.” Exhaustion flattened Pytheas’ voice.

“You saved us few from the consequences of my folly.”

“No folly. Who could have foreseen the sea in windless air would go so wild so fast?”

“What might have done it?”

“Demons,” mumbled a sailor.

“No,” Pytheas replied. “It must have been a trick of these enormous Atlantic tides, thrusting through a strait cluttered with isles and reefs.”

Hanno mustered a chuckle. “Still the philosopher, you!”

“We’ve a boat left,” Pytheas said. “And our luck may turn. Beseech your gods if you like, boys.” He lay down on his pallet. “I am going to sleep.”


6

<p>6</p>

The ships survived, though one scraped a rock and opened seams. When fog had lifted and waters somewhat calmed, rowers pulled the three to the high island. They found a safe anchorage with a sloping strand where, at low water, they could work to repair damage.

Several families lived nearby: unshorn, skin-clad fishers who kept a few animals and scratched in tiny gardens. Their dwellings were dry-laid stones and turf roofs above pits. At first they fled and watched from afar. Pytheas ordered goods set out, and they timidly returned to collect these. Thereafter the Greeks were their house guests.

That proved fortunate. A gale came from the west. The ships got barely adequate protection from the bluffs around the east-side inlet, but everywhere else the storm ramped unchecked for days and nights. Men could not stand against it. Indoors they must struggle to speak and hear through the racket. Breakers higher than city battlements hurled themselves onto the western cliffs. Stones Weighing tons broke from their beds in what had been the shallows. Earth trembled. The air was a torrent of spume, whose salt flayed faces and blinded eyes. It was as if the world had toppled into primordial chaos.

Pytheas, Hanno, and their companions hunched crowded together on dried seaweed strewn over a dirt floor in a cave of gloom. Coals glowed faint red on the hearthstone. Smoke drifted acrid through the chill. Pytheas was another shadow, his words a whisper amidst the violence: “The fog, and now this. Here is neither sea nor land nor air. They have all become one, a thing like a sea-lung. Farther north can only be the Great Ice. I think we are near the border of life’s kingdom.” They saw his head lift. “But we have not come to the end of our search.”


7

<p>7</p>

Eastward oversea, four days’ sail from the northern tip of Pretania, the explorers found another land. It rose sharply out of the water, but holms protected a great bay. On an arm of this dwelt folk who received newcomers kindly. They were not Keltoi, being even more tall and fair. Their language was kin to a Germanic tongue which Hanno had gotten a little of on an earlier wandering; he could soon make himself understood. Their iron tools and weapons, arts and way of life, did bear a Keltic mark. However, their spirit seemed different, more sober, less possessed by the unearthly.

The Greeks meant to abide a short while, inquire about those realms that were their goal, take on fresh supplies, and proceed. But their stay lengthened. Toil, danger, loss had worn them down. Here they found hospitality and admiration. As they gained words, they won full comradeship, shared in undertakings, swapped thoughts and recollections and songs, sported, made merry. The women were welcoming. Nobody urged Pytheas to order anchors up or asked why he did not.

The guests were no parasites. They brought wonderful gifts. On a ship of theirs they carried men who knew only longboats fashioned of planks stitched together, driven by paddles. Those men learned more about their own waters and communities elsewhere than they had dreamed they might. Trade followed, and visits to and fro for the first time ever. Hunting was excellent in the hinterland, and the soldiers fetched plenty of meat home. The presence of the Greeks, their revelation of an outside world, gave new sparkle to life. They felt themselves taken into brotherhood.

This was the country its people named Thule.

Midsummer came, with the light nights.

Hanno and a lass went to gather berries. Alone under the sweetnesses of birch trees, they made love. The long day tired her, and after they returned to her father’s house she fell happily asleep. He could not. He lay for an hour on their bed of hides, feeling her warm against him, hearing her and her family breathe, himself inhaling the fragrance and pungency of the cows stalled at the far end of the single long room. A banked fire sometimes let slip a flamelet, but what made soft dusk was the sky beyond the wickerwork door. Finally he rose, pulled his tunic back over his head, and stole forth.

Above him reached utter clarity, a hue that raised memories of white roses. No more than half a dozen stars could shine through it, atremble, barely seeable. Air rested cool, so quiet that he heard water lap on the bayshore. Dew gleamed on ground that slanted down to the broad argency of it. Inland the terrain climbed toward mountains whose ridges lifted blue-gray into heaven.

He left the village. Its houses nestled together, a double tow that ended at a great barn where grain was threshed, in this rainy climate, and which would serve as a fortress in case of attack. Beyond were paddocks, beehives, small fields goldening toward harvest. He drifted from them, beachward. When he came to grass he wiped off his bare feet the muck that free-running pigs and chickens had left in the lane. The moisture caressed him. Farther on he reached shingle, rocks cold and hard but worn smooth. The tide was ebbing, that mighty pulse which the Mediterranean seas scarcely felt, and kelp sprawled along the strand. It gave off odors of salt, depths, mysteries.

Some distance onward, a man stood looking aloft. Brass gleamed as he pointed his instrument. Hanno approached. “You too?” he murmured.

Pytheas started, turned about, and replied mechanically, “Rejoice.” In the luminous twilight it was clear how he must force a smile.

“Not easy to sleep under these conditions,” Hanno ventured. The natives themselves didn’t much.

Pytheas nodded. “I hate to miss a minute of the loveliness.”

“Poor for astronomy, though.”

“Um, by day I’ve been ... gathering data that will yield a better value for the obliquity of the ecliptic.”

“You should have ample by now. We’re past the solstice.”

Pytheas glanced away.

“And you sound right defensive,” Hanno pursued. “Why do we linger here?”

Pytheas bit his lip. “We’ve ... a wealth of discoveries still to make. It’s like a whole new world.”

Hanno’s voice crackled: “Like the land of the Lotus Eaters.”

Pytheas lifted his quadrant as if it were a shield. “No, no, these are real people, they labor and have children and grow old and die the same as us.”

Hanno regarded him. The waters whispered. Finally the Phoenician said, “It’s Vana, isn’t it?”

Pytheas stood mute.

“Many of these girls are beautiful,” Hanno went on. “Height, slenderness, skin that the summer sun kisses tawny, eyes like the sky around that sun, and those blond manes—oh, yes. And the one who’s with you, she’s the bonniest of the lot.”

“It’s more than that,” Pytheas said. “She’s ... free. Unlettered, unaware, but quick and eager to learn. Proud, fearless. We cage our wives, we Greeks. I never thought of it till lately, but ... is it not our doing that the poor creatures turn so dull that we’re apt to seek sweethearts male?”

“Or whores.”

“Vana is as mettlesome as the liveliest hetaira. But she’s not for sale, Hanno. She honestly loves me. A few days ago we decided she must be carrying my child. She came to my arms weeping and laughing.”

“She’s a dear person, true. But she’s a barbarian.”

“That can be changed.”

Hanno shook his head. “Don’t play tricks on yourself, my friend. It’s not like you. Do you daydream about taking her along when we leave? If she survived the voyage, she’d wither and die in Massalia, like any uprooted wildflower. What could she make herself into? What sort of life could you give her? You’re too late. Both of you.”

Again Pytheas stood mute.

“Nor can you settle here,” Hanno told him. “Only think. You, a civilized man, a philosopher, crammed cheek by jowl with other human bodies and cattle into a wretched wattle-and-dab hut. No books. No correspondence. No discourse. No sculptures, no temples, no traditions of yours, nothing of all that’s gone to form your soul. She’ll age fast, your lady, her teeth will go and her dugs will sag and you’ll loathe her because she was the bait that trapped you. Think, I say, think.”

Pytheas free hand knotted into a fist and smote his thigh, over and over. “But what can I do?”

“Leave. She’ll have no trouble getting a husband who’ll raise the child. Her father’s well off by their standards, she’s proven herself fertile, and every child is precious, as many of them as they lose. Hoist sail and go. We came in search of the Amber Island, remember? Or if it’s a myth, then we want to find whatever the reality is. We have these eastern shores and seas to learn a little about. We mean to return to Pretania and finish circumnavigating it, determine its size and shape, for it’s important to Europe in a way that Thule can’t be for centuries. And then come home to your people, city, wife, children, grandchildren. Do your duty, man!”

“You ... speak harshly.”

“Yes. I respect you that much, Pytheas.”

The Greek looked from side to side, to the mountains athwart that sky which hid the stars in its light, down over woodlands and meadows, out across the shining bay toward unseen Ocean. “Yes,” he said at last. “You’re right. We should have departed long ago. We shall. I’m a graybeard fool.”

Hanno smiled. “No, simply a man. She brought a springtime you thought you’d lost back into your heart. How often I’ve seen it happen.”

“Has it to you?”

Hanno laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Come,” he said, “let’s go back and try to sleep. We’ve work ahead of us.”


8

<p>8</p>

Weary, battered, faded, and triumphant, three ships neared Massalia harbor. It was a crisp autumn day, the water danced and glittered as if diamond were strewn upon sapphire, but wind was light and bottoms were foul; they moved slowly.

Pytheas beckoned Hanno to him. “Stand with me here on the foredeck,” he requested, “for it may be the last quiet talk we shall ever have.”

The Phoenician joined him in the bows. Pytheas was being his own lookout in this final hour of his voyage. “You can certainly expect a busy time,” Hanno agreed. “Everybody and his third cousin will want to meet you, question you, hear you lecture, send you letters, demand a copy of your book and insist you write it yesterday.”

Pytheas’ lips quirked upward. “You’ll always have a jape, won’t you?”

They stood for a bit, watching. Now as the season of the mariners drew to a close, the waves—how small and gentle, in this refuge from the Atlantic—were beswarmed with vessels. Rowboats, lighters, tarry fishers, tubby coastwise merchantmen, a big grain ship from Egypt, a gilt-trimmed barge, two lean warcraft spider-walking on oars, all sought passage. Shouts and oaths volleyed. Sails boomed, yardarms slatted, tholepins creaked. The city shone ahead, a blue-shadowed white intricacy overspilling its walls. Smoke blew in tatters from red tile roofs. Farmsteads and villas nestled amidst brown stubble fields, pastures still green, darkling pines and yellowing orchards beyond. At the back of those hills, a higher range lifted dun. Gulls dipped and soared, mewing, in their hundreds, like a snowstorm of the North.

“You will not change your mind, Hanno?” Pytheas asked.

The other turned grim. “I cannot. I’ll stay till I collect my pay, and then be off.”

“Why? I don’t understand. And you won’t explain.”

“It’s best.”

“I tell you, a man of your abilities has a brilliant future here—boundless. And not as a metic. With the influence I’ll have, I can get you Massaliot citizenship, Hanno.”

“I know. You’ve said this before. Thank you, but no.”

Pytheas touched the Phoenician’s hand, which grasped the rail hard. “Are you afraid people will hold your origin against you? They won’t. I promise. We’re above that, we’re a cosmopolis.”

“I am everywhere an alien.”

Pytheas sighed. “Never have you ... opened your soul to me, as I have to you. And even so ... I have never felt so close to anyone else. Not even—“ He broke off, and both -turned their glances aside.

Hanno took on his cool tone again. He smiled. “We’ve Been through tremendous things together, good and bad, terrible and tedious, frolicsome and frightening, delightful and deadly. That does forge bonds.”

“And yet you will sever them ... so easily?” Pytheas wondered. “You will merely bid me farewell?”

In a single instant, before Hanno summoned laughter back to himself, something tore apart and the Greek looked into a pain that bewildered him. “What else is life but always bidding farewell?”


II. The Peaches of Forever

<p>II. The Peaches of Forever</p>

To Yen Ting-kuo, subprefect of the Tumbling Brook district, came an inspector from QTang-an, on an errand for the very Emperor. A courier arrived beforehand, giving the household time to prepare a suitable welcome. Next noontide the party appeared, first a dust cloud on the eastern road, then a troop of mounted men, servants and soldiers, attendant on a carriage drawn by four white horses.

Pennons aloft, metal aflash, they made a brave sight. Yen Ting-kuo appreciated it the more against the serenity of the landscape. From his hilltop compound, the view swept down to Millstone Village, earthen walls, roofs of tile or thatch, huddled together along lanes where pigs and peasants fared, but not unsightly—an outgrowth, a part of the yellow-brown loess soil from which men drew their lives. Beyond reached the land. This was early summer, barley and millet intensely green on their terraces, dotted with blue-clad human forms at work. Farmhouses nestled tiny, strewn across distances. Orchards here and there were done flowering, but fruit was set and leaves full of sunlight. Willows along irrigation canals shivered pale beneath a breeze that smelled warmly of growth. Pine and cypress on farther ridges gave dark dignity. Right and left were heights used for pasture, whose contours stood bold out of shadow.

West of the village those hills steepened rapidly and forest covered much of them. The journey remained long and ever more difficult to yonder frontier, to the realms of the Tibetans and Mongols and other barbarians, but already here civilization began thinning out and one treasured it as perhaps no one quite could in its heartland.

“Beautiful are the procession of seasons Bequeathed us by the gods And the procession of ways and rites Bequeathed us by the ancestors—”

but broke the old poem off and went back through the gate. Ordinarily he would have continued to his house and waited inside. To receive an Imperial envoy he placed himself and his sons, robed in their best, on the porch. Servants flanked me direct way to it across the outer court; elsewhere shrubs made a kind of maze conducting attention to a goldfish pond. Women, children, and menial workers were tucked away in other buildings of the compound.

Stamp, rattle, and clang announced the advent. An equerry did so more formally, dismounting and entering, to be met halfway by the subprefect’s chamberlain. They exchanged bows and necessary words. Thereafter the inspector appeared. The servants prostrated themselves, and Yen Ting-kuo gave him the reverence due from a nobleman of lesser rank.

Ts’ai Li responded courteously. He was not of the most impressive, being a short man and rather young for one of such stature, whereas the subprefect was tall and gray. Even die emblems the inspector had donned upon leaving his vehicle showed signs of hard travel. However, many generations of closeness to the throne lived on in his quiet self-assurance. It was to be seen that host and guest took a quick liking to each other.

Presently they could talk alone. Ts’ai Li had been conducted to his quarters, helped to a bath and a change of raiment. Meanwhile arrangements were made for his entourage, assistants and attendants quartered according to rank in the compound, soldiers among the villagers. Savory odors drifted about, a banquet in preparation, spices, herbs, roasting meats—fowl, suckling pig, puppy, turtle—and liquors gently warmed. Sometimes a twang of zither or chime of bell came audibly loud from the house where singers and dancing girls rehearsed.

The inspector had intimated that before thus meeting local officials he wished a confidential talk. It took place in a chamber almost bare except for two screens, fresh straw mats, arm rests, a low table whereon waited wine and rice cakes from the South. Still, the room was bright and airy, its proportions pleasant; the paintings, of bamboo and of a mountain scene, and the calligraphy on the screens were exquisite. Ts’ai Li expressed proper admiration, sufficient to show he appreciated, not enough to require they be given him.

“My lord’s slave returns humble thanks,” Yen Ting-kuo said. “I fear he will find us a somewhat poor and uncultivated lot in these remote parts.”

“Not at all,” replied Ts’ai Li. Long, polished fingernails gleamed as he brought cup to lips. “Indeed, here seems to be a haven of peace and order. Alas, even near the capital bandits and malcontents are rife, while elsewhere there is actual rebellion and doubtless the Hsiung-nu beyond the Wall look hungrily our way once more. Thus I must perforce have my escort of soldiers.” His tone registered his scorn for that lowliest of the free classes. “By the favor of Heaven, no need for them arose. The astrologers had indeed found a propitious day for my departure.”

“The presence of the soldiers may have helped,” said Yen Ting-kuo dryly.

Ts’ai Li smiled. “So speaks the bluff old baron. I gather your family has provided this district with its leaders for a goodly time?”

“Since the Emperor Wu-ti appointed my honored ancestor Yen Chi after his service against the Northern barbarians.”

“Ah, those were the glorious days.” Ts’ai Li breathed forth the least of sighs. “We impoverished heirs of them can only strive against a rising flood of troubles.”

Yen Ting-kuo shifted on his heels, cleared his throat, looked straight across the table, and said, “My lord is surely at the forefront in that effort, having made such a long and arduous journey. In what may we help further his righteous purposes?”

“Largely I require information, and perhaps a guide. Word has reached the capital of a sage, a veritable holy man, in your domain.”

Yen Ting-kuo bunked. “What?”

“Travelers’ tales, but we have questioned several such men at length, and the stories agree. He preaches the Tao, and his virtue appears to have brought him great longevity.” Ts’ai Li hesitated. “Actual immortality? What can you tell me, Sir Subprefect?”

“Oh.” Yen Ting-kuo scowled. “I understand. The person who names himself Tu Shan.”

“You are skeptical, then?”

“He does not fit my idea of a holy man, Sir Inspector,” Yen Ting-kuo growled. “We get no few who claim to be. Simple countryfolk are all too ready to listen, especially in unsettled times tike these. Masterless wanderers, who do no useful work but beg or wheedle their way along. They claim tremendous powers. Peasants swear they have seen such a one cure the sick, exorcise demons, raise the dead, or what have you. I’ve looked into some cases and found no real proof of anything. Except that often the drifter has availed himself of men’s purses and women’s bodies, convincing them that is the Way, before moving elsewhere.”

Ts’ai Li narrowed his eyes. “We know about charlatans,” he said. “We also know about ordinary wu, folk magicians, honest enough but illiterate and superstitious. Indeed, their beliefs and practices have seeped into the once pure teachings of Lao-tzu. This is unfortunate.”

“Does not the court follow, instead, the precepts of the great K’ung Fu-tze?”

“Certainly. Yet—wisdom and strength grow scarce, Sir Subprefect. We must seek them where they are to be found. What we have heard of this Tu Shan has led the One Man himself to think that his will be a desirable voice among the Imperial councillors.”

Yen Ting-kuo stared down into his cup as if to seek a comforting revelation therein. “It is not for the tikes of me to question the Son of Heaven,” he said at length. “And I daresay that fellow can do no serious harm.” He laughed. “Perhaps his advice will prove no worse than some.”

Ts’ai Li regarded him for a silent while before murmuring, “Do you imply, Sir Subprefect, that the Emperor has occasionally been misled in the past?”

Yen Ting-kuo paled a little, then flushed and almost snapped, “I speak no disrespectful word, Sir Mandarin.”

“Of course not. Understood,” said Ts’ai Li smoothly. “Although, between us, the implication is quite correct.”

Yen Ting-kuo gave him a startled stare.

Ts’ai Li’s tone grew earnest. “Please consider. It is now ten years since glorious Wang Mang received the Mandate of Heaven. He has decreed many reforms and sought in every way to better the lot of his people. Yet unrest waxes. So, be it said, do poverty at home and barbarian arrogance abroad.” He left unspoken: There are those, ever more of them, who declare that the Hsin is not a new dynasty at all but only a usurpation, a product of palace intrigue, and the time is overpast to restore the Han to that power which is rightfully theirs. “Clearly, better counsel is much needed. Intelligence and virtue often dwell beneath a lowly roof.”

“The situation must be desperate, if you were sent this far to track down a mere rumor,” Yen Ting-kuo blurted. He made haste to add, “Of course, we are honored and delighted by your exalted presence, my lord.”

“You are most gracious, Sir Subprefect.” Ts’ai Li’s voice sharpened. “But what can you tell me about Tu Shan?”

Yen Ting-kuo looked away, frowned, tugged his beard, and spoke slowly. “I cannot in honesty call him a rogue. I investigate everything questionable that I hear of, and have no report of him defrauding anyone, or doing any other evil. It is only ... he is not my idea of a holy man.”

“The seekers of the Tao are apt to be, ah, somewhat eccentric.”

“I know. Still— But let me tell you. He appeared among us five years ago, having passed through communities to the north and east, sojourning a while in some. With him traveled a single disciple, a young man of the farmer class. Since then he has acquired two more, and declined others. For he has settled down in .a cave three or four hours’ walk from here, in the forest upland by a waterfall. There he meditates, or so he claims. I have gone there, and the cave has been turned into a rather comfortable little abode. Not luxurious, but no hardship to inhabit. The disciples have made themselves a hut nearby. They cultivate a bit of grain, catch a few fish, gather nuts and berries and roots. Folk bring other things as gifts, including money. They make the walk in order to hear whatever words he cares to give them, unburden themselves of their woes—he has a sympathetic ear—and receive his blessing, or simply spend a while in his silent presence. From time to time he comes down here for a day or two. Then it is the same, except that he drinks and eats well at our one inn and disports himself in our one joy house. I hear he is a mighty lover. Well, I have not heard of him seducing any man’s wife or daughter. Nevertheless, his conduct scarcely seems pious to me, nor do such preachments of his as I have heard make much sense.”

“The Tao is not expressible in words.”

“I know. Just the same—well, just the same.”

“And as for making love, I have heard from those learned in the Tao state that by so doing, especially if he prolongs the act as much as possible, a man comes nearer balancing his Yang with the Yin. At least, this is one school of thought. Others disagree, I am told. But we can hardly expect conventional respectability of a person whose goal in fife is enlightenment.”

Yen Ting-kuo achieved a sour smile. “My lord is more tolerant than me, it seems.”

“No, I merely thought I should seek to prepare myself /before setting out, that I might hope to understand whatever I may find.” Ts’ai Li paused. “What of Tu Shan’s earlier life? How much truth is in his claim to great age? I hear he has the aspect of a young man.”

“He does, together with the vigor and all else. Should a sage not be, rather, of reverend appearance?” Yen Ting-kuo drew breath. “Well, but I have made inquiries about those claims of his. Not that he asserts them loudly. In fact, he never mentions the matter unless he must for some reason, as to explain how long-dead Chou P’eng could have been his teacher. But neither has he tried to cover his tracks. I have been able to question people and to visit a few sites myself, when business has taken me in those directions.”

“Please tell me what you have ascertained, that I may compare my own information.”

“Well, it is evidently true, he was born more than a hundred years ago. That was in the Three Great Rocks district, and his class was merely artisan. He followed his father’s trade, a blacksmith, married, had children, nothing unusual aside from his not growing old in body. That did gradually make him a neighborhood marvel, but he does not seem to have taken much if any advantage of it. Instead, when his children were married off and his wife had died, he announced he would seek wisdom, the reason for his strange condition and for all else in the world. He set forth, and was not heard of again until he became a disciple of Chou P’eng. When that old sage died in turn, Tu Shan fared onward, teaching and practicing the Tao as he understood it. I do not know how close that is to what Chou P’eng taught. Nor do I know how long Tu Shan proposes to stay here. Perhaps he himself does not. I have asked him, but such people are always skilled in evading questions they do not wish to answer.”

“Thank you. It confirms the reports given me. Now a man of your perspicacity, Sir Subprefect, must see that such a life indicates extraordinary powers of some kind, and—”

A deferential presence appeared in the doorway. “Enter and speak,” said Yen Ting-kuo.

Ts’ai Li’s secretary took a step into the room, bowed low, and announced: “This underling begs pardon for disturbing his superiors. However, word has just come to him which may have a certain interest and perhaps urgency. The sage Tu Shan is on the western road bound for the village. Has my lord any commands?”

“Well, well,” murmured’ the subprefect. “What an interesting coincidence.”

“If it is a coincidence,” answered Ts’ai Li.

Yen Ting-kuo lifted his heavy brows. “Has he foreseen my lord’s arrival and purpose?”

“It need not be a matter of occult abilities. The Tao works to bring events together in harmony.”

“Shall I summon him here, or bid him wait upon my lord’s convenience?”

“Neither. I will go to him—much though it pains me to interrupt this fascinating conversation.” At his host’s look of surprise, Ts’ai Li added, “After all, otherwise I would have sought him out in his retreat. If he is worthy of respect, let him be shown respect,”

With a rustle of silk and brocade, he rose from his cushion and started forth. Yen Ting-kuo followed. The inspector’s equerry hastened to summon a decent minimum of attendants and bring them after the magnates. They went through the gate and down the hill at a suitably dignified pace.

A wind had arisen. It boomed from the north, cooling the air, driving clouds before it whose shadows went like sickles across the land. Dust whirled yellow off fields and the road. A flock of crows winged past. Their cawing cut through the babble underneath. Folk had clustered at the village well. They were those whose work was not out amidst the crops: tradesmen, artisans, their women and children, the aged and infirm. Soldiers from the envoy’s escort crowded roughly in among them, curious.

All were gathered about a man who had stopped at the wellside. His frame, big and broad, wore the same plain blue, quilted jacket and trousers as any peasant’s. His feet were bare, thick with calluses. Also bare was his head; stray black locks fluttered free below a topknot. His face was wide, rather flat-nosed, weatherbeaten. He had leaned a staff against the coping and taken a small girl child onto his shoulder. Near him stood three young men, as simply garbed as himself.

“Ah, ha, little one!” the man laughed, and chucked the girl under the chin.

“Would you have a ride on your old horsey? Shameless beggar wench.” She squirmed and giggled.

“Bless her, master,” asked the mother.

“Why, what she is, that is the blessing,” replied the man. “She is still near the Fountainhead of Quietness to which wise men hope they may return. Not that that forbids your desiring a sweetmeat, eh, Mei-mei?”

“Can childhood, then, be better than age?” quavered one whose wispy beard fell white from a head bent forward.

“You would have me teach, when my poor throat is choked by the dust of my faring?” responded the man genially. “No, please, first a cup or three of wine. Nothing in excess, including self-denial.”

“Make way!” cried the equerry. “Make way for the lord Ts’ai Li, Imperial legate from Ch’ang-an, and for the lord of the district, Yen Ting-kuo!”

Voices halted. People scrambled aside. Frightened, the girl whimpered and reached for her mother. The man gave her to the woman and bowed, politely if not abjectly, as the two robed forms neared him.

“Here is our sage Tu Shan, Sir Inspector,” said the sub-prefect.

“Off with you!” the equerry bade the commoners. “This is a matter of state.”

“They may listen if they wish,” said Ts’ai Li mildly.

“Their smell should not offend my lord’s nostrils,” declared the equerry, and the crowd did shuffle some distance away, to stand in bunches and gape.

“Let us seek back to the house,” Yen Ting-kuo proposed. “This day you receive a great honor, Tu Shan.”

“I thank my lord most profoundly,” the newcomer answered, “but we are shabby and unwashed and altogether unfit for your home.” His voice was deep, lacking a cultivated accent though not quite lowly-sounding either. A chuckle seemed to run within it and flicker behind his eyes. “May I take the liberty of presenting my disciples Ch’i, Wei, and Ma?” The three youths abased themselves until he gave them an unobtrusive signal to rise.

“They can join us.” Yen Ting-kuo failed to hide his distaste entirely.

Did Tu Shan perceive that? He addressed Ts’ai Li: “Perhaps my lord would care to state his business at once. Then we shall know whether or not pursuing it would waste his time.”

The inspector smiled. “I hope not, Sir Sage, for I have already expended a great deal of that,” he said. To the baron, the secretary, and the rest who had heard and were shocked: “Tu Shan is right. He has certainly spared me a doubtless difficult trail to his hermitage.”

“Happenstance,” said the man spoken of. “Nor does it take supernatural insight for me to guess your errand.”

“Rejoice,” Ts’ai Li told him. “Word of you has reached the august ears of the Emperor himself. He bade me seek you out and bring you to Ch’ang-an, that the realm have the benefit of your wisdom.”

The disciples gasped before recovering a measure of steadiness. Tu Shan stayed imperturbable. “Surely the Son of Heaven has councillors beyond counting,” he said.

“He does, but they are insufficient. As the proverb goes, a thousand mice do not equal a single tiger.”

“Perhaps my lord is a bit unfair to the advisors and ministers. They have huge tasks, beyond my poor wits to understand.”

“Your modesty is commendable. It reveals your character.”

Tu Shan shook his head. “No, I am just a fool, and ignorant. How could I dare so much as see the Imperial throne?”

“You defame yourself,” said Ts’ai Li on a slight note of impatience. “None can have lived as long as you without being intelligent and without gaining experience. Moreover, you have pondered what you have observed and drawn valuable lessons from it.”

Tu Shan smiled wryly, as though at an equal. “If I have learned anything, it is that intelligence and knowledge are worth little by themselves. Failing the enlightenment that goes beyond words and the world, they serve mainly to provide us with wonderful reasons for doing what we intend to do regardless.”

Yen Tuig-Kuo could not forbear to interject, “Come, come. You are no ascetic. The Emperor rewards, with Imperial generosity, those who serve him well.”

Tu Shad’s manner shifted subtly. It hinted at a schoolmaster with a pupil somewhat slow. “I have visited Ch’ang-an in my wanderings. Though of course I could not go into the palace grounds, I was in mansions. My lords, there are too many walls there. Every ward is closed off from every other, and when the drums sound from the towers at dusk, their gates are barred to all but the nobility. In the mountains one may go freely beneath the stars.”

“To him who walks in the Way, all places should be alike,” said Ts’ai Li.

Tu Shan inclined his head. “My lord is well versed in the Book of the Way and Its Virtue. But as for me, I am a blunderer, half blind, who would be forever stumbling against those walls.”

Ts’ai Li stiffened. “I think you make excuses to avoid a duty you would find onerous. Why do you preach to the people, if you care too little about them to lend your thoughts in aid of them?”

“They cannot be aided thus.” Low, Tu Shan’s words nonetheless cut through the wind. “Only they themselves’ can cope with their troubles, just as every man can only find the Tap by himself.”

Ts’ai Li’s voice slid quietly as a dagger: “Do you deny the Emperor’s beneficence?”

“Many Emperors have come and gone. Many more shall.” Tu Shan gestured. “Behold the flying dust. Once it, too, lived. The Tao alone abides.”

“You risk ... punishment, Sir Sage.” Sudden laughter pealed. Tu Shan shipped his thigh. “How can a head removed from its neck give counsel?” He calmed as fast. “My lord, I meant no disrespect. I say only that I am not fit for the task you have in mind, and unworthy of it. Take me with you, and this will soon be clear. Better that you spare the priceless time of the One Man.”

Ts’ai Li sighed. Yen Ting-kuo, watching the inspector, eased a bit. “You rascal,” Ts’ai Li said, rueful, “you use the Book—what is the line?—‘Like water, soft and yielding, that wears away the hardest stone—’ ”

Tu Shan bowed. “Should we not say, rather, that the stream flows on to its destiny while the stupid rock stays where it was?”

Now Ts’ai Li spoke as to an equal. “If you will not go, so be it. Forgive me when I report that you proved ... a disappointment.”

Tu Shan nearly grinned. “How shrewdly you put it.” He bowed to Yen Ting-kuo. “See, my lord, there is no reason for me to track dirt across your beautiful mats. Best my disciples and I take ourselves from your presence at once.”

“Correct,” said the subprefect coldly. The inspector cast him a disapproving glance, turned again to Tu Shan, and said, in a voice slightly less than level, “Yet you, Sir Sage, have lived longer than almost any other man, and show no sign of age. Can you at least tell me how this is?”

Tu Shan became grave. Some might say he spoke in pity. “I am forever asked that.”

“Well?”

“I never give a dear answer, for I am unable.”

“Surely you know.”

“I have said I do not, but men insist, eh?” Tu Shan appeared to dismiss sadness. “The story goes,” he said, “that in the garden of Hsi Wang Mu, Mother of the West, grow certain peaches, and that he whom she allows to eat of these is made immortal.”

Ts’ai Li looked long at him before answering, well-nigh too softly to hear, “As you wish, Sir Sage.” The watching people drew breath, glanced about, one by one retreated. The inspector bowed. “I depart in awe.”

Tu Shan bowed likewise. “Greet the Emperor. He too deserves compassion.”

Yen Ting-kuo cleared his throat, hesitated, then at a gesture followed Ts’ai Li out of the village, back up the hill to the manor house. Their attendants trailed after them. The common folk made reverence, bent above folded hands, and slipped away to the shelter of their homes. Tu Shan and his disciples stood alone by the well. The wind blustered through silence. Shadows came and went. _ Tu Shan took his staff. “Come,” he said.

“Where, master?” Ch’i ventured.

“To our retreat. Afterward—“ For an instant, pain crossed the face of Tu Shan. “I do not know. Elsewhere. West into the mountains, I think.”

“Do you fear reprisal, master?” asked Wei.

“No, no, I trust the word of yonder lord. But it is well to be gone. This wind smells of trouble.”

“The master can tell,” said brash Ma. “He must have caught that scent often in his many years. Did you indeed taste those peaches?”

Tu Shan laughed a little. “I had to tell the man something. Doubtless the story will spread, and tales will arise of others who have done the same. Well, we shall be afar.”

He began walking. “I have warned you aplenty, lads,” he continued, “and I will warn you again. I have no inspiration, no secrets to impart. I am the most ordinary of persons, except that somehow, for some reason, my body has stayed young. So I searched for understanding, and discovered that this is the only livelihood open to such as I. If you care to listen to me, do. If not, leave with my blessing. Meanwhile, let us see a brisker pace.”

“Why, you said we have nothing to fear, master,” protested Ma.

“No, I did not.” Tu Shan’s voice harshened. “I fear witnessing what will most likely happen to these people, whom I, helplessly, love. The times are evil. We must seek a place apart, and the Tao.”

They walked onward through the wind.


III. The Comrade

1

2

3

<p>III. The Comrade</p>
<p>1</p>

A ship was loading at the Claudian dock. She was big for an ocean-goer, two-masted, her round black belly taking perhaps five hundred tons. The gilt sternpost, curved high over the steering oar fixtures in the form of a swan’s neck and head, also bespoke wealth. Lugo went over to inquire about her. Bound more or less this way, he had turned aside with the idea of seeing what went on at the waterfront. He made it his business to keep fully aware of the world around him.

The stevedores were slaves. Though the morning was cool, their bodies gleamed and reeked with sweat as they carried amphoras across the dock and up the gangplank, two men to each great jug. A breeze off the river mingled whiffs of fresh pitch from the ship with their odors. The foreman stood by, and him Lugo could approach.

“The Nereid,” he replied, “with wine, glassware, silks, and I don’t know what else, for Britannia. Her skipper wants to catch tomorrow’s early tide. Hoy, you!” His whip licked across a bare back. It was single-stranded and unloaded, but left a mark between shoulder blade and loincloth. “Move along, there!” The slave gave him a hopeless glower and trudged a little faster to his next burden at the warehouse. “Got to freshen ‘em pretty often,” the foreman explained. “They get out of shape and lazy, sitting around idle. Not enough to do any more.” He sighed. “Free men, you could lay off in these wretched times, and call back when you needed them. But if everybody’s in his station for life—”

“It’s a wonder this vessel is going,” Lugo said. “Won’t she draw pirates like flies to a carcass? I hear the Saxons and Scoti are turning the shores of Armorica into a blackened desert.”

“The House of the Caelii always was venturesome, and I guess there’s a big profit to be made when so few dare sail,” the foreman answered.

Lugo nodded, stroked his chin, and murmured, “M-m, sea rovers usually do seek their plunder on land. No doubt Nereid will carry guards as well as her crew being armed. If several barbarian craft came in sight, Scoti probably couldn’t climb that tall freeboard out of their currachs, and given any kind of wind, she can show her heels to Saxon galleys.”

“You talk like a mariner yourself. But you don’t look like one.” The foreman’s glance sharpened. Suspicion was the order of the day. He saw a medium-sized, wiry man of youthful appearance; face narrow and high in the cheekbones, curved nose, slightly oblique brown eyes; black hair and a neatly trimmed beard such as was coming into fashion; clean white tunic, blue raincloak with a cowl shoved back; stout sandals; staff in hand, though he walked lithely.

Lugo shrugged. “I’ve been around. And I enjoy talking to people. You, for instance.” He smiled. “Thanks for satisfying my curiosity, and a good day to you.”

“Go with God,” said the foreman, disarmed, and turned his attention back to the longshoremen.

Lugo sauntered on. When he came opposite the next gate, he stopped to admire the view eastward. His lashes snared sunlight and made bits of rainbow.

Before him flowed the Garumna, on its way to its confluence with the Duranius, their shared estuary, and the sea. Some two thousand shimmering feet across, the water bore several rowboats, a fishing smack bound upstream on oars with its catch, a gaudy spitsail above a slim yacht. Land on the far side reached low, intensely green; he saw the tawny walls and rosy tiles of two manor houses amidst their vineyards, while smoke blew in tatters from humbler roofs of thatch. Birds winged everywhere, robin, sparrow, crane, duck, a hawk on high, the startling blue of a kingfisher. He heard their calls as an overtone that skipped through the lapping and rustling of the river. It was hard to imagine that heathen Germani raged at the gates of Lugdunum, that the chief city of central Gallia might even now have fallen to diem, less than three hundred miles from here.

Or else it was all too easy to imagine. Lugo’s mouth tightened. Come along, he told himself. He was more prone to reverie than other men, with less excuse nowadays. This vicinity had been spared so far, but the handwriting on the wall grew plainer for him to read every year, as certain Jews he had known would have phrased it. He turned and re-entered the city.

The gate was minor, a sally port in the bulwarks whose towers and battlements stood foursquare around Burdigala. Beside his spear, a sentry leaned half asleep against the sun-warmed stones. He was an auxiliary, a German himself. The legions were in Italy or out toward the frontiers, and mere skeletons of what they had once been. Meanwhile barbarians like this wrung leave from the Emperors to settle in Roman lands. In return, they were supposed to obey the laws and furnish troops; but in Lugdunensis, for example, they had revolted.

Lugo passed through, across the open pomoerium, into a street that he recognized as Vindomarian Way. It twisted among buildings whose flat sides crowded out all but a strip of sky, the lumpiness of its cobblestones slickened by stinking offal, an obscure lane quite likely going back to ages .when only the Bituriges squatted here. However, Lugo had m the course of time taken care to learn the entire city, old as well as new quarters.

Not many people jostled him, and they for the most part Shabbily clad. Housewives chattered together while they reamed laundry to the river, pails of water from the nearest aqueduct outlet, baskets of vegetables gotten at a local mar-. A porter came by under a load well-nigh as heavy what was in the donkey cart he met; he and the driver, trying to get past each other. An apprentice fetching Wool for his master had stopped to jape with a girl. Two Countrymen in ancient-style coats and breeches, probably cattle drovers, made remarks so accented and full of Gallic words that Lugo could hardly understand what he overheard. A drunken man—a laborer to judge by his hands, out of work to judge by his condition—lurched along in search of a frolic or a fight; unemployment had become rife as die upheavals of the past decade cowed an already decaying commerce. A meretrix in pathetic, bedraggled finery, seeking customers even this early, brushed against Lugo. Except for laying a hand over the purse at his waist he ignored her. A hunchbacked beggar whined for alms in the name of Christ and then, when likewise ignored, tried Jupiter, Mithras, Isis, the Great Mother, and Celtic Epona; finally he screamed maledictions at Lugo’s back. Shockheaded children in grimy smocks ran their little errands or played their little games. For them he felt a tug of compassion.

His Levantine features marked him out among them all. Burdigala was cosmopolitan; Italy, Greece, Africa, Asia had poured blood into it. Yet most dwellers remained what then- forebears must always have been, strongly built, roundheaded, dark of hair but fair of skin. They spoke Latin with a nasal intonation he had never quite mastered.

A potter’s shop, its front open on the wares and whirr of roe wheel, showed him where he must turn onto broader Teutatis Street—which, lately, the bishop was trying to make its residents call after St. Johannes. It was his quickest route through this maze toward Mother Thornbesom’s Lane, where lived the one he sought. Rufus might not be at home, but was certainly not at work. The shipyard had had no orders for well over a year, and its men were now dependent on the state for their bread; circuses amounted to an occasional bear-baiting or the like. If Rufus was out, Lugo was prepared to stroll around inconspicuously till he came back. Lugo had learned patience.

He had gone a hundred yards farther when the new noise reached him. Others heard it too, halted, stiffened, listened with heads cocked and eyes slitted. The majority began retreating. Shopkeepers and apprentices made ready to close doors and shutters. A few men licked their chops and drifted in the direction of the sound. Turmoil called their kind to itself. The racket loudened, muffled by houses and contorted alleys but unmistakable. Lugo knew it of old, the deep, racking growl, the yelps and hoots. A crowd was hounding somebody.

He realized with a chill who the quarry must be. For a moment he paused. Was it worth the risk? Cordelia, the children, he and his family might have thirty or forty years ahead of them.

Resolution came. He should at least go see whether the situation was hopeless or not. He pulled the hood of his paenula over his head. Sewn to the edge was a veil, which he drew down. He saw reasonably well through the gauze, but it hid his face. Lugo had learned preparedness.

A military patrol might wonder at the sight and stop him for questioning. However, were a patrol in the neighborhood, that pack would not be after Rufus. Instead— Lugo’s mouth twisted briefly upward—Rufus might well be under arrest.

Lugo moved to intercept the oncoming tumult, as closely as he could judge. He went a trifle more quickly than the trouble seekers, not quickly enough to draw any special heed. The hood overshadowed the veil and blinkered sight of it; perhaps nobody noticed. Within himself he spoke ancient incantations against danger. Give fear no hold upon you, keep sinews loose and senses open, ready at every instant to flow with the rush of action. Calm, alert, supple; calm, alert, supple—

He came out on Hercules Place just as the hunted man did. A corroded bronze statue of die hero gave the small square its name. Several streets radiated thence. He who burst forth was stocky, his coarse features freckled, his thin hair and unkempt beard an unusual orange-red. The tunic that flapped around stout limbs was drenched and a-reek with sweat. Indeed this must be Rufus, Lugo saw, and “Rufus” must be a nickname.

The fugitive was built for strength, not speed. His pursuers swarmed close behind. They numbered about fifty, proletarians like him hi drab, oft-mended garments. Quite a few were women, locks gone Medusa wild around maenad faces. Most bore what weapons they could snatch, knife, hammer, stick, loose cobblestone. Through their baying tore words: “Sorcerer! ... Heathen! .... Satan—kill—“ A flung rock struck Rufus between the shoulders. He staggered and pounded on. His mouth stretched wide, his chest heaved, his eyes stared as if blinded.

Lugo’s gaze flickered. Sometimes he could not wait and see how things went, he must make an instant decision. He gauged the layout, distances, speeds, nature of the throng. Terror thrilled through the hatred they howled. The chance of rescue looked worth taking. If he failed, he might escape with injuries less than fatal; and those would soon heal.

“To me, Rufus!” he shouted. To the pack: “Halt! Hold off, you lawless dogs!”

The man in the lead snarled at him. Lugo brought hands near the middle of his staff. It was oak. He had drilled holes in the ends and filled them with lead. It whirred and smacked. The man screamed. He reeled aside. A broken rib, likely. Lugo’s weapon punched the next under the breastbone. Air whoofed from lungs. Lugo caught a third man across a kneecap. He shrieked his pain and flailed against two at his back. A woman swung a mop. Lugo fended it off and rapped her knuckles. Maybe he cracked a bone or two.

The crowd recoiled on itself, milled, moaned, gibbered. From behind his whirling, half invisible staff, Lugo grinned at them and at the rowdies who had appeared. “Go home,” he called. “Dare you take Caesar’s law in your own hands? Be off!”

Somebody threw a stone. It missed. Lugo laid a blow on the nearest scalp. He controlled its force. Matters were amply bad without producing corpses; those would provoke immediate official action. Nevertheless the wound bled spectacularly, sudden red brilliance over skin and pavement, a shock to behold.

Rufus’ gasps rattled. “Come along,” Lugo muttered. “Slow and steady. If we run, they’ll be after us again.” He backed off, still twirling the staff, still grinning his most wolfish. At the comer of vision, he saw Rufus sidle on his right. Good. The fellow had kept that much wit.

The hunters mumbled and gaped. The hurt among them ululated. Lugo entered the narrow street he had chosen. It bent around a tenement, and he had no more sight of Hercules. “Now we move,” he clipped, and turned around. “No, you fool.” He caught Rufus’ sleeve. “Don’t run. Walk.”

Such people as were present looked warily at them but didn’t interfere. Lugo ducked into the first alley he knew connected with a different street. When they were alone at the noisome middle of it, he said, “Stop.” He put his staff beneath an arm and reached for the fibula that held his cloak. “We’ll drape this over you.” He tucked the veil back inside the cowl before he covered his companion’s distinctive hair. “Very well. We are two peaceful men going about our business. Can you remember that?”

The artisan blinked from the hood. Sweat glistened in what light there was. “Who, who be you?” His voice quavered deep. “What you want?”

“I would like to save your life,” Lugo said coldly, “but I don’t propose to risk mine any further. Do as I say and we may yet make it to shelter.” When the other began in a dazed fashion to seem doubtful, Lugo added, “Go to the authorities if you wish. Go at once, before your dear neighbors pluck up courage and come in search. Tell the prefect you’re accused of sorcery. He’ll find out anyway. While you’re being interrogated under torture, you might think how you can prove your innocence. Sorcery is a capital offense, you know.”

“But you—”

“I am no more guilty of it than you are. I have a notion we can help each other. If you disagree, farewell. If not, come with me, and keep your mouth shut.”

Breath shuddered into the burly frame. Rufus drew the cloak close about him and shambled along.

His gait grew easier as they proceeded, for nothing untoward happened. They simply mingled with traffic. “You may think the world is ending,” Lugo remarked low, “but it was a purely local fuss. Nobody elsewhere has heard of it, or if anyone has, he doesn’t care. I’ve seen people go on with their everyday lives while the enemy was breaking down the gates.”

Rufus glanced at him, gulped, but preserved silence.

<p>2</p>

Lugo’s home was in the northwest quadrant, on the Street of the Sandalmakers, a quiet area. The house was unostentatious, rather old, stucco peeling off the concrete here and there. Lugo knocked. His majordomo opened the door; he kept only a few slaves, carefully chosen and winnowed over the years. “This man and I have confidential matters to discuss, Perseus,” he said. “He may be staying with us a while. I do not wish him disturbed in any way.”

The Cretan nodded and smiled his bland smile, “Understood, master,” he replied. “I will inform the rest.”

“We can trust them,” Lugo said aside to Rufus. “They know they have soft berths.” To Perseus: “As you can see— and smell—my friend has had a strenuous time. We’ll lodge him in the Low Room. Bring refreshments immediately; water as soon as you can heat a decent amount, with washcloth and towel; clean garb. Is the bed made up?”

“It always is, master.” The slave sounded a bit hurt. He considered. “As for raiment, yours will not fit. I’ll borrow from Durig. Shall I then purchase some?”

“Hold off on that,” Lugo decided. He might need all the cash he could scrape together in a hurry. Though not the debased small stuff. That was too bulky; one gold solidus equalled about fourteen thousand nummi. “Dung’s our handyman,” he explained to Rufus. “Otherwise we boast a gifted cook and a couple of maids. A modest household.” Homely details might soothe. He wanted Rufus fit to answer questions as soon as might be.

From the atrium they passed into a pleasant room, equally unpretentious, lighted by sunshine that leaded clerestory windows turned greenish. A mosaic at the center of the floor tiles depicted a panther surrounded by peacocks. Wooden panels set into the walls bore motifs more current, the Fish and Chi Rho among flowers, a large-eyed Good Shepherd. Since the reign of Constantine the Great it had been increasingly expedient to profess Christianity, which hereabouts had better be of the Catholic sort. Lugo remained a catechumen; baptism would have laid inconvenient obligations on him. Most believers put it off till late in life.

His wife had heard and come to meet him. “Welcome, dear,” she said happily. “You’re back fast.” Her gaze fell on Rufus and grew troubled.

“This man and I have urgent business,” Lugo told her. “It is highly confidential. Do you understand?”

She swallowed but nodded. “Hail and welcome,” she greeted in a subdued voice.

Brave girl, Lugo thought. It was hard to look away from her. Cordelia was nineteen, short but deliciously rounded, her features delicate and tips always slightly parted below a lustrous mass of brown hair. They had been married four years and she bad borne him two children thus far, both still alive. The marriage brought him certain useful connections, her father being a curial, though no dowry worth mentioning, the curial class being crushed between taxes and civic duties. More important to the couple, they had been drawn to each other, and wedlock became an ever higher delight.

“Marcus, meet Cordelia, my wife,” Lugo said. “Marcus” was a safely frequent name. Rufus bobbed his head and grunted. To her: “We must get busy at once. Perseus will see to the necessities. I’ll join you when I can.”

She stared after them as he guided his companion off. Did he hear her sigh? Abrupt fear stabbed. He had gone forth with hope aflutter in him, a hope so wild that he must keep denying it, scolding himself for it. Now he saw what the reality might lead to.

No, he would not think about that. Not immediately. One step, two steps, left foot, right foot, that was how to march through time.

The Low Room was downstairs, a part of the cellar that Lugo had had bricked off after he acquired this house. Such hideaways were common enough to draw scant attention. Often they were for prayer or private austerities. In Lugo’s tine of work, it was clear that he could have use for a place secure from eavesdroppers. The cell was about ten feet square and six high. Three tiny windows just under the ceiling gave on the peristyle garden at ground level. The glass in them was so thick and wavy as to block vision, but the tight that seeped through met whitewashed walls, making the gloom not too dense at this moment. Tallow candles lay on a shelf beside flint, steel, and tinder. Furnishings were a angle bed, a stool, and a chamber pot on the dirt floor.

“Sit down,” Lugo invited. “Rest. You’re safe, my friend, safe.”

Rufus hunched on the stool. He threw back the cowl but clutched the paenula around his tunic; the place was chilly. His red head lifted with a forlorn defiance. “Who the muck be you, anyhow?” he growled.

His host lounged back against the wall and smiled. “Flavius Lugo,” he said. “And you, I believe, are a shipyard carpenter, unemployed, generally called Rufus. What’s your real name?”

An obscenity was followed by: “What’s it matter to you?”

Lugo shrugged. “Little or nothing, I suppose. You could be more gracious toward me. That rabble would have had the life out of you.”

“And what’s that to you?” The retort was harsh. “Why’d you step in? Look here, I be no sorcerer. I want naught to do with magic or heathendom, me, a good Christian, a free Roman citizen.”

Lugo lifted a brow. “Have you absolutely never made an offering elsewhere than in church?” he murmured.

“Well, uh, well—Epona, when my wife was dying—“ Rufus half-rose. He bristled. “Dung o’ Cemunnos! Be you a sorcerer?”

Lugo raised a palm. His left hand moved the staff, slightly but meaningfully. “I am not. Nor can I read your mind. However, old ways die hard, even in the cities, and the countryside is mostly pagan and from your looks and speech I’d guess your family were Cadurci a generation or two ago, back in the hills above the Duranius Valley.”

Rufus lowered himself. For a minute he breathed hard. Then, piece by piece, he began to relax. A smile of sorts responded to Lugo’s. “My parents come o’ that tribe,” he rumbled. “My right name, uh, Cotuadun. Nobody calls me aught but Rufus any more. You be a sharp ‘un.”

“I make my living at it.”

“No Gaul you. Anybody might be a Flavius, but what’s ‘Lugo’? Where you from?”

“I’ve been settled hi Burdigala a fair number of years.” A knock on the plank door was handily timed. “Ah, here comes the excellent Perseus with those refreshments I ordered. I daresay you’ve slightly more need of them than I do.”

The majordomo brought a tray of wine and water flagons, cups, bread, cheese, olives in a bowl. He put it on the ground and, at Lugo’s wave, departed, closing the door behind him. Lugo sat down on the bed, reached, poured, offered Rufus a drink not much diluted. His own he watered well.

“Your health,” he proposed. “You pretty near lost it today.”

Rufus took a long swallow. “Ahhh! Bugger me if that don’t go good.” He squinted through the dusk at his rescuer. “Why’d you do it? What be I to you?”

“Well, if nothing else, those proles had no right to kill you. That’s the job of the state, after you’ve duly been found guilty—which I am sure you are not. It behooved me to enforce the law,”

“You knew me.”

Lugo sipped. The wine was Falernian, sweet on his tongue. “I knew of you,” he said. “Rumors had reached me. That’s natural. I keep track of what’s going on. I have my agents. Nothing to frighten you, no secret informers. But street urchins, for example, who earn a coin by bringing me word of anything interesting. I determined to seek you out and learn more. It’s lucky for you that that chanced to be exactly when and where I could snatch you from your fellow sons of toil.”

The question soughed through him: How many chances had he missed, by what slender margins, throughout all the years? He did not share the widespread present-day faith in astrology. It seemed likeliest to him that sheer accident ruled the world. Perhaps today the dice had been due to roll in his favor.

//the game was real, //anyone like him existed, had ever existed, anywhere under the sky.

Rufus’ head thrust forward from the heavy shoulders. “Why did you?” he grated. “What the dung be you after?”

He needed calming down. Lugo check-reined the eagerness within himself, that was half fear. “Drink your wine,” he said. “Listen, and I’ll explain.

“This house may have led you to think I’m a curial, or a mildly prosperous shopkeeper, or something of that kind. I’m not.” Had not been for a long while. Diocletian’s decree had supposedly frozen everybody into the status to which they were born, including the middle classes. But rather than be crushed, grain by grain, between the stones of taxation, regulation, worthless currency, moribund trade, more and more were fleeing. They slipped off, changed their names, became serfs or outright slaves, illegal itinerant la- borers and mountebanks; some joined the Bacaudae whose bandit gangs terrorized the rural outback, some actually sought to the barbarians. Lugo had made better arrangements for himself, well in advance of need. He was accustomed to looking ahead.

“Fm currently in the pay of one Aurelian, a senator in this city,” he went on.

Hostility sparked. “I heard about him.”

Lugo shrugged again. “So he bribed his way into that rank, and even among his colleagues is monumentally corrupt. What of it? He’s an able man and understands that it’s wise to be loyal to those who serve him. Senators aren’t allowed to engage in commerce, you may know, but he has varied interests. That calls for intermediaries who are not mere figureheads. I come and go for him, to and fro, sniffing out dangers and possibilities, bearing messages, executing tasks that require discretion, giving advice when appropriate. There are worse stations in life. In fact, there are less honorable ones.”

“What’s Aurelian want with me?” Rufus asked uneasily.

“Nothing. He’s never heard of you. Fate willing, he never shall. I sought you out on my own account. We may be of very great value to each other.” Lugo sharpened his tone. “I make no threats. If we cannot work together but you have done your best to cooperate with me, I can at least get you smuggled out of Burdigala to someplace where you can start over. Remember, you owe me your life. If I abandon you, you’re a dead man.”

Sullenness and the gesture of the fig: “They’ll know you hid me here.”

“Why, I’ll tell them myself,” Lugo declared coolly. “As a solid citizen, I did not want you unlawfully slaughtered, but I did feel it incumbent on me to interview you in private, draw you out—Hold!” He had set his cup on the ground as he talked, expecting Rufus might lunge. Now he gripped the staff in both hands. “Stay right on that stool, boy. You’re sturdy, but you’ve seen what I can do with this.”

Rufus crouched back.

Lugo laughed. “That’s better. Don’t be so damned edgy. I really don’t want to cause you any harm. Let me repeat, if you’ll be honest with me and do as I say, the worst that will happen to you is that you leave Burdigala in disguise. Aurelian owns a huge latifundium; it can doubtless use an extra workman, if I put in a good word, and the senator will cover up any little irregularities for me. At best—well, I don’t yet know, and therefore won’t make any promises, but it could be glorious beyond your highest-flying childhood dreams, Rufus.”

His words and the lulling tone worked. Also, the wine had begun to. Rufus sat quiet a moment, nodded, beamed, tossed off his drink, held out a band. “By the Three, right!” he cried.

Lugo clasped the hard palm. The gesture was fairly new in Gallia, maybe learned from Germanic immigrants. “Splendid,” he said. “Just speak fully and frankly. I know that won’t be easy, but remember, I have my reasons. I mean to do well by you, as well as God allows.”

He refilled the emptied cup. Behind his jovial facade, tension gathered and gathered.

Rufus drank. His vessel wobbled. “What d’you want to know?” he asked.

“First, why you got into grief.”

Rufus’ pleasure faded. He scowled beyond his questioner. “Because my wife died,” he mumbled. “That’s what broke the crock.”

“Many men are widowed,” Lugo said, while memory twisted a sword inside him.

The big hand tightened around the cup till knuckles stood white. “My Livia was old. White hair, wrinkles, no teeth. We’d two kids what grew up, boy and girl. They be married, kids o’ their own. And they’ve gone gray.”

“I thought this might be,” Lugo whispered, not in Latin. “O Ashtoreth—”

Aloud, using today’s language: “The rumors that reached me suggested as much. That’s why I came after you. When were you born, Rufus?”

“How the muck should I know?” The response was surly. “Balls! Poor folk don’t keep count like you rich ‘uns. I couldn’t tell you who be consul this year, let alone then was. But my Livia was young like me when we got hitched— fourteen, fifteen, whatever. She was a strong mare, she was, popped her young out like melon seeds, though only the two o’ them got to grow up. She didn’t break down fast like some mares.”

“You may well have reached your threescore and ten, then, or gone beyond,” Lugo said most softly. “You don’t look a day over twenty-five. Were you ever sick?”

“No, ‘less you count a couple times I got hurt. Bad hurts, but they healed right up in a few days, not so much as a scar. No toothaches ever. I got three teeth knocked out in a fight once, and they grew back.” The arrogance shriveled. “People looked at me more and more slanty. When Livia died, that broke the crock.” Rufus groaned. “They’d been saying I must’ve made a deal with the Devil. She told me what she heard. But what the muck could I do? God give me a strong body, that’s all. She believed.”

“I do too, Rufus.”

“When she fell bad sick at last, not many ‘ud speak to me any more. They’d shy from me in the street, make signs, spit on their breasts. I went to a priest. He was scared of me too, I could see it. Said I ought to go to the bishop, but the bastard stalled about taking me to him. Then Livia died.”

“A release,” Lugo could not help venturing.

“Well, I’d gone to a whorehouse for a long time,” Rufus answered matter-of-factly. Fury flared. “Now they, them bitches, they told me go away and don’t come back. I got mad, raised a ruckus. People heard and gathered around outside. When I came out, the scumswine yelled at me. I decked the loudest mouthed o’ them. Next thing I knew, they were on me. I barely fought free and ran. They came after me, more and more o’ them.”

“And you’d have died under their feet,” Lugo said. “Or else presently the rumors would have reached the prefect. The tale of a man who never grew old and was dearly no saint, therefore must be in league with the diabolical. You’d have been arrested, interrogated under torture, doubtless beheaded. These are bad times. Nobody knows what to expect. Will the barbarians prevail? Will we have another civil war? Will plague or famine or a total collapse of trade destroy us? Heretics and sorcerers are objects to take fear out on.”

“I be none!”

“I didn’t say you were. I accept you’re a common man, as common as I’ve ever met, aside from— Tell me, have you known or heard of anyone else like you, whom time doesn’t appear to touch? Kinfolk, perhaps?”

Rufus shook his head.

Lugo sighed. “Neither have I.” He mustered resolve and plunged forward. “And I have waited and tried, searched and endured, since first I came to understand.”

“Uh?” The wine splashed from Rufus’ cup.

Lugo sipped out of his own, for what comfort it could give. “How old do you think I am?” he asked.

Rufus peered before he said at the bottom of his throat: “You look maybe twenty-five.”

A smile quirked on the left side of Lugo’s mouth. “Like you, I don’t know my age for certain,” he answered slowly. “But Hiram was king in Tyre when I was born there. What chronicles I have since been able to study and figure from show me that that was about twelve centuries ago.”

Rufus gaped. The freckles stood lurid on a skin gone white. His free hand made a sign.

“Don’t be afraid,” Lugo urged. “I’m in no pact with darkness. Or with Heaven, for that matter, or any power, any soul. I am your kind of flesh, whatever that means. I have simply been longer on earth. It is lonely. You have had the barest foretaste of how lonely it is.”

He rose, leaving staff and cup, to pace the cramped floor, hands behind back. “I was not born Flavius Lugo, of course,” he said. “That is only the latest name I have taken out of—I’ve lost count of how many. The earliest was— never mind. A Phoenician name. I was a merchant until the years brought me to trouble much like yours today. Then for a long time I was a sailor, a caravan guard, a mercenary soldier, a wandering bard, any number of trades in which a man may come and go little noticed. That was a hard school I went through. Often I came near dying from wounds, shipwreck, hunger, thirst, a dozen different perils. Sometimes I would have died, were it not for the strange vigor of this body. A slower danger, more frightening as I began to perceive it, was that of drowning, losing my reason, in sheer memories. For a while I did have scant use of my wits. In a way that was a mercy; it blunted the pain of losing everyone I came to care for, losing him and losing her and losing, oh, the children. ... Bit by bit I worked out the art of memory. I now have clear recall, I am like a walking library of Alexandria—no, that burned, didn’t it?” He chuckled at himself. “I do make slips. But I have the art of storing what I know until it’s wanted, then calling it forth. I have the art of controlling sorrow. I have—”

He observed Rufus’ awed regard and broke off. “Twelve hundred years?” the artisan breathed. “You seen the Savior?”

Lugo forced a smile. “Sorry, I have not. If he was born in the reign of Augustus, as they say—that would have been, m-m, between three and four hundred years ago—then I was in Britannia at the time. Rome hadn’t conquered it yet, but trade was brisk and the southern tribes were cultured in their fashion. And much less meddlesome. That’s always a highly desirable feature in a place. Damnably hard to find these days, short of running off to the wild German or Scoti or whatever. And even they—

“Another art I’ve developed is that of aging my appearance. Hair powder, dyes, such things are cumbersome, unreliable. I let everybody talk about how young I continue to look. Some people do, after all. But meanwhile gradually I begin to stoop a little, shuffle a little, cough, pretend to be hard of hearing, complain of aches and pains and the insolence of modern youth. It only works up to a point, of course. Finally I must vanish and start a new life elsewhere under a new name. I try to arrange things so it will be reasonable to suppose I wandered off and met with misfortune, perhaps because I’d grown old and absent-minded. And as a rule I’ve been able to prepare for the move. Accumulate a hoard of gold, learn about the home to be, perhaps visit it and establish my fresh identity—”

Some of the weariness of the centuries fell over him. “Details, details.” He stopped and looked into one of the blind windows. “Am I going senile? I don’t usually gabble this way. Well, you’re the first like me I’ve found, Rufus, the very first. Let’s hope you won’t be the last.”

“Did you, uh, know about others?” groped the voice at his back.

Lugo shook his head. “I told you I never did. How could I? A few times I thought I saw a trace, but it gave out or it proved false. Once I may have. I’m not sure.”

“What was that ... master? You want to tell me?”

“I may as well. It was in Syracuse, where I based myself for a good many years because of its ties with Carthage. Lovely, lively city. A woman, Althea was her name, fine to look on and bright in the way women sometimes got to be in the later days of the Greek colonies—I knew her and her husband. He was a shipping magnate and I skippered a tramp freighter. They’d been married for over three decades, he’d gone bald and pot-bellied, she’d borne him a dozen children and the oldest of them was gray, but she might have been a maiden in springtime.”

Lugo fell silent a while before finishing, flat-voiced: “The Romans captured the city. Sacked it: I was absent. Always make an excuse to clear out when you see that kind of thing coming. When I returned, I inquired. She could have been taken for a slave. I could have tried to find her and buy her free. But no, when I’d tracked down somebody who knew, insignificant enough to’ve been left unhurt, I learned she was dead. Raped and stabbed, I heard. Don’t know if that’s true or not. Stories grow in the telling. No matter. It was long ago.”

“Too bad. You should’a got in there first.” Lugo tautened. “Uh, sorry, master,” Rufus said. “You don’t, uh, don’t seem to hate Rome.”

“Why should I? It’s eternally the same tale, war, tyranny, massacre, slavery. I’ve been party to it myself. Now Rome is on the receiving end.”

“What?” Rufus sounded aghast. “Can’t be! Rome is forever!”

“As you like.” Lugo turned back to him. “Apparently I have, at last, found a fellow immortal. At least, here is someone I can safeguard, watch, make certain of. Two or three decades should suffice. Though already I have no real doubt.”

He drew breath. “Do you see what this means? No, you scarcely can. You’ve had no time to think about it.” He surveyed heavy visage, low forehead, dismay yielding to a loose-lipped glee. I don’t expect you ever will, he thought. You are a moderately competent woodworker, nothing else. And I’m lucky to have found this much. Unless Althea—but she slipped through my fingers, away into death.

“It means I am not unique,” Lugo said. “If there are two of us, there must be more. Very few, very seldom born. It isn’t in the bloodlines, like height or coloring or those deformities I’ve seen run in families. Whatever the cause is, it happens by accident. Or by God’s will, if you prefer, though I’d think that makes God out to be sheerly capricious. And surely senseless mischance takes off many immortals young, as it takes off ordinary men and women and children. Sickness we may escape, but not the sword or the runaway horse or the flood or the fire or the famine or whatever. Possibly more die at the hands of neighbors who think this must be a demon, magician, monster.”

Rufus cowered. “My head’s all a-spin,” he whimpered.

“Well, you’ve had a bad time. Immortals need rest too. Sleep if you wish.”

Rufus’ expression was glazing over. “Why couldn’t we say we was, uh, saints? Angels?”

“How far would you have gotten?” Lugo gibed. “Conceivably a man born into royalty— But I don’t suppose that’s ever happened, as rare as our kind must be. No, if we survive, we learn early on to keep our heads low.”

“Then how shall we find each other?”

Rufus hiccoughed and farted.

<p>3</p>

“Come our with me into the peristyle,” said Lugo.

“Oh, gladly,” Cordelia sang. Almost, she danced at his side.

It was an evening mild and clear. The moon stood over the eastern roof, close to full, in a sky still violet-blue. Westward, heaven darkened and stars trembled forth. City sounds had mostly died out; crickets chirred. Moonlight dappled the flowerbeds, shivered on the water of a pool, brought Cordelia’s young face and breast out of shadow into argency.

She and he stood hand in hand a few minutes. “You were so busy today,” she said at length. “When you came back early, I hoped— Of course, you had your work to do.”

“I did that, unfortunately,” he replied. “But these next hours belong to us.”

She leaned against him. Her hair carried a remnant fragrance of sunlight. “Christians should give thanks for what they get.” She giggled. “How easy to be a Christian, tonight.”

“How have the children done today?” he asked—his son Julius, no longer stumping about but leaping adventurously everywhere, starting to talk; little, little Dora asleep in her crib, starfish hands curled tight.

“Why, very well,” said Cordelia, a bit surprised.

“I see them too seldom.”

“And you care. Not many fathers do. Not that much.” She squeezed his hand. “I want to give you lots of children.” Impishly: “We can begin at once.”

“I have ... tried to be kind.”

She heard how the words dragged, let go of him, widened her eyes in alarm. “What’s wrong, beloved?”

He made himself take hold of her shoulders, look into her face—the moonlight made her searingly beautiful—and answer: “Between us, nothing at all.” Only the fact that you will grow old and die. And that has happened so often, so often. I cannot count the deaths. There is no measure for tile pain, but I think it has not grown any less; I think I have merely learned to live with it, as a mortal can learn to live an unbeatable wound. I thought we could have, oh, thirty, perhaps forty years together before I must leave. That would have been wonderful.

“But I have an unexpected journey to make,” he said.

“Something that man—Marcus—something he’s told you?”

Lugo nodded.

Cordelia grimaced. “I don’t like him. Forgive me, but I don’t. He’s coarse and stupid.”

“He is that,” Lugo agreed. It had seemed wise to him they let Rufus share their supper. Confinement in the room with nothing but his dreads and animal hopes company had been breaking what self-control was left him, and he needed it for the time ahead. “Nevertheless, I got important information from him.”

“Can you tell me what it is?” He heard how hard she tried not to make it a plea.

“I’m sorry, no. Nor can I say where I’m bound or how long I’ll be gone.”

She caught both his hands. Her fingers had turned cold. “The barbarians. Pirates. Bacaudae.”

“Travel has its dangers,” he admitted. “I’ve spent a lot of this day making arrangements for you. Just in case, darling, just in case.” He kissed her. The lips that shivered beneath his bore a thin taste of salt. “You should know this is a matter that may or may not concern Aurelian, but if it does, it must be investigated at once, and he’s in Italy. I’ve told his amanuensis Corbilo as much, and you can collect my pay for your needs from him. I’ve also left a substantial sum in trust for you at the church. The priest Antoninus took it and gave me a receipt that I’ll give you. And you are heir to this property. You’ll be all right, you and the children.” If Rome hangs together.

She threw herself against him and dung. He stroked her hair, her back, ruffling the gown, making the caress an embrace. “There, there,” he crooned, “this is just in case. Don’t be afraid. I’m not running any great risk.” He believed that was true. “I’ll be back.” That was not true, and hurt like fire to utter. Well, no doubt she’d marry again, after he was given up for dead. Last heard of on the Ordovician coast, about when a Scotic raid occurred ...

She stood back, hugged herself, swallowed, smiled unsteadily. “Of course you w-w-will,” she avowed. “I’ll p-pray for you the whole while. And we have this night.”

Until shortly after dawn, when Nereid cast off. He’d obtained passage for himself and Rufus. Most of Britannia continued secure, but the barbarians ravaged enough of it that nobody would question a couple of men who appeared -in, say, Aquae Sulis or Augusta Londinium with a story of having fled. Given money in hand, they could start afresh; and Lugo had buried a fair supply of honest corns in the island, several generations back.

“If only you could remain,” escaped from Cordelia.

“If only I could.” But Rufus was marked in Burdigala.

Rufus, the male, the oaf, the immortal, who would surely perish miserably without an intelligent man in charge of him. And he must not. However awkward, his was the only help Lugo had toward the ultimate coming together of their kind.

Cordelia heard how the words wrenched themselves from her husband’s mouth. “I will not whine,” she declared. “We do have this night. And many, many more on the far side of your journey. I’ll wait for you, I’ll always wait.”

No, Lugo thought, you won’t. That wouldn’t make sense, once you’ve decided you’re a widow, still young but with time at your heels.

Nor could you ever have waited for me always.

I seek for her who shall never have to leave me.


1

<p>1</p>

A ship was loading at the Claudian dock. She was big for an ocean-goer, two-masted, her round black belly taking perhaps five hundred tons. The gilt sternpost, curved high over the steering oar fixtures in the form of a swan’s neck and head, also bespoke wealth. Lugo went over to inquire about her. Bound more or less this way, he had turned aside with the idea of seeing what went on at the waterfront. He made it his business to keep fully aware of the world around him.

The stevedores were slaves. Though the morning was cool, their bodies gleamed and reeked with sweat as they carried amphoras across the dock and up the gangplank, two men to each great jug. A breeze off the river mingled whiffs of fresh pitch from the ship with their odors. The foreman stood by, and him Lugo could approach.

“The Nereid,” he replied, “with wine, glassware, silks, and I don’t know what else, for Britannia. Her skipper wants to catch tomorrow’s early tide. Hoy, you!” His whip licked across a bare back. It was single-stranded and unloaded, but left a mark between shoulder blade and loincloth. “Move along, there!” The slave gave him a hopeless glower and trudged a little faster to his next burden at the warehouse. “Got to freshen ‘em pretty often,” the foreman explained. “They get out of shape and lazy, sitting around idle. Not enough to do any more.” He sighed. “Free men, you could lay off in these wretched times, and call back when you needed them. But if everybody’s in his station for life—”

“It’s a wonder this vessel is going,” Lugo said. “Won’t she draw pirates like flies to a carcass? I hear the Saxons and Scoti are turning the shores of Armorica into a blackened desert.”

“The House of the Caelii always was venturesome, and I guess there’s a big profit to be made when so few dare sail,” the foreman answered.

Lugo nodded, stroked his chin, and murmured, “M-m, sea rovers usually do seek their plunder on land. No doubt Nereid will carry guards as well as her crew being armed. If several barbarian craft came in sight, Scoti probably couldn’t climb that tall freeboard out of their currachs, and given any kind of wind, she can show her heels to Saxon galleys.”

“You talk like a mariner yourself. But you don’t look like one.” The foreman’s glance sharpened. Suspicion was the order of the day. He saw a medium-sized, wiry man of youthful appearance; face narrow and high in the cheekbones, curved nose, slightly oblique brown eyes; black hair and a neatly trimmed beard such as was coming into fashion; clean white tunic, blue raincloak with a cowl shoved back; stout sandals; staff in hand, though he walked lithely.

Lugo shrugged. “I’ve been around. And I enjoy talking to people. You, for instance.” He smiled. “Thanks for satisfying my curiosity, and a good day to you.”

“Go with God,” said the foreman, disarmed, and turned his attention back to the longshoremen.

Lugo sauntered on. When he came opposite the next gate, he stopped to admire the view eastward. His lashes snared sunlight and made bits of rainbow.

Before him flowed the Garumna, on its way to its confluence with the Duranius, their shared estuary, and the sea. Some two thousand shimmering feet across, the water bore several rowboats, a fishing smack bound upstream on oars with its catch, a gaudy spitsail above a slim yacht. Land on the far side reached low, intensely green; he saw the tawny walls and rosy tiles of two manor houses amidst their vineyards, while smoke blew in tatters from humbler roofs of thatch. Birds winged everywhere, robin, sparrow, crane, duck, a hawk on high, the startling blue of a kingfisher. He heard their calls as an overtone that skipped through the lapping and rustling of the river. It was hard to imagine that heathen Germani raged at the gates of Lugdunum, that the chief city of central Gallia might even now have fallen to diem, less than three hundred miles from here.

Or else it was all too easy to imagine. Lugo’s mouth tightened. Come along, he told himself. He was more prone to reverie than other men, with less excuse nowadays. This vicinity had been spared so far, but the handwriting on the wall grew plainer for him to read every year, as certain Jews he had known would have phrased it. He turned and re-entered the city.

The gate was minor, a sally port in the bulwarks whose towers and battlements stood foursquare around Burdigala. Beside his spear, a sentry leaned half asleep against the sun-warmed stones. He was an auxiliary, a German himself. The legions were in Italy or out toward the frontiers, and mere skeletons of what they had once been. Meanwhile barbarians like this wrung leave from the Emperors to settle in Roman lands. In return, they were supposed to obey the laws and furnish troops; but in Lugdunensis, for example, they had revolted.

Lugo passed through, across the open pomoerium, into a street that he recognized as Vindomarian Way. It twisted among buildings whose flat sides crowded out all but a strip of sky, the lumpiness of its cobblestones slickened by stinking offal, an obscure lane quite likely going back to ages .when only the Bituriges squatted here. However, Lugo had m the course of time taken care to learn the entire city, old as well as new quarters.

Not many people jostled him, and they for the most part Shabbily clad. Housewives chattered together while they reamed laundry to the river, pails of water from the nearest aqueduct outlet, baskets of vegetables gotten at a local mar-. A porter came by under a load well-nigh as heavy what was in the donkey cart he met; he and the driver, trying to get past each other. An apprentice fetching Wool for his master had stopped to jape with a girl. Two Countrymen in ancient-style coats and breeches, probably cattle drovers, made remarks so accented and full of Gallic words that Lugo could hardly understand what he overheard. A drunken man—a laborer to judge by his hands, out of work to judge by his condition—lurched along in search of a frolic or a fight; unemployment had become rife as die upheavals of the past decade cowed an already decaying commerce. A meretrix in pathetic, bedraggled finery, seeking customers even this early, brushed against Lugo. Except for laying a hand over the purse at his waist he ignored her. A hunchbacked beggar whined for alms in the name of Christ and then, when likewise ignored, tried Jupiter, Mithras, Isis, the Great Mother, and Celtic Epona; finally he screamed maledictions at Lugo’s back. Shockheaded children in grimy smocks ran their little errands or played their little games. For them he felt a tug of compassion.

His Levantine features marked him out among them all. Burdigala was cosmopolitan; Italy, Greece, Africa, Asia had poured blood into it. Yet most dwellers remained what then- forebears must always have been, strongly built, roundheaded, dark of hair but fair of skin. They spoke Latin with a nasal intonation he had never quite mastered.

A potter’s shop, its front open on the wares and whirr of roe wheel, showed him where he must turn onto broader Teutatis Street—which, lately, the bishop was trying to make its residents call after St. Johannes. It was his quickest route through this maze toward Mother Thornbesom’s Lane, where lived the one he sought. Rufus might not be at home, but was certainly not at work. The shipyard had had no orders for well over a year, and its men were now dependent on the state for their bread; circuses amounted to an occasional bear-baiting or the like. If Rufus was out, Lugo was prepared to stroll around inconspicuously till he came back. Lugo had learned patience.

He had gone a hundred yards farther when the new noise reached him. Others heard it too, halted, stiffened, listened with heads cocked and eyes slitted. The majority began retreating. Shopkeepers and apprentices made ready to close doors and shutters. A few men licked their chops and drifted in the direction of the sound. Turmoil called their kind to itself. The racket loudened, muffled by houses and contorted alleys but unmistakable. Lugo knew it of old, the deep, racking growl, the yelps and hoots. A crowd was hounding somebody.

He realized with a chill who the quarry must be. For a moment he paused. Was it worth the risk? Cordelia, the children, he and his family might have thirty or forty years ahead of them.

Resolution came. He should at least go see whether the situation was hopeless or not. He pulled the hood of his paenula over his head. Sewn to the edge was a veil, which he drew down. He saw reasonably well through the gauze, but it hid his face. Lugo had learned preparedness.

A military patrol might wonder at the sight and stop him for questioning. However, were a patrol in the neighborhood, that pack would not be after Rufus. Instead— Lugo’s mouth twisted briefly upward—Rufus might well be under arrest.

Lugo moved to intercept the oncoming tumult, as closely as he could judge. He went a trifle more quickly than the trouble seekers, not quickly enough to draw any special heed. The hood overshadowed the veil and blinkered sight of it; perhaps nobody noticed. Within himself he spoke ancient incantations against danger. Give fear no hold upon you, keep sinews loose and senses open, ready at every instant to flow with the rush of action. Calm, alert, supple; calm, alert, supple—

He came out on Hercules Place just as the hunted man did. A corroded bronze statue of die hero gave the small square its name. Several streets radiated thence. He who burst forth was stocky, his coarse features freckled, his thin hair and unkempt beard an unusual orange-red. The tunic that flapped around stout limbs was drenched and a-reek with sweat. Indeed this must be Rufus, Lugo saw, and “Rufus” must be a nickname.

The fugitive was built for strength, not speed. His pursuers swarmed close behind. They numbered about fifty, proletarians like him hi drab, oft-mended garments. Quite a few were women, locks gone Medusa wild around maenad faces. Most bore what weapons they could snatch, knife, hammer, stick, loose cobblestone. Through their baying tore words: “Sorcerer! ... Heathen! .... Satan—kill—“ A flung rock struck Rufus between the shoulders. He staggered and pounded on. His mouth stretched wide, his chest heaved, his eyes stared as if blinded.

Lugo’s gaze flickered. Sometimes he could not wait and see how things went, he must make an instant decision. He gauged the layout, distances, speeds, nature of the throng. Terror thrilled through the hatred they howled. The chance of rescue looked worth taking. If he failed, he might escape with injuries less than fatal; and those would soon heal.

“To me, Rufus!” he shouted. To the pack: “Halt! Hold off, you lawless dogs!”

The man in the lead snarled at him. Lugo brought hands near the middle of his staff. It was oak. He had drilled holes in the ends and filled them with lead. It whirred and smacked. The man screamed. He reeled aside. A broken rib, likely. Lugo’s weapon punched the next under the breastbone. Air whoofed from lungs. Lugo caught a third man across a kneecap. He shrieked his pain and flailed against two at his back. A woman swung a mop. Lugo fended it off and rapped her knuckles. Maybe he cracked a bone or two.

The crowd recoiled on itself, milled, moaned, gibbered. From behind his whirling, half invisible staff, Lugo grinned at them and at the rowdies who had appeared. “Go home,” he called. “Dare you take Caesar’s law in your own hands? Be off!”

Somebody threw a stone. It missed. Lugo laid a blow on the nearest scalp. He controlled its force. Matters were amply bad without producing corpses; those would provoke immediate official action. Nevertheless the wound bled spectacularly, sudden red brilliance over skin and pavement, a shock to behold.

Rufus’ gasps rattled. “Come along,” Lugo muttered. “Slow and steady. If we run, they’ll be after us again.” He backed off, still twirling the staff, still grinning his most wolfish. At the comer of vision, he saw Rufus sidle on his right. Good. The fellow had kept that much wit.

The hunters mumbled and gaped. The hurt among them ululated. Lugo entered the narrow street he had chosen. It bent around a tenement, and he had no more sight of Hercules. “Now we move,” he clipped, and turned around. “No, you fool.” He caught Rufus’ sleeve. “Don’t run. Walk.”

Such people as were present looked warily at them but didn’t interfere. Lugo ducked into the first alley he knew connected with a different street. When they were alone at the noisome middle of it, he said, “Stop.” He put his staff beneath an arm and reached for the fibula that held his cloak. “We’ll drape this over you.” He tucked the veil back inside the cowl before he covered his companion’s distinctive hair. “Very well. We are two peaceful men going about our business. Can you remember that?”

The artisan blinked from the hood. Sweat glistened in what light there was. “Who, who be you?” His voice quavered deep. “What you want?”

“I would like to save your life,” Lugo said coldly, “but I don’t propose to risk mine any further. Do as I say and we may yet make it to shelter.” When the other began in a dazed fashion to seem doubtful, Lugo added, “Go to the authorities if you wish. Go at once, before your dear neighbors pluck up courage and come in search. Tell the prefect you’re accused of sorcery. He’ll find out anyway. While you’re being interrogated under torture, you might think how you can prove your innocence. Sorcery is a capital offense, you know.”

“But you—”

“I am no more guilty of it than you are. I have a notion we can help each other. If you disagree, farewell. If not, come with me, and keep your mouth shut.”

Breath shuddered into the burly frame. Rufus drew the cloak close about him and shambled along.

His gait grew easier as they proceeded, for nothing untoward happened. They simply mingled with traffic. “You may think the world is ending,” Lugo remarked low, “but it was a purely local fuss. Nobody elsewhere has heard of it, or if anyone has, he doesn’t care. I’ve seen people go on with their everyday lives while the enemy was breaking down the gates.”

Rufus glanced at him, gulped, but preserved silence.


2

<p>2</p>

Lugo’s home was in the northwest quadrant, on the Street of the Sandalmakers, a quiet area. The house was unostentatious, rather old, stucco peeling off the concrete here and there. Lugo knocked. His majordomo opened the door; he kept only a few slaves, carefully chosen and winnowed over the years. “This man and I have confidential matters to discuss, Perseus,” he said. “He may be staying with us a while. I do not wish him disturbed in any way.”

The Cretan nodded and smiled his bland smile, “Understood, master,” he replied. “I will inform the rest.”

“We can trust them,” Lugo said aside to Rufus. “They know they have soft berths.” To Perseus: “As you can see— and smell—my friend has had a strenuous time. We’ll lodge him in the Low Room. Bring refreshments immediately; water as soon as you can heat a decent amount, with washcloth and towel; clean garb. Is the bed made up?”

“It always is, master.” The slave sounded a bit hurt. He considered. “As for raiment, yours will not fit. I’ll borrow from Durig. Shall I then purchase some?”

“Hold off on that,” Lugo decided. He might need all the cash he could scrape together in a hurry. Though not the debased small stuff. That was too bulky; one gold solidus equalled about fourteen thousand nummi. “Dung’s our handyman,” he explained to Rufus. “Otherwise we boast a gifted cook and a couple of maids. A modest household.” Homely details might soothe. He wanted Rufus fit to answer questions as soon as might be.

From the atrium they passed into a pleasant room, equally unpretentious, lighted by sunshine that leaded clerestory windows turned greenish. A mosaic at the center of the floor tiles depicted a panther surrounded by peacocks. Wooden panels set into the walls bore motifs more current, the Fish and Chi Rho among flowers, a large-eyed Good Shepherd. Since the reign of Constantine the Great it had been increasingly expedient to profess Christianity, which hereabouts had better be of the Catholic sort. Lugo remained a catechumen; baptism would have laid inconvenient obligations on him. Most believers put it off till late in life.

His wife had heard and come to meet him. “Welcome, dear,” she said happily. “You’re back fast.” Her gaze fell on Rufus and grew troubled.

“This man and I have urgent business,” Lugo told her. “It is highly confidential. Do you understand?”

She swallowed but nodded. “Hail and welcome,” she greeted in a subdued voice.

Brave girl, Lugo thought. It was hard to look away from her. Cordelia was nineteen, short but deliciously rounded, her features delicate and tips always slightly parted below a lustrous mass of brown hair. They had been married four years and she bad borne him two children thus far, both still alive. The marriage brought him certain useful connections, her father being a curial, though no dowry worth mentioning, the curial class being crushed between taxes and civic duties. More important to the couple, they had been drawn to each other, and wedlock became an ever higher delight.

“Marcus, meet Cordelia, my wife,” Lugo said. “Marcus” was a safely frequent name. Rufus bobbed his head and grunted. To her: “We must get busy at once. Perseus will see to the necessities. I’ll join you when I can.”

She stared after them as he guided his companion off. Did he hear her sigh? Abrupt fear stabbed. He had gone forth with hope aflutter in him, a hope so wild that he must keep denying it, scolding himself for it. Now he saw what the reality might lead to.

No, he would not think about that. Not immediately. One step, two steps, left foot, right foot, that was how to march through time.

The Low Room was downstairs, a part of the cellar that Lugo had had bricked off after he acquired this house. Such hideaways were common enough to draw scant attention. Often they were for prayer or private austerities. In Lugo’s tine of work, it was clear that he could have use for a place secure from eavesdroppers. The cell was about ten feet square and six high. Three tiny windows just under the ceiling gave on the peristyle garden at ground level. The glass in them was so thick and wavy as to block vision, but the tight that seeped through met whitewashed walls, making the gloom not too dense at this moment. Tallow candles lay on a shelf beside flint, steel, and tinder. Furnishings were a angle bed, a stool, and a chamber pot on the dirt floor.

“Sit down,” Lugo invited. “Rest. You’re safe, my friend, safe.”

Rufus hunched on the stool. He threw back the cowl but clutched the paenula around his tunic; the place was chilly. His red head lifted with a forlorn defiance. “Who the muck be you, anyhow?” he growled.

His host lounged back against the wall and smiled. “Flavius Lugo,” he said. “And you, I believe, are a shipyard carpenter, unemployed, generally called Rufus. What’s your real name?”

An obscenity was followed by: “What’s it matter to you?”

Lugo shrugged. “Little or nothing, I suppose. You could be more gracious toward me. That rabble would have had the life out of you.”

“And what’s that to you?” The retort was harsh. “Why’d you step in? Look here, I be no sorcerer. I want naught to do with magic or heathendom, me, a good Christian, a free Roman citizen.”

Lugo lifted a brow. “Have you absolutely never made an offering elsewhere than in church?” he murmured.

“Well, uh, well—Epona, when my wife was dying—“ Rufus half-rose. He bristled. “Dung o’ Cemunnos! Be you a sorcerer?”

Lugo raised a palm. His left hand moved the staff, slightly but meaningfully. “I am not. Nor can I read your mind. However, old ways die hard, even in the cities, and the countryside is mostly pagan and from your looks and speech I’d guess your family were Cadurci a generation or two ago, back in the hills above the Duranius Valley.”

Rufus lowered himself. For a minute he breathed hard. Then, piece by piece, he began to relax. A smile of sorts responded to Lugo’s. “My parents come o’ that tribe,” he rumbled. “My right name, uh, Cotuadun. Nobody calls me aught but Rufus any more. You be a sharp ‘un.”

“I make my living at it.”

“No Gaul you. Anybody might be a Flavius, but what’s ‘Lugo’? Where you from?”

“I’ve been settled hi Burdigala a fair number of years.” A knock on the plank door was handily timed. “Ah, here comes the excellent Perseus with those refreshments I ordered. I daresay you’ve slightly more need of them than I do.”

The majordomo brought a tray of wine and water flagons, cups, bread, cheese, olives in a bowl. He put it on the ground and, at Lugo’s wave, departed, closing the door behind him. Lugo sat down on the bed, reached, poured, offered Rufus a drink not much diluted. His own he watered well.

“Your health,” he proposed. “You pretty near lost it today.”

Rufus took a long swallow. “Ahhh! Bugger me if that don’t go good.” He squinted through the dusk at his rescuer. “Why’d you do it? What be I to you?”

“Well, if nothing else, those proles had no right to kill you. That’s the job of the state, after you’ve duly been found guilty—which I am sure you are not. It behooved me to enforce the law,”

“You knew me.”

Lugo sipped. The wine was Falernian, sweet on his tongue. “I knew of you,” he said. “Rumors had reached me. That’s natural. I keep track of what’s going on. I have my agents. Nothing to frighten you, no secret informers. But street urchins, for example, who earn a coin by bringing me word of anything interesting. I determined to seek you out and learn more. It’s lucky for you that that chanced to be exactly when and where I could snatch you from your fellow sons of toil.”

The question soughed through him: How many chances had he missed, by what slender margins, throughout all the years? He did not share the widespread present-day faith in astrology. It seemed likeliest to him that sheer accident ruled the world. Perhaps today the dice had been due to roll in his favor.

//the game was real, //anyone like him existed, had ever existed, anywhere under the sky.

Rufus’ head thrust forward from the heavy shoulders. “Why did you?” he grated. “What the dung be you after?”

He needed calming down. Lugo check-reined the eagerness within himself, that was half fear. “Drink your wine,” he said. “Listen, and I’ll explain.

“This house may have led you to think I’m a curial, or a mildly prosperous shopkeeper, or something of that kind. I’m not.” Had not been for a long while. Diocletian’s decree had supposedly frozen everybody into the status to which they were born, including the middle classes. But rather than be crushed, grain by grain, between the stones of taxation, regulation, worthless currency, moribund trade, more and more were fleeing. They slipped off, changed their names, became serfs or outright slaves, illegal itinerant la- borers and mountebanks; some joined the Bacaudae whose bandit gangs terrorized the rural outback, some actually sought to the barbarians. Lugo had made better arrangements for himself, well in advance of need. He was accustomed to looking ahead.

“Fm currently in the pay of one Aurelian, a senator in this city,” he went on.

Hostility sparked. “I heard about him.”

Lugo shrugged again. “So he bribed his way into that rank, and even among his colleagues is monumentally corrupt. What of it? He’s an able man and understands that it’s wise to be loyal to those who serve him. Senators aren’t allowed to engage in commerce, you may know, but he has varied interests. That calls for intermediaries who are not mere figureheads. I come and go for him, to and fro, sniffing out dangers and possibilities, bearing messages, executing tasks that require discretion, giving advice when appropriate. There are worse stations in life. In fact, there are less honorable ones.”

“What’s Aurelian want with me?” Rufus asked uneasily.

“Nothing. He’s never heard of you. Fate willing, he never shall. I sought you out on my own account. We may be of very great value to each other.” Lugo sharpened his tone. “I make no threats. If we cannot work together but you have done your best to cooperate with me, I can at least get you smuggled out of Burdigala to someplace where you can start over. Remember, you owe me your life. If I abandon you, you’re a dead man.”

Sullenness and the gesture of the fig: “They’ll know you hid me here.”

“Why, I’ll tell them myself,” Lugo declared coolly. “As a solid citizen, I did not want you unlawfully slaughtered, but I did feel it incumbent on me to interview you in private, draw you out—Hold!” He had set his cup on the ground as he talked, expecting Rufus might lunge. Now he gripped the staff in both hands. “Stay right on that stool, boy. You’re sturdy, but you’ve seen what I can do with this.”

Rufus crouched back.

Lugo laughed. “That’s better. Don’t be so damned edgy. I really don’t want to cause you any harm. Let me repeat, if you’ll be honest with me and do as I say, the worst that will happen to you is that you leave Burdigala in disguise. Aurelian owns a huge latifundium; it can doubtless use an extra workman, if I put in a good word, and the senator will cover up any little irregularities for me. At best—well, I don’t yet know, and therefore won’t make any promises, but it could be glorious beyond your highest-flying childhood dreams, Rufus.”

His words and the lulling tone worked. Also, the wine had begun to. Rufus sat quiet a moment, nodded, beamed, tossed off his drink, held out a band. “By the Three, right!” he cried.

Lugo clasped the hard palm. The gesture was fairly new in Gallia, maybe learned from Germanic immigrants. “Splendid,” he said. “Just speak fully and frankly. I know that won’t be easy, but remember, I have my reasons. I mean to do well by you, as well as God allows.”

He refilled the emptied cup. Behind his jovial facade, tension gathered and gathered.

Rufus drank. His vessel wobbled. “What d’you want to know?” he asked.

“First, why you got into grief.”

Rufus’ pleasure faded. He scowled beyond his questioner. “Because my wife died,” he mumbled. “That’s what broke the crock.”

“Many men are widowed,” Lugo said, while memory twisted a sword inside him.

The big hand tightened around the cup till knuckles stood white. “My Livia was old. White hair, wrinkles, no teeth. We’d two kids what grew up, boy and girl. They be married, kids o’ their own. And they’ve gone gray.”

“I thought this might be,” Lugo whispered, not in Latin. “O Ashtoreth—”

Aloud, using today’s language: “The rumors that reached me suggested as much. That’s why I came after you. When were you born, Rufus?”

“How the muck should I know?” The response was surly. “Balls! Poor folk don’t keep count like you rich ‘uns. I couldn’t tell you who be consul this year, let alone then was. But my Livia was young like me when we got hitched— fourteen, fifteen, whatever. She was a strong mare, she was, popped her young out like melon seeds, though only the two o’ them got to grow up. She didn’t break down fast like some mares.”

“You may well have reached your threescore and ten, then, or gone beyond,” Lugo said most softly. “You don’t look a day over twenty-five. Were you ever sick?”

“No, ‘less you count a couple times I got hurt. Bad hurts, but they healed right up in a few days, not so much as a scar. No toothaches ever. I got three teeth knocked out in a fight once, and they grew back.” The arrogance shriveled. “People looked at me more and more slanty. When Livia died, that broke the crock.” Rufus groaned. “They’d been saying I must’ve made a deal with the Devil. She told me what she heard. But what the muck could I do? God give me a strong body, that’s all. She believed.”

“I do too, Rufus.”

“When she fell bad sick at last, not many ‘ud speak to me any more. They’d shy from me in the street, make signs, spit on their breasts. I went to a priest. He was scared of me too, I could see it. Said I ought to go to the bishop, but the bastard stalled about taking me to him. Then Livia died.”

“A release,” Lugo could not help venturing.

“Well, I’d gone to a whorehouse for a long time,” Rufus answered matter-of-factly. Fury flared. “Now they, them bitches, they told me go away and don’t come back. I got mad, raised a ruckus. People heard and gathered around outside. When I came out, the scumswine yelled at me. I decked the loudest mouthed o’ them. Next thing I knew, they were on me. I barely fought free and ran. They came after me, more and more o’ them.”

“And you’d have died under their feet,” Lugo said. “Or else presently the rumors would have reached the prefect. The tale of a man who never grew old and was dearly no saint, therefore must be in league with the diabolical. You’d have been arrested, interrogated under torture, doubtless beheaded. These are bad times. Nobody knows what to expect. Will the barbarians prevail? Will we have another civil war? Will plague or famine or a total collapse of trade destroy us? Heretics and sorcerers are objects to take fear out on.”

“I be none!”

“I didn’t say you were. I accept you’re a common man, as common as I’ve ever met, aside from— Tell me, have you known or heard of anyone else like you, whom time doesn’t appear to touch? Kinfolk, perhaps?”

Rufus shook his head.

Lugo sighed. “Neither have I.” He mustered resolve and plunged forward. “And I have waited and tried, searched and endured, since first I came to understand.”

“Uh?” The wine splashed from Rufus’ cup.

Lugo sipped out of his own, for what comfort it could give. “How old do you think I am?” he asked.

Rufus peered before he said at the bottom of his throat: “You look maybe twenty-five.”

A smile quirked on the left side of Lugo’s mouth. “Like you, I don’t know my age for certain,” he answered slowly. “But Hiram was king in Tyre when I was born there. What chronicles I have since been able to study and figure from show me that that was about twelve centuries ago.”

Rufus gaped. The freckles stood lurid on a skin gone white. His free hand made a sign.

“Don’t be afraid,” Lugo urged. “I’m in no pact with darkness. Or with Heaven, for that matter, or any power, any soul. I am your kind of flesh, whatever that means. I have simply been longer on earth. It is lonely. You have had the barest foretaste of how lonely it is.”

He rose, leaving staff and cup, to pace the cramped floor, hands behind back. “I was not born Flavius Lugo, of course,” he said. “That is only the latest name I have taken out of—I’ve lost count of how many. The earliest was— never mind. A Phoenician name. I was a merchant until the years brought me to trouble much like yours today. Then for a long time I was a sailor, a caravan guard, a mercenary soldier, a wandering bard, any number of trades in which a man may come and go little noticed. That was a hard school I went through. Often I came near dying from wounds, shipwreck, hunger, thirst, a dozen different perils. Sometimes I would have died, were it not for the strange vigor of this body. A slower danger, more frightening as I began to perceive it, was that of drowning, losing my reason, in sheer memories. For a while I did have scant use of my wits. In a way that was a mercy; it blunted the pain of losing everyone I came to care for, losing him and losing her and losing, oh, the children. ... Bit by bit I worked out the art of memory. I now have clear recall, I am like a walking library of Alexandria—no, that burned, didn’t it?” He chuckled at himself. “I do make slips. But I have the art of storing what I know until it’s wanted, then calling it forth. I have the art of controlling sorrow. I have—”

He observed Rufus’ awed regard and broke off. “Twelve hundred years?” the artisan breathed. “You seen the Savior?”

Lugo forced a smile. “Sorry, I have not. If he was born in the reign of Augustus, as they say—that would have been, m-m, between three and four hundred years ago—then I was in Britannia at the time. Rome hadn’t conquered it yet, but trade was brisk and the southern tribes were cultured in their fashion. And much less meddlesome. That’s always a highly desirable feature in a place. Damnably hard to find these days, short of running off to the wild German or Scoti or whatever. And even they—

“Another art I’ve developed is that of aging my appearance. Hair powder, dyes, such things are cumbersome, unreliable. I let everybody talk about how young I continue to look. Some people do, after all. But meanwhile gradually I begin to stoop a little, shuffle a little, cough, pretend to be hard of hearing, complain of aches and pains and the insolence of modern youth. It only works up to a point, of course. Finally I must vanish and start a new life elsewhere under a new name. I try to arrange things so it will be reasonable to suppose I wandered off and met with misfortune, perhaps because I’d grown old and absent-minded. And as a rule I’ve been able to prepare for the move. Accumulate a hoard of gold, learn about the home to be, perhaps visit it and establish my fresh identity—”

Some of the weariness of the centuries fell over him. “Details, details.” He stopped and looked into one of the blind windows. “Am I going senile? I don’t usually gabble this way. Well, you’re the first like me I’ve found, Rufus, the very first. Let’s hope you won’t be the last.”

“Did you, uh, know about others?” groped the voice at his back.

Lugo shook his head. “I told you I never did. How could I? A few times I thought I saw a trace, but it gave out or it proved false. Once I may have. I’m not sure.”

“What was that ... master? You want to tell me?”

“I may as well. It was in Syracuse, where I based myself for a good many years because of its ties with Carthage. Lovely, lively city. A woman, Althea was her name, fine to look on and bright in the way women sometimes got to be in the later days of the Greek colonies—I knew her and her husband. He was a shipping magnate and I skippered a tramp freighter. They’d been married for over three decades, he’d gone bald and pot-bellied, she’d borne him a dozen children and the oldest of them was gray, but she might have been a maiden in springtime.”

Lugo fell silent a while before finishing, flat-voiced: “The Romans captured the city. Sacked it: I was absent. Always make an excuse to clear out when you see that kind of thing coming. When I returned, I inquired. She could have been taken for a slave. I could have tried to find her and buy her free. But no, when I’d tracked down somebody who knew, insignificant enough to’ve been left unhurt, I learned she was dead. Raped and stabbed, I heard. Don’t know if that’s true or not. Stories grow in the telling. No matter. It was long ago.”

“Too bad. You should’a got in there first.” Lugo tautened. “Uh, sorry, master,” Rufus said. “You don’t, uh, don’t seem to hate Rome.”

“Why should I? It’s eternally the same tale, war, tyranny, massacre, slavery. I’ve been party to it myself. Now Rome is on the receiving end.”

“What?” Rufus sounded aghast. “Can’t be! Rome is forever!”

“As you like.” Lugo turned back to him. “Apparently I have, at last, found a fellow immortal. At least, here is someone I can safeguard, watch, make certain of. Two or three decades should suffice. Though already I have no real doubt.”

He drew breath. “Do you see what this means? No, you scarcely can. You’ve had no time to think about it.” He surveyed heavy visage, low forehead, dismay yielding to a loose-lipped glee. I don’t expect you ever will, he thought. You are a moderately competent woodworker, nothing else. And I’m lucky to have found this much. Unless Althea—but she slipped through my fingers, away into death.

“It means I am not unique,” Lugo said. “If there are two of us, there must be more. Very few, very seldom born. It isn’t in the bloodlines, like height or coloring or those deformities I’ve seen run in families. Whatever the cause is, it happens by accident. Or by God’s will, if you prefer, though I’d think that makes God out to be sheerly capricious. And surely senseless mischance takes off many immortals young, as it takes off ordinary men and women and children. Sickness we may escape, but not the sword or the runaway horse or the flood or the fire or the famine or whatever. Possibly more die at the hands of neighbors who think this must be a demon, magician, monster.”

Rufus cowered. “My head’s all a-spin,” he whimpered.

“Well, you’ve had a bad time. Immortals need rest too. Sleep if you wish.”

Rufus’ expression was glazing over. “Why couldn’t we say we was, uh, saints? Angels?”

“How far would you have gotten?” Lugo gibed. “Conceivably a man born into royalty— But I don’t suppose that’s ever happened, as rare as our kind must be. No, if we survive, we learn early on to keep our heads low.”

“Then how shall we find each other?”

Rufus hiccoughed and farted.


3

<p>3</p>

“Come our with me into the peristyle,” said Lugo.

“Oh, gladly,” Cordelia sang. Almost, she danced at his side.

It was an evening mild and clear. The moon stood over the eastern roof, close to full, in a sky still violet-blue. Westward, heaven darkened and stars trembled forth. City sounds had mostly died out; crickets chirred. Moonlight dappled the flowerbeds, shivered on the water of a pool, brought Cordelia’s young face and breast out of shadow into argency.

She and he stood hand in hand a few minutes. “You were so busy today,” she said at length. “When you came back early, I hoped— Of course, you had your work to do.”

“I did that, unfortunately,” he replied. “But these next hours belong to us.”

She leaned against him. Her hair carried a remnant fragrance of sunlight. “Christians should give thanks for what they get.” She giggled. “How easy to be a Christian, tonight.”

“How have the children done today?” he asked—his son Julius, no longer stumping about but leaping adventurously everywhere, starting to talk; little, little Dora asleep in her crib, starfish hands curled tight.

“Why, very well,” said Cordelia, a bit surprised.

“I see them too seldom.”

“And you care. Not many fathers do. Not that much.” She squeezed his hand. “I want to give you lots of children.” Impishly: “We can begin at once.”

“I have ... tried to be kind.”

She heard how the words dragged, let go of him, widened her eyes in alarm. “What’s wrong, beloved?”

He made himself take hold of her shoulders, look into her face—the moonlight made her searingly beautiful—and answer: “Between us, nothing at all.” Only the fact that you will grow old and die. And that has happened so often, so often. I cannot count the deaths. There is no measure for tile pain, but I think it has not grown any less; I think I have merely learned to live with it, as a mortal can learn to live an unbeatable wound. I thought we could have, oh, thirty, perhaps forty years together before I must leave. That would have been wonderful.

“But I have an unexpected journey to make,” he said.

“Something that man—Marcus—something he’s told you?”

Lugo nodded.

Cordelia grimaced. “I don’t like him. Forgive me, but I don’t. He’s coarse and stupid.”

“He is that,” Lugo agreed. It had seemed wise to him they let Rufus share their supper. Confinement in the room with nothing but his dreads and animal hopes company had been breaking what self-control was left him, and he needed it for the time ahead. “Nevertheless, I got important information from him.”

“Can you tell me what it is?” He heard how hard she tried not to make it a plea.

“I’m sorry, no. Nor can I say where I’m bound or how long I’ll be gone.”

She caught both his hands. Her fingers had turned cold. “The barbarians. Pirates. Bacaudae.”

“Travel has its dangers,” he admitted. “I’ve spent a lot of this day making arrangements for you. Just in case, darling, just in case.” He kissed her. The lips that shivered beneath his bore a thin taste of salt. “You should know this is a matter that may or may not concern Aurelian, but if it does, it must be investigated at once, and he’s in Italy. I’ve told his amanuensis Corbilo as much, and you can collect my pay for your needs from him. I’ve also left a substantial sum in trust for you at the church. The priest Antoninus took it and gave me a receipt that I’ll give you. And you are heir to this property. You’ll be all right, you and the children.” If Rome hangs together.

She threw herself against him and dung. He stroked her hair, her back, ruffling the gown, making the caress an embrace. “There, there,” he crooned, “this is just in case. Don’t be afraid. I’m not running any great risk.” He believed that was true. “I’ll be back.” That was not true, and hurt like fire to utter. Well, no doubt she’d marry again, after he was given up for dead. Last heard of on the Ordovician coast, about when a Scotic raid occurred ...

She stood back, hugged herself, swallowed, smiled unsteadily. “Of course you w-w-will,” she avowed. “I’ll p-pray for you the whole while. And we have this night.”

Until shortly after dawn, when Nereid cast off. He’d obtained passage for himself and Rufus. Most of Britannia continued secure, but the barbarians ravaged enough of it that nobody would question a couple of men who appeared -in, say, Aquae Sulis or Augusta Londinium with a story of having fled. Given money in hand, they could start afresh; and Lugo had buried a fair supply of honest corns in the island, several generations back.

“If only you could remain,” escaped from Cordelia.

“If only I could.” But Rufus was marked in Burdigala.

Rufus, the male, the oaf, the immortal, who would surely perish miserably without an intelligent man in charge of him. And he must not. However awkward, his was the only help Lugo had toward the ultimate coming together of their kind.

Cordelia heard how the words wrenched themselves from her husband’s mouth. “I will not whine,” she declared. “We do have this night. And many, many more on the far side of your journey. I’ll wait for you, I’ll always wait.”

No, Lugo thought, you won’t. That wouldn’t make sense, once you’ve decided you’re a widow, still young but with time at your heels.

Nor could you ever have waited for me always.

I seek for her who shall never have to leave me.


IV. Death in Palmyra

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

<p>IV. Death in Palmyra</p>
<p>1</p>

The caravan to Tripolis would leave at daybreak. Nebozabad, its master, wanted everything ready the evening before. He wanted every man rehearsed in making and breaking camp. Delays not only cost money, they multiplied risk.

So he thought. Some people told him not to fret. Peace was now secure, they said, Syria firmly in Arabian hands. Had not the Khalifa himself passed through Tadmor, on his way to holy Jerusalem, three years ago? Nebozabad was less trustful. Throughout his life he had seen too much war, with the disruption of trade, breakdown of order, and upsurge of banditry that soon followed. He meant to use every hour of opportunity that God granted him.

Therefore his charges bedded down not in a caravanserai but on a ground beyond the Philippian Gate. He went about, speaking to camel drivers, guards, traders, lesser folk, issuing commands where needed, piecemeal giving turmoil a shape and a meaning. Night was well upon him before he was done.

He paused, then, to enjoy a moment alone. Air had gone cool, with a tinge of smoke from the small fires that glimmered in the camp. Otherwise it was a huddle of darkness. He made out the peaks of a few tents, pitched by the more prosperous among his travelers, and sometimes light flickered off the spearhead of a sentry on his rounds. Nebozabad wanted all routines working from the outset. A murmur reached his ears, talk of men who sat up late, occasionally the soft whicker of a horse or the nimble and gurgle in a camel’s throat.

Stars glittered brilliant, beyond counting. From the west a gibbous moon cast light down the shallow valley. It frosted hills, palm fronds, the tower tombs that rose out of shadow, the turrets and battlements of the city wall. That wall loomed sheer, gray-white, as if a piece of the steppe surrounding this basin had been turned on end. It seemed as eternal, too, its massiveness never to be breached, the life that now slept behind its shelter to pulse every day forever.

The thought made Nebozabad bite his lip. Much too well did he know otherwise. In his own lifetime the Persians had driven out the Romans, and later the Romans had driven out the Persians, and today both nations were in retreat before the sword of Islam; and while trade routes still bore wealth into Tadmor and forth again, the city was long past her glory. Ah, to have lived then, when she—Palmyra on Latin and Greek tongues—was the queen of Syria, before Emperor Aurelian crushed Zenobia’s bid for freedom—

Nebozabad sighed, shrugged, turned about and started back. A city, like a man, must bear whatever fate God decrees. In that much, at least, the Muslims were right.

On his way, he heard and answered several greetings. “Christ be with you, master.”

“And his spirit be with you.” Everyone recognized his stocky form in the plain djellabah, his rather heavy features bared to the sky. Moonlight touched white streaks in hair and short-cropped beard.

Presently he neared his own tent. It was of good material though modest size; he never took along weight that could, instead, be in articles of value. Lamplight glowed faint yellow around a flap hanging loose.

A hand clutched his ankle. His stopped short, sucked in a breath, closed fingers on knife hilt. “Quiet,” a voice whispered frantically, “By God’s mercy, I pray you. I mean no harm.”

Nonetheless chill tingled through him as he peered. Someone crouched, flattened close to the ground, a paleness amidst the shadows. Naked? “What is this?” he hissed.

“I need help,” came back at him. “Can we speak alone? Behold, I am unarmed.”

He believed he knew that voice. Often had he had to make quick decisions.

“Abide,” he said low. The imploring hand released him. He stepped around to the front of his tent and slipped past the flap, with care that little light flash forth. Within, the camel’s-hair fabric enclosed a measure of warmth. A clay lamp dimly showed his bedroll spread out for him, water pitcher and basin and two or three other minor comforts ready, his body servant hunkered down. That person brought knees, hands, and brow to earth in salutation and asked, “What is my master’s desire?”

“I expect a visitor,” Nebozabad told him. “Depart cautiously, as I arrived. When I have secured the entrance, let no one else seek to me, nor ever speak a word of this.”

“On my head be it, master.” The slave glided off. Nebozabad had chosen and trained him well; he was wholly loyal. When he was gone, Nebozabad looked out for a moment, murmured, “Come now,” and drew back again.

The other scuttled through, straightened, confronted him. Despite his half knowledge, he gasped. A woman indeed. Oh, woman’s very self!

He remembered the danger, muttered a curse, hastened to secure the entrance. Then he dared try to deal with her.

She had lowered herself to knees and toes, hands laid across her lap. Midnight tresses flowed over shoulders, down past her breasts. He guessed flittingly that that was not quite by chance. Nothing else had she for garment, except grime, a streak of clotting blood on the left forearm, sweat that shimmered in the lamplight, and the gloom. Her body might have belonged to an ancient goddess, lithe, firm-bosomed, slim-waisted, round-hipped. The face she turned to him was broad across the cheekbones, straight of nose, lips full above the cleanness of chin and jawline. Her skin was faintly golden and the great eyes, beneath arching brows, were hazel. In her, Roman of the West, Roman of the East, Hellene, and Persian had mingled with Syria.

He stared down at the sight. She seemed a maiden, no, a youthful matron, no, something for which he had no name. But he knew her.

Her voice trembled husky. “O Nebozabad, old friend, there is no hope left me save in you. Help me, as once my house helped you. You have known us all your life.”

Forty-odd years. The thought struck like a dagger. His mind flew back across more than thirty of them.

<p>2</p>

Aliyat both longed for Barikai’s return and dreaded it. She would have the solace of his embrace and of giving him her own upbearing love. So had they stood together when they lost other children; but those were infants. First, though, she must tell him what had happened.

He was elsewhere in Tadmor, talking with the merchant Taimarsu. News from the front was evil, the Persians inflicting defeat after defeat upon the Romans, thrusting into Mesopotamia, with Syria’s defenses thin on their left. More and more, commerce with the seaboard pulled into its shell and awaited the outcome. Caravan masters such as Barikai suffered. Most were, themselves, chary of venturing anywhere. He, bolder, went off to persuade the traffickers that they should not let goods molder in warehouses.

She imagined his heartiness, his laughter: “I’ll convey them. Prices in Tripolis or Berytus will be at a peak! Rewards are for the brave.” She had encouraged it. Daughter of a man in the same trade, she was closer to her husband than most wives, almost a partner as well as his mate and the mother of his children. It eased the wistfulness that tugged at her whenever she stood on the city wall and watched his train move off beyond the horizon.

But today— A female slave found her in the garden and said, “The master is here.” Aliyat’s spirit twisted within her.

She called up courage as women must, in childbed or by deathbed, and hastened. Her skirts rustled through a silence full of eyes. All the household knew.

It was a fair-sized household in a good-sized building. Until lately Barikai, like his father before him, had done well. Aliyat hoped it would not become necessary to sell off any slaves; she was fond of them. She was instituting frugality... What mattered such things?

The atrium lay dim with eventide. Her glance fell on the image of the Virgin that stood In a niche, its blue and gold aglow against whitewash. For a little while she had knelt before it, silently praying that the news not be true. The image had merely stared, changeless.

Barikai had just given his cloak to a servant. Beneath it he wore a robe decorated with gold thread, to show power, confidence. Time had grizzled the dark hair and furrowed the lean face, but he still walked springily. “Christ be with you, my lady,” he began, as was seemly in the presence of attendants. His gaze sharpened. He reached her in three long strides and took her by the shoulders. “What is wrong?”

She must swallow twice before she could beg, “Come with me.” His mouth drew tight. Wordlessly he followed her back into the garden.

Enclosed by the house, it was a place of cool calm, refuge from the world. Jasmine and roses grew around a pool where water lilies floated. Their fragrances drenched the air. Overhead, heaven had gone royal blue as the sun went below the roof. Here two people could be alone.

Aliyat turned to Barikai. She doubled her fists at her sides and forced out, “Manu is dead.”

He stood unmoving.

“Young Mogim brought the word this morning,” Aliyat told him. “He was among the few who escaped. The squadron was on patrol south of Khalep. A Persian cavalry troop surprised them. Mogim saw Manu take an arrow in his eye, fall from the saddle, go down under the hoofs.”

“South of Khalep,” Barikai croaked. “Already. Then they are coming into Syria.”

She knew that man-thought was only the first poor shield he could lift. She saw it break in his grasp. “Manu,” he said. “Our first-born. Gone.” The hand shook with which he crossed himself, over and over. “God have mercy on him. Christ take him home. Help him, holy Georgios.”

I too should pray, Aliyat thought, and knew with a wan surprise that any wish to do so had withered.

“Have you told Aqmat?” Barikai asked.

“Of course. Best, I think, best leave her and her children in peace for a while.” Manu’s young wife had lived in terror of this since he was called to war. The fact had fallen on her like a hammer.

“I sent a messenger to Hairan, but his master has dispatched him to Emesa on some business,” Aliyat went on. The younger of their sons worked for a dealer in wine. “The sisters mourn at home.” Their three living daughters were married, well enough that she was glad of the earlier struggle to amass good dowries for them.

“I think now—to carry on my trade—I think I will take Nebozabad to apprentice,” Barikai mumbled. “You know him, do you not? Son of the widow Hafsa. Only ten years old, but a likely lad. And it would be a kindness. It might make the saints smile a little on Manu’s soul.”

Abruptly he seized her, painfully hard. “But why do I chatter like this?” he yelled. “Manu is gone!”

She loosened his hands, guided his arms around her, held him very close. They stood thus for many heartbeats, while shadows rose in the garden and light drained from the sky.

“Aliyat, Aliyat,” he whispered at last, shakenly, into her hair, “my love, my strength. How can it be that you are what you are? Wife of mine, mother, grandmother, and yet you could well-nigh be the girl I made my bride.”

<p>3</p>

When the Persians occupied Tadmor, they first levied a heavy tribute. Thereafter they were not bad overlords— no worse than the Romans, thought Aliyat in secret. Zarathushtrans who held fire sacred, they let everybody worship according to belief, and in fact kept Orthodox Christians, Nestorian Christians, and Jews from molesting each other. Meanwhile their firm control of the territories they won allowed trade to resume, also with their own country. After a dozen years, people heard that they were advancing farther, had taken Jerusalem and presently Egypt. Aliyat wondered if they would go on to Old Rome, but decided, from what men told about Italy, that that raddled land, divided among Lombard chiefs, the Catholic Pope, and remnant Imperial garrisons, would be no prize.

Word trickled in: a new Emperor, Heraklios, reigned in Constantinople and was said to be energetic and able. However, he had woes close to home. Barely did he cast the wild Avars back from the capital city.

In Tadmor such events seemed remote, not quite real. Aliyat was nearly the sole woman there who even heard of them. One had one’s private life to cope with. For her, too, the days and the years blurred together. A grandchild born, a friend dying, rose into reality and stood afterward in memory like lone hills espied on a long caravan trek.

So matters were at the hour that ended them.

She set forth with a sturdy female attendant for the agora. They left early in the morning, to finish her bargaining and carry back her purchases before the heat of the day drove folk indoors to rest. Barikai bade her a farewell she could barely hear. He had been weak of late, with bouts of pain in the chest and shortness of breath, he who was hitherto so strong. Neither prayers nor physicians availed much.

Aliyat and Mara followed their winding street to the Colonnade and walked on along it. The great double row of pillars gleamed triumphant between the arches at either end, bursting into florescence where the capitals challenged heaven. From a ledge on each, a statue of some famous citizen looked down, centuries of history at attention. Below them the ways were crowded with shops, trading offices, chapels, joyhouses, humanity. Smells eddied thick, smoke, sweat, dung, perfume, aroma of spices and oils and fruits. Noise rioted, footfalls, hoofbeats, wheel-creak, hammer-clang, chant, shout, speech, mostly the Aramaic of this country but also Greek, Persian, Arabic, and tongues of lands more distant yet. Colors swirled, a cloak, a robe, a veil, a headdress, a pennon streaming from a lance, an ornament, a charm. A rug seller sat amidst the rich hues of his wares. A wine vendor held his leather bottle aloft. A coppersmith made clangor. An oxcart slogged through the crowds, laden with dates from the oasis. A camel grunted and shambled beneath bales of silk from beyond Aliyat’s ken. A squad of Persian horsemen trotted behind a trumpeter who warned the throng to dear the way; their armor flashed, their plumes rippled. A litter bore a wealthy merchant, another a bedizened courtesan, who both looked out with indolent insolence. A black-clad Christian priest drew aside from an austere magus and crossed himself once the latter was past. Drovers who had brought sheep in from the arid steppe wandered wide-eyed among enticements that would likely send them back to their tents penniless. A flute piped, a small drum thumped, somebody sang, high-pitched and quavery.

This was her city, Aliyat knew, these were her people, and nonetheless she was ever more estranged from them.

“Lady! Lady!”

She stopped at the call and glanced about. Nebozabad forced a path toward her. The persons whom he shoved aside shook their fists and cursed him. He went on unhearing until he reached her. She read his countenance and foreknowledge became a boulder in her breast.

“Lady, I hoped I could overtake you,” the young man panted. “I was with my master, your husband, when— He is stricken. He uttered your name. I sent for a physician and myself started after you.”

“Lead me,” said Aliyat’s voice.

He did, loudly, roughly, quickly. They returned beneath the brightening, uncaring sky to the house. “Wait,” Aliyat commanded at the door of the bedchamber, and went in alone.

She need not have hurt Nebozabad by leaving him out in the corridor. She had not been thinking. Of course several slaves were there, standing aside, awed and helpless. But likewise, already, was their remaining son Hairan. He leaned over the bed, holding fast to him who lay in it. “Father,” he pleaded, “father, can you hear me?”

Barikai’s eyes were rolled back, a hideous white against the blueness that crept below the skin. Froth bubbled on his lips. The breath shuddered in and out of him, ceased, came raggedly anew, ceased again. Beadwork curtains across the windows tried to obscure the sight. For Aliyat they only made a twilight through which she saw him the starker.

Hairan looked up. Tears ran into his beard. “I fear he is dying, mother,” he said.

“I know.” She knelt, brushed his hands aside, laid her arms about Barikai and her cheek on her man’s bosom. She heard, she felt the life go away.

Rising, she closed his eyes and tried to wipe his face. The physician arrived. “I can see to that, my lady,” he offered.

She shook her bead. “I will lay him out,” she answered. “It is my right.”

“Fear not, mother,” Hairan said unevenly. “I will provide well for you—you shall have a peaceful old age—“ The words trailed off. He stared, as did the physician and the slaves. Barikai, caravan master, had not reached his full threescore and ten, but he seemed as if he had, hair mostly white, visage gaunt, muscles shriveled over the bones. His widow who stood above him could have been a woman of twenty springtimes.

<p>4</p>

Unto Hairan the wine merchant was born a grandson, and great was the rejoicing in his house. The feast that he and the father gave for kinfolk and friends lasted far into the night. Aliyat withdrew early from the women’s part of it, into the rear of the building where she had a room. No one thought ill of this; after all, however much respect her years entitled her to, they were a burden.

She did not seek rest as everybody supposed. Once alone, she straightened her back and changed her shuffling gait. Fast, supple, she went out a back door. The voluminous black garments that disguised her figure billowed with her haste. Her head was covered as usual, which hid the blackness of her locks. Family and servitors often remarked on bow amazingly youthful her face and hands were; but now she lowered a veil.

She passed a slave going about his duties, who recognized her but simply made salutation. He would not babble about what he had seen. He too was old, and knew that one must bear with the old if sometimes they grow a trifle strange.

The night air was blessedly cool and fresh. The street was a gut of shadow, but her feet knew every stone and she found her way easily to the Colonnade. Thence she strode toward the agora. A full moon had cleared surrounding roofs. Its brilliance hid the stars close to it, though lower down they swarmed and sparkled. The pillars lifted white. Her footfalls slithered loud in the silence. Most folk were abed.

She took some risk, but it was slight. Mostly, the city guards had continued under the Persians to maintain law and order. Once she hid behind a column while a squad tramped past. Their pikeheads sheened like liquid in the moonlight. Had they seen her, they might well have insisted on bringing her home—unless they took her for a harlot, which would have led to questions for which she lacked answers.

“Why do you prowl about after dark?” She could not say, she did not know, yet she must get away for a while or else begin screaming.

This was not the first such time.

At the Street of the Marketers she turned south. The grace of the theater fountained upward on her right. On her left, the portico and wall around the agora lay ghostly under the moon. She had heard that they were but fragments of what formerly was, before desperate men quarried them for fortification material as the Romans closed in on Zenobia. That suited her mood. She passed through an unbarred gateway onto the broad plaza.

Remembrance of its liveliness by day made it feel all die more empty. Statues of former high officials, military commanders, senators, and, yes, caravan leaders ringed it in like sentinels around a necropolis. Aliyat walked through the moonlight to the center and stopped. Her heartbeat and breath were the only sounds she heard.

“Miriamne, Mother of God, I thank you—“ The words died on her lips. They were as hollow as the place where she stood, they would be mockery did she finish them.

Why was she barren of gladness and gratitude? A son had been born to the son of her son. The life that was in Barikai lived on. Could she call his dear shade out of the night, surely it would be smiling.

A shudder went through her. She could not raise the memory. His face had become a blur; she had words for its lineaments, but no vision any-longer. Everything receded into the past, her loves died and died and died, and God would not let her follow them.

She should praise Him with song, that she was hale and whole, untouched by age. How many, halt, gnarled, toothless, half blind, afire with pain, longed for death’s mercy? Whereas she— But the fear of her gathered year by year, the glances askance, whispers, furtive signs against evil. Hairan himself saw in the mirror his gray hair and lined brow, and wondered about his mother; she knew, she knew. She held as much apart as she could, not to remind her kin, and understood what an unspoken conspiracy was theirs, to avoid speaking of her before outsiders. And so she became the outsider, the one forever alone.

How could she be a great-grandmother, she in whose loins burned lust? Was that why she was punished by this, or what dreadful childhood sin of hers had she forgotten?

The moon moved onward, the stars turned their wheel. Slowly, something of heaven’s bleak tranquility came to her. She started homeward. She would not surrender. Not yet.

<p>5</p>

The war devoured a generation, but in the end Heraklios prevailed. He drove the Persians before him until they sued for peace. Two-and-twenty years after they left, the Romans re-entered Tadmor.

On their heels was a new resident, Zabdas, a dealer in spices from Emesa. That was a somewhat larger city, nearer the seaboard, therefore wealthier and more closely governed. Zabdas’ family firm had an affiliate in Tadmor. After the chaos of battle and the latest change of overlords it needed reorganization, a cunning hand on the reins and a shrewd eye out for such opportunities as might appear. He arrived and took charge. That required making acquaintances, alliances, among local people. He was handicapped in this by being newly widowed, and therefore soon began looking for a wife.

Nobody told Aliyat about him, and indeed when he first visited Hairan it was on business. The dignity of the house, the guest, and herself required that she be among the women who bade him welcome before the men supped. Out of sheer rebelliousness, or so she vaguely thought, she left off her shapeless grandam’s clothes and dressed in modest but becoming wise. She saw his startlement on learning who she was; eyes met eyes; a thrill that she fought to control went through her. He was a short man of about fifty, but erect, alert, the white hairs few and the visage well-molded. They exchanged ritual courtesies. She went back to her room.

Though she often found it hard to pluck a single memory out of the multitude that crowded her, certain experiences repeated themselves frequently enough that she gained skill from them. She could well read the meaning of Hairan’s glances when he thought she didn’t notice, the words he spoke to her and the words he did not. She could sense a rising current of excitement in the wives and slaves, even the older children. Her sleep became broken, she paced and paced or stole out by dark, the comfort that she had sometimes found in books now vanished.

It was no surprise when at length Hairan asked her to see him privately. That was in winter’s early night, after most of the household had gone to bed. He admitted her when she knocked, escorted her to a cushioned stool, sat down cross-legged on the rug behind a table on which stood wine, dates, cakes.

For a space there was quiet. Bronze lamps sheened in the light that their flames threw soft. It picked out floral patterns of frescos, reds and blues and browns of carpet, the folds of his robe and the furrows in his face. He was wholly gray and had grown a pot belly. He blinked dimsightedly at her slimness. The brocade of green and gold that she had chosen lay close over curves; above her head covering, a wreath of gold wire enclosed the clear brows.

“Will you take refreshment, mother?” he invited finally, very low.

“Thank you.” She reached for a goblet. The wine glowed on her tongue. Drink and food, those were comforts too. They had not lost their savor as she aged, nor had she become fat.

“You should not thank me.” He looked away. “It is my duty to provide for your well-being.”

“You have been a dutiful son.”

“I have tried my best.” In a rush, never meeting her gaze: “You, though, you are unhappy with us. True? I am not blind or deaf so far, not quite. You seldom if ever complain, but I cannot help knowing.”

She commanded her body to be still, her voice to be leve “True. No fault of yours, nor of anyone else.” She must force herself to hurt him. “I daresay you feel you are a young man trapped in flesh growing old. Well, I am an old woman trapped in flesh that stays young. Why this is, only God knows.”

He twined fingers together. “You are—how old? Threescore and ten? Well, some people do carry their years well and reach great ages. If you lived for a hundred years in good health, it would not be unheard of. May God grant you do so.” She marked how he evaded mention of the fact that except for teeth showing wear she bore no trace of the time that had passed.

Let her encourage him to say what he intended to say. “You will understand how my uselessness makes me restless.”

“It need not!” burst from him. He lifted his eyes. She saw sweat on his skin. “Hark. Zabdas, a respectable man, a merchant, has asked for your hand in marriage.”

I knew this, she thought; and aloud: “I know whom you speak of,” She said naught about the cautious inquiries she had contrived to make. “But he and I met just a single time.”

“He has queried people about you, and talked repeatedly with me, and— He is, I say, an honorable man, well off and with excellent prospects for the future, a widower in need of a wife. He realizes that you are older than him, but feels this is no barrier. He has children grown, grandchildren coming, what he wants is a helpmate. Believe me, I have made sure of this.”

“Do you wish the union, Hairan?” Aliyat asked quietly.

She sipped while he stuttered, fumbled with his goblet, looked to and fro, before he said, “I would never compel you, mother. It simply appears to me ... it may be in your best interests. I will not deny, he offers certain business agreements that would ... help. My enterprise has fallen on hard times.”

“I know.” He showed surprise. Aliyat whetted her tone: “Did you think me blind or deaf? I worked closely with your father, Hairan, as you never let me work with you.”

“I—mother, I did not mean—”

She laughed a little. “Oh, you have been as kindly as you know how. Let us put such things behind us. Tell me more.”

<p>6</p>

The wedding and the celebration that followed were an occasion small, almost subdued. Finally the bride was escorted to the groom’s bedchamber and left with a maidservant.

The room was not large, its walls merely whitewashed, its furnishings austere. Some garlands had been hung around it. A screen blocked off one comer. A three-branched candelabrum gave light. Laid across the bed were two nightgowns.

Aliyat knew she was expected to change into hers. Mutely, she let the attendant help her. She and Barikai had frolicked naked, with wicks burning bright. Well, times changed, or perhaps it was people who differed. She had been too long cut off from gossip to say.

When she stood briefly unclad, Zabdas’ slave cried: “But my lady is beautiful!”

Aliyat stroked hands down her flanks. The touch tingled. She barely stopped short of her groin. Tonight she would again know the true pleasure that had haunted her for— how many years? She smiled. “Thank you.”

“I, I heard you were old,” the girl stammered.

“I am.” Aliyat’s manner imposed fear and silence.

She had an hour or two by herself in bed. Thoughts tumbled through her head, out of control. Now and then she shivered. At least her days in the house of her son had been predictable. That, though, was what had become the horror of them.

She sat up with a start when Zabdas entered. He closed the door behind him and stood for a moment watching her. In festival garb, he was ... dapper. Her gown was of rather thick material, loosely cut, but her bosom swelled it outward. “You are more fair than I knew,” he said in his careful way.

She lowered her lashes. “I thank my lord,” she replied around the tightness in her throat.

He advanced. “Still, you are a woman of discretion, with the wisdom of your years,” he said. “Such a one do I require.” He halted before the icon of St. Ephraem Syrus that was the chamber’s sole fixed ornament and crossed himself. “Grant us a satisfactory life together,” he prayed.

Taking his nightshirt, he went behind the screen. She saw how neatly he hung his clothes over the top. When he returned dressed for sleep, he bent over, cupped a hand behind each candle in turn, and blew them out. He got into bed with his usual economy of motion.

He is my husband, pulsed in Aliyat. He is my liberation. Let me be good to him.

She reached out. Her arms enclosed, her mouth went seeking. “What?” Zabdas exclaimed. “Be at ease. I shall not hurt you.”

“Do, if you like.” She pressed against him. “How may I please you?”

“Why, why— This is— Kindly lie still, my lady. Remember your years.”

She obeyed. Sometimes she and Barikai had enjoyed playing master and slave. Or youth and whore. She felt Zabdas raise himself to an elbow. His free hand tugged at her gown. She pulled it up and spread her thighs. He climbed between. He rested his full weight on her, which Barikai had not, but then Zabdas was much lighter. She reached to guide him. Briskly, he took care of that himself, grasped her breasts through the cloth, and thrust. He did not seem to notice how her arms and legs clasped him. It was quickly over.

He got off and lay until his breathing was again even. She could barely see him as a deeper shadow in the night. He sounded troubled: “How wet you were. You have the body of a young woman, as well as the face.”

“For you,” she murmured.

Through the mattress she felt him tauten. “What is your age in truth?” So Hairan had avoided saying it outright; but Zabdas had perhaps avoided asking.

Fourscore and one, she knew. “I have never kept count,” was the safest reply. “But there has been no deception, my lord. I am Hairan’s mother. I ... was quite young when I bore him, and you have seen that I carry my years better than most.”

“A wonder.” His voice was fiat.

“Uncommon. A blessing. I am unworthy, but—“ It must out: “My courses have not yet ended. I can bear you children, Zabdas.”

“This is—“ He searched for a word. “Unexpected.”

“Let us thank God together.”

“Yes. We should. But now best we sleep. I have much to do in the morning.”

<p>7</p>

To Zabdas came the caravan master Nebozabad. They must discuss a proposed shipment to Dannesek. A journey of that length could no longer be lightly undertaken. News was too ominous, of the Arabian onslaught against Persia and threat to New Rome.

The merchant received his guest well, as he did all who were of consequence, and bade him dine. Aliyat insisted on serving them with her own hands. As they sat over their dessert, Zabdas excused himself and was gone for a while. He suffered from an occasional flux of the bowels. Nebozabad waited alone.

The room was the best furnished in the house, with embroidered red hangings, four seven-branched candelabra of gilt bronze, a table of teakwood carven in foliate patterns and inlaid with nacre, the ware upon it of silver or the finest glass. A pinch of incense hi a brazier made the air, on this warm eventide, a little cloying.

Nebozabad looked up when Aliyat came in with a tray of fruits. She stopped across from him, in dark garments that muffled sight of more than hands, countenance, the big hazel eyes. “Sit down, my lady,” he urged.

She shook her head. “That would be unseemly,” she answered in a near whisper.

“Then I will stand.” He rose from his stool. “Far too long has it been since last I saw you. How fares it?”

“Well enough.” She took on expression; her words leaped. “And how is it with you? Aiid Hairan and, oh, everybody? I hear very little.”

“You do not see much of anyone, do you, my lady?”

“My husband feels it would be ... indiscreet ... at my age. But how goes it, Nebozabad? Tell me, I beg you!”

He repeated her phrase: “Well enough. Another grandchild born to him, a girl, have you heard? As for myself, I have two living sons and a daughter, by the grace of God. Business—“ He shrugged. “This is what I’ve come about.”

“Is the danger from the Arabs great?”

“I fear so.” He paused, tugged his beard. “In your days with master Barikai, may he be happy in Heaven, you knew everything that went on. You took a hand in it yourself.”

She bit her lip. “Zabdas feels differently.”

“I suppose he wishes to keep rumors down, and that is why he never has Hairan, or any kinsman of yours, here— Forgive me!” He had seen what crossed her features. “I should not pry. It’s only that, that you were my master’s lady when I was a boy, and ever gracious to me, and—“ His voice trailed off.

“You are good to be concerned.” She jerked her head as if to keep it from drooping. “But I have fewer sorrows than many do.”

“I heard your child died. I’m sorry.”

She sighed. “That was last year. Wounds heal. We will try again.”

“You have not already? No, again I spoke badly. Too much wine. Forgive me. Seeing how beautiful you still are, I thought—”

She flushed. “My husband is not too old.”

“Yet he— No. Aliyat, my lady, if ever you should need help—”

Zabdas returned and she, having set down her tray, said good night and departed.

<p>8</p>

While Roman and Persian bled each other to exhaustion, afar in Makkah Muhammad ibn Abdallah saw visions, preached, must flee to Yathrib, prevailed over his enemies, gave his refuge the new name Medinat Rasul Allah, the City of the Apostle of God, and died as master of Arabia. His Khalifa, Successor, Abu Bekr suppressed rebellion and launched in earnest those holy wars that united the people and carried the faith out across the world.

Six years after the troops of Emperor Heraklios reclaimed Tadmor, the troops of Khalifa Omar took it. The year after that they were in Jerusalem, and the year after that the Khalifa visited the holy city, passing triumphant through a completely subjugated Syria while couriers brought accounts of Islamic banners carried deep into the Persian heartland.

On the day he spent in Tadmor, from her rooftop Aliyat witnessed magnificence, gallant horses, richly caparisoned camels, riders whose helmets and mailcoats, lances and shields turned sunlight into flame, cloaks like windblown rainbows, trumpet and drum and deep-voiced chant. The streets surged, the oasis boiled with the conquerors. Yet she noticed that the far greater number of them were lean and roughly clad. Likewise was their garrison here, and their officials lived simple lives, five times daily humbling themselves before God when the muezzin’s call wailed across the sky.

Nor were they bad rulers. They levied tribute, but it was not unbearable. They turned a few churches into mosques, but otherwise left Christians and Jews in the peace that they sternly enforced. The qadi, then chief justice, held court beneath the arch at the east end of the Colonnade, near the agora, and even the lowliest could appeal directly to him. Then- irruption had been too swift to damage trade much, and it soon began reviving.

Aliyat was not altogether surprised when Zabdas said to her, in the tone that meant he would banish her to a rear room if she gave him any dispute: “I have reached a great decision. This household shall embrace Islam.”

Nonetheless she stood a while quiescent, amidst the shadows with which the single frugal lamp filled their bedchamber. When she spoke it was slowly, and her eyes searched him. “This is indeed a matter of the first importance. Have they compelled you?”

He shook his head. “No, no. They do not—except pagans, I am told.” He formed his thin brief smile. “They would rather most of us remain Christian, so we may own land, which believers may not, and pay tribute for it as well as the other taxes. My talks with the imam whom I approached have been difficult. But of course he may not refuse a sincere convert.”

“You’ll gain many advantages.”

He reddened. “Do you call me a hypocrite?”

“No, no, certainly not, my lord.”

Zabdas turned mild. “I understand. To you this is a terrible shock, you who have been raised to worship Christ. Think, though. The Prophet never denied that Jesus was also a prophet. He was simply not the last one, the one to whom God revealed the full truth. Islam sweeps away the superstition about countless saints, the priests who come between a man and his God, the witless commandments and restrictions. We have but to acknowledge that there is one God and Muhammad is His Prophet. We have but to live righteous lives.” He lifted a forefinger. “Think. Could the Arabs have borne everything before them as they have done, as they are doing and shall do, were theirs not the cause that is blessed, the faith that is true? I am bringing us to the truth, Aliyat.” He squinted, peering. “You welcome the truth, do you not? It cannot harm you, can it?”

Recklessly, she cast across the space between them: “I hear a man who becomes a Muslim must suffer what Jewish boys do.”

“It will not disable me,” he snapped. Curbing temper again: “I do not expect a woman to understand these deep things. Only trust in me.”

She swallowed, willed ease upon herself, moved toward him. “I do, my lord, I do,” she murmured. Maybe she could cause him to beget a third child on her, and maybe that one would survive to give meaning back to her life. He seldom took her to him, mostly when she made herself coax him in that same hope. It was almost as if, more and more, he feared her.

As for the change of religion, that mattered less than he supposed. What had the saints done to help, throughout the endless years?

<p>9</p>

She had not foreknown what the change meant. Islam burst upon Syria too suddenly. Zabdas studied it before he made his move. Only when the thing was done did she learn.

The Prophet had laid upon women of the faith the ancient usages of Arabia. In public they must wear the yashmak, the heavy veil hiding everything but the eyes, and likewise at home in the presence of any man but father, brother, husband, or son. Unchastity was punished by death. Quarters for men and women were separate, like an invisible wall built through the house, to whose door its master had the single key. Submission of wife to husband was not bounded by law and custom as it was among Christians and Jews; while a marriage lasted it was total, his the right to mutilate or kill the disobedient. Aside from such tasks as marketing, she had nothing to do with the outside world; he, his children by her, and his dwelling were to be her universe. For her there was no church, and whatever Paradise she might hope for would not be his.

So Zabdas explained, piecemeal as occasion arose. Aliyat was not sure the Law was quite that one-sided. She was entirely sure that in most families, practice softened it. But be that as it may, she was a prisoner.

She was even denied the solace of wine. That might be just as well, she decided once the first rage had faded. She had been resorting to it much oftener than was wise.

Oddly, however, as the Muslim months passed, she found herself less alone than hitherto. Thrust together, the females of the household—not only she and the slaves,, but the wives and girl-children of two of Zabdas’ sons who had joined him in Tadmor—at first quarreled viciously, then began to confide in each other. Her position and her freedom from aging had set her apart. Those who now saw her sharing then- helplessness discovered they could overlook these things, and if they told her their troubles she would do what little she could to aid them.

For her part, she learned bit by bit that she was not utterly isolated. In some ways, she touched more of the city than she had done since Barikai’s death. She might be confined, but lesser females must needs go out on various errands; and they had kinfolk with whom they gossiped at every opportunity; and nobody cared to be strict with the humble, nor stopped to think that they too possessed sharp ears, open eyes, and inquiring minds. As the touch of a fly quivers through the web to the spider that sits at its middle, so did flickers of information reach Aliyat.

She was not present when Zabdas sought the qadi soon after his conversion; but in view of what was overheard and passed on, and what happened later, eventually she believed she could reconstruct it almost as well as if she had been invisibly listening.

Normally the qadi heard pleas in the open. Everybody was free to come. She could have done so, had she had any real plaint. She thought of it, and concluded drearily that she did not. Zabdas was never abusive. He provided adequately. If he no longer came to her bed, what should a woman close to her ninetieth year expect—whether or not she had again borne him a child, and this one did keep on living? The very thought was obscene.

He asked for a private audience and the qadi granted it. The two sat in the house of Mitknal ibn Dirdar and sipped chilled pomegranate juice while they talked. Neither paid heed to the eunuch who waited on them; but he had acquaintances outside, who in their turn knew people.

“Yes, of course you may divorce your wife,” Mitkhal said. “It is easily done. However, under the Law she retains all property that was hers, and I gather she brought a fair amount to this marriage. In every event, you must see to it that she does not become destitute or lack for protection.” He bridged his fingers. “Moreover, do you wish to offend her kinfolk?”

“Hairan’s goodwill is worth little these days,” Zabdas clipped. “His business fares poorly. Aliyat’s other children—by her first marriage—scarcely know her any more.

But, hm, the requirements you describe, those could prove awkward.”

Mitkhal regarded him closely. “Why do you wish to put this woman from you? In what is she at fault?”

“Proud, resentful, sullen— No,” said Zabdas beneath that gaze, “I cannot in honesty call her contumacious.”

“Has she not given you a child?”

“A girl. The two before, they soon died. The girl is small and sickly.”

“That is shabby ground for blame, my friend. Old seed gives thin fruit.”

Zabdas chose to misunderstand. “Old, yes, by ... by the Prophet! I have inquired. I should have done so at the first, but— Sir, she nears the hundred-year mark.”

The qadi’s lips formed a soundless whistle. “And yet— one hears rumors—is she not yet fair? And you tell me she remains healthy and fertile.”

Zabdas leaned forward. Sunlight fell through the grille over a window to dapple his balding head. Behind sparse whiskers, the wattles under his jaw wabbled as he cried in a high-pitched, cracking voice: “It’s unnatural! Lately she lost a tooth or two and I believed at last, at last— But new ones are growing out, as if she were a child of six or seven! She must be a witch, or an ifrit, a demon, a— That’s what I beg for. That’s what I ask for, an investigation, a—an assurance I can cast her out and—not have to fear her vengeance. Help me!”

Mitkhal raised a palm. “Hold, hold.” His words flowed soft. “Be calm. Truly we have a marvel here. Yet all things are possible to God the Omnipotent. She has not been impious or sinful in any way, has she? You may have done right to keep her as secluded as you could—since you, her husband, have had this terror brewing within you. If the tale went abroad and spread panic, she might have been set on in the streets. Beware of that.” Severely: “Ancient patriarchs lived close to a thousand years on earth. If God the Compassionate sees fit to let—Aliyat, is that her name?— linger for close to a hundred, ageless, who are we to question His will or divine His purpose?”

Zabdas stared at his lap. What teeth remained to him gritted together. “Nevertheless,” he mumbled.

“My counsel is that you keep her as long as she does no evil, for this is both justice for her and prudence for you. My decree, upholding the Law, is that you offer her no harm when she has offered none, nor make accusations that are baseless.” Mitkhal reached for his cup, sipped, smiled. “But, true, if coupling with a crone strikes you as indecent, that is a matter of your choice. Have you considered taking a second wife? You are allowed four, you know, besides concubines.”

In these latter years of his, Zabdas was quick to cool down from both his angers and his fears. He sat a moment silent, looking into a corner of the room. Then his mouth tilted upward and he murmured, “I thank my lord for his wise and merciful judgment.”

<p>10</p>

The day came when he summoned Aliyat to his office.

It was a chamber bare and cramped. A window opened on the inner court, but was too high up to afford sight of water or flowers. A niche gaped white where once the image of a saint stood. At the far end, a dais held a table bestrewn with letters, records, and writing materials. Behind it, he sat on a bench.

She entered. He laid aside a papyrus sheet, which crackled, and pointed downward. She went to knees and toes on the bare tiles before him. Silence stretched.

“Well?” he snapped.

She kept her eyes lowered. “What is my lord’s desire?”

“What have you to say for yourself?”

“What must your handmaiden defend?”

“Mock me not!” he shouted. “I’ve had my fill of your insolence. Now you have struck my wife in the face. It is too much.”

Aliyat looked up, caught his glance, held fast. “I thought Furja would go whimpering to you,” she said steadily. “What tale did she bear? Fetch her and let me hear.”

His fist struck the desk. “I will settle this. I am the master. I am being kind. I am giving you your chance to explain why you should escape a whipping.”

She drew breath. This had been foreseeable since the thing happened; she had had a pair of hours wherein to marshal words. “My lord must know that his new bride and I are apt to quarrel.” Stupid, weak-chinned, spiteful creature, forever seeking to squirm herself into the man’s favor and shrill herself into sovereignty over the harem. “Alas that this should be. It is wrong.” That tasted foul but had better be said. “Today she gave me an intolerable insult. I smote her once, open-handedly, across the chops. She wailed and fled—to you, who have things of importance to deal with.”

“She has often complained to me. You have been overbearing ever since she came into my house.”

“I have demanded no more than the respect due your senior wife, my lord.” I will not become a slave, a dog, a thing.

“What was this insult?” asked Zabdas.

“It was vile. Must I take it in my mouth?”

“Um-m ... describe it.”

“She shrieked that I keep my looks and strength by— means unspeakable in decent company.”

“Um! Are you certain? Women have flighty memories.”

“I suppose if you haled her in and put the question, she would deny it. Not her first lie.”

“Word against word.” Zabdas sighed loudly. “What is a man to believe? When shall he find peace to get on with his work? Women!”

“I think men, too, would grow jangle-witted, were they shut away forever with nothing to do that was worth the doing,” said Aliyat, for she felt she had little to lose.

“If I have left you ... undisturbed, it has been out of consideration for your age.”

“And yours, my lord?” she dared purr.

He paled. The brown spots on his skin stood plain to see. “Furja does not find me wanting!”

Not quite every night of the month, Aliyat thought. And, in sudden, surprising pity: He fears that his uneasiness about me would unman him; and likely that very fear would.

But they were moving toward deadly ground. She drew back: “I pray my lord’s pardon. No doubt some of the blame does fall on me, his servant. I simply hoped to explain to him why squabbles trouble his harem. If Furja will show me courtesy, I will do likewise.”

Zabdas rubbed his chin and stared beyond her. She had a brief, eerie feeling that somehow this was a chance for which he had waited. At length he regarded her and said, his tone strained, “Life was different for you in your young days. Old people find it hard to change. At the same time, this vigor you have kept makes it impossible for you to resign yourself. Am I right?”

She swallowed. “My lord speaks truth,” she answered, amazed that he showed any insight.

“And I have heard that you were helpful to your first husband in his business,” he went on.

She could only nod.

“Well, I have given you much thought, Aliyat,” he said faster. “My duty under God is to provide for your welfare, which should include your spirit’s. If time has become empty for you, if our daughter is not enough—well, perhaps we can find something more.”

Her heart sprang. Blood thundered in her ears.

Again he looked past her. “What I have hi mind is irregular,” he said, cautiously now. “No violation of the Law, understand, but it could cause gossip. I am willing to hazard this for your sake, but you must do your part, you must exercise the utmost discretion.”

“Wha-whatever my lord commands!”

“It will be a beginning, a trial. If you acquit yourself well, who knows what may follow? But hark.” He wagged his forefinger. “In Emesa is a youth, a distant kinsman of mine, who is eager to go into the business. His father will be pleased if I invite him here and train him. I, though, I lack time to teach him the ins and outs, the rules and customs and traditions peculiar to Tadmor, as well as the basic practicalities—especially where it comes to making shipments, to dealing with caravaneers. I could assign a man of mine to his instruction, but I can ill spare anyone. You, however; I suppose you remember. Of course, the utmost discretion is essential.”

Aliyat prostrated herself. “Trust me, my lord!” she sobbed.

<p>11</p>

Bonnur was tall, broad in the shoulders, slim in the waist. His beard was the merest overlay of silk across the smooth features, but a man’s strength rested in the hands. His movements and his eyes were like a gazelle’s. Though he was Christian, Zabdas received him cordially before sending him to find a bed among the other young men who served and learned here.

A twelvemonth back, the merchant had bought a lesser building adjacent to his home. He set workers to erect walls and roof joining the pair together, then knock out what separated them and make them one. Thus he would gain added offices, storerooms, and quarters for an expanded staff; his trade was burgeoning. Lately he had ordered a halt to the construction. He declared it was better to wait and see what effect the ongoing conquest of Persia would have on the traffic with India. The addition therefore stood unfurnished, unoccupied, dusty, and silent.

When he led her into it, Aliyat was astonished to find a room at the far end had been swept and outfitted. A plain but thick wool carpet softened the floor. Hangings flanked the second-story window. A table held a water carafe, cups, papyrus, ink, pens. Two stools waited nearby. And Bonnur did. Though Aliyat had been introduced to him earlier, her pulse quickened.

He salaamed deeply. “Be at ease,” said Zabdas with unaccustomed cordiality, “at ease, my dears. If we are to be a little irregular, we may as well enjoy it.”

He took a turn around the room, talking: “For my wife to explain things to you, Bonnur, and for you to ask of her, you need freedom. I am not the dry stick people take me for. I know that the folkways, the subtleties of a city cannot be entered in a ledger or parsed like a sentence. Stares and sniggers and the constraint you would feel, did you sit conferring in plain sight of every fool, those would bind your tongues, your minds. The task would become difficult, prolonged, perhaps impossible. And, to be sure, I would be considered eccentric at best for setting you to it. Men might wonder if I was near my dotage. That would be bad for trade, oh, yes.

“Therefore this retreat. At such times as I deem right, when your services are not required elsewhere, Bonnur, I will send word. You will leave the house and enter this section by its back door, on the lane behind. And I will give you a signal, Aliyat. You will betake yourself directly here. In fact, sometimes you will come here to be alone. You have desired to help me; very well, you may look over such reports and figures as I shall lend you, undisturbed, and offer me your opinions. This will be common knowledge. At other times, unbeknownst to anyone else, you will meet Bonnur.”

“But sir!” Red and white went in waves over the boyish face. “The lady and I and nobody else? Surely a maidservant, a eunuch, or—or—”

Zabdas shook his head. “The protestation does you honor,” he replied. “However, a watcher would defeat my whole purpose, which is to give you a true feel of conditions in Tadmor while avoiding derision and insinuations.” He looked from one to the other of them. “I never doubt I can trust my kinsman and my first wife.” With a flick of a smile: “She is, after all, aged beyond the usual span of me.”

“What?” Bonnur exclaimed. “Master, you jest! The veil, the gown, they cannot hide—”

“It is true,” said Zabdas, a low sibilation. “You shall hear of it from her, along with things less curious.”

<p>12</p>

A day approached sunset. “Well,” said Aliyat, “best we stop. I have duties still before me.”

“And I. And I should think upon what you have revealed to me this time.” Bonnur’s voice dragged.

Neither of them rose from the stools on which they sat facing. Abruptly he colored, dropped his gaze, and blurted, “My lady has a wonderful intelligence.”

It felt like a caress. “No, no,” she protested. “In a long life, even a stupid person learns a few things.”

She saw him break down a barrier so that he could meet her eyes. “Hard to believe you are, are old.”

“I carry my years well.” How often had she said it precisely thus? How mechanical it had become.

“All you have seen—“ Reckless impulse: “The change of faith. That you were forced away from Christ!”

“I have no regrets.”

“Do you not? If only for, for the freedom you have lost— the freedom your friends have lost, the simple freedom to look upon you—”

For an instant she was about to hush him. Nothing closed off the doorway but a bead curtain. However, such a thing muffled sound somewhat, and deserted corridors and rooms stretched between it and the inhabited part, and he had spoken softly, deep in his throat, while tears glimmered on his lashes.

“Who cares to see a hag?” she fended, and knew she was teasing.

“You are not! You shouldn’t have to cower behind that veil. I’ve noticed when you forgot to stoop and shamble.”

“You have watched me closely, it seems.” She fought a dizziness.

“I cannot help myself,” he confessed miserably.

“You are too curious.” As if a different creature used her tongue, her hands: “Best we quench that. Behold.”

She drew the yashmak aside. He gasped.

She dropped it back and stood up. “Are you satisfied? Keep silence, or we shall have to end these meetings. My lord would mislike that.” She left him.

Her daughter met her in the harem. “Mama, where have you been? Gutne won’t let me play with the lion doll.”

Aliyat groped after patience. She ought to love this child. But Thirya was whimpery, and sick half the time, and resembled her father.

<p>13</p>

Sometimes the sameness of the days broke, when Zabdas gave Aliyat materials to study and report on. In the room that was apart, she tried to grasp what she read, but it slipped and wriggled about like a handful of worms. Twice she met there with Bonnur. The second time she took off her veil at the outset, and she had dressed in a gown of light material. “The weather is blazing hot,” she told him, “and I am only an old granny, no, great-grandmother.” They accomplished little. Silences kept falling between them.

More days flowed sluggishly together. She lost count of them. What difference did their number make? Each was just like the last, save for bickerings and nuisances and, at night, dreams. Did Satan brew certain of those for her? If so, she owed him thanks.

Then Zabdas summoned her to his office. “Your counsel has gone worthless,” he said peevishly. “Does your dotage come upon you at last?”

She bit back rage. “I am sorry, my lord, if no thoughts have occurred to me of late. I will try to do better.”

“What’s the use? No use in you any more. Furja, now, Furja warms my bed, and surely soon she’ll be fruitful.” Zabdas waved a hand in dismissal. “Well, be off. Go wait for Bonnur. I’ll send him. Perhaps at least you can persuade him to mend those woolgathering ways he’s taken on. By all the saints—by the beard of the Prophet, I regret my promises to both of you!”

Aliyat stalked through the empty part of the house with fists clenched. In the room of meetings she prowled back and forth, back and forth. It was a cage. She halted at the window and stared out through the grille. From there she could look over the walls around the ancient temple of Bel. Its limestone seemed bleached under a furious sun. The bronze capitals of the portico columns blazed. Heat-shimmer made the reliefs on the cella waver. Long had it stood unused, empty, like herself. Now it was being refurbished. She had heard at fourth or fifth hand that the Arabs planned to make a fortress of it.

But were those Powers entirely dead? Bel of the storm, Jarhibol of the sun, Aglibol of the moon—Ashtoreth of begettings and births, terrible in beauty, she who descended into hell to win back her lover—unseen, they strode across the earth; unheard, they shouted throughout heaven; the sea that Aliyat had never known thundered behind her breasts.

A footstep, a click of beads, she whirled about. Bonnur halted. Sweat sheened on him. She caught the smell of it, filling the heat and silence, man-smell. She was wet with her own; the dress clung to her.

She unfastened her veil and cast it to the floor.

“My lady,” he choked, “oh, my lady.”

She advanced. Her hips swung as if of themselves. Breath loudened. “What would you with me, Bonnur?”

His gazelle eyes fled right and left, trapped. He backed off a step. He raised his hands against her. “No,” he begged.

“No, what?” she laughed. She stopped before him and he must needs meet her look. “We’ve things to do, you and I.”

If he is wise, he will agree. He will sit down and begin asking about the best way to bargain with a caravaneer.

<p>14</p>

“I have business in Tripolis,” Zabdas said. “It may keep me several weeks. I shall go with Nebozabad, who leaves a few days hence.”

Aliyat was glad she had left her veil on after reaching his office. “Does my lord wish to say what business it is?”

“No sense in that. You’ve grown barren of advice, as of everything else. I am informing you privately so that I can state what should be obvious, that in my absence you are to abide in the harem and occupy yourself with a wife’s ordinary duties.”

“Of course, my lord.”

She and Bonnur had thus far had two afternoons together.

<p>15</p>

Thirya stirred. “Mama—”

Aliya pushed fury down. “Hush, darling,” she breathed. “Go to sleep.” And she must wait while the child tossed and whined, until finally the bed was quiet.

Finally!

Her feet remembered the way through the dark. She clutched her nightgown to her lest it brush against something. The thought flitted: Like this do the unrestful dead steal from their graves. But it was to life that she was going. Already the juices of it ran hot. Her nostrils drank the cedary odor of her desire.

Nobody else woke, and there was no guard on as small, as drab a harem as this. Her fingers touched walls, guiding her, until she reached the last dear corridor. No, do not run, make no needless sound. The beads in the doorway snaked around her. The window framed stars. A breeze from the cooling desert drifted through it. Her pulse racketed. She pulled off the gown and tossed it aside.

He came. Her toes gripped the carpet.

“Aliyat, Aliyat.” The rough whisper echoed in her head. Bonnur stumbled, knocked a stool over, panted. She gurgled laughter and slipped to him.

“I knew you would come, beloved,” she sang. His arms enclosed her. She clawed herself tight to him. Her tongue thrust between his lips.

He bore her down, they were on the carpet, the thought flashed that she must take care it show no stains, he groaned and she reached after him.

Lantern light glared. “Behold!” Zabdas cackled.

Bonnur rolled off Aliyat. Both sat up, crouched back, crawled to their feet. The lantern swung in Zabdas’ hand. It sent huge misshapen shadows adance over the walls. She saw him in fragments, eyeballs, nose, wet snags of teeth, wrinkles, hatred. Right and left of him were his two sons. They bore swords. The steel gleamed.

“Boys, seize them!” Zabdas shouted.

Bonnur reeled. He lifted his hands like a beggar. “No, master, my lord, no.”

It tumbled through Aliyat: Zabdas had planned this from the first. He had no passage arranged with the caravan. ; These three waited in another room, their light muffled, for that which he knew would happen. Now he would be rid of her, and keep her property, and believe that even an ifrit— or whatever inhuman thing she might be—would not return from the punishment for adultery.

Once she would have welcomed an ending. But the weariness of the years was burned out of her.

“Bonnur, fight!” she screamed. “They’ll tie us in a sack and the people will stone us to death!” She laid her hands on his back and shoved him forward. “Are you a man? Save us!”

He howled and leaped. A man swung sword. Unpracticed, he missed. Bonnur caught that arm with one hand. His fist crunched into the nose behind. The second brother edged around, awkwardly, afraid of hitting the wrong body. The struggle lurched past Aliyat. It left a smear of blood on her. She bounced clear.

Zabdas blocked the doorway. She snatched the lantern from the old man’s feeble grasp and dashed it to the floor. Oil flared in yellow flame. He staggered aside. She heard him shriek as the fire licked his ankle.

She fled past the beads, down hall and stairway, out the rear door, from the lane into ghost-gray streets between blank walls. The Philippian Gate stayed open after dark when a caravan was making ready. If she took care, if she moved slowly and kept to the shadows, its sentries might not see her.

Oh, Bonnur! But she had no breath or tears to spare for him, not yet, not if she wanted to live.

<p>16</p>

Those in the caravan who glanced behind them saw the towers of Tadmor catch the first sun-gleam. Then they were up the valley and out on the steppe. Ahead of them the sky also brightened-until the last stars faded away.

Signs of man were sparse on that day’s travel. After Nebozabad left the Roman road on a short cut across the desert, there was nothing but a trail worn by the generations before him who had fared likewise. He called halt for the night at a muddy, pool where the horses could drink. Men contented themselves with what they carried along in skins, camels with what scrawny shrubs were to be found.

The master strode through the bustle and hubbub to a certain driver. “I will take that bale, now, Hatim,” he said. The other grinned. Like most in this trade, he considered smuggling to be a part of it, and never asked unnecessary questions.

The bale was actually a long bundle tied together with rope, which had been nestled into the load on the camel. Nebozabad’s slave carried it back, into the master’s tent, laid it down, salaamed, and went to squat outside, forbidding intruders. Nebozabad knelt, undid the knots, unrolled the cloth.

Aliyat crept forth. Sweat plastered her hair and the djellabah he had lent to the curves of her. The countenance was hollow-eyed, the lips cracked. Yet once he had given her water and a bite of food, she recovered with eerie quickness, well-nigh minute by minute as he watched.

“Speak low,” he warned. “How have you fared?”

“It was hot and dry and gut-wrenching bumpy,” she answered in a voice husky more than hoarse, “but I shall forever thank you. Did a search party come?”

He nodded. “Soon after we left. A few Arabian soldiers, rousted out—after Zabdas gained himself ill will by waking the qadi, I gather. They were sleepy and uninterested. We need not have hidden you so well.”

She sighed where she sat, knees drawn up, ran fingers through her matted tresses, gave him a smile that shone and lingered in the lamplit dusk. “You cared, dear friend.”

Cross-legged before her, he scowled. “Reckless was I. It might cost me my head, and I’ve my family to think of.”

She reached to stroke fingers across his wrist. “Rather would I die than bring harm on you. Give me a waterskin and a little bread, and I will strike off across the desert.”

“No, no!” he exclaimed. “That would be a slower death. Unless the nomads found you, which would be worse. No, I can take you along. We’ll swaddle you well in garments too large, keep you offside and unspeaking. I’ll say you’re a boy, kin to me, who’s requested a ride to Tripolis.” He grinned sourly. “Those who doubt the ‘kin’ part of that will snicker behind my back. Well, let them. My tent is yours to share while the journey lasts.”

“God will reward you, where I cannot. Barikai in Paradise will intercede for your soul.”

Nebozabad shrugged. “I wonder how much good that will do, when it’s the escape of a confessed adulteress I’m aiding.”

Her mouth trembled. A tear ran down the sweat and grime dried on her cheeks. “It’s right, though,” he said in haste. “You told me what cruelties drove you from your wits.”

She caught his nearer hand in both hers and clung.

He cleared his throat. “Yet you must understand, Aliyat, I can do no more than this. In Tripolis I must leave you, with what few coins I can spare, and thereafter you are alone. Should I be charged with having helped you, I will deny all.”

“And I will deny I saw you. But fear not. I’ll vanish from sight.”

“Whither? How shall you live, forsaken?”

“I will. I have already seen ninety years. Look. Have they left any mark on me?”

He stared. “They have not,” he mumbled. “You are strange, strange.”

“Nonetheless—simply a woman. Nebozabad, I, I can do somewhat to repay a morsel of your kindness. The only things I have to offer are memories, but those you can bring home with you.”

He sat motionless.

She drew closer. “It is my wish,” she whispered. “They will be my memories too.”

<p>17</p>

And gladsome they are, she thought when afterward he lay sleeping. I could almost envy his wife.

Until he grew old, and she did. Unless first a sickness took one or the other off. Aliyat had never in her life been ill. Her flesh had forgotten the abuse of the day and the night that were past. A pleasant languor pervaded it, but if perchance he should awaken, she would instantly arouse to eagerness.

She smiled in the dark. Allow the man his rest. She would like to go out and walk about a while, under the moon and the high desert stars. No, too risky. Wait. Wait. She had learned how.

Paul twinged. Poor Bonnur. Poor Thirya. But if ever she let herself weep for any of the short-lived, there would be no end of weeping. Poor Tadmor. But a new city lay ahead, and beyond it all the world and time.

A woman who was ageless had one way, if none eke, to live onward hi freedom.


1

<p>1</p>

The caravan to Tripolis would leave at daybreak. Nebozabad, its master, wanted everything ready the evening before. He wanted every man rehearsed in making and breaking camp. Delays not only cost money, they multiplied risk.

So he thought. Some people told him not to fret. Peace was now secure, they said, Syria firmly in Arabian hands. Had not the Khalifa himself passed through Tadmor, on his way to holy Jerusalem, three years ago? Nebozabad was less trustful. Throughout his life he had seen too much war, with the disruption of trade, breakdown of order, and upsurge of banditry that soon followed. He meant to use every hour of opportunity that God granted him.

Therefore his charges bedded down not in a caravanserai but on a ground beyond the Philippian Gate. He went about, speaking to camel drivers, guards, traders, lesser folk, issuing commands where needed, piecemeal giving turmoil a shape and a meaning. Night was well upon him before he was done.

He paused, then, to enjoy a moment alone. Air had gone cool, with a tinge of smoke from the small fires that glimmered in the camp. Otherwise it was a huddle of darkness. He made out the peaks of a few tents, pitched by the more prosperous among his travelers, and sometimes light flickered off the spearhead of a sentry on his rounds. Nebozabad wanted all routines working from the outset. A murmur reached his ears, talk of men who sat up late, occasionally the soft whicker of a horse or the nimble and gurgle in a camel’s throat.

Stars glittered brilliant, beyond counting. From the west a gibbous moon cast light down the shallow valley. It frosted hills, palm fronds, the tower tombs that rose out of shadow, the turrets and battlements of the city wall. That wall loomed sheer, gray-white, as if a piece of the steppe surrounding this basin had been turned on end. It seemed as eternal, too, its massiveness never to be breached, the life that now slept behind its shelter to pulse every day forever.

The thought made Nebozabad bite his lip. Much too well did he know otherwise. In his own lifetime the Persians had driven out the Romans, and later the Romans had driven out the Persians, and today both nations were in retreat before the sword of Islam; and while trade routes still bore wealth into Tadmor and forth again, the city was long past her glory. Ah, to have lived then, when she—Palmyra on Latin and Greek tongues—was the queen of Syria, before Emperor Aurelian crushed Zenobia’s bid for freedom—

Nebozabad sighed, shrugged, turned about and started back. A city, like a man, must bear whatever fate God decrees. In that much, at least, the Muslims were right.

On his way, he heard and answered several greetings. “Christ be with you, master.”

“And his spirit be with you.” Everyone recognized his stocky form in the plain djellabah, his rather heavy features bared to the sky. Moonlight touched white streaks in hair and short-cropped beard.

Presently he neared his own tent. It was of good material though modest size; he never took along weight that could, instead, be in articles of value. Lamplight glowed faint yellow around a flap hanging loose.

A hand clutched his ankle. His stopped short, sucked in a breath, closed fingers on knife hilt. “Quiet,” a voice whispered frantically, “By God’s mercy, I pray you. I mean no harm.”

Nonetheless chill tingled through him as he peered. Someone crouched, flattened close to the ground, a paleness amidst the shadows. Naked? “What is this?” he hissed.

“I need help,” came back at him. “Can we speak alone? Behold, I am unarmed.”

He believed he knew that voice. Often had he had to make quick decisions.

“Abide,” he said low. The imploring hand released him. He stepped around to the front of his tent and slipped past the flap, with care that little light flash forth. Within, the camel’s-hair fabric enclosed a measure of warmth. A clay lamp dimly showed his bedroll spread out for him, water pitcher and basin and two or three other minor comforts ready, his body servant hunkered down. That person brought knees, hands, and brow to earth in salutation and asked, “What is my master’s desire?”

“I expect a visitor,” Nebozabad told him. “Depart cautiously, as I arrived. When I have secured the entrance, let no one else seek to me, nor ever speak a word of this.”

“On my head be it, master.” The slave glided off. Nebozabad had chosen and trained him well; he was wholly loyal. When he was gone, Nebozabad looked out for a moment, murmured, “Come now,” and drew back again.

The other scuttled through, straightened, confronted him. Despite his half knowledge, he gasped. A woman indeed. Oh, woman’s very self!

He remembered the danger, muttered a curse, hastened to secure the entrance. Then he dared try to deal with her.

She had lowered herself to knees and toes, hands laid across her lap. Midnight tresses flowed over shoulders, down past her breasts. He guessed flittingly that that was not quite by chance. Nothing else had she for garment, except grime, a streak of clotting blood on the left forearm, sweat that shimmered in the lamplight, and the gloom. Her body might have belonged to an ancient goddess, lithe, firm-bosomed, slim-waisted, round-hipped. The face she turned to him was broad across the cheekbones, straight of nose, lips full above the cleanness of chin and jawline. Her skin was faintly golden and the great eyes, beneath arching brows, were hazel. In her, Roman of the West, Roman of the East, Hellene, and Persian had mingled with Syria.

He stared down at the sight. She seemed a maiden, no, a youthful matron, no, something for which he had no name. But he knew her.

Her voice trembled husky. “O Nebozabad, old friend, there is no hope left me save in you. Help me, as once my house helped you. You have known us all your life.”

Forty-odd years. The thought struck like a dagger. His mind flew back across more than thirty of them.


2

<p>2</p>

Aliyat both longed for Barikai’s return and dreaded it. She would have the solace of his embrace and of giving him her own upbearing love. So had they stood together when they lost other children; but those were infants. First, though, she must tell him what had happened.

He was elsewhere in Tadmor, talking with the merchant Taimarsu. News from the front was evil, the Persians inflicting defeat after defeat upon the Romans, thrusting into Mesopotamia, with Syria’s defenses thin on their left. More and more, commerce with the seaboard pulled into its shell and awaited the outcome. Caravan masters such as Barikai suffered. Most were, themselves, chary of venturing anywhere. He, bolder, went off to persuade the traffickers that they should not let goods molder in warehouses.

She imagined his heartiness, his laughter: “I’ll convey them. Prices in Tripolis or Berytus will be at a peak! Rewards are for the brave.” She had encouraged it. Daughter of a man in the same trade, she was closer to her husband than most wives, almost a partner as well as his mate and the mother of his children. It eased the wistfulness that tugged at her whenever she stood on the city wall and watched his train move off beyond the horizon.

But today— A female slave found her in the garden and said, “The master is here.” Aliyat’s spirit twisted within her.

She called up courage as women must, in childbed or by deathbed, and hastened. Her skirts rustled through a silence full of eyes. All the household knew.

It was a fair-sized household in a good-sized building. Until lately Barikai, like his father before him, had done well. Aliyat hoped it would not become necessary to sell off any slaves; she was fond of them. She was instituting frugality... What mattered such things?

The atrium lay dim with eventide. Her glance fell on the image of the Virgin that stood In a niche, its blue and gold aglow against whitewash. For a little while she had knelt before it, silently praying that the news not be true. The image had merely stared, changeless.

Barikai had just given his cloak to a servant. Beneath it he wore a robe decorated with gold thread, to show power, confidence. Time had grizzled the dark hair and furrowed the lean face, but he still walked springily. “Christ be with you, my lady,” he began, as was seemly in the presence of attendants. His gaze sharpened. He reached her in three long strides and took her by the shoulders. “What is wrong?”

She must swallow twice before she could beg, “Come with me.” His mouth drew tight. Wordlessly he followed her back into the garden.

Enclosed by the house, it was a place of cool calm, refuge from the world. Jasmine and roses grew around a pool where water lilies floated. Their fragrances drenched the air. Overhead, heaven had gone royal blue as the sun went below the roof. Here two people could be alone.

Aliyat turned to Barikai. She doubled her fists at her sides and forced out, “Manu is dead.”

He stood unmoving.

“Young Mogim brought the word this morning,” Aliyat told him. “He was among the few who escaped. The squadron was on patrol south of Khalep. A Persian cavalry troop surprised them. Mogim saw Manu take an arrow in his eye, fall from the saddle, go down under the hoofs.”

“South of Khalep,” Barikai croaked. “Already. Then they are coming into Syria.”

She knew that man-thought was only the first poor shield he could lift. She saw it break in his grasp. “Manu,” he said. “Our first-born. Gone.” The hand shook with which he crossed himself, over and over. “God have mercy on him. Christ take him home. Help him, holy Georgios.”

I too should pray, Aliyat thought, and knew with a wan surprise that any wish to do so had withered.

“Have you told Aqmat?” Barikai asked.

“Of course. Best, I think, best leave her and her children in peace for a while.” Manu’s young wife had lived in terror of this since he was called to war. The fact had fallen on her like a hammer.

“I sent a messenger to Hairan, but his master has dispatched him to Emesa on some business,” Aliyat went on. The younger of their sons worked for a dealer in wine. “The sisters mourn at home.” Their three living daughters were married, well enough that she was glad of the earlier struggle to amass good dowries for them.

“I think now—to carry on my trade—I think I will take Nebozabad to apprentice,” Barikai mumbled. “You know him, do you not? Son of the widow Hafsa. Only ten years old, but a likely lad. And it would be a kindness. It might make the saints smile a little on Manu’s soul.”

Abruptly he seized her, painfully hard. “But why do I chatter like this?” he yelled. “Manu is gone!”

She loosened his hands, guided his arms around her, held him very close. They stood thus for many heartbeats, while shadows rose in the garden and light drained from the sky.

“Aliyat, Aliyat,” he whispered at last, shakenly, into her hair, “my love, my strength. How can it be that you are what you are? Wife of mine, mother, grandmother, and yet you could well-nigh be the girl I made my bride.”


3

<p>3</p>

When the Persians occupied Tadmor, they first levied a heavy tribute. Thereafter they were not bad overlords— no worse than the Romans, thought Aliyat in secret. Zarathushtrans who held fire sacred, they let everybody worship according to belief, and in fact kept Orthodox Christians, Nestorian Christians, and Jews from molesting each other. Meanwhile their firm control of the territories they won allowed trade to resume, also with their own country. After a dozen years, people heard that they were advancing farther, had taken Jerusalem and presently Egypt. Aliyat wondered if they would go on to Old Rome, but decided, from what men told about Italy, that that raddled land, divided among Lombard chiefs, the Catholic Pope, and remnant Imperial garrisons, would be no prize.

Word trickled in: a new Emperor, Heraklios, reigned in Constantinople and was said to be energetic and able. However, he had woes close to home. Barely did he cast the wild Avars back from the capital city.

In Tadmor such events seemed remote, not quite real. Aliyat was nearly the sole woman there who even heard of them. One had one’s private life to cope with. For her, too, the days and the years blurred together. A grandchild born, a friend dying, rose into reality and stood afterward in memory like lone hills espied on a long caravan trek.

So matters were at the hour that ended them.

She set forth with a sturdy female attendant for the agora. They left early in the morning, to finish her bargaining and carry back her purchases before the heat of the day drove folk indoors to rest. Barikai bade her a farewell she could barely hear. He had been weak of late, with bouts of pain in the chest and shortness of breath, he who was hitherto so strong. Neither prayers nor physicians availed much.

Aliyat and Mara followed their winding street to the Colonnade and walked on along it. The great double row of pillars gleamed triumphant between the arches at either end, bursting into florescence where the capitals challenged heaven. From a ledge on each, a statue of some famous citizen looked down, centuries of history at attention. Below them the ways were crowded with shops, trading offices, chapels, joyhouses, humanity. Smells eddied thick, smoke, sweat, dung, perfume, aroma of spices and oils and fruits. Noise rioted, footfalls, hoofbeats, wheel-creak, hammer-clang, chant, shout, speech, mostly the Aramaic of this country but also Greek, Persian, Arabic, and tongues of lands more distant yet. Colors swirled, a cloak, a robe, a veil, a headdress, a pennon streaming from a lance, an ornament, a charm. A rug seller sat amidst the rich hues of his wares. A wine vendor held his leather bottle aloft. A coppersmith made clangor. An oxcart slogged through the crowds, laden with dates from the oasis. A camel grunted and shambled beneath bales of silk from beyond Aliyat’s ken. A squad of Persian horsemen trotted behind a trumpeter who warned the throng to dear the way; their armor flashed, their plumes rippled. A litter bore a wealthy merchant, another a bedizened courtesan, who both looked out with indolent insolence. A black-clad Christian priest drew aside from an austere magus and crossed himself once the latter was past. Drovers who had brought sheep in from the arid steppe wandered wide-eyed among enticements that would likely send them back to their tents penniless. A flute piped, a small drum thumped, somebody sang, high-pitched and quavery.

This was her city, Aliyat knew, these were her people, and nonetheless she was ever more estranged from them.

“Lady! Lady!”

She stopped at the call and glanced about. Nebozabad forced a path toward her. The persons whom he shoved aside shook their fists and cursed him. He went on unhearing until he reached her. She read his countenance and foreknowledge became a boulder in her breast.

“Lady, I hoped I could overtake you,” the young man panted. “I was with my master, your husband, when— He is stricken. He uttered your name. I sent for a physician and myself started after you.”

“Lead me,” said Aliyat’s voice.

He did, loudly, roughly, quickly. They returned beneath the brightening, uncaring sky to the house. “Wait,” Aliyat commanded at the door of the bedchamber, and went in alone.

She need not have hurt Nebozabad by leaving him out in the corridor. She had not been thinking. Of course several slaves were there, standing aside, awed and helpless. But likewise, already, was their remaining son Hairan. He leaned over the bed, holding fast to him who lay in it. “Father,” he pleaded, “father, can you hear me?”

Barikai’s eyes were rolled back, a hideous white against the blueness that crept below the skin. Froth bubbled on his lips. The breath shuddered in and out of him, ceased, came raggedly anew, ceased again. Beadwork curtains across the windows tried to obscure the sight. For Aliyat they only made a twilight through which she saw him the starker.

Hairan looked up. Tears ran into his beard. “I fear he is dying, mother,” he said.

“I know.” She knelt, brushed his hands aside, laid her arms about Barikai and her cheek on her man’s bosom. She heard, she felt the life go away.

Rising, she closed his eyes and tried to wipe his face. The physician arrived. “I can see to that, my lady,” he offered.

She shook her bead. “I will lay him out,” she answered. “It is my right.”

“Fear not, mother,” Hairan said unevenly. “I will provide well for you—you shall have a peaceful old age—“ The words trailed off. He stared, as did the physician and the slaves. Barikai, caravan master, had not reached his full threescore and ten, but he seemed as if he had, hair mostly white, visage gaunt, muscles shriveled over the bones. His widow who stood above him could have been a woman of twenty springtimes.


4

<p>4</p>

Unto Hairan the wine merchant was born a grandson, and great was the rejoicing in his house. The feast that he and the father gave for kinfolk and friends lasted far into the night. Aliyat withdrew early from the women’s part of it, into the rear of the building where she had a room. No one thought ill of this; after all, however much respect her years entitled her to, they were a burden.

She did not seek rest as everybody supposed. Once alone, she straightened her back and changed her shuffling gait. Fast, supple, she went out a back door. The voluminous black garments that disguised her figure billowed with her haste. Her head was covered as usual, which hid the blackness of her locks. Family and servitors often remarked on bow amazingly youthful her face and hands were; but now she lowered a veil.

She passed a slave going about his duties, who recognized her but simply made salutation. He would not babble about what he had seen. He too was old, and knew that one must bear with the old if sometimes they grow a trifle strange.

The night air was blessedly cool and fresh. The street was a gut of shadow, but her feet knew every stone and she found her way easily to the Colonnade. Thence she strode toward the agora. A full moon had cleared surrounding roofs. Its brilliance hid the stars close to it, though lower down they swarmed and sparkled. The pillars lifted white. Her footfalls slithered loud in the silence. Most folk were abed.

She took some risk, but it was slight. Mostly, the city guards had continued under the Persians to maintain law and order. Once she hid behind a column while a squad tramped past. Their pikeheads sheened like liquid in the moonlight. Had they seen her, they might well have insisted on bringing her home—unless they took her for a harlot, which would have led to questions for which she lacked answers.

“Why do you prowl about after dark?” She could not say, she did not know, yet she must get away for a while or else begin screaming.

This was not the first such time.

At the Street of the Marketers she turned south. The grace of the theater fountained upward on her right. On her left, the portico and wall around the agora lay ghostly under the moon. She had heard that they were but fragments of what formerly was, before desperate men quarried them for fortification material as the Romans closed in on Zenobia. That suited her mood. She passed through an unbarred gateway onto the broad plaza.

Remembrance of its liveliness by day made it feel all die more empty. Statues of former high officials, military commanders, senators, and, yes, caravan leaders ringed it in like sentinels around a necropolis. Aliyat walked through the moonlight to the center and stopped. Her heartbeat and breath were the only sounds she heard.

“Miriamne, Mother of God, I thank you—“ The words died on her lips. They were as hollow as the place where she stood, they would be mockery did she finish them.

Why was she barren of gladness and gratitude? A son had been born to the son of her son. The life that was in Barikai lived on. Could she call his dear shade out of the night, surely it would be smiling.

A shudder went through her. She could not raise the memory. His face had become a blur; she had words for its lineaments, but no vision any-longer. Everything receded into the past, her loves died and died and died, and God would not let her follow them.

She should praise Him with song, that she was hale and whole, untouched by age. How many, halt, gnarled, toothless, half blind, afire with pain, longed for death’s mercy? Whereas she— But the fear of her gathered year by year, the glances askance, whispers, furtive signs against evil. Hairan himself saw in the mirror his gray hair and lined brow, and wondered about his mother; she knew, she knew. She held as much apart as she could, not to remind her kin, and understood what an unspoken conspiracy was theirs, to avoid speaking of her before outsiders. And so she became the outsider, the one forever alone.

How could she be a great-grandmother, she in whose loins burned lust? Was that why she was punished by this, or what dreadful childhood sin of hers had she forgotten?

The moon moved onward, the stars turned their wheel. Slowly, something of heaven’s bleak tranquility came to her. She started homeward. She would not surrender. Not yet.


5

<p>5</p>

The war devoured a generation, but in the end Heraklios prevailed. He drove the Persians before him until they sued for peace. Two-and-twenty years after they left, the Romans re-entered Tadmor.

On their heels was a new resident, Zabdas, a dealer in spices from Emesa. That was a somewhat larger city, nearer the seaboard, therefore wealthier and more closely governed. Zabdas’ family firm had an affiliate in Tadmor. After the chaos of battle and the latest change of overlords it needed reorganization, a cunning hand on the reins and a shrewd eye out for such opportunities as might appear. He arrived and took charge. That required making acquaintances, alliances, among local people. He was handicapped in this by being newly widowed, and therefore soon began looking for a wife.

Nobody told Aliyat about him, and indeed when he first visited Hairan it was on business. The dignity of the house, the guest, and herself required that she be among the women who bade him welcome before the men supped. Out of sheer rebelliousness, or so she vaguely thought, she left off her shapeless grandam’s clothes and dressed in modest but becoming wise. She saw his startlement on learning who she was; eyes met eyes; a thrill that she fought to control went through her. He was a short man of about fifty, but erect, alert, the white hairs few and the visage well-molded. They exchanged ritual courtesies. She went back to her room.

Though she often found it hard to pluck a single memory out of the multitude that crowded her, certain experiences repeated themselves frequently enough that she gained skill from them. She could well read the meaning of Hairan’s glances when he thought she didn’t notice, the words he spoke to her and the words he did not. She could sense a rising current of excitement in the wives and slaves, even the older children. Her sleep became broken, she paced and paced or stole out by dark, the comfort that she had sometimes found in books now vanished.

It was no surprise when at length Hairan asked her to see him privately. That was in winter’s early night, after most of the household had gone to bed. He admitted her when she knocked, escorted her to a cushioned stool, sat down cross-legged on the rug behind a table on which stood wine, dates, cakes.

For a space there was quiet. Bronze lamps sheened in the light that their flames threw soft. It picked out floral patterns of frescos, reds and blues and browns of carpet, the folds of his robe and the furrows in his face. He was wholly gray and had grown a pot belly. He blinked dimsightedly at her slimness. The brocade of green and gold that she had chosen lay close over curves; above her head covering, a wreath of gold wire enclosed the clear brows.

“Will you take refreshment, mother?” he invited finally, very low.

“Thank you.” She reached for a goblet. The wine glowed on her tongue. Drink and food, those were comforts too. They had not lost their savor as she aged, nor had she become fat.

“You should not thank me.” He looked away. “It is my duty to provide for your well-being.”

“You have been a dutiful son.”

“I have tried my best.” In a rush, never meeting her gaze: “You, though, you are unhappy with us. True? I am not blind or deaf so far, not quite. You seldom if ever complain, but I cannot help knowing.”

She commanded her body to be still, her voice to be leve “True. No fault of yours, nor of anyone else.” She must force herself to hurt him. “I daresay you feel you are a young man trapped in flesh growing old. Well, I am an old woman trapped in flesh that stays young. Why this is, only God knows.”

He twined fingers together. “You are—how old? Threescore and ten? Well, some people do carry their years well and reach great ages. If you lived for a hundred years in good health, it would not be unheard of. May God grant you do so.” She marked how he evaded mention of the fact that except for teeth showing wear she bore no trace of the time that had passed.

Let her encourage him to say what he intended to say. “You will understand how my uselessness makes me restless.”

“It need not!” burst from him. He lifted his eyes. She saw sweat on his skin. “Hark. Zabdas, a respectable man, a merchant, has asked for your hand in marriage.”

I knew this, she thought; and aloud: “I know whom you speak of,” She said naught about the cautious inquiries she had contrived to make. “But he and I met just a single time.”

“He has queried people about you, and talked repeatedly with me, and— He is, I say, an honorable man, well off and with excellent prospects for the future, a widower in need of a wife. He realizes that you are older than him, but feels this is no barrier. He has children grown, grandchildren coming, what he wants is a helpmate. Believe me, I have made sure of this.”

“Do you wish the union, Hairan?” Aliyat asked quietly.

She sipped while he stuttered, fumbled with his goblet, looked to and fro, before he said, “I would never compel you, mother. It simply appears to me ... it may be in your best interests. I will not deny, he offers certain business agreements that would ... help. My enterprise has fallen on hard times.”

“I know.” He showed surprise. Aliyat whetted her tone: “Did you think me blind or deaf? I worked closely with your father, Hairan, as you never let me work with you.”

“I—mother, I did not mean—”

She laughed a little. “Oh, you have been as kindly as you know how. Let us put such things behind us. Tell me more.”


6

<p>6</p>

The wedding and the celebration that followed were an occasion small, almost subdued. Finally the bride was escorted to the groom’s bedchamber and left with a maidservant.

The room was not large, its walls merely whitewashed, its furnishings austere. Some garlands had been hung around it. A screen blocked off one comer. A three-branched candelabrum gave light. Laid across the bed were two nightgowns.

Aliyat knew she was expected to change into hers. Mutely, she let the attendant help her. She and Barikai had frolicked naked, with wicks burning bright. Well, times changed, or perhaps it was people who differed. She had been too long cut off from gossip to say.

When she stood briefly unclad, Zabdas’ slave cried: “But my lady is beautiful!”

Aliyat stroked hands down her flanks. The touch tingled. She barely stopped short of her groin. Tonight she would again know the true pleasure that had haunted her for— how many years? She smiled. “Thank you.”

“I, I heard you were old,” the girl stammered.

“I am.” Aliyat’s manner imposed fear and silence.

She had an hour or two by herself in bed. Thoughts tumbled through her head, out of control. Now and then she shivered. At least her days in the house of her son had been predictable. That, though, was what had become the horror of them.

She sat up with a start when Zabdas entered. He closed the door behind him and stood for a moment watching her. In festival garb, he was ... dapper. Her gown was of rather thick material, loosely cut, but her bosom swelled it outward. “You are more fair than I knew,” he said in his careful way.

She lowered her lashes. “I thank my lord,” she replied around the tightness in her throat.

He advanced. “Still, you are a woman of discretion, with the wisdom of your years,” he said. “Such a one do I require.” He halted before the icon of St. Ephraem Syrus that was the chamber’s sole fixed ornament and crossed himself. “Grant us a satisfactory life together,” he prayed.

Taking his nightshirt, he went behind the screen. She saw how neatly he hung his clothes over the top. When he returned dressed for sleep, he bent over, cupped a hand behind each candle in turn, and blew them out. He got into bed with his usual economy of motion.

He is my husband, pulsed in Aliyat. He is my liberation. Let me be good to him.

She reached out. Her arms enclosed, her mouth went seeking. “What?” Zabdas exclaimed. “Be at ease. I shall not hurt you.”

“Do, if you like.” She pressed against him. “How may I please you?”

“Why, why— This is— Kindly lie still, my lady. Remember your years.”

She obeyed. Sometimes she and Barikai had enjoyed playing master and slave. Or youth and whore. She felt Zabdas raise himself to an elbow. His free hand tugged at her gown. She pulled it up and spread her thighs. He climbed between. He rested his full weight on her, which Barikai had not, but then Zabdas was much lighter. She reached to guide him. Briskly, he took care of that himself, grasped her breasts through the cloth, and thrust. He did not seem to notice how her arms and legs clasped him. It was quickly over.

He got off and lay until his breathing was again even. She could barely see him as a deeper shadow in the night. He sounded troubled: “How wet you were. You have the body of a young woman, as well as the face.”

“For you,” she murmured.

Through the mattress she felt him tauten. “What is your age in truth?” So Hairan had avoided saying it outright; but Zabdas had perhaps avoided asking.

Fourscore and one, she knew. “I have never kept count,” was the safest reply. “But there has been no deception, my lord. I am Hairan’s mother. I ... was quite young when I bore him, and you have seen that I carry my years better than most.”

“A wonder.” His voice was fiat.

“Uncommon. A blessing. I am unworthy, but—“ It must out: “My courses have not yet ended. I can bear you children, Zabdas.”

“This is—“ He searched for a word. “Unexpected.”

“Let us thank God together.”

“Yes. We should. But now best we sleep. I have much to do in the morning.”


7

<p>7</p>

To Zabdas came the caravan master Nebozabad. They must discuss a proposed shipment to Dannesek. A journey of that length could no longer be lightly undertaken. News was too ominous, of the Arabian onslaught against Persia and threat to New Rome.

The merchant received his guest well, as he did all who were of consequence, and bade him dine. Aliyat insisted on serving them with her own hands. As they sat over their dessert, Zabdas excused himself and was gone for a while. He suffered from an occasional flux of the bowels. Nebozabad waited alone.

The room was the best furnished in the house, with embroidered red hangings, four seven-branched candelabra of gilt bronze, a table of teakwood carven in foliate patterns and inlaid with nacre, the ware upon it of silver or the finest glass. A pinch of incense hi a brazier made the air, on this warm eventide, a little cloying.

Nebozabad looked up when Aliyat came in with a tray of fruits. She stopped across from him, in dark garments that muffled sight of more than hands, countenance, the big hazel eyes. “Sit down, my lady,” he urged.

She shook her head. “That would be unseemly,” she answered in a near whisper.

“Then I will stand.” He rose from his stool. “Far too long has it been since last I saw you. How fares it?”

“Well enough.” She took on expression; her words leaped. “And how is it with you? Aiid Hairan and, oh, everybody? I hear very little.”

“You do not see much of anyone, do you, my lady?”

“My husband feels it would be ... indiscreet ... at my age. But how goes it, Nebozabad? Tell me, I beg you!”

He repeated her phrase: “Well enough. Another grandchild born to him, a girl, have you heard? As for myself, I have two living sons and a daughter, by the grace of God. Business—“ He shrugged. “This is what I’ve come about.”

“Is the danger from the Arabs great?”

“I fear so.” He paused, tugged his beard. “In your days with master Barikai, may he be happy in Heaven, you knew everything that went on. You took a hand in it yourself.”

She bit her lip. “Zabdas feels differently.”

“I suppose he wishes to keep rumors down, and that is why he never has Hairan, or any kinsman of yours, here— Forgive me!” He had seen what crossed her features. “I should not pry. It’s only that, that you were my master’s lady when I was a boy, and ever gracious to me, and—“ His voice trailed off.

“You are good to be concerned.” She jerked her head as if to keep it from drooping. “But I have fewer sorrows than many do.”

“I heard your child died. I’m sorry.”

She sighed. “That was last year. Wounds heal. We will try again.”

“You have not already? No, again I spoke badly. Too much wine. Forgive me. Seeing how beautiful you still are, I thought—”

She flushed. “My husband is not too old.”

“Yet he— No. Aliyat, my lady, if ever you should need help—”

Zabdas returned and she, having set down her tray, said good night and departed.


8

<p>8</p>

While Roman and Persian bled each other to exhaustion, afar in Makkah Muhammad ibn Abdallah saw visions, preached, must flee to Yathrib, prevailed over his enemies, gave his refuge the new name Medinat Rasul Allah, the City of the Apostle of God, and died as master of Arabia. His Khalifa, Successor, Abu Bekr suppressed rebellion and launched in earnest those holy wars that united the people and carried the faith out across the world.

Six years after the troops of Emperor Heraklios reclaimed Tadmor, the troops of Khalifa Omar took it. The year after that they were in Jerusalem, and the year after that the Khalifa visited the holy city, passing triumphant through a completely subjugated Syria while couriers brought accounts of Islamic banners carried deep into the Persian heartland.

On the day he spent in Tadmor, from her rooftop Aliyat witnessed magnificence, gallant horses, richly caparisoned camels, riders whose helmets and mailcoats, lances and shields turned sunlight into flame, cloaks like windblown rainbows, trumpet and drum and deep-voiced chant. The streets surged, the oasis boiled with the conquerors. Yet she noticed that the far greater number of them were lean and roughly clad. Likewise was their garrison here, and their officials lived simple lives, five times daily humbling themselves before God when the muezzin’s call wailed across the sky.

Nor were they bad rulers. They levied tribute, but it was not unbearable. They turned a few churches into mosques, but otherwise left Christians and Jews in the peace that they sternly enforced. The qadi, then chief justice, held court beneath the arch at the east end of the Colonnade, near the agora, and even the lowliest could appeal directly to him. Then- irruption had been too swift to damage trade much, and it soon began reviving.

Aliyat was not altogether surprised when Zabdas said to her, in the tone that meant he would banish her to a rear room if she gave him any dispute: “I have reached a great decision. This household shall embrace Islam.”

Nonetheless she stood a while quiescent, amidst the shadows with which the single frugal lamp filled their bedchamber. When she spoke it was slowly, and her eyes searched him. “This is indeed a matter of the first importance. Have they compelled you?”

He shook his head. “No, no. They do not—except pagans, I am told.” He formed his thin brief smile. “They would rather most of us remain Christian, so we may own land, which believers may not, and pay tribute for it as well as the other taxes. My talks with the imam whom I approached have been difficult. But of course he may not refuse a sincere convert.”

“You’ll gain many advantages.”

He reddened. “Do you call me a hypocrite?”

“No, no, certainly not, my lord.”

Zabdas turned mild. “I understand. To you this is a terrible shock, you who have been raised to worship Christ. Think, though. The Prophet never denied that Jesus was also a prophet. He was simply not the last one, the one to whom God revealed the full truth. Islam sweeps away the superstition about countless saints, the priests who come between a man and his God, the witless commandments and restrictions. We have but to acknowledge that there is one God and Muhammad is His Prophet. We have but to live righteous lives.” He lifted a forefinger. “Think. Could the Arabs have borne everything before them as they have done, as they are doing and shall do, were theirs not the cause that is blessed, the faith that is true? I am bringing us to the truth, Aliyat.” He squinted, peering. “You welcome the truth, do you not? It cannot harm you, can it?”

Recklessly, she cast across the space between them: “I hear a man who becomes a Muslim must suffer what Jewish boys do.”

“It will not disable me,” he snapped. Curbing temper again: “I do not expect a woman to understand these deep things. Only trust in me.”

She swallowed, willed ease upon herself, moved toward him. “I do, my lord, I do,” she murmured. Maybe she could cause him to beget a third child on her, and maybe that one would survive to give meaning back to her life. He seldom took her to him, mostly when she made herself coax him in that same hope. It was almost as if, more and more, he feared her.

As for the change of religion, that mattered less than he supposed. What had the saints done to help, throughout the endless years?


9

<p>9</p>

She had not foreknown what the change meant. Islam burst upon Syria too suddenly. Zabdas studied it before he made his move. Only when the thing was done did she learn.

The Prophet had laid upon women of the faith the ancient usages of Arabia. In public they must wear the yashmak, the heavy veil hiding everything but the eyes, and likewise at home in the presence of any man but father, brother, husband, or son. Unchastity was punished by death. Quarters for men and women were separate, like an invisible wall built through the house, to whose door its master had the single key. Submission of wife to husband was not bounded by law and custom as it was among Christians and Jews; while a marriage lasted it was total, his the right to mutilate or kill the disobedient. Aside from such tasks as marketing, she had nothing to do with the outside world; he, his children by her, and his dwelling were to be her universe. For her there was no church, and whatever Paradise she might hope for would not be his.

So Zabdas explained, piecemeal as occasion arose. Aliyat was not sure the Law was quite that one-sided. She was entirely sure that in most families, practice softened it. But be that as it may, she was a prisoner.

She was even denied the solace of wine. That might be just as well, she decided once the first rage had faded. She had been resorting to it much oftener than was wise.

Oddly, however, as the Muslim months passed, she found herself less alone than hitherto. Thrust together, the females of the household—not only she and the slaves,, but the wives and girl-children of two of Zabdas’ sons who had joined him in Tadmor—at first quarreled viciously, then began to confide in each other. Her position and her freedom from aging had set her apart. Those who now saw her sharing then- helplessness discovered they could overlook these things, and if they told her their troubles she would do what little she could to aid them.

For her part, she learned bit by bit that she was not utterly isolated. In some ways, she touched more of the city than she had done since Barikai’s death. She might be confined, but lesser females must needs go out on various errands; and they had kinfolk with whom they gossiped at every opportunity; and nobody cared to be strict with the humble, nor stopped to think that they too possessed sharp ears, open eyes, and inquiring minds. As the touch of a fly quivers through the web to the spider that sits at its middle, so did flickers of information reach Aliyat.

She was not present when Zabdas sought the qadi soon after his conversion; but in view of what was overheard and passed on, and what happened later, eventually she believed she could reconstruct it almost as well as if she had been invisibly listening.

Normally the qadi heard pleas in the open. Everybody was free to come. She could have done so, had she had any real plaint. She thought of it, and concluded drearily that she did not. Zabdas was never abusive. He provided adequately. If he no longer came to her bed, what should a woman close to her ninetieth year expect—whether or not she had again borne him a child, and this one did keep on living? The very thought was obscene.

He asked for a private audience and the qadi granted it. The two sat in the house of Mitknal ibn Dirdar and sipped chilled pomegranate juice while they talked. Neither paid heed to the eunuch who waited on them; but he had acquaintances outside, who in their turn knew people.

“Yes, of course you may divorce your wife,” Mitkhal said. “It is easily done. However, under the Law she retains all property that was hers, and I gather she brought a fair amount to this marriage. In every event, you must see to it that she does not become destitute or lack for protection.” He bridged his fingers. “Moreover, do you wish to offend her kinfolk?”

“Hairan’s goodwill is worth little these days,” Zabdas clipped. “His business fares poorly. Aliyat’s other children—by her first marriage—scarcely know her any more.

But, hm, the requirements you describe, those could prove awkward.”

Mitkhal regarded him closely. “Why do you wish to put this woman from you? In what is she at fault?”

“Proud, resentful, sullen— No,” said Zabdas beneath that gaze, “I cannot in honesty call her contumacious.”

“Has she not given you a child?”

“A girl. The two before, they soon died. The girl is small and sickly.”

“That is shabby ground for blame, my friend. Old seed gives thin fruit.”

Zabdas chose to misunderstand. “Old, yes, by ... by the Prophet! I have inquired. I should have done so at the first, but— Sir, she nears the hundred-year mark.”

The qadi’s lips formed a soundless whistle. “And yet— one hears rumors—is she not yet fair? And you tell me she remains healthy and fertile.”

Zabdas leaned forward. Sunlight fell through the grille over a window to dapple his balding head. Behind sparse whiskers, the wattles under his jaw wabbled as he cried in a high-pitched, cracking voice: “It’s unnatural! Lately she lost a tooth or two and I believed at last, at last— But new ones are growing out, as if she were a child of six or seven! She must be a witch, or an ifrit, a demon, a— That’s what I beg for. That’s what I ask for, an investigation, a—an assurance I can cast her out and—not have to fear her vengeance. Help me!”

Mitkhal raised a palm. “Hold, hold.” His words flowed soft. “Be calm. Truly we have a marvel here. Yet all things are possible to God the Omnipotent. She has not been impious or sinful in any way, has she? You may have done right to keep her as secluded as you could—since you, her husband, have had this terror brewing within you. If the tale went abroad and spread panic, she might have been set on in the streets. Beware of that.” Severely: “Ancient patriarchs lived close to a thousand years on earth. If God the Compassionate sees fit to let—Aliyat, is that her name?— linger for close to a hundred, ageless, who are we to question His will or divine His purpose?”

Zabdas stared at his lap. What teeth remained to him gritted together. “Nevertheless,” he mumbled.

“My counsel is that you keep her as long as she does no evil, for this is both justice for her and prudence for you. My decree, upholding the Law, is that you offer her no harm when she has offered none, nor make accusations that are baseless.” Mitkhal reached for his cup, sipped, smiled. “But, true, if coupling with a crone strikes you as indecent, that is a matter of your choice. Have you considered taking a second wife? You are allowed four, you know, besides concubines.”

In these latter years of his, Zabdas was quick to cool down from both his angers and his fears. He sat a moment silent, looking into a corner of the room. Then his mouth tilted upward and he murmured, “I thank my lord for his wise and merciful judgment.”


10

<p>10</p>

The day came when he summoned Aliyat to his office.

It was a chamber bare and cramped. A window opened on the inner court, but was too high up to afford sight of water or flowers. A niche gaped white where once the image of a saint stood. At the far end, a dais held a table bestrewn with letters, records, and writing materials. Behind it, he sat on a bench.

She entered. He laid aside a papyrus sheet, which crackled, and pointed downward. She went to knees and toes on the bare tiles before him. Silence stretched.

“Well?” he snapped.

She kept her eyes lowered. “What is my lord’s desire?”

“What have you to say for yourself?”

“What must your handmaiden defend?”

“Mock me not!” he shouted. “I’ve had my fill of your insolence. Now you have struck my wife in the face. It is too much.”

Aliyat looked up, caught his glance, held fast. “I thought Furja would go whimpering to you,” she said steadily. “What tale did she bear? Fetch her and let me hear.”

His fist struck the desk. “I will settle this. I am the master. I am being kind. I am giving you your chance to explain why you should escape a whipping.”

She drew breath. This had been foreseeable since the thing happened; she had had a pair of hours wherein to marshal words. “My lord must know that his new bride and I are apt to quarrel.” Stupid, weak-chinned, spiteful creature, forever seeking to squirm herself into the man’s favor and shrill herself into sovereignty over the harem. “Alas that this should be. It is wrong.” That tasted foul but had better be said. “Today she gave me an intolerable insult. I smote her once, open-handedly, across the chops. She wailed and fled—to you, who have things of importance to deal with.”

“She has often complained to me. You have been overbearing ever since she came into my house.”

“I have demanded no more than the respect due your senior wife, my lord.” I will not become a slave, a dog, a thing.

“What was this insult?” asked Zabdas.

“It was vile. Must I take it in my mouth?”

“Um-m ... describe it.”

“She shrieked that I keep my looks and strength by— means unspeakable in decent company.”

“Um! Are you certain? Women have flighty memories.”

“I suppose if you haled her in and put the question, she would deny it. Not her first lie.”

“Word against word.” Zabdas sighed loudly. “What is a man to believe? When shall he find peace to get on with his work? Women!”

“I think men, too, would grow jangle-witted, were they shut away forever with nothing to do that was worth the doing,” said Aliyat, for she felt she had little to lose.

“If I have left you ... undisturbed, it has been out of consideration for your age.”

“And yours, my lord?” she dared purr.

He paled. The brown spots on his skin stood plain to see. “Furja does not find me wanting!”

Not quite every night of the month, Aliyat thought. And, in sudden, surprising pity: He fears that his uneasiness about me would unman him; and likely that very fear would.

But they were moving toward deadly ground. She drew back: “I pray my lord’s pardon. No doubt some of the blame does fall on me, his servant. I simply hoped to explain to him why squabbles trouble his harem. If Furja will show me courtesy, I will do likewise.”

Zabdas rubbed his chin and stared beyond her. She had a brief, eerie feeling that somehow this was a chance for which he had waited. At length he regarded her and said, his tone strained, “Life was different for you in your young days. Old people find it hard to change. At the same time, this vigor you have kept makes it impossible for you to resign yourself. Am I right?”

She swallowed. “My lord speaks truth,” she answered, amazed that he showed any insight.

“And I have heard that you were helpful to your first husband in his business,” he went on.

She could only nod.

“Well, I have given you much thought, Aliyat,” he said faster. “My duty under God is to provide for your welfare, which should include your spirit’s. If time has become empty for you, if our daughter is not enough—well, perhaps we can find something more.”

Her heart sprang. Blood thundered in her ears.

Again he looked past her. “What I have hi mind is irregular,” he said, cautiously now. “No violation of the Law, understand, but it could cause gossip. I am willing to hazard this for your sake, but you must do your part, you must exercise the utmost discretion.”

“Wha-whatever my lord commands!”

“It will be a beginning, a trial. If you acquit yourself well, who knows what may follow? But hark.” He wagged his forefinger. “In Emesa is a youth, a distant kinsman of mine, who is eager to go into the business. His father will be pleased if I invite him here and train him. I, though, I lack time to teach him the ins and outs, the rules and customs and traditions peculiar to Tadmor, as well as the basic practicalities—especially where it comes to making shipments, to dealing with caravaneers. I could assign a man of mine to his instruction, but I can ill spare anyone. You, however; I suppose you remember. Of course, the utmost discretion is essential.”

Aliyat prostrated herself. “Trust me, my lord!” she sobbed.


11

<p>11</p>

Bonnur was tall, broad in the shoulders, slim in the waist. His beard was the merest overlay of silk across the smooth features, but a man’s strength rested in the hands. His movements and his eyes were like a gazelle’s. Though he was Christian, Zabdas received him cordially before sending him to find a bed among the other young men who served and learned here.

A twelvemonth back, the merchant had bought a lesser building adjacent to his home. He set workers to erect walls and roof joining the pair together, then knock out what separated them and make them one. Thus he would gain added offices, storerooms, and quarters for an expanded staff; his trade was burgeoning. Lately he had ordered a halt to the construction. He declared it was better to wait and see what effect the ongoing conquest of Persia would have on the traffic with India. The addition therefore stood unfurnished, unoccupied, dusty, and silent.

When he led her into it, Aliyat was astonished to find a room at the far end had been swept and outfitted. A plain but thick wool carpet softened the floor. Hangings flanked the second-story window. A table held a water carafe, cups, papyrus, ink, pens. Two stools waited nearby. And Bonnur did. Though Aliyat had been introduced to him earlier, her pulse quickened.

He salaamed deeply. “Be at ease,” said Zabdas with unaccustomed cordiality, “at ease, my dears. If we are to be a little irregular, we may as well enjoy it.”

He took a turn around the room, talking: “For my wife to explain things to you, Bonnur, and for you to ask of her, you need freedom. I am not the dry stick people take me for. I know that the folkways, the subtleties of a city cannot be entered in a ledger or parsed like a sentence. Stares and sniggers and the constraint you would feel, did you sit conferring in plain sight of every fool, those would bind your tongues, your minds. The task would become difficult, prolonged, perhaps impossible. And, to be sure, I would be considered eccentric at best for setting you to it. Men might wonder if I was near my dotage. That would be bad for trade, oh, yes.

“Therefore this retreat. At such times as I deem right, when your services are not required elsewhere, Bonnur, I will send word. You will leave the house and enter this section by its back door, on the lane behind. And I will give you a signal, Aliyat. You will betake yourself directly here. In fact, sometimes you will come here to be alone. You have desired to help me; very well, you may look over such reports and figures as I shall lend you, undisturbed, and offer me your opinions. This will be common knowledge. At other times, unbeknownst to anyone else, you will meet Bonnur.”

“But sir!” Red and white went in waves over the boyish face. “The lady and I and nobody else? Surely a maidservant, a eunuch, or—or—”

Zabdas shook his head. “The protestation does you honor,” he replied. “However, a watcher would defeat my whole purpose, which is to give you a true feel of conditions in Tadmor while avoiding derision and insinuations.” He looked from one to the other of them. “I never doubt I can trust my kinsman and my first wife.” With a flick of a smile: “She is, after all, aged beyond the usual span of me.”

“What?” Bonnur exclaimed. “Master, you jest! The veil, the gown, they cannot hide—”

“It is true,” said Zabdas, a low sibilation. “You shall hear of it from her, along with things less curious.”


12

<p>12</p>

A day approached sunset. “Well,” said Aliyat, “best we stop. I have duties still before me.”

“And I. And I should think upon what you have revealed to me this time.” Bonnur’s voice dragged.

Neither of them rose from the stools on which they sat facing. Abruptly he colored, dropped his gaze, and blurted, “My lady has a wonderful intelligence.”

It felt like a caress. “No, no,” she protested. “In a long life, even a stupid person learns a few things.”

She saw him break down a barrier so that he could meet her eyes. “Hard to believe you are, are old.”

“I carry my years well.” How often had she said it precisely thus? How mechanical it had become.

“All you have seen—“ Reckless impulse: “The change of faith. That you were forced away from Christ!”

“I have no regrets.”

“Do you not? If only for, for the freedom you have lost— the freedom your friends have lost, the simple freedom to look upon you—”

For an instant she was about to hush him. Nothing closed off the doorway but a bead curtain. However, such a thing muffled sound somewhat, and deserted corridors and rooms stretched between it and the inhabited part, and he had spoken softly, deep in his throat, while tears glimmered on his lashes.

“Who cares to see a hag?” she fended, and knew she was teasing.

“You are not! You shouldn’t have to cower behind that veil. I’ve noticed when you forgot to stoop and shamble.”

“You have watched me closely, it seems.” She fought a dizziness.

“I cannot help myself,” he confessed miserably.

“You are too curious.” As if a different creature used her tongue, her hands: “Best we quench that. Behold.”

She drew the yashmak aside. He gasped.

She dropped it back and stood up. “Are you satisfied? Keep silence, or we shall have to end these meetings. My lord would mislike that.” She left him.

Her daughter met her in the harem. “Mama, where have you been? Gutne won’t let me play with the lion doll.”

Aliyat groped after patience. She ought to love this child. But Thirya was whimpery, and sick half the time, and resembled her father.


13

<p>13</p>

Sometimes the sameness of the days broke, when Zabdas gave Aliyat materials to study and report on. In the room that was apart, she tried to grasp what she read, but it slipped and wriggled about like a handful of worms. Twice she met there with Bonnur. The second time she took off her veil at the outset, and she had dressed in a gown of light material. “The weather is blazing hot,” she told him, “and I am only an old granny, no, great-grandmother.” They accomplished little. Silences kept falling between them.

More days flowed sluggishly together. She lost count of them. What difference did their number make? Each was just like the last, save for bickerings and nuisances and, at night, dreams. Did Satan brew certain of those for her? If so, she owed him thanks.

Then Zabdas summoned her to his office. “Your counsel has gone worthless,” he said peevishly. “Does your dotage come upon you at last?”

She bit back rage. “I am sorry, my lord, if no thoughts have occurred to me of late. I will try to do better.”

“What’s the use? No use in you any more. Furja, now, Furja warms my bed, and surely soon she’ll be fruitful.” Zabdas waved a hand in dismissal. “Well, be off. Go wait for Bonnur. I’ll send him. Perhaps at least you can persuade him to mend those woolgathering ways he’s taken on. By all the saints—by the beard of the Prophet, I regret my promises to both of you!”

Aliyat stalked through the empty part of the house with fists clenched. In the room of meetings she prowled back and forth, back and forth. It was a cage. She halted at the window and stared out through the grille. From there she could look over the walls around the ancient temple of Bel. Its limestone seemed bleached under a furious sun. The bronze capitals of the portico columns blazed. Heat-shimmer made the reliefs on the cella waver. Long had it stood unused, empty, like herself. Now it was being refurbished. She had heard at fourth or fifth hand that the Arabs planned to make a fortress of it.

But were those Powers entirely dead? Bel of the storm, Jarhibol of the sun, Aglibol of the moon—Ashtoreth of begettings and births, terrible in beauty, she who descended into hell to win back her lover—unseen, they strode across the earth; unheard, they shouted throughout heaven; the sea that Aliyat had never known thundered behind her breasts.

A footstep, a click of beads, she whirled about. Bonnur halted. Sweat sheened on him. She caught the smell of it, filling the heat and silence, man-smell. She was wet with her own; the dress clung to her.

She unfastened her veil and cast it to the floor.

“My lady,” he choked, “oh, my lady.”

She advanced. Her hips swung as if of themselves. Breath loudened. “What would you with me, Bonnur?”

His gazelle eyes fled right and left, trapped. He backed off a step. He raised his hands against her. “No,” he begged.

“No, what?” she laughed. She stopped before him and he must needs meet her look. “We’ve things to do, you and I.”

If he is wise, he will agree. He will sit down and begin asking about the best way to bargain with a caravaneer.


14

<p>14</p>

“I have business in Tripolis,” Zabdas said. “It may keep me several weeks. I shall go with Nebozabad, who leaves a few days hence.”

Aliyat was glad she had left her veil on after reaching his office. “Does my lord wish to say what business it is?”

“No sense in that. You’ve grown barren of advice, as of everything else. I am informing you privately so that I can state what should be obvious, that in my absence you are to abide in the harem and occupy yourself with a wife’s ordinary duties.”

“Of course, my lord.”

She and Bonnur had thus far had two afternoons together.


15

<p>15</p>

Thirya stirred. “Mama—”

Aliya pushed fury down. “Hush, darling,” she breathed. “Go to sleep.” And she must wait while the child tossed and whined, until finally the bed was quiet.

Finally!

Her feet remembered the way through the dark. She clutched her nightgown to her lest it brush against something. The thought flitted: Like this do the unrestful dead steal from their graves. But it was to life that she was going. Already the juices of it ran hot. Her nostrils drank the cedary odor of her desire.

Nobody else woke, and there was no guard on as small, as drab a harem as this. Her fingers touched walls, guiding her, until she reached the last dear corridor. No, do not run, make no needless sound. The beads in the doorway snaked around her. The window framed stars. A breeze from the cooling desert drifted through it. Her pulse racketed. She pulled off the gown and tossed it aside.

He came. Her toes gripped the carpet.

“Aliyat, Aliyat.” The rough whisper echoed in her head. Bonnur stumbled, knocked a stool over, panted. She gurgled laughter and slipped to him.

“I knew you would come, beloved,” she sang. His arms enclosed her. She clawed herself tight to him. Her tongue thrust between his lips.

He bore her down, they were on the carpet, the thought flashed that she must take care it show no stains, he groaned and she reached after him.

Lantern light glared. “Behold!” Zabdas cackled.

Bonnur rolled off Aliyat. Both sat up, crouched back, crawled to their feet. The lantern swung in Zabdas’ hand. It sent huge misshapen shadows adance over the walls. She saw him in fragments, eyeballs, nose, wet snags of teeth, wrinkles, hatred. Right and left of him were his two sons. They bore swords. The steel gleamed.

“Boys, seize them!” Zabdas shouted.

Bonnur reeled. He lifted his hands like a beggar. “No, master, my lord, no.”

It tumbled through Aliyat: Zabdas had planned this from the first. He had no passage arranged with the caravan. ; These three waited in another room, their light muffled, for that which he knew would happen. Now he would be rid of her, and keep her property, and believe that even an ifrit— or whatever inhuman thing she might be—would not return from the punishment for adultery.

Once she would have welcomed an ending. But the weariness of the years was burned out of her.

“Bonnur, fight!” she screamed. “They’ll tie us in a sack and the people will stone us to death!” She laid her hands on his back and shoved him forward. “Are you a man? Save us!”

He howled and leaped. A man swung sword. Unpracticed, he missed. Bonnur caught that arm with one hand. His fist crunched into the nose behind. The second brother edged around, awkwardly, afraid of hitting the wrong body. The struggle lurched past Aliyat. It left a smear of blood on her. She bounced clear.

Zabdas blocked the doorway. She snatched the lantern from the old man’s feeble grasp and dashed it to the floor. Oil flared in yellow flame. He staggered aside. She heard him shriek as the fire licked his ankle.

She fled past the beads, down hall and stairway, out the rear door, from the lane into ghost-gray streets between blank walls. The Philippian Gate stayed open after dark when a caravan was making ready. If she took care, if she moved slowly and kept to the shadows, its sentries might not see her.

Oh, Bonnur! But she had no breath or tears to spare for him, not yet, not if she wanted to live.


16

<p>16</p>

Those in the caravan who glanced behind them saw the towers of Tadmor catch the first sun-gleam. Then they were up the valley and out on the steppe. Ahead of them the sky also brightened-until the last stars faded away.

Signs of man were sparse on that day’s travel. After Nebozabad left the Roman road on a short cut across the desert, there was nothing but a trail worn by the generations before him who had fared likewise. He called halt for the night at a muddy, pool where the horses could drink. Men contented themselves with what they carried along in skins, camels with what scrawny shrubs were to be found.

The master strode through the bustle and hubbub to a certain driver. “I will take that bale, now, Hatim,” he said. The other grinned. Like most in this trade, he considered smuggling to be a part of it, and never asked unnecessary questions.

The bale was actually a long bundle tied together with rope, which had been nestled into the load on the camel. Nebozabad’s slave carried it back, into the master’s tent, laid it down, salaamed, and went to squat outside, forbidding intruders. Nebozabad knelt, undid the knots, unrolled the cloth.

Aliyat crept forth. Sweat plastered her hair and the djellabah he had lent to the curves of her. The countenance was hollow-eyed, the lips cracked. Yet once he had given her water and a bite of food, she recovered with eerie quickness, well-nigh minute by minute as he watched.

“Speak low,” he warned. “How have you fared?”

“It was hot and dry and gut-wrenching bumpy,” she answered in a voice husky more than hoarse, “but I shall forever thank you. Did a search party come?”

He nodded. “Soon after we left. A few Arabian soldiers, rousted out—after Zabdas gained himself ill will by waking the qadi, I gather. They were sleepy and uninterested. We need not have hidden you so well.”

She sighed where she sat, knees drawn up, ran fingers through her matted tresses, gave him a smile that shone and lingered in the lamplit dusk. “You cared, dear friend.”

Cross-legged before her, he scowled. “Reckless was I. It might cost me my head, and I’ve my family to think of.”

She reached to stroke fingers across his wrist. “Rather would I die than bring harm on you. Give me a waterskin and a little bread, and I will strike off across the desert.”

“No, no!” he exclaimed. “That would be a slower death. Unless the nomads found you, which would be worse. No, I can take you along. We’ll swaddle you well in garments too large, keep you offside and unspeaking. I’ll say you’re a boy, kin to me, who’s requested a ride to Tripolis.” He grinned sourly. “Those who doubt the ‘kin’ part of that will snicker behind my back. Well, let them. My tent is yours to share while the journey lasts.”

“God will reward you, where I cannot. Barikai in Paradise will intercede for your soul.”

Nebozabad shrugged. “I wonder how much good that will do, when it’s the escape of a confessed adulteress I’m aiding.”

Her mouth trembled. A tear ran down the sweat and grime dried on her cheeks. “It’s right, though,” he said in haste. “You told me what cruelties drove you from your wits.”

She caught his nearer hand in both hers and clung.

He cleared his throat. “Yet you must understand, Aliyat, I can do no more than this. In Tripolis I must leave you, with what few coins I can spare, and thereafter you are alone. Should I be charged with having helped you, I will deny all.”

“And I will deny I saw you. But fear not. I’ll vanish from sight.”

“Whither? How shall you live, forsaken?”

“I will. I have already seen ninety years. Look. Have they left any mark on me?”

He stared. “They have not,” he mumbled. “You are strange, strange.”

“Nonetheless—simply a woman. Nebozabad, I, I can do somewhat to repay a morsel of your kindness. The only things I have to offer are memories, but those you can bring home with you.”

He sat motionless.

She drew closer. “It is my wish,” she whispered. “They will be my memories too.”


17

<p>17</p>

And gladsome they are, she thought when afterward he lay sleeping. I could almost envy his wife.

Until he grew old, and she did. Unless first a sickness took one or the other off. Aliyat had never in her life been ill. Her flesh had forgotten the abuse of the day and the night that were past. A pleasant languor pervaded it, but if perchance he should awaken, she would instantly arouse to eagerness.

She smiled in the dark. Allow the man his rest. She would like to go out and walk about a while, under the moon and the high desert stars. No, too risky. Wait. Wait. She had learned how.

Paul twinged. Poor Bonnur. Poor Thirya. But if ever she let herself weep for any of the short-lived, there would be no end of weeping. Poor Tadmor. But a new city lay ahead, and beyond it all the world and time.

A woman who was ageless had one way, if none eke, to live onward hi freedom.


V. No Man Shuns His Doom

1

2

3

<p>V. No Man Shuns His Doom</p>
<p>1</p>

It is told in the saga of Olaf Tryggvason how Nornagest came to him when he was at Nidharos and abode some while in the king’s hall; for many and wonderful were the tales that Gest bore. Evening after lengthening evening as the year drew toward winter, men sat by the fires and hearkened. Tales they heard from lifetimes agone and the far ends of the world. Often he gave them staves as well, for he was a skald, and was apt to strum a harp underneath the words, in English wise. There were those who muttered he must be a liar, asking how any man could have fared so widely or been so old. But King Olaf bade these be still, and himself listened keenly.

“I was living on a farm in the Uplands,” Gest had said to him. “Now my last child yonder has died, and again I am weary of my dwelling—wearier than ever, lord. Word of you reached me, and I have come to see whether it is true.”

“What you have heard that is good, is true,” answered the priest Conor. “By God’s grace, he is bringing a new day to Norway.”

“But your day first broke very long ago, Gest, did it not?” murmured Olaf. “We have heard of you again and again. Everyone has—though none but your neighbors in the mountains have seen you for many years, and I supposed you must be dead.” When he looked at the newcomer he saw a man tall and lean, straight in the back, gray of hair and beard but with few lines across the strong bones of his face. “You are not really aged after all.”

Gest sighed. “I am older than I seem, lord.”

“Guest of the Noras. A strange and heathenish nick-name, that,” said the king slowly. “How did you come by it?”

“You may not want to hear.” And Gest turned the talk elsewhere.

Right well did he understand the craft of doing so. Over and over, Olaf urged him to take baptism and be saved. Yet the king did not make threats or order death, as he did with most who were stubborn about this. Gest’s tales were so gripping that he wanted to keep the wanderer here.

Conor pressed harder, seeking Gest out almost daily. The priest was eager in the holy work. He had come with Olaf when the latter sailed from Dublin to Norway, overthrew Hdkon Jarl, and won the land for himself. Now the king was calling in missionaries from England and Germany as well as Ireland, and maybe Conor felt a bit left out.

Gest gave him grave heed and soft answers. “I am no stranger to your Christ,” Gest said. “I have met him often, or at least his worshippers. Nor am I plighted to Odin and Thor.” His smile was rueful. “I have known too many different gods.”

“But this is the true and only God,” Conor replied. “Hang not back, or you will be lost. In just a few years a full thousand will have passed since his birth among men. Belike he will come back then, end the world, and raise the dead for judgment.”

Gest stared afar. “It would be good to believe I can meet my dead anew,” he whispered; and he let Conor talk on.

At eventide, however, after meat, when the trestle tables had been taken from the hall and women carried the drinking horns forth, he had other things to talk about, yarns to spin, verses to chant, questions to meet. Once a couple of guardsmen happened to speak of the great battle at Bravellir. “My forebear Grani from Bryndal was among the Icelanders who fought for King Sigurdh Ring,” one boasted. “He cut his way close enough to see King Harald War-Tooth fall. Starkadh himself had not strength to save the Danes that day.”

Gest stirred. “Forgive me,” he said. “There were no Icelanders at Bravellir. Norsemen hadjiot yet found that island.”

The warrior bristled. “Have you never heard the lay that Starkadh made?” he flung back. “It names all the worthies who came to the fray on either side.”

Gest shook his head. “I have heard, and I do not call you a liar, Eyvind. You passed on what you were told. But Starkadh never made any such lay. Another skald did, lifetimes afterward, and put it in his mouth. Bravellir was bloodied—“ He sat a few heartbeats thinking, while the fires in the trenches guttered and crackled. “Was it three hundred years ago? I have lost track.”

“Do you mean Starkadh was not there, and you were?” gibed the guardsman.

“Oh, he was,” said Gest, “though he was not much like the stories men tell of him now, nor lamed and half blind with age when at last he went to his death.”

Stillness fell anew. King Olaf peered through shifting shadows at the speaker before he asked low, “Did you, then, know him?”

Gest nodded. “I did. Indeed, it was right after Bravellir that we met.”

<p>2</p>

His staff was a spear, for no man traveled unarmed in the North; but over the small pack on his back hung a harp in its case, and he offered harm to none. When at nightfall he found a homestead, he slept there, repaying hospitality with songs and tales and news from outside. Otherwise he rolled up in his cloak, and by dawnlight drank from a spring or brook and ate of whatever bread and cheese his latest host had given him. Thus had he fared through most of his years, from end to end of the world.

This day was cool beneath a wan sky where clouds were scant and the sun swung southward. The woods that decked the hills of Gautland stood hazed and hushed. Birches had begun to turn yellow, and the green of oak and beech was less bright than erstwhile. Firs lifted darkling among them. Ripe currants glowed hi the shade. Smells of earth and damp filled every breath.

Gest saw it all, widely, from a ridge he had climbed. Below him the land rolled off to an unclear edge of sight. Mostly it was tree-clad, but meadows and plowed fields broke it here and there. He spied two houses and their outbuildings, distance-dwindled; smoke rose straight upward from the roofs. Close by, a stream glistened on its way to a lake that shone in the offing.

He had come far enough from the battlefield that the wreckage and the dead strewn across it were blurred together in his eyes. Carrion birds swarmed aloft and about and back down, a whirling blackness, but also gone tiny for him. He could barely hear their cries. Sometimes the howl of a wolf lifted, to hang above the hills for what seemed a long while before dying away in echoes.

Living men had withdrawn, bound home. They took wounded kindred and friends along, but could merely throw a little earth over such of the fallen as they knew. A band of them whom Gest had come upon this morning did tell him that King Sigurdh had borne off the body of his foe King Harald, to give it a barrow and grave goods at Uppsala for the sake of his own honor.

Gest leaned on his spear, shook his head, and smiled sadly. How often had he beheld the like of this, after young men stormed forth to cast their lives from them? He did not know. He had lost the number somewhere in the waste of the centuries. Or else he had never had the heart to try keeping count. He was not sure which, any more. Yet as always, he felt the need to say a farewell, the only thing he or anyone else could now give the young men.

It was no skaldic drapa that came to his lips. The words were Northern, so that the dead would understand if they could hear, but he lacked all wish to praise bravery and recall mighty deeds. The verse form that he chose was from a country thousands of miles toward the sunrise. There a short, slanty-eyed folk knew much and fashioned things of wondrous beauty, though there too the sword ranged free.

“The summer fading, Chill shall slash the leaves bloody And the geese trek—where? Already this ground went red While the wind called souls away.”

A brief spell more Gest lingered, then turned and departed. Those Danes he met earlier had seen the one whom he sought leave soon after half a dozen Swedes did and follow them eastward. Thereupon Gest had gone to Bravellir and cast about until his woodsman’s eye lighted on what he thought must be the tracks. He had better hurry. Nonetheless he kept to his everyday stride. It looked lazy, but in the course of a day it left as much behind it as a horse might, or more; and it let him stay aware of everything around him.

He was on a game trail. The kings had set Bravellir as their meeting place because it was a broad meadow through which a road ran north and south, about halfway between Harald in Scania and Sigurdh in Sweden. However, the land round about was thinly settled. The six going this way must be headed for the Baltic shore, where lay the ship or ships that had brought them. That they were so few bespoke how terrible the battle had been. It would be remembered, sung about, made even larger in the minds of men, for hundreds of years to come. And those who plowed yonder fields would molder forgotten.

Gest’s shoes scuffed softly on soil. Branches were a roof overhead, through which sunbeams fell to make spatters of light on the shadowy hallway before him. A squirrel ran like a flame up a tree. Somewhere a dove moaned. Brush rustled on the left, a great dim shape slipped off, an elk. Gest let his soul drift into the sweet-smelling reaches. Meanwhile, though, he kept reading the traces. That was easy, footprints, broken twigs, torn spiderwebs, marks on mossy logs where men had sat down to rest. They were no hunters by trade, as he had been through much of his life. Nor was the one who followed them, never stopping, closing the gap between. Those feet were huge.

Time passed. The sunbeams lowered, lengthened, took on a golden hue. A bit of cold crept into the air.

Suddenly Gest halted. He leaned forward, head cocked, listening. Family to him came a noise he thought he knew.

He quickened his pace to a lope. Muffled at first by leaves, the sound swelled fast, clang and clatter, shouts, soon crackling, snapping, and harsh breath. Gest brought his spear to the ready and glided on as quietly as might be.

A slain man sprawled across the trail. He had fallen into a bush that snagged the upper half of him. Blood dripped from its stems and pooled below, screamingly bright. A blow had cloven him from the left shoulder through the breastbone. Pieces of rib and lung poked out of him. Fair hair clung sweat-matted to cheeks whereon no beard grew, just the down of a boy. He stared and gaped emptily.

Gest drew aside and found himself treading on another body, dose by, brush churned with combat. He glimpsed men, iron, blood and more blood. Weapon banged on weapon, scraped across helmets, thudded against wooden shields. Another fighter toppled. A thigh spouted red; he threshed about and shrieked. It was the kind of noise a human throat ought not to make. A fourth warrior dropped and lay sodden in a patch of nettles. The head was nearly off him.

Gest got behind a young fir. It screened him, and he could see between its limbs. Two were left of the band that the newcomer had overtaken and attacked. Like their mates, they wore only sarks, coats, breeks. If any owned mail, he had not thought to put it on until too late. Both these did have kettle hats. One carried sword and shield, one an ax.

Their lone foe was fully outfitted, in knee-length byrnie, conical helmet with noseguard, an iron-rimmed shield hi his left grip and a sword of uncommon size in his right. He was more than big, overtopping Gest’s goodly height by a head, shoulders as wide as a doorframe, arms and legs like oak boughs. An unkempt black beard reached to his chest.

The pair had recovered from the shock of his onslaught. They worked together, barking words to and fro. The swordsman went straight at the giant. Blades clashed, agleam when they rose into a sunbeam, a blur as they hissed downward or sideways. The Swede caught a blow on his shield that made him lurch, but stood fast and struck back. The axman circled behind their enemy.

The huge man must have known it. Blindingly fast, he spun on his heel and plunged at the axman, offside, so that the stroke missed him by inches. His blade whipped. The axman staggered, dropped his weapon, stared at a right forearm laid open and bone-shattered. The giant leaped on past him. There was a grassy patch between him and the other swordsman. At its end he turned and burst into a run at that fellow. Shields boomed together, with weight and speed behind his. Overborne, the Swede went on his back. Somehow he kept hold of his sword and got his shield up.

The giant sprang high and landed on him. Shield was driven against ribs. Gest thought he heard them crack. Breath whoofed out. The giant straddled the writhing body and made his kill in two strokes.

He glared around. The wounded axman was in flight, blundering off among the boles. The winner dashed after and cut him down.

The shrieks of the thigh-slashed man ebbed off to cawing, to rattling, to silence.

Laughter boomed from a cavern of a breast. The huge man rammed his blade thrice into the earth, wiped it clean on the shirt of a fallen, and sheathed it. His breathing eased. He doffed helmet and coif, dropped them, swept a hairy hand over the sweat that tunneled off his brow.

Gest came out from behind the fir. The giant snatched at his hilt. Gest leaned spear in the crotch of a tree and spread his palms, “I am peaceful,” he said.

The warrior stayed taut. “But are you alone?” he asked. His voice was like heavy surf on a strand of stones.

Gest looked into the rugged face, the small ice-blue eyes, and nodded. “I am. Besides, after what I have just seen, I would not think Starkadh need be wary of anyone or anything.”

The warrior grinned. “Ah, you know me. But we have not met erenow.”

“Everybody in the North has heard of Starkadh the Strong. And ... I have been in search of you.”

“You have?” Surprise turned into a glower. “Then it was a nithing’s trick to stand aside and give me no help.”

“You had no need,” said Gest in his mildest tone. “Also, the battle went so fast. Never have I seen such weapon-wielding.”

Pleased, Starkadh spoke friendlier. “Who are you that seek me?”

“I have borne many names. In the North it has oftenest been Gest.”

“What would you of me?”

“That is a long tale. May I first ask why you hounded these men down and slew them?”

Starkadh’s gaze went elsewhere, toward the sun whose light shot in yellow beams between trees turning dark against heaven. His lips moved. After a bit he nodded, met Gest’s look again, and said:

“Here shall wolves not hunger. Haraldfed the ravens. Honor won we. Only Odin overcame us. Ale I lack, but offer All these foes to Harold. Never was he niggard. Now I’ve shown I’m thankful.”

So it was true what they said, Gest thought. As well as being the foremost of warriors, Starkadh had some gift as a skald. What else might he be?

“I see,” Gest acknowledged slowly. “You fought for Harald, and wished to avenge your lord after he fell, though the war be done with.”

Starkadh nodded. “I hope I have gladdened his ghost. Still more do I hope I have gladdened his forebear King Frodhi, who was the best of lords and never stinted me of gold or weapons or other fine things.”

A tingle went through Gest, a chill along his backbone. “Was that Frodhi Fridhleifsson in Denmark? They say Starkadh was of his household. But he died lifetimes ago.”

“I am older than I seem,” answered Starkadh with renewed roughness. He shook himself. “After this day’s work, thirst is afire in me. Would you know where there is water?”

“I know how to find water, if you will come with me,” Gest told him. “But what of these dead men?”

Starkadh shrugged. “I’m no scaldcrow to pick them clean. Leave them for the ants.” Flies buzzed around blind eyes, parched tongues, clotting blood. Stenches hung heavy.

Gest had grown used to such sights, but he was ever happy to lay them behind him, and tried not dwell on thoughts of widows, children, mothers. The lives he had shared were short at best, the merest blink of years, and afterward, for most, a span hardly longer before they were wholly forgotten by all but him. He took his spear and led the way down the trail.

“Will you be returning to Denmark?” he asked.

“I think not,” rumbled Starkadh at his back. “Sigurdh will make sure the next king in Hleidhra is beholden to him, and that the under-kings are at odds with each other.”

“Chances for a fighting man.”

“But I’d mislike watching the realm fall asunder that Frodhi built and Harald War-Tooth rebuilt.”

Gest sighed. “From what I have heard, the seed of something great died at Bravellir. What will you do?”

“Take ships that I own, gather crews for them, and go in viking—eastward to Wendland and Gardhariki, I think. Is that a harp you bear above your pack?”

Gest nodded. “I’ve put my hand to sundry kinds of work, but mainly I am a skald.”

“Then come with me. When we reach a lord’s hall, make a drapa about what I wrought this day. I’ll reward you well.”

“We must talk about that.”

Silence fell between them. After a while Gest saw the signs he had been awaiting and took a side trail. It opened on a glade starred with clover. A spring bubbled up at the middle; water trickled off through the grass, to lose itself under the trees. They made a wall around, dark beneath, still golden-green on top where the last sunbeams touched them. The eastern sky was violet-blue. A flight of rooks winged homeward.

Starkadh cast himself belly down and drank with mighty slurps. When at length he raised his dripping beard, he saw Gest busy. The wanderer had lain down his cloak, opened his pack, spread things out. Now he gathered deadwood below the trees and bushes that surrounded the glade. “What are you doing?” Starkadh asked.

“Making ready for night,” Gest told him.

“Does nobody dwell nearby? A swineherd’s hut would do.”

“I know not, and belike darkness would overrun us while we searched. Besides, here is better rest than on a dirt floor breathing smoke and farts.”

“Oh, I’ve slept under the stars often enough, and gone hungry too. I see you’ve a little food with you. Will you share?”

Gest gave the warrior a close look. “You’d not simply take it from me?”

“No, no, you are neither foeman nor quite a stranger.” Starkadh laughed. “Nor a woman. Too bad.”

Gest smiled. “We’ll halve what there is, though it’s not much for a man your size. I’ll set snares. By morning, with luck, we’ll have voles to cook, or even a squirrel or hedgehog.” He paused. “Would you like to help me? If you’ll work as I show you, we can make ourselves snug before nightfall.”

Starkadh rose. “Do you think me a coalbiter? Of course I’ll take a hand. Are you a Finn, or have you dwelt among Finns, to know these woodsrunner’s tricks?”

“No, I was born in Denmark like you—a long time ago. But I learned the hunter’s craft in my boyhood.”

Gest found, unsurprised, that he must pick his words with care when giving orders. Starkadh’s haughtiness was likely to flare. Once he roared, “Am I a thrall?” and half drew blade. He resheathed it, smacked fist into palm, and did as he was bidden. For that moment, pain had twisted his face.

Daylight drained from the west. More and more stars glittered forth. When dusk had seeped upward to fill the glade, the men had their camp ready. A brushwood shelter, bracken and boughs heaped within, would allow rest free of dew, night mists, and rain if any fell. Turfs piled outside its mouth cast back into it the warmth of a fire that Gest had kindled with a drill. Besides nuts and berries, he had found pine cones, sedges, and roots to eke out the bread and cheese. After he had roasted them in the ways that were needful, he and Starkadh would bed down fairly full.

He hunkered at the fire, with his knife whittling a green stick into part of a cooking tool. It was a fire more low than the warrior would have built, softly sputtering, its slight smoke savory of resin. Though air cooled fast at this season, Starkadh learned he could stay comfortable by sitting close. The red and yellow flames cast wavery light over Gest’s cheekbones and nose; it glinted from his eyes and made shadows in the gray beard. “These are good skills you own,” Starkadh said. “Indeed you shall fare with me.”

“We will talk of that,” Gest answered, watching his work.

“Why? You told me you were in search of me.”

“Yes, I was.” Gest drew breath. “Long and long had I been away, until at last memories of the North overwhelmed me and I must come back to see if the aspens still quivered in the light nights of midsummer.” He did not speak of a woman who died after he and she fared thirty years together over the vast plains of the East with her herder tribesfolk. “I had lost hope in my quest, I had stopped seeking—until as I walked through the woods and over the heaths of Jutland and the old tongue reawakened in me, not too much changed since I left, I began to hear about Starkadh. Him I must meet! I followed word of him to Hleidhra, where they said he had gone across the Sound to join King Harald and thence onward to war. I followed that trail to Bravellir, and reached it at sunset when the day’s slaughter had ended. In the morning I found men who had seen him go from it, and I took the way they pointed, and here we are, Starkadh.”

The huge man shifted about. “What would you of me?” he growled uneasily.

“First I would ask for the tale of your life. Some of the stories I heard were wild.”

“You’re a news-greedy one.”

“I have sought knowledge throughout the world. M-m-m ... how shall a storyteller repay a night’s lodging or a skald make staves for chieftains, unless he have something word-worthy behind his teeth?”

Starkadh had unbuckled his sword, but dropped hand to knife. “Is this the beginning of witchcraft? Uncanny are you, Gest.”

The wanderer locked gaze with the warrior and answered, “I swear to cast no spell. What I am after is more strange than that.”

Starkadh quelled a shiver. As if charging at fear to trample it underfoot, he said in a rush: “What I have done is well known, though belike no man save me knows all of it. But sooth it is, wild and sometimes ugly tales have mushroomed over the years. I am not of Jotun birth. That’s old wives’ chatter. My father was a yeoman in the north of Zealand, my mother came of honest fisher folk, and they had other children who grew up, lived like anybody else, grew fold, and were laid in howe, those that battle or sickness or the sea had spared—also like anybody else.”

“How long have they lain in the earth?” Gest asked softly.

Starkadh ignored the question. “I was big and strong, as you see. From childhood I lacked wish to muck and plow the fields or haul nets full of stinking fish. Twelve years old, I went off in viking. Some neighborhood men had a ship in common. They met with other ships and harried a while along the Norse shores. When they went back for hay harvest, I stayed behind. I sought out a skipper who was going to stay the winter; and thereafter my fame waxed fast.

“Shall I tell you of battles, reavings, burnings, feasts, hunger, cold, shipmates, women, offerings to the gods, strife against storm and bad luck when the gods grew angry with us, kings we served and kings we overthrew? The years lie jumbled and awash in me like flotsam on a skerry.

“Frodhi, king at Hleidhra, took me in after I suffered shipwreck. He made me the head of his household troops, and I made him the greatest of lords in his day. But his son Ingjald proved a weakling, sluggard, glutton. I upbraided him and quit the land in disgust. Yet from time to time I have been back and wielded blade for worthier men of the Skjoldung house. Harald was the best of them, he became first among kings through all of Denmark and Gautland and well into Sweden; but now Harald is fallen, and his work broken, and I am alone again.”

He cleared his throat and spat. That may have been his way of not weeping.

“They told me Harald was aged,” Gest said. “He must ride to Bravellir in a wagon, and was well-nigh blind.”

“He died like a man!”

Gest nodded and spoke no further, but busied himself with the food. They ate wordlessly. Afterward they slaked their thirst anew at the spring and went aside, left and right, to piss. When Starkadh came back to the fire he found Gest already there, squatting on his haunches. The night was wholly upon them. Thor’s Wain gleamed enormous, barely over treetops, the North Star higher like a spearpoint.

Starkadh loomed above the fire, legs astraddle, fists on hips, and nearly snarled, “Too long have you slyly fended me off, you. What do you want? Out with it, or I’ll hew you down.”

Gest looked up. The light slipped to and fro along the shadows in his face. “A last question,” he said. “Then you shall know. When were you born, Starkadh?”

The giant coughed forth a curse. “You ask and ask and ask, and naught do you give! What kind of being are you? You sit on your hams like a Finnish warlock.”

Gest shook his head. “I learned this much farther east,” he replied mildly, “and many things else, but none of them are wizardry.”

“You learned womanishness, you who took care to arrive late at the battlefield and stood by while I fought six men!”

Gest rose, straightened his back, stared across the flames, and said in a voice like steel sliding from sheath: “That was no war of mine, nor would I have hunted men who boded me no further harm.” In the dim and restless light, under the stars and Winter Road, suddenly he seemed of a tallness with the warrior, or in some way taller still. “A thing I heard said about you is that though you be foremost in battle, you are doomed to do ill deeds, nithing’s work, over and over and over. They say Thor laid this on you because he hates you. They say the god who bears you good will is Odin, father of witchcraft. Could this be true?”

The giant gasped. It was as if he shrank back. He raised hands and thrust at air. “Empty talk,” he groaned. “Naught more.”

Gest’s words tramped against him. “But you have done treacheries. How many, in those lifetimes that have been yours?”

“Hold your jaw!” Starkadh bellowed. “What know you of being ageless? Be still, ere I smite you like the dayfly you are!”

“That might not be so easy,” Gest purred. “I too have lived a long rime. Far longer than you, my friend.”

The breath rattled in Starkadh’s throat. He could merely gape.

Gest’s tone went dry. “Well, nobody in these parts would keep count of years, as they do in the South or the East. What I heard was that you have lived three men’s lifetimes. That must mean simply that folk remember their grandfathers telling of you. A hundred years is a good enough guess.”

“I—have thought—it was more.”

Again Gest’s eyes caught Starkadh’s and held them. His voice softened but bleakened, trembled the least bit, like a night breeze. “I know not myself how old I am. But when I was a boy, they did not yet ken metal in these lands. Of stone did we make our knives, our axheads and spearheads and arrowheads, our burial chambers. It was not Jotuns who raised those dolmens that brood over the land. It was us, your own forebears, laying our dead to rest and offering to our gods. Though ‘we’ are no more. I have outlived them, I alone, as I have outlived all the generations of men after— until today, Starkadh.”

“You have grayed,” said the warrior in a kind of sob, as if that could be a denial.

“I went gray in my young manhood. Some do, you know. Otherwise I have not changed. I have never been sick, and wounds heal swiftly, without scars. When my teeth wear out, new ones grow. Is it the same for you?”

Starkadh gulped and nodded.

“Belike you’ve taken more hurts than me, such a life as you’ve led,” said Gest thoughtfully. “Myself, I’ve been as peaceful as men let me be, and as careful as a roamer may. When the charioteers rolled into what these days we call Denmark—“ He scowled. “That is forgotten, their wars and their deeds and their very speech. Wisdom lasts. It is what I have sought across the world.”

Starkadh shuddered. “Gest,” he mumbled. “I remember now, in my own youth there went tales of a wayfarer who— Nomagest. Are you he? I thought be was but a story.”

“Often have I left the North for hundreds of years. Always it called me home again. My last stay here ended maybe fourscore years ago. Less of an absence than formerly, but—“ Once more Gest sighed. “I feel myself grow ever wearier of roving the earth among the winds. So folk remembered me for a while, did they?”

Starkadh shook his head dazedly. “And to think that I, I was alive then. But I must have been faring about. ... Is it true that the Norns told your mother you would die when a candle burned down, and she snuffed it out and you carry it still?”

Gest grinned. “Do you yourself believe you have your lifespan from Odin?”

He turned grave: “I know not what has made us twain what we are. That is a riddle as dark as the death of all other mankind. Norns or gods in truth? The hunger to know drove me to the far ends of the world, that and the hope of finding more tike myself. Oh, seeing a beloved wife wither into the grave, and seeing our children follow her— But nowhere did I come on any else whom time spares, nor did I come on any answer. Rather, I heard too many answers, I met too many gods. Abroad they call on Christ, but if you fare southward long enough it is Muhammad; and eastward it is Gautama Buddha, save where they say the world is a dream of Brahm, or offer to a host of gods and ghosts and elves like ours hi these Northlands, And almost every man I asked told me that His folk know the truth while the rest are benighted. Could I but hear a word I felt even half sure of—”

“Fret not yourself about that,” said Starkadh, boldness rising anew in him. “Things are whatever they are, and no man shuns his doom. His freedom is to leave a high name behind him.”

“I wondered if I was altogether alone, and my deathlessness a curse laid on me for some horrible guilt I have forgotten,” Gest went on. “That seemed wrong, though. Strange births do happen. Oftenest they are weak or crippled, but now and then something springs up that can flourish, like a clover with four leaves. Could we ageless be such? We would be very few. Most could well die of war or mischance before discovering they are different. Others could well be slain by neighbors who come to fear they are witches. Or they may flee, take new names, learn how to hide what they are. I have mostly done this, seldom abiding at length in any single place. Once in a while I have met folk who were willing to take me for what I am—wise men in the East, or raw backwoods dwellers like my Northerners—but in the end there was always too much sorrow, too heavy a freight of memories, and I must leave them also.

“Never did I find my own sort. Many and many a trail did I follow, sometimes for years, but each led to naught. At last hope faded out of me, and I turned my footsteps homeward. At least the Northern springtime is forever young.

“And then I heard about you.”

Gest came around the fire. He reached to lay hands on Starkadh’s shoulders. “Here my quest ends, where it began,” he said. Tears trembled on his lashes. “Now we are two, no more alone. And by this we know there must be more, women among them. Together, helping and heartening each other, we can search till we begin to find. Starkadh, my brother!”

The warrior stood unmoving before he said, “This ... comes ... suddenly.”

Gest let go. “It does that. I’ve had the whole while to think since the first word I got about you. Well, take your time. We have more time than most men, you and I.”

Starkadh stared off into the dark. “I thought someday I must grow old and strengthless like Harald,” he breathed. “Unless first I fell in battle, and I thought I would see to it that I did ... But you tell me I shall always be young. Always.”

“A load that on me has often felt well-nigh unbearable,” Gest told him. “Shared, though, it will be light.”

Starkadh clenched oak-burl fists. “What shall we do with it?”

“Ward the gift well. It may, after all, be from Beyond, and those who bear it singled out for deeds that will change the world.”

“Yes.” Glee began to throb in Starkadh’s voice. “Fame undying, and I alive to enjoy it. War-hosts to rally round me, kingdoms to take, royal houses to found.”

“Hold, hold,” said Gest. “We’re not gods, you know. We can be slain, drowned, burned, starved like any other men. I’ve stayed on earth these uncounted years by ganging warily.”

Starkadh gave him a cold look. Scorn snorted: “I understand that. Do you understand honor?”

“I don’t mean we should skulk. Let us make sure of our safety, both in strength and in boltholes, lest luck go awry. After that we can make known what we are, piece by piece, to such folk as we can trust. Then- awe of us will help, but that is not enough; to lead, we must serve, we must give.”

“How can we give unless we have gold, treasures, a hoard such as deathless vikings can heap up?”

Gest frowned. “We draw near to quarreling. Best we speak no further tonight, but sleep on it. Tomorrow, refreshed, we’ll think more clearly.”

“You can sleep—after this?”

“What, are you not worn out?”

Starkadh laughed. “After reaping a goodly harvest.” He failed to see how Gest winced. “As you wish. To bed.”

However, in the shelter he thrashed and muttered and flung his arms around. Finally Gest slipped back outside.

He found a dry spot close to the spring, but decided he would take his rest in meditation rather than sleep. Having assumed the lotus position, he raised calm within himself. That came easily. He had far surpassed his gurus in lands east of the sunrises over Denmark: for he had had centuries to practice the disciplines of mind and body that they taught. Yet without those teachings, he doubted he could have endured his lot. How fared those masters, those fellow chetas? Had Nadha or Lobsang at last won free of the Wheel?

Would he ever? Hope bound him. He could never quite bring himself to loosen it. Did that mean he spurned the faith? “Om mani padme hum.” No such words had seized him by the soul; but was that because he would not let them? Could he only find a God to Whom he could yield —

At least he had become like the sages in control of the body and its passions. Rather, in this he had won to the power for which they had striven. Breath and heartbeat dwindled at his command until he was unaware of them. Chill ceased to be a thing invading his skin; he was of it, he was the night world, he became the stave that unfolded.

“Slowly the moon Slides aloft. Keen is its edge, Cutting the dark. Stars and frost, As still as the dead, Warn of another Waning year.”

A noise recalled him. Hours had passed. The east stood gray above the trees. Dew spread the only brightness in a hueless half-light. Mists smoked above it and along men’s breath. The clear gurgle of the spring sounded much louder than it was.

Starkadh hunched at the shelter. He had knocked it apart, blundering out. He carried the sheathed sword that had lain across his doffed mail. A bloodshot and darkrimmed gaze jumped about until it landed on Gest. He grunted and stalked that way.

Gest rose. “Good morning,” he greeted.

“Did you spend the night sitting?” Starkadh wondered. His voice grated. “Sleep fled me too.”

“I hope you got some rest anyway. I’ll go see what’s in the snares.”

“Wait. Ere I take more at your hands—”

Cold pierced Gest from within. “What’s wrong?”

“You. Your slippery tongue. I tossed as in a nightmare, righting to grasp what you meant yesterday. Now you’ll make it plain to me.”

“Why, I thought I did. We are two ageless men. Our loneliness is at an end. But there must be others, women among them, for us to find and ... and hold dear. For this, we’ll swear oaths, become brothers—”

“Of what kind?” rasped Starkadh. “I the chieftain, later the king; you my skald and redesman— But that’s not what you said!” He swallowed. “Or do you also want to be a king?” Brightening: “Surely! We can divide the world between us.”

“We would die trying.”

“Our fame will never die.”

“Or worse, we would fall out with each other. How shall two stay together when always they deal in death and betrayal?”

At once Gest saw his mistake. He had intended to say that such was the nature of power. Seizing it and holding it were alike filthy. But before he could go on, Starkadh clapped hand to hilt. The rocky face went dawn-pale. “So you besmirch my honor,” he said from the bottom of his gullet.

Gest lifted a hand, palm outward. “No. Let me explain.”

Starkadh leaned close. His nostrils flared. “What have you heard about me? Spew it out!”

Gest knew starkly that he must. “They tell how you took one small king captive and hanged him for an offering to Odin, after you had promised him his life. They tell how you murdered another in his bath house, for pay. But—”

“I had to!” Starkadh yelled. “Ever was I an outsider. The rest were, were too young, and—“ He uttered a bawl like an aurochs bull’s.

“And your loneliness lashed you till you struck back, blindly,” Gest said. “I understand. I did when first I heard about you. How often have I felt thus? I remember deeds of mine that hurt me worse than fire. It’s merely that I am not a killer.”

Starkadh spat on the ground. “Right. You’ve hugged your years to you like a crone wrapping herself in her blanket.”

“But don’t you see,” Gest cried, “things have changed for us both? Now we’ve better work to do than attack folk who never harmed us. It was the lust for fame, wealth, power that brought you to dishonor.”

Starkadh screamed. His sword flew free. He hewed.

Gest shifted like a shadow. Nonetheless the edge ripped down his left arm. Blood poured forth, drenched the cloth, dripped into the streamlet that ran from the spring.

He drifted back, drew his knife, halted hi half a crouch. Starkadh stood fast. “I should ... chop you in twain ... for what you said,” he panted. Gulping air: “But I think you will die soon enough of that stroke.” Laughter clanked. “A shame. I did hope you’d be a friend. The first real friend of my life. Well, the Norns will it otherwise.”

Our natures do, Gest thought. And: How easily I could kill you. How open you stand to a hundred martial tricks I know.

“Instead, I shall have to go on as erstwhile,” said Starkadh, “alone.”

Let it be so, thought Gest.

With the fingers of his right hand he searched below his torn shirt and pushed together the lips of his wound. Pain he made into something apart from himself, like the mists that broke under the strengthening light. He gave his mind to the blood flow.

Starkadh kicked the shelter aside, fetched his mail, drew it over the underpadding in which he had spent the night. He donned coif and helmet, belted on sword, picked up shield. When he was ready to leave, he stared in astonishment at the other man. “What, are you still on your feet?” he said. “Shall I make an end of you?”

Had he tried that, it would have been the end of him. But he stopped, shivered, turned away. “No,” he mumbled. “This is all too spooky. I’m off to my own doom, Nornagest.”

He lumbered up the trail, into the woods and beyond sight.

Then Gest could sit down and bring a whole heed to the steering of his body. He had stopped the bleeding before he suffered overmuch loss, though he would be weak for a few days. No matter. He could stay here until he was fit to travel; the earth would provide for him. He began to hasten the knitting of the flesh.

He dared not wish he were able to heal the wound inside.

<p>3</p>

“However, we only met fleetingly, Starkadh and I,” Gest went on. “Afterward hearsay about him reached me now and then, until I went abroad again; and when I came back he was long dead, slain as he had wanted.”

“Why have you fared so widely?” asked King Olaf. “What have you sought?”

“What I never found,” Gest answered. “Peace.”

No, that was not wholly right, he thought. Over and over had he been at peace, in the nearness of beauty or wisdom, the arms of a woman, the laughter of children. But how short the whiles! His latest time as a husbandman, in the Uplands of Norway, seemed already the dream of a single night: Ingridh’s youthful gladness, its rebirths in the cradle he had carved, her heart that stayed high while she grew more gray than he, but then the shriveling years, and afterward the burials, the burials. Where now wandered Ingridh? He could not follow, not her nor any of those who glimmered on the rim of memory, not that first and sweetest of all, garlanded with ivy and in her hand a blade of flint...

“In God is peace,” said the priest.

It could be, it could be. Today church bells rang in Norway, as they had done for a lifetime or more in Denmark, yes, above that halidom of the Mother where he and the garland girl had offered flowers ... He bad seen the charioteers and their storm gods come into the land, he had seen bronze and iron, the wagon trains bound south for Rome and the viking ships bound west for England, sickness and famine, drought and war, and life patiently beginning anew; each year went down into death and awaited the homecoming of the sun that would bring it to rebirth; be too could let go if he would, and drift away on the wind with the leaves.

King Olaf’s priest thought that soon every quest would end and the dead arise. How good if that was true. Ever more folk believed so. Why should not he?

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Days later, Gest said, “Yes, I will take your baptism.” The priest wept for joy. Olaf whooped.

But when it was done, that evening in the hall Gest took forth a candle and lighted it at a torch. He lay down on a bench where he could see it. “Now I may die,” he told them.

Now I have yielded.

He let the candleflame fill his vision, his being. He made himself one with it. The light waxed for him until he almost thought it shone on those lost faces, brought them back out of the dark, nearer and nearer. His heartbeat heeded him, slowing toward quietness.

Olaf and the young warriors stood dumb with awe. The priest knelt in shadow and prayed without uttering the words aloud.

The candleflame flickered to naught. Nornagest lay still. Through the hall sounded a wind of the oncoming winter.


1

<p>1</p>

It is told in the saga of Olaf Tryggvason how Nornagest came to him when he was at Nidharos and abode some while in the king’s hall; for many and wonderful were the tales that Gest bore. Evening after lengthening evening as the year drew toward winter, men sat by the fires and hearkened. Tales they heard from lifetimes agone and the far ends of the world. Often he gave them staves as well, for he was a skald, and was apt to strum a harp underneath the words, in English wise. There were those who muttered he must be a liar, asking how any man could have fared so widely or been so old. But King Olaf bade these be still, and himself listened keenly.

“I was living on a farm in the Uplands,” Gest had said to him. “Now my last child yonder has died, and again I am weary of my dwelling—wearier than ever, lord. Word of you reached me, and I have come to see whether it is true.”

“What you have heard that is good, is true,” answered the priest Conor. “By God’s grace, he is bringing a new day to Norway.”

“But your day first broke very long ago, Gest, did it not?” murmured Olaf. “We have heard of you again and again. Everyone has—though none but your neighbors in the mountains have seen you for many years, and I supposed you must be dead.” When he looked at the newcomer he saw a man tall and lean, straight in the back, gray of hair and beard but with few lines across the strong bones of his face. “You are not really aged after all.”

Gest sighed. “I am older than I seem, lord.”

“Guest of the Noras. A strange and heathenish nick-name, that,” said the king slowly. “How did you come by it?”

“You may not want to hear.” And Gest turned the talk elsewhere.

Right well did he understand the craft of doing so. Over and over, Olaf urged him to take baptism and be saved. Yet the king did not make threats or order death, as he did with most who were stubborn about this. Gest’s tales were so gripping that he wanted to keep the wanderer here.

Conor pressed harder, seeking Gest out almost daily. The priest was eager in the holy work. He had come with Olaf when the latter sailed from Dublin to Norway, overthrew Hdkon Jarl, and won the land for himself. Now the king was calling in missionaries from England and Germany as well as Ireland, and maybe Conor felt a bit left out.

Gest gave him grave heed and soft answers. “I am no stranger to your Christ,” Gest said. “I have met him often, or at least his worshippers. Nor am I plighted to Odin and Thor.” His smile was rueful. “I have known too many different gods.”

“But this is the true and only God,” Conor replied. “Hang not back, or you will be lost. In just a few years a full thousand will have passed since his birth among men. Belike he will come back then, end the world, and raise the dead for judgment.”

Gest stared afar. “It would be good to believe I can meet my dead anew,” he whispered; and he let Conor talk on.

At eventide, however, after meat, when the trestle tables had been taken from the hall and women carried the drinking horns forth, he had other things to talk about, yarns to spin, verses to chant, questions to meet. Once a couple of guardsmen happened to speak of the great battle at Bravellir. “My forebear Grani from Bryndal was among the Icelanders who fought for King Sigurdh Ring,” one boasted. “He cut his way close enough to see King Harald War-Tooth fall. Starkadh himself had not strength to save the Danes that day.”

Gest stirred. “Forgive me,” he said. “There were no Icelanders at Bravellir. Norsemen hadjiot yet found that island.”

The warrior bristled. “Have you never heard the lay that Starkadh made?” he flung back. “It names all the worthies who came to the fray on either side.”

Gest shook his head. “I have heard, and I do not call you a liar, Eyvind. You passed on what you were told. But Starkadh never made any such lay. Another skald did, lifetimes afterward, and put it in his mouth. Bravellir was bloodied—“ He sat a few heartbeats thinking, while the fires in the trenches guttered and crackled. “Was it three hundred years ago? I have lost track.”

“Do you mean Starkadh was not there, and you were?” gibed the guardsman.

“Oh, he was,” said Gest, “though he was not much like the stories men tell of him now, nor lamed and half blind with age when at last he went to his death.”

Stillness fell anew. King Olaf peered through shifting shadows at the speaker before he asked low, “Did you, then, know him?”

Gest nodded. “I did. Indeed, it was right after Bravellir that we met.”


2

<p>2</p>

His staff was a spear, for no man traveled unarmed in the North; but over the small pack on his back hung a harp in its case, and he offered harm to none. When at nightfall he found a homestead, he slept there, repaying hospitality with songs and tales and news from outside. Otherwise he rolled up in his cloak, and by dawnlight drank from a spring or brook and ate of whatever bread and cheese his latest host had given him. Thus had he fared through most of his years, from end to end of the world.

This day was cool beneath a wan sky where clouds were scant and the sun swung southward. The woods that decked the hills of Gautland stood hazed and hushed. Birches had begun to turn yellow, and the green of oak and beech was less bright than erstwhile. Firs lifted darkling among them. Ripe currants glowed hi the shade. Smells of earth and damp filled every breath.

Gest saw it all, widely, from a ridge he had climbed. Below him the land rolled off to an unclear edge of sight. Mostly it was tree-clad, but meadows and plowed fields broke it here and there. He spied two houses and their outbuildings, distance-dwindled; smoke rose straight upward from the roofs. Close by, a stream glistened on its way to a lake that shone in the offing.

He had come far enough from the battlefield that the wreckage and the dead strewn across it were blurred together in his eyes. Carrion birds swarmed aloft and about and back down, a whirling blackness, but also gone tiny for him. He could barely hear their cries. Sometimes the howl of a wolf lifted, to hang above the hills for what seemed a long while before dying away in echoes.

Living men had withdrawn, bound home. They took wounded kindred and friends along, but could merely throw a little earth over such of the fallen as they knew. A band of them whom Gest had come upon this morning did tell him that King Sigurdh had borne off the body of his foe King Harald, to give it a barrow and grave goods at Uppsala for the sake of his own honor.

Gest leaned on his spear, shook his head, and smiled sadly. How often had he beheld the like of this, after young men stormed forth to cast their lives from them? He did not know. He had lost the number somewhere in the waste of the centuries. Or else he had never had the heart to try keeping count. He was not sure which, any more. Yet as always, he felt the need to say a farewell, the only thing he or anyone else could now give the young men.

It was no skaldic drapa that came to his lips. The words were Northern, so that the dead would understand if they could hear, but he lacked all wish to praise bravery and recall mighty deeds. The verse form that he chose was from a country thousands of miles toward the sunrise. There a short, slanty-eyed folk knew much and fashioned things of wondrous beauty, though there too the sword ranged free.

“The summer fading, Chill shall slash the leaves bloody And the geese trek—where? Already this ground went red While the wind called souls away.”

A brief spell more Gest lingered, then turned and departed. Those Danes he met earlier had seen the one whom he sought leave soon after half a dozen Swedes did and follow them eastward. Thereupon Gest had gone to Bravellir and cast about until his woodsman’s eye lighted on what he thought must be the tracks. He had better hurry. Nonetheless he kept to his everyday stride. It looked lazy, but in the course of a day it left as much behind it as a horse might, or more; and it let him stay aware of everything around him.

He was on a game trail. The kings had set Bravellir as their meeting place because it was a broad meadow through which a road ran north and south, about halfway between Harald in Scania and Sigurdh in Sweden. However, the land round about was thinly settled. The six going this way must be headed for the Baltic shore, where lay the ship or ships that had brought them. That they were so few bespoke how terrible the battle had been. It would be remembered, sung about, made even larger in the minds of men, for hundreds of years to come. And those who plowed yonder fields would molder forgotten.

Gest’s shoes scuffed softly on soil. Branches were a roof overhead, through which sunbeams fell to make spatters of light on the shadowy hallway before him. A squirrel ran like a flame up a tree. Somewhere a dove moaned. Brush rustled on the left, a great dim shape slipped off, an elk. Gest let his soul drift into the sweet-smelling reaches. Meanwhile, though, he kept reading the traces. That was easy, footprints, broken twigs, torn spiderwebs, marks on mossy logs where men had sat down to rest. They were no hunters by trade, as he had been through much of his life. Nor was the one who followed them, never stopping, closing the gap between. Those feet were huge.

Time passed. The sunbeams lowered, lengthened, took on a golden hue. A bit of cold crept into the air.

Suddenly Gest halted. He leaned forward, head cocked, listening. Family to him came a noise he thought he knew.

He quickened his pace to a lope. Muffled at first by leaves, the sound swelled fast, clang and clatter, shouts, soon crackling, snapping, and harsh breath. Gest brought his spear to the ready and glided on as quietly as might be.

A slain man sprawled across the trail. He had fallen into a bush that snagged the upper half of him. Blood dripped from its stems and pooled below, screamingly bright. A blow had cloven him from the left shoulder through the breastbone. Pieces of rib and lung poked out of him. Fair hair clung sweat-matted to cheeks whereon no beard grew, just the down of a boy. He stared and gaped emptily.

Gest drew aside and found himself treading on another body, dose by, brush churned with combat. He glimpsed men, iron, blood and more blood. Weapon banged on weapon, scraped across helmets, thudded against wooden shields. Another fighter toppled. A thigh spouted red; he threshed about and shrieked. It was the kind of noise a human throat ought not to make. A fourth warrior dropped and lay sodden in a patch of nettles. The head was nearly off him.

Gest got behind a young fir. It screened him, and he could see between its limbs. Two were left of the band that the newcomer had overtaken and attacked. Like their mates, they wore only sarks, coats, breeks. If any owned mail, he had not thought to put it on until too late. Both these did have kettle hats. One carried sword and shield, one an ax.

Their lone foe was fully outfitted, in knee-length byrnie, conical helmet with noseguard, an iron-rimmed shield hi his left grip and a sword of uncommon size in his right. He was more than big, overtopping Gest’s goodly height by a head, shoulders as wide as a doorframe, arms and legs like oak boughs. An unkempt black beard reached to his chest.

The pair had recovered from the shock of his onslaught. They worked together, barking words to and fro. The swordsman went straight at the giant. Blades clashed, agleam when they rose into a sunbeam, a blur as they hissed downward or sideways. The Swede caught a blow on his shield that made him lurch, but stood fast and struck back. The axman circled behind their enemy.

The huge man must have known it. Blindingly fast, he spun on his heel and plunged at the axman, offside, so that the stroke missed him by inches. His blade whipped. The axman staggered, dropped his weapon, stared at a right forearm laid open and bone-shattered. The giant leaped on past him. There was a grassy patch between him and the other swordsman. At its end he turned and burst into a run at that fellow. Shields boomed together, with weight and speed behind his. Overborne, the Swede went on his back. Somehow he kept hold of his sword and got his shield up.

The giant sprang high and landed on him. Shield was driven against ribs. Gest thought he heard them crack. Breath whoofed out. The giant straddled the writhing body and made his kill in two strokes.

He glared around. The wounded axman was in flight, blundering off among the boles. The winner dashed after and cut him down.

The shrieks of the thigh-slashed man ebbed off to cawing, to rattling, to silence.

Laughter boomed from a cavern of a breast. The huge man rammed his blade thrice into the earth, wiped it clean on the shirt of a fallen, and sheathed it. His breathing eased. He doffed helmet and coif, dropped them, swept a hairy hand over the sweat that tunneled off his brow.

Gest came out from behind the fir. The giant snatched at his hilt. Gest leaned spear in the crotch of a tree and spread his palms, “I am peaceful,” he said.

The warrior stayed taut. “But are you alone?” he asked. His voice was like heavy surf on a strand of stones.

Gest looked into the rugged face, the small ice-blue eyes, and nodded. “I am. Besides, after what I have just seen, I would not think Starkadh need be wary of anyone or anything.”

The warrior grinned. “Ah, you know me. But we have not met erenow.”

“Everybody in the North has heard of Starkadh the Strong. And ... I have been in search of you.”

“You have?” Surprise turned into a glower. “Then it was a nithing’s trick to stand aside and give me no help.”

“You had no need,” said Gest in his mildest tone. “Also, the battle went so fast. Never have I seen such weapon-wielding.”

Pleased, Starkadh spoke friendlier. “Who are you that seek me?”

“I have borne many names. In the North it has oftenest been Gest.”

“What would you of me?”

“That is a long tale. May I first ask why you hounded these men down and slew them?”

Starkadh’s gaze went elsewhere, toward the sun whose light shot in yellow beams between trees turning dark against heaven. His lips moved. After a bit he nodded, met Gest’s look again, and said:

“Here shall wolves not hunger. Haraldfed the ravens. Honor won we. Only Odin overcame us. Ale I lack, but offer All these foes to Harold. Never was he niggard. Now I’ve shown I’m thankful.”

So it was true what they said, Gest thought. As well as being the foremost of warriors, Starkadh had some gift as a skald. What else might he be?

“I see,” Gest acknowledged slowly. “You fought for Harald, and wished to avenge your lord after he fell, though the war be done with.”

Starkadh nodded. “I hope I have gladdened his ghost. Still more do I hope I have gladdened his forebear King Frodhi, who was the best of lords and never stinted me of gold or weapons or other fine things.”

A tingle went through Gest, a chill along his backbone. “Was that Frodhi Fridhleifsson in Denmark? They say Starkadh was of his household. But he died lifetimes ago.”

“I am older than I seem,” answered Starkadh with renewed roughness. He shook himself. “After this day’s work, thirst is afire in me. Would you know where there is water?”

“I know how to find water, if you will come with me,” Gest told him. “But what of these dead men?”

Starkadh shrugged. “I’m no scaldcrow to pick them clean. Leave them for the ants.” Flies buzzed around blind eyes, parched tongues, clotting blood. Stenches hung heavy.

Gest had grown used to such sights, but he was ever happy to lay them behind him, and tried not dwell on thoughts of widows, children, mothers. The lives he had shared were short at best, the merest blink of years, and afterward, for most, a span hardly longer before they were wholly forgotten by all but him. He took his spear and led the way down the trail.

“Will you be returning to Denmark?” he asked.

“I think not,” rumbled Starkadh at his back. “Sigurdh will make sure the next king in Hleidhra is beholden to him, and that the under-kings are at odds with each other.”

“Chances for a fighting man.”

“But I’d mislike watching the realm fall asunder that Frodhi built and Harald War-Tooth rebuilt.”

Gest sighed. “From what I have heard, the seed of something great died at Bravellir. What will you do?”

“Take ships that I own, gather crews for them, and go in viking—eastward to Wendland and Gardhariki, I think. Is that a harp you bear above your pack?”

Gest nodded. “I’ve put my hand to sundry kinds of work, but mainly I am a skald.”

“Then come with me. When we reach a lord’s hall, make a drapa about what I wrought this day. I’ll reward you well.”

“We must talk about that.”

Silence fell between them. After a while Gest saw the signs he had been awaiting and took a side trail. It opened on a glade starred with clover. A spring bubbled up at the middle; water trickled off through the grass, to lose itself under the trees. They made a wall around, dark beneath, still golden-green on top where the last sunbeams touched them. The eastern sky was violet-blue. A flight of rooks winged homeward.

Starkadh cast himself belly down and drank with mighty slurps. When at length he raised his dripping beard, he saw Gest busy. The wanderer had lain down his cloak, opened his pack, spread things out. Now he gathered deadwood below the trees and bushes that surrounded the glade. “What are you doing?” Starkadh asked.

“Making ready for night,” Gest told him.

“Does nobody dwell nearby? A swineherd’s hut would do.”

“I know not, and belike darkness would overrun us while we searched. Besides, here is better rest than on a dirt floor breathing smoke and farts.”

“Oh, I’ve slept under the stars often enough, and gone hungry too. I see you’ve a little food with you. Will you share?”

Gest gave the warrior a close look. “You’d not simply take it from me?”

“No, no, you are neither foeman nor quite a stranger.” Starkadh laughed. “Nor a woman. Too bad.”

Gest smiled. “We’ll halve what there is, though it’s not much for a man your size. I’ll set snares. By morning, with luck, we’ll have voles to cook, or even a squirrel or hedgehog.” He paused. “Would you like to help me? If you’ll work as I show you, we can make ourselves snug before nightfall.”

Starkadh rose. “Do you think me a coalbiter? Of course I’ll take a hand. Are you a Finn, or have you dwelt among Finns, to know these woodsrunner’s tricks?”

“No, I was born in Denmark like you—a long time ago. But I learned the hunter’s craft in my boyhood.”

Gest found, unsurprised, that he must pick his words with care when giving orders. Starkadh’s haughtiness was likely to flare. Once he roared, “Am I a thrall?” and half drew blade. He resheathed it, smacked fist into palm, and did as he was bidden. For that moment, pain had twisted his face.

Daylight drained from the west. More and more stars glittered forth. When dusk had seeped upward to fill the glade, the men had their camp ready. A brushwood shelter, bracken and boughs heaped within, would allow rest free of dew, night mists, and rain if any fell. Turfs piled outside its mouth cast back into it the warmth of a fire that Gest had kindled with a drill. Besides nuts and berries, he had found pine cones, sedges, and roots to eke out the bread and cheese. After he had roasted them in the ways that were needful, he and Starkadh would bed down fairly full.

He hunkered at the fire, with his knife whittling a green stick into part of a cooking tool. It was a fire more low than the warrior would have built, softly sputtering, its slight smoke savory of resin. Though air cooled fast at this season, Starkadh learned he could stay comfortable by sitting close. The red and yellow flames cast wavery light over Gest’s cheekbones and nose; it glinted from his eyes and made shadows in the gray beard. “These are good skills you own,” Starkadh said. “Indeed you shall fare with me.”

“We will talk of that,” Gest answered, watching his work.

“Why? You told me you were in search of me.”

“Yes, I was.” Gest drew breath. “Long and long had I been away, until at last memories of the North overwhelmed me and I must come back to see if the aspens still quivered in the light nights of midsummer.” He did not speak of a woman who died after he and she fared thirty years together over the vast plains of the East with her herder tribesfolk. “I had lost hope in my quest, I had stopped seeking—until as I walked through the woods and over the heaths of Jutland and the old tongue reawakened in me, not too much changed since I left, I began to hear about Starkadh. Him I must meet! I followed word of him to Hleidhra, where they said he had gone across the Sound to join King Harald and thence onward to war. I followed that trail to Bravellir, and reached it at sunset when the day’s slaughter had ended. In the morning I found men who had seen him go from it, and I took the way they pointed, and here we are, Starkadh.”

The huge man shifted about. “What would you of me?” he growled uneasily.

“First I would ask for the tale of your life. Some of the stories I heard were wild.”

“You’re a news-greedy one.”

“I have sought knowledge throughout the world. M-m-m ... how shall a storyteller repay a night’s lodging or a skald make staves for chieftains, unless he have something word-worthy behind his teeth?”

Starkadh had unbuckled his sword, but dropped hand to knife. “Is this the beginning of witchcraft? Uncanny are you, Gest.”

The wanderer locked gaze with the warrior and answered, “I swear to cast no spell. What I am after is more strange than that.”

Starkadh quelled a shiver. As if charging at fear to trample it underfoot, he said in a rush: “What I have done is well known, though belike no man save me knows all of it. But sooth it is, wild and sometimes ugly tales have mushroomed over the years. I am not of Jotun birth. That’s old wives’ chatter. My father was a yeoman in the north of Zealand, my mother came of honest fisher folk, and they had other children who grew up, lived like anybody else, grew fold, and were laid in howe, those that battle or sickness or the sea had spared—also like anybody else.”

“How long have they lain in the earth?” Gest asked softly.

Starkadh ignored the question. “I was big and strong, as you see. From childhood I lacked wish to muck and plow the fields or haul nets full of stinking fish. Twelve years old, I went off in viking. Some neighborhood men had a ship in common. They met with other ships and harried a while along the Norse shores. When they went back for hay harvest, I stayed behind. I sought out a skipper who was going to stay the winter; and thereafter my fame waxed fast.

“Shall I tell you of battles, reavings, burnings, feasts, hunger, cold, shipmates, women, offerings to the gods, strife against storm and bad luck when the gods grew angry with us, kings we served and kings we overthrew? The years lie jumbled and awash in me like flotsam on a skerry.

“Frodhi, king at Hleidhra, took me in after I suffered shipwreck. He made me the head of his household troops, and I made him the greatest of lords in his day. But his son Ingjald proved a weakling, sluggard, glutton. I upbraided him and quit the land in disgust. Yet from time to time I have been back and wielded blade for worthier men of the Skjoldung house. Harald was the best of them, he became first among kings through all of Denmark and Gautland and well into Sweden; but now Harald is fallen, and his work broken, and I am alone again.”

He cleared his throat and spat. That may have been his way of not weeping.

“They told me Harald was aged,” Gest said. “He must ride to Bravellir in a wagon, and was well-nigh blind.”

“He died like a man!”

Gest nodded and spoke no further, but busied himself with the food. They ate wordlessly. Afterward they slaked their thirst anew at the spring and went aside, left and right, to piss. When Starkadh came back to the fire he found Gest already there, squatting on his haunches. The night was wholly upon them. Thor’s Wain gleamed enormous, barely over treetops, the North Star higher like a spearpoint.

Starkadh loomed above the fire, legs astraddle, fists on hips, and nearly snarled, “Too long have you slyly fended me off, you. What do you want? Out with it, or I’ll hew you down.”

Gest looked up. The light slipped to and fro along the shadows in his face. “A last question,” he said. “Then you shall know. When were you born, Starkadh?”

The giant coughed forth a curse. “You ask and ask and ask, and naught do you give! What kind of being are you? You sit on your hams like a Finnish warlock.”

Gest shook his head. “I learned this much farther east,” he replied mildly, “and many things else, but none of them are wizardry.”

“You learned womanishness, you who took care to arrive late at the battlefield and stood by while I fought six men!”

Gest rose, straightened his back, stared across the flames, and said in a voice like steel sliding from sheath: “That was no war of mine, nor would I have hunted men who boded me no further harm.” In the dim and restless light, under the stars and Winter Road, suddenly he seemed of a tallness with the warrior, or in some way taller still. “A thing I heard said about you is that though you be foremost in battle, you are doomed to do ill deeds, nithing’s work, over and over and over. They say Thor laid this on you because he hates you. They say the god who bears you good will is Odin, father of witchcraft. Could this be true?”

The giant gasped. It was as if he shrank back. He raised hands and thrust at air. “Empty talk,” he groaned. “Naught more.”

Gest’s words tramped against him. “But you have done treacheries. How many, in those lifetimes that have been yours?”

“Hold your jaw!” Starkadh bellowed. “What know you of being ageless? Be still, ere I smite you like the dayfly you are!”

“That might not be so easy,” Gest purred. “I too have lived a long rime. Far longer than you, my friend.”

The breath rattled in Starkadh’s throat. He could merely gape.

Gest’s tone went dry. “Well, nobody in these parts would keep count of years, as they do in the South or the East. What I heard was that you have lived three men’s lifetimes. That must mean simply that folk remember their grandfathers telling of you. A hundred years is a good enough guess.”

“I—have thought—it was more.”

Again Gest’s eyes caught Starkadh’s and held them. His voice softened but bleakened, trembled the least bit, like a night breeze. “I know not myself how old I am. But when I was a boy, they did not yet ken metal in these lands. Of stone did we make our knives, our axheads and spearheads and arrowheads, our burial chambers. It was not Jotuns who raised those dolmens that brood over the land. It was us, your own forebears, laying our dead to rest and offering to our gods. Though ‘we’ are no more. I have outlived them, I alone, as I have outlived all the generations of men after— until today, Starkadh.”

“You have grayed,” said the warrior in a kind of sob, as if that could be a denial.

“I went gray in my young manhood. Some do, you know. Otherwise I have not changed. I have never been sick, and wounds heal swiftly, without scars. When my teeth wear out, new ones grow. Is it the same for you?”

Starkadh gulped and nodded.

“Belike you’ve taken more hurts than me, such a life as you’ve led,” said Gest thoughtfully. “Myself, I’ve been as peaceful as men let me be, and as careful as a roamer may. When the charioteers rolled into what these days we call Denmark—“ He scowled. “That is forgotten, their wars and their deeds and their very speech. Wisdom lasts. It is what I have sought across the world.”

Starkadh shuddered. “Gest,” he mumbled. “I remember now, in my own youth there went tales of a wayfarer who— Nomagest. Are you he? I thought be was but a story.”

“Often have I left the North for hundreds of years. Always it called me home again. My last stay here ended maybe fourscore years ago. Less of an absence than formerly, but—“ Once more Gest sighed. “I feel myself grow ever wearier of roving the earth among the winds. So folk remembered me for a while, did they?”

Starkadh shook his head dazedly. “And to think that I, I was alive then. But I must have been faring about. ... Is it true that the Norns told your mother you would die when a candle burned down, and she snuffed it out and you carry it still?”

Gest grinned. “Do you yourself believe you have your lifespan from Odin?”

He turned grave: “I know not what has made us twain what we are. That is a riddle as dark as the death of all other mankind. Norns or gods in truth? The hunger to know drove me to the far ends of the world, that and the hope of finding more tike myself. Oh, seeing a beloved wife wither into the grave, and seeing our children follow her— But nowhere did I come on any else whom time spares, nor did I come on any answer. Rather, I heard too many answers, I met too many gods. Abroad they call on Christ, but if you fare southward long enough it is Muhammad; and eastward it is Gautama Buddha, save where they say the world is a dream of Brahm, or offer to a host of gods and ghosts and elves like ours hi these Northlands, And almost every man I asked told me that His folk know the truth while the rest are benighted. Could I but hear a word I felt even half sure of—”

“Fret not yourself about that,” said Starkadh, boldness rising anew in him. “Things are whatever they are, and no man shuns his doom. His freedom is to leave a high name behind him.”

“I wondered if I was altogether alone, and my deathlessness a curse laid on me for some horrible guilt I have forgotten,” Gest went on. “That seemed wrong, though. Strange births do happen. Oftenest they are weak or crippled, but now and then something springs up that can flourish, like a clover with four leaves. Could we ageless be such? We would be very few. Most could well die of war or mischance before discovering they are different. Others could well be slain by neighbors who come to fear they are witches. Or they may flee, take new names, learn how to hide what they are. I have mostly done this, seldom abiding at length in any single place. Once in a while I have met folk who were willing to take me for what I am—wise men in the East, or raw backwoods dwellers like my Northerners—but in the end there was always too much sorrow, too heavy a freight of memories, and I must leave them also.

“Never did I find my own sort. Many and many a trail did I follow, sometimes for years, but each led to naught. At last hope faded out of me, and I turned my footsteps homeward. At least the Northern springtime is forever young.

“And then I heard about you.”

Gest came around the fire. He reached to lay hands on Starkadh’s shoulders. “Here my quest ends, where it began,” he said. Tears trembled on his lashes. “Now we are two, no more alone. And by this we know there must be more, women among them. Together, helping and heartening each other, we can search till we begin to find. Starkadh, my brother!”

The warrior stood unmoving before he said, “This ... comes ... suddenly.”

Gest let go. “It does that. I’ve had the whole while to think since the first word I got about you. Well, take your time. We have more time than most men, you and I.”

Starkadh stared off into the dark. “I thought someday I must grow old and strengthless like Harald,” he breathed. “Unless first I fell in battle, and I thought I would see to it that I did ... But you tell me I shall always be young. Always.”

“A load that on me has often felt well-nigh unbearable,” Gest told him. “Shared, though, it will be light.”

Starkadh clenched oak-burl fists. “What shall we do with it?”

“Ward the gift well. It may, after all, be from Beyond, and those who bear it singled out for deeds that will change the world.”

“Yes.” Glee began to throb in Starkadh’s voice. “Fame undying, and I alive to enjoy it. War-hosts to rally round me, kingdoms to take, royal houses to found.”

“Hold, hold,” said Gest. “We’re not gods, you know. We can be slain, drowned, burned, starved like any other men. I’ve stayed on earth these uncounted years by ganging warily.”

Starkadh gave him a cold look. Scorn snorted: “I understand that. Do you understand honor?”

“I don’t mean we should skulk. Let us make sure of our safety, both in strength and in boltholes, lest luck go awry. After that we can make known what we are, piece by piece, to such folk as we can trust. Then- awe of us will help, but that is not enough; to lead, we must serve, we must give.”

“How can we give unless we have gold, treasures, a hoard such as deathless vikings can heap up?”

Gest frowned. “We draw near to quarreling. Best we speak no further tonight, but sleep on it. Tomorrow, refreshed, we’ll think more clearly.”

“You can sleep—after this?”

“What, are you not worn out?”

Starkadh laughed. “After reaping a goodly harvest.” He failed to see how Gest winced. “As you wish. To bed.”

However, in the shelter he thrashed and muttered and flung his arms around. Finally Gest slipped back outside.

He found a dry spot close to the spring, but decided he would take his rest in meditation rather than sleep. Having assumed the lotus position, he raised calm within himself. That came easily. He had far surpassed his gurus in lands east of the sunrises over Denmark: for he had had centuries to practice the disciplines of mind and body that they taught. Yet without those teachings, he doubted he could have endured his lot. How fared those masters, those fellow chetas? Had Nadha or Lobsang at last won free of the Wheel?

Would he ever? Hope bound him. He could never quite bring himself to loosen it. Did that mean he spurned the faith? “Om mani padme hum.” No such words had seized him by the soul; but was that because he would not let them? Could he only find a God to Whom he could yield —

At least he had become like the sages in control of the body and its passions. Rather, in this he had won to the power for which they had striven. Breath and heartbeat dwindled at his command until he was unaware of them. Chill ceased to be a thing invading his skin; he was of it, he was the night world, he became the stave that unfolded.

“Slowly the moon Slides aloft. Keen is its edge, Cutting the dark. Stars and frost, As still as the dead, Warn of another Waning year.”

A noise recalled him. Hours had passed. The east stood gray above the trees. Dew spread the only brightness in a hueless half-light. Mists smoked above it and along men’s breath. The clear gurgle of the spring sounded much louder than it was.

Starkadh hunched at the shelter. He had knocked it apart, blundering out. He carried the sheathed sword that had lain across his doffed mail. A bloodshot and darkrimmed gaze jumped about until it landed on Gest. He grunted and stalked that way.

Gest rose. “Good morning,” he greeted.

“Did you spend the night sitting?” Starkadh wondered. His voice grated. “Sleep fled me too.”

“I hope you got some rest anyway. I’ll go see what’s in the snares.”

“Wait. Ere I take more at your hands—”

Cold pierced Gest from within. “What’s wrong?”

“You. Your slippery tongue. I tossed as in a nightmare, righting to grasp what you meant yesterday. Now you’ll make it plain to me.”

“Why, I thought I did. We are two ageless men. Our loneliness is at an end. But there must be others, women among them, for us to find and ... and hold dear. For this, we’ll swear oaths, become brothers—”

“Of what kind?” rasped Starkadh. “I the chieftain, later the king; you my skald and redesman— But that’s not what you said!” He swallowed. “Or do you also want to be a king?” Brightening: “Surely! We can divide the world between us.”

“We would die trying.”

“Our fame will never die.”

“Or worse, we would fall out with each other. How shall two stay together when always they deal in death and betrayal?”

At once Gest saw his mistake. He had intended to say that such was the nature of power. Seizing it and holding it were alike filthy. But before he could go on, Starkadh clapped hand to hilt. The rocky face went dawn-pale. “So you besmirch my honor,” he said from the bottom of his gullet.

Gest lifted a hand, palm outward. “No. Let me explain.”

Starkadh leaned close. His nostrils flared. “What have you heard about me? Spew it out!”

Gest knew starkly that he must. “They tell how you took one small king captive and hanged him for an offering to Odin, after you had promised him his life. They tell how you murdered another in his bath house, for pay. But—”

“I had to!” Starkadh yelled. “Ever was I an outsider. The rest were, were too young, and—“ He uttered a bawl like an aurochs bull’s.

“And your loneliness lashed you till you struck back, blindly,” Gest said. “I understand. I did when first I heard about you. How often have I felt thus? I remember deeds of mine that hurt me worse than fire. It’s merely that I am not a killer.”

Starkadh spat on the ground. “Right. You’ve hugged your years to you like a crone wrapping herself in her blanket.”

“But don’t you see,” Gest cried, “things have changed for us both? Now we’ve better work to do than attack folk who never harmed us. It was the lust for fame, wealth, power that brought you to dishonor.”

Starkadh screamed. His sword flew free. He hewed.

Gest shifted like a shadow. Nonetheless the edge ripped down his left arm. Blood poured forth, drenched the cloth, dripped into the streamlet that ran from the spring.

He drifted back, drew his knife, halted hi half a crouch. Starkadh stood fast. “I should ... chop you in twain ... for what you said,” he panted. Gulping air: “But I think you will die soon enough of that stroke.” Laughter clanked. “A shame. I did hope you’d be a friend. The first real friend of my life. Well, the Norns will it otherwise.”

Our natures do, Gest thought. And: How easily I could kill you. How open you stand to a hundred martial tricks I know.

“Instead, I shall have to go on as erstwhile,” said Starkadh, “alone.”

Let it be so, thought Gest.

With the fingers of his right hand he searched below his torn shirt and pushed together the lips of his wound. Pain he made into something apart from himself, like the mists that broke under the strengthening light. He gave his mind to the blood flow.

Starkadh kicked the shelter aside, fetched his mail, drew it over the underpadding in which he had spent the night. He donned coif and helmet, belted on sword, picked up shield. When he was ready to leave, he stared in astonishment at the other man. “What, are you still on your feet?” he said. “Shall I make an end of you?”

Had he tried that, it would have been the end of him. But he stopped, shivered, turned away. “No,” he mumbled. “This is all too spooky. I’m off to my own doom, Nornagest.”

He lumbered up the trail, into the woods and beyond sight.

Then Gest could sit down and bring a whole heed to the steering of his body. He had stopped the bleeding before he suffered overmuch loss, though he would be weak for a few days. No matter. He could stay here until he was fit to travel; the earth would provide for him. He began to hasten the knitting of the flesh.

He dared not wish he were able to heal the wound inside.


3

<p>3</p>

“However, we only met fleetingly, Starkadh and I,” Gest went on. “Afterward hearsay about him reached me now and then, until I went abroad again; and when I came back he was long dead, slain as he had wanted.”

“Why have you fared so widely?” asked King Olaf. “What have you sought?”

“What I never found,” Gest answered. “Peace.”

No, that was not wholly right, he thought. Over and over had he been at peace, in the nearness of beauty or wisdom, the arms of a woman, the laughter of children. But how short the whiles! His latest time as a husbandman, in the Uplands of Norway, seemed already the dream of a single night: Ingridh’s youthful gladness, its rebirths in the cradle he had carved, her heart that stayed high while she grew more gray than he, but then the shriveling years, and afterward the burials, the burials. Where now wandered Ingridh? He could not follow, not her nor any of those who glimmered on the rim of memory, not that first and sweetest of all, garlanded with ivy and in her hand a blade of flint...

“In God is peace,” said the priest.

It could be, it could be. Today church bells rang in Norway, as they had done for a lifetime or more in Denmark, yes, above that halidom of the Mother where he and the garland girl had offered flowers ... He bad seen the charioteers and their storm gods come into the land, he had seen bronze and iron, the wagon trains bound south for Rome and the viking ships bound west for England, sickness and famine, drought and war, and life patiently beginning anew; each year went down into death and awaited the homecoming of the sun that would bring it to rebirth; be too could let go if he would, and drift away on the wind with the leaves.

King Olaf’s priest thought that soon every quest would end and the dead arise. How good if that was true. Ever more folk believed so. Why should not he?

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Days later, Gest said, “Yes, I will take your baptism.” The priest wept for joy. Olaf whooped.

But when it was done, that evening in the hall Gest took forth a candle and lighted it at a torch. He lay down on a bench where he could see it. “Now I may die,” he told them.

Now I have yielded.

He let the candleflame fill his vision, his being. He made himself one with it. The light waxed for him until he almost thought it shone on those lost faces, brought them back out of the dark, nearer and nearer. His heartbeat heeded him, slowing toward quietness.

Olaf and the young warriors stood dumb with awe. The priest knelt in shadow and prayed without uttering the words aloud.

The candleflame flickered to naught. Nornagest lay still. Through the hall sounded a wind of the oncoming winter.


VI. Encounter

<p>VI. Encounter</p>

From afar the gold shone like a daylight evenstar. Sometimes trees hid it, a woodlot or a remnant of forest, but always as the travelers moved west they saw it again, brilliant in a vastness of sky where a few clouds wandered, above a plain where villages and freshly greening croplands lay tiny beneath the wind.

Hours wore on, sunbeams now tangled themselves in Svoboda Volodarovna’s brows, and the hills ahead loomed clear, the city upon the highest of them. Behind its walls and watchtowers lifted domes, spires, the smoke from a thousand hearths; and over all soared the brightness. Presently she heard chimes, not the single voice of a countryside chapel but several, which must be great ones to sound across this distance, ringing together in music such as surely sang among the angels or in the abode of Yarilo.

Gleb Ilyev pointed. “The bell tower, the gilt cupola, belongs to the cathedral of Sviataya Sophia,” he said. “That’s not any saint’s name but means ‘Holy Wisdom.’ It comes from the Greeks, who brought the word of Christ to the Rusi.” A short, somewhat tubby man with a pug nose and a scraggly beard turning gray, he was given to self-importance. Yet leathery skin bespoke many years of faring, often through danger, and goodly garb told of success won by it.

“Then all this is new?” asked Svoboda in amazement.

“Well, that church and certain other things,” Gleb replied. “Grand Prince Yaroslav Vladimirovitch has built them since these lands fell to him and he moved his seat here from Novgorod. But of course Kiyiv was already great. It was founded in Rurik’s time—two centuries ago, I believe.”

And to me this was only a dream, Svoboda thought. It would have been less real than the old gods that we suppose still haunt the wilderness, did not merchants like Gleb pass through our little settlement once in a while, bringing their goods that few of us can afford but also their tales that everyone is eager to hear.

She clucked to her horse and nudged it with her heels. These lowlands near the river were still wet after the spring floods, and the mire of the road had wearied the horse. Behind her and her guide trailed his company, hah0 a dozen hirelings and two apprentices leading the pack animals or driving a pair of laden wagons. Here, safe from bandits or Pecheneg raiders, they had laid weapons aside and wore merely tunics, trousers, tall hats. Gleb had put on good clothes this morning, to make a proper show when he arrived; a fur-trimmed cloak was draped over a brocaded coat.

Svoboda was well-clad too, in a gown of gray wool bordered with embroideries. Hiked up across the saddle, her skirts revealed finely stitched boots. A headcloth covered flaxen braids. Weather had only tinged her with bronze, work had built strength without stooping the back or coarsening the hands. Well-figured enough that the big bones did hot stand forth, she looked at the world out of blue eyes set widely hi a face of blunt nose, full mouth, square chin. Lineage and fortune showed; her father had been headman of the village in his day, and each of her husbands had been better off than most men—blacksmith, hunter-trapper, horse breeder and dealer. Nonetheless she must keep herself reined in if she would appear calm, and the heart in her breast kept breaking free of that grip.

When she came in clear sight of the Dniepr, she could not help catching her breath. Brown and mighty rolled the river: easily five hundred paces across, she guessed. To her right a low, grassy island divided it. Lesser streams flowed in from either side. The far shore was surprisingly much forested, though houses and other buildings led up from the water to the city and clustered around its ramparts, while orchards or small farmsteads and pastures nestled elsewhere in the hills.

On this bank was just a muddy huddle of dwellings. Its laborers and peasants gave the travelers scant heed; they were used to such. What did draw some stares and mutters was her. Few women accompanied any traders, and those who did were seldom of an honorable kind.

A ferry waited. Its owner hastened to meet Gleb and chaffer with him, then went about calling for crew to man the sweeps. Three trips would be necessary. The gangway was steeply pitched, for the wharf was built high against the yearly rise. Gleb and Svoboda were among the first to cross. They took stance near the bows, the better to watch. Voices barked, wood creaked, water lapped and splashed, the vessel started off. The breeze was cool, wet, full of silty smells. Fowl winged about, ducks, geese, lesser birds, once a flight of swans overhead, but not so many as at home; here they were hunted more.

“We come at a busy time,” Gleb warned. “The city is crammed with strangers. Brawls are common, and worse than that can befall, despite everything the Grand Prince does to keep order. I shall have to leave you alone while I attend to my work. Be very careful, Svoboda Volodarovna.”

She nodded impatiently, barely hearing words he had spoken over and over, her gaze and her heed aimed forward. As they approached the west bank, the ships gathered there seemed to breed until they were past counting. She caught hold of her senses and told herself that now the outer hulls, riding at anchor, did not hide those at the docks from her, and the number must be scores rather than hundreds. It took away none of the wonder. Here were no barges such as she was on, nor rowboats and dugout punts such as her own folk used. These were long and lean, clinker-built, gaudily painted, many with stemposts carved into fantastic figureheads. Oars, yards, and unstepped masts lay on trestles above the benches. How their sails must spread like wings when they came to the sea!

“Yes, the famous merchant fleet,” said Gleb. “Most likely all are now gathered. Tomorrow, perhaps, they leave for Constantinople, New Rome.”

Again Svoboda scarcely listened. She was trying to imagine that sea the ships would find at the river’s end. It reached farther than a man could look; it was rough and dark and salt of taste; huge snakes and people who were half fish beset its waves. So the tales went. She strove to form the vision, but failed.

As for the city of the Basileus, how could the claim be true that it made Kiyiv, Kiyiv, look small and poor?

To go and find out, to be there!

She sighed once, then shoved longing aside. Quite enough newness lay straight ahead. What she might gain and what she might suffer were alike unforeseeable. Even in fireside stories, no woman had ever ventured this that she was venturing. But none had ever been driven by a need like hers.

Memories flitted through her, secret thoughts that had come when she was alone, working in house or garden, gathering berries or firewood in the outskirts of the forest, lying wakeful in the night. Could she also be special, a princess stolen from the crib, a girl chosen for destiny by the old gods or the Christian saints? No doubt every child nursed daydreams of that sort. They faded away as one grew up. But in her they had slowly rekindled—

No prince came riding, no fox or firebird uttered human words, life simply went on year by year by year until at last she broke free; and that was her own, altogether ordinary doing. And here she was.

Her heart quickened afresh. It hammered fear out of her. Wonders in truth!

The ferry knocked against bollards. Its crew made fast. The passengers debarked into racket and bustle. Gleb pushed through the crowd of workers, hawkers, sailors, soldiers, idlers. Svoboda stayed close at his side. She had always taken care to uphold self-command in his presence, bargain rather than appeal, be friendly rather than forlorn; but today he knew what he did while she was bewildered. This was nothing like a fair at the town she knew, which was little more than a fort for villagers to take refuge in.

She could watch, though, hearken, learn. He talked to a man of the harbormaster’s and a man of the Prince’s, he left orders with a man of his about where to bring the rest of his band, and finally he led her up the hill into the city.

Its walls were massive, earthen, whitewashed. An arched gateway, flanked by turrets and crowned with a tower, stood open. Guards in helmet and chain mail leaned on their pikes, no hindrance to the traffic that thrust to and fro, on foot, on horseback, donkey cart, ox-drawn wagon, sometimes sheep or cattle herded toward slaughter, once a monstrous beast, like a thing out of nightmare, that Gleb called a camel. Beyond, streets twisted steep. Most of the vividly painted buildings that lined them were timber, below roofs of mossy shingle or blossoming turf. Often they stood two, even three stories high. In the windows of those that were brick, there gleamed glass. Above them she glimpsed the golden cupola where the bells dwelt, surmounted by a cross.

Noise, smells, surge and push of bodies overwhelmed Svoboda. Gleb must raise his voice when he pointed out some new kind of person. The priests she knew at once, black-gowned and long-bearded, but a man more coarsely clad was a monk, sent into town from his nearby cave on an errand, while a magnificently robed elder borne in a litter was a bishop. Townsfolk—housewives who dickered on a market square overflowing with goods and people, portly merchants, common workers, slaves, children, peasants from the hinterland—wore an endlessness of different garbs, and nowhere the dear decorations of home. Tarry sailors, tall blond Northmen, Poles and Wends and Livonians and Finns in their various raiments, high-cheeked tribesmen off the steppes, a pair of Byzantines clothed with elegance and disdain, she was lost among them, and at the same time she was upraised, carried along, drunk on marvel.

At a house near the south wall, Gleb halted. “This is where you will stay,” he said. She nodded. He had told her about it. A master weaver, whose daughters had married, earned extra money by taking in trustworthy lodgers.

A maidservant answered Gleb’s knock. The goodwife appeared. Gleb’s followers brought in Svoboda’s baggage, and he paid the woman. They went to the room that would be hers. Cramped, it held a narrow bed, stool, pot, basin, water jug. Above the bed hung a picture, a man with a halo, letters around him to spell out a name that the wife said was St. Yuri. “He slew a dragon and saved a maiden,” she explained. “A fine guardian for you, my dear. You have come to be married, I believe?” The sharp, hasty accent forced Svoboda to listen closely.

“So we trust,” Gleb replied. “Arranging the betrothal will take days, you understand, Olga Borisovna, and then there will be the wedding preparations. Now this lady is tired after a long, hard journey.”

“Of course, Gleb Ilyev. What else? Hungry too, I’m sure. I will go see that the soup is hot. Come to the kitchen when you are ready, both of you.”

“I must be straightway off, myself,” he said. “You know how a trader has to watch and pounce at this season, like a sparrowhawk, if he would strike any bargains worth half his trouble.”

The woman bustled off. So did his men, at a gesture from him. For a moment he and Svoboda were alone.

Light was dim; this room had only a small window covered by membrane. Svoboda searched Gleb’s face as best she could, where he stood in the doorway. “Will you meet Igor Olegev today?” she asked low.

“I doubt that,” he sighed. “He is an important man, after all, his voice strong in the folkmoot, and—and very busy while the fleet is here, not just as a chandler but—well, when you deal with men of many nations, it becomes politics and schemes and—“ He was not wont to speak thus awkwardly. “I’ll leave word, and hope he can receive me tomorrow. Then we’ll set a time for you to meet with him, and—and I’ll pray for a good outcome.”

“You said that was sure.”

“No, I said I think it likely. He is interested. And I know him and his situation well. But how could I make you any outright promise?”

She sighed in. her turn. “True. At worst, you said, you can find somebody less well off.”

He stared down at the rushes on the floor. “That ... need not happen either. We are friends of old, you and I. Right? I could—look after you—better than, than you have thus far let me do.”

“You have been more than kind to me,” she said gently. “Your wife is a lucky woman.”

“I had better go,” he mumbled. “Get my whole party together, everyone quartered, wares stored, and then— Tomorrow, whenever I can, I’ll stop here and give you the news. Until then, God be with you, Svoboda Volodarovna.” He turned and hurried off.

She stood a while, her thoughts atumble, before she found her way to the kitchen. Olga gave her a bowl of rich beef broth, crowded with leeks and carrots, black bread and ample butter on the side. She settled herself on the bench across the table and chattered away. “Gleb Ilyev has told me so much about you—”

With a wariness that the years had taught her, Svoboda steered the talk. Just how much had the man said? It was a relief to learn he had been as shrewd as usual. He had described a widow with no dependent children alive and no prospect of remarriage in her distant, rude neighborhood. Out of charity, and in hope of earning credit in Heaven, Gleb had suggested her to the chandler Igor Olegev of Kiyiv, himself lately left bereaved among several youngsters. The prospect appeared good; a woodlander could learn city ways if she was clever, and this woman had other desirable qualities as well. Therefore Gleb helped Svoboda convert her inheritance to cash, a dowry, and took her along on his next trip.

“Ah, poor darling, poor little one.” Olga dabbed at tears. “No child of yours above the earth, and no man to wed one so young and beautiful? I cannot understand that.”

Svoboda shrugged. “There was ill feeling. Please, spare me talking about it.”

“Yes, village feuds. People can indeed get nasty, hemmed in by themselves all their lives. And then, pagan fears prey on them. Do they imagine you’re unlucky, cursed by a witch perhaps, just because you’ve had many sorrows? May God now, at last, prosper your life.”

So Gleb had told truth, while holding back truth. A trader skill. For an instant, Svoboda wondered about him. They got along well together, she and he. They could do more than that, if this marriage scheme fell through. Let the priests call it sin. Kupala the Joyous would not, and maybe the old gods did linger on earth ... But no. Gleb was already gray. Too little time remained for him that she could bring herself to hurt the wife whom she had never met. She knew how loss felt.

Having eaten, and Olga gone back to a housewife’s work, Svoboda sought her room. She unpacked, stowed her possessions, and wondered what to do next. There had always been some task, if only to spin thread. But she had left the things of home behind, with home itself. Nor could she just sink into blessed idleness, savoring it, or into sleep, as countryfolk were apt to when the rare, brief chance came. That was not the way of a headman’s daughter, wife to a man of weight.

Restlessness churned in her. She paced the floor, flung herself onto the bed, bounced up again, yawned, glowered, paced anew. Should she go help Olga’s household? No, she wouldn’t know her way about. Moreover, Igor Olegev might well think it demeaned his bride. If anything was to come of that. What was he like? Gleb called him a good fellow, but Gleb would never see him from a woman’s side, not even well enough that what he said of Igor’s looks called forth anything real for Svoboda.

St. Yuri, there on the wall, she could at least take the measure of, gaunt, big-eyed— She knelt before him and tried to ask his blessing. The words stuck in her throat. She had been dutiful but not devout, and today proper meekness was beyond her.

She paced. Decision came slowly. Why must she stay penned between these walls? Gleb had told her to be careful, but she had often gone alone into the woods, fearless of wolf or bear, and taken no harm. Once she caught a runaway horse by the bridle and dragged him to a stop, once she killed a mad dog with an ax, once she and her neighbors crowded into the stockaded town and stood off a Pecheneg raid. Besides, while the hours dribbled away here, life pulsed out there, newness, wonder. The bell tower shone tall...

Of course! The church of the Holy Wisdom. There, if any place, she could feel prayerful; there God would hear and help.

Yes, surely.

She threw a cloak on, pinned it fast, drew up the hood, glided forth. Nobody could forbid her to leave, but it would be best if she went unnoticed. She did pass a servant, maybe a slave, but he gave her a dull glance and continued scrubbing out a tile stove in the main room. The door closed behind Svoboda. The street swept her off.

For a while she wandered, shyly at first, then in a daze of delight. Nobody offered her any rudeness. Several young men did stare, and a couple of them grinned and nudged each other, but that just made her tingle. Now and then somebody jostled her by chance. It was less often than eartier, the ways were less thronged, as the sun sank westward. Finally she got a clear sight of the cathedral and steered by it.

When she saw St. Sophia full on, she caught her breath. Sixty paces long it was, she guessed dizzily, rising white and pale green in walls and bays, arched doorways and high glass windows, up and up to, yes, ten domes in all, six bearing crosses and four spangled with stars. For a long time she could only stand and look. At last, mustering courage, she went on past workmen who were adding to the splendor. Her heart thudded. Was this forbidden? But besides priests, commoners went in and out. She passed the entrance.

After that, for a time during which time was not, she drifted like a rusalka beneath the water. Almost she wondered if she too had drowned and become such a spirit. Twilight and hush enfolded her, windows glowed with colors and images, walls with gold and images ... but no, that stern strange face overhead was Christ, Lord of the World, in the ring of his apostles, and yonder giantess made of little stones was his Mother, and ... the song, the deep moaning tones that finally lifted from behind a carven screen, while bells rang high above, those were in praise of his Father... She prostrated herself on cold flags.

Awareness seeped into her much later. The church had become a cavern of night; she was alone, except for a few clergy and many candles. Where had the day gone? She crossed herself and hastened out.

The sun was down, the sky still blue but swiftly darkening, the streets full of dusk between walls in whose windows flamelight fluttered yellow. They were well-nigh deserted. Her breath, footfalls on cobbles, rustle of skirts sounded loud in the quiet. Turn right at this corner, left at the next— no, wait, that was wrong, she had never seen yonder house with the rafter ends carved into heads— She was lost.

She stopped, filled her lungs and eased them again, grinned wryly. “Fool,” she whispered. “At your age you should have known better.” She glanced about. Roofs stood black against a heaven gone almost as dark, where three stars trembled. Opposite, paleness crept upward, the moon rising. So, west and east. Her lodging stood near the south wall. If she kept on that way, as closely as these crooked lanes allowed, she should reach it. Then she could knock on a door and ask directions. No doubt Olga would make a fuss and tomorrow Gleb would chide her.

She stiffened her back. She was headman Volodar’s daughter. Picking her steps carefully, gown held above ankles, to avoid the worst muck, she set off.

Twilight thickened toward night. Air lay chilly. The moon gave wan light when she saw it, but mostly it was still behind roofs.

Lampglow, smoke, smells of kvass and cookery, spilled from a half-open door. Voices barked, laughter bayed. She scowled and went by on the far side of the street. An inn, where men were getting drunk. She had seen that sort of thing when she visited the town with a husband. Rostislav had grown too fond of it, he’d reel back to her, all stench and sweat—

Boots thudded behind her, louder, nearer.

She quickened her steps. The other did too, and drew alongside. “Ha,” he growled, “greeting to you.” She could barely understand him.

They entered a patch of moonlight and he became more than a shadow. A head taller than she, he blocked the gathering western stars out of her sight. She saw a pate shaven except for a lock on the right side, a bristle of mustache under a nose that had once been broken, tattoos over the shaggy breast and down the thick arms. He wore a shirt half unlaced, broad trews, short cloak, everything stiff with old grease. The knife at his belt was nearly of sword size, a weapon forbidden to everyone but the Prince’s guards within this city.

A demon flashed ice-sharp through her, and then: No, a Varyag. I’ve heard about them, Northmen and Rusi who ply the rivers, walking stormwinds— She pulled her look from him and sought to go on.

A hand clamped on her right arm. “Now, now, not be hasty,” he laughed. “You out for fun this late, no? I give you fun.”

“Let me be!” she cried, and tugged at the grip. He wrenched. Pain stabbed sickeningly through her shoulder. She stumbled. He held her fast.

“Come,” he said, “there’s an alley, you tike it.” The smell of him caught at her gorge. She must gag before she could scream.

“Quiet, you! Nobody come.” His free hand cuffed. Her head rocked. Darkness roared through. Nonetheless, somehow, she dug her heels down and screamed again.

“Quiet or I— Ha-a-a.” He cast her to the cobbles. When she could see upward, he had turned to meet two others.

They must have been on a side street and heard, she thought amidst the dizziness. Let them help me. Christ, Dazhbog, Yarilo, St. Yuri, help them help me.

The Varyag’s knife was out. “Go,” he snarled. “No need you. Go.” She realized that he was drunk, and that that made him the more dangerous.

The smaller of the two men advanced, cat-footed. “I think best you go cool that noggin of yours, friend,” he replied mildly. His own knife slipped forth. It was a tool for eating and ordinary cutting, a sliver against that great blade. Nor did its bearer seem any kind of warrior. His slender frame bore a fur-lined coat and trousers smoothly tucked into soft boots. Svoboda made out that much because his companion carried a lantern, which threw a dull glow on them both and a puddle of it at their feet.

The Varyag grinned beneath the moon. “Dainty lordling and cripple,” he jeered. “You tell me what to do? Scoot, or I find how white your tripes be.”

The second new man put down the lantern. It had been in his left hand. His right was missing. From a leather cup strapped to that forearm reached an iron hook. Otherwise he was muscular, his garb stout but plain. He drew his small knife. “We two,” he rumbled. “You alone. Cadoc say go, you go.” Unlike the slim man, he could barely speak Russian.

“Two cockroaches!” the Varyag yelled. “Perun thunder me, enough!”

He made a long step forward. His weapon flashed. The slim man—Cadoc?—swayed aside. He thrust out an ankle and gave a push. The Varyag tripped, crashed to the stones. The man with the hook laughed. The Varyag roared, sprang up, charged him.

The hook slashed. Its curve ended in a point that went deep into the attacker’s upper arm. The Varyag yelled. The opponent’s knife cut his wrist. His own iron clattered loose. Cadoc danced in and, half playfully, seized his hairlock and sliced it across. “The next trophy comes from between your legs,” Cadoc said with a leer. The Varyag howled, whirled, fled. Echoes died away.

Cadoc hunkered down by Svoboda. “Are you well, my lady?” he asked. “Here, lean on me.” He helped her rise.

His companion stooped for the Varyag’s knife. “No, leave that,” Cadoc ordered. His Russian must be for her benefit. “I wouldn’t want the guard to find it on us. That oaf’s carcass would scarcely be as inconvenient. Let’s get away. The racket may well have drawn attention we can do without. Come, my lady.”

“I, I’m unhurt.” The breath sobbed in Svoboda’s throat. She had, in fact, suffered nothing but possible bruises. A measure of daze remained. She went blindly along, Cadoc’s hand on her elbow.

The man with the lantern and the hook asked something that must mean, “Where to?”

“Our lodging, of course,” Cadoc snapped in Russian. “If we should meet a patrol, then nothing has happened, we’ve simply been out for a little drink and merriment. Will you agree to that, my lady? You do owe us something, and we’d hate to miss the fleet’s departure tomorrow because Yaroslav’s officers wanted to question us.”

“I must get home,” she pleaded.

“You shall. We’ll see you safely back, never fear. But first—“ Shouts lifted to the rear. “Hark! Somebody did come. They’ve found the knife, and if they have a lantern too, they’ll have seen the blood and scuffled offal. Here.” Cadoc led them into an alley, a tunnel of murk. “Roundabout, but it avoids trouble. We’ll lie low for an hour or two and then escort you, my lady.”

They emerged on a broad street, moon-bright. Svoboda’s wits had returned. She wondered how far she could trust the pair. Might it be wisest to insist she go back to Olga’s at once? If they refused, she could strike out by herself, no worse off than earlier. But that had not been well off at all. And—a throbbing, a warmth—never had she known anybody like this. Never again would she, perhaps. They were to sail in the morning and she, she was once more to become a wife.

Then Cadoc plucked his companion’s sleeve and said merrily, “Whoa, Rufus. Don’t go on past.” A house bulked before them. The door was unbarred. They wiped their feet and trod through, into a space where she could barely see tables, benches, a couple of night lamps burning. “The common room,” said Cadoc in her ear. “This is a hostel for those who can afford it. Quiet, please.”

She peered. Rufus’ lantern showed him to be lumpy-featured, freckled, the dense whiskers and thin hair a bright yellowish-red. Cadoc was altogether foreign, his face narrow and aquiline, the eyes slightly aslant tike a Finn’s but large and brown, hair shoulder-length and as raven-black as the beard he kept trimmed to a point. A golden finger ring was equally alien in its workmanship, a snake that bit its tail. Seldom had she met as ready a smile as was his.

“Well, well,” he murmured. “I had no idea that the lady in distress was so comely.” He bowed, as if she were a princess. “Fear not, I repeat. We’ll take proper care of you. Alas for your raiment.” Glancing down, she saw filth smeared over it.

“I, I could tell people I fell,” she stammered. “That is true.”

“I think we can do better,” Cadoc said.

Rufus followed them upstairs to a second-floor chamber. It was large, wainscoted, drapes by a glazed window and a rug on the floor, with four beds, a table, several stools, and whatever else comfort required. Rufus took the candle from his lantern and used it to light the tapers in a seven-branched brass holder. His deftness told Svoboda he must have lost his hand long ago, to have learned so well how to do without it.

“We are the only two,” Cadoc told Svoboda. “It’s worth the cost. Now—“ He squatted by a chest, took a key from his pouch, opened the lock. “Most of our goods are on our ship, naturally, but here are. some especially valuable, whether from abroad or acquired in Kiyiv. They include—“ He rummaged. “Ah, yes.” The fabric he drew out shone in the candlelight. “I regret we can’t prepare a hot bath at this hour, my lady, but yonder you’ll find a basin, water jug, soap, towels, slop jar. Make free, and afterward don this. Meanwhile, of course, Rufus and I will absent ourselves. If you’ll open the door a crack and hand out your soiled things, he’ll see what he can do toward cleansing them.”

The redbeard made a mouth. He grumbled in an unknown tongue. Cadoc replied and, somehow, jollied him till he nodded. They took single candles in holders and left.

Svoboda stood alone with her bewilderment. Did she dream? Had she blundered into elvenland, or had she met a pair of gods, here in this Christian stronghold? Suddenly she laughed. Whatever befell, it was new, it was a wonder!

She unfastened brooches and laces, pulled clothing over her head, held it around the door as Cadoc had suggested. Somebody took it. She closed the door again and went to wash. The cloth caressed a nakedness that the cool air seemed to flow across. She dawdled at the task. When a knock sounded, she called, “Not yet,” and hurried to dry herself. The garment, tossed onto a bed, drew a gasp from her. It was a robe of sheening, baby-smooth material, gold-trimmed blue, secured by silver buttons. Her feet were now bare. Well, peeping from beneath the skirt, they would catch glances, she thought, and flushed hot. Quickly she combed locks fallen astray around her coiled braids, and knew their amber color would show well above the dress. “Enter,” she said, not quite evenly.

Cadoc appeared, a tray balanced on his left hand. He shut the door behind him and put the tray on the table. It bore a flagon and two cups. “I never knew silk could be this beautiful,” he said.

“What?” asked Svoboda. She wished her pulse would slow.

“No matter. I’m often rather brash. Please sit and enjoy a stoup with me. I woke the potboy to give me of the landlord’s choicest. Take your ease, recover from that foul experience.”

She lowered herself to a stool. Before he did likewise, Cadoc poured out a red liquid with a summery odor. “You are very kind,” she whispered. As Gleb is kind, she thought; then, unwillingly: No, Gleb is a countryside trader growing old. He can read and write, but what else does he know, what has he seen and done beyond his narrow rounds? “How can I repay you?” Immediately: That was a foolish thing to say!

However, Cadoc only smiled, raised his cup, and replied, “You can tell me your name, my lady, and whatever else you care to. You can gladden me with your company for a short while. That is ample. Drink, I pray you.”

She sipped. Deliciousness flowed over her tongue. This was no berry wine of the backwoods, it was—was— “I, I am—“ Almost, she gave him her baptismal name. But of course that would be unwise. She believed she could trust this man, but if a sorcerer somehow learned it she would be open to spells. Besides, she seldom thought about it. “Svoboda Volodarovna,” the name she used at home. “From ... afar. Where is your friend?”

“Rufus? Oh, I’ve put him to getting your clothes as clean as possible. Afterward he won’t disturb us. I gave him a flagon of his own to keep him company. A loyal man, brave, but limited.”

“Your servant, then?”

Did a shadow flit across his face? “An associate of mine for a long, long time. He lost his hand fighting once, warding my back, when a gang of Saxons ambushed us. He kept on fighting, left-handed, and we escaped.”

What were Saxons? Robbers? “Such a wound should have disabled him, at least. Most men would soon have died of it.”

“We’re a tough pair. But enough. How did you happen to be abroad after dark, Svoboda Volodarovna? You’re clearly not the kind who ordinarily would. It was sheer luck that Rufus and I were in earshot. We’d been having a last cup with a Rus factor I’ve come to know; bade him goodnight since we must rise betimes tomorrow, set off, and then— Ah, it seems God would not let a lady such as you come to sordid grief.”

The wine glowed and thrilled in her blood. She remembered caution, but did find herself blurting out as much as Gleb had revealed on her behalf to Olga Borisovna and ... and, as her voice ran on, to Igor Olegev. Cadoc’s shrewd, quiet questions made it easy.

“Ah,” he murmured at length. “Thank the saints, we did save you from ruin. That besotted mercenary would have left you in no state to hide what had befallen, if he left you alive at all.” He paused. “Whereas you can tell your landlady, and afterward that man who’s playing father to you, that you stayed too late at the church, lost in prayer. It’s nothing unusual hereabouts.”

She bridled. “Shall I give them a falsehood? I have my honor.”

He grinned. “Oh, come now. You’re not fresh out of a cloister.” She didn’t know what that might be, but caught his drift. “How often in your life has a He been more than harmless, been a shield against hurt? Why put the good Gleb in an awkward position, when he has worked so hard on your behalf?” Impudently: “As the go-between who brought Igor the chandler a superb new wife, Gleb can await excellent business deals. Spoil it not for him, Svoboda.”

She covered her confusion by draining her cup. He refilled it. “I understand,” he said. “You are young, and the young are apt to be idealistic. Nevertheless, you have imagination and boldness beyond your years, more than most men do, that you would set forth into an altogether different life. Use that wisdom.”

Sudden desolation welled up in her. She had learned how to turn it into mirth of a sort. “You talk as my grandfather might have,” she said. “How old are you?”

His tone bantered. “Not yet worn out.”

Eagerness to know surged like lust. She leaned forward, aware of his awareness of her bosom. The wine buzzed, bees in a clover meadow. “You’ve told nothing of yourself. What are you?” A prince or boyar, ending his father’s name not in “ev” but in “vitch”? The byblow of a forest god?

“A merchant,” he said. “I’ve followed this route for years, building my wealth till I own a ship. My stock is fine things: amber and furs from the North, cloths and delicacies from the South, costly without being too bulky or heavy.” Maybe the drink had touched him a bit also, for he added, puzzlingly, half under his breath, “It lets me meet people of many different kinds. I am curious about them.”

“Where are you from?”

“Oh, I came through Novgorod, as traders from my parts do, by river, lake, portage, to here. Ahead He the great Dniepr and its falls—hardest of the portages, that, and our military escort much needed in case of raiders off the steppe—then the sea, and at last Constantinople. Not that I make the journey every year. It’s long both ways, after all. Most cargoes are transshipped here at Kiyiv. I return to Swedish and Danish ports, or ofttimes to England. However, as I said, I want to travel as much as I’m able. Have I answered you windily enough?”

She shook her head. “No. I meant, what is your nation?”

He spoke with more care. “Rufus and I—Cymriu, the dwellers call that country. It is part of the same island as England, is the last of the ancient Britain, best for me because nobody there would mistake me for English. Rufus doesn’t matter, he’s my old retainer, he’s gone by the nickname so long that he’s well-nigh forgotten any else. I, though—Cadoc ap Rhys.”

“I’ve never heard of those lands.”

“No,” he sighed, “I didn’t expect you had.”

“I’ve a feeling you’ve traveled more than you just said.”

“I have wandered quite widely, true.”

“I envy you,” burst from her. “Oh, I envy you!”

He raised his brows. “What? It’s a hard life, often dangerous, always lonely.”

“But free. Your own master. If I could fare like you—“ Her eyes stung. She swallowed hard and tried to lay hold on the tears before they broke loose.

Turned grave, he shook his head in his turn. “You do not know what becomes of camp followers, Svoboda Volodarovna. I do.”

Understanding washed over her. “Y-you are a lonely man, Cadoc,” she said around a thickness. “Why?”

“Make the best of that life you have,” he counselled. “Each in our own way, we are all of us trapped in ours.”

“You too.” Your strength must fade, your pride shall crumble, in one more blink of time you will go down into the earth and soon after that your very name will be forgotten, dust on the wind.

He winced. “Yes. Thus it seems.”

“I’ll remember you!” she cried.

“What?”

“I— Nothing, nothing. I am shaken and weary and, and I think a little drunk.”

“Do you wish to sleep till your clothes are ready? I’ll stay quiet— Svoboda, you weep.” Cadoc came around the table, stooped over her, laid an arm across her shoulders.

“Forgive me, I’m being weak and, and foolish. Not myself, please believe me, not myself.”

“No, certainly not, dear venturer. I know how you feel.”

His lips brushed her hair. Blindly she turned her head toward him, and knew he would kiss her. It was gentle. Her tears made it taste like the sea.

“I am an honorable man, of sorts,” he said against her cheek. How warm were his breath, his body. “I’d not force you to anything.”

“You need not,” she heard through the great soft thunders.

“I depart shortly after dawn, Svoboda, and your marriage awaits you.”

She gripped him hard, nails into his coat. “Three husbands I have had already,” she told him, “and sometimes, at the lakeside, the spring feast of Kupala— Oh, yes, Cadoc.”

For an instant she saw that she had let out too much. Now she must somehow answer his questions, with her head awhirl... But he gave her his hand, it was as if he lifted her to her feet, and went by her side to a bed.

Thereafter she was again in a dream. Her wanting him had come over her as a torrent. If she foresaw anything whatsoever, it was a slaking. He was not a big man, but he might be strong, he might take a while to finish, long enough, and then she could topple into sleep. Instead, he took the robe from her through a time that swayed on and on, and guided her to help him off with his garb, always his fingers and his mouth knowing what to do, what to evoke; and though the bed was narrow, when he brought her down upon it he still stroked and touched and kissed until she wailed for him to open the heavens and unloose the suns.

Afterward they caressed, laughed, japed, spread two straw ticks on the floor that they might have real room to move about, played, loved, his head rested between her breasts, she urged him anew and yet anew, he swore he had never known the match to her and the believing of him was a tall fire.

The glass in the window grayed. Candles had burned down to stubs. The smoke of them drifted bitter through a chill that she finally began to feel.

“I must see you to your lodging,” he said in her arms.

“Oh, not at once,” she begged.

“The fleet leaves soon. And you have your own world to meet. First you will need rest, Svoboda, dear.”

“I am weary as if I’d plowed ten fields,” she murmured. A giggle. “But you did the plowing. You rascal, I’m hardly able to walk.” She nuzzled the silky beard. “Thank you, thank you.”

“I’ll sleep soundly on the ship, myself. Afterward I’ll wake and remember you. And long for you, Svoboda. But that is the price, I suppose.”

“If only—”

“I told you, the trade I follow these days is a bad one for a woman.”

“You come home from it after the season, don’t you?”

He sat up. His face seemed as gray as the light. “I have no home any more. I dare not. You couldn’t understand. Come, we must hurry, but we needn’t ruin this that we’ve had.”

Dumbly, she waited while he dressed and went to get her clothes from Rufus. The thought trickled through her: He’s right, the thing is impossible, or at least it would be too brief and become too full of pain. He does not know, however, why he is right.

Her garments were wet after washing. They hung clammily. Well, with luck she could get to her room unnoticed. “I wish I could give you the silk robe,” Cadoc said. “If you can explain it away— No?” Maybe he would think of her when it passed to some girl somewhere else. “I also wish I could feed you. We’re under time’s whip, you and I. Come.” Yes, she was hungry, faint with hunger and weariness and ache. That was good. It pulled her spirit back down to where she belonged.

Fog hazed and hushed the streets. The sun had belike risen, but barely, in the east that Svoboda had forsaken. She walked hand in hand with Cadoc. Among the Rusi, that simply meant friendship. Nobody outside would know when the clasp tightened. Few people were around thus far, anyhow. From a passerby Cadoc learned the way to Olga’s dwelling.

They stopped before it. “Fare gladly, Svoboda,” he said.

“And you,” was all she could answer.

“I will remember you—“ his smile twisted— “more than is wise.”

“I will forever remember you, Cadoc,” she said.

He took both her hands in his, bowed above them, straightened, let her go, turned, and walked off. Soon he was lost in the fog.

“Forever,” she said into the emptiness.

A while she remained standing. The sky overhead was clear, brightening to blue. A falcon, early aloft, caught the light of the hidden sun on his wings.

Maybe it’s best that this was what it was and nothing more, she thought. A moment snatched free, for me to keep beyond the reach of the years.

Three husbands have I buried, and I think that was release, to pray them goodbye and see them shoveled under, for by then they had wasted and withered and were no longer the men who proudly stood beside me at the weddings. And Rostislav had peered at me, wondered, accused, beaten me when he got drunk... No, burying my children, that was the worst. Not so much the small ones, they die and die and you have no time to know them except as a brightness that goes by. Even my first grandchild, he was small. But Svetlana, now, she was a woman, a wife, it was my great-grandchild who killed her in the birthing.

At least that was the final sorrow. The villagers, yes, my living children, they could no longer endure this thing that is I, that never grows decently old. They fear me, therefore they hate me. And I could no longer endure, either. I might have welcomed the day when they came with axes and clubs to make an end of the thing.

Gleb Ilyev, ugly, greedy little Gleb—he has the manhood to see past strangeness, see the woman who is neither child of the gods nor creature of Satan but is the most lost and bewildered of any. I wish I could reward Gleb with better than silver. Well, I wish for much that cannot be.

Through him, I have found how to stay alive. I will be the best wife to Igor Olegev that I am able. But as the years pass, I will befriend somebody else like Gleb, and when the time comes, be will find a new place, a new beginning for me. The widow of one man can many again, in some town or on some farm well distant, and nobody she knew will think it is altogether outlandish, and nobody she comes to know will think of questions she dares not answer. Of course, the children must be left provided for, such as are not grown. I will be the best mother that I am able.

A smile winged by.

Who can tell? A few husbands of mine may even be like Cadoc.

Her dress clung and dripped. She felt how cold she was, shivered, and walked slowly to the door of the house.


VII. The Same Kind

1

2

3

4

5

<p>VII. The Same Kind</p>
<p>1</p>

Habit dies hard, and then from time to time will rise from its grave. “What do you really know about this drab, Lugo?” asked Rufus. He spoke in Latin such as had not been heard for centuries, even among churchmen of the West.

Nor had Cadoc used that name for a span longer yet. He replied in Greek: “Practice your living languages more. Get your terminology right. The word you used scarcely fits the most fashionable and expensive courtesan in Constantinople.”

“A whore be a whore,” said Rufus stubbornly, though he did change to the modern tongue of the Empire. “You been, uh, in-vest-igating her, talking with people, sounding ‘em out, damn near since we got here. Weeks. And me left to twiddle my thumb.” He glanced down at the stump of his right wrist. “When’re we going to do something?”

“Perhaps quite soon,” Cadoc answered. “Or perhaps not. It depends on what further I can learn about the lovely Athenais, if anything. And on much else, to be sure. I am not only overdue for a change of identity, we are both overdue for a change of occupation. The Rus trade is spinning faster and faster toward ruin.”

“Yah, yah, you’ve said that plenty often. I’ve seen for myself. But what about this woman? You haven’t told me nothing about her.”

“That is because patience in disappointment is not among your excellences.” Cadoc paced to the single window and stared out. It stood open on summer air, odors of smoke and tar and dung and hinted fragrances, noise of wheels and hoofs and feet and voices. From this third-floor inn room the view swept over roofs, streets, the city wall, the gate and harbor of the Kontoskalion. Masts raked upward from the docks. Beyond glittered the Sea of Marmora. Craft danced on its blueness, everything from bumboats shaped like basins to a freighter under sail and a naval dromond with oars in parade-ground step. It was hard to imagine, to feel, the shadow under which all this lay.

Cadoc clasped his hands behind his back. “However, I may as well inform you now,” he said. “Today I have hopes that I’ll reach the end of the trail, or find that it was a false scent. It’s been maddeningly vague, as you’d expect. So-and-so tells me that somebody else once told him this-and-that. With difficulty, because he’s moved, I track down Kyrios Somebody Else to verify it, and to the best of his dim recollection that is not quite what he told So-and-so, but from a third party he did once hear— Ah, well.

“Basically, ‘Athenais’ is the latest name the lady has taken. No surprise there. Name changes are quite usual in her profession; and of course she prefers to obscure her origins, the fact that she was not always the darling of the city. I’ve established that, earlier, she worked as Zoe in one of the better brothels over in Galata; and I am practically certain that before then she was on this side of the Golden Horn, in the Phanar quarter, as a less elegant girl calling herself Eudoxia. Beyond that, the information is slight and unreliable. Too many people have died or otherwise disappeared.

“The pattern has been the same, though, an outwardly affable but actually secretive woman who avoids pimps—at worst, formerly, she paid off as necessary—and spends no more on fanciments than she must. Instead, she saves—invests, I suspect—with an eye to moving up another rung on the ladder. Now she is independent, even powerful, what with her connections and the things she doubtless knows. And—“ Despite the dull houndwork that lay behind, despite the coolness he kept m his tone, a tingle went along Cadoc’s backbone, out to his scalp and fingertips. “The trail reaches at least thirty years into the past, Rufus. It may well be fifty or more years long. Always she is youthful, always she is beautiful.”

“I knew what you was after,” said the redbeard, unwontedly low, “but I’d stopped thinking you’d ever find it.”

“I too, almost. Seven centuries since I came on you, and nobody before and nobody afterward, for all my searching. Yes, hope wears thin. Maybe today, at last—“ Cadoc shook himself, turned about, and laughed. “I’m soon due at her place. I dare not tell you what a few hours there cost!”

“Have a care,” Rufus grunted. “A whore be a whore. I go find me a cheap ‘un, ha?”

Impulsively, Cadoc reached into his pouch and gave him a fistful of silver miliarisions. “Add this to your own coins and enjoy yourself, old fellow. A shame that the Hippodrome isn’t open just now, but you must know several odeions where the performances are bawdy enough for your less elevated moments. Just don’t talk too loosely.”

“You taught me that, you did. Have fun. I hope she turns out to be what you want, master. I’ll use a bit o’ the money to buy you a good-luck spell.” That seemed to be about as much as the prospect could move Rufus’ stolidity. But then, Cadoc thought, he lacks the wit to understand what it will mean to find another immortal—a woman. At least, immediately; it may dawn on him later.

I don’t suppose I quite understand it yet myself.

Rufus went out. Cadoc took an embroidered mantle off its hanger and fitted it over the fine linen sakkos and be-jeweled dalmatic that enrobed him. On his feet were curly-toed shoes from far Cordova. Even for an afternoon appointment, one went to Athenais appropriately dressed.

He had already gotten his hair cut short and his beard shaven off. Fluent in Greek and familiar, after much prowling, with the byways of the city, he could pass for Byzantine. Not that he would try to do so unnecessarily. It wasn’t worth the risk. Rus merchants were supposed to stay in the St. Manio suburb on the Galata side of the Horn, crossing the bridge to the Blachernae Gate by day and returning at evening. He was still listed among them. It had taken a substantial bribe as well as persuasive chatter to get permission to take lodging here. He was not actually a Rus, he told the officials, and he was ready to retire from the trade. Both statements were true. He had gone on, mendaciously but persuasively, about certain new arrangements he had in mind, which would be to the profit of local magnates as well as himself. In the course of generations, given an innate talent for it, one learns how to convince. Thus he won freedom to pursue his inquiries with maximum efficiency.

The streets throbbed and clamored with traffic. He followed their steepnesses to the Mese, the avenue that, branching, ran from end to end of the city. Down its width on his right he spied the column that upbore Justinian’s equestrian statue in the Forum of Constantine and beyond it, just glimpsed, the walls of the Imperial palace grounds, senate house, law courts, Hippodrome; the domes of Hagia Sophia; the gardens and shining buildings on the Acropolis: glories raised through lifetime after transient lifetime.

He turned left. Brilliance flowed with him and glowed from the arcades that lined the thoroughfare. Plainness was nearly lost in it, workmen, porters, carters, farmers in from the countryside, priests of the lower orders. Even hawkers and strolling entertainers flaunted fantastic colors as they shouted what wonders they offered; even slaves wore the liveries of great households. A nobleman passed by in his palanquin, young dandies whooped in a wineshop, a troop of guardsmen tramped with mail agleam, a cavalry officer and his attendant cataphracts cantered haughtily behind a runner who shouted and elbowed people aside, banners flew, cloaks and scarfs billowed in a brisk wind off the sea, New Rome seemed immortally young. Religion yielding to commerce and diplomacy, foreigners were plentiful, be they suave Muslim Syrians, boorish Catholic Normans, or from lands farther and stranger yet. Cadoc was content to vanish into the human flood.

At the Forum of Theodosius he crossed over to its northern corner, ignoring the sellers who cried their wares and the beggars who cried their need. Where the Aqueduct of Valens overlooked the roof-decked hollow it spanned, he paused for a moment’s breath. The view swept before him, down to rampart and battlements, the Gate of the Drungarii, the Golden Horn full of its own farings, and across those waters hills green with growth, white with the houses of Pera and Galata. Gulls yonder made a living snowstorm. You can tell a rich harbor by its gulls, thought Cadoc. How much longer will this many fly and mew here?

He thrust sadness from him and continued north, downhill, until he found the house he wanted. Outwardly it was an unpretentious three-story building, hemmed in by its neighbors, the facade rosy-plastered. But that was ample for one woman, her servants, and the revelries over which she presided.

A bronze knocker was made in the form of a scallop shell. Cadoc’s heart skipped a step. Had she recalled that this Western Christian emblem of a pilgrim once belonged to Ashtoreth? The fingers with which he rattled it were damp.

The door opened and he confronted a huge black man in Asian-like shirt and trousers—an entire male, likelier hireling than slave, well able to remove anyone whom his employer found objectionable. “Christ be with you, Kyrie. May I ask what is your desire?”

“My names is Cadoc ap Rhys. The lady Athenais awaits me.” The visitor handed over a piece of parchment bearing the identification, given him when he paid the price to her broker. That woman had had to decide first that he was suitably refined, and still she had told him no time was available for a week. Cadoc slipped the doorman a golden bezant—a little extravagant, perhaps, but impressiveness might help his chances.

It certainly got him deference. In a twittering cloud of pretty girls and two eunuchs he passed through an anteroom richly furnished, its walls ornamented with discreetly erotic scenes, up a grand staircase to the outer chamber of a suite. This was hung in red velvet above a floral Oriental carpet. Chairs flanked a table of inlaid ebony whereon stood a flagon of wine, figured glass goblets, plates of cakes, dates, oranges. Light fell dim through small windows, but candles burned in multiple holders. Sweetness wafted from a golden censer. A lark dwelt in a silver cage. Here Athenais was.

She put aside the harp she had been strumming. “Welcome, Kyrie Cadoc from afar.” Her voice was low, scarcely less musical than the strings had been—carefully trained. “Twice welcome, bearing news of marvels, like a fresh breeze.”

He bowed. “My lady is too gracious to a poor wanderer.”

Meanwhile, keenly as if she were an enemy, he assessed her. She sat on a couch, displaying herself against its white-and-gold back, in a gown that enhanced rather than revealed. Her jewelry was a bracelet, a pendant, and three rings, small but exquisite. It was her person, not her wealth, and her spirit more than her person, that she had the intelligence to emphasize. Her figure was superb in a voluptuous Eastern fashion, but he judged that suppleness and strength underlay it. Her face he would simply have called handsome: broad, straight-nosed, full-lipped, eyes hazel beneath arching brows, blue-black hair piled thick around the tawny complexion. It was not looks that had brought her to this house, it was knowledge, skill, perception, the harvest of— how long an experience?

Her laugh chimed. “No poor man enters here! Come, be seated, take refreshment. Let us get to know each other.”

She never rushed to the bedroom, he had heard, unless a patron insisted, and such a one was seldom allowed back. Conversation and flirtation beforehand were part of a delight that was said to have a climax unrivalled.

“Marvels have I seen,” Cadoc declared, “but the finest of them today.” He let a servant remove his upper garment and sat down beside her. A girl knelt to fill their glasses. At a tiny gesture from Athenais, all attendants bowed out.

She gave him a subtle flutter of lashes. “Certain men of Britannia are more polished than news of it led me to expect,” she murmured. “Have you come directly from there?” He observed the sharpness of the demure glance and knew she was taking his measure. If he wanted a woman who had more in her head than a mouth, that was what she would provide.

Therefore—

His pulse stammered. The self-control of centuries underlay the calm wherewith he regarded her, took a sip of the estimable wine, and smiled. “No,” he said, “I have not been in Britannia, or England and Wales as they call it nowadays, for a rather long time. But then, though I told your ancilla that is my country when she asked, I am not really a native of it. Or of anywhere else, any longer. On my last visit here I heard rumors about you. They caused me to return as soon as possible.”

She half shaped a reply, aborted it, and sat cat-watchful, too wise to exclaim, “Flatterer!”

He calculated his grin. “I daresay your ... callers ... number some with various peculiarities. You gratify them or not according to your inclination. It must have been a cruel struggle to win this independence. Well, then, will you indulge my whim? It is perfectly harmless. I only wish to talk for a short span. I would like to tell you a story. You may find it amusing. That is all. May I?”

She failed to quite hide her tautness. “I have heard many stories, Kyrie. Do continue.”

He leaned back and let the words flow easily while he looked before him, observing her from the corner of an eye. “Call it the kind of yarn that sailors spin during calm watches or in taverns ashore. It concerns a mariner, though afterward he did numerous different things. He thought himself an ordinary man of his people. So did everybody else. But bit by bit, year by year, they noticed something very odd about him. He never fell sick and he never grew old. His wife aged and finally died, his children turned gray and then white-haired, their children begot and raised children and likewise fell prey to time, but everything in this man since the third decade of his life stayed changeless. Was that not remarkable?”

He had her, he saw, and exulted. Her gaze was utterly intent.

“At first it seemed he might be blessed of the gods. Yet he showed no other special powers, nor did he do any special deeds. Though he made costly sacrifices and later, approaching despair, consulted costly magicians, to him came no revelation, nor any solace when those he loved went down into death. Meanwhile the slow growth of awe among the people had, with equal slowness, become envy, then fear, then hatred. What had he done to be thus condemned, or what had he sold to be thus spared? What was he, sorcerer, demon, walking corpse, what? He barely evaded attempts on his life. Finally the authorities moved to investigate him and he fled, for he suspected they would question him under torture and put him to death. He knew he could be wounded, although he recovered fast, and felt sure that the worst injuries would prove as fatal to him as to anybody else. Despite his loneliness, he kept a young man’s desire for life and the savoring of it.

“For hundreds and hundreds of years he was a rover on the face of the earth. Often he let his yearnings overcome him and settled down somewhere, married, raised a family, lived as mortals do. But always he must lose them, and after a single common lifetime disappear. Between whiles, which was mostly, he plied trades where a man can come and go little remarked. His old seamanship was among these, and it took him widely across the world. Ever he sought for more tike himself. Was he unique in the whole creation? Or was his kind simply very rare? Those whom misfortune or malice did not destroy early on, they doubtless learned to stay hidden as he had learned. But if this be the case, how was he to find them, or they him?

“And if his was a hard and precarious lot, how much worse must it be for a woman? What could she do? Surely none but the strongest and cleverest survived. How might they?

“Does that conundrum interest my lady?”

He drank of his wine, for whatever tranquility might lie within it. She stared beyond him. Silence lengthened.

At last she drew breath, brought her look back to engage his, and said slowly, “That is a curious tale indeed, Kyrie Cadoc.”

“A tale only, of course, a fantasy for your amusement. I do not care to be locked up as a madman.”

“I understand.” A smile ghosted across her countenance. “Pray continue. Did this undying man ever come upon any others?”

“That remains to be told, my lady.”

She nodded. “I see. But say more about him. He’s still a shadow to me. Where was he born, and when?”

“Let us imagine it was in ancient Tyre. He was a boy when King Hiram aided King Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem.”

She gasped. “Oh, long ago!”

“About two thousand years, I believe. He lost count, and later when he tried to consult the records they were fragmentary and in disagreement. No matter.”

“Did he meet the Savior?” she whispered.

He sighed and shook his head. “No, he was elsewhere at that time. He did see many gods come and go. And kings, nations, histories. Perforce he lived among them, under names of their kind, while they endured and until they perished. Names he lost track of, like years. He was Hanno and Ithobaal and Snefru and Phaon and Shlomo and Rashid and Gobor and Flavius Lugo and, oh, more than he can remember.”

She sat straight, as if ready to spring, whether from him or at him. Low in her throat, she asked, “Might Cadoc be among those names?”

He kept seated, leaned back, but eyes now full upon hers. “It might,” he answered, “even as a lady might have called herself Zoe, and before that Eudoxia, and before that— names which are perhaps still discoverable.”

A shudder passed through her. “What do you want of me?”

He set his glass down, most carefully, smiled, spread his hands, palms up, and told her in his softest voice, “Whatever you choose to give. It may be nothing. How can I compel you, supposing that were my desire, which it is not? If you dislike harmless lunatics, you need never see or hear from me again.”

“What ... are you ... prepared to offer?”

“Shared and lasting faith. Help, counsel, protection, an end of loneliness. I’ve learned a good deal about surviving, and manage to prosper most of the time, and have my refuges and my hoards against the evil days. At the moment I command modest wealth. More important, I stay true to my friends and would rather be a woman’s lover than her overlord. Who knows but what the children of two immortals will themselves prove deathless?”

She studied him a while. “But you always hold something back, don’t you?”

“A Phoenician habit, which a rootless life has strengthened. I could unlearn it.”

“It was never my way,” she breathed, and came to him.

<p>2</p>

They lounged against pillows at the headboard of the huge bed. Talk grew between them like a blossoming plant in spring. Now and then a hand stroked across flesh gone cool again, but those were gentle caresses. A languor possessed them, as if part of the lingering odors of incense and love. Their minds roused first. The words were calm, the tone tender.

“Four hundred years ago I was Aliyat in Palmyra,” she said. “And you, in your ancient Phoenicia?”

“My birthname was Hanno,” he answered. “I used it the oftenest, afterward, till it died out of every language.”

“What adventures you must have had.”

“And you.”

She winced. “I would rather not speak of that.”

“Are you ashamed?” He laid a finger under her chin and brought her face around toward his. “I would not be,” he said gravely. “I am not. We have survived, you and I, by whatever means were necessary. That’s now behind us. Let it drift into darkness with the wreckage of Babylon. We belong to our future.”

“You ... do not ... find me sinful?”

He laughed a bit. “I suspect that if we both grew quite candid about our pasts, you’d be the one shocked.”

“Nor do you fear God’s curse?”

“I have learned much in two thousand years, but nothing about any gods, except that they too arise, change, age, and die. Whatever there is beyond the universe, if anything, I doubt it concerns itself with us.”

Tears trembled on her lashes. “You are strong. You are kind.” She nestled close. “Tell me of yourself.”

“That would take a while. I’d grow thirsty.”

She reached for a bell on an end table and rang it. “That we can do something about,” she said with a flash of smile. “You’re right, however. We have the whole future wherein to explore our past. Tell me first of Cadoc. I do need to understand him, that we may lay our plans.”

“Well, it began when Old Rome departed from Britannia— No, wait, I forgot, in all this joy. First I should tell you about Rufus.”

A maidservant entered. She dipped her glance, otherwise seemed unperturbed by the two naked bodies. Athenais ordered the wine and refreshments brought hi from the anteroom. While this was done, Cadoc marshalled his thoughts. When they were alone, he described his companion.

“Poor Rufus,” she sighed. “How envious he will be.”

“Oh, I expect not,” Cadoc replied. “He’s grown used to being my subordinate. In return, I do his thinking for him. Give him adequate food, drink, and swiving, and he’s content.”

“Then he has been no balm for your aloneness,” she said softly.

“Not much. But I owe my life to him, several times over, and therefore this day’s magnificence.”

“Glib scoundrel.” She kissed him. He buried his visage in her fragrant hair until she guided him to a glassful, a sweet cake, and sober discourse.

“The western Britons preserved some vestige of civilization. Yes, I frequently thought of making my way here, where I knew the Empire continued. But for a long time, the likelihood of arriving with any money, or arriving at all, was slight. Meanwhile life among the Britons was not too bad. I had come to know them. It was easy to move among identities and to stay reasonably well-off. I could wait for the English, the Franks, the Northmen to acquire milder ways, for civilization to be reborn throughout Europe. After that, as I’ve mentioned, the Rus trade route let me make a good living and meet a variety of people, both along it and down here in the Mediterranean world. You understand that that seemed my only hope of finding anyone else like me. Surely you’ve cherished the same hope, Athenais—Al-iyat.”

He could barely hear: “Until it grew too painful.”

He kissed her cheek, and she brought her lips to his, and presently she crooned, “It has ended. You have found me. I keep striving to believe that this is real.”

“It is, and we’ll keep it so.”

With that practicality which bespoke her intelligence, she asked, “What do you propose we do?”

“Well,” he said, “it was about time anyhow for me to finish with Cadoc. He’s been in sight longer than he should have been; some old acquaintances must be starting to wonder. Besides, since the Norman duke made himself king of England, more and more young English, ill content, have been coming south to join the Emperor’s Varangian Guard. Those who happened to hear of Cadoc would know how unlikely it is that a Welshman be a trader of his sort.

“Worse, when the Rus lord Yaroslav died his realm was divided among his sons, and they are now falling out with each other. The barbarian plainsmen take advantage. The routes grow dangerous. Fresh Rus attacks on Constantinople are quite conceivable, and could hurt the trade even more. I well remember what difficulties previous forays caused.

“So, let Athenais and Cadoc retire from their businesses, move away, and drop out of touch with everybody they knew. First, naturally, Aliyat and Hanno will have liquidated their possessions.”

She frowned. “You talk as if you meant to leave Constantinople. Must we? It is the queen of the world.”

“It will not remain that,” he told her grimly.

She gave him a startled glance.

“Think,” he said. “The Normans have taken the last Imperial outpost in Italy. The Saracens hold everything south of there from Spain through Syria. They have not been totally hostile of late. However—the Imperial defeat at Manzikert last year was more than a military disaster that led to an abrupt change of Emperors. The Turks had already taken Armenia from you, remember. Now Anatolia lies open to them. It will be touch and go whether the Empire can hold the Ionian littoral against them. Meanwhile the Balkan provinces chafe and the Normans venture east. Here at home, commerce shrinks, poverty and unrest grow, corruption at court vies for mastery with incompetence. Oh, I daresay the catastrophe will be a while in coming full upon New Rome. But let us get out well ahead of it.”

“Where? Is any place safe and, and decent?”

“Well, certain of the Muslim capitals are brilliant. Far eastward, I hear, an emperor reigns over a realm vast, peaceful, and glorious. But those are alien folk; the ways to them are long and beset. Western Europe would be easier, but it’s still turbulent and backward. Also, since the churches openly split apart, life there has been hard for people from Orthodox countries. We’d have to make a show of conversion to Catholicism, and we’d best avoid conspicuousness like that. No, on the whole I’d say we should stay within the Roman Empire for another century or two. In Greece, nobody knows us.”

“Greece? Hasn’t it gone barbarian?”

“Not quite. There’s a heavy population of Slavs in the north and Vlachs in Thessaly, while the Normans are plaguing the Aegean Sea. But such cities as Thebes and Corinth remain well off, well defended. A beautiful country, full of memories. We can be happy there.”

Cadoc raised his brows. “But haven’t you given thought to this yourself?” he went on. “You could only have continued as you are for another ten years at best. Then you’d have had to withdraw, before men noticed that you don’t grow old. And as much in the public eye as you’ve been, you could scarcely stay on in these parts.”

“True.” Athenais smiled. “I meant to announce I’d had a change of heart, repented my wickedness, and would retire afar to a life of poverty, prayer, and good works. I’ve already made arrangements for the quick, quiet transport of my hoard—against any sudden need to escape. After all, that has been my life, to drop from one place and start afresh in another.”

He grimaced. “Always like this?”

“Need forces me,” she answered sadly. “I’m not fit by nature to be a nun, a she-hermit, any such unworldly being. I often call myself a well-to-do widow, but at last the money is spent, unless some upheaval—war, sack, plague, whatever—brings ruin first. A woman cannot very well invest her money tike a man. Whatever pulls me down, usually I must begin again among the lowliest and ... work and save and connive to become better off.”

His smile was rueful. “Not unlike my life.”

“A man has more choices.” She paused. “I do study things beforehand. I agree, on balance Corinth will be best for us.”

“What?” he exclaimed, sitting straight in his astonishment. “You let me rattle on and on about what you perfectly well knew?”

“Men must show forth their cleverness.”

Cadoc whooped laughter. “Superb! A girt who can lead me, me, by the nose like that is the girl I can stay with forever.”

He sobered: “But now we’ll make the move as soon as may be. At once, if I had my wish. Out of this ... filth, to the first true home we’ve either of us had since—”

She laid fingers across his lips. “Hush, beloved,” she said low. “If only that could be. But we can’t simply disappear.”

“Why not?”

She sighed. “It would rouse too much heed. A search for me, at least. There are men, highly placed men, who care for me, who’d be afraid I’d met with foul play. If then we were tracked down— No.” A small fist clenched. “We must go on with our pretenses. For another month, perhaps, while I prepare the ground with talk of, oh, making a pilgrimage, something like that.”

A little while passed before he could say, “Well, a month, set against centuries.”

“For me, the longest month I ever knew. But we’ll see each other during it, often, won’t we? Say we will!”

“Of course.”

“I will hate making you pay, but you can see I must. Never mind, the money will be ours once we are free.”

“Hm, we do need to lay plans, make arrangements.”

“Let that wait till next time. This while we have today is so short. Then I must make ready for the next man.”

He bit his lip. “You cannot tell him you’ve fallen sick?”

“I’d best not. He’s among the most important of them all; his good will can spell the difference between life and death. Bardas Manasses, a manglabites on the staff of the Arch-estrategos.”

“Yes, someone that high in the military, yes, I understand.”

“Oh, my dearest, inwardly you bleed.” Athenais embraced him. “Stop. Forget everything but the two of us. We still have an hour in Paradise.”

She was wholly as knowing, as endlessly various and arousing, as men said.

<p>3</p>

A miniature procession crossed the bridge over the Horn and approached the Blachernae Gate. They were four Rusi, two Northmen, and a couple in the lead who were neither. The Rusi carried a chest that was plainly heavy, suspended on two poles. The Northmen were off-duty members of the Varangian Guard, helmed and mailed, axes on their shoulders. Though it was clear that they were earning some extra pay by shepherding a valuable freight, it was also clear that this was with official permission, and the sentries waved the party through.

They went on by streets under the city wall. Heights soared above them to battlements and heaven. The morning was yet young and shadow lay deep, almost chill after the brightness on the water. Mansions of the wealthy fell behind and the men entered the humbler, busier Phanar quarter.

“This be muckwit,” grumbled Rufus in Latin. “You’ve even sold your ship, haven’t you? At a loss, I’ll bet, so fast -you got rid of everything.”

“Turned it into gold, gems, portable wealth,” Cadoc corrected merrily. He used the same language. While he had no reason to distrust their escort, caution was alloyed with his spirit. “We’re leaving in another pair of weeks, or had you forgotten?”

“Meanwhile, though—”

“Meanwhile it’ll be stored safely, secretly, where we can claim it at any hour of the day or night and no beforehand notice. You’ve been too much sulking when you weren’t off bousing, old fellow. Have you never listened to me? Aliyat arranged this.”

“What’d she tell their high and mightinesses, to make the way so smooth for us?”

Cadoc grinned. “That I let slip to her what a glorious deal I stand to make with certain other high and mightinesses—a deal which these men can have a slice of if they help me. Women, too, can learn how to cope with the world.”

Rufus grunted.

The building in which Petros Simonides, jeweler, lived and had his shop was unprepossessing. However, Cadoc had long had some knowledge of what trade went through it, besides the owner’s overt business. Several members of the Imperial court found it sufficiently useful that the authorities turned a blind eye. Petros received his visitors jovially. A pair of toughs whom he called nephews, though they resembled him not in the least, helped bring the chest to the cellar and stow it behind a false panel. Money passed. Cadoc declined hospitality on the grounds of haste and led his own followers back to the street.

“Well, Arnulf, Sviatopolk, all of you, my thanks,” he said. “You may go where you like now. You will remember your orders about keeping silence. That need not keep you from drinking my health and fortune.” He dispensed a second purseful. The sailors and soldiers departed gleefully.

“You didn’t think Petros’ food and wine be good?” asked Rufus.

“They doubtless are,” said Cadoc, “but I really have need to hurry. Athenais keeps this whole afternoon for me, and first I want to get myself well prepared at the baths.”

“Huh! Like this whole while since you met her. Never seen you lovesick before. You could as well be fifteen.”

“I feel reborn,” said Cadoc softly. His vision dwelt on distances beyond the bustle and narrowness around. “You will too, when we’ve found you your true wife.”

“With my luck, she’ll be a sow.”

Cadoc laughed, clapped Rufus on the back, and slipped a bezant into his single palm. “Go drown that gloom of yours. Or better yet, work it off with a lively wench.”

“Thanks.” Rufus showed no change of mood. “You do toss money these days.”

“A strange thing about pure joy,” Cadoc murmured. “One wants to share it.”

He sauntered off, whistling. Rufus stood with hunched shoulders and stared after him.

<p>4</p>

Stars and a gibbous moon gave light enough. The streets, gone mostly quiet, were swept clean. Occasionally a patrol marched by, lantern-glow shimmering on metal, embodiment of that power which held the city at peace. A man could walk easy.

Cadoc drank deep of the night air. Heat had yielded to mildness, and smoke, dust, stenches, pungencies lain down to rest. As he neared the Kontoskalion, he caught a ghost of tar on the breeze, and smiled. How smells could rouse memories. A galley lay at the Egyptian Harbor of Sor, weathered and salt-streaked by fabulous seas, and his father towered over him, holding his hand. ... He raised that same hand to his nostrils. The hair on it tickled his lip. A scent like jasmine, Aliyat’s perfume, and was there still some of her own sweetness? That had been such a long farewell kiss.

And so happily weary. He chuckled. When he arrived, she told him a message had come from the great Bardas Manasses, he was unable to visit her this evening as planned, she and her dearest had that added time as a free gift of Aphrodite. “I have discovered what immortal strength means,” she purred at the last, close against his breast.

He yawned. Sleep would be very welcome. If only it were at her side— But her servants already saw how she favored this foreigner. Best not give them further cause for wonderment. Gossip might reach the wrong ears.

Soon, though, soon!

Abruptly darkness deepened. He had turned into a lesser street near the harbor and his lodging. Brick walls hulked on either side, leaving just a strip of sky overhead. He slowed, careful lest he stumble on something. Silence had also grown thick. Were those footfalls behind him? It crossed his mind that he had several times glimpsed the same figure hi a hooded cloak. Bound the same way by mere chance?

Light gleamed, a lantern uncovered in an alley as he passed it. For an instant he was dazzled. “That’s him!” struck through. Three men came out of the gut into the street. A sword slipped free.

Cadoc sprang backward. The men deployed, right, left, in front. They had him boxed, up against the opposite wall.

His knife jumped forth. Two of the attackers were armed like him. He wasted no breath in protest or scream for help. If he couldn’t save himself, he’d be dead in minutes. His left hand ripped his mantle loose from its brooch.

The swordsman swung back to strike. The lantern, set down at the alley mouth, made him a featureless piece of night, but Cadoc saw light ripple along his hip. He was mail-clad. The steel whirred. Cadoc swayed aside. He snapped the mantle at the unseen face. It drew a curse and tangled the weapon. Cadoc leaped right. He hoped to dodge past the foeman there. That wight was too skillful. His bulk stepped in the way. His dagger thrust. Cadoc would have taken it in the belly, had he possessed less than immortal vigor. He parried with his own knife and retreated.

Bricks gritted against his shoulderblades. He was trapped anyhow. He showed teeth and feinted, side to side. The daggennen prowled beyond his reach. The swordsman prepared to hew afresh.

Sandals thudded on stones. Light glimmered on a coppery beard. Rufus’ hook caught the swordsman’s throat. It went in. Rufus worked it savagely. The man dropped his blade, clawed at the shaft, went to his knees. He croaked through the blood.

Cadoc scrambled, snatched up the sword, bounced back erect. He was no grand master of this weapon, but he had tried to acquire every fighting art that the centuries brought. A knifeman scuttered clear. Cadoc whirled in time to smite the second, who was nearly at his back. The blade struck an arm. Through the heavy impact, Cadoc thought he felt bone give. The man shrieked, stumbled, and fled.

Snarling, Rufus pulled his hook out and went for the first slabber. That one vanished too, down the street and into night. Rufus halted. He turned about. “You hurt?” he panted.

“No.” Cadoc was as breathless. His heart banged. Yet his mind had gone wholly cold and clear, like ice afloat in the sea off Thule. He glanced at the mailed man, who writhed and moaned and bubbled blood. “Let’s go ... before somebody ... comes.” He discarded the telltale sword.

“To the inn?”

“No.” Cadoc trotted away. His wind returned to him, his pulse slowed. “They knew me. Therefore they knew where to wait and must know where I’m staying. Whoever sent them will want to try again.”

“I guessed it might be a good idea to tail after and keep an eye on you. That be a pile o’ treasure you left with that Phanariot son of a pig.”

“I shouldn’t pride myself on my wits,” said Cadoc bleakly. “You showed a banelful more than I did.”

“Haw, you be in love. Worse’n drunk. Where should we go? I s’pose the main streets be safe. Maybe we can wake ‘em at another inn. I’ve still got money on me, if you don’t.”

Cadoc shook his head. They had emerged on a thoroughfare, bare and dim under the moon. “No. We’ll slink about till sunrise, then mingle with people bound out of the city. Those can’t have been common footpads, or even killers for hire. Armor, sword—at least one of them was an Imperial soldier.”

<p>5</p>

Vsevolod the Fat, who stood high among the Rus merchants, owned a house in St. Mamo. It was small, since he only used it when he was at Constantinople, but furnished with barbaric opulence and, during his stays, a wanton or two. The servants were young kinsmen of his, whose loyalty could be relied on, and upstairs was a room whose existence was not obvious.

He entered it near the close of day. Gray-shot, his beard fell to the paunch that swelled his embroidered robe. A fist clutched a jug. “I brought wine,” he greeted. “Cheap stuff, but plenty. You will want plenty, and not care how fine it is. Here.” He shoved it toward Cadoc.

The latter rose, paying it no heed. Rufus took it instead and upended it over his mouth. He had snored for hours, while Cadoc prowled to and fro between the barren walls or stared out a window at the Golden Horn and the many-domed city beyond.

“What have you found, Vsevolod Izyaslavev?” Cadoc asked tonelessly, in the same Russian.

The merchant plumped his bottom down on the bed, which creaked. “Bad news,” he rumbled. “I went to the shop of Petros Simonides and met guards posted. It cost me to get an honest answer out of them, and they don’t know anything anyhow. But he is arrested for interrogation, they said.” A sigh like a steppe wind. “If that is true, if they don’t let him off, there goes the best smuggling outlet I ever had. Ah, merciful saints, help a poor old man earn the bread for his little wife and darling children!”

“What about me?”

“You understand, Cadoc Rhysev? I dared not push too hard. I am not young like you. Courage has leaked out with’ youth and strength. Remember now the Lord, in these high days of your life, before age and woe come on you too. But I did talk with a captain in the city guard that I know. Yes, it is as you feared, they want you. He does not know just why, but spoke of a brawl near your rooming place and a man killed. Which I knew already, from you.”

“I thought as much,” said Cadoc. “Thank you.”

Rufus lowered the jug. “What do we do?” he grated.

“Best you stay here, where you have sought refuge,”

Vsevolod replied. “Before long I go home to Chernigov, you know. You can ride with me. The Greeks shall not know you in my ship. Maybe I disguise you as a beautiful Circassian slave girl, Rufus, ha?” He guffawed.

“We don’t have the cost of our passage,” Cadoc said.

“No matter. You are my friend, my brother in Christ. I trust you to pay me back later. Thirty percent interest, agreed? And you tell me more about how you got into this trouble. That might forewarn me.”

Cadoc nodded. “Once we’re outbound, I will.”

“Good.” Vsevolod’s eyes flickered between his guests. “I thought we would have a jolly time tonight, get drunk, but you are not in the mood. Yes, a terrible sorrow, all that money gone. I will have your supper sent up. We shall meet tomorrow. God cheer your sleep.” He rose and lumbered out. The panel slid shut behind him.

Constantinople was a blue shadow above golden-shining water, against golden-red sunset. Dusk filled the room in St. Mamo like smoke. Cadoc raised the wine jug, swallowed, set it down again.

“You really going to tell him?” wondered Rufus.

“Oh, no. Not the truth.” Now they spoke Latin. “I’ll invent a story that he’ll believe and that will do him no harm. Something about an official who decided to get rid of me and seize my gold rather than wait for his share of the profit.”

“The swine could’ve been jealous o’ you, too,” Rufus suggested. “Vsevolod might know you was seeing that Athenais.”

“I have to make up a story in any case.” Cadoc’s voice cracked. “I can’t understand what happened, myself.”

“Hunh? Why, plain’s a wart on your thumper. The bitch put one o’ her customers onto it. Shut your mouth for aye— they’d’ve gone after me next—and diwy your money. Maybe she’s got a hold on a fellow high in the gover’ment, like something she knows about him. Or maybe he was just glad to oblige her and take his share. We was lucky and lived, but she’s won. The hunt is out for us. If we want to stay alive, we won’t come back for twenty-thirty years.” Rufus took the wine and glugged. “Forget her.”

Cadoc’s fist struck the wall. Plaster cracked and fell. “How could she? How?”

“Ah, ‘twas easy. You wove the snare for her.” Rufus patted Cadoc’s shoulder. “Don’t feel bad. You’ll swindle yourself another chest o’ gold inside a ge-ne-ration.”

“Why?” Cadoc leaned against the wall, face buried in arm.

Rufus shrugged. “A whore be a whore.”

“No, but she—immortal—I offered her—“ Cadoc could not go on.

Rufus’ mouth drew tight, invisibly in the gloom. “You ought to could see. You can think better’n me when you put your mind to it. How long’s she been what she be? Four hundred years, you said? Well, now, that be a lot o’ men. A thousand a year? Maybe less these days, but likely more than that earlier.”

“She told me she, she takes as ... much freedom from the life ... as she can.”

“Shows you how fond she be of it. You know the sort o’ things a lot o’ fellows want from a whore. And all the times a girl gets roughed up, or robbed, or kicked out, or knocked up and left to handle that however she can—leave it on a trash heap, maybe? Four hundred years, Lugo. How d’you s’pose she feels about men? And she’d never’ve got to watch you growing old.”


1

<p>1</p>

Habit dies hard, and then from time to time will rise from its grave. “What do you really know about this drab, Lugo?” asked Rufus. He spoke in Latin such as had not been heard for centuries, even among churchmen of the West.

Nor had Cadoc used that name for a span longer yet. He replied in Greek: “Practice your living languages more. Get your terminology right. The word you used scarcely fits the most fashionable and expensive courtesan in Constantinople.”

“A whore be a whore,” said Rufus stubbornly, though he did change to the modern tongue of the Empire. “You been, uh, in-vest-igating her, talking with people, sounding ‘em out, damn near since we got here. Weeks. And me left to twiddle my thumb.” He glanced down at the stump of his right wrist. “When’re we going to do something?”

“Perhaps quite soon,” Cadoc answered. “Or perhaps not. It depends on what further I can learn about the lovely Athenais, if anything. And on much else, to be sure. I am not only overdue for a change of identity, we are both overdue for a change of occupation. The Rus trade is spinning faster and faster toward ruin.”

“Yah, yah, you’ve said that plenty often. I’ve seen for myself. But what about this woman? You haven’t told me nothing about her.”

“That is because patience in disappointment is not among your excellences.” Cadoc paced to the single window and stared out. It stood open on summer air, odors of smoke and tar and dung and hinted fragrances, noise of wheels and hoofs and feet and voices. From this third-floor inn room the view swept over roofs, streets, the city wall, the gate and harbor of the Kontoskalion. Masts raked upward from the docks. Beyond glittered the Sea of Marmora. Craft danced on its blueness, everything from bumboats shaped like basins to a freighter under sail and a naval dromond with oars in parade-ground step. It was hard to imagine, to feel, the shadow under which all this lay.

Cadoc clasped his hands behind his back. “However, I may as well inform you now,” he said. “Today I have hopes that I’ll reach the end of the trail, or find that it was a false scent. It’s been maddeningly vague, as you’d expect. So-and-so tells me that somebody else once told him this-and-that. With difficulty, because he’s moved, I track down Kyrios Somebody Else to verify it, and to the best of his dim recollection that is not quite what he told So-and-so, but from a third party he did once hear— Ah, well.

“Basically, ‘Athenais’ is the latest name the lady has taken. No surprise there. Name changes are quite usual in her profession; and of course she prefers to obscure her origins, the fact that she was not always the darling of the city. I’ve established that, earlier, she worked as Zoe in one of the better brothels over in Galata; and I am practically certain that before then she was on this side of the Golden Horn, in the Phanar quarter, as a less elegant girl calling herself Eudoxia. Beyond that, the information is slight and unreliable. Too many people have died or otherwise disappeared.

“The pattern has been the same, though, an outwardly affable but actually secretive woman who avoids pimps—at worst, formerly, she paid off as necessary—and spends no more on fanciments than she must. Instead, she saves—invests, I suspect—with an eye to moving up another rung on the ladder. Now she is independent, even powerful, what with her connections and the things she doubtless knows. And—“ Despite the dull houndwork that lay behind, despite the coolness he kept m his tone, a tingle went along Cadoc’s backbone, out to his scalp and fingertips. “The trail reaches at least thirty years into the past, Rufus. It may well be fifty or more years long. Always she is youthful, always she is beautiful.”

“I knew what you was after,” said the redbeard, unwontedly low, “but I’d stopped thinking you’d ever find it.”

“I too, almost. Seven centuries since I came on you, and nobody before and nobody afterward, for all my searching. Yes, hope wears thin. Maybe today, at last—“ Cadoc shook himself, turned about, and laughed. “I’m soon due at her place. I dare not tell you what a few hours there cost!”

“Have a care,” Rufus grunted. “A whore be a whore. I go find me a cheap ‘un, ha?”

Impulsively, Cadoc reached into his pouch and gave him a fistful of silver miliarisions. “Add this to your own coins and enjoy yourself, old fellow. A shame that the Hippodrome isn’t open just now, but you must know several odeions where the performances are bawdy enough for your less elevated moments. Just don’t talk too loosely.”

“You taught me that, you did. Have fun. I hope she turns out to be what you want, master. I’ll use a bit o’ the money to buy you a good-luck spell.” That seemed to be about as much as the prospect could move Rufus’ stolidity. But then, Cadoc thought, he lacks the wit to understand what it will mean to find another immortal—a woman. At least, immediately; it may dawn on him later.

I don’t suppose I quite understand it yet myself.

Rufus went out. Cadoc took an embroidered mantle off its hanger and fitted it over the fine linen sakkos and be-jeweled dalmatic that enrobed him. On his feet were curly-toed shoes from far Cordova. Even for an afternoon appointment, one went to Athenais appropriately dressed.

He had already gotten his hair cut short and his beard shaven off. Fluent in Greek and familiar, after much prowling, with the byways of the city, he could pass for Byzantine. Not that he would try to do so unnecessarily. It wasn’t worth the risk. Rus merchants were supposed to stay in the St. Manio suburb on the Galata side of the Horn, crossing the bridge to the Blachernae Gate by day and returning at evening. He was still listed among them. It had taken a substantial bribe as well as persuasive chatter to get permission to take lodging here. He was not actually a Rus, he told the officials, and he was ready to retire from the trade. Both statements were true. He had gone on, mendaciously but persuasively, about certain new arrangements he had in mind, which would be to the profit of local magnates as well as himself. In the course of generations, given an innate talent for it, one learns how to convince. Thus he won freedom to pursue his inquiries with maximum efficiency.

The streets throbbed and clamored with traffic. He followed their steepnesses to the Mese, the avenue that, branching, ran from end to end of the city. Down its width on his right he spied the column that upbore Justinian’s equestrian statue in the Forum of Constantine and beyond it, just glimpsed, the walls of the Imperial palace grounds, senate house, law courts, Hippodrome; the domes of Hagia Sophia; the gardens and shining buildings on the Acropolis: glories raised through lifetime after transient lifetime.

He turned left. Brilliance flowed with him and glowed from the arcades that lined the thoroughfare. Plainness was nearly lost in it, workmen, porters, carters, farmers in from the countryside, priests of the lower orders. Even hawkers and strolling entertainers flaunted fantastic colors as they shouted what wonders they offered; even slaves wore the liveries of great households. A nobleman passed by in his palanquin, young dandies whooped in a wineshop, a troop of guardsmen tramped with mail agleam, a cavalry officer and his attendant cataphracts cantered haughtily behind a runner who shouted and elbowed people aside, banners flew, cloaks and scarfs billowed in a brisk wind off the sea, New Rome seemed immortally young. Religion yielding to commerce and diplomacy, foreigners were plentiful, be they suave Muslim Syrians, boorish Catholic Normans, or from lands farther and stranger yet. Cadoc was content to vanish into the human flood.

At the Forum of Theodosius he crossed over to its northern corner, ignoring the sellers who cried their wares and the beggars who cried their need. Where the Aqueduct of Valens overlooked the roof-decked hollow it spanned, he paused for a moment’s breath. The view swept before him, down to rampart and battlements, the Gate of the Drungarii, the Golden Horn full of its own farings, and across those waters hills green with growth, white with the houses of Pera and Galata. Gulls yonder made a living snowstorm. You can tell a rich harbor by its gulls, thought Cadoc. How much longer will this many fly and mew here?

He thrust sadness from him and continued north, downhill, until he found the house he wanted. Outwardly it was an unpretentious three-story building, hemmed in by its neighbors, the facade rosy-plastered. But that was ample for one woman, her servants, and the revelries over which she presided.

A bronze knocker was made in the form of a scallop shell. Cadoc’s heart skipped a step. Had she recalled that this Western Christian emblem of a pilgrim once belonged to Ashtoreth? The fingers with which he rattled it were damp.

The door opened and he confronted a huge black man in Asian-like shirt and trousers—an entire male, likelier hireling than slave, well able to remove anyone whom his employer found objectionable. “Christ be with you, Kyrie. May I ask what is your desire?”

“My names is Cadoc ap Rhys. The lady Athenais awaits me.” The visitor handed over a piece of parchment bearing the identification, given him when he paid the price to her broker. That woman had had to decide first that he was suitably refined, and still she had told him no time was available for a week. Cadoc slipped the doorman a golden bezant—a little extravagant, perhaps, but impressiveness might help his chances.

It certainly got him deference. In a twittering cloud of pretty girls and two eunuchs he passed through an anteroom richly furnished, its walls ornamented with discreetly erotic scenes, up a grand staircase to the outer chamber of a suite. This was hung in red velvet above a floral Oriental carpet. Chairs flanked a table of inlaid ebony whereon stood a flagon of wine, figured glass goblets, plates of cakes, dates, oranges. Light fell dim through small windows, but candles burned in multiple holders. Sweetness wafted from a golden censer. A lark dwelt in a silver cage. Here Athenais was.

She put aside the harp she had been strumming. “Welcome, Kyrie Cadoc from afar.” Her voice was low, scarcely less musical than the strings had been—carefully trained. “Twice welcome, bearing news of marvels, like a fresh breeze.”

He bowed. “My lady is too gracious to a poor wanderer.”

Meanwhile, keenly as if she were an enemy, he assessed her. She sat on a couch, displaying herself against its white-and-gold back, in a gown that enhanced rather than revealed. Her jewelry was a bracelet, a pendant, and three rings, small but exquisite. It was her person, not her wealth, and her spirit more than her person, that she had the intelligence to emphasize. Her figure was superb in a voluptuous Eastern fashion, but he judged that suppleness and strength underlay it. Her face he would simply have called handsome: broad, straight-nosed, full-lipped, eyes hazel beneath arching brows, blue-black hair piled thick around the tawny complexion. It was not looks that had brought her to this house, it was knowledge, skill, perception, the harvest of— how long an experience?

Her laugh chimed. “No poor man enters here! Come, be seated, take refreshment. Let us get to know each other.”

She never rushed to the bedroom, he had heard, unless a patron insisted, and such a one was seldom allowed back. Conversation and flirtation beforehand were part of a delight that was said to have a climax unrivalled.

“Marvels have I seen,” Cadoc declared, “but the finest of them today.” He let a servant remove his upper garment and sat down beside her. A girl knelt to fill their glasses. At a tiny gesture from Athenais, all attendants bowed out.

She gave him a subtle flutter of lashes. “Certain men of Britannia are more polished than news of it led me to expect,” she murmured. “Have you come directly from there?” He observed the sharpness of the demure glance and knew she was taking his measure. If he wanted a woman who had more in her head than a mouth, that was what she would provide.

Therefore—

His pulse stammered. The self-control of centuries underlay the calm wherewith he regarded her, took a sip of the estimable wine, and smiled. “No,” he said, “I have not been in Britannia, or England and Wales as they call it nowadays, for a rather long time. But then, though I told your ancilla that is my country when she asked, I am not really a native of it. Or of anywhere else, any longer. On my last visit here I heard rumors about you. They caused me to return as soon as possible.”

She half shaped a reply, aborted it, and sat cat-watchful, too wise to exclaim, “Flatterer!”

He calculated his grin. “I daresay your ... callers ... number some with various peculiarities. You gratify them or not according to your inclination. It must have been a cruel struggle to win this independence. Well, then, will you indulge my whim? It is perfectly harmless. I only wish to talk for a short span. I would like to tell you a story. You may find it amusing. That is all. May I?”

She failed to quite hide her tautness. “I have heard many stories, Kyrie. Do continue.”

He leaned back and let the words flow easily while he looked before him, observing her from the corner of an eye. “Call it the kind of yarn that sailors spin during calm watches or in taverns ashore. It concerns a mariner, though afterward he did numerous different things. He thought himself an ordinary man of his people. So did everybody else. But bit by bit, year by year, they noticed something very odd about him. He never fell sick and he never grew old. His wife aged and finally died, his children turned gray and then white-haired, their children begot and raised children and likewise fell prey to time, but everything in this man since the third decade of his life stayed changeless. Was that not remarkable?”

He had her, he saw, and exulted. Her gaze was utterly intent.

“At first it seemed he might be blessed of the gods. Yet he showed no other special powers, nor did he do any special deeds. Though he made costly sacrifices and later, approaching despair, consulted costly magicians, to him came no revelation, nor any solace when those he loved went down into death. Meanwhile the slow growth of awe among the people had, with equal slowness, become envy, then fear, then hatred. What had he done to be thus condemned, or what had he sold to be thus spared? What was he, sorcerer, demon, walking corpse, what? He barely evaded attempts on his life. Finally the authorities moved to investigate him and he fled, for he suspected they would question him under torture and put him to death. He knew he could be wounded, although he recovered fast, and felt sure that the worst injuries would prove as fatal to him as to anybody else. Despite his loneliness, he kept a young man’s desire for life and the savoring of it.

“For hundreds and hundreds of years he was a rover on the face of the earth. Often he let his yearnings overcome him and settled down somewhere, married, raised a family, lived as mortals do. But always he must lose them, and after a single common lifetime disappear. Between whiles, which was mostly, he plied trades where a man can come and go little remarked. His old seamanship was among these, and it took him widely across the world. Ever he sought for more tike himself. Was he unique in the whole creation? Or was his kind simply very rare? Those whom misfortune or malice did not destroy early on, they doubtless learned to stay hidden as he had learned. But if this be the case, how was he to find them, or they him?

“And if his was a hard and precarious lot, how much worse must it be for a woman? What could she do? Surely none but the strongest and cleverest survived. How might they?

“Does that conundrum interest my lady?”

He drank of his wine, for whatever tranquility might lie within it. She stared beyond him. Silence lengthened.

At last she drew breath, brought her look back to engage his, and said slowly, “That is a curious tale indeed, Kyrie Cadoc.”

“A tale only, of course, a fantasy for your amusement. I do not care to be locked up as a madman.”

“I understand.” A smile ghosted across her countenance. “Pray continue. Did this undying man ever come upon any others?”

“That remains to be told, my lady.”

She nodded. “I see. But say more about him. He’s still a shadow to me. Where was he born, and when?”

“Let us imagine it was in ancient Tyre. He was a boy when King Hiram aided King Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem.”

She gasped. “Oh, long ago!”

“About two thousand years, I believe. He lost count, and later when he tried to consult the records they were fragmentary and in disagreement. No matter.”

“Did he meet the Savior?” she whispered.

He sighed and shook his head. “No, he was elsewhere at that time. He did see many gods come and go. And kings, nations, histories. Perforce he lived among them, under names of their kind, while they endured and until they perished. Names he lost track of, like years. He was Hanno and Ithobaal and Snefru and Phaon and Shlomo and Rashid and Gobor and Flavius Lugo and, oh, more than he can remember.”

She sat straight, as if ready to spring, whether from him or at him. Low in her throat, she asked, “Might Cadoc be among those names?”

He kept seated, leaned back, but eyes now full upon hers. “It might,” he answered, “even as a lady might have called herself Zoe, and before that Eudoxia, and before that— names which are perhaps still discoverable.”

A shudder passed through her. “What do you want of me?”

He set his glass down, most carefully, smiled, spread his hands, palms up, and told her in his softest voice, “Whatever you choose to give. It may be nothing. How can I compel you, supposing that were my desire, which it is not? If you dislike harmless lunatics, you need never see or hear from me again.”

“What ... are you ... prepared to offer?”

“Shared and lasting faith. Help, counsel, protection, an end of loneliness. I’ve learned a good deal about surviving, and manage to prosper most of the time, and have my refuges and my hoards against the evil days. At the moment I command modest wealth. More important, I stay true to my friends and would rather be a woman’s lover than her overlord. Who knows but what the children of two immortals will themselves prove deathless?”

She studied him a while. “But you always hold something back, don’t you?”

“A Phoenician habit, which a rootless life has strengthened. I could unlearn it.”

“It was never my way,” she breathed, and came to him.


2

<p>2</p>

They lounged against pillows at the headboard of the huge bed. Talk grew between them like a blossoming plant in spring. Now and then a hand stroked across flesh gone cool again, but those were gentle caresses. A languor possessed them, as if part of the lingering odors of incense and love. Their minds roused first. The words were calm, the tone tender.

“Four hundred years ago I was Aliyat in Palmyra,” she said. “And you, in your ancient Phoenicia?”

“My birthname was Hanno,” he answered. “I used it the oftenest, afterward, till it died out of every language.”

“What adventures you must have had.”

“And you.”

She winced. “I would rather not speak of that.”

“Are you ashamed?” He laid a finger under her chin and brought her face around toward his. “I would not be,” he said gravely. “I am not. We have survived, you and I, by whatever means were necessary. That’s now behind us. Let it drift into darkness with the wreckage of Babylon. We belong to our future.”

“You ... do not ... find me sinful?”

He laughed a bit. “I suspect that if we both grew quite candid about our pasts, you’d be the one shocked.”

“Nor do you fear God’s curse?”

“I have learned much in two thousand years, but nothing about any gods, except that they too arise, change, age, and die. Whatever there is beyond the universe, if anything, I doubt it concerns itself with us.”

Tears trembled on her lashes. “You are strong. You are kind.” She nestled close. “Tell me of yourself.”

“That would take a while. I’d grow thirsty.”

She reached for a bell on an end table and rang it. “That we can do something about,” she said with a flash of smile. “You’re right, however. We have the whole future wherein to explore our past. Tell me first of Cadoc. I do need to understand him, that we may lay our plans.”

“Well, it began when Old Rome departed from Britannia— No, wait, I forgot, in all this joy. First I should tell you about Rufus.”

A maidservant entered. She dipped her glance, otherwise seemed unperturbed by the two naked bodies. Athenais ordered the wine and refreshments brought hi from the anteroom. While this was done, Cadoc marshalled his thoughts. When they were alone, he described his companion.

“Poor Rufus,” she sighed. “How envious he will be.”

“Oh, I expect not,” Cadoc replied. “He’s grown used to being my subordinate. In return, I do his thinking for him. Give him adequate food, drink, and swiving, and he’s content.”

“Then he has been no balm for your aloneness,” she said softly.

“Not much. But I owe my life to him, several times over, and therefore this day’s magnificence.”

“Glib scoundrel.” She kissed him. He buried his visage in her fragrant hair until she guided him to a glassful, a sweet cake, and sober discourse.

“The western Britons preserved some vestige of civilization. Yes, I frequently thought of making my way here, where I knew the Empire continued. But for a long time, the likelihood of arriving with any money, or arriving at all, was slight. Meanwhile life among the Britons was not too bad. I had come to know them. It was easy to move among identities and to stay reasonably well-off. I could wait for the English, the Franks, the Northmen to acquire milder ways, for civilization to be reborn throughout Europe. After that, as I’ve mentioned, the Rus trade route let me make a good living and meet a variety of people, both along it and down here in the Mediterranean world. You understand that that seemed my only hope of finding anyone else like me. Surely you’ve cherished the same hope, Athenais—Al-iyat.”

He could barely hear: “Until it grew too painful.”

He kissed her cheek, and she brought her lips to his, and presently she crooned, “It has ended. You have found me. I keep striving to believe that this is real.”

“It is, and we’ll keep it so.”

With that practicality which bespoke her intelligence, she asked, “What do you propose we do?”

“Well,” he said, “it was about time anyhow for me to finish with Cadoc. He’s been in sight longer than he should have been; some old acquaintances must be starting to wonder. Besides, since the Norman duke made himself king of England, more and more young English, ill content, have been coming south to join the Emperor’s Varangian Guard. Those who happened to hear of Cadoc would know how unlikely it is that a Welshman be a trader of his sort.

“Worse, when the Rus lord Yaroslav died his realm was divided among his sons, and they are now falling out with each other. The barbarian plainsmen take advantage. The routes grow dangerous. Fresh Rus attacks on Constantinople are quite conceivable, and could hurt the trade even more. I well remember what difficulties previous forays caused.

“So, let Athenais and Cadoc retire from their businesses, move away, and drop out of touch with everybody they knew. First, naturally, Aliyat and Hanno will have liquidated their possessions.”

She frowned. “You talk as if you meant to leave Constantinople. Must we? It is the queen of the world.”

“It will not remain that,” he told her grimly.

She gave him a startled glance.

“Think,” he said. “The Normans have taken the last Imperial outpost in Italy. The Saracens hold everything south of there from Spain through Syria. They have not been totally hostile of late. However—the Imperial defeat at Manzikert last year was more than a military disaster that led to an abrupt change of Emperors. The Turks had already taken Armenia from you, remember. Now Anatolia lies open to them. It will be touch and go whether the Empire can hold the Ionian littoral against them. Meanwhile the Balkan provinces chafe and the Normans venture east. Here at home, commerce shrinks, poverty and unrest grow, corruption at court vies for mastery with incompetence. Oh, I daresay the catastrophe will be a while in coming full upon New Rome. But let us get out well ahead of it.”

“Where? Is any place safe and, and decent?”

“Well, certain of the Muslim capitals are brilliant. Far eastward, I hear, an emperor reigns over a realm vast, peaceful, and glorious. But those are alien folk; the ways to them are long and beset. Western Europe would be easier, but it’s still turbulent and backward. Also, since the churches openly split apart, life there has been hard for people from Orthodox countries. We’d have to make a show of conversion to Catholicism, and we’d best avoid conspicuousness like that. No, on the whole I’d say we should stay within the Roman Empire for another century or two. In Greece, nobody knows us.”

“Greece? Hasn’t it gone barbarian?”

“Not quite. There’s a heavy population of Slavs in the north and Vlachs in Thessaly, while the Normans are plaguing the Aegean Sea. But such cities as Thebes and Corinth remain well off, well defended. A beautiful country, full of memories. We can be happy there.”

Cadoc raised his brows. “But haven’t you given thought to this yourself?” he went on. “You could only have continued as you are for another ten years at best. Then you’d have had to withdraw, before men noticed that you don’t grow old. And as much in the public eye as you’ve been, you could scarcely stay on in these parts.”

“True.” Athenais smiled. “I meant to announce I’d had a change of heart, repented my wickedness, and would retire afar to a life of poverty, prayer, and good works. I’ve already made arrangements for the quick, quiet transport of my hoard—against any sudden need to escape. After all, that has been my life, to drop from one place and start afresh in another.”

He grimaced. “Always like this?”

“Need forces me,” she answered sadly. “I’m not fit by nature to be a nun, a she-hermit, any such unworldly being. I often call myself a well-to-do widow, but at last the money is spent, unless some upheaval—war, sack, plague, whatever—brings ruin first. A woman cannot very well invest her money tike a man. Whatever pulls me down, usually I must begin again among the lowliest and ... work and save and connive to become better off.”

His smile was rueful. “Not unlike my life.”

“A man has more choices.” She paused. “I do study things beforehand. I agree, on balance Corinth will be best for us.”

“What?” he exclaimed, sitting straight in his astonishment. “You let me rattle on and on about what you perfectly well knew?”

“Men must show forth their cleverness.”

Cadoc whooped laughter. “Superb! A girt who can lead me, me, by the nose like that is the girl I can stay with forever.”

He sobered: “But now we’ll make the move as soon as may be. At once, if I had my wish. Out of this ... filth, to the first true home we’ve either of us had since—”

She laid fingers across his lips. “Hush, beloved,” she said low. “If only that could be. But we can’t simply disappear.”

“Why not?”

She sighed. “It would rouse too much heed. A search for me, at least. There are men, highly placed men, who care for me, who’d be afraid I’d met with foul play. If then we were tracked down— No.” A small fist clenched. “We must go on with our pretenses. For another month, perhaps, while I prepare the ground with talk of, oh, making a pilgrimage, something like that.”

A little while passed before he could say, “Well, a month, set against centuries.”

“For me, the longest month I ever knew. But we’ll see each other during it, often, won’t we? Say we will!”

“Of course.”

“I will hate making you pay, but you can see I must. Never mind, the money will be ours once we are free.”

“Hm, we do need to lay plans, make arrangements.”

“Let that wait till next time. This while we have today is so short. Then I must make ready for the next man.”

He bit his lip. “You cannot tell him you’ve fallen sick?”

“I’d best not. He’s among the most important of them all; his good will can spell the difference between life and death. Bardas Manasses, a manglabites on the staff of the Arch-estrategos.”

“Yes, someone that high in the military, yes, I understand.”

“Oh, my dearest, inwardly you bleed.” Athenais embraced him. “Stop. Forget everything but the two of us. We still have an hour in Paradise.”

She was wholly as knowing, as endlessly various and arousing, as men said.


3

<p>3</p>

A miniature procession crossed the bridge over the Horn and approached the Blachernae Gate. They were four Rusi, two Northmen, and a couple in the lead who were neither. The Rusi carried a chest that was plainly heavy, suspended on two poles. The Northmen were off-duty members of the Varangian Guard, helmed and mailed, axes on their shoulders. Though it was clear that they were earning some extra pay by shepherding a valuable freight, it was also clear that this was with official permission, and the sentries waved the party through.

They went on by streets under the city wall. Heights soared above them to battlements and heaven. The morning was yet young and shadow lay deep, almost chill after the brightness on the water. Mansions of the wealthy fell behind and the men entered the humbler, busier Phanar quarter.

“This be muckwit,” grumbled Rufus in Latin. “You’ve even sold your ship, haven’t you? At a loss, I’ll bet, so fast -you got rid of everything.”

“Turned it into gold, gems, portable wealth,” Cadoc corrected merrily. He used the same language. While he had no reason to distrust their escort, caution was alloyed with his spirit. “We’re leaving in another pair of weeks, or had you forgotten?”

“Meanwhile, though—”

“Meanwhile it’ll be stored safely, secretly, where we can claim it at any hour of the day or night and no beforehand notice. You’ve been too much sulking when you weren’t off bousing, old fellow. Have you never listened to me? Aliyat arranged this.”

“What’d she tell their high and mightinesses, to make the way so smooth for us?”

Cadoc grinned. “That I let slip to her what a glorious deal I stand to make with certain other high and mightinesses—a deal which these men can have a slice of if they help me. Women, too, can learn how to cope with the world.”

Rufus grunted.

The building in which Petros Simonides, jeweler, lived and had his shop was unprepossessing. However, Cadoc had long had some knowledge of what trade went through it, besides the owner’s overt business. Several members of the Imperial court found it sufficiently useful that the authorities turned a blind eye. Petros received his visitors jovially. A pair of toughs whom he called nephews, though they resembled him not in the least, helped bring the chest to the cellar and stow it behind a false panel. Money passed. Cadoc declined hospitality on the grounds of haste and led his own followers back to the street.

“Well, Arnulf, Sviatopolk, all of you, my thanks,” he said. “You may go where you like now. You will remember your orders about keeping silence. That need not keep you from drinking my health and fortune.” He dispensed a second purseful. The sailors and soldiers departed gleefully.

“You didn’t think Petros’ food and wine be good?” asked Rufus.

“They doubtless are,” said Cadoc, “but I really have need to hurry. Athenais keeps this whole afternoon for me, and first I want to get myself well prepared at the baths.”

“Huh! Like this whole while since you met her. Never seen you lovesick before. You could as well be fifteen.”

“I feel reborn,” said Cadoc softly. His vision dwelt on distances beyond the bustle and narrowness around. “You will too, when we’ve found you your true wife.”

“With my luck, she’ll be a sow.”

Cadoc laughed, clapped Rufus on the back, and slipped a bezant into his single palm. “Go drown that gloom of yours. Or better yet, work it off with a lively wench.”

“Thanks.” Rufus showed no change of mood. “You do toss money these days.”

“A strange thing about pure joy,” Cadoc murmured. “One wants to share it.”

He sauntered off, whistling. Rufus stood with hunched shoulders and stared after him.


4

<p>4</p>

Stars and a gibbous moon gave light enough. The streets, gone mostly quiet, were swept clean. Occasionally a patrol marched by, lantern-glow shimmering on metal, embodiment of that power which held the city at peace. A man could walk easy.

Cadoc drank deep of the night air. Heat had yielded to mildness, and smoke, dust, stenches, pungencies lain down to rest. As he neared the Kontoskalion, he caught a ghost of tar on the breeze, and smiled. How smells could rouse memories. A galley lay at the Egyptian Harbor of Sor, weathered and salt-streaked by fabulous seas, and his father towered over him, holding his hand. ... He raised that same hand to his nostrils. The hair on it tickled his lip. A scent like jasmine, Aliyat’s perfume, and was there still some of her own sweetness? That had been such a long farewell kiss.

And so happily weary. He chuckled. When he arrived, she told him a message had come from the great Bardas Manasses, he was unable to visit her this evening as planned, she and her dearest had that added time as a free gift of Aphrodite. “I have discovered what immortal strength means,” she purred at the last, close against his breast.

He yawned. Sleep would be very welcome. If only it were at her side— But her servants already saw how she favored this foreigner. Best not give them further cause for wonderment. Gossip might reach the wrong ears.

Soon, though, soon!

Abruptly darkness deepened. He had turned into a lesser street near the harbor and his lodging. Brick walls hulked on either side, leaving just a strip of sky overhead. He slowed, careful lest he stumble on something. Silence had also grown thick. Were those footfalls behind him? It crossed his mind that he had several times glimpsed the same figure hi a hooded cloak. Bound the same way by mere chance?

Light gleamed, a lantern uncovered in an alley as he passed it. For an instant he was dazzled. “That’s him!” struck through. Three men came out of the gut into the street. A sword slipped free.

Cadoc sprang backward. The men deployed, right, left, in front. They had him boxed, up against the opposite wall.

His knife jumped forth. Two of the attackers were armed like him. He wasted no breath in protest or scream for help. If he couldn’t save himself, he’d be dead in minutes. His left hand ripped his mantle loose from its brooch.

The swordsman swung back to strike. The lantern, set down at the alley mouth, made him a featureless piece of night, but Cadoc saw light ripple along his hip. He was mail-clad. The steel whirred. Cadoc swayed aside. He snapped the mantle at the unseen face. It drew a curse and tangled the weapon. Cadoc leaped right. He hoped to dodge past the foeman there. That wight was too skillful. His bulk stepped in the way. His dagger thrust. Cadoc would have taken it in the belly, had he possessed less than immortal vigor. He parried with his own knife and retreated.

Bricks gritted against his shoulderblades. He was trapped anyhow. He showed teeth and feinted, side to side. The daggennen prowled beyond his reach. The swordsman prepared to hew afresh.

Sandals thudded on stones. Light glimmered on a coppery beard. Rufus’ hook caught the swordsman’s throat. It went in. Rufus worked it savagely. The man dropped his blade, clawed at the shaft, went to his knees. He croaked through the blood.

Cadoc scrambled, snatched up the sword, bounced back erect. He was no grand master of this weapon, but he had tried to acquire every fighting art that the centuries brought. A knifeman scuttered clear. Cadoc whirled in time to smite the second, who was nearly at his back. The blade struck an arm. Through the heavy impact, Cadoc thought he felt bone give. The man shrieked, stumbled, and fled.

Snarling, Rufus pulled his hook out and went for the first slabber. That one vanished too, down the street and into night. Rufus halted. He turned about. “You hurt?” he panted.

“No.” Cadoc was as breathless. His heart banged. Yet his mind had gone wholly cold and clear, like ice afloat in the sea off Thule. He glanced at the mailed man, who writhed and moaned and bubbled blood. “Let’s go ... before somebody ... comes.” He discarded the telltale sword.

“To the inn?”

“No.” Cadoc trotted away. His wind returned to him, his pulse slowed. “They knew me. Therefore they knew where to wait and must know where I’m staying. Whoever sent them will want to try again.”

“I guessed it might be a good idea to tail after and keep an eye on you. That be a pile o’ treasure you left with that Phanariot son of a pig.”

“I shouldn’t pride myself on my wits,” said Cadoc bleakly. “You showed a banelful more than I did.”

“Haw, you be in love. Worse’n drunk. Where should we go? I s’pose the main streets be safe. Maybe we can wake ‘em at another inn. I’ve still got money on me, if you don’t.”

Cadoc shook his head. They had emerged on a thoroughfare, bare and dim under the moon. “No. We’ll slink about till sunrise, then mingle with people bound out of the city. Those can’t have been common footpads, or even killers for hire. Armor, sword—at least one of them was an Imperial soldier.”


5

<p>5</p>

Vsevolod the Fat, who stood high among the Rus merchants, owned a house in St. Mamo. It was small, since he only used it when he was at Constantinople, but furnished with barbaric opulence and, during his stays, a wanton or two. The servants were young kinsmen of his, whose loyalty could be relied on, and upstairs was a room whose existence was not obvious.

He entered it near the close of day. Gray-shot, his beard fell to the paunch that swelled his embroidered robe. A fist clutched a jug. “I brought wine,” he greeted. “Cheap stuff, but plenty. You will want plenty, and not care how fine it is. Here.” He shoved it toward Cadoc.

The latter rose, paying it no heed. Rufus took it instead and upended it over his mouth. He had snored for hours, while Cadoc prowled to and fro between the barren walls or stared out a window at the Golden Horn and the many-domed city beyond.

“What have you found, Vsevolod Izyaslavev?” Cadoc asked tonelessly, in the same Russian.

The merchant plumped his bottom down on the bed, which creaked. “Bad news,” he rumbled. “I went to the shop of Petros Simonides and met guards posted. It cost me to get an honest answer out of them, and they don’t know anything anyhow. But he is arrested for interrogation, they said.” A sigh like a steppe wind. “If that is true, if they don’t let him off, there goes the best smuggling outlet I ever had. Ah, merciful saints, help a poor old man earn the bread for his little wife and darling children!”

“What about me?”

“You understand, Cadoc Rhysev? I dared not push too hard. I am not young like you. Courage has leaked out with’ youth and strength. Remember now the Lord, in these high days of your life, before age and woe come on you too. But I did talk with a captain in the city guard that I know. Yes, it is as you feared, they want you. He does not know just why, but spoke of a brawl near your rooming place and a man killed. Which I knew already, from you.”

“I thought as much,” said Cadoc. “Thank you.”

Rufus lowered the jug. “What do we do?” he grated.

“Best you stay here, where you have sought refuge,”

Vsevolod replied. “Before long I go home to Chernigov, you know. You can ride with me. The Greeks shall not know you in my ship. Maybe I disguise you as a beautiful Circassian slave girl, Rufus, ha?” He guffawed.

“We don’t have the cost of our passage,” Cadoc said.

“No matter. You are my friend, my brother in Christ. I trust you to pay me back later. Thirty percent interest, agreed? And you tell me more about how you got into this trouble. That might forewarn me.”

Cadoc nodded. “Once we’re outbound, I will.”

“Good.” Vsevolod’s eyes flickered between his guests. “I thought we would have a jolly time tonight, get drunk, but you are not in the mood. Yes, a terrible sorrow, all that money gone. I will have your supper sent up. We shall meet tomorrow. God cheer your sleep.” He rose and lumbered out. The panel slid shut behind him.

Constantinople was a blue shadow above golden-shining water, against golden-red sunset. Dusk filled the room in St. Mamo like smoke. Cadoc raised the wine jug, swallowed, set it down again.

“You really going to tell him?” wondered Rufus.

“Oh, no. Not the truth.” Now they spoke Latin. “I’ll invent a story that he’ll believe and that will do him no harm. Something about an official who decided to get rid of me and seize my gold rather than wait for his share of the profit.”

“The swine could’ve been jealous o’ you, too,” Rufus suggested. “Vsevolod might know you was seeing that Athenais.”

“I have to make up a story in any case.” Cadoc’s voice cracked. “I can’t understand what happened, myself.”

“Hunh? Why, plain’s a wart on your thumper. The bitch put one o’ her customers onto it. Shut your mouth for aye— they’d’ve gone after me next—and diwy your money. Maybe she’s got a hold on a fellow high in the gover’ment, like something she knows about him. Or maybe he was just glad to oblige her and take his share. We was lucky and lived, but she’s won. The hunt is out for us. If we want to stay alive, we won’t come back for twenty-thirty years.” Rufus took the wine and glugged. “Forget her.”

Cadoc’s fist struck the wall. Plaster cracked and fell. “How could she? How?”

“Ah, ‘twas easy. You wove the snare for her.” Rufus patted Cadoc’s shoulder. “Don’t feel bad. You’ll swindle yourself another chest o’ gold inside a ge-ne-ration.”

“Why?” Cadoc leaned against the wall, face buried in arm.

Rufus shrugged. “A whore be a whore.”

“No, but she—immortal—I offered her—“ Cadoc could not go on.

Rufus’ mouth drew tight, invisibly in the gloom. “You ought to could see. You can think better’n me when you put your mind to it. How long’s she been what she be? Four hundred years, you said? Well, now, that be a lot o’ men. A thousand a year? Maybe less these days, but likely more than that earlier.”

“She told me she, she takes as ... much freedom from the life ... as she can.”

“Shows you how fond she be of it. You know the sort o’ things a lot o’ fellows want from a whore. And all the times a girl gets roughed up, or robbed, or kicked out, or knocked up and left to handle that however she can—leave it on a trash heap, maybe? Four hundred years, Lugo. How d’you s’pose she feels about men? And she’d never’ve got to watch you growing old.”


VIII. Lady in Waiting

<p>VIII. Lady in Waiting</p>

Rain fell throughout the day. It was very light, soundless, and lost itself in the mists that smoked over the ground; but it closed off the world like sleep. From the verandah Okura looked across a garden whose stones and dwarf cypresses had gone dim. Water dripped off the shingles above her and filmed the whitewash of the enclosure wall. There sight ended. Though the broad south gate stood open, she barely glimpsed the avenue outside, a puddle, a leafless cherry tree. Fog had taken away the minor palace beyond. All Heian-kyo might never have been.

She shivered and .turned back toward her quarters. The two or three servants whom she passed by were bulky in wadded garments. Her overlapping kimonos kept some warmth of their own and the carefully matched winter colors preserved a forlorn elegance. Breath drifted ghostly. When she entered the mansion, twilight enfolded her. It was as if cold did also. Shutters and blinds could hold off wind, but dankness seeped through and braziers availed little.

Yet comfort of a sort awaited her. Masamichi had been kind enough to allot her a sleeping platform to herself in the west pavilion. Between the sliding screens that marked the room off, a pair of chests and a go table hunched on the floor. She had a fleeting fancy that they wished they could creep under the thick tatami that covered the platform. No one else was about, so its curtains were drawn back. By the flicker of a few tapers, futon and cushions lay as black lumps.

She opened the cupboard where her koto stood. It was among the heirlooms not yet removed; its name was Cuckoo Song. How right for such a day as this, she thought: the bird that is the inconstant lover, that can bear word between the living and the dead, that embodies the ineluctable passage of time. She had in mind a melody well-liked when she was a girl. Afterward she had sometimes played it for her men— those two among her lovers whom she truly cared for— But no, she remembered that the instrument was now tuned for a winter mode.

A maid came into the section, approached, bowed, and piped, “A messenger has arrived from the noble Lord Yasuhira, my lady.” Her manner took it for granted. The liaison between Chikuzen no Okura, lady in waiting in the household of Ex-Emperor Tsuchimikado, and Nakahari no Yasuhira, until lately a Minor Counselor to self-re-proclaimed Emperor Go-Toba, went back many years. Her own name for him was Mi-yuki, Deep Snow, because that had been his first excuse for staying the night with her.

“Bring him.” Okura’s pulse quivered.

The maid left. She returned as the courier showed himself on the verandah. With the light from outside at his back, Okura could not only see through the translucent blind that he was a boy, she made out that his brocade coat was dry, his white trousers hardly sullied. Besides wearing a straw cape, he must have gone on horseback. The least of smiles touched her lips. Deep Snow would preserve appearances until the end.

Her smile died. The end was upon them both.

With proper ritual, the messenger reached that which he carried under the blind to the maid and knelt, waiting for the reply. The maid brought the letter to Okura and went out. Okura released and unrolled it. Yasuhira had used a pale green paper, tied to a willow switch. His calligraphy was less fine than erstwhile; he had grown farsighted.

“With dismay I learn that you have lost your position at court. I hoped the Ex-Emperor’s consort would shelter you from the wrath that has fallen on your kinsman Chikuzen no Masamichi. What shall become of you, deprived of his protection when I too am made well-nigh helpless? This is a sorrow such as only Tu Fu could express. To my own poor attempt I add the wish that we may at least meet again soon.

“In the waning year My sleeves, which lay over yours, Are wet as the earth, Though the rain on them is salt From a sea of grief for you.”

His poetry was indeed not to be named with any line of the great Chinese master, Okura thought. Nevertheless a desire for his presence struck with astonishing suddenness. She wondered why. Whatever ardor they once felt had long since cooled to friendship; she could not recall just when they had last shared a mattress.

Well, seeing one another might strengthen them by the knowledge that each was not uniquely alone in misfortune. True, she had heard that the new military governor was confiscating thousands of estates from families who had supported the Imperial cause; but that was a mere number, as unreal as the inner life of a peasant or laborer or dog. True, this house would be taken over by a follower of the Hojo clan; but to her it had simply meant lodging given her out of a sense of duty toward common ancestors. Her dismissal was the sword-cut she actually felt. It lopped her from her world.

Still, she would shortly have left in any case. Surely Yasuhira’s isolation was worse. Let them exchange what solace they could.

One must cling to form, even in answering what she recognized as an appeal. Okura knelt silent, thinking, composing, deciding, before she called for a servant. “I will have a sprig of plum,” she instructed. That should complement her reply more subtly than cherry. From her writing materials she selected a sheet colored pearl-gray. By the tune she had the ink mixed, her words stood clear before her. They were only another poem.

“Blossoms grew fragrant, Then faded and blew away, Leaving bitter fruit. It fell, and on bare branches Twig calls to twig through the wind.”

He would understand, and come.

She prepared the package with the artistry it deserved and gave it to a maid to bring to the courier. He would fare swiftly across the city, but his master’s ox-drawn carriage, the only suitable conveyance for a nobleman, would take the better part of an hour. Okura had time to prepare herself.

Holding a taper close, she examined her face in a mirror. It had never been beautifu too thin, cheekbones too strong, eyes too wide, mouth too large. However, it was properly powdered, the brows well plucked, the cosmetic brows painted just sufficiently far up the forehead, the teeth duly blackened. Her figure also left much to be desired, more bosom and less hip than should be there. It did carry its clothing well; the silks flowed gracefully when she walked with the correct gait. Her hair redeemed many faults, a jet cataract trailing on the floor.

Thereafter she ordered rice wine and cakes made ready. Her karma and Yasuhira’s could not be altogether bad, for she was alone with a few of the servants precisely now. Mas-amichi had taken his wife, two concubines, and children to settle in with a friend who offered them temporary shelter. Their private possessions were going along for storage. He had said Okura and hers could come too, but was noticeably relieved when she told him she had her own plans for the future. Well-bred, the family had never said anything unseemly about the men who called on her and sometimes spent the night. Nonetheless, the fact that somebody who mattered was bound to overhear things would have inhibited conversation on this day when, of all days, it must be either frank or useless.

With the clepsydra taken away and the sun obscured, it was impossible to tell time. Okura guessed that Yasuhira’s arrival occurred about midday, the Hour of the Horse. Because of the servants, she had one of them place her screen of state conveniently, and upon hearing his footsteps on the verandah she knelt behind it. Also for his sake, she thought wryly. Their world falling to pieces around them, the old proprieties mattered perhaps more than ever.

He and she spent a while in formalities and small talk. Thereupon she broke convention and pushed the screen aside. Once that would have implied lovemaking to come. Today a poetic reference or two among the banalities had made it clear that such was the intent of neither. They only wished to speak freely.

The maids Kodayu and Ukon might well be more taken aback by this than by any union of bodies so daylit blatant. They preserved blank deference and brought in the refreshment. Good girls, Okura thought as they went away. What would become of them? Slightly surprised, she found herself wishing the new master would keep the staff on and treat them gently. She feared he would not, being the kind of creature he was.

She and her visitor settled onto the floor. While Yasuhira courteously contemplated the floral pattern on his wine cup, she thought how he seemed to have aged overnight. He went gray years ago, but moon face, slit eyes, bud of a mouth, tiny tuft of beard bad remained as handsome as in his youth. Many a lady sighed and compared him to Genji, the Shining Prince of Murasaki’s two-hundred-year-old story. Today rain had streaked the powder and blurred the rouge, revealing darkened lower lids, blotchy sallowness, deepened lines, and his shoulders were slumped.

He had not lost the courtier grace with which, in due course, he sipped. “Ah,” he murmured, “that is most welcome, Asagao.”—Morning Glory, the name for her that he used in private. “Savor, aroma, and warmth. ‘Resplendent light—’ ”

She was compelled to cap the literary allusion by saying, “But not, I fear, ‘everlasting fortune,’” and whetted that a little by adding, “As for Morning Glory, at my age might not Pine Tree be better?”

He smiled. “So I have kept some of my touch in guiding conversation. Shall we get unpleasant topics out of the way at once? Then we can discourse of former times and their joys.”

“If we have the heart to.” If you do, she meant. I never had any choice but to make myself strong. ‘”I had hoped the Lord Tsuchimikado would retain you.”

“Under these circumstances, dismissal may be less than the worst thing that could happen to me,” she said. He failed to completely hide puzzlement. She explained: “Without a family holding rice land, I would be scarcely more than a beggar, lacking even a place of my own like this to retire to when off duty. The others would despise and soon abuse me.”

“Indeed?”

“Women are as cruel as men, Mi-yuki.”

He nibbled a cake. She realized that was cover for the collecting of his thoughts. At length he said, “I must confess, the knowledge of the situation made thin my expectations for you.”

“Why so?” She knew the answer perfectly well, but also knew that explaining to her would help him.

“It is true that Lord Tsuchimikado stayed at peace during the uprising,” he said, “but if he did not work against the Hojo chieftains, neither did he assist them. Now I daresay he feels a need to curry favor, the more so because they may then make one of his line the next Emperor when our present sovereign dies or abdicates. Ridding himself of every member of any family that was in revolt seems a trivial gesture. Just the same, it is a gesture, and Lord Tokifusa, whom they have set as military governor over Heian-kyo, will take due note of it.”

“I wonder what sin in a past life caused Lord Go-Toba to try to seize back the throne he had quitted,” Okura mused.

“Ah, it was no madness, it was a noble effort that should have succeeded. Remember, his brother, the then Emperor Juntoku, was with him in it, and so were not only families like ours and their followers, but soldiers of the Taira who would fain avenge what the Minamoto did to their fathers; and many a monk also took up arms.”

A bleakness’ passed through Okura. She knew how the monks of Mount Hiei repeatedly descended on this city and terrorized it, not only by threats but by beatings, killings, looting, burning. They came to enforce political decisions they wanted; but were they any better than the outright criminal gangs who effectively ruled over the entire western half of the capital?

“No, it must have been because of our own former sins that we failed,” Yasuhira continued. “How far have we fallen since the golden days! We might have won to an Emperor who truly ruled.”

“What do you mean?” asked Okura, sensing how he needed to express his bitterness.

It erupted: “Why, what has the Emperor been for generations but a doll in the hands of the mighty, enthroned as a child and made to step down and retire into a life of idleness when he reached manhood? And meanwhile the clans have made earth sodden with blood as they fought out who should name the Shogun.” He gulped for air and explicated in the same rush of words: “The Shogun is the military head in Kamakura who is the real master of the Empire. Or who was. Today—today the Hojo have won the clan wars; and their Shogun is himself a boy, another doll who says what their lords want him to say.”

He reined himself in and apologized: “I beg Asagao’s pardon. You must be shocked at my bluntness; and needlessly, for of course a woman cannot understand these things.”

Okura, who had kept her ears open and her mind awake amply long enough to know everything he had told her, replied, “True, they are not for her. What I do understand is that you grieve over what we have lost. Poor Mi-yuki, what shall become of you?”

Somewhat calmed, Yasuhira said, “I was in a better position to bargain for leniency than Masamichi or most others. Thus I have leave to occupy my mansion in Heian-kyo for a short time yet. After I must depart, it will be to a farm in the east, well beyond Ise, that I am allowed to keep. The tenants will support me and my remaining dependents.”

“But in poverty! And so far away, among rude countryfolk. It will be like passing over the edge of the world.”

He nodded. “Often will my tears fall. Yet—“ She could not readily follow his quotation, having had scant opportunity to practice spoken Chinese, but gathered that it was about maintaining a serene spirit in adversity. “I hear there is a view of the sacred mountain Fuji. And I can take some books and my flute with me.”

“Then you are not wholly destroyed. That is one bright dustmote in the dark air.”

“What of you? What has happened to this household?”

“Yesterday came the baron who will take possession here. The worst kind of provincial, face unpowdered and weathered like a peasant’s, hair and beard abristle, uncouth as a monkey and growling a dialect so barbarous that one could barely comprehend him. As for the soldiers in his train, oh, they could almost have been wildfolk of Hokkaido. Yes, knowledge of what I leave behind may temper my longing for Heian-kyo. He gave us a few days to make our preparations.”

Yasuhira hesitated before he said, “Mine will be no fitting existence for a well-born lady. However, if you have nothing eke, come with my party. For the rest of our days we can strive to console each other.”

“I thank you, dear old friend,” she answered mutedly, “but I do have my own road before me.”

He emptied his cup. She refilled it. “Indeed? Let me be glad on your account, not disappointed on mine. Who will take you in?”

“No one. I will seek the temple at Higashiyama—that one, for I have often been there with the Ex-Imperial consort and the chief priest knows me—I will go and take vows.”

She had not expected him to show dismay. He almost dropped his cup. Wine slopped forth to stain his outer robe. “What? Do you mean full vows? Become a nun?”

“I think so.”

“Cut off your hair, your beautiful hair, don coarse black raiment, live— How will you live?”

“The fiercest bandit dares not harm a nun; the poorest hovel will not deny her shelter and some rice for her bowl. I have in mind to go on perpetual pilgrimage, from shrine to shrine, that I may gain merit in whatever years of this life are left me.” Okura smiled. “During those years, perhaps I can call on you from time to time. Then we will remember together.”

He shook his head, bemused. Like most courtiers, he had never traveled far, seldom more than a day’s journey from Heian-kyo. And that had been by carriage—to services that for his kind were occasions more social than religious; to view blossoms in the springtime countryside or the maple leaves of autumn; to admire and make poems about moonlight on Lake Biwa ... “Afoot,” he mumbled. “Roads that wet weather turns into quagmires. Mountains, gorges, raging rivers. Hunger, rain, snow, wind, fiery sun. Ignorant commoners. Beasts. Demons, ghosts. No.” He set down his cup, straightened, firmed his voice. “You shall not. It would be hard for a young man. You, a woman, growing old, you will perish miserably. I won’t have it.”

Rather than remind him that he lacked authority over her, for his concern was touching, she asked gently, “Do I seem feeble?”

He fell silent. His eyes searched, as if to pierce the garments and look at the body that had sometimes lain beneath his. But no, she thought, that would never cross his mind. A decent man, he found nudity disgusting, and in fact they had always kept on at least one layer of clothing.

Finally he murmured, “It is true, it is eerie, the years have scarcely touched you, if at all. You could pass for a woman of twenty. But your age is—what? We have known each other for close to thirty years, and you must have been about twenty when you came to court, so that makes you only a little younger than me. And my strength has faded away.”

You speak aright, she thought. Bit by bit I have seen you holding a book farther from your eyes or blinking at words you do not quite hear; half your teeth are gone; more and more fevers come upon you, coughs, chills; do your bones hurt when you rise in the mornings? I know the signs well, and well I should, as often as I have watched them steal over those I loved.

The impulse had seized her days before, when the bad news broke and she began to think what it meant and what to do. She had curbed it, but it stayed restlessly alive. If she yielded, what harm? She could trust this man. She was unsure whether it would help or hinder him against his sorrow.

Let me be honest with him, she decided. At least it will give him something to think about besides his great loss, in the solitude that awaits him.

“I am not the age you believe, my dear,” she said quietly. “Do you wish the truth? Be warned, at first you may suppose I have gone mad.”

He studied her before replying with the same softness, “I doubt that. There is more within you than you have ever manifested. I was vaguely but surely conscious of it. Perhaps I dared never inquire.”

Then you are wiser than I believed, she thought. Her resolution crystallized. “Let us go outside,” she said. “What I have to tell is for no ears but yours.”

Not troubling about cloaks, they went forth together, onto the verandah, around this pavilion, and along a covered gallery to a kiosk overlooking the pool. Near its placidity rose a man-high stone in whose ruggedness was chiseled the emblem of the clan that had lost this home. Okura halted. “Here is a good spot for me to show you that no evil spirit uses my tongue to speak falsehoods,” she said.

Solemnly, she recited a passage she had chosen from the Lotus Sutra. Yasuhira’s manner was as grave when he told her, “Yes, that suffices me.” He was of the Amidist sect, which held that the Buddha himself watches over humankind.

They stood gazing out at things of chaste beauty. Mist from the rain filled the kiosk and covered hair, clothes, eyelashes with droplets. The cold and the silence were tike presences, whose awareness was remote from them.

“You suppose I am about fifty years old,” she said. “I am more than twice that.”

He caught a breath, looked sharply at her, looked away, and asked with closely held calm, “How can this be?”

“I know not,” she sighed. “I know only that I was born in the reign of Emperor Toba, through whom the Fujiwara clan still ruled the realm so strongly that it lay everywhere at peace. I grew up like any other girl of good birth, save that I was never ill, but once I had become fully a woman, all change in me ceased, and thus it has been ever since.”

“What karma is yours?” he whispered.

“I tell you, I know not. I have studied, prayed, meditated, practiced austerities, but no enlightenment has come. At last I decided my best course was to continue this long life as well as I was able.”

“That must be ... difficult.”

“It is.”

“Why have you not revealed yourself?” The voice trembled. “You must be holy, a saint, a Bodhisattva.”

“I know I am not. I am troubled and unsure and tormented by desire, fear, hope, every fleshly evil. Also, as my jigelessness first came slowly to notice, I have encountered jealousy, spite, and dread. Yet I could never hitherto bring myself to renounce the world and retreat to a life of sacred poverty. So whatever I am, Mi-yuki, I am not holy.”

He pondered. Beyond the garden wall swirled formlessness. Eventually he asked her, “What did you do? What have your years been like?”

“When I was fourteen, an older man—his name no longer matters—sought me out. He being influential, my parents encouraged him. I cared little for him, but knew not how to refuse. In the end he spent the three nights at my side and thereafter made me a secondary wife. He also got me a position at the court of Toba, who by then had abdicated. I bore him children, two of whom lived1. Toba died. Soon after, my husband did.

“By then the wars between the Taira and the Minamoto had broken out. I made an occasion to retire from the service of Toba’s widow and, taking my inheritance, withdrew to the family from which I sprang. It helped that a lady not at court lives so secluded. But how empty an existence!

“At last I confided in a lover I had gotten, a man of some wealth and power. He brought me to a rural estate of his, where I spent several years. Meanwhile he got my daughter married off elsewhere. He took me back to Heian-kyo under her name—such people as remembered marveled at how much she resembled her mother—and through his patronage I came again into service at a royal household. Gradually I outlived the scorn they have for provincials; but when they gradually observed how I kept my youth—

“Do you wish to hear it all?” she asked in an upsurge of weariness. “This has been my third such renewal. The tricks, the deceptions, the children I have borne and, one way or another, managed to have adopted elsewhere, lest it become too plain that they grow old while I do not. That has hurt most. I wonder how much more I could endure.”

“Therefore you are leaving everything behind,” he breathed.

“The time was already overpast. I hesitated because of the strife, the uncertainty about what would become of my kindred. Well, that has been settled for me. It feels almost like a liberation.”

“If you take nun’s vows, you cannot return here as you did before.”

“I have no wish to. I have had my fill of the petty intrigues and hollow amusements. Fewer are the midnight stars than the yawns I have smothered, the hours I have stared into vacancy and waited for something, anything to happen.” She touched his hand. “You gave me one reason to linger. But now you too must go. Besides, I wonder how much longer they can keep up the pretense in Heian-kyo.”

“You choose a harder way than I think you imagine.”

“No harder, / think, than most in times to come. It is a cruel age we are bound into. At least a wandering nun has people’s respect, and ... nobody questions her. Someday I may even win to understanding of why we suffer what we do.”

“Could I ever show courage like hers?” he asked the rain.

Once more she touched his hand. “I feared this tale might distress you.”

Still he looked before him, into the silvery blindness. “For your sake, perhaps. It has not changed you for me. While I live, you will remain my Morning Glory. And now you have helped me remember that I am safely mortal. Will you pray for me?”

“Always,” she promised.

They stood a while in silence, then went back inside. There they spoke of happy things and summoned up happy memories, pleasures and lovelinesses that had been theirs. He got a little tipsy. Nevertheless, when they said farewell it was with the dignity becoming a nobleman and a lady of the Imperial court.


IX. Ghosts

<p>IX. Ghosts</p>

Did smoke rouse her? Bitter in her nostrils, sharp-edged in her lungs, at first it was all that was. She coughed. Her skull flew asunder. The shards fell back with a crash. They ground against each other like ice floes on a lake under storm. Again she coughed, and again. Amidst the noise and the sword-blade hurt she began to hear a crackling that loudened.

Her eyes opened. The smoke savaged them. Through it, blurily, she saw the flames. That whole side of the chapel was coming ablaze. Already the fire licked up to the ceiling. She could not make out the saints painted there, nor any icons on the walls—were they gone?—but the altar abided. As the smoke drifted and the half-light leaped, its bulk wavered in her sight. She had a wild brief sense that it was adrift, would soon reach her and crush her under its weight or else float away forever on the smoke.

Heat billowed. She crept to hands and knees. For a while she could not lift her head. It was too heavy with pain. Then something at the edge of vision drew her in a slow shamble. She slumped above and groped after comprehension.

Sister Elena. Sprawled on her back. Very still, more than the altar was, altogether empty of movement. Eyes open, firelight ashimmer in them. Mouth agape, tongue half out of it, dry. Legs and loins startlingly white against the clay floor and the habit pulled up over them. White flecks likewise catching the light across her groin. Blood-spatters bright on thighs and belly.

Varvara’s insides writhed. She threw up. Once, twice, thrice the vomit burst forth. The surges ripped through her head. When they were done, though, only the foul taste and the burning left in her, more awareness had awakened. She wondered in a vague way whether this had been the final violation or a sign of God’s grace, covering the traces of what had been done to Elena.

You were my sister in Christ, Varvara thought. So young, oh, how young. I wish you had not been in such awe of me. Your laughter was sweet to hear. I wish we could sometimes have been together, only the two of us, and told secrets and giggled before we went to prayers. Well, you have won martyrdom, I suppose. Go home to Heaven.

The words wavered over pain and throbbing and great swoops of dizziness. The fire roared. Its heat thickened. Sparks danced through the smoke. Some landed on her sleeves. They winked out, but she must flee, or else burn alive.

For a moment, weariness overwhelmed her. Why not die, here with little Elena? Make an end of the centuries, now when everything else had come to an end. If she breathed deeply, the agony would be short. Afterward, peace.

Sunlight struck long, brass-yellow, through haze and whirling soot. While she wondered about death, her body had crawled out the door. Astonishment jolted her more fully back to herself. She swung her gaze to and fro. Nobody was nigh. Mostly wood, the cloister buildings were afire all around. Somehow she got to her feet and stumbled from them.

Beyond the enclosure, animal wariness took hold. She crouched back down, next to a wall, and peered. Monastery and nunnery stood a distance from the town, as was usual. The religious should have found shelter behind the defenses. They had not had time. The Tatars arrived too soon, were there, horses between them and safety. They scrambled back and beseeched the Virgin, the saints and angels. Presently some of the wild men came to them, yelping like dogs.

It made no difference, Varvara saw. Pereyaslavl had fallen. No doubt the Tatars stormed it before they troubled about the house of the Virgin. A monstrous black cloud rose from its walls, up and up into the sky, where it broke apart into smears across eventide purity. Flames stabbed into view beneath. They tinged the gloom with restless red.

She remembered dimly how the Lord went before the Israelites as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Did His voice roar like the pyre that had been Pereyaslavl?

Here and there across the rolling farmlands, villages burned too, smaller darknesses taking flight. The Tatars seemed to be assembling near the town. Squads galloped through grainfields toward the main body of horsemen. Warriors afoot herded captives along, not many—but then, Varvara saw, the invaders were no huge army, not the locust swarm of rumor, several hundred perhaps. They weren’t steel-clad either, it was mostly leather and fur on those stocky forms, now and then a blink but that was likelier off a weapon than a helmet. One at their van bore the standard, a pole from whose cross-arm hung—tails of oxen? The mounts were just ponies, dun-colored, shaggy, longheaded.

Yet these men had come as a runaway blaze over the land, driving all before them or trampling it down. Even cloister dwellers had heard, years ago, how the Pechenegs themselves fled to the Rusi, begging for succor. Riders who attacked like a single dragon with a thousand thunderous legs, arrows that flew like a sleetstorm—

Otherwise the countryside reached green, outrageously peaceful, eastward from the sun. Light streamed into the Trubezh, so that the river became a flow of gold. Flocks of waterfowl winged toward the marshes along its shores.

Yonder is my refuge, Varvara knew, my one tiny hope.

How to reach it? Her flesh was a lump of pain, splintered in places with anguish, and her bones were weights. Nevertheless, with the fire at her back, go she must. Knowledge made up for awkwardness. She could advance a bit, freeze, wait till it appeared safe to gain a few more feet. That meant a long time till she reached her goal, but time remained to her, oh, yes. She choked off a crazy laugh.

At first a cloister orchard gave concealment. How often had these trees blossomed amazing pink and white in spring, rustled green in summer, offered crisp sweetness in autumn, stood skeletally beautiful against winter’s gray, for her sisters and her? The number of years was lost somewhere in Varvara’s head. Certain of their people flitted through, Elena, shrewish Marina, plump and placid Yuliana, Bishop Simeon grave behind his huge bush of beard—dead, today or years since, ghosts, she herself perhaps dead too but denied quietness, a rusalka creeping back to its river.

Beyond the orchard was pasture. Varvara thought for a while she would do best to wait among the trees for nightfall. Terror whipped her onward. She found herself slipping along more and more snakishly. Skill returned, indeed it did, when you had gained it in your girlhood. Before Christ came to the Rusi, and for generations afterward, women often ranged the forest as freely as men. Not the deep forest, no, it was dark, trackless, a place where beasts and demons prowled: but the verge, where sunlight reached and you could gather nuts and berries.

That lost greenwood felt closer than the cloister. She had no recollection of what happened after the enemy drew near the sanctuary.

At a sudden thudding, she went flat in the grass. Despite utter weariness, her heart banged and a thin singing lifted between her temples. It was well she had not stayed in the orchard. Several Tatar horses trotted among the trees and out onto the slope. She glimpsed one rider clearly, his broad brown face, slant slit eyes, wispy whiskers. Did she know him? Had he known her, back in the chapel? They passed close by but onward, they had not noticed her.

Thanks welled in her breast. Only later did she recall that they had not been to God or any saint but to Dazhbog of the Sun, the Protector. Another ancient memory, another strong ghost.

Dusk softened horizons by the time she reached the marsh for which she aimed. Fitful reddenings still touched the smoke of Pereyasiavl; the outlying villages must be entirely ash and charcoal. Tatar campfires began to twinkle in ordered clusters. They were small, like their masters, and bloody.

Mud oozed cool over Varvara’s sandals, between her toes, up her ankles. She found a hummock where the grass was merely damp and sank down, curled onto its springiness. Her fingers dug into the turf and the sod beneath. Earth, Mother of All, hold me close, never let me go, comfort your child!

The first stars glimmered forth. She grew able to weep.

Thereafter she pulled off her clothes, layer by layer. A breeze nuzzled her nakedness. Having left the garments bundled, she pushed through reeds till she waded in the stream. Here she could wash out her mouth and gullet, drink and drink. The water was slow to reach every parched finger-end. Meanwhile she crouched and scrubbed herself, over and over. The river laved, licked, caressed. She squatted and opened her loins to it. “Make me clean,” she begged.

Light of stars and the Heaven Path gleamed off its current, enough for her to find her way back. She stood on the hummock so the breeze could dry her. That made her shiver but didn’t take long. Her lips quirked for a moment— cropped hair was a legacy of the cloister, useful tonight. Afterward she took up her clothes, and nearly retched. Now she caught their stench of sweat, blood, Tatar. It took almost the last of her strength to put them back on. Maybe she couldn’t have, were it not for the overlay of smoke-smell. Another legacy, another remembrance. She must keep covered against the night chill. Though she had never been sick in her life, she might well be too weakened to stave off a fever.

Slumping back onto the hummock, she dropped into a half-sleep wherein ghosts gibbered.

Dawn roused her. She sneezed, groaned, shuddered. However, as brightness lengthened across the land, the same cold clarity waxed within. Cautiously moving about her hiding place, she felt the stiffness work out of her joints, toe aches dwindle. Wounds still hurt, but lesseningly as day wanned them; she knew they would heal.

She kept well down amidst the reeds, but from time to time ventured a look outward. She saw the Tatars water their horses, but the river blotted up any filth before it reached her. She saw them ride from horizon to horizon. Often they returned with burdens, loot. When the shifting masses at camp chanced to part before her eyes, she spied the captives, huddled together under mounted guard. Boys and young women, she supposed, those worth taking for slaves. The rest lay dead in the ashes.

She still lacked memory of her last hours in the cloister. A blow to the head could do that. She had no wish for the knowledge. Imagination served. When the raiders broke in, the religious must have scattered. Quite likely Varvara seized Elena’s hand and led her, a dash into the chapel of St. Eudoxia. It was small and offside, without treasures, the devils might overlook it. Of course they hadn’t.

But what then? How had Elena died? Varvara—well, she dared hope she had fought, forced three or four to hold her down by turns. She was big, strong, a survivor of much, used to looking after herself. At last, she guessed, a Tatar, maybe when she bit him, smashed her head against the floor. Elena, though, Elena was slight and frail, gentle, dreamy. She could only have lain where she was while the thing went on and on and on. Maybe the last man, seeing what his fellow did to punish Varvara, had grinned and done the same to Elena. It killed her. Did they take her companion for dead also, belt up their breeches, and go? Or did they simply not care?

At least they hadn’t used knives. Varvara would not have outlived that. Indeed, while her skull seemed amply hard, she might not have roused in time to escape, save for the vitality that kept her ageless. She should thank God for it.

“No,” she breathed, “first I thank You for letting Elena die. She would have been broken, haunted all her days, hounded all her nights.”

Further gratitude slipped her mind.

The river and the hours muttered past. Birds clamored. Flies buzzed thick as smoke, drawn by her stinking garb. Hunger began to gnaw. She recollected another old skill, lay belly down in the mud by a backwater that some drifted brushwood had formed, waited.

She was no longer alone. Ghosts crowded close. They touched and tugged at her, whispered, beckoned. At first they were horrible. They took her against her will, drunken husbands and two different ruffians who had caught her during the years when she wandered. With a third she had been lucky and gotten a knife into him first. “Burn in hell with those Tatars,” she snarled. “I outlived you. I shall outlive them.”

Yes, and the memories of them. If nothing else, she would humble the new ghosts as she had overcome the old ones. It might take years—she had years—but at last the strength that had kept her alive this long would again make her able to live gladly.

“Good men, come back to me. I miss you. We were happy together, were we not?”

Father. White-bearded Grandfather, from whom she could wheedle anything. Elder brother Bogdan, how they used to fight but how splendid he later grew, before a sickness ravaged his guts and tore him down. Younger brother, yes, and sisters, who teased her and became dear to her. Neighbors. Dir, who kissed her so shyly in a clover meadow where bees buzzed; she was twelve years old, and the world wobbled. Vladimir, first of her husbands, a strong man until age gnawed him hollow but always gentle with her. Husbands later, those she had liked. Friends who stood by her, priests who consoled her, when sorrow returned to her house. How well she recalled ugly little Gleb Ilyev, but then, he was the first of those who helped her escape when a home turned into a trap. Oh, and her sons, her sons, grandsons, daughters and granddaughters too, great-grandchildren, but time took them away. Every ghost had a face that changed, grew old, finally was the mask that the dead wear.

No, not quite every one. Some she had known too fleetingly. Strange, how vivid remained that trader from abroad—Cadoc, his name? Yes, Cadoc. She was glad she had not watched him crumble—when? Two hundred years, more or less, since their night in Kiyiv. Of course, he might have perished early, in the beauty of his youth.

Others were misty. Certain among them she was unsure of, whether they had been real or were fragments of dreams that had clung to memory.

With a splash and splatter, a frog jumped from among the rushes, onto the brushwood. He settled himself, fat, green-white, to lurk for flies. Varvara stayed moveless. She saw his attention turn from where she lay. Her hand pounced.

He struggled, cool and slippery, till she knocked him on the head. Then she plucked him apart, gnawed and sucked his meat off the bones, cast them into the river with muttered thanks. Ducks bobbed in midstream. She could have shed her clothes, slid into the water, swum carefully underneath to seize one by the legs. But no, the Tatars might glimpse it. Instead, she grubbed sedges of a kind with edible roots. Yes, the forest skills lived on in her, had never really faded.

Otherwise— She supposed it was a growing despair, a sense of her soul slipping from her, that brought her to the sanctuary. No, that wasn’t the whole reason. She had said too many farewells. In the house of God was refuge that would endure.

Surely there was peace, around her if not always within. The lusts of the flesh refused to die, among them the wish to feel again a small warmth in her arms, a small mouth milking her. She reined them in, but then sometimes they kicked up mockeries of the Faith, memories of old earthy gods, longings to see beyond walls and fare beyond horizons. And petty sins too, anger at her sisters, impatience with the priests and the endlessly same tasks. Nonetheless, on the whole, peace. Between the chores, the chafings, and the puzzled search for sanctity were hours in which she could bit by bit, year by year, rebuild herself. She discovered how to order memories, have them at her beck rather than let them fade to nothing or else overwhelm her with their many ness. She tamed her ghosts. f A wind made the sedges rustle. She shivered likewise. What if she had failed? If she was not alone in the world, was the common fate of her kind to go mindless and perish helpless?

Or was she in truth alone, whether blessed or damned? Certainly the cloister had no record of such folk, ever, since the Methuselan morning of the world. Not that she had told anybody beforehand. The caution of centuries forbade. She came as a widow, taking the veil because the Church encouraged widows to do so.

To be sure, when the decades slipped by and her flesh continued young—

Noise thrust into the marsh, shouts, whinnies, drumbeats. She scuttered to look. The Tatars had trussed up their loot and marshalled their ranks. They were departing. She saw no captives, but guessed they were bound astride pack horses with the rest of the baggage. Smoke still blew thinly : out of the blackened, broken walls of Pereyaslavl.

The Tatars were headed northeasterly, away from the Trubezh, toward the Dniepr and Kiyiv. The great city was a day’s march in that direction, less on horseback.

O Christ, have mercy, were they off to take Kiyiv?

No, they were too few.

But others must be raging elsewhere across the Russian land. Their demon king must have a plan. They could join together, resharpen swords blunted by butchery, and go on as a conquering horde.

In the house of God I sought eternity, passed through Varvara. Here I have seen that it also has an end.

I too?

Yes, I can die, if only by steel or fire or famine or flood; therefore someday I shall die. Already, to those among whom I was ageless, those that live, I am a ghost, or less than a ghost.

First the nuns, later the monks and secular priests, finally the layfolk began to marvel at Sister Varvara. After some fifty years, peasants were appealing to her for help in their woes and pilgrims arriving from places quite far. As she had feared from the outset, there was no choice but to tell her confessor the truth about her past. With her reluctant leave, he informed Bishop Simeon. The latter planned to inform the Metropolitan. If they did not have an actual saint in the cloister of the Virgin, and Sister Varvara said she could not possibly be one, they had a miracle.

How was she to live with that?

She would never have to. The bishop, the priests, the believers were dead or fled. The annals of the cloister were burned. Anything elsewhere was likewise destroyed, or soon would be, or was doomed to molder away forgotten now when people had so much death to think about. A memory of her might linger in a few minds, but seldom find utterance, and it would die with them.

Had the Tatars come as God’s denial, His decision that she was unworthy—or as His release from a burden no child of Adam should bear—or was she, defiled and torn, nonetheless so full of worldly pride that she dared imagine she mattered?

She clung to the hummock. Earth and sun, moon and stars, wind and rain and human love, she could understand the old gods better than she understood Christ. But they were forsaken by man, remembered only in dances and feasts, fireside tales and fireside spirits; they were ghosts.

Yet lightning, thunder, and vengeance forever walked the skies above Russia, be they of Perun or of St. Yuri the dragonslayer. Varvara drank strength from the soil as a babe drinks milk. When the Tatars were out of sight, she sprang to her feet, shook her fist after them, and shouted, “We will abide! We will outlast you, and in the end we will crush you and take back what is ours!”

Calmer, then, she removed her clothes, washed them in the river, spread them on a slope to dry. Meanwhile she cleansed herself again and gathered more wild food. Next morning she sought the ruins.

Ash, charred timber, snags of brick and stone lay silent under heaven. A pair of churches were left, foul with soot. Inside them sprawled corpses. The slain outside were many more, and in worse condition. Carrion birds quarreled over them, flying off with a blast of wingbeats and shrieks whenever she approached. There was nothing she could do but offer a prayer.

Searching about, she found clothes, shoes, an undamaged knife, and such-like needs. Taking each, she smiled and whispered, “Thank you” to its owner’s ghost. Her journey would be hard and dangerous at best. She did not mean it to end until she had reached the kind of new home she wanted—whatever that was.

In the dawn that followed, before setting forth, she told the sky: “Remember my name. I am Varvara no more. I am again Svoboda.” Freedom.


X. In the Hills

1

2

3

4

5

<p>X. In the Hills</p>
<p>1</p>

Where mountains began their long climb toward Tibet, a village nestled. On three sides its dell lifted steeply, making horizons high and close. A stream from the west rushed through upper woods of cypress and dwarf oak, gleamed as a waterfall, passed among the buildings, and lost itself in bamboo and ruggedness eastward. The people cultivated wheat, soybeans, vegetables, melons, some fruit trees on the floor of the vale and on small terraces above. They kept pigs, chickens, and a fishpond. This, their score or so of turf-roofed earthen houses, and they themselves had been there so long that sun, rain, snow, wind, and time had made them as much a part of the land as the pheasant, the panda, or the wildflowers in spring.

On the east the view opened, a wrinklescape manifoldly green and tawny with forest, to right and left a sight of snowpeaks afloat in heaven. Through it wound a road, scarcely more than a track, the village its terminus. Traffic was sparse. Several times a year, men undertook a journey of days, to market in a little town and home again. There they also paid taxes in kind. Thus the governor very seldom thought to send a man to them. When he did, the inspector only stayed overnight, inquired of the elders how things were going, received ritual answers, and departed eagerly. The place had a somewhat uncanny reputation.

That was in the eyes of orthodox outsiders. To others it was holy. Because of this awe, whether vague or devout, as well as its loneliness, war and banditry had passed the village by. It followed its own ways, enduring no more than die ordinary sorrows and calamities of life. Once in a while a pilgrim overcame the obstacles—distance, hardship, danger—to visit it. In the course of generations, a few among those had remained. The village took, them into its peace. Thus things were. Thus had they always been. Their beginnings were unknown save to myth and the Master.

Great, therefore, was the excitement when a herdboy came running and shrilled that a traveler was on the way, “Shame, bad, that you left your ox unattended,” chided his grandfather, but gently. The boy explained that he had first tethered the beast; and, after all, no tiger arrived. He was forgiven. Meanwhile folk bustled and shouted about. Presently a disciple struck the gong in the shrine. A metal voice toned forth, rang off the hillsides, mingled with shush of waterfall and murmur of wind.

Autumn comes early in the high hills. Woodlands were dappled brown and yellow, grass was turning sere, fallen leaves crunched underfoot near puddles left by last night’s rain. Overhead the sky arched unutterably blue, empty of all but wings. Bird cries drifted faint through air flowing down the mountainside. Smoke from hearthfires sharpened its chill.

As the stranger trudged up the last stretch of road, the gathered villagers saw with astonishment that this was a woman. Threadbare and oft mended, her gown of coarse cotton had faded to gray. Her boots were equally near the end of their service, and use had worn smooth the staff that swung in her right hand. From her left shoulder hung a rolled-up blanket, just as wayworn, which held a wooden bowl and perhaps one or two other things.

Yet she was no beggar granny. Her body was straight and slim, her stride firm and limber. Where a scarf fluttered loose, one could see hair like a crow’s wing, hacked off just below the earlobes; and her face, though weathered, drawn close over the bones, was unlined. Never had such a face appeared in these parts. She did not even seem of quite the same breed as the lowlanders from whose country she fared.

Elder Tsong trod forward. For lack of a better thought, he greeted her according to the ancient rite, despite every newcomer hitherto having been male. “In the name of the Master and the people, I bid you welcome to our Morning Dew Village. May you walk in the Tao, in peace, and the gods and spirits walk with you. May the hour of your advent prove lucky. Enter as a guest, depart as a friend.”

“This humble person thanks you, honorable sir,” she replied. Her accent was like none that anybody had heard before, but that was no surprise. “I come in search of ... enlightenment.” The word shook. Fervent must her hope be.

Tsong turned and bowed toward the shrine and the Master’s house behind it. “Here is the home of the Way,” he said. Some persons smiled smugly. Their home.

“May we know your name, that it be borne to the Master?” Tsong asked.

She hesitated, then: “I call myself Li, honorable sir.”

He nodded. The wind ruffled his thin white beard. “If you have chosen that, you have likely chosen well.” In her pronunciation, it could mean the measure of distance. Ignoring whispers, mutters, and stirrings among the folk, he forbore to inquire further. “Come. You shall take refreshment and stay with me.”

“Your ... leader—”

“In due course, young miss, in due course. Pray come.”

Her features settled into an aspect no one could fathom, something between resignation and an ageless determination. “Again, my humble thanks,” she said, and accompanied him.

The villagers moved aside. Several uttered words of goodwill. Beneath a natural curiosity, they were as alike in their mildness—the very children were—as in their padded garments and work-hardened hands. Alike, too, were many faces, broad and rather fiat-nosed above sturdy frames. After Tsong, his family, and Li disappeared, they chatted for a while, then piecemeal went back to their cookfires, handmills, looms, tools, animals, all that kept them alive as it had kept their ancestors alive from time out of mind.

Tseng’s oldest son, with wife and offspring, lived with him. They stayed in the background, except for serving tea and food. The house was larger, than most, four rooms inside rammed-earth walls, darksome but comfortably warm. While homes were poorly and rudely furnished, there was no real want; rather, contentment and cheerfulness prevailed. Tsong and Li sat on mats at a low table and enjoyed broth flavored with ruddy peppercorns, fragrant amidst the savors of other foodstuffs hung under the roof.

“You shall wash and rest before we meet with my fellow elders,” he promised.

Her spoon trembled. “Please,” she blurted, “when may I see the teacher? I have come, oh, a long and weary way.”

Tsong frowned. “I understand your desire. But we really know nothing about you, ah, Miss Li.”

Her lashes lowered. “Forgive me. I think what I have to tell is for his ears alone. And I think—I, I pray he will want to hear me soon. Soon!”

“We must not be overhasty. That would be irreverent, and maybe unlucky. What do you know about him?”

“Hardly more than rumors, I confess. The story—no, different stories in different places as I wandered. At first they sounded like folk tales. A holy man afar in the west, so holy that death dares not touch him— Only as I came nearer did anyone tell me that this is his dwelling ground. Few would say that much. They seemed afraid to speak, although ... I never heard ill of him.”

“No ill is there to hear,” said Tsong, softened by her earnestness. “You must have a great soul, that you ventured the pilgrimage. Quite alone, too, a youthful woman. Surely your stars are strong, that you took no harm. That bodes well.”

Dim of eye and in smoky dusk, he failed to see how she winced. “Nevertheless our wizard must read the bones,” he continued thoughtfully, “and we must offer to the ancestors and spirits, yes, hold a purification; for you are a woman.”

“What has the holy man to fear, if time itself obeys him?” she cried.

His tone calmed her somewhat: “Nothing, I daresay. And certainly he will protect us, his beloved people, as he always has. What do you wish to hear about him?”

“Everything, everything,” she whispered.

Tsong smiled. His few stumps of teeth glistened in what light passed through a tiny window. “That would take years,” he said. “He has been with us for centuries, if not longer.”

Again she tautened. “When did he come?”

Tsong sipped his tea. “Who knows? He has books, he can read and write, but the rest of us cannot. We tally the months, but not the years. Why should we? Under his good sway, lifespans are alike, as happy as the stars and the spirits may grant. The outside world troubles us never. Wars, famines, pestilences, those are gnat-buzz borne in from the market town, which itself hears little. I could not tell you who reigns in Nanking these days, nor do I care.”

“The Ming drove out the foreign Yuan some two hundred years ago, and the Imperial seat is Peking.”

“Ah, learned, are you?” the old man chuckled. “Yes, our forebears did hear about invaders from the north, and we know they are now gone. However, the Tibetans are much closer, and they have not attacked these parts for generations, nor ever our village. Thanks be to the Master.”

“He is your true king, then?”

“No, no.” The bald head shook. “To rule over us would be beneath his dignity. He counsels the elders when we ask, and of course we heed. He instructs us, during our childhoods and throughout our lives, in the Way; and of course we gladly follow it as well as we are able. When someone falls from it, the chastisement he orders is gentle—though quite enough, since real evildoing means expulsion, exile, homelessness for life and ever afterward.”

Tsong shuddered slightly before going on: “He receives pilgrims. From among them and from among our own youths who wish it, he accepts a few disciples at a time. They serve his worldly needs, listen to his wisdom, strive to attain a small part of his holiness. Not that this keeps them from eventually having households of their own; and often the Master honors a family, any family in the village, with his presence or his blood.”

“His blood?”

Li flushed when Tsong answered, “You have much to learn, young miss. Male Yang and female Yin must join for the health of the body, the soul, and the world. I am myself a grandson of the Master. Two daughters of mine have borne him children. One was already married, but her husband kept from her until they were sure it would indeed be a child of Tu Shan that blessed their home. The second, who is lame in one leg, suddenly needed only a bedspread for her dowry. Thus is the Way,”

“I see.” He could barely hear her. She had gone pale.

“If you cannot accept this,” he said kindly, “you may still meet him and receive his blessing before you leave. He forces no one.”

She gripped the spoon in her fist as if its handle were a post to which she clung lest she be whirled off the earth. “No, I will surely do his will,” stumbled from her throat, “I who have been seeking over all these lives, all these years.”

<p>2</p>

He could have been a peasant man of the village—but then, every one of them was closely or distantly descended from him—with the same strong frame clad in the same thick coat and trousers, the same grime and calluses on feet that indoors were bare. His beard hung thin, youthfully black, his hair was drawn into a topknot. The house he inhabited with his disciples was as big as any, but no bigger, also of plain earth above a clay floor. The room to which one of the young men admitted her before bowing and leaving was scarcely better furnished. There was a bedstead, wide enough for him and whatever woman might attend him; straw mats, stools, table, a calligraphic scroll, gone brown-spotted and flyspecked, on the wall above a stone altar; a wooden chest for clothing, a smaller brass one that doubtless held books; a few bowls, cups, cloths, and other everyday things. The window was shuttered against a blustery wind. A single lampflame did little to relieve murkiness. Coming in from outdoors, Li was first aware of the smell. It was not unpleasant, but it was heavy, blent of old smoke and grease, manure tracked in on shoes, humanity, centuries.

Seated, he lifted a hand in benison. “Welcome,” he said in die hill dialect. “May the spirits guide you along the Way.” His gaze was shrewd. “Do you wish to make offering?”

She bowed low. “I am a poor wanderer, Master.”

He smiled. “So they have told me. Fear not. Most who come here believe gifts will win them the favor of the gods. Well, if it helps uplift their souls, they are right. But the seeking soul itself is the only real sacrifice. Be seated, Lady JLi, and let us come to know each other.”

As the elders had instructed her, she knelt on the mat near his feet. His look searched her. “You do that otherwise than any woman I have seen before,” he murmured, “and you talk differently, too.”

“I am but newly in these parts, Master.”

“I mean that you do not talk like a lowlander who has picked up some of the highland form of speech.”

“I thought I had learned more than one Chinese tongue well, as long as I have been in the Middle Kingdom,” broke from her.

“I’ve been widely about, myself.” He shifted to the idiom of Shansi or Honan, though it was not quite what she remembered from the wealthy, populous northeastern provinces and he used it rustily. “Will you be more at ease talking this?”

“I learned it first, Master.”

“It’s been long since I— But where are you from, then?”

She raised her face toward his. Her heart thuttered. With an effort like reining in a wild horse, she kept her voice level. “Master, I was born across the sea, in the country of Nippon.”.

His eyes widened. “You have come far in your search for salvation.”

“Far and long, Master.” She drew breath. Her mouth had gone dry. “I was born four hundred years ago.”

“What?” He leaped to his feet.

She rose too. “It is true, it is true,” she said desperately. “How could I dare lie to you? The enlightenment I seek, have sought, oh, that was to find someone like myself, who never grows old—”

She could hold back the tears no more. He laid his arms around her. She clung close and felt how he also trembled.

After a time they drew apart and, for another while, stared at one another. The wind boomed outside.

A strange calm had fallen on her. She blinked her lashes clear and told him, “You have only my word for this, of course. I learned quite early to be nobody that anybody was ... much concerned about or would ... especially remember.”

“I believe you,” he answered hoarsely. “Your presence, you, a foreigner and a woman, that speaks for you. And I think I am afraid to disbelieve you.”

A laugh sobbed. “You will have time aplenty to make certain.”

“Time,” he mumbled. “Hundreds, thousands of years. And you a woman.”

Old fears awoke. Her hands fluttered before her. She forced herself to stand where she was. “I am a nun. I took vows to Amida Butsu—the Buddha.”

He nodded, against straining muscles. “How else could you travel freely?”

“I was not always safe,” she wrung out of her lips. “I have been violated in wild lands of this realm. Nor have I always been true. I have sometimes taken shelter with a man who offered it, and stayed with him till he died.”

“I’ll be kind,” he promised.

“I know. I asked ... of certain women here ... But what of those vows? I thought I had no choice before, but now—”

His laughter gusted louder than needful. “Ho! I release you from them.”

“Can you?”

“I am the Master, am I not? The people aren’t supposed to pray to me but I know they do, more than to their gods. i Nothing bad has come of it. Instead, we’ve had peace, lifetime after lifetime.”

“Did you ... foresee that?”

He shrugged. “No. Myself, I am—maybe a thousand and a half years old. I don’t remember just when I came here.”

The past took possession of him. He looked beyond her and the wall, he spoke low and rapidly:

“The years blur together, they become one, the dead are as real as the living and the living as unreal as the dead. For a while, long ago, I was mad, in a waking dream. Some monks took me in, and slowly, I’m not sure how, slowly I grew able to think again. Ah, I see that something like that .t happened to you too. Well, for me it still is often hard to be sure what I truly remember, and I forget much.

“I had found, like you, the safest thing was to be a footloose religious person. I only meant to stay here a few years, after they’d made me welcome. But tune went on and on, this was a snug den and foes feared to come, once word of me had drifted about, and what else, what better, was there? I’ve tried to do my people no harm. I think, they think I do them good.”

He shook himself, trod forward, caught both her hands. His were big, strong, but less hard than other men’s. She had heard that he lived off their labor, at most diverting himself with his ancient trade of blacksmith. “But who are you, Li? What are you?”

In sudden weariness, she sighed. “I have borne many names, Okura, Asagao, Yukiko—names did not matter among us, they changed as our positions changed, and we might use a different nickname for every friend. I was an attendant at a court that became a shadow. When no more pretense of being mortal was possible, and I feared to proclaim what I was, I turned nun and begged my way from shrine to shrine, place to place.”

“It was easier for me,” he admitted, “but I too found I’d better keep moving, and stay clear of anybody powerful who might want me to linger. Until I found this haven. How did you come to leave ... Nippon, you call that land?”

“I was forever hoping to find someone like me, an end to the loneliness, the—meaninglessness; for I had tried to find meaning in the Buddha, and no enlightenment ever came. Well, the news reached us that the Mongols—they who had conquered China and tried to invade us, but the Divine Wind wrecked their ships—they had been driven out. The Chinese were sailing far and wide, also to us. This land is ... our motherland in spirit, the mother of civilization.” She saw puzzlement, and recalled that he was of lowly birth and had lived withdrawn since before she came into the world. “We knew of many holy sites in China. I thought, as well, there if anywhere would be other ... immortals. So I took passage as a pilgrim, the captain gained merit by carrying me, and on these shores I set off afoot... I did not then know how vast the country is.”

“Have you never wished to go home?”

“What is home? Besides, the Chinese have stopped sailing. They have destroyed all their great ships. It is forbidden on pain of death to leave the Empire. You had not heard?”

“We’re free of overlords here. Welcome, welcome.” His tone deepened, strengthened. He let go her hands and once more laid arms about her waist, but now the clasp was strong and his breath turned musky. “You’ve found me, we’re together, you, my wife! I waited and waited, prayed, offered, cast spells, till at last I gave up hope. Then you came. Li!” His mouth sought hers.

She turned her cheek, protested faintly, no, this was too fast, unseemly. He paid no heed. It was not an assault, but it was an overwhelming. She surrendered as she might have surrendered to a storm or a dream. While he had her, she tried to bring her thoughts under control. Afterward he was drowsy and gentle for a while, then wildly merry.

<p>3</p>

Winter struck with blinding snow on wind that rampaged among the houses and stretched fingers through every crack around door or shutter. The calm that followed was so cold that silence seemed to ring, with stars uncountable above a white hardness that gave back their glitter. Folk went into the weather no more than they needed, to tend their livestock and get fuel. At home they crouched over tiny hearth-fires or slept the hours away within heaped sheepskins.

Li felt sick. She always did in the mornings during the first part of a pregnancy. That she had become fruitful was no surprise, as often as Tu Shan lay with her. Nor did she regret it. He meant well, and bit by bit, without letting him know what happened, she schooled him in what pleased her, until sometimes she too flew off into joy and came back down to lie happily wearied in the warmth and odor of him. And this child they had gotten together might also be ageless.

Still, she wished she could exult over it as he did. On her best days she was free of forebodings, no more. If only she had something to do. At least in Heian-kyo there had been color, music, the round of ceremonies, the often vicious but oftener titillating intrigues. At least on the road there had been changing landscape, changing people, unsureness, small victories over trouble or danger or despair. Here she could, if she liked, weave the same cloths, cook the same meals, sweep the same floors, empty the same muck buckets—though the disciples expected to do the menial tasks— and swap the same and the same words with women whose minds ranged as far as next year’s kitchen gardening.

Their men took interest in a little more than that, some of them, though not much more. However, they felt ill at ease with her. They knew her for the chosen of the Master and accorded her respect, in a clumsy fashion. Yet they also knew her for a woman; and she was soon taken for granted, sacred but a part of everyday life, like Tu Shan; and women did not sit in the councils of men. Li gathered that this was no great loss to her.

One day of that winter stood forth in memory, an island at the middle of an abyss that swallowed all the rest. The door swung open on dazzlingly sunlit, blue-shadowed drifts. A wave of chill poured through. Tu Shan’s bulk blotted the light. He entered and closed the door. Gloom clapped down again. “Hoo!” he whinnied, stamping the snow off his boots. “Cold enough to freeze a fire solid and the anvil with it.” She must have heard him say that a hundred times, and a few other favorite expressions.

Li looked up from the mat on which she knelt. Bright spots danced before her. They were due to reflection off the brass chest, which the disciples worshipfully kept polished. She had been staring at it for—an hour? two hours?—while sunken in the half-doze that was her retreat from these empty months.

A thought smote. The suddenness of it made her catch her breath. Next she wondered why it had not occurred to her before, then supposed that was because the newness of this life had driven everything else out of her mind until the life went stale, and she was saying: “Horseshoe,” the pet name she had given him, “I have never looked in yonder box.”

His mouth was open, he had been about to speak. He left it hanging thus for a moment before he replied slowly, “Why, uh, those are the books. And, uh, scrolls, yes, scrolls. The holy writings.”

Eagerness thrilled through her. “May I see them?”

“They’re not for, uh, ordinary eyes.”

She rose and told him fiercely, “I too am immortal. Have you forgotten?”

“Oh, no, no.” He waved his hands, a vague gesture. “But you’re a woman. You can’t read them.”

Li’s mind leaped back across centuries. Ladies of the court in Heian-kyo were literate in the vernacular but seldom in Chinese.’That was the classical language, which only men could properly comprehend. Nevertheless she had contrived to study the writing, and sometimes in China had found a chance, a span of rest in a tranquil place, to refresh that knowledge. Moreover, these texts were most likely Buddhist; that faith had intermingled here with Taoism and primitive animism. She would recognize passages.

“I can,” she said.

He gaped. “You can?” He shook his head. “Well, the gods have singled you out... Yes, look at them if you want. But handle them carefully. They’re quite old.”

Joyful, she went to the chest and opened it. At first she saw it only full of shadow. She fetched the lamp and held it above. Wan light nickered and fell.

The chest gaped across rot, mildew, and fungus.

She moaned. Barely did she keep from letting hot grease spill onto the corruption. With her free hand she groped, caught hold of something, lifted a gray tatter up to view.

Tu Shan bent over. “Well, well,” he muttered. “Water must have gotten in. How sad.”

She dropped the shred, replaced the lamp, rose to confront him. “When did you last look into that box?” she demanded most quietly.

His glance shifted elsewhere. “I don’t know. No reason to.”

“You never read the sacred texts? You have them perfectly by heart?”

“They were gifts from pilgrims. What are they to me?” He summoned bluster. “I don’t need writings. I am the Master. That’s enough.”

“You cannot read or write,” she said.

“They, well, they suppose I can, and— What harm? What harm, I ask you?” He turned on her. “Stop nagging me. Go. Go into the other rooms. Leave me be.”

Pity overcame her. He was, after all, so vulnerable—a simple man, a common man, whom karma or the gods or the demons or blind accident had made ageless for no know-able reason. With peasant shrewdness he had survived. He had acquired the sonorous phrases that a saint should utter. And he had not abused his position here; he was a god-figure that required little and returned much, assurance, protection, oneness. But the unchanging cycle of season after season after season, world without end, had dulled his wits and even, she saw, sapped his courage.

“I’m sorry,” she said, laying a hand on his. “I meant no reproach. I’ll tell nobody, of course. I’ll clean this out and from now on take care of such things for you—for us.”

“Thank you,” he replied uncomfortably. “Still, well, I meant to tell you you’ll have to stay in the back rooms till nightfall.”

“A woman is coming to you,” she said in a voice as leaden as the knowledge.

“They expect it.” His own voice loudened. “So it’s been since—since the beginning. What else was there for me? I can’t suddenly withhold my blessing from their households. Can I?”

“And she’s young and pretty.”

“Well, when they aren’t, I’ve been kind to them anyhow.” He forced indignation. “Who are you to call me faithless? How many men have you been with in your time, and you a nun?”

“I said nothing against you.” She turned around. “Very well, I go.” She felt his relief like radiance at her back.

The four disciples huddled together in one room of their quarters, blurs of darkness by lamplight, and played a game with slicks tossed on the floor. They sprang to their feet when Li entered, bowed awkwardly, stood in abashed silence. They knew quite well why she was here, but could not think what to say.

How young they were, she thought. And how handsome Wan, at least, was. She imagined his body on hers, lithe, hot, delirious.

Perhaps later. There would be boundless later. She smiled at them. “The Master wants me to rehearse you in the Diamond Sutra,” she told them.

<p>4</p>

It was raining when the village buried the first child of the Master and the Lady, They had hoped for sunshine but the wizard and the tiny corpse both told them they could not auspiciously wait longer than they had done. Spring that year had come late. Its bleakness and damp stretched on into the summer. They slipped through to the lungs of the girl-child, who gasped for a few days before she lay still. Oh, very still, when she cried and sucked and snuggled no more.

With Tu Shan, Li watched the wizard lower the coffin into a hole where water sloshed. The disciples stood close, the rest of the people in a rough ring. Beyond them she saw mists, shadowy hints of hillside, grandeur dissolved in this formless gray that tapped on her face and dripped off her hat and weighted her hair. Wet wool stank. Her breasts ached with milk.

The wizard rose, took up the rattle tucked under his rope belt, and shook it as he pranced around the grave screaming. Thus he warded off evil spirits. The disciples and those few others who had prayer wheels spun them. Everybody swayed to and fro. The chant sounded as raw as the air, “—honored ancestors, great souls, Honored ancestors, great souls—“ over and over, rite of a heathendom that the Tao and the Buddha had barely touched.

Tu Shan raised his arms and intoned words more fitting, but blurred and mechanical. He had spoken them too often. Li hardly noticed. She likewise had known too many deaths. She could not at the moment count the number of infants she had borne and lost. Seven, eight, a dozen? It hurt more to watch children grow old. But farewell, daughter of mine. May you not be lonely and afraid, wherever you have gone.

What Li felt now was the final hard freezing of resolution within herself.

Things ended. Folk mumbled words and went back to their work. The wizard remained. His task was to fill the grave. At her back, through his ongoing quavery song, Li heard clods fall on the coffin.

The disciples sought their parents’ homes for the nonce. Li and Tu Shan entered an empty house. He left the door ajar for light. Coals aglow on the hearth had somewhat wanned the room. He shucked his coat and tossed it on the bed. A sigh gusted from him. “Well,” he said. “That’s done.”

After a span, into her silence: “The poor wee girl. But it happens. Better luck next tune, eh? And maybe a son.”

She tensed. “There will be no next time, here,” she answered.

“What?” He lumbered around to stand before her. His arms dangled at his sides.

She met his stare full on. “I will not stay,” she told him. “You should leave with me.”

“Are you crazed?” Fear crossed the usually firm countenance. “Has a demon gotten into you?”

She shook her head. “Only an understanding, and it has been growing for months. This is simply no life for us.”

“It’s peaceful. It’s happy.”

“So you see it, because you’ve lain in it so long. I say it is stagnant and squalid.” She spoke calmly, the least bit sadly. “At first, yes, after my wanderings, I believed I had come to a sanctuary. Tu Shan,”—she would not give him his endearment name until he yielded, if ever he did—“I have learned what you should have seen an age ago. Earth holds no sanctuaries for anyone, anywhere.”

Amazement made his anger faint. “You want back to your palaces and monkey courtiers, eh?”

“No. That was another trap. I want ... freedom ... to be, to become whatever I am able to. Whatever we are able to.”

“They need me here!”

She must first put down scorn. If she showed hers for these half-animals, she could well lose him. And, true, in his liking for them, his concern and compassion, he was better than she was. Second she must muster all the will at her command. If she surrendered and abided, she would likewise slowly become one with the hillfolk. That might aid her toward selflessness, toward ultimate release from the Wheel; but she would give up every imaginable attainment that this life held. What escape, except through random violence, did she have from it?

“They lived much the same before you,” she said. “They will do so after you. And with or without you, it cannot be for always. The Han people press westward. I have seen them clearing forest and breaking earth. Someday they will take these lands.”

He fell into bewilderment. “Where can we go? Would you be a beggar again?”

“If need be, but then only for a short while. Tu Shan, a whole world lies beyond this horizon.”

“We kn-know nothing about it.”

“I know something.” Through the ice of her resolve shone a strengthening fire. “Foreign ships touch the shores of China. Barbarians thrust inward. I have heard about mighty stirrings to the south, on the far side of the mountains.”

“You told me ... it’s forbidden to leave the Empire—”

“Ha, what does that mean to us? What watchmen stand on those paths we can find? I tell you, if we cannot seize the opportunities that beckon everywhere around, we do not deserve our lives.”

“If we become famous, they ... would notice we don’t grow old—”

“We can cope with that. Change rushes through the world unbridled. The Empire can no more stay forever locked into itself than this village can. We’ll find advantages to take. Perhaps just setting money out at interest for a long time. We’ll see. My years have been harder than yours. I know how full of secret places chaos is. Yes, we may well go under, we may perish, but until then we will have been wholly alive!”

He stood dazed. She knew she would need months wherein to prevail, if indeed she could. Well, she had the patience of centuries to draw upon, when there was something for which to work.

Clouds thinned, light broke through, the rain in the doorway gleamed like flying arrows.

<p>5</p>

Springtime came back, and that year it was mild, overwhelmingly bright, full of fragrances and the cries of wildfowl returned. Gorged with snow melt, the stream sprang white amidst hillside leaves, brawled through the dell, plunged into the bamboo forest, bound for the great river and so at last the sea.

A man and a woman followed it on the road. They were clad for travel. Staves swung in their hands. On his back was a load of needful goods, on hers a swaddled baby boy who gurgled lustily and happily as he looked around him at wonders.

The people stood gathered together behind, where their homes came to an end, and wept.


1

<p>1</p>

Where mountains began their long climb toward Tibet, a village nestled. On three sides its dell lifted steeply, making horizons high and close. A stream from the west rushed through upper woods of cypress and dwarf oak, gleamed as a waterfall, passed among the buildings, and lost itself in bamboo and ruggedness eastward. The people cultivated wheat, soybeans, vegetables, melons, some fruit trees on the floor of the vale and on small terraces above. They kept pigs, chickens, and a fishpond. This, their score or so of turf-roofed earthen houses, and they themselves had been there so long that sun, rain, snow, wind, and time had made them as much a part of the land as the pheasant, the panda, or the wildflowers in spring.

On the east the view opened, a wrinklescape manifoldly green and tawny with forest, to right and left a sight of snowpeaks afloat in heaven. Through it wound a road, scarcely more than a track, the village its terminus. Traffic was sparse. Several times a year, men undertook a journey of days, to market in a little town and home again. There they also paid taxes in kind. Thus the governor very seldom thought to send a man to them. When he did, the inspector only stayed overnight, inquired of the elders how things were going, received ritual answers, and departed eagerly. The place had a somewhat uncanny reputation.

That was in the eyes of orthodox outsiders. To others it was holy. Because of this awe, whether vague or devout, as well as its loneliness, war and banditry had passed the village by. It followed its own ways, enduring no more than die ordinary sorrows and calamities of life. Once in a while a pilgrim overcame the obstacles—distance, hardship, danger—to visit it. In the course of generations, a few among those had remained. The village took, them into its peace. Thus things were. Thus had they always been. Their beginnings were unknown save to myth and the Master.

Great, therefore, was the excitement when a herdboy came running and shrilled that a traveler was on the way, “Shame, bad, that you left your ox unattended,” chided his grandfather, but gently. The boy explained that he had first tethered the beast; and, after all, no tiger arrived. He was forgiven. Meanwhile folk bustled and shouted about. Presently a disciple struck the gong in the shrine. A metal voice toned forth, rang off the hillsides, mingled with shush of waterfall and murmur of wind.

Autumn comes early in the high hills. Woodlands were dappled brown and yellow, grass was turning sere, fallen leaves crunched underfoot near puddles left by last night’s rain. Overhead the sky arched unutterably blue, empty of all but wings. Bird cries drifted faint through air flowing down the mountainside. Smoke from hearthfires sharpened its chill.

As the stranger trudged up the last stretch of road, the gathered villagers saw with astonishment that this was a woman. Threadbare and oft mended, her gown of coarse cotton had faded to gray. Her boots were equally near the end of their service, and use had worn smooth the staff that swung in her right hand. From her left shoulder hung a rolled-up blanket, just as wayworn, which held a wooden bowl and perhaps one or two other things.

Yet she was no beggar granny. Her body was straight and slim, her stride firm and limber. Where a scarf fluttered loose, one could see hair like a crow’s wing, hacked off just below the earlobes; and her face, though weathered, drawn close over the bones, was unlined. Never had such a face appeared in these parts. She did not even seem of quite the same breed as the lowlanders from whose country she fared.

Elder Tsong trod forward. For lack of a better thought, he greeted her according to the ancient rite, despite every newcomer hitherto having been male. “In the name of the Master and the people, I bid you welcome to our Morning Dew Village. May you walk in the Tao, in peace, and the gods and spirits walk with you. May the hour of your advent prove lucky. Enter as a guest, depart as a friend.”

“This humble person thanks you, honorable sir,” she replied. Her accent was like none that anybody had heard before, but that was no surprise. “I come in search of ... enlightenment.” The word shook. Fervent must her hope be.

Tsong turned and bowed toward the shrine and the Master’s house behind it. “Here is the home of the Way,” he said. Some persons smiled smugly. Their home.

“May we know your name, that it be borne to the Master?” Tsong asked.

She hesitated, then: “I call myself Li, honorable sir.”

He nodded. The wind ruffled his thin white beard. “If you have chosen that, you have likely chosen well.” In her pronunciation, it could mean the measure of distance. Ignoring whispers, mutters, and stirrings among the folk, he forbore to inquire further. “Come. You shall take refreshment and stay with me.”

“Your ... leader—”

“In due course, young miss, in due course. Pray come.”

Her features settled into an aspect no one could fathom, something between resignation and an ageless determination. “Again, my humble thanks,” she said, and accompanied him.

The villagers moved aside. Several uttered words of goodwill. Beneath a natural curiosity, they were as alike in their mildness—the very children were—as in their padded garments and work-hardened hands. Alike, too, were many faces, broad and rather fiat-nosed above sturdy frames. After Tsong, his family, and Li disappeared, they chatted for a while, then piecemeal went back to their cookfires, handmills, looms, tools, animals, all that kept them alive as it had kept their ancestors alive from time out of mind.

Tseng’s oldest son, with wife and offspring, lived with him. They stayed in the background, except for serving tea and food. The house was larger, than most, four rooms inside rammed-earth walls, darksome but comfortably warm. While homes were poorly and rudely furnished, there was no real want; rather, contentment and cheerfulness prevailed. Tsong and Li sat on mats at a low table and enjoyed broth flavored with ruddy peppercorns, fragrant amidst the savors of other foodstuffs hung under the roof.

“You shall wash and rest before we meet with my fellow elders,” he promised.

Her spoon trembled. “Please,” she blurted, “when may I see the teacher? I have come, oh, a long and weary way.”

Tsong frowned. “I understand your desire. But we really know nothing about you, ah, Miss Li.”

Her lashes lowered. “Forgive me. I think what I have to tell is for his ears alone. And I think—I, I pray he will want to hear me soon. Soon!”

“We must not be overhasty. That would be irreverent, and maybe unlucky. What do you know about him?”

“Hardly more than rumors, I confess. The story—no, different stories in different places as I wandered. At first they sounded like folk tales. A holy man afar in the west, so holy that death dares not touch him— Only as I came nearer did anyone tell me that this is his dwelling ground. Few would say that much. They seemed afraid to speak, although ... I never heard ill of him.”

“No ill is there to hear,” said Tsong, softened by her earnestness. “You must have a great soul, that you ventured the pilgrimage. Quite alone, too, a youthful woman. Surely your stars are strong, that you took no harm. That bodes well.”

Dim of eye and in smoky dusk, he failed to see how she winced. “Nevertheless our wizard must read the bones,” he continued thoughtfully, “and we must offer to the ancestors and spirits, yes, hold a purification; for you are a woman.”

“What has the holy man to fear, if time itself obeys him?” she cried.

His tone calmed her somewhat: “Nothing, I daresay. And certainly he will protect us, his beloved people, as he always has. What do you wish to hear about him?”

“Everything, everything,” she whispered.

Tsong smiled. His few stumps of teeth glistened in what light passed through a tiny window. “That would take years,” he said. “He has been with us for centuries, if not longer.”

Again she tautened. “When did he come?”

Tsong sipped his tea. “Who knows? He has books, he can read and write, but the rest of us cannot. We tally the months, but not the years. Why should we? Under his good sway, lifespans are alike, as happy as the stars and the spirits may grant. The outside world troubles us never. Wars, famines, pestilences, those are gnat-buzz borne in from the market town, which itself hears little. I could not tell you who reigns in Nanking these days, nor do I care.”

“The Ming drove out the foreign Yuan some two hundred years ago, and the Imperial seat is Peking.”

“Ah, learned, are you?” the old man chuckled. “Yes, our forebears did hear about invaders from the north, and we know they are now gone. However, the Tibetans are much closer, and they have not attacked these parts for generations, nor ever our village. Thanks be to the Master.”

“He is your true king, then?”

“No, no.” The bald head shook. “To rule over us would be beneath his dignity. He counsels the elders when we ask, and of course we heed. He instructs us, during our childhoods and throughout our lives, in the Way; and of course we gladly follow it as well as we are able. When someone falls from it, the chastisement he orders is gentle—though quite enough, since real evildoing means expulsion, exile, homelessness for life and ever afterward.”

Tsong shuddered slightly before going on: “He receives pilgrims. From among them and from among our own youths who wish it, he accepts a few disciples at a time. They serve his worldly needs, listen to his wisdom, strive to attain a small part of his holiness. Not that this keeps them from eventually having households of their own; and often the Master honors a family, any family in the village, with his presence or his blood.”

“His blood?”

Li flushed when Tsong answered, “You have much to learn, young miss. Male Yang and female Yin must join for the health of the body, the soul, and the world. I am myself a grandson of the Master. Two daughters of mine have borne him children. One was already married, but her husband kept from her until they were sure it would indeed be a child of Tu Shan that blessed their home. The second, who is lame in one leg, suddenly needed only a bedspread for her dowry. Thus is the Way,”

“I see.” He could barely hear her. She had gone pale.

“If you cannot accept this,” he said kindly, “you may still meet him and receive his blessing before you leave. He forces no one.”

She gripped the spoon in her fist as if its handle were a post to which she clung lest she be whirled off the earth. “No, I will surely do his will,” stumbled from her throat, “I who have been seeking over all these lives, all these years.”


2

<p>2</p>

He could have been a peasant man of the village—but then, every one of them was closely or distantly descended from him—with the same strong frame clad in the same thick coat and trousers, the same grime and calluses on feet that indoors were bare. His beard hung thin, youthfully black, his hair was drawn into a topknot. The house he inhabited with his disciples was as big as any, but no bigger, also of plain earth above a clay floor. The room to which one of the young men admitted her before bowing and leaving was scarcely better furnished. There was a bedstead, wide enough for him and whatever woman might attend him; straw mats, stools, table, a calligraphic scroll, gone brown-spotted and flyspecked, on the wall above a stone altar; a wooden chest for clothing, a smaller brass one that doubtless held books; a few bowls, cups, cloths, and other everyday things. The window was shuttered against a blustery wind. A single lampflame did little to relieve murkiness. Coming in from outdoors, Li was first aware of the smell. It was not unpleasant, but it was heavy, blent of old smoke and grease, manure tracked in on shoes, humanity, centuries.

Seated, he lifted a hand in benison. “Welcome,” he said in die hill dialect. “May the spirits guide you along the Way.” His gaze was shrewd. “Do you wish to make offering?”

She bowed low. “I am a poor wanderer, Master.”

He smiled. “So they have told me. Fear not. Most who come here believe gifts will win them the favor of the gods. Well, if it helps uplift their souls, they are right. But the seeking soul itself is the only real sacrifice. Be seated, Lady JLi, and let us come to know each other.”

As the elders had instructed her, she knelt on the mat near his feet. His look searched her. “You do that otherwise than any woman I have seen before,” he murmured, “and you talk differently, too.”

“I am but newly in these parts, Master.”

“I mean that you do not talk like a lowlander who has picked up some of the highland form of speech.”

“I thought I had learned more than one Chinese tongue well, as long as I have been in the Middle Kingdom,” broke from her.

“I’ve been widely about, myself.” He shifted to the idiom of Shansi or Honan, though it was not quite what she remembered from the wealthy, populous northeastern provinces and he used it rustily. “Will you be more at ease talking this?”

“I learned it first, Master.”

“It’s been long since I— But where are you from, then?”

She raised her face toward his. Her heart thuttered. With an effort like reining in a wild horse, she kept her voice level. “Master, I was born across the sea, in the country of Nippon.”.

His eyes widened. “You have come far in your search for salvation.”

“Far and long, Master.” She drew breath. Her mouth had gone dry. “I was born four hundred years ago.”

“What?” He leaped to his feet.

She rose too. “It is true, it is true,” she said desperately. “How could I dare lie to you? The enlightenment I seek, have sought, oh, that was to find someone like myself, who never grows old—”

She could hold back the tears no more. He laid his arms around her. She clung close and felt how he also trembled.

After a time they drew apart and, for another while, stared at one another. The wind boomed outside.

A strange calm had fallen on her. She blinked her lashes clear and told him, “You have only my word for this, of course. I learned quite early to be nobody that anybody was ... much concerned about or would ... especially remember.”

“I believe you,” he answered hoarsely. “Your presence, you, a foreigner and a woman, that speaks for you. And I think I am afraid to disbelieve you.”

A laugh sobbed. “You will have time aplenty to make certain.”

“Time,” he mumbled. “Hundreds, thousands of years. And you a woman.”

Old fears awoke. Her hands fluttered before her. She forced herself to stand where she was. “I am a nun. I took vows to Amida Butsu—the Buddha.”

He nodded, against straining muscles. “How else could you travel freely?”

“I was not always safe,” she wrung out of her lips. “I have been violated in wild lands of this realm. Nor have I always been true. I have sometimes taken shelter with a man who offered it, and stayed with him till he died.”

“I’ll be kind,” he promised.

“I know. I asked ... of certain women here ... But what of those vows? I thought I had no choice before, but now—”

His laughter gusted louder than needful. “Ho! I release you from them.”

“Can you?”

“I am the Master, am I not? The people aren’t supposed to pray to me but I know they do, more than to their gods. i Nothing bad has come of it. Instead, we’ve had peace, lifetime after lifetime.”

“Did you ... foresee that?”

He shrugged. “No. Myself, I am—maybe a thousand and a half years old. I don’t remember just when I came here.”

The past took possession of him. He looked beyond her and the wall, he spoke low and rapidly:

“The years blur together, they become one, the dead are as real as the living and the living as unreal as the dead. For a while, long ago, I was mad, in a waking dream. Some monks took me in, and slowly, I’m not sure how, slowly I grew able to think again. Ah, I see that something like that .t happened to you too. Well, for me it still is often hard to be sure what I truly remember, and I forget much.

“I had found, like you, the safest thing was to be a footloose religious person. I only meant to stay here a few years, after they’d made me welcome. But tune went on and on, this was a snug den and foes feared to come, once word of me had drifted about, and what else, what better, was there? I’ve tried to do my people no harm. I think, they think I do them good.”

He shook himself, trod forward, caught both her hands. His were big, strong, but less hard than other men’s. She had heard that he lived off their labor, at most diverting himself with his ancient trade of blacksmith. “But who are you, Li? What are you?”

In sudden weariness, she sighed. “I have borne many names, Okura, Asagao, Yukiko—names did not matter among us, they changed as our positions changed, and we might use a different nickname for every friend. I was an attendant at a court that became a shadow. When no more pretense of being mortal was possible, and I feared to proclaim what I was, I turned nun and begged my way from shrine to shrine, place to place.”

“It was easier for me,” he admitted, “but I too found I’d better keep moving, and stay clear of anybody powerful who might want me to linger. Until I found this haven. How did you come to leave ... Nippon, you call that land?”

“I was forever hoping to find someone like me, an end to the loneliness, the—meaninglessness; for I had tried to find meaning in the Buddha, and no enlightenment ever came. Well, the news reached us that the Mongols—they who had conquered China and tried to invade us, but the Divine Wind wrecked their ships—they had been driven out. The Chinese were sailing far and wide, also to us. This land is ... our motherland in spirit, the mother of civilization.” She saw puzzlement, and recalled that he was of lowly birth and had lived withdrawn since before she came into the world. “We knew of many holy sites in China. I thought, as well, there if anywhere would be other ... immortals. So I took passage as a pilgrim, the captain gained merit by carrying me, and on these shores I set off afoot... I did not then know how vast the country is.”

“Have you never wished to go home?”

“What is home? Besides, the Chinese have stopped sailing. They have destroyed all their great ships. It is forbidden on pain of death to leave the Empire. You had not heard?”

“We’re free of overlords here. Welcome, welcome.” His tone deepened, strengthened. He let go her hands and once more laid arms about her waist, but now the clasp was strong and his breath turned musky. “You’ve found me, we’re together, you, my wife! I waited and waited, prayed, offered, cast spells, till at last I gave up hope. Then you came. Li!” His mouth sought hers.

She turned her cheek, protested faintly, no, this was too fast, unseemly. He paid no heed. It was not an assault, but it was an overwhelming. She surrendered as she might have surrendered to a storm or a dream. While he had her, she tried to bring her thoughts under control. Afterward he was drowsy and gentle for a while, then wildly merry.


3

<p>3</p>

Winter struck with blinding snow on wind that rampaged among the houses and stretched fingers through every crack around door or shutter. The calm that followed was so cold that silence seemed to ring, with stars uncountable above a white hardness that gave back their glitter. Folk went into the weather no more than they needed, to tend their livestock and get fuel. At home they crouched over tiny hearth-fires or slept the hours away within heaped sheepskins.

Li felt sick. She always did in the mornings during the first part of a pregnancy. That she had become fruitful was no surprise, as often as Tu Shan lay with her. Nor did she regret it. He meant well, and bit by bit, without letting him know what happened, she schooled him in what pleased her, until sometimes she too flew off into joy and came back down to lie happily wearied in the warmth and odor of him. And this child they had gotten together might also be ageless.

Still, she wished she could exult over it as he did. On her best days she was free of forebodings, no more. If only she had something to do. At least in Heian-kyo there had been color, music, the round of ceremonies, the often vicious but oftener titillating intrigues. At least on the road there had been changing landscape, changing people, unsureness, small victories over trouble or danger or despair. Here she could, if she liked, weave the same cloths, cook the same meals, sweep the same floors, empty the same muck buckets—though the disciples expected to do the menial tasks— and swap the same and the same words with women whose minds ranged as far as next year’s kitchen gardening.

Their men took interest in a little more than that, some of them, though not much more. However, they felt ill at ease with her. They knew her for the chosen of the Master and accorded her respect, in a clumsy fashion. Yet they also knew her for a woman; and she was soon taken for granted, sacred but a part of everyday life, like Tu Shan; and women did not sit in the councils of men. Li gathered that this was no great loss to her.

One day of that winter stood forth in memory, an island at the middle of an abyss that swallowed all the rest. The door swung open on dazzlingly sunlit, blue-shadowed drifts. A wave of chill poured through. Tu Shan’s bulk blotted the light. He entered and closed the door. Gloom clapped down again. “Hoo!” he whinnied, stamping the snow off his boots. “Cold enough to freeze a fire solid and the anvil with it.” She must have heard him say that a hundred times, and a few other favorite expressions.

Li looked up from the mat on which she knelt. Bright spots danced before her. They were due to reflection off the brass chest, which the disciples worshipfully kept polished. She had been staring at it for—an hour? two hours?—while sunken in the half-doze that was her retreat from these empty months.

A thought smote. The suddenness of it made her catch her breath. Next she wondered why it had not occurred to her before, then supposed that was because the newness of this life had driven everything else out of her mind until the life went stale, and she was saying: “Horseshoe,” the pet name she had given him, “I have never looked in yonder box.”

His mouth was open, he had been about to speak. He left it hanging thus for a moment before he replied slowly, “Why, uh, those are the books. And, uh, scrolls, yes, scrolls. The holy writings.”

Eagerness thrilled through her. “May I see them?”

“They’re not for, uh, ordinary eyes.”

She rose and told him fiercely, “I too am immortal. Have you forgotten?”

“Oh, no, no.” He waved his hands, a vague gesture. “But you’re a woman. You can’t read them.”

Li’s mind leaped back across centuries. Ladies of the court in Heian-kyo were literate in the vernacular but seldom in Chinese.’That was the classical language, which only men could properly comprehend. Nevertheless she had contrived to study the writing, and sometimes in China had found a chance, a span of rest in a tranquil place, to refresh that knowledge. Moreover, these texts were most likely Buddhist; that faith had intermingled here with Taoism and primitive animism. She would recognize passages.

“I can,” she said.

He gaped. “You can?” He shook his head. “Well, the gods have singled you out... Yes, look at them if you want. But handle them carefully. They’re quite old.”

Joyful, she went to the chest and opened it. At first she saw it only full of shadow. She fetched the lamp and held it above. Wan light nickered and fell.

The chest gaped across rot, mildew, and fungus.

She moaned. Barely did she keep from letting hot grease spill onto the corruption. With her free hand she groped, caught hold of something, lifted a gray tatter up to view.

Tu Shan bent over. “Well, well,” he muttered. “Water must have gotten in. How sad.”

She dropped the shred, replaced the lamp, rose to confront him. “When did you last look into that box?” she demanded most quietly.

His glance shifted elsewhere. “I don’t know. No reason to.”

“You never read the sacred texts? You have them perfectly by heart?”

“They were gifts from pilgrims. What are they to me?” He summoned bluster. “I don’t need writings. I am the Master. That’s enough.”

“You cannot read or write,” she said.

“They, well, they suppose I can, and— What harm? What harm, I ask you?” He turned on her. “Stop nagging me. Go. Go into the other rooms. Leave me be.”

Pity overcame her. He was, after all, so vulnerable—a simple man, a common man, whom karma or the gods or the demons or blind accident had made ageless for no know-able reason. With peasant shrewdness he had survived. He had acquired the sonorous phrases that a saint should utter. And he had not abused his position here; he was a god-figure that required little and returned much, assurance, protection, oneness. But the unchanging cycle of season after season after season, world without end, had dulled his wits and even, she saw, sapped his courage.

“I’m sorry,” she said, laying a hand on his. “I meant no reproach. I’ll tell nobody, of course. I’ll clean this out and from now on take care of such things for you—for us.”

“Thank you,” he replied uncomfortably. “Still, well, I meant to tell you you’ll have to stay in the back rooms till nightfall.”

“A woman is coming to you,” she said in a voice as leaden as the knowledge.

“They expect it.” His own voice loudened. “So it’s been since—since the beginning. What else was there for me? I can’t suddenly withhold my blessing from their households. Can I?”

“And she’s young and pretty.”

“Well, when they aren’t, I’ve been kind to them anyhow.” He forced indignation. “Who are you to call me faithless? How many men have you been with in your time, and you a nun?”

“I said nothing against you.” She turned around. “Very well, I go.” She felt his relief like radiance at her back.

The four disciples huddled together in one room of their quarters, blurs of darkness by lamplight, and played a game with slicks tossed on the floor. They sprang to their feet when Li entered, bowed awkwardly, stood in abashed silence. They knew quite well why she was here, but could not think what to say.

How young they were, she thought. And how handsome Wan, at least, was. She imagined his body on hers, lithe, hot, delirious.

Perhaps later. There would be boundless later. She smiled at them. “The Master wants me to rehearse you in the Diamond Sutra,” she told them.


4

<p>4</p>

It was raining when the village buried the first child of the Master and the Lady, They had hoped for sunshine but the wizard and the tiny corpse both told them they could not auspiciously wait longer than they had done. Spring that year had come late. Its bleakness and damp stretched on into the summer. They slipped through to the lungs of the girl-child, who gasped for a few days before she lay still. Oh, very still, when she cried and sucked and snuggled no more.

With Tu Shan, Li watched the wizard lower the coffin into a hole where water sloshed. The disciples stood close, the rest of the people in a rough ring. Beyond them she saw mists, shadowy hints of hillside, grandeur dissolved in this formless gray that tapped on her face and dripped off her hat and weighted her hair. Wet wool stank. Her breasts ached with milk.

The wizard rose, took up the rattle tucked under his rope belt, and shook it as he pranced around the grave screaming. Thus he warded off evil spirits. The disciples and those few others who had prayer wheels spun them. Everybody swayed to and fro. The chant sounded as raw as the air, “—honored ancestors, great souls, Honored ancestors, great souls—“ over and over, rite of a heathendom that the Tao and the Buddha had barely touched.

Tu Shan raised his arms and intoned words more fitting, but blurred and mechanical. He had spoken them too often. Li hardly noticed. She likewise had known too many deaths. She could not at the moment count the number of infants she had borne and lost. Seven, eight, a dozen? It hurt more to watch children grow old. But farewell, daughter of mine. May you not be lonely and afraid, wherever you have gone.

What Li felt now was the final hard freezing of resolution within herself.

Things ended. Folk mumbled words and went back to their work. The wizard remained. His task was to fill the grave. At her back, through his ongoing quavery song, Li heard clods fall on the coffin.

The disciples sought their parents’ homes for the nonce. Li and Tu Shan entered an empty house. He left the door ajar for light. Coals aglow on the hearth had somewhat wanned the room. He shucked his coat and tossed it on the bed. A sigh gusted from him. “Well,” he said. “That’s done.”

After a span, into her silence: “The poor wee girl. But it happens. Better luck next tune, eh? And maybe a son.”

She tensed. “There will be no next time, here,” she answered.

“What?” He lumbered around to stand before her. His arms dangled at his sides.

She met his stare full on. “I will not stay,” she told him. “You should leave with me.”

“Are you crazed?” Fear crossed the usually firm countenance. “Has a demon gotten into you?”

She shook her head. “Only an understanding, and it has been growing for months. This is simply no life for us.”

“It’s peaceful. It’s happy.”

“So you see it, because you’ve lain in it so long. I say it is stagnant and squalid.” She spoke calmly, the least bit sadly. “At first, yes, after my wanderings, I believed I had come to a sanctuary. Tu Shan,”—she would not give him his endearment name until he yielded, if ever he did—“I have learned what you should have seen an age ago. Earth holds no sanctuaries for anyone, anywhere.”

Amazement made his anger faint. “You want back to your palaces and monkey courtiers, eh?”

“No. That was another trap. I want ... freedom ... to be, to become whatever I am able to. Whatever we are able to.”

“They need me here!”

She must first put down scorn. If she showed hers for these half-animals, she could well lose him. And, true, in his liking for them, his concern and compassion, he was better than she was. Second she must muster all the will at her command. If she surrendered and abided, she would likewise slowly become one with the hillfolk. That might aid her toward selflessness, toward ultimate release from the Wheel; but she would give up every imaginable attainment that this life held. What escape, except through random violence, did she have from it?

“They lived much the same before you,” she said. “They will do so after you. And with or without you, it cannot be for always. The Han people press westward. I have seen them clearing forest and breaking earth. Someday they will take these lands.”

He fell into bewilderment. “Where can we go? Would you be a beggar again?”

“If need be, but then only for a short while. Tu Shan, a whole world lies beyond this horizon.”

“We kn-know nothing about it.”

“I know something.” Through the ice of her resolve shone a strengthening fire. “Foreign ships touch the shores of China. Barbarians thrust inward. I have heard about mighty stirrings to the south, on the far side of the mountains.”

“You told me ... it’s forbidden to leave the Empire—”

“Ha, what does that mean to us? What watchmen stand on those paths we can find? I tell you, if we cannot seize the opportunities that beckon everywhere around, we do not deserve our lives.”

“If we become famous, they ... would notice we don’t grow old—”

“We can cope with that. Change rushes through the world unbridled. The Empire can no more stay forever locked into itself than this village can. We’ll find advantages to take. Perhaps just setting money out at interest for a long time. We’ll see. My years have been harder than yours. I know how full of secret places chaos is. Yes, we may well go under, we may perish, but until then we will have been wholly alive!”

He stood dazed. She knew she would need months wherein to prevail, if indeed she could. Well, she had the patience of centuries to draw upon, when there was something for which to work.

Clouds thinned, light broke through, the rain in the doorway gleamed like flying arrows.


5

<p>5</p>

Springtime came back, and that year it was mild, overwhelmingly bright, full of fragrances and the cries of wildfowl returned. Gorged with snow melt, the stream sprang white amidst hillside leaves, brawled through the dell, plunged into the bamboo forest, bound for the great river and so at last the sea.

A man and a woman followed it on the road. They were clad for travel. Staves swung in their hands. On his back was a load of needful goods, on hers a swaddled baby boy who gurgled lustily and happily as he looked around him at wonders.

The people stood gathered together behind, where their homes came to an end, and wept.


XI. The Kitten and the Cardinal

<p>XI. The Kitten and the Cardinal</p>

Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, cardinal of the Church, first minister to His Most Christian Majesty Louis XIII, who had created him duke, gave his visitor a long regard. The man was altogether out of place in this chamber of blue-and-gilt elegance. Though decently clad for a commoner, he seemed unmistakably the seafarer he proclaimed himself. Of medium height, he had the suppleness of youth, and the dark hawk face was unlined; but something about him—perhaps the alert steadiness of the look he gave back—bespoke a knowledge of the world such as it takes many years in many comers to gain.

Windows stood open to summer fragrances blowing from the fields and woodlands of Poitou. The river Mable clucked past an ancestral castle lately rebuilt as a modern palace. Sunlight, reflected off the water, danced in shards among the cherubs and ancient heroes that adorned the ceiling. At a little distance from the cardinal’s thronelike chair, a kitten played with its shadow across the parquetry.

Richelieu’s thin fingers stroked the parchment on his lap. Its age-spotted dun made his robe appear blood-bright. For this meeting he had put on full canonicals, as though to shield against demons. But when he spoke, his voice held its wonted wintry calm.

“If this be not falsified, today shall perhaps see the strangest audience I have ever granted.”

Jacques Lacy bowed with more grace than would have been awaited. “I thank your eminence for it, and assure him all is true.” His speech was not quite of the region nor of any in France. Did it still bear a lilt of Ireland, or of some land farther yet? Certainly it showed that, if not formally educated, he had read many books. Where did a skipper plying between the Old World and the New find time?

“You may thank the bishop who prevailed upon me,” said Richelieu dryly.

“After the priest of St. Felix had prevailed upon another, Your Eminence.”

“You are a bold one indeed, Captain Lacy. Have a care. This matter is dangerous enough already.”

“I humbly beg Your Eminence’s pardon.” The tone was by no means insolent, but neither was it contrite.

“Well, let us get on with your business.” Even away from Paris, hours were precious; and the future might not hold a large store of them. Nevertheless Richelieu considered for a minute, stroking the beard that brought the gauntness of his features to a point, before ordering: “Describe exactly what you said to the priest and caused him to do.”

Surprise slightly shook Lacy’s self-command. “Your Eminence knows.”

“I will compare the accounts.” Richelieu sighed. “And you may spare the honorifics hereafter. We are alone.”

“I thank Your— Well.” The mariner, drew breath. “I sought him out at his church in St. Nazaire after I heard that ... monsieur would grace these parts, no enormous distance to travel from there, with his presence for a while. I told him of the casket. Rather, I reminded him, for he knew about it in a half-forgotten way. Naturally, that caught his attention, for nobody else remembered. It had simply gathered dust in the crypt these past four hundred years.”

The kitten pounced at Lacy’s foot. A smile in its direction flickered across the cardinal’s lips. His eyes, huge and feverishly luminous, turned back to the man. “Did you relate how it came to be there?” he pursued.

“Certainly, monsieur. That was evidence for my good faith, since the story had not become part of folklore.”

“Do so again.”

“Ah ... in those days a Breton trader named Pier, of Ploumanac’h, settled in St. Nazaire. It was hardly more than a village—not that it’s major these days, as monsieur doubtless knows—but on that account a house cost little, and the location was handy for the small coastwise vessel he acquired. Men could more easily change their homes and trades then than now. Pier prospered modestly, married, raised children. At last, widowed, he declared he’d enlist in the crusade—the final one, as it turned out—that King Louis the Saint was launching. By that time he was old, but remarkably well-preserved. Many people said he still looked downright youthful. He was never seen afterward, and folk supposed he had died.

“Before he left, he made a substantial donation to the parish church. That was common when someone was about to go on a long journey, let alone off to war. However, to this gift he attached a condition. The church was to keep a box for him. He showed the priest that it contained nothing more than a rolled-up parchment, a document of some importance and confidentiality; whereupon he sealed it. One day he or an heir would return to claim it, and the parchment itself would validate that claim. Well, a request of this kind was not unheard of, and the priest duly entered it in the annals. Lifetimes went by. When I appeared, I expected I’d have to find the record for today’s priest; but he’s an antiquarian and had browsed through the books.”

Richelieu lifted the parchment and read it for perhaps the seventh time, repeatedly glancing at Lacy. “Yes,” he murmured, “this declares that the rightful heir will look just like Pier de Ploumanac’h, whatever name he bears, and describes him in full. Excellently crafted, that description.” The cardinal fancied himself a man of letters, and had written and produced several dramas. “Furthermore, there is this verse in supposed nonsense syllables that the claimant will be able to recite without looking at the text.”

“Shall I do so for monsieur?”

“No need—thus far. You did for the priest, and later for his bishop. The proof was sufficient that he in turn wrote to the bishop of this diocese, persuading him to persuade me to see you. For the document concludes by declaring that the ... heir ... will carry tidings of the utmost importance. Now why did you refuse any hint of their nature to either prelate?”

“They are only for the greatest man hi the land.”

“That is His Majesty.”

The visitor shrugged. “What chance would I have of admission to the king? Rather, I’d be arrested on suspicion of—almost anything, and my knowledge tortured out of me. Your eminence is known to be more, m-m, flexible. Of an inquiring mind. You patronize learned and literary men, you’ve founded a national academy, you’ve rebuilt and generously endowed the Sorbonne, and as for political achievements—“ His words trailed off while he waved his hands. Clearly he thought of the Huguenots curbed, yet kept conciliated; of the powers of the nobles patiently chipped down, until now their feudal castles were for the most part demolished; of the cardinal’s rivals at court outwitted, defeated, some exiled or executed; of the long war against the Imperialists, in which France—with Protestant Sweden, the ally that Richelieu obtained—was finally getting the upper hand. Who really ruled this country?

Richelieu raised his brows. “You are very well informed for a humble sea captain.”

“I have had to be, monsieur,” replied Lacy quietly.

Richelieu nodded. “You may be seated.”

Lacy bowed once more and fetched a lesser chair, which he placed before the large one at a respectful distance, and lowered himself. He sat back, seemingly at ease, but a discerning eye recognized readiness to explode into instant action. Not that there was any danger. Guards stood just outside the door.

“What is this news you bear?” Richelieu asked.

Lacy frowned. “I do not expect Your Eminence to believe upon first hearing it. I gamble my life on the supposition that you will bear with me, and will dispatch trusty men to bring you the further evidence I can provide.”

The kitten frolicked about his ankles. “Chariot likes you,” the cardinal remarked, a tinge of warmth in his voice.

Lacy smiled. “They say monsieur is fond of cats.”

“While they are young. Go on. Let me see what you know about them. It will tell me something about you.”

Lacy leaned forward and tickled the kitten around the ears. It extended tiny claws and swarmed up his stockings. He helped it to his lap, chucked it under the chin and stroked the soft fur. “I’ve had cats myself,” he said. “Afloat and ashore. They were sacred to the ancient Egyptians; They drew the chariot of the Norse goddess of love. They’re often called familiars of witches, but that’s nonsense. Cats are what they are, and never try like dogs to be anything else. I suppose that’s why we humans find them mysterious, and some of us fear or hate them.”

“While some others like them better than their fellow men, God forgive.” The cardinal crossed himself in perfunctory fashion. “You are a remarkable man, Captain Lacy.”

“In my way, monsieur, which is quite different from yours.”

Richelieu’s gaze intensified. “I obtained a report on you, of course, when I heard of your wish,” he said slowly. “But tell me about your past life in your own words.”

“That you may judge them—and me, monsieur?” The mariner’s look went afar, while his right hand continued as the kitten’s playmate. “Well, then, I’ll tell it in a curious way. You’ll soon understand the reason for that, which is that I do not want to lie to you.

“Seumas Lacy hails from northern Ireland. He can’t readily say when he was born, for the baptismal record is back there if it’s not been destroyed; but on the face of it, he must be around fifty years old. In the year 1611 the English king cleared the Irish from the best parts of Ulster and settled it with Scottish Protestants. Lacy was among those who left the country. He took a bit of money along, for he came of a mildly well-to-do seafaring family. In Nantes he found refuge with old-established Irish trading folk, who helped him regularize his status. He took the French form of his Christian name, became a French subject, and married a French woman. Being a sailor, he made long voyages, as far as Africa, the West Indies, and New France. Eventually he rose to shipmaster. He has four children alive, their ages from thirteen to five, but his wife died two years ago and he has not remarried.”

“And when he heard that I would be in Poitou for several weeks, he went downstream to St. Nazaire and opened the casket that his ... ancestor had left in the church,” Richelieu said low.

Lacy looked straight at him. “Thus it is, Your Eminence.”

“Presumably you always knew about it.”

“Obviously I did.”

“Although you are Irish? And no member of your family claimed the thing for four centuries. You yourself lived almost thirty years in nearby Nantes before you did. Why?”

“I had to be sure of the situation. At that, the decision was hard.”

“The report states that you have an associate, a redheaded man with a missing hand who goes by the name of MacMahon. Lately he has disappeared. Why?”

“No disrespect intended, Your Eminence, but I sent him off because I couldn’t foresee what would come of this, and it was wrong to risk his life also.” Lacy smiled. The kitten tumbled about his wrist. “Besides, he’s an uncouth sort. What if he gave offense?” He paused. “I took care not to know just where he’s gone. He’ll find out whether I’ve returned safely home.”

“You show a distrustfulness that is ... scarcely friendly.”

“On the contrary, monsieur, I’m putting a faith in you that I’ve put in none but my comrade for a very long time. I stake everything on the belief that you will not immediately assume I’m a madman, an enemy agent, or a sorcerer.”

Richelieu gripped the arms of his chair. Despite the robe, it could be seen how his wasted frame tautened. His eyes never wavered. “What, then, are you?” he asked tonelessly.

“I am Jacques Lacy from Ireland, your eminence,” the visitor replied with the same levelness. “The only real falsehood about that is that I was born there, for I was not. I did spend more than a centftry in it. Outside the English-held parts people have a large enough measure of freedom that it’s rather easy to change lives. But I fear they are all doomed to conquest, and the plantation of Ulster gave me an unquestionable reason for departing.

“I came back to where I had once been Pier de Ploumanac’h—who was not a Breton born. Before and after him I’ve used other names, lived in other places, pursued other trades. It’s been my way of surviving through the millennia.”

Breath hissed between teeth. “This is not a total surprise to me. Since I first heard from the bishop, I have been thinking... Are you the Wandering Jew?”

The head shook; the kitten sensed tension and crouched. “I know about rascals who’ve pretended they were him. No, monsieur, I was alive when Our Lord was on earth, but never saw him, nor knew about him till much later. Once in a while I have passed myself off as a Jew, because that was safest or simplest, but it was pretense, same as when I’ve been a Mussulman.” The mouth formed a grim grin. “For those roles, I had to get circumcised. The skin slowly grew back. On my kind, unless a wound is as great as the loss of a hand, it heals without scars.”

“I must think anew.” Richelieu closed his eyes. Presently his lips moved. They shaped the Paternoster and the Ave, while his fingers drew the Cross, over and over.

Yet when he was done and looked back upon the world, down at the parchment, he spoke almost matter-of-factly. “I saw at once that the verse here is not actually nonsense. It bears a certain resemblance to Hebraic, transcribed in Roman letters, but it is different. What?”

“Ancient Phoenician, Your Eminence. I was bora in Tyre when Hiram was its king. I’m not sure whether David or Solomon was reigning in Jerusalem just then.”

Again Richelieu closed his eyes. “Two and a half millennia ago,” he whispered. He opened them wide. “Recite the verse. I want to hear that language.”

Lacy obeyed. The rapid, guttural words rang through sounds of wind and water, through the silence that filled the chamber. The kitten sprang off his lap and pattered to a corner.

Stillness prevailed for half a minute before Richelieu asked, “What does it mean?”

“A fragment of a song, the sort men sang in taverns or when camped ashore during a voyage. ‘Black as the sky of night is my woman’s hair, bright as the stars are her eyes, round and white as the moon her breasts, and she moves like Ashtoreth’s sea. Would that my sight and my hands and myself lay upon all!’ I’m sorry it’s so profane, monsieur. It was what I could remember, and at that, I had to reconstruct it.”

Richelieu quirked a smile. “Yes, I daresay one forgets much in thousands of years. And in ... Pier’s day, clerics, too, were less refined than they are now.” Shrewdly: “Though did you expect that something like this would go a little way toward authenticating you, since it is the kind of thing that would stick in a man’s mind?”

“I am not lying to Your Eminence. In no particular.”

“In that case, you have been a liar throughout the ages.”

Lacy spread his palms. “What would monsieur have had me do? Imagine, if you please, even in this most enlightened of eras and countries, imagine I proclaimed myself openly. At best I’d be taken for a mountebank, and be lucky to escape with a scourging. I could easily go to the galleys, or hang. At worst I’d be condemned as a sorcerer, in league with Satan, and burned. Evil would befall me without my saying a word if I just stayed in one place, living on and on while they buried my sons and grandsons and I never showed signs of age. Oh, I’ve met folk—many live at this moment in the New World—for whom I could be a holy man or a god; but they’ve been savages, and I prefer civilization. Besides, civilization sooner or later overruns the savages. No, best I arrive at a new home as a plausible outsider, settle down a few decades, and at last move onward in such wise that people take for granted I’ve died.”

“What brought this fate upon you?” Richelieu signed himself anew.

“God alone knows, Your Eminence. I’m no saint, but I don’t believe I was ever an especially terrible sinner. And, yes, I am baptized.”

“When was that?”

“About twelve hundred years ago.”

“Who converted you?”

“I’d been a Christian catechumen a long time, but customs changed and— May I ask leave to defer telling how it happened?”

“Why?” demanded Richelieu.

“Because I must convince Your Eminence that I’m telling the truth, and in this case the truth looks too much like invention—“ Before those eyes, Lacy broke off, threw up his hands, laughed, and said, “Very well, if you insist. It was in Britain after the Romans were gone, at the court of a warlord. They called him Riot ham us, their High King, but mainly he had some cataphracts. With them he staved off the English invaders. His name was Artorius.”

Richelieu sat motionless.

“Oh, I was no knight of his, merely a trader who came by on my rounds,” Lacy stated. “Nor did I meet any Lancelot or Gawain or Galahad, nor see any glittering Camelot. Little of Rome lingered there. In fact, it’s only my guess that this was the seed corn of the Arthur legend. But monsieur will understand why I was reluctant to mention it at all, I was tempted to concoct a prosaic falsehood.”

Richefieu nodded. “I do understand. If you continue a liar, you are as skillful a one as I have found in a wide experience.” He forbore to inquire whether the Phoenician had embraced Christ out of expediency, the same as when he did homage to numerous other gods.

Lacy’s tone became wry. “I shan’t insult you by denying that I’ve given a great deal of beforehand thought to this interview.”

Richelieu plucked the parchment from his lap and cast it to the floor. It struck with a small rattling noise that drew the notice of the kitten. So much of a bodily gesture did the cardinal permit himself. He leaned forward, fingertips pressed together. Sunlight glistened off a great ring of gold and emerald. “What do you want from me?” he snapped.

“Your protection, monsieur,” Lacy replied, “for myself and any like me.” Color came and went in his lean cheeks, above the closely trimmed beard which had not a single silver hair.

“Who are they?”

“MacMahon is one, as your eminence must have guessed,” Lacy told him. “We met in France when it was still Gaul. I’ve encountered or heard of three more whom I wondered about, but death by mischance took them before I could be certain. And another I did feel sure of, but that person—disappeared. Our kind must be very rare, and shy of revealing themselves.”

“Vanishingty rare, as the learned doctor Descartes might put it,” said Richelieu with a flash of bleak humor.

“Some, over the centuries, may have tried to do what I am trying this day, and come to grief. No record of them would likely remain, if any was ever made.”

The kitten advanced cautiously toward the parchment. Richelieu sat back. Lacy had stayed well-nigh immobile, hands folded on the sober-hued knee breeches. “What more evidence have you to offer?” the cardinal asked.

Lacy gazed away at nothing visible. “I thought about this for lifetimes before I took the first measures.” His voice was methodical. “One gets into the habit of taking forethought and biding one’s time. Perhaps too much so. Perhaps opportunities slip by and it’s again too late. But one has learned, sometimes at a high price, monsieur, one has learned that this world is dangerous and nothing in it abides. Kings and nations, popes and gods—no irreverence meant—all go down in the dust or up in the flames, all too soon. I have my provisions, piecemeal made over the centuries, hoards buried here and there, tricks for changing identities, a tool chest of assorted skills, and ... my reliquaries. They are not all in churches, nor are they ail of them caskets containing parchments. But throughout Europe, northern Africa, hither Asia lie the tokens I planted whenever I could. My idea was that if and when a hope came along, I’d go to the nearest of those caches and retrieve what it held. That should give me my opening wedge.

“Now, if Your Eminence likes, I can describe quite a few that will be accessible to his agents. I can say exactly what the nature of each is, and where it reposes. In several cases, at least, it will definitely have been there for a long while. In every case, they can verify that Captain Jacques Lacy could not possibly have made the arrangements at any time in the half century that men have known him.”

Richelieu stroked his beard. “And meanwhile you expect to wait in custody, hostage to this material,” he murmured. “Yes. I have little doubt that if exists, for you show no signs of madness. Therefore you cannot be an impostor either, of any sort known to criminal justice. Unless, indeed, you really are a sorcerer, or an actual demon.”

A film of sweat shone on Lacy’s brow, though he responded steadily: “Holy water or exorcism won’t hurt me. You could have me put to the question. You’d find me healing quite fast from anything that didn’t kill or totally mutilate. I came here because everything I could find out made me think you are too wise—I do not say ‘merciful,’ monsieur, I say ‘wise, enlightened, intelligent’—to resort to that.”

“Others will urge me to do so.”

“Your Eminence has the power to refuse them. That’s another reason why I sought you. I’ve waited centuries for such a man at such a crux in history.”

The kitten arrived at the parchment, reached out, patted it. Curled back into a loose roll, it rustled and moved. Delighted, the kitten bounced to and fro.

Richelieu’s look smoldered. “Have you never before had a protector?”

Lacy sighed. “Once, monsieur. About three hundred years after my birth, in Egypt.”

“Tell me.”

“Like a number of Phoenicians—I’d resumed that na-_ tionality—I sailed in the service of Pharaoh Psammetk. You may have read of him under the name Psammetichus. He chanced to be strong and wise, like you, a man who saved his country from disaster and made it once more secure. Oh, I’d planned nothing, except to depart in my usual way when the tune came. But it also chanced this king lived long, reigning for more than fifty years. And I—well, it was a good service I was in; and when my first Egyptian wife died I married another and we were ... uncommonly happy. So I lingered, till the king saw past the mannerisms by which I feigned encroaching age. He persuaded me to confide in him, and took me under his wing. To him I was sacred, chosen by the gods for some purpose unknown but surely high. He set inquiries afoot throughout his realm and as far abroad as possible. Nothing came of them. As I said, my kind must be very rare.”

“What finally happened?”

“Psammetk died. His son Necho succeeded him, and had no love for me. Nor hatred, I suppose; but most of the priests and courtiers did, seeing me as a threat to their positions. It grew plain that I wouldn’t last in the royal compound. If nothing else, an assassin would get me. But the new king denied me leave to go. I think he feared what I might be able to do.

“Well, talk rose about dispatching a Phoenician crew to try sailing around Africa. I used what little influence was left me to help make that come about, and be named to it. An immortal man might prove valuable in unknown countries.” Lacy shrugged. “At the first opportunity, I jumped ship and made my way to Europe. I never found out whether the expedition succeeded. Herodotus said it did, but he was often careless about his information.”

“And I assume any record of you in Egypt has decayed, if your enemies didn’t expunge it,” Richelieu said. “Not that we can read those glyphs.”

“Please understand, monsieur,” Lacy urged, “I’ve seldom been in the presence of greatness. Psammetk, Artorius, two or three others, but usually insignificantly; and now Your Eminence. I’ve glimpsed more, but only when I was in a crowd. It’s almost always been wisest to stay obscure. Besides, I’m just an old sailor, with nothing special to offer.” Eagerly: “Except my memories. Think what I can mean to scholars. And if, under your protection, I draw other immortals to us think, my lord, what that will mean to ... France.”

Silence fell again, except for the wind, the river, a ticking dock, and the kitten that made a toy of the parchment. Richelieu brooded. Lacy waited.

At last the cardinal said: “What do you truly want of me?”

“I told you, monsieur! Your protection. A place in your service. The proclamation of what I am, and the promise that anyone like me can come to the same safe harbor.”

“Every rogue in Europe will swarm here.”

“I’ll know what questions to ask, if your learned men don’t.”

“M-m, yes, I daresay you will.”

“After you’ve made a few examples, that nuisance should end.” Lacy hesitated. “Not that I can foretell what the immortals will each prove to be like. I’ve admitted, my Mac-Mahon is a crude sort. The other whom I was sure of is, or has been, a prostitute, if she still lives. One survives as best one can.”

“But some may well be decent, or repent. Some may in truth be holy—hermits, perhaps?” Richelieu’s momentarily dreamy tone sharpened. “You have not sought for any new patron after that Egyptian king, more than two thousand years ago?”

“I told Your Eminence, one grows wary.”

“Why have you now at last let down your guard?”

“In part because of you,” Lacy answered at once. “Your Eminence hears much flattery. I needn’t go into detail about what’s the plain truth. I’ve already spoken it.

“But you by yourself wouldn’t have been enough. It’s also that I dare hope the times are right.”

The parchment jammed against a leg of the chair of state and resisted further attempts. The kitten mewed. Richelieu looked down and half reached. “Does my lord wish—?”

Lacy sprang to pick up the animal and proffer it. Richelieu took the small fuzzy form in both hands and placed it on his lap where the parchment had rested. Lacy bowed and resumed his seat.

“Continue,” the cardinal said while he caressed his pet.

“I have watched the course of things as well as a man can who’s in the middle of them,” Lacy said. “I’ve read books and listened to philosophers, and to common folk with native wit. I’ve thought. Immortality is lonely, monsieur. One has much time for thinking.

“It seems to me that in the past two or three centuries, a change has been coming upon the world. Not just the rise or fall of another empire; a change as great as the change from boy to man, or even worm to butterfly. Mortals feel it too. They speak of a Renaissance that began perhaps fourteen hundred years after Our Lord. But I see it more clearly. Pharaoh Psammetk—how far could his couriers go? How many could they find who’d understand my question that they bore, and not cower from it, ignorant and frightened? And he was as powerful a king as any in his age. The Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Persians, all the rest, they were little better as regards either knowledge or range. Nor did I ever again have access to a ruler I trusted; nor had I then thought to prepare myself for such a meeting. That came later.

“Today men have sailed around the globe; and they know it is a globe. The discoveries of such as Copernicus and Galileo—“ He saw the slight frown. “Well, be that as it may, men learn marvelous things. Europe goes forth into a whole new hemisphere. At home, for the first time since Rome fell, we begin to have good roads; one can travel swiftly, for the most part safely, over hundreds of leagues— thousands, once this war is over. Above all, maybe, we have the printing press, and more people every year who can read, who can be reached. At last we can bring the immortals together!”

Richelieu’s fingers amused the kitten, which was becoming drowsy, while his brows again drew downward. “That will take a considerable time,” he said.

“Oh, yes, as mortals reckon— Forgive me, Your Eminence.”

“No matter.” Richelieu coughed. “With none but Chariot to hear, we can speak plainly. Do you indeed believe mankind—here in France, let us say—has attained the security that you found to be such a delusion through all prior history?”

Taken aback, Lacy stammered, “N-no, monsieur, except that—I think France will be strong and stable for generations to come. Thanks largely to Your Eminence.”

Richelieu coughed afresh, his left hand to his mouth, his right reassuring the kitten. “I am not a well man, Captain,” he said, hoarsened. “I never have been. God may call me at any moment.”

Lacy’s visage took on a somehow remote gentleness. “I know that,” he said softly. “May He keep you with us for many years yet. But—”

“Nor is the king in good health,” Richelieu interrupted. “Finally, finally he and the queen are blessed with a child, a son; but the prince is not quite two years old. About when he was born, I lost Father Joseph, my closest councillor and ablest helper.”

“I know that also. But you have this Italian-born Mazarin, who’s much like you.”

“And whom I am preparing to be my successor.” Richelieu’s smile writhed. “Yes, you have studied us carefully.”

“I must. I’ve learned how, during my span on earth. And I, you too think far ahead.” Lacy’s words quickened. “I beg you, think. You’ll need a while to take this in, as well as to verify my story. I’m amazed how calmly you’ve heard me out. But—an immortal, in due course a gathering of immortals, at the service of the king—today’s king, and afterward .., his son, who should reign long and vigorously. Can you imagine what that will mean to his glory, and so to the glory ,. and power of France?”

“No, I cannot,” Richelieu snapped. “Nor can you. And I have likewise learned wariness.”

“But I tell you, Your Eminence, I can give you evidence—”

“Silence,” Richelieu commanded.

He rested left elbow on chair arm, chin on that fist, and I stared into space, as if beyond the walls, the province, the kingdom. His right hand gently stroked the kitten. It fell asleep, and he took his fingers away. The wind and the river rustled.

At last—the clock, on which Phaeton careered desperately in Apollo’s runaway sun chariot, had snipped off almost a quarter of an hour—he stirred and looked back at the other man. Lacy had gone Orientally impassive. Now his countenance came alive. The breath shivered in and out of him.

“I need not trouble myself with your tokens,” Richelieu said heavily. “I assume you are what you assert. It makes no difference.”

“I beg Your Eminence’s pardon?” Lacy whispered.

“Tell me,” Richelieu went on, and he came to sound nearly amiable, “do you, in the teeth of what you have seen and suffered, do you really believe we have won to a state of things that will endure?”

“N-no,” Lacy admitted. “No, I think instead everything is changing, everything, and this will go on and on, and nobody can guess what the end will be. But—because of it— we and the generations to come, our lives will be unlike any that ever were lived before. The old bets are off.” He paused. “I’ve grown weary of being homeless. You cannot dream of how weary. I’ll snatch at any chance of escape.”

Richelieu ignored the informal language. Perhaps he did not notice it. He nodded, and said as he might have crooned to one of his pets, “Poor soul. How brave you are, to have ventured this. Or else, as you say, how weary. But you have just your single life to lose. I have millions.”

Lacy’s head lifted stiffly. “My lord?”

“I am responsible for this realm,” Richelieu said. “The Holy Father is old and troubled and never had any gift of statecraft. Thus I am also responsible to a certain extent for the Catholic faith, which is to say Christendom. A good many people think I’ve given myself over to the Devil, and I confess to scorning most scruples. But in the end, I am responsible.

“You see this as an age of upheaval, but also of hope. You may be right, perhaps, but if so, you look on it with an immortal eye. I can only, I may only, see the upheaval. War devastating the German lands. The Empire—our enemy, yes, nevertheless the Holy Roman Empire that Charlemagne founded—bleeding to death. Protestant sect after sect springing up, each with its own doctrine, its own fanaticism. The English growing back to power, the Dutch growing newly to it, voracious and ruthless. Stirrings in Russia, India, China. God knows what in the Americas. Cannon and muskets bringing down the ancient strongholds, the ancient strengths—but what will replace them? To you, the discoveries of the natural philosophers, the books and pamphlets that pour from the printing presses, those are wonders that will bring a new era. I agree; but I, in my position, must ask myself what that era will be like. I must try to cope with it, keep it under control, knowing the entire while that I shall die unsuccessful and those who come after me will fail.”

His question lashed: “How then dare you suppose I would ever allow, yes, encourage and trumpet the knowledge that persons exist whom old age passes by? Should I— the doctor Descartes might say—throw yet another, wholly unknown and unmanageable factor into an equation already insoluble? ‘Unmanageable.’ Indeed that is the right word. The sole certainty I have is that this spark would ignite a thousand new religious lunacies and make peace in Europe impossible for another generation or worse.

“No, Captain Whatever-you-are,” he ended, glacial again in the way the world had come to fear, “I want no part of you or your immortals. France does not.”

Lacy sat equally quiet. He had had his reverses often before. “May I try to persuade Your Eminence otherwise, over the next few days or years?” he asked.

“You may not. I have too much else to occupy my mind, and too damnably little time left for it.”

Richelieu’s manner mildened. “Be at ease,” he said with half a smile. “You shall depart freely. Caution enjoins me to have you arrested and garroted within this hour. Either you are a charlatan and deserve it or a mortal danger and require it. However, I deem you a sensible man who will withdraw to his obscurity. And I am grateful to you for a fascinating glimpse of—what is best left alone. Could I have my wish, you would stay a while and we would talk at length. But that would be risky to me and unkind to you. So let us store this afternoon, not among our memories, but among our fantasies.”

Lacy sat silent for a bit, until he drew breath and answered, “Your Eminence is generous. How can you tell I won’t betray your trust and seek elsewhere?”

Richelieu chuckled. “Where else? You have called me unique. The queen of Sweden has a penchant for curious characters, true. She is still a minor, though, and when she does take power, well, everything I know about her makes me warn you most sincerely to stay away. You are already aware of the hazards in any other country that matters.”

He bridged his fingers. “In all events,” he continued, didactic, “your scheme was poor from the beginning, and my advice is that you abandon it forever. You have seen much history; but how much of it have you beenl I suspect that I, in my brief decades, have learned lessons in which your nose was never nibbed.

“Go home. Then, I strongly suggest, make provision for your children and disappear with your friend. Take up a new life, perhaps in the New World. Remove yourself, and me, from temptation, remembering what my temptation is. For you dream a fool’s dream.”

“Why?” Lacy croaked.

“Have you not guessed? Really, I am disappointed in you. Hope has triumphed over experience. Hark back. Remember how kings have kept wild animals in cages—and freaks at court. Oh, if I accepted you I might be honest in my intentions, and Mazarin might be after me; but what of young Louis XIV when he comes to his majority? What of any king, any government? The exceptions are few and fleeting. Even if you immortals were a race of philosophers who also understood how to rule me—do you suppose those who do rule would or could share power with you? And you have admitted you are only extraordinary in your lifespans. What can you become but animals in the royal menagerie, endlessly watched by the secret police and disposed of if ever you become inconveniently articulate? No, keep your freedom, whatever it costs you.

“You begged me to think about your proposal. I tell you to go and think about my counsel.”

The clock ticked, the wind blew, the river flowed.

From down in his throat, Lacy asked, “Is this Your Eminence’s last word?”

“It is,” Richelieu told him.

Lacy rose. “Best I leave.”

Richelieu’s lips contorted. “I do wish I had more time to give you,” he said, “and myself.”

Lacy approached. Richelieu extended his right hand. Lacy bowed and kissed it. Straightening, he said, “Your Eminence is as great a man as I have ever met.”

“Then God have mercy on humankind,” Richelieu replied.

“I shall never forget you.”

“I will bear that in mind for as long as is granted me. Farewell, wanderer.”

Lacy went to the door and knocked. A guard opened it. Richelieu signalled him to let the man by and close it again. Thereupon he sat with his thoughts. The sunlight lengthened. The kitten woke, scrambled down his robe, and frisked off in its own life.


XII. The Last Medicine

<p>XII. The Last Medicine</p>

Over the plain from the north the young men came a-gal-lop. The haste and rhythm of it were like the ripples that went through the grass beneath the wind. Sunflowers here and there swayed the same, lofty, petals as hot yellow as the light pouring across the world. Land and sky reached both unbounded, green seemed to meet blue but that was only at the edge of sight, distance went on and on farther than dreams could fly, A hawk rode the airflows, dipping and soaring, his wings twin flames. A flight of marshfowl lifted, so many that they darkened their quarter of heaven.

Children set to keep crows out of the fields were first to see the young men. The oldest boy among them ran back to the village, filled with importance; for Deathless had ordered that he be told of the return. Yet when the boy had passed inside the stockade and was among the houses, his courage faltered. Who was he to speak to the mightiest of all shamans? Dared he risk interrupting a spell or a vision? Women at their work saw him stand forlorn. One hailed him, “Oh6, Little Hare, what is in your heart?” But they were only women, the old men he glimpsed were only old men, and surely this was a thing of terrible power if Deathless cared so much about it.

The boy gulped and made for a certain house. Its dun sod loomed over him. When he came around its length to the front, the doorway gaped on a nightful cave where a single banked fire glimmered red. The families that shared it were elsewhere, doing their tasks or, if they had none, taking their ease down by the river. One did remain, the person for whom Little Hare had hoped, a man dressed in woman’s clothes, grinding corn. He looked up and asked in his mild way, “What do you wish, lad?”

Little Hare gulped. “The hunters come back,” he said. “Will you go tell the shaman, Three Geese?”

The noise of stone against stone ceased. The berdache rose. “I will,” he replied. Such as he had some power against the unseen, perhaps because the spirits made up to them for their lack of manliness. Besides, he was a son of Deathless. He dusted meal off his buckskin, uncoiled his braids, and departed at a dignified pace. Little Hare gusted relief before he started back to his duty. Eagerness tingled in him. What a brave sight the riders would be when they went by!

The shaman’s house stood next to the medicine lodge at the middle of the village. It was smaller than the rest because it was only for him and his family. He was there just then with his wives. Copperbright, mother of Three Geese, sat on the ground outside, watching over the two small daughters of Quail Wing while they played in the sun. Bent, half-blind, she was glad she could still help this much at her great age. In the doorway, Rain At Evening, who had been born the same winter as the berdache, helped a daughter of her own, Dawn Mist, ornament a dress with dyed quills for the maiden’s forthcoming marriage. She greeted the newcomer and, at his word, went inside to call her husband. Deathless came forth after a short while, still fastening his breechclout. Young Quail Wing peeped out from within, looking rumpled and happy.

“Ohe, father,” said Three Geese with due respect but not the awe that was in the likes of Little Hare. After all, this man had dandled him when he was a baby, taught him to know the stars and how to set snares and everything else needful or delightful—and, when it grew clear that the youth was not going to become fully a man, never lessened his love but accepted the fact with the calm of one who had watched hundreds of lives blow past on the wind. “They have seen Running Wolf’s party on the way back to us.”

Deathless stood quiet for a bit. When he frowned, a single wrinkle spread on his face. Sweat made his skin gleam over the springy muscles tike dew upon rock; his hair was like the rock itself, polished obsidian. “Are they sure that is who it is?” he asked.

“Why, who else?” replied Three Geese, astonished.

“Enemies—”

“Raiders would not come so openly, in broad daylight. Father, you have heard about the Pariki and their ways.”

“Oh, true, I have,” the shaman muttered, as if he had forgotten and needed reminding. “Well, I must make haste now, for I want to speak to the hunters alone.”

He went back into his house. Berdache and women exchanged looks where foreboding stirred. Deathless had spoken against the buffalo hunt, but Running Wolf had gotten his band together and left too swiftly for any real talk about it. Since then Deathless had brooded, and sometimes taken elders aside, who afterward kept silence themselves. What did they fear?

Soon Deathless reappeared. He had donned a shirt with strong signs burnt into the leather. White swirls of paint marked his countenance; a cap made from the pelt of a white mink encircled his brows. In his left hand he bore a gourd rattle, in his right a wand topped with a raven’s skull. The rest stood aside, even the children gone silent. This was no longer the kindly, rather quiet husband and father they knew; this was he in whom a spirit dwelt, he who never grew old, he who during the ages had guided his folk and made them unlike any other.

The hush followed him as he walked among the dwellings. Not every eye watched with the ancient reverence. Especially hi the heads of boys, several smoldered.

Through the open gate of the stockade he passed, and through the patches of corn, beans, and squash outside. The village stood on a bluff overlooking a broad, shallow river and the cotton woods along the banks. Northward the ground sloped into gently rolling hugeness. Hereabouts short-grass prairie gave way to tall-grass plain. Shadows went mysterious over green waves. The hunters were now quite near. Earth drummed to hoofbeats.

When he recognized the man afoot, Running Wolf signalled halt and reined in. His mustang whinnied and curvetted before standing quiet. Leggings held close against ribs, the rider sat the beast as if he had grown from it or it from him. His dozen followers were nearly as skillful. Under the sun, men and horses alike blazed with hie. In some hands were lances, on some shoulders hung bows and quivers. A knife of the finest flint rested at each waist. Headbands bore patterns of lightning bolt, thunderbird, hornet. From Running Wolf’s, feathers of eagle and jay thrust upward—did he think someday he would fly?

“Oh£, great one,” he said reluctantly. “You honor us.”

“How went the chase?” asked Deathless. , Running Wolf gestured backward at the pack animals. They bore hides, heads, haunches, humps, entrails, umbles, lavishness that strained against rawhide lashings. Already, as they rested, the grease and clotted blood were drawing flies. Exultance surged in his voice: “Never was such sport, never such slaughter! We left more than this behind for the coyotes. Today the people feast, no, they gorge.”

“The spirits will punish wastefulness,” Deathless warned.

Running Wolf squinted at him while retorting, “What, is Coyote not pleased that we feed his kind so well too? And the buffalo are as many as the blades of grass.”

“A fire can blacken the land—”

“And with the first ram it springs green anew.”

Breath hissed between teeth when the leader thus dared interrupt the shaman; but none of the band were really shocked. Two grinned.

Deathless ignored the breach, save that his tone grew harder stil “When the buffalo come by, our men go forth to take of them. First they offer the proper dances and sacrifices. Afterward I explain our need to the ghosts of the quarry, that they be appeased. So it has always been, and we have prospered in peace. Ill must come from leaving the ancient, proven path. I win tell you what atonement you can make, and lead you in it.”

“And shall we then return to waiting until a herd drifts within a day’s walk of here? Shall we try to cut a few out and kill them without any man getting gored or trampled? Or if we are lucky, may we stampede the whole herd over a drop, and see most meat rot before we can eat it? If our fathers brought home little, it was because they could do no more, nor could the dogs draw much on their wretched tra-vois.” Running Wolf’s words came in spate, never hesitating. Clearly he had awaited this encounter sometime upon his return, and planned what he would say.

“And if the new ways are unlucky,” exclaimed Red Hawk, “why do the tribes that follow them flourish so mightily? Shall they take everything, and we pick the carrion bones?”

Running Wolf frowned at his follower and beckoned for silence. Deathless sighed. His response was almost gentle: “I foreknew you would speak like this. Therefore I sought you out where nobody else can hear. It is hard for a man to admit he has been wrong. Together we shall find how you can set things right and still keep your pride. Come with me to the medicine lodge, and we will seek a vision.”

Running Wolf straightened, sheer against the sky. “Vision?” he cried. “I have had mine, old man, under the high stars after a day when we raced with the wind. I saw riches overflowing, deeds men will remember longer than you yourself have lived and will live, glory, wonder. New gods are in the land, fiery from the hands of the Creator, and— they ride on horses whose hoofs drum thunder and strike forth lightning. It is for you to make peace with them!”

Deathless lifted his wand and shook his rattle. Unease crossed faces. The mounts felt it and snorted, shied, stamped.

“I meant no offense, great one,” Running Wolf said quickly. “You wish us to talk free of fear and boasting alike, no? Well, if I got too loud, I’m sorry,” He tossed his head. “Nevertheless, the dream did come to me. I have told my comrades, and they believe.”

The magical things sank earthward in the shaman’s grasp. He stood for a little while unmoving, dark amidst the sunlight and grass, before he said low, “We must talk further and try to learn the meaning of what has happened.”

“Indeed we must.” Relief made Running Wolf’s tone kindly. “Tomorrow. Come, great one, let me lend you this, my prize stallion, and I will walk while you ride into the village, and you will bless us there as you have always blessed the returning hunters.”

“No.” Deathless went from them.

They sat mute, troubled, until Running Wolf laughed. He sounded like his namesake in wooded eastern country. “The joy among our people will be blessing enough,” he said. “And ah, for us the women, hotter than their fires!”

Most of them had to force an echo of his mirth. However, the act heartened them. He at the forefront, they struck heels to flanks and pounded whooping ahead. When they passed the shaman, they never glanced his way.

Upon his own entry, he found tumult. Folk seethed about the party, shouted, capered, exulted. Dogs clamored. The abundance was more than meat. It was fat, bone, horn, gut, sinew, all they needed to make nearly all they wanted. And this was the barest beginning. The hides would become coverings for tipis—those that were not traded eastward for poles—and then whole families could range as fax and as long as they wished, hunt, butcher, tan, preserve on the spot, before going on to the next kill and the next...

“Not overnight,” Running Wolf cautioned. Though he spoke weightily, his voice carried through the racket. “We have few horses yet. And first we must care for these that have served us.” Victory rang: “But we shall soon have more. Every man of us shall have his herd.”

Somebody howled, somebody else did likewise, and then the tribe was howling—his sign, his name, his leadership to be.

Deathless went around them. Few noticed him. Those looked away, abashed, before throwing themselves the more wildly back into jubilance.

The wives and youngest children of Deathless stood fast outside his house. There they could not see the crowd, but the cheers broke across them. Quail Wing’s gaze kept drifting yonder, wistfully. She was hardly more than a girl. He halted, confronted them. Lips parted but nobody had words.

“You were good to wait here,” he said at length. “Now you may as well go join the rest, help cook the food, share in the feast.”

“And you?” asked Rain At Evening low.

“I have not forbidden it,” he said bitterly. “How could I?”

“You counselled against the horses, you counselled against the hunt,” quavered Copperbright. “What madness is in them, that they no longer heed you?”

“They will learn better,” Rain At Evening avowed.

“I am thankful I shall soon be snug hi death.” Copperbright reached a gnarled hand toward Deathless. “But you, poor darling, you must live through that lesson.”

Quail Wing regarded her children and shuddered a little.

“Go,” said the man. “Have pleasure. Also, it will be wise. We must not let the folk feel divided. That could well destroy them. I always strove to keep my people together.”

Rain At Evening considered him. “However, you will stay away?” she asked.

“I will try to think what can be done,” he answered, and went into the medicine lodge. They lingered a bit, troubled, before leaving. His unsureness, the defiance of him, struck at the heart of everything by which they had lived.

With its entrance toward sunrise, the lodge had at this time of day gone gloomy. Light from doorway and smoke-hole lost itself in shadows brimming the circle of floor and walls. Things magical were blurs, gleams, hunched lumps. Deathless laid buffalo chips in the firepit at the center. He worked with drill and tinder until flames licked small. After he had banked the fire, he put tobacco that traders bore from afar into his calumet, kindled it, breathed deep, let the sacred dizziness whirl him off toward meditation.

Insight escaped him. He was wanly glad when a form darkened the doorway. By then the sun was on the horizon he could not see. Light tinged with yellow the smoke that drifted thick and savory off cookfires. The din of celebration was at once loud and remote, only half real.

“Father?” came a shy whisper.

“Enter,” said Deathless. “Be welcome.”

Three Geese stooped, passed through, settled on the opposite side of the pit. His face was barely visible, webbed and gullied with encroaching age, full of the concern that a berdache need not be ashamed to show. “I hoped you would give me refuge here, father,” he said.

“From what?” asked Deathless. “Has anyone abused you?”

“No, no. Everybody is gleeful.” Three Geese winced. “That is what hurts. Even the old men seem to have cast their doubts from them.”

“Save for you.”

“And perhaps a few others. How should I know? More of the women are with us in their hearts, but the men sweep them along. And it is a mighty gain that Running Wolf and his followers have made.”

“He promises unboundedly much in the future.”

Three Geese grunted an affirmative.

“Why do you not share these hopes?” Deathless asked.

“You are my father, who was always kind to me,” said the berdache. “I fear there will be scant kindness in the morrow that Running Wolf brings.”

“From what we know about the tribes who have gone the way of the horse, that is so.”

“I have heard men say—when I happened to be in earshot of man-talk—that some are forced to it.”

“True. They are thrust from their ancient homes, the eastern woodlands, out onto the prairie, by invaders from farther east. They say those invaders bear horrible weapons that shoot lightning. They get them from pale-skinned foreigners such as we hear rumors of. But others, like the Par-iki, have freely taken to the horse, and spill out of the west, out of the mountains yonder.

“They did not have to. We do not have to. I have spoken with travelers, traders, whoever bears news from outside. North of us the Ankara, Hidatsa, and Mandan still live in olden wise. They remain strong, well-off, content. I would have us do the same.”

“I have talked with two or three of those young men who brought horses despite your counsel, father,” said Three Geese. “One of them went forth with Running Wolf, first to practice, later on this buffalo hunt. They say—he says— they intend no disrespect, no overthrow of anything. They only want for us whatever is good in the new ways.”

“I know. I also know you cannot pick and choose. Change is a medicine bundle. You must refuse it altogether, or take the whole thing.”

Sorrow thinned the voice of Three Geese: “Father, I do not question your wisdom, but I have heard some who do. They wonder if you can understand change, you who live outside of time.”

Deathless smiled sadly through the dusk. “Strange, my son, strange that only now, when you near the end of your days, do we truly confide in each other.” He drew breath. “Well, I seldom speak of my youth. It was so long ago that it seems a half-forgotten dream. But as a boy I listened to my grandfather tell about the drought of many years that at last made our people trek eastward from the uplands, to find a better home here. We were still learning how to be plainsfolk when I became a man. I had no idea then of what I was. No, I expected to grow old and lie down to rest in the earth like everyone else. When, slowly, we came to see that this was not happening—what more soulshaking change than that can you imagine? Since it was clear the gods had singled me out, I must seek the shaman, have him teach me, change from man to disciple, finally from housefather to shaman myself. And the years flew by faster and faster. I saw girls born whom I wed when they were grown and buried when they had died, along with the children, the children. I saw more tribes pour onto the plains, and war begin among them. Do you know it was only hi your mother’s girlhood that we decided we must build a stockade? True, a certain awe of me has helped keep enemies off, but—Running Wolf has had a vision of new gods.”

He laughed wearily. “Yes, my son, I have known change. I have felt time rush by tike a river hi flood, bearing the wreckage of hopes downstream out of sight. Now do you understand why I have tried to bulwark my people against it?”

“They must heed you,” Three Geese groaned. “Make a medicine that will open their eyes and unstop their ears.”

“Who can make a medicine against time?”

“If anyone can, father, that one is you.” The berdache hugged himself and shivered, though the air was still mild. “This is a good life we have, a gentle life. Save it for us!”

“I will try,” said Deathless. “Leave me alone with the spirits.” He held out his arms. “But first come and let me embrace you, my son,”

The old cold body trembled against the firm warm flesh, then Three Geese said farewell and departed.

Deathless sat unmoving as embers faded and night welled up out of the earth. Noise continued, drum-throb, chants, feet stamping around an extravagant fire. It grew louder when the doorway brightened again. A full moon had risen. That gray went black as the moon climbed higher, though the ground outside remained hoar. At last the merrymaking dwindled until silence laid its robe over the whole village.

No vision had come. Perhaps a dream would. He had heard that men of nomad tribes often tortured themselves in hope that that would call the spirits to them. He would abide with the ancient unforced harmonies. On a few heaped skins, one atop him, he slept.

Stars fared across heaven. Dew glittered in deepening chill. The very coyotes had quieted. Only the river murmured, along the banks, under the cottonwoods, around the sandbars, on and on in retreat from the sinking moon.

Slowly, eastern stars dimmed as their part of the sky turned pale.

The hoofs that ueared scarcely broke the stillness. Riders dismounted, left their animals in care of chosen companions, approached on foot.

They meant to steal the horses hobbled outside the stockade. A boy’on watch saw them and sped for the gate. He screamed his warning till a warrior overtook him, A lancethrust cast him to hands and knees. Little Hare gobbled around the blood that welled into his mouth. He threshed about till he fell in a heap that looked very small. War cries ripped the dawn.

“Out!” roared Running Wolf before his house. “It’s an attack! Save the horses!”

He was the first to dash forth into the open, but men swarmed after him, mostly naked, clutching whatever weapons they had snatched. The strangers sprang at them. Alien words yowled. Arrows whirred. Men screamed when struck, less in pain than in fury. Running Wolf bore a tomahawk. He sought the thick of the foe and hewed, snarled, a tornado.

Bewildered, the villagers nevertheless outnumbered the raiders. The Pariki leader yelled commands. His men rallied to him, where he shook his lance on high. In a body, they beat the defenders aside and poured through the opened gate.

Dawnlight strengthened. Like prairie dogs, women, children, old folk fled back into houses. The Pariki laughed and pursued them.

Running Wolf lost time getting his dismayed fighters together. Meanwhile the Pariki made their quick captures—a woman or child seized, hauled outside, or fine pelts grabbed, a buffalo robe, a shirt with colorful quillwork— and regathered in the lane that went straight to the gateway.

One warrior found a beautiful young woman with an aging one and a crone in the smallest of the houses, next to a round lodge. She wailed and clawed at his eyes. He pinned her wrists at her back and forced her along, regardless of struggles or of the others who sought to hinder him. A man bounded from the lodge. He was unarmed apart from a wand and a rattle. When he shook them, the warrior hooted and swung tomahawk at him. The man must dodge back. The raider and his prey joined the rest of the war band.

Running Wolf’s men milled in the entrance. At their backs, those Pariki who had kept the horses arrived at a gallop, with the free beasts on strings. The villagers scattered. The forayers seized manes, got on with a single leap, dragged booty or captives up after them. The men who had already been riding helped injured comrades mount and collected three or four dead.

Running Wolf bayed, egged his people on. Their arrows were spent, but enough of them finally came at his heels that the foe made no further try for their herd. Instead the Pariki rode west, .bearing their prizes. Dazed with horror, the villagers did not give chase.

The sun rose. Blood glowed brilliant.

Deathless sought the battle place. Folk were getting busy there. Some mutilated two corpses the enemy had not recovered, so that the ghosts must forever drift in the dark; these persons wished aloud for live prisoners to torture to death. Others tended their own slain. Three Geese was among those who worked on the wounded. His hands eased anguish; his low voice helped men bite back any cries. Deathless joined him. The healing arts were part of a shaman’s lore.

“Father,” said the berdache, “I think we need you more to make medicine against fresh misfortune.”

“I know not if any power to do that is left in me,” Deathless replied.

Three Geese pushed a shaft deeper into a shoulder, until the barbed head came out the rear and he could pull the entire thing free. Blood welled, flies buzzed. He packed the hole with grass. “I am ashamed that I was not in the fight,” he mumbled.

“You are long past your youth, and fighting was never for you,” Deathless said. “Buf I— Well, this took me by surprise; and I have forgotten whatever I once knew about combat.”

Running Wolf stalked around, tallying the harm that had been done. He overheard. “None of us knew anything,” he snapped. “We shall do better next time.”

Three Geese bit his lip. Deathless went impassive.

Afterward he did undertake his duties as the shaman. With his disciple, who yesterday had never come near him, he led rites for the lost, cast spells for the clean mending of wounds, made offerings to the spirits. An elder mustered courage to ask why he did not seek omens. “The future has become too strange,” he answered, and left the man standing appalled. By eventide he could take a short span to console Quail Wing’s children for the taking of their mother, before he again went alone into the medicine lodge.

Next morning the people buried the dead. Later they would dance in their honor. First, though, the hale men gathered at a place which had known happier meetings. Running Wolf had demanded it—no council of elders calmly finding their way toward agreement, but every man who could walk—and none cared to gainsay him.

They assembled before a knoll near the bluff edge. Standing on it, a man could look south to the broad brown river and its trees, the only trees anywhere in sight; east to the stockade, the fields clustered about it, gravemounds both raw and time-worn; elsewhere across grass that billowed and shimmered, green and white, under a shrill wind. Clouds flew past, trailing shadows through a sunlight gone harsh. Thunderheads loomed blue-black in the west. From here the works of man seemed no more than anthills, devoid of life. Nothing but the horses moved yonder. They chafed at their hobbles, eager to be off and away.

Running Wolf mounted the knoll and raised an arm. “Hear me, my brothers,” he called. Wrapped in a buffalo robe, he seemed even taller than he was. He had gashed his cheeks for mourning and painted black bars across his face for vengefulness. The wind fluttered the plumes in his headband.

“We know what we have suffered,” he told the eyes and the souls that sought him. “Now we must think why it happened and how we shall keep it from ever happening again.

“I say to you, the answers are simple. We have few horses. We have hardly any men who are good hunters upon them, and we have no skilled warriors at all. We are poor and alone, huddled within our miserable walls, living off our meager crops. Meanwhile other tribes ride forth to garner the wealth of the plains. Meat-fed, they grow strong. They can feed many mouths, therefore they breed many sons, who in turn become horseman hunters. They have the time and the mettle to learn war. Their tribes may be strewn widely, but proud brotherhoods and sisterhoods, oath-societies, bind them together. Is it then any wonder that they make booty of us?”

His glance fell hard on Deathless, who stood in the front row under the hillock. The shaman’s gaze responded, unwavering but blank. “For years they stayed their hand,” Running Wolf said. “They knew we had one among us who was full of spirit power. Nonetheless, at last a band of young men resolved to make a raid. I think some among them had had visions. Visions come readily to him who rides day after day across empty space and camps night after night beneath star-crowded skies. They may have urged each other on. I daresay they simply wanted our horses. The fight became as bloody as it did because we ourselves had no idea of how to wage it. This too we must learn.

“But what the Pariki have found, and soon every plains ranger will know, is that we have lost whatever defense was ours. What new medicine have we?”

He folded his amis. “I ask you, Deathless, great one, what new medicine you can make,” he said. Slowly, he stepped aside.

Indrawn breath whispered among the men, beneath the damp chill that streaked from the stonnclouds. They stared at the shaman. He stood still an instant. Thereafter he climbed the knoll and confronted Running Wolf. He had not adorned himself in any way, merely donned buckskins. Against the other man, he seemed drab, the life in him faded.

Yet he spoke steadily: “Let me ask you first, you who take leadership from your elders, let me ask you and let you tell us what you would have the people do.”

“I did tell you!” Running Wolf declared. “We must get more horses. We can breed them, boy them, catch them wild, and, yes, steal them ourselves. We must go win our share of the riches on the plains. We must become skilled in the arts of war. We must find allies, enroll in societies, take our rightful place among folk who speak Lakotan tongues. And all this we must begin upon at once, else it will be too late.”

“Thus is your beginning,” said Deathless quietly. “The end is that you will forsake your home and the graves of your ancestors. You will have no dwellings save your tipis, but be wanderers upon the earth, like the buffalo, the coyote, and the wind.”

“That may be,” replied Running Wolf with the same lev-elness. “What is bad about it?”

A gasp went from most listeners; but several young men nodded, like horses tossing their heads.

“Show respect,” quavered an aged grandson of the shaman. “He is still the Deathless one.”

“He is that,” acknowledged Running Wolf. “I have spoken what was in my heart. If it be mistaken, tell us. Then tell us what we should do, what we should become, instead.”

He alone heard the answer. The rest divined it, and some wrestled with terror while others grew thoughtful and yet others shivered as if in sight of prey.

“I cannot.”

Deathless turned from Running Wolf, toward the gathering. His voice loudened, though each word fell stone-heavy. “I have no further business here. I have no more medicine. Before any of you were born, rumors came to. me of these new creatures, horses, and of strange men who had crossed great waters with lightnings at their command. In time the horses reached our country, and that which I feared began to happen. Today it is done. What will come of it, nobody can foretell. All that I knew has crumbled between my fingers.

“Whether you must change or not—and it may well be that you must, for you lack the numbers to keep a settlement defended—you will change, my people. You want it, enough of you to draw the rest along. I no longer can. Time has overtaken me.”

He raised his hand. “Therefore, with my blessing, let me go.”

It was Running Wolf who cried, “Go? Surely not! You have always been ours.”

Deathless smiled the least bit. “If I have learned anything in my lifetimes of years,” he said, “it is that there is no ‘always.’ ”

“But where would you go? How?”

“My disciple can carry out what is needful, until he wins stronger medicine from warrior tribes. My grown sons will see to the welfare of my two old wives and my small children. As for myself—I think I will fare alone in search of renewal, or else of death and an end of striving.”

Into their silence, he finished: “I served you as well as I was able. Now let me depart.”

He walked down the knoll and away from them. Never did he look back.


XIII. Follow the Drinking Gourd

<p>XIII. Follow the Drinking Gourd</p>

A thunderstorm flamed and boomed during the night. By morning the sky was clear, everything asparkle, but the fields were too wet for work. That didn’t matter. Crops were coming along fine, alfalfa so deep a green you could nearly hear the color and corn sure to be knee-high by the Fourth of July. Matthew Edmonds decided that after chores and breakfast he’d fix up his plow. The colter needed sharpening and there was a crack in the whippletree. If he reinforced it, he could get yet another season’s use out of it before prudence called for replacement. Then Jane had a long list of tinkerings around the house for him.

When he closed the kitchen door, he stopped and drew a breath on the top step. The air was cool and damp, rich with smells of soil, animals, growth. On his right the sun had just cleared the woods behind the bam; the rooster weathervane there threw the light back aloft into a blue that had no end. The yard was muddy, but puddles shone like mirrors. He let his eyes run left, across silo, pigsty, chickenhouse, over his acres that rolled away beyond them bearing the earth’s abundance. Could he, could any man ever make any real return for the blessings of the Lord? . Something flickered at the edge of sight. He turned his head fully left. You could see the county road from here, about a hundred yards off along the west edge of the property. On the other side lay Jesse Lyndon’s land, but his bouse was to the north, hidden from this by its own patch of woods. The Edmonds’ drive was also screened from sight, :lined with apple trees whose fruit was starting to swell among pale-bright leaves. Out from between them ran a woman.

Chief, the half-collie, was helping ten-year-old Jacob take the cows to pasture. That was just as well. The woman acted scared when Frankie bounded forth barking at her, and he was only a fox terrier. At least, she shied from him and made fending motions. She kept on running, though. No, she staggered, worn out, close to dropping. All she had on was a thin dress that had once been yellow, halfway down her shins. A shift, would the ladies call it? Ragged, filthy, and drenched, it clung to a skin from under which the flesh had melted away. That skin was the shade of weak coffee.

Edmonds sprang down the steps and broke into a run himself. “You, Frankie, quiet!” he hollered. “Shut up!” The little dog skipped aside, wagged his tail, and lolled his tongue.

Man and woman met near the corncrib, stopped, stared at each other. She looked young, maybe twenty, in spite of what hardship had done to her. Feed her up and she’d be slender and tall instead of skinny. Her face was different from the usual, narrow, nose curved and not very wide, lips hardly fuller than on some whites, big eyes with beautiful long lashes. Hair, cut short, wasn’t really kinky; it would bush out if ever she let it grow. Edmonds thought with a pang how a slaveowner must have forced her mother or her grandmother.

The wind went raw in her throat. She tried to straighten, but a shiver took hold of her. “Peace,” Edmonds said. “Thee is with friends.”

She stared. He was a big sandy man, wearing clothes darker than most and a hat that was flat of crown, broad of brim. After a moment she gasped, “Yo’ Massa Edmonds?”

He nodded. “Yes.” His voice stayed easy. “And thee, I think, is a fugitive.”

She half lifted her hands. “Please, sub, please, dey’s aftuh me, right behin’ me!”

“Then come.” He took her arm and led her across the yard to the kitchen door.

The room beyond was large and sunny, clean-scrubbed but still full of sweet odors. Jane Edmonds was spooning oatmeal into Nellie, not quite one, while four-year-old William stood on a stool and manfully pumped water into a kettle fresh off the stove. Its earlier load steamed in a dishpan. Everybody stopped when Father and the Negress appeared.

“This girl needs shelter, and quickly,” Edmonds told his wife.

Herself fine-boned, hair peeping red from beneath a scarf, she dropped the spoon and clutched fist between fingers. “Oh, dear, we haven’t any real hiding place ready.” Decision: “Well, the attic must serve. Nothing in the basement to hide behind. Maybe the old trunk, if they search our house—”

The Negress leaned against the counter. She didn’t pant or shake now, but wildness still dwelt in her eyes. “Go with Jane,” Edmonds told her. “Do what she says. We’ll take care of thee.”

A brown hand snaked out. The big butcher knife almost flew from the rack into its grasp. “Dey ain’ gon’ take me live!” she yelled.

“Put that down,” Jane said, shocked.

“Child, child, thee must not be violent,” Edmonds added. “Trust in the Lord.”

The girl crouched back, blade bright in front of her. “Ah don’ wanna hurt nobody,” she answered, raspy-voiced, “but dey fin’ me, Ah kill manse’f ‘fo’ dey take me back, an’ fust Ah kill one o’ dem if’m de Lawd he’p me.”

Tears stood forth in Jane’s eyes. “What have they done, to drive thee to this?”

Edmonds cocked his head. “Frankie’s barking again. Don’t wait, let her keep the knife, just get her out of sight. I’ll go talk to them.”

Since his boots were muddy, he went straight out and around the corner of the house to the front porch on the west side. The drive branched off where the apple trees ended, an arm leading south. Edmonds hushed the dog and placed himself on the step before the screen door, arms folded. When the two men saw him, they cantered that way and drew rein.

Their horses were splashed but fairly fresh. At each saddle was sheathed a shotgun, at each belt hung a revolver. One rider was burly and blond, one gaunt and dark. “Good day, friends,” Edmonds greeted them. “What can I do for ye?”

“We’re after a runaway nigger woman,” said the blond man, “You seen her?”

“How does thee suppose I should know?” Edmonds replied. “Ohio is a free state. Any person of color passing by should be as free as thee or me.”

Hie dark man spat. “How many like that you got around here? They’re all runaways, and you damn well know it, Quaker.”

“I do not, friend,” said Edmonds with a smile. “Why, I could name thee George at the feed store, Caesar in the blacksmith shop, Mandy who keeps house for the Abshires—”

“Stop stallin’ us,” snapped the blond man. “Listen, this mornin’ early we seen her ourselves, way off. She ducked into some woods and shook us, but this here’s jest about the only way she could come, and we’ve found barefoot tracks in the road.”

“And up your drive!” crowed his companion.

Edmonds shrugged. “It’s getting to be summer. Children leave off their shoes whenever we let them.”

The blond man narrowed his eyes. “All right, sub,” he murmured. “If you’re so innocent, you won’t mind us lookin’ through your place, will you?”

“She could’a snuck in without you knowin’,” suggested the other. He forced a smile. “You wouldn’t like that, you with a wife and kids, I’ll bet. We’ll jest make sure for you.”

“Yen, you wouldn’t break the law,” said the first. “You’ll co-op-erate, sure. C’mon, Alien.”

He moved to dismount. Edmonds raised a thick, hard hand. “Wait, friend,” he called softly. “I am sorry, but I cannot invite either of ye in.”

“Huh?” grunted the blond man.

Alien snickered. “He’s skeered o’ what his wife’ll do if we track up her floor, Gabe. Don’t you worry, sun, we’ll wipe our feet real good.”

Edmonds shook his head. “It grieves me, friends, but neither of ye is welcome. Please go.”

“Then you are harborin’ the nigger!” Gabe exploded.

“I did not say that, friend. I simply do not wish to talk further with ye. Please get off my land.”

“Listen, you. Helpin’ a runaway, that’s a federal crime. Could cost you a thousand dollars or six months in jail. Law says you got to help us.”

“An iniquitous ordinance, as wrong as President Pierce’s designs on Cuba, plain contrary to God’s commandments.”

Alien drew his pistol. “I’ll give you a commandment,” he snarled. “Stand aside.”

Edmonds didn’t stir. “The Constitution grants my family and me the right to be secure in our home,” he told them with the same calm.

“By God—“ The weapon lifted. “You wanna get shot?”

“That would be a pity. Thee would hang, thee knows.”

Gabe gestured. “Put that away, Alien.” He straightened in the saddle. “Aw right, Mr. Niggerlover. Tam’t far to town. I’m goin’ right in there and git me a warrant and a deppity sheriff. Alien, you watch and see nobody sneaks out o’ here while I’m gone.” He squinted back at Edmonds. “Or you wanna be reasonable? Your last chance, boy.”

“Unless the Lord show me otherwise,” Edmonds said, “I believe I am the reasonable man here and ye, friends, are terribly mistaken.”

“Aw right! About time we started makin’ some examples. Watch close, Alien.” Gabe wheeled his horse and struck spurs to flanks. In a shower of mud, he galloped away. Frankie’s barking sounded thia against the hoofbeats.

“Now, friend, kindly remove thyself,” Edmonds said to Alien.

The slavecatcher grinned. “Oh, I think I’ll jest ride around, this fine mornin’. Won’t hurt nothin’, won’t poke in nowheres.”

“Thee will nevertheless be trespassing.”

“I don’t think the jedge’ll call it that, you a lawbreaker and all.”

“Friend, we in this family have always done our humble best to observe the law.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Alien unlimbered his shotgun and laid it across his saddlebow. He clucked to the horse and jogged off, around the yard, on patrol.

Edmonds went back inside. Jane was on hands and knees, cleaning tracks off her floors. She rose and stood quietly “while her husband told her what had happened. “What shall we do?” she asked.

“I must think,” he answered. “Surely the Lord will provide.” His gaze sought William. “My son, thee is happy, because thee is too young to know about evil. However, thee can help us. Pray keep silent, unless thee needs something for thyself, and then speak only to thy mother. Say no word to anybody else till I tell thee. Can thee do that?”

“Yes, father,” piped the boy, delighted by the responsibility.

Edmonds chuckled. “At thy age, it won’t be so easy. Later I’ll tell thee a story about another boy named William. He became famous for keeping still. To this day they call him William the Silent. But thee’d better hold thyself aside. Thee may go play with thy toys.”

The lad pattered off. Jane wrung her hands. “Matthew, must we endanger the children?”

Edmonds took both her hands in his. “A deal more dangerous it’d be to let wickedness go unresisted... Well, thee see to Nellie. I’d better catch Jacob on his way back. And we all have our work to do.”

His older-son, tanned and towheaded, came into sight from behind the barn as the man stepped out again. Edmonds walked unhurriedly to meet him. Alien saw from a distance and rode toward them. The big dog, Chief, sensed trouble and growled.

Edmonds quieted him. “Jacob,” he said, “go clean up.”

“Of course, father,” replied the boy, surprised.

“But don’t head for school. Wait in the house. I think I’ll have an errand for thee.”

The blue eyes widened, went to the approaching stranger, back to the parent, kindled with understanding. “Yes, sir!” Jacob scampered from them.

Alien halted. “What you been talkin1 about?” he demanded.

“Can’t a man speak to his son any more in these United States?” The smallest bit of harshness touched Edmonds’ tone. “I almost wish my religion would let me kick thee off my grounds. Meanwhile, at least leave us alone in our business. // doesn’t hurt, anybody.”

In spite of his weapons, Alien looked uneasy. Edmonds stood bear-powerful. “I got my livin’ to make, same as you,” the slavecatcher mumbled.

“Plenty of honest jobs around. Where is thee from?”

“Kentucky. Where else? Gabe Yancy and me, we been trackin’ that coon for days.”

“Then the poor creature must be half dead from hunger and weariness. The Ohio’s a wide river. Thee does not think she could swim across, does thee?”

“I dunno how, but them niggers got their ways. Some-body’d seen her yestiddy on t’ other bank, like she meant to cross. So we ferried over this mornin’, and sure ‘nough, found somebody else who’d sported what had to be her. And then we seen her ourselves, till she went into the woods. If only we’d’a had a dawg or two—”

“Brave men, chasing unarmed women like animals.”

The rider leaned forward. “Listen,” he said, “she ain’t jest any old runaway off a plantation. They’s somethin’ queer about her, somethin’ real wrong. That’s how come Mr. Montgomery was fixin’ to sell her south. He wants her back for more’n the money she’s worth.” He wet his lips. “And don’t you forget, if she gits away, you got a thousand dollars owin’ to him, ‘sides the fine and jail.”

“That’s if they can prove I had anything to do with her escape.”

Anger flashed: “You won’t lie your way out o’ this.”

“Lying is against the principles of the Society of Friends. Now kindly let me get on with my work.”

“So you don’t lie to nobody, huh? You ready to swear you ain’t hidin’ any nigger?”

“Swearing is against our religion too. We don’t lie, that’s all. It doesn’t mean we have to make conversation.” Edmonds turned his back and walked off. Alien didn’t pursue him, but after a minute took up his rounds again.

In the dimness of the wagon shed, Edmonds began to repair his plow. His mind wasn’t really on it. At last he nodded to “himself and returned to the house. Alien’s look followed his every step.

Inside, he asked Jane, “How’s our guest?”

“I took some food up to her,” she said. “Starved, she is. This is the first station she’s found.”

“She struck off entirely on her own?”

“Well, naturally she’d heard about the Underground Railroad, but only that it exists. She lived on roots, grubs, a few times a meal in a slave cabin. Swam the river last night during the storm, with a piece of driftwood to keep her afloat.”

“If ever anybody earned freedom, she has. How did she find us?”

“Came on a Negro man and asked. From what she told me, I think it must have been Tommy Bradford.”

Edmonds frowned. “I’d better speak to Tommy. He’s a steady fellow, but we’ll have to be more careful in future... Well, we’re pretty new in this traffic. Our first passenger.”

“Too soon,” she said fearfully. “We should have waited till thee had the hidey-hole dug and furnished.”

“This duty can’t wait, dear.”

“No, but— What shall we do? Those dreadful anti-Abolitionists in the neighborhood—they would be glad to see us ruined—”

“Speak no evil of people. Jesse Lyndon is misguided, but he’s not a bad man at heart. He’ll come to the light eventually. Meanwhile, I have a notion.” Edmonds raised his voice. “Jacob!”

The boy entered the plainly, comfortably furnished parlor. “Yes, father?” Excitement danced in his tone, his whole being.

Looming over him, Edmonds laid a hand on his shoulder. “Listen carefully, son. I have an errand for thee. We have a guest today. For reasons that thee doesn’t need to know, she’s staying in the attic. Her dress isn’t fit to be seen in. It was ail she had, but we will provide her decent clothes. I want thee to take the foul old garment elsewhere and get rid of it. Can thee do that?”

“Uh, y-yes, sure, but—”

“I told thee to listen close. Thee may go barefoot, which I know thee enjoys, and carry a basket. Pick up some dead-wood for kindling on thy way home, eh? Keep the dress down in the basket. We don’t want anybody offended. There is no hurry. Go across the road to the Lyndons’ woods. Do not gather sticks there, of course; that would be stealing. Saunter about, take pleasure in God’s beautiful creation. When thee is by thyself, put on a black kerchief thy mother will give thee to cover thy hair from the sun. It’s pretty muddy. Thee would do well to roll up thy sleeves and trousers, and pull the dress over’them. A smock to keep thine own clothes clean, understand? Just the same, I suppose thee’ll get thy head and arms and legs mired up.

Downright black, even. Well, I remember how I liked that when I was a kid.” Edmonds laughed. “Till I came back and my mother saw me! But this is a holiday for thee, so that such carelessness will be allowable.” He paused. “If perchance thee pass near the Lyndon house, so they spy thee, don’t linger. Don’t give them a good look, but run past quickly. They’d be scandalized to know young Jacob Edmonds was dressed and mucked like that. Dash back into the woods and bury the dress somewhere. Then circle back to our land and collect that kindling. Thee may take several hours all told.” He squeezed the shoulder and smiled. “How’s that sound, hm?”

His son had strained breathless at his words. Eagerness blazed: “Yes, sir! Wonderful! I can do it!”

Jane touched her man’s arm. “Matthew, dear, he’s only a child,” she protested.

Jacob reddened. Edmonds raised a palm. “There should be no danger to him if he’s as smart as I think he is. And thee,” he said sternly to the face below his, “remember Jesus doesn’t like bragging. Tomorrow I’ll give thee a note to the schoolmaster, that I needed thy help here today. That’s all that either of us has to tell anybody, ever. Got me?”

Jacob stood very straight. “Yes, sir, I do.”

“Good. I’d better get back to work. Have fun.” Edmonds stroked his wife’s cheek, softly and briefly, before he went out.

As he crossed the yard, Alien rode over and exclaimed, “What you been doin’?”

“Minding my own business,” Edmonds said. “We have a farm to run, if thee has not heard.” He went on into the shed and took up his task again.

It was near midday and he was growing hungry—Jacob doubtless wolfing the sandwiches Jane would have made— when the dogs barked and Alien whooped. Edmonds strolled into the warm sunlight. Alongside Gabe rode a man with curly brown hair and troubled youthful face. The three of them brought their horses to meet the farmer.

“Good day, friend Peter,” said Edmonds cheerily.

“Hi.” Deputy Sheriff Frayne bit the greeting off. He struggled a few seconds before he could go on. “Matt, I’m sorry, but this man’s gone to Judge Abshire and got a search warrant for your place.”

“That was not very neighborly of the judge, I must say.”

“He’s got to uphold the law, Matt. I do too.”

Edmonds nodded. “Everybody should, when it is at all possible.”

“Well, uh, they claim you’re hiding a fugitive slave. That’s a federal offense, Matt. I don’t like it, but it’s the law of the land.”

“There is another Law, Peter. Jesus Christ spoke it hi Nazareth. ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath set me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.’ ”

“No more of your preachin’, Quaker!” Gabe shouted. He was tired, sweaty, on edge after so much faring to and fro. “Deppity, do your duty.”

“Search as thee will, thee will never find a slave on this land,” Edmonds declared.

Frayne stared. “You swear to that?”

“Thee knows I can’t give an oath, Peter.” Edmonds stood silent for a spell. Then, in a rush: “But it’d bother my wife and frighten our little ones, having ye ransack the house. So I’ll confess. I did see a Negro woman today.”

“You <ftJ?”-Alleri yelled. “And didn’t tell us right off? Why, you son of a bitch—”

“That’ll do, fellow!” Frayne rapped. “Any more and I’ll run you in for abuse, threat, and menace.” He turned to Edmonds. “Can you describe what you saw?”

“She was wearing a ragged yellow dress, badly stained, and it was clear she was traveling north. Before ye spend valuable time here, why not ask the people in that direction?”

Frayne scowled. “Um, yeah,” he said reluctantly, “the Lyndons are about a mile off, and they ... don’t like Abolitionists.”

“They ,might have1 seen something too,” Edmonds reminded him. “They wouldn’t keep it from thee.”

“The tracks we followed—“ Alien began.

Edmonds chopped air with his hand. “Bah! Barefoot tracks are everywhere. Look, if ye find nothing, hear nothing, yonder, ye can come back and search us. But I warn ye, it’ll take hours, as many possible hiding places as a big farm has got, and meanwhile a fugitive who was not here would get clean away.”

Frayne stared hard at him. Gabe opened his mouth. “He’s right,” the deputy said. “Let’s go.”

“I dunno—“ Gabe muttered.

“You want my help or not? I been hauled from my business hi town for this. I’m not about to lose another half a day watching you bumble around if it’s needless.”

“You go ask,” Gabe told Alien. “My turn to guard this place.”

“I’ll come along,” Frayne said, and rode off with the warrant in his pocket.

Jane appeared on the kitchen steps. “Dinner!” she hailed.

“I regret we cannot invite thee to share our table,” Edmonds said to Gabe. “A matter of principle. However, we’ll send food out.”

The slavecatcher shook his head, furiously, and swatted at a fly. “To hell with you,” he grated, and trotted to a vantage point.

Edmonds took his time washing up. He had barely finished saying grace when the dpgs barked once more. Glancing out a window, he and Jane saw the deputy ride back into the yard and over to Gabe. After they had talked a minute, Gabe spurred his horse and disappeared between the apple trees. Soon he came back to sight on the road, northbound in a hurry.

Edmonds went onto the steps. “Will thee come eat with us, friend Peter?” he called.

The deputy rode to him. “Thanks, but, uh, I’d better get on back,” he replied. “Another time, or you folks come in to Molly and me, hey? Maybe next week?”

“I thank thee. We’ll be in touch. Did the Lyndons have news?”

“Yeah, Jesse told as how he glimpsed what’s got to be her. We’ve seen the last of those two boys for a while, I guess.” Frayne hesitated. “I never thought you’d give out information like that.”

“I really didn’t want my house invaded.”

“N-no, but still—“ Frayne rubbed his chin. “You said no-body’d ever find a slave on your land.”

“I did.”

“Then I s’pose you haven’t joined the Railroad after all. There was some rumors.”

“It’s better not to listen to gossip.”

“Yeah. And better not wonder too much.” Frayne laughed. “I’m off. Give your missus my best.” He turned serious. “If you did ever tell a lie—if you ever do—I’m sure it’s in a rightful cause, Matt. I’m sure God will forgive you.”

“Thee is kind, but thus far falsehoods haven’t been necessary. Not but what I don’t have plenty of other sins to answer for. Good day, friend, and give thy Molly our love.”

The deputy tipped his hat and departed. When he was out of earshot, Edmonds stated, “There are no slaves. It’s against Christ’s teaching that human beings should be property.”

He went back in. Jane and William cast him expectant looks. Nellie gurgled. He smiled as widely as a mouth could stretch. “They are gone,” he said. “They took the bait. Let us give thanks to the Lord.”

“Mr. Frayne?” asked his wife.

“He’s gone home.”

“Good. I mean, he’d be welcome, but now we can bring Flora down to eat with us.”

“Oh, is that her name? Well, certainly. I should have thought of that myself.”

Jane left the kitchen, set the ladder against a wall, climbed it, opened the trapdoor, murmured. In a short while she returned with Flora at her heels. The colored girl walked warily, eyes darting to and fro. A gown of the wife’s rustled about her ankles. The knife quivered in her hand.

“Thee can surely put that from thee now,” Edmonds told her. “We’re safe.”

“We really is?” Her gaze searched his. She laid the knife on the counter.

“Thee should never have taken it up, thee knows,” Edmonds said.

A measure of strength had risen in the worn body. Pride rang: “Ah wasn’ goin’ back there nohow. Ah’d die fust. Hope Ah’d kill fust.”

“’Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’” Edmonds shook his head sadly. “I dread His punishment of this sinful land when it comes.” He stepped forward and took the swart hands in his. “But let’s not talk of such things. On second thought, we should eat right away and give thanks later, when we can feel properly joyful.”

“What then, massa?”

“Why, Jane and I will see to it thee get a hot bath. Later thee’d better sleep. We can’t risk keeping thee here. The hunters might be back tomorrow. As soon as it’s dark, tbee and I’ll be off to the next station. Have no fears, Flora. Thee ought to reach Canada in another month or less.”

“Yo’s mighty good, massa,” she breathed. Tears trembled on her lashes.

“We try our best here to do what the Lord wants, as well as we can understand it. And by the way, Fm nobody’s master. Now for pity’s sake, let’s eat before the food gets cold.”

Shyly, Flora took Jacob’s chair. “Ah don’ need much, thank yo’, ma—suh an’ ma’m. The lady done gimme some-thin’ awready.”

“Well, but we’ve a plenty of meat to get onto those bones of thine,” answered Jane, and heaped her plate for her— pork roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, beans, pickles, cornbread, butter, jam, tumbler on the side full of milk that had sat in the cool of the spnnghouse.

Edmonds kept up a drumfire of talk. “Here’s somebody who hasn’t heard my jokes and stories a score of times,” he said, and finally coaxed a few slight laughs from his guest.

After pie and coffee the grownups left William in charge of Nellie and retired to the parlor. Edmonds opened the family Bible and read aloud while they stood: “—And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land and unto a good land and a forge, unto a land overflowing with milk and honey—”

Flora shivered. The tears ran free down her cheeks. “Let mail people go,” she whispered. Jane hugged her and cried too.

When they had prayed together, Edmonds regarded the girl a while. She met his look, flinching no longer. A sunbeam through a window turned her darkly aglow. For the first time today he felt unsure of himself. He cleared his throat. “Flora,” he said, “thee needs rest before nightfall, but maybe thee would sleep better for having told us something about thyself. Thee doesn’t have to. It’s just, well, here we are, if thee would like to talk to friends.”

“ ’Tain’t much to tell, suh, an’ some of it’s too awful.”

“Do sit,” Jane urged. “Never mind me. My father is a doctor and I’m a farm wife. I don’t flinch easy.”

They took chairs. “Did thee have far to go?” Edmonds asked.

Flora nodded. “’Deed Ah did, suh. Don’ know how many miles, but Ah counted de days an’ nights. Sebenteen o’ dem. Often thought Ah was gonna die. Didn’ min’ dat too much, long’s dey didn’ catch me. Dey was gonna sell me down de ribber.”

Jane laid a hand over hers. “They were? What on earth for? What were you doing there? I mean, your duties—”

“Housemaid, ma’m. Nuss to Massa Mon’gom’ry’s chillun, like Ah was to hisself when he little.”

“What? But—”

“’Twasn’ too bad. But dey sell me, Ah knowed Ah’d be a field nan’ ag’in, or wuss. B’sides, Ah’d been thinkin’ ‘bout freedom a long time. We heahs things an’ passes dem on to each othah, us black folks.”

“Wait a minute,” Edmonds broke in. “Did thee say thee was a—a mammy to thy master when he was a child? But thee can’t be that old.”

As Flora answered, he thought that already she bore herself like one free and, yes, proud. Maybe too proud. “Oh, Ah is, suh. Dat’s wny dey was fixin’ to sell me. Wasn’ no thin’ Ah did wrong. But yeah by yeah, Ah saw how Massa an’ Missus was watchin’ me mo’ an’ mo’ strange, same as ever’body else. Den when she died—well, Ah knowed he couldn’ stan’ habbin’ me dere no mo’. Could yo’ of?”

Both the Edmondses sat silent.

“Happened befo’,” Flora went on after a minute during which the grandfather clock had seemed to tick as loud as doom. “Dat’s how come Ah knows what it’s tike bein’ a field ban’. Not jes’ watchin’ an’ feelin’ sorry fo’ dem. No, Ah been dere. When dat ol’ Massa sol’ me to Massa Mon’gom’ry’s father, he didn’ say nothin’ ‘bout man age den. So Ah Jiggered dere was man chance.” She stopped, swallowed, looked at the carpet. “Better not tell yo’ how Ah got’m to notice me an’ git me trained fo’ de big house.”

Edmonds felt his cheeks go fiery. Jane patted the hand beneath hers and murmured, “Thee needn’t tell, dear. What choice has a slave ever had?”

“None, ma’m, an’ dat’s a fack. Ah was ‘bout fo’teen de fust time Ah was sol’, away from mah father an’ mother, an’ dat man an’ bofe his sons—“ Flora’s glance touched the Bible on its stand. “Well, we s’pose fo’gibe, ain’t we? Po’ young Marse Brett, he done get killed in de waw. Ah saw his pappy when de wuhd come, an’ would’a felt sorry fo’ him ‘cep’ Ah was too tired fum wuhk.”

A chill went along Edmonds’ backbone. “What war?”

“De Rebolution, it was. Yay, eben us slabes heard ‘bout dat.”

“But then thee— Flora, no, it can’t be! That would make thee ... about a hundred years old.”

Again she nodded. “Ah buried mah men, mah real men, an’ Ah buried chillun, when dey wasn’ sol’ off fum me, an’—“ Suddenly her firmness broke. She reached out toward him. “It’s been too long!”

“Were you born in Africa?” Jane asked low.

Flora fought for calmness. “No, ma’m, in a slabe cabin. But mah dad, he was stolen away fum dere. Used to tell us young’uns ‘bout it, de tribe, de foe-rest—said he was part Ay-rab, an’—“ She stiffened. “He daid. Dey all daid, and nebba free, nebba free. Ah swo’ to mahse’f Ah was gonna be, in deir names Ah was. So Ah followed de Drinkin’ Gourd an’—an’ heah Ah is.” She buried her face in her hands and wept.

“We must be patient,” Jane said across the bowed head. “She’s overwrought.”

“Yes, what she’s been through, I suppose that would drive anybody kind of crazy,” Edmonds agreed. “Take her away, dear. Give her that bath. Put her to bed. Sit with her till she sleeps.”

“Of course.” They went their separate ways.

Though Jacob came home jubilantly, supper was quiet. His parents had decided to leave Flora resting as long as possible. Jane would pack a basket of food for the next stage of the journey. Once she said, “Matthew, I wonder what she meant by following the Drinking Gourd. Does thee know?”

“Yes, I’ve heard,” he answered. “It’s the Big Dipper. The one constellation nobody can mistake. They have a song about it, the slaves, I believe.”

And he wondered what other songs went secretly through the land, and what songs might awaken in the future. Battle hymns? No, please, God, of Thy mercy, no. Withhold Thy wrath that we have so richly earned. Lead us to Thy light.

As dusk fell, he and Jacob rolled forth the buggy and harnessed Si to it. “Can I come along, father?” the boy asked.

“No,” Edmonds said. “I’ll be gone till nearly sunrise. Thee has school tomorrow after chores.” He rumpled the bright head. “Be patient. Man’s work will come on thee quite soon enough.” After a moment: “Thee made a fine start today. I can only hope the Lord won’t later want far more.”

Well, but Heaven waited, the reward that has no bounds. Poor half-mad Flora. What if somebody really did have to live on and on tike that, in bondage or hunted or—whatever menial thing she could become in Canada? Edmonds shuddered. God willing, as she met friendship along the Underground Railroad, she ought to recover her wits.

A lantern glowed. Jane brought the fugitive out and helped her into the buggy. Edmonds mounted to the driver’s seat. “Good night, my dear,” he said, and gently touched whip to horse. Wheels creaked down the drive and onto the road. The air was still fairly warm, though a touch of oncoming cold went through it. The sky ranged from purple in the west to velvety black in the east. Stars were blinking forth. The Big Dipper stood huge. Presently Edmonds made out the Little Dipper and Polaris in it, that guided north toward freedom.


XIV. Men of Peace

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

<p>XIV. Men of Peace</p>
<p>1</p>

The ranch house was small, a one-room sod cabin, but the more defensible for that. Its two windows had heavy inside shutters and each wall a pair of loopholes. Picket stakes surrounded it, six deep. Men built like this in the west Texas cattle country—such of them as weren’t dead or fled.

“Lord, but I wish we’d cleared out in time,” Tom Lang-ford said. “You and the kids, at least.”

“Hush, now,” replied his wife. “You couldn’t run the spread without me, and if we gave up we’d lose everything we’ve worked for.” She leaned across the table, over the firearms and ammunition that covered it, to pat his arm. A sunbeam through a hole on the east side struck through the gloom within and made living bronze of her hair. “All we got to do is hold out till Bob brings help. Unless the redskins quit first.”

Langford kept himself from wondering whether the va-quero had gotten clean away. If the Comanches had spied him and sent pursuit with remounts, he must already lie scalped. No telling. Though you could see a long ways around here, by day, the war band had appeared at dawn, when folks were just getting started on the chores, and arrived faster than you might believe. Of the hands, only Ed Lee, Bill Davis, and Carlos Padilla had made it to the bouse .with the family, and not before a bullet smashed Ed’s left arm.

Susie bad set and bandaged that limb as best she was able after the warriors recoiled from gunfire and withdrew out of “sight. At the moment Ed had Nancy Langford on his lap.

The three-year-old clung hard to him, terrified. Bill kept watch at the north end, Carlos at the south, while Jim flitted between east and west in the pride and eagerness of his own seven years. A sharpness of powder still hung in the air, and some smoke seemed to have drifted in from the barn as well. The Indians had torched it, the only wooden building on the place. The roar of its burning reached the defenders faintly, like a noise in a nightmare.

“They’re comin’ back!” Jim shrilled.

Langford grabbed a Winchester off the table and sprang to the west wall. Behind him he heard Lee say, “Bill, you help the missus reload. Carlos, you be with Tom. Jim, you go ‘round and tell me where I’m needed.” The voice was ragged with pain but the man could work a Colt.

Langford peered through his loophole. Sunlight brightened the bare ground outside. Dust puffed and swirled ruddy from the hoofs of oncoming mustangs. He got a brown body in his sights, but then the pony veered and the rider vanished, except for one leg. Indian trick, hang yourself down the other side. But a Comanche without a horse was only half himself. Langford’s rifle cracked and nudged his shoulder. The mustang reared, screamed, went over, kicked. The warrior had thrown himself clear. He was lost in the dust and rampage. Langford realized he had pretty much wasted that shot, and picked his next target with care. The bullets had to last.

Riders would never take this house. They’d learned as much, first time. They galloped around and around, whooping, firing. One toppled, another, another. I didn’t get them, Langford knew. Carlos did. A real marksman, him. Brave, too. Could likely have gotten away from where he was when they showed up, but stuck with us. Well, I never did hold with looking down on a man just because he’s Mexican.

“Comin’ on foot, over here!” Jim cried.

Yes, of course, the mounted braves provided covering fire, distraction, for those who snaked amongst the pickets. Langford allowed himself a glance backward. Bill Davis had left the table to join Ed Lee on the north. The black cowhand wasn’t the best with a gun in these United States, but his targets were close, slowed down by the barrier, scornful of death. He blasted away. Susie brought him a reloaded rifle, took his emptied weapon back, fetched Ed a fresh pistol. The screams, hoofquake, shooting went on and on, world without end. You weren’t scared, no time for that, but at the back of your head you wondered if there had ever been anything else or ever would be.

Suddenly it was over. The wild men gathered up their dead and wounded and pulled off again.

In the silence that followed, the clock sounded nearly as loud as—a hammer nailing down a coffin lid. It was a big old grandfather clock, the single treasure from her parents’ home that Susie had wanted carted out here. The dial glimmered through a blue haze. Langford squinted eyes which the powder smoke stung and whistled softly. Just about ten minutes since the attack began. No more, dear God?

Nancy had crawled into a corner. She huddled hugging herself. Her mother went to give whatever comfort she could.

<p>2</p>

The wind across the high plains still bore much winter in it. This range wasn’t as bleak as the Llano Estacado, over which the travelers had come, but the spring rains had not started in earnest and only a bjeath of green touched endless sere grass. Trees—willow or cottonwood clumped by whatever streams ran through these miles, the occasional lonesome oak—reached bare limbs into a bleached sky. Game was plentiful, though. It wasn’t buffalo, except for white bones, the work of white hunters; buffalo were fast getting scarce. However, pronghorn, peccary, jackrabbit ran everywhere, with wolves and cougars to prey on them, while elk, bear, and cougar haunted the canyons. Jack Tarrant’s party hadn’t seen any cattle since well before they left New Mexico. Twice they passed abandoned ranches. The red terror woke to all its old fury while the states were at each other’s throats, and the Army had a lot of quelling yet to do, seven years after Appomattox.

Sunlight dazzled eastward vision. At first Tarrant couldn’t see what Francisco Herrera Carillo pointed at. “Hwno,” the trader said. “No proviene de ningun campamento.” He was ;a pale-brown man with sharp features; even on the trail he kept his chin shaven, mustache trimmed, clothes neat, as if to remind the world that among his forefathers were Con-quistadores.

Tarrant looked a bit like him, given aquiline nose and large, slightly oblique eyes. After a moment he too made out the stain rising athwart heaven. “Not from a camp, when it’s visible from below the horizon,” he agreed slowly in the same Spanish. “What, then? A grass ike?”

“No, that would be wider spread. A building. I think we have found your Indians.”

Burly and redbearded, hook newly strapped on to stick out of his right sleeve, Rufus Bullen stumped over to join them. “Christ!” he growled. Two missing front teeth made his English slightly slurred. If others than Tarrant noticed the new growth that had begun to push stubs through the gums, they had said nothing about it. “You mean they’ve set fire to a ranch?”

“What else?” Herrera replied coolly, holding to his own language. “I have not been hi these parts for some time, but if I remember right and have my bearings, that is the Lang-ford property. Or was.”

“What’ie we waiting for? We can’t let ‘em—“ Rufus broke off. His shoulders sagged. “Inutilis est,” he mumbled.

“We will probably arrive too late, and can certainly do nothing against a war band,” Tarrant reminded him, also in Latin.

Herrera shrugged. He had grown used to the Yanquis dropping into that lingo. (He recognized an occasional word from the Mass, but no more, especially since they spoke it differently from the priests.) This quest of theirs was mad anyway. “You wish to speak with the Comanches, no?” he observed. “You can hardly do that if you fight them. Come, let us eat and be on our way. If we’re lucky, they will not have moved on before we get there.”

His sons Miguel and Pedro, young but trailwise, had wakened at dawn and gotten busy. A coffeepot steamed and two pans sizzled on a grill above a fire of buffalo chips—an abundance of which remained—and mesquite. As hard as. the seekers pushed, without time off to hunt, no bacon was left except fat for cooking, but they kept plenty of corn meal to make tortillas and two days ago the father had had the good luck to knock down a peccary. It had been quite a ways off. Every Comanchero was necessarily a crack shot.

The travelers ate fast, cleaned camp gear, obeyed nature, left soap and razors till later, hit the saddle and set off. Herrera varied the pace between trot and canter, now and then a walk. The two whom he guided had learned to heed him. Easy though it seemed, this sparing of horseflesh covered many miles a day. Besides, the remuda amounted to just a pair of ponies each and three pack mules.

The sun climbed, the wind sank. Warmth crept into the air and drew sweet sweat odors from the mounts. Hoofs thudded, leather creaked. The tall dry grass rustled aside. For a while the smoke rose higher, but presently it thinned, blew apart, faded away. Wings as black wheeled where it had been. “You can usually tell a Comanche camp from afar,” Herrera remarked. “The vultures wait for the leavings.”

It was hard to tell whether Rufus flushed. Hats failed to keep skin like his from reddening and chapping. His voice did grate: “Dead bodies?” That was in Spanish, which he could speak after a fashion.

“Or bones and entrails,” Herrera replied. “They have always been hunters, you know, when they are not at war.” A minute went by. “Your buffalo killers destroy their livelihood.”

“Sometimes I think you like them,” Tarrant murmured.

“I have dealt with them since I was Pedro’s age, as did my fathers before me,” Herrera said. “One comes to a little understanding, whether one will or no.”

Tarrant nodded. Comancheros had been trading out of Santa Fe for a century, since de Anza fought the tribes to a standstill and made a peace that endured because he had gained then’ respect. It was a peace with the New Mexicans alone. Spaniards elsewhere, any other Europeans, the Mexicans who ruled later, the Americans—Texan, Confederate, Yankee—who despoiled the Mexicans, those remained fair game; and indeed by now there had been such bloodshed and cruelty on both sides that truce between Comanches and Texans was no more thinkable than it was between Comanches and Apaches.

Tarrant forced his mind back to his horse. He and Rufus had gotten fairly good at riding range style; but damn it, what they really were was seamen. Why couldn’t their search have led them into the South Pacific, or along the shores of Asia, or anywhere but this unbounded emptiness?

Well, the search might be near an end. No matter how often he had thought it before, that coursed through his blood and shivered up his spine. O Hiram, Psammetk, Pytheas, Althea, A t hen ais-Aliyat, Armand Cardinal Richelieu, Benjamin Franklin, how far has the River borne me from you! And all the lesser ones, beyond counting, down in dust, wholly forgotten save for whatever might glimmer in him, a comrade of decades or a drinking companion in a tavern, a wife and the children she bore him or a woman chance-met for a single night—

Herrera’s shout slammed him back into the day: “/Alto!” and a rush of alien gutturals. Rufus dropped left hand to pistol. Tarrant gestured him from it. The boys brought the pack animals to a stop. Their eyes darted around, they were new to this and nervous. Despite his earlier times between jaws ready to snap shut, Tarrant’s flesh prickled.

Two men had come around a brush-grown hillock where they must have been on watch. Their scurry-looking mustangs closed the distance in a few pulsebeats. They checked the gallop with invisible touch of knees and twitch of hackamore; seated merely on blankets, they seemed parts of the beasts, centaurs. Their own frames were stocky, bandylegged, swarthy, clad in breechclouts, leggings, and moccasins. Midnight hair hung in twin braids past broad faces painted in the red and black of death. Leather sunshades had been left behind and the war bonnet of the northern plains was unknown here. One man had stuck a few feathers into a headband. The other bore a great shaggy cap or helmet from which sprang buffalo horns. He carried a Henry repeating rifle. A bandolier of cartridges crossed his chest. His companion nocked an arrow to a short bow. Archers were rare of late, or so Tarrant had heard. Maybe this warrior was poor, maybe he preferred the ancestral weapon. No matter.-That barbed iron head could punch through ribs to the heart, and more shafts waited in their quiver.

Herrera talked on. Buffalo Horns grunted. The bowman slacked his string. Herrera turned in the saddle to regard his employers. “The fight is not ended,” he told them, “but the Kwerhar-rehnuh will receive us. Chief Quanah himself is here.” Moisture glistened on his face. He had gone a bit pale around the nostrils. In English he added, for many Co-manches knew some Spanish: “Be ver-ree careful. Sey ‘ave much anger. Sey can easy kill a w’ite man.”

<p>3</p>

The ranch buildings had already been visible. As he drew closer, they seemed to Tarrant, if anything, more small and lonesome in the middle of immensity. He recognized what must be the owners’ home, a bunkhouse, and three lesser outbuildings. Sod, they were little damaged. A barn was smoldering ashes and charred fragments; the family had doubtless spent a lot of money and hope on getting the lumber hauled to them. A couple of wagons had been pushed into the flames. A chicken coop had been emptied and smashed. Hoofs had trampled saplings that were to have grown into shelter against sun and wind.

The Indians were camped where a windmill stood skeletal by the cattle trough for which it pumped water. That put them out of rifleshot from the house and, probably, sight through loopholes. About thirty tipis lifted their gaudily decorated buffalo hide cones across what had been a pasture. At a fire near the middle women in buckskin gowns prepared captured, butchered steers for eating. They were rather few. The braves numbered maybe a hundred. They loafed about, napped, shot dice, cleaned firearms or whetted knives. Some sat grim in front of lodgings from within which sounded keening; they mourned kinsmen slain. A few, mounted, kept an eye on the many horses that grazed in the distance. They were as tough as their masters, those mustangs that could keep going on winter’s grass.

When the newcomers caught the notice of the camp, excitement kindled. Most people ran to crowd around and jabber. The stoic reserve of Indians was a myth, unless they were in pain or dying. Then a warrior’s pride was that not the most prolonged and agonizing torture his captors or their women could think of would make him cry aloud. It was an ill thing to fall into such hands.

Buffalo Horns shouted and pushed his pony through the ruck. Herrera called greetings to men he knew. The smiles and waves that he got in return made Tarrant feel easier. If they took due care, bis party ought to outlive this day. After at!, to these folk hospitality was sacred.

Close by the windmill was a dpi whereon were painted signs that Herrera whispered were powerful. A man too dignified to leave it for curiosity’s sake stood outside, arms folded. The travelers drew rein. Tarrant realized that he looked on Quanah, half-white war chief of the Kwerhar-rehnuh. The name of that band meant “Antelopes”—an American misnomer for the pronghorn, like “buffalo” for bison or “corn” for maize; and curious it seemed for the lords of the Staked Plains, the fiercest of all those Co-manches whom the United States had yet to conquer.

Save for lightning-like bands of yellow and ocher, he wore simply loincloth and moccasins, with a Bowie knife sheathed on a belt, xet there could be no mistaking him. From his mother’s race he took straight nose and a height that towered, thickly muscled, over his followers. However, he was even darker than most of them. His regard of the strangers was lion-calm.

Herrera greeted him deferentially in the tongue of the Nermerauh, the People. Quanah nodded. “Bienvenidos,” he rumbled forth, and continued in accented but fluent Spanish. “Dismount and come in.”

Tarrant felt relieved. In Santa Fe he had learned some of the Plains Indian sign language, but used it haltingly; and Herrera had told him that few Comanches were adept in it anyway. The trader had said Quanah might or might not condescend to speak Spanish with Americans. He had a certain grasp of English too, though he would scarcely handicap himself with it when he didn’t have to. “Muchas gracias, senor,” Tarrant said, to establish that he was the head of this band. He wondered whether he should have used the honorific “Don Quanah.”

Herrera left the remuda in charge of bis sons and accompanied Tarrant and Rufus into the tipi behind the chief. Its outfit was sparse, little more than bedrolls; this was a war band. The light within fell gentle after the glare outside, the air smelled of leather and smoke. The men settled cross-legged in a circle. Two wives left, posting themselves at the entrance in case of a task for them.

Quanah was not about to smoke any peace pipe, but Herrera had said it would be okay to offer cigarettes. Tarrant did while introducing himself and his friend. Deftly left-handed, Rufus took a matchbox from his pocket, extracted and struck a stick, lighted the tobacco. To have such a formidable-seeming man serve them honored both the principals.

“We have come a weary way in the wish of finding you,” Tarrant added. “We thought the Antelopes would be on their home grounds, but you had already left, so we must ask anyone we met, and the earth itself, where you were gone.”

“Then you are not here to trade,” said Quanah in Her-rera’s direction.

“Sr. Tarrant engaged me in Santa Fe to bring him to you, when he had learned I would be able to,” the trader answered. “I did pack along some rifles and ammunition. One will be a gift to you. As for the rest, well, surely you have taken many cattle.”

Rufus sucked in a sharp breath. It was notorious that New Mexican ranchers wanted stock and would buy without questions. Comancheros got small detachments of Indians to drive herds they had lifted out of Texas to that market, in exchange for arms. Tarrant laid a hand on the redhead’s knee and muttered in Latin, against the outrage he saw, “Stay quiet. You knew this.”

“Make your camp with us,” Quanah invited. “I expect we will be here until tomorrow morning.”

Hope quivered in Rufus’ tone: “Uh, you will spare them in yonder house?”

Quanah scowled. “No. They have cost us comrades. The enemy shall never boast that any defied us and lived.” He shrugged. “Besides, we have need of a short rest, as hard as we have fared—the better to fight the soldiers afterward.”

Yes, Tarrant understood, this was not really a plundering expedition, it was a campaign in a war. His inquiries had informed him of a Kiowa medicine man, Owl Prophet, who called for a great united thrust that would forever drive the white man from the plains; and last year such horror erupted that Washington’s attempts at peace came to an end. In fall Ranald Mackenzie took the black troopers of his Fourth Cavalry into these parts, against the Antelopes. Quanah led a retreat that was a running, fight, brilliantly waged—Mackenzie himself received an arrow wound—high up onto the Llano Estacado until whiter forced the Americans to withdraw. Now he was returning.

The stern gaze shifted to Tarrant. “What do you want with us?”

“I too bear gifts, senor.” Clothing, blankets, jewelry, liquor. Despite his remoteness from this conflict, Tarrant could not bring himself to convey weapons; nor would Rufus have stood for it. “My friend and I are from a distant land—California, by the western waters, which I’m sure you have heard of.” In haste, because that territory belonged to the foe: “We have no quarrel with anyone here. The races are not foredoomed to blood feud.” A risk that he deemed he should take: “Your mother was of our people. Before setting forth, I learned what I could about her. If you have any questions, I will try to answer them.”

Stillness fell. The hubbub outside seemed faint, distant. Herrera looked uneasy. Quanah sat expressionless, smoking. Time passed before the chief said, heavily: “The Te-janos stole her and my small sister from us. My father, Peta Nawkonee the war chief, mourned for her until at last he took a wound hi battle that got inflamed and killed him. I have heard that she and the girl are dead.”

“Your sister died eight years ago,” Tarrant replied low. “Your mother soon followed her. She too was sick with grief ‘and longing. Now they rest at peace, Quanah.”

The tale had been easy enough to obtain, a sensation remembered to this day. In 1836 an Indian band attacked Parker’s Fort, a settlement in the Brazos valley. They slew five men and mutilated them as was Indian wont, preferably before death. They gang-raped Granny Parker after a lance pinned her to the ground. Two of the several other women they violated were left with injuries almost as bad. Two more women they carried away, together with three children. Among these was nine-year-old Cynthia Anne Parker.

The women and boys were eventually ransomed back. Though this was by no means the first time the Comanches took females for slaves, the tale of just what those two suffered came to stand for hundreds; and the Texas Rangers rode with vengeance in their hearts.

Cynthia Anne fared better. Capriciously adopted, raised as a girl of the Nennernuh, she forgot English, forgot wellnigh everything of her early childhood, became an Antelope and presently a mother. By all accounts, hers was a happy marriage; Peta Nawkonee loved his wife and wanted no woman after he lost her. That was in 1860, when Sul Ross led a Ranger expedition in retaliation for a raid and fell . upon the Comanche camp. Its men were off hunting. The Texans shot what women and children fled too slowly, and a Mexican slave whom Ross believed to be the chief himself. Barely in time, a man saw, through dirt and dung-grease, that the hair of one squaw was golden.

The Parker clan and the state of Texas did everything they could for her. It was no use. She was Naduah, who only yearned back to the prairie and the People. Repeated _ attempts to escape finally forced her kinfolk to keep a guard on her. When disease robbed her of her daughter, she howled, tore and slashed her own flesh, sank into silence and starved herself to death.

Out on the plains, her younger son perished as wretchedly. Sickness dwelt always among the Indians, tuberculosis, arthritis, worms, ophthalmia, the smallpox that Europeans brought, a litany of ills without end. But her older son flourished, gathered a war band, became headman of the Antelopes. He refused to sign the Medicine Lodge treaty that would put the tribeson a reservation. Instead, he carried terror along the frontier. He was Quanah.

“Have you seen their graves?” he asked levelly.

“I have not,” Tarrant said, “but if you wish, I can visit and tell them of your love.”

Quanah smoked for a while longer. At least he didn’t outright call the white man a liar. Finally: “Why have you sought me?”

Tarrant’s pulse quickened. “It is not you, chief, great though your fame be. Word has come to me of somebody in your following. If I have heard aright, he hails from the north and has traveled widely and long. Yes, very long, longer than anybody knows, though he never seems to grow old. His must be a strange power. On your home grounds, uh, Nermernuh who stayed behind told us that he came along on this faring. My desire is to speak with him.”

“Why?” demanded Quanah. The bluntness, unlike an Indian, betokened tension below the iron surface.

“I believe he will be glad to talk with me.”

Rufus puffed hard on his cigarette. Laid across his lap, the hook trembled.

Quanah raised his voice to the squaws. One of them left. Quanah returned his look to Tarrant. “I have sent for Dertsahnawyeh. Peregrine.” —the Spanish for the Co-manche name: Wanderer.

“Do you hope he will teach you his medicine?” he went on.

“I have come to find out what it is.”

“I do not think he could tell you, if he were willing, which I do not think he would be.”

Herrera peered at Tarrant. “You only told me you wanted to find out what might lie behind those rumors,” the trader said. “It is dangerous to meddle in warriors’ affairs.”

“Yes, I call myself a scientist,” Tarrant snapped. To Quanah: “That is a man who seeks for whatever truth lies hidden behind things. How do the sun and the stars shine? How did the earth and life come to be? What really happened in the past?”

“I know,” replied the chief. “Thus you whites have found ways to do and make many terrible things, and the railroad runs where the buffalo grazed.” Pause. “Well, I suppose Dertsahnawyeh can take care of himself.” Starkly: “As for me, I must think how to capture yonder house.”

There was nothing more to say.

The tipi entrance darkened. A man trod in. While clad like the rest, he bore no war paint. Nor was he a native of these lands, but tali, slender, lighter-hued. When he saw who sat with Quanah he spoke gently in English. “What do you want of me?”

<p>4</p>

They walked over the prairie, Tarrant, Peregrino, Rufus trailing a step or two behind. Light spilled out of vastness, a measure of warmth lifted from soil. Dry grass rattled. Camp and buildings soon vanished among the tall tawny stalks. Smokes continued in sight, rising straight and slow toward the vultures.

Revelation was strangely subdued. Or perhaps it wasn’t strange. They had waited so long. Tarrant and Rufus had felt hope grow into near certainty while they quested. Peregrino had nurtured an inner peace to which any surprise was like a passing breath of air. Thus he endured his loneliness, until he outlived it.

“I was born almost three thousand years ago,” Tarrant said. “My friend is about half as old.”

“I never counted time until lately,” said Peregrino. They might as well use that name, out of the many he had had. “Then I guessed five or six hundred years.”

“Before Columbus— What changes you’ve seen!”

Peregrino smiled as a man might at a graveside. “You more. Have you come on any like us, besides Mr. Bullen?”

“Not quite. A woman once, but she disappeared. We’ve no idea whether she’s still alive. Otherwise, you’re my first since him. Did you ever?”

“No. I tried but gave up. For all I knew, I was solo. How did you get on my trail?”

“That’s kind of a story.”

“We got plenty time.”

“Well—“ Tarrant drew a tobacco pouch from his pants and, from his shirt, the briar pipe it would have been unwise to smoke before Quanah. “I’ll start with Rufus and me arriving in California in ‘49. You’ve heard about the Gold Rush? We got rich off it. Not as miners, as merchants.”

“You did, Hanno,” said the Van at his heel. “I tagged along.”

“And damn useful you’ve been, hi more tight spots than I can list,” Tarrant declared. “Eventually I dropped from sight for a few years, then showed up in San Francisco under my present alias and bought a ship. I’ve always favored the sea. By now I own several; the firm’s done right well.”

Having loaded his pipe, he laid fire to it. “Whenever I could afford to, I’ve hired men to look for signs of immortals,” he proceeded. “Naturally, I don’t teS them that’s what they’re after. By and large, those of our kind who survive must do it by staying obscure. These days I’m an eccentric millionaire interested in lineages. My agents figure me for an ex-Mormon. They’re supposed to locate—oh, individuals who seem much tike others that dropped from sight earlier, and are apt to appear carrying a pretty fair grubstake—that sort of thing. What with railroads and steamships, I can at last spread my net across the world. Of course, it’s not that big yet, and the mesh is awfully coarse, which may be why it’s caught nothing except a few that turned out false.”

“Until today,” said Peregrino.

Tarrant nodded. “A scout of mine, exploring around Santa Fe, caught rumors about a medicine man among the Comanches, who didn’t really belong to them—the description sounded like a Sioux or a Pawnee or what’ever—but he’d gained a good deal of authority and ... he’d been heard of elsewhere, earlier, several different times and places. Not that any civilized person had pieced this together. Who’d take the fancies of savages seriously? Uh, pardon me, no offense. You know how whites think. My agent didn’t suppose it was worth pursuing. He noted it in a couple of sentences in his report just to show me how industrious he was.

“That was last year. I decided to follow it up myself. Lucked out and found two aged people, an Indian and a Mexican, who remembered— Well, it seemed, if he existed, he’d joined Quanah. I hoped to find the Comanches in winter quarters, but as was, we had to track them.” Tarrant laid a hand briefly on Peregrine’s shoulder. “And here we are, my brother.”

Peregrino halted. Tarrant did. For a space they looked into each other’s eyes. Rufus stood aside, bemused. At last Tarrant formed a wry grin and murmured, “You’re wondering whether I’m a liar, aren’t you?”

“How do you know I speak truth?” the Indian replied as low.

“Tactful fellow, you. Well, in the course of time I’ve cached evidence, as well as getaway gold, here and there. Come with me and I’ll show you enough of it. Or you can simply watch me for twenty or thirty years. I’ll provide for you. Meanwhile, why else on earth should I spin you a yarn like this?”

Peregrino nodded. “I believe you. But how do you know I’m not out to swindle you?”

“You couldn’t have foreseen my arrival, and you did leave many years’ worth of trail. Not on purpose. No white who didn’t know what to look for would ever have suspected. The tribes—what do they make of you, anyway?”

“That depends.” Peregrine’s gaze went over miles where grass waved above buffalo skulls, on beyond the horizon.

When he spoke slowly, often stopping to form a sentence before he uttered it, his English became a language other than what he had been using. “Each lives in its own world, you know; and those worlds are changing so fast.

“At first I was a medicine man among my birth-people. But they took to the horse and everything that went with that. I left them and drifted for—winter after winter, summer after summer. I was trying to find what it meant, all that I lived through. Sometimes I settled down a while, but it always hurt too much, seeing what was happening. I even tried the whites. At a mission I got baptized, learned Spanish and English, reading and writing. Afterward I went deep into Mexican and Anglo country both. I have been a market hunter, trapper, carpenter, wrangler, gardener. I talked with everybody who would talk with me and read every printed word that came my way. But that was no good either. I never belonged there.

“Meanwhile tribe after tribe got wiped out—by sickness, by war—or broken and herded onto a reservation. Then if the whites decided they wanted that land too, out the redskins went. I saw the Cherokees at the end of their Trail of Tears—”

The quiet, almost matter-of-fact voice died away. Rufus cleared his throat. “Well, that’s how the world is,” he grated. “/ seen Saxons, vikings, Crusaders, Turks, wars of religion, witches burned—“ Louder: “I seen what Injuns do when they get the upper hand.”

Tarrant frowned him to silence and asked Peregrino, “What brought you here?”

The other sighed. “I finally thought—oh, I was slow about it—this life of mine that went on and on and on, with nothing to show for it but graves—it must have some purpose, some use. And maybe that was just in the long experience, and being ageless would make folks listen to me. Maybe I could help my people, my whole race, before they went under, help them save something for a new beginning.

“About thirty years ago, I came back to them. The Southwest was where free tribes were likely to hang on the longest. The Nermernuh—you do know ‘Comanche’ is from Spanish, don’t you?—they had driven out the Apaches; they had fought the Kiowas as equals and made allies of them; for three hundred years they had stood off the Spanish, the French, the Mexicans, the Texans, and carried war to the enemy in his home country. Now the Americans aim to crush them once for all. They’ve earned better than that. Haven’t they?”

“What are you doing?” Tarrant’s question seemed to hover like the dark wings overhead.

“To tell the truth, I was among the Kiowas first,” Per-egrino said. “They are more open in their minds than the Nermernuh, also about long life. Comanches believe a real man dies young, in battle or the hunt, while he is strong. They don’t trust their old ones and treat them bad. Not like my birth-people, so long ago. ... I let my ... my reputation grow with time. It helped that I know some things to do for the wounded and the sick. I never set myself up as a prophet. Those crazy preachers have been the death of thousands, and the end is not yet. No, I just went around from band to band, and they came to think I was holy. I did whatever I could for them in the way of healing or advice. Always I counselled peace. Finally—it’s a long story—I joined up with Quanah, because he was becoming the last great chief. Everything will turn on him.”

“Peace, did you say?”

“And whatever we can save for our children. The Comanches have nothing left from their ancestors, nothing they can truly believe in. That eats them out from the inside. It leaves them wide open for the likes of Owl Prophet. I found a new faith among the Kiowas and I’m bringing it to the Nermernuh. Do you know the peyote cactus? It opens a way, it quiets the heart—”

Peregrino stopped. A tiny laugh fluttered in his throat. “Well, I don’t mean to sound like a missionary.”

“I’ll be glad to listen later,” said Tarrant, while he thought: I have seen so many gods come and go, what’s one more? “Also to any ideas you may have about making peace. I told you I have money. And I’ve always made a point of getting wires in my hands. You savvy? Certain politicians owe me favors. I can buy others. We’ll work out a plan, you and I. But first we’ve got to get you away from here, back to San Francisco with us, before you take a bullet in your brain. Why the hell did you come along with these raiders anyway?”

“I said I have to make them listen to me,” Peregrino explained wearily. “It’s uphill work. They’re suspicious of old men to start with, and when their world is falling to pieces around them they’re afraid of magic as strange as mine and— They’ve got to understand I’m not unmanly, I am on their side. I can’t leave them now.”

“Wait a minute!” Rufus barked.

They stared at him. He stood foursquare, legs planted wide apart, hat pushed back from roughened red face. The hook that had pierced foemen looked suddenly frail under this heaven. “Wait a minute,” stumbled from him. “Boss, what’re you thinking? The first thing we got to do is save those ranchers.”

Tarrant moistened his lips before it dragged out of him: “We can’t. We’re two against a hundred or worse. Unless—“ He cast a glance at Peregrino.

The Indian shook his head. “In this the People would not heed me,” he told them, dull-voiced. “I would only lose what standing I have.”

“I mean, can we ransom that family? Comanches often sell prisoners back, I’ve heard. I’ve brought trade goods along, besides what was intended for presents. And Herrera ought to turn his stock over to me if I promise him payment in gold.”

Peregrino grew thoughtful. “Well, maybe.”

“That’s giving those devils the stuff to kill more whites,” Rufus protested.

Bitterness sharpened Peregrine’s tone. “You were telling as how this sort of thing is nothing new on earth.”

“But, but the barbarians in Europe, they were white. Even the Turks— Oh, you don’t mind. You ride with these animals—”

“That’ll do, Rufus,” Tarrant clipped. “Remember why we’ve come. Saving a few who’ll be dead anyway inside a century is not our business. I’ll see if I can, but Peregrino here is our real kinsman. So pipe down.”

His comrade whirled about and stalked off.

Tarrant watched him go. “He’ll get over it,” he said. “Short-tempered and not very bright, but he’s been loyal to me since-before the fall of Rome.”

“Why does he care about ... dayflies?” the medicine man wondered.

Tarrant’s pipe had gone out. He rekindled it and stared into the smoke as it lost itself beneath the sky. “Immortals get influenced by their surroundings, too,” he said. “We’ve mostly lived in the New World these past two hundred years, Rufus and I. First Canada, when it was French, but then we moved to the English colonies. More freedom, more opportunity, if you were English yourself, as of course we claimed to be. Later we were Americans; same thing.

“It affected him more than me. I owned slaves now and then, and shares in a couple of plantations, but didn’t think much about it either way. I’d always taken slavery for granted, and it was a misfortune that could happen to anybody, regardless of race. When the War Between the States ended it and a great deal else, to me that was simply another spin in history’s wheel. As a shipowner in San Francisco I didn’t need slaves.

“But Rufus, he’s a primitive soul. He wants something to cling to—which is what immortals never can have, right? He’s gone through a dozen Christian faiths. Last time he got converted was at a Baptist revival, and. a lot of it still clings to him. Both before and after the war he took seriously what he kept hearing about the white race’s right and duty to lord it over the colored.”

Tarrant chuckled unmerrily. “Besides, he’s been without a woman since we left Santa Fe. It was a terrible disappointment to him when he found on the Staked Plains that Co-manche women don’t free-and-easy receive outsiders like they do, or used to do, farther north. There must be a white woman or two in yonder cabin. He doesn’t imagine he lusts after them himself—oh, he wouldn’t dream of anything except being respectful and gallant and getting adoring looks—but the thought of redskin after redskin on them seems to be more than he can bear.”

“He may have to,” Peregrine said.

“Yes, he may.” Tarrant grimaced. “I must admit I don’t relish it, nor the idea of ransoming them with guns. I’m not quite as case-hardened as ... I must behave.”

“I think nothing will happen for hours.”

“Good. I have to give Quanah my presents, go through any formalities—you’ll advise me, won’t you?—but not right away, hm? Let’s walk on. We’ve a lot of talking to do, you and me. Three thousand years’ worth.”

<p>5</p>

Warriors gathered around. Now they were still, in wildcat dignity, for this was a ceremonial occasion. The westering sun cast gleams over obsidian hair and mahogany skin; on the eastern side it lit flames in eyes.

Between the ranks, before his tipi, Quanah received Tar-rant’s gifts. He made a speech in his father’s language, lengthy and doubtless full of imagery in his fathers’ wise. Standing by the visitor, Peregrino said in English when it was done: “He thanks you, he calls you friend, and tomorrow morning you will pick out of his horses whichever you like best. That is generous for a man on the warpath:”

“I know,” Tarrant said. To Quanah, in Spanish: “My thanks to you, great chief. May I ask a favor, in the name of the friendship you so kindly give us?”

Herrera, in the front row though well back, started, tautened, and squinted. Tarrant hadn’t stopped by him upon returning, but had collected his presents and gone straight here. Word flew quickly about, and when he saw the braves assemble, Herrera came for politeness and wariness.

“You may ask,” said Quanah, impassive.

“I wish to buy free those folks you hold trapped. They are useless to you. Why should you spend more time and men on them? We will take them away with us. In exchange we will pay a good price.”

A stir went through the Comanches, a rustle, a buzz. Those who understood whispered to those who had not. Hands tightened on hafts, here and there on a firearm.

A man near the chief uttered a string of harsh words. He was gaunt, scarred, more deeply lined in the face than was common even for aged Indians. Others near him muttered as if in agreement. Quanah lifted a hand for attention and told Tarrant, “Wahaawmaw says we have our fallen to avenge.”

“They fell, uh, honorably.”

“He means all our fallen, through all the years and lifetimes, deathtimes we have suffered.”

“I didn’t think you people—thought that way.”

“Wahaawmaw was a boy in that camp where the Tejanos took Quanah’s mother,” Peregrino related. “He found cover and escaped, but they shot down his own mother, brother, two little sisters. A while back he lost his wife and a small son; the soldiers were using a howitzer. The same has happened, different places, to many who are here.”

“I’m sorry,” Tarrant said to any who would listen. “But those people yonder had nothing to do with that, and— well, I carry plenty of fine things like those I’ve given your chief. Wouldn’t you rather have them than a few stinking scalps?”

Wahaawmaw claimed the right to speak. He went on for minutes, snarling, hissing, flinging up his hands and crying aloud to heaven. Anger answered in a surf-noise. When he was done and had folded his arms, Peregrino scarcely needed to translate: “He calk this an insult. Shall the Ner-mernuh sell their victory for blankets and booze? They’ll take more loot than they can carry off the Tejanos, and the scalps as well.”

He had warned Tarrant to expect this kind of outcome. Therefore Tarrant looked straight at Quanah and said, “I can make a better offer. We have rifles with us, boxes full of cartridges, things you need as you need horses if you are to wage war. How much, for those poor lives?”

Herrera took a step forward. “No, wait,” he called.

Quanah forestalled him. “Are these in your baggage? If so, good. If not, you are too late. Your companion has already agreed to trade his for cattle.”

Tarrant stood moveless. Wahaawmaw, who must have gotten the gist, crowed at him. “I could have told you,” Herrera said through the rising crowd-noise.

Quanah brought that down while Peregrino breathed in Tarrant’s ear, “I will see whether I can talk them into changing the deal. Keep your hopes on a tight rein, though.”

He launched into oratory. His fellows responded likewise. For the most part they spoke soberly. The effort always was to reach a consensus. They had no government. Civil chiefs were little more than judges, mediators, and even war chiefs only commanded in battle. Quanah waited out the debate. Toward the end, Herrera had something to say. Soon after that, Quanah pronounced what he took to be the verdict, and assent passed among his followers like an ebb-tide wave. The sun stood low. Wahaawmaw cast Tarrant a triumphant glare.

Sadness dulled Peregrino’s English. “You have guessed, no? It did not work. They have not gotten much blood yet, and are thirsty for it. Wahaawmaw claimed it would be bad luck to give quarter, and quite a few were ready to believe that. They can spare the half a dozen to round up this ranch’s herd and bring it to New Mexico. They enjoy that trip. And the Comanchero told them he is not a man to pull out of a bargain once it’s been struck. That made them extra touchy about their own honor. Also ... Quanah didn’t argue either way, but they know he has an idea for taking the house that he would like to try, and they are curious what it may be.” He stood silent for part of a minute. “I did my best. I really did.”

“Of course,” Tarrant answered. “Thanks.”

“I want you to know I don’t like what will happen, either. Let’s ride off and not come back till morning, you and me— Rufus if he wants.”

Tarrant shook his head. “I’ve a notion I’d better stay around. Don’t worry. I’ve seen enough sacks in the past.”

“I suppose you have,” said Peregrino.

The meeting broke up. Tarrant gave Quanah his respects and walked among knots of warriors, whose looks on him ranged from sullen to gleeful, toward Herrera’s camp. It was several yards from the nearest tipi. The New Mexican found men to talk with and thus delayed himself.

His sons had a fire started. They were busy with preparations for supper, before the quick prairie dark should fall. Long sunbeams trailed through smoke. Bedrolls waited. Rufus sat idle, hunched, a bottle in his single fist.. He looked up when Tarrant approached and asked, needlessly once he had seen, “What happened?”

“No dice.” Tarrant lowered himself to the trampled grass and reached out. “I’ll take a swig of that whiskey. Not much, and you’d better watch it closer.” Its bite went beneficent down his gullet. “I’ve failed altogether. Peregrino won’t leave the Comanches, and they won’t take ransom.” Curtly he described the situation.

“That son of a bitch,” Rufus breathed.

“Who? Quanah? He may be enemy, but he’s honest.”

“No, Herrera. He could have—”

The trader glided into view. “Did I hear my name?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Rufus lurched to his feet, bottle in hand. He stayed with English, except for, “Vipera es. You snake. You greaser. You could’a—could’a—sold Hanno—sold the boss those guns an’—”

Herrera’s right hand moved toward his Colt. His sons edged left and right, not yet drawing their knives. “I could not change a bargain that had been made,” he said. Spanish was too soft a language to convey the full coldness. “Not unless they agreed, and they refused. That would have hurt my reputation, damaged my business.”

“Sure, you breed, you’re always ready for sellin’ white men, white women, sellin’ ‘em for—for money. Blood money.” Rufus spat at Herrera’s feet.

“We will not speak of blood,” said the trader most quietly. “/ know who my father was. And I saw him weep when the Yanquis robbed our country from us. Now I must step aside for them in the streets of Santa Fe. The priest tells me I should not hate them, but need I care what becomes of them?”

Rufus groaned. His hook slashed. Herrera slipped back in time. The pistol sprang forth. Tarrant jumped to his feet and caught Rufus by the arms before the redbeard could try to draw. Slowly, the boys sheathed their blades.

“Behave yourself,” Tarrant panted. “Sit down.”

“Not with these!” Rufus coughed in Latin. He shook free of the grasp on him. “And you, Hanno. Can’t you remember? Like that woman we saved, way back when hi Russia. And that was just a single man, and he wouldn’t have cut her belly open afterward, or given her to the females with their knives and torches—“ He stumbled off, away from everybody, still gripping the bottle.

Looks followed him for a little. Then Tarrant said to Herrera, “Let him be. Hell get his wits back. Thanks for your patience,” with less than total sincerity.

<p>6</p>

Twice during the afternoon, Tom Langford ventured outside. When he saw the encampment, he stepped quickly in again and rebarred the door. Toward evening he said, “I s’pect they’ll try a night attack. Why else would they hang around this long? Maybe again at dawn, but could be any time. We’ll just have to keep alert. If we stand ‘em off then, they ought to up and go. Injuns don’t know how to lay a siege.”

Bill Davis laughed softly and richly. “We ain’t wuth it,” he opined.

“Los vecinos vendrdn indudablemente a ayudarnos—‘Elp weell come,” Carlos Padilla ventured.

“I dunno how fast, if ever,” Langford sighed. “S’posin’ Bob got through, the neighbors are scattered pretty thin these days. Maybe a cavalry troop is somewhere close enough.”

“We are in the hands of God,” Susie declared. She smiled at her husband. “Yours too, dear, and strong hands they are.”

Ed Lee tossed and muttered on the Langfords’ bed. His injury had lit a fever in him. The children were more than ready for sleep.

First there was supper, cold beans, bread, the last milk. They had no firewood to speak of, and little water. Langford asked his wife to say grace. Nobody minded when Carlos crossed himself. Afterward the men one by one and bashfully went behind a sort of curtain Susie had rigged in a corner to hide the bucket all muSt share. Langford had emptied it whenever he stepped out. He hoped nobody more would have any real business there till the Indians were gone. That would be kind of nasty, in these close quarters with a woman and a girl. The privy was sod, it ought to be around yet. If not, well, they’d have the tall grass for walls, the freedom of these acres for which he had saved and toiled and now fought.

Dusk thickened to night. A single candle burned on the table amidst the guns. The Langfords and the hale men stood watches, two peering out loopholes taken in turn while two caught naps, on the floor or alongside poor Ed. Stars crowded what they glimpsed of sky. The ground was gray-black vague. A waning sliver of moon would be scant help when it rose shortly before the sun. Meanwhile the cold and the stillness gnawed away.

Once the wife whispered from her side of the room, “Tom?”

“Yeah?” He allowed himself a look at her. In this dim light he couldn’t see dirt, exhaustion, hollowed cheeks and black-rimmed eyes. She was the girl of his courting days, from whose front porch he’d walk home on the rainbow.

“Tom, if—if they do get in and you have the chance—“ She must take a breath. “Would you shoot me—first?”

“Christ, no!” he choked, and could taste the horror.

“Please. I’d bless you.”

“You might live, honey. They do sell prisoners to our people.”

She stared at the floor, then quickly, remembering her duty, out a loophole. “I wouldn’t want to live. Not after—”

“Do you s’pose I’d ever turn my back on you? Reckon you don’t know me as well as I thought.”

“No, but you— I’d be without you on earth. Why not together in Heaven, at once?”

He knew the redskins wouldn’t spare his life. Unless he was lucky, he wouldn’t be a man when he died. Not that knives and fire, or being staked out under the sun with his eyelids cut off, would leave him in shape to think much about that. “Well, you might still manage to get the kids through.”

Again her head drooped. “Yes. I’m sorry. I clean forgot. Yes, I was bein’ selfish.”

“Aw, don’t you fret, sweetheart,” he said as cheerfully as he was able. “Nothin’ bad’s goin’ to happen.’Next week our biggest worry will be how we can keep from braggjn’ too loud.”

“Thank you, darlin’.” She turned her attention outward.

The night wore on. They had divided it into four watches, then all to be afoot in advance of dawn, when attack was likeliest. About three in the morning by the grandfather clock, the Langfords finished their second trick, roused the hands, and stretched themselves out, he on the floor, she beside Ed. Should the hurt man stir from the heavy sleep into which he had dropped, she’d know it and see to whatever need was his. The other men would shoot better, the more well rested they were.

A shotgun blast kicked Langford awake.

Bill thudded against the wall and fell. The lead had sleeted across the cabin and taken him in the back. By candlelight and monstrous flickery shadows the blood that gushed from him shone blacker than his skin.

Carlos crouched on the north side, rifle aimed and useless. Two broad muzzles thrust in by the west loopholes. One smoked. It withdrew. Instantly another took its place. Meanwhile the second roared.

Langford jumped to the bedside and Susie. Sick understanding billowed through him. Hostiles, just three or four, had crawled under cover of night, slowly, often stopping, shadows in the gloom, till they were among the stakes and under the eaves. When they shoved their guns through, maybe they hoped they’d fire straight into an eye.

No matter. Shooting blind, wedging the barrels to and fro, they made defense impossible.

Whoops lifted, nearer and nearer. Thunder beat on the door. No tomahawks, Langford knew; that was a regular woodcutting ax, probably his. Panels splintered. A gust blew out the candle. Langford fired and fired, but he couldn’t see anything for sure. The hammer clicked on emptiness. Where the hell were the loaded guns? Susie screamed. Maybe he should have saved a bullet for her. Too late. The door was down and the dark full of warriors.

<p>7</p>

The racket brought Tarrant iwd the Herreras from their bedrolls, hands to weapons. Tumult went murky among the tipis. “El ataque,” the trader said beneath yowls and shots.

“What’re they doing?” Tarrant grated: “Another frontal assault, in the dead of night? Crazy.”

“I do not know,” Herrera said. The noise rose rapidly to crescendo. He bared teeth, a dim flash under the stars. “Victory. They are taking the house.” Tarrant bent to put on his boots. “Where do you go? Stay here. You could too easily get killed.”

“I’ve got to see if I can do anything.”

“You cannot. Myself, I stay, not out of fear but because I do not want to see what comes next.”

Tarrant’s pain lashed: “You told me you don’t care.”

“Not much,” Herrera admitted. “But it would be evil to gloat, nor have I the heart for it. No, my sons and I will pray for them.” He plucked the other man’s sleeve. You slept fully clad in such a place as this. “Do stay. You, somehow, I like.”

“I’ll be careful,” Tarrant promised, and loped off.

He skirted the Comanche camp. More and more torches came to life there, flared, bobbed, streamed sparks on their hasty way. Sight of them dimmed the stars that hi their uncountable thousands gleamed frost-bright across black. Nevertheless he had light enough to turn the soil gray for him.

Where the devil was Rufus? Probably snoring out on the prairie alongside the empty bottle. Just as well. No matter how self-controlled, a white man took a risk, showing himself to red men in blood-rut.

So why did he, Hanno, Lugo, Cadoc, Jacques Lacy, William Sawyer, Jack Tarrant, a hundred different aliases, behave like this? He knew he couldn’t save the ranchers, and didn’t mean to try. They must perish as star-many had perished before them and would in the future, over and over, world without end. History chewed them up and spat them out and soon most rotted forgotten, might as well never have been. Maybe the Christians were right and mankind was like that, maybe it was simply in the nature of things.

His intention was practical. He hadn’t survived this long by hiding from the terrible. Rather, he kept alert, aware, so he’d know which way to jump when the sword swung. Tonight he’d observe from the fringes. If an impulse arose to wipe out his party too, he could talk it down, .given help from Peregrine and maybe even Quanah, before it got out of control. In the morning he’d start back toward Santa Fe.

The chief stood huge near the cabin, a long-helved ax on his shoulder. Torchlight guttered across painted face and body, horned headdress; it was as if he flickered in and out of hell. The braves were mostly less clear, blobs of night that swarmed, pranced, screeched, waved their brands like battle flags. Squaws capered with them, knives or sharpened sticks hi hand. The doorway gaped hollow.

They kept clear a space in front of it. Three dead men sprawled at the threshold, dragged forth. The Anglo’s left arm was splinted; someone had cut his throat before stopping to think about sport. Rib ends stuck out of a hole torn in the Negro’s back. A third seemed Mexican, though he was so slashed and pulped it was hard to be sure; he had gone down fighting.

Lucky bastards. Two squaws held fast a small boy and a smaller girl who screamed, blind with fear. A tall Anglo sat slumped. Blood matted his hair and dripped onto clothes and earth. He was stunned. Two warriors locked the arms of a young woman who writhed, kicked, cursed them and called on her God.

A man bounded from the ruck. A torch swung near him for a moment and Tarrant recognized Wahaawmaw. He had slung his rifle to free his hands. The right gripped a knife. He laughed aloud, caught the collar of the woman’s dress in his left, slashed downward. The cloth parted. Whiteness gleamed, and a sudden string of blood-beads. Her captors forced her down on her back. Wahaawmaw fumbled at his breechclout. The man prisoner stirred, croaked, struggled to regain his feet. A brave gave him a gun butt in the stomach and he sagged, retching.

A grizzly bear growl resounded. From around the cabin stormed Rufus. His Colt was drawn. He swept his hook back and forth. Two Indians stumbled aside, faces gashed open. He reached the woman. The men who pinned her sprang up. He shot one through the forehead. He hooked an eye from the other, who recoiled shrieking. His boot smashed into Wahaawmaw’s groin. That warrior tumbled, to squirm by the white man. He sought to choke down agony, but it jerked past his tips.

Flambeau flare made Rufus’-obeard its own hue. He stood with his legs on either side of the woman, hunched forward, swaying a little, flaming drunk but the Colt rock-steady before him. “Aw right,” he boomed, “you filthy swine, first o’ you makes a move, 111 plug him. She’s gonna go free, an’—”

Wahaawmaw straightened on the ground and rolled over. Rufus didn’t see. There was too much else for him to watch. “Look out!” Tarrant heard himself yell. The Indian bowls drowned his voice. Wahaawmaw unslung his rifle. Prone, be fired.

Rufus lurched back. The pistol fell. Wahaawmaw shot again. Rufus crumpled. His weight sank onto the woman and held her fast.

Wild, Tarrant shoved men aside. He sprang into the clear space and went on his knees beside Rufus. “O sodalis, amice perennis—“ Blood bubbled from the mouth and into the red beard. Rufus gasped. For an instant it seemed he grinned, but Tarrant couldn’t really know in the shifty torchlight or even by the light of the stars. He clasped the big body to him and felt life ebb away.

Only then did he hear what a silence had fallen. He looked aloft. Quanah stood above him, the ax held out tike a roof or a buffalo-hide shield. Had he roared his folk into quietude? They were a massive blur, well back from him and the dead, the wounded, the captive. Here and there a blaze briefly picked out a face or made eyeballs glisten.

Tarrant hauled Rufus off the woman. She stirred, stared, mewed. “Easy,” be murmured. She got to hands and knees, made her way thus to the man. Squaws had let go of the children, who were already at his side. He’d regained consciousness. At least, he could sit straight and lay his arms around them all.

The warriors Rufus injured had joined the crowd, except for the slain one and Wahaawmaw. He had risen but leaned on his rifle, shakily, holding himself where the pain was.

Tarrant got up too. Quanah lowered his ax. The pair of them regarded each other.

“Bad is this,” said the chief at last. “Very bad.”

A skipper from Phoenicia learned how to snatch at every chance, no matter how thin a shred. “Yes,” Tarrant answered. “A man of yours has killed a guest of yours.”

“He, your man, broke murdering into our midst.”

“He had a right to speak, to be heard hi your council. When your Nermernuh would bar his way and likely attack him, he acted in self-defense. He was under your protection, Quanah. At worst, you could have had him seized from behind, as many men as you command. I think you would have done that if you had gotten the chance, for everyone calls you a man of honor. But this creature shot him first.”

Wahaawmaw groaned outrage. Tarrant didn’t know how much he had understood. The argument was weak, almost ridiculous. Quanah could dismiss it out of hand. And yet—

Peregrine stepped forth. He overtopped the chief by a couple of inches. He carried a medicine bundle and a wand on which hung three buffalo tails, things he must have brought from his tipi. A hiss and mumble went through the crowd. Torches wavered. Dertsahnawyeh, the undying one, had power to raise awe in the fiercest heart.

“Stay where you are, Jack Tarrant,” he said quietly, “while Quanah and I go talk.”

The chief nodded. He spoke certain commands. Wahaawmaw snarled but hobbled obediently off to lose himself in the throng. Several warriors came rifles in hand to keep guard on the whites. Quanah and Peregrino departed into the night.

Tarrant went over to the prisoners and hunkered down. “Listen,” he said low, “we may be able to get you free. Keep still, don’t make any fuss. This band’s had a shock that cooled them down some, but don’t do anything to remind them they meant to destroy you.”

“I got you,” the man answered, clearly if not quite firmly yet. “Whatever happens, we owe you our prayers, you and your partner.”

“He came like a knight of King Arthur,” the woman whispered.

He came tike a goddamned drunken idiot, Tarrant thought. I could have headed him off if I’d known. I would have. Oh, Rufus, old buddy, you always hated to be alone, and now you are, forever.

The man offered his hand. “Tom Langford,” he said. “My wife Susan. Nancy. Jimmy, uh, James.” For out of grime and drying tears and the start of a bruise, the boy had cast his father a reproachful look. Tarrant wanted to hoot laughter.

He choked it down, shook hands, gave his name, and finished, “We’d better not talk more. Besides, the Indians expect me to see to my dead.”

Rufus lay about ten feet from the Langfords. It might have been ten thousand miles. Tarrant couldn’t wash him, but he straightened the body, closed the eyes, bound up the jaw with a bandanna. He drew his pocket knife and cut himself in the face and along bared arms and chest. Blood welled and dripped, nothing serious but it impressed the watchers. This was their way of mourning, not the white man’s. Surely therefore the dead was mightily important, to be avenged with cannon and saber unless his friends were appeased. At the same time, the friend who was here did not wail over him, and that too was eerie. By ones and twos and threes, the Nermernuh melted off toward the comfort of their camp.

Well, Rufus, you did have fifteen hundred years, and you enjoyed just about every day of them. You wenched and fought and sang and gorged and swilled and adventured, you were a hard worker when we needed work done and a better yet man to have at my back when we needed that and in your rough gruff style a pretty good husband and father whenever we settled down a while. T could have done without your stupid practical jokes, and by ourselves for any length of time your conversation got so boring it was physically painful, and if you saved my life now and then, I staked my own as often to pull you out of some scrape you’d blundered into, and—and a lot of gusto went out of my world tonight, Rufus. A lot of love.

False dawn chilled the east. Quanah and Peregrino were dim in sight until they reached the cabin and halted. Tarrant rose. The guards glided deferentially aside. From the ground the Langfords stared dull-eyed, wrung dry, their children uneasily asleep.

Tarrant stood waiting.

“It is decided,” said Quanah. The deep voice rolled like hoofs over the plains. Breath blew ghost-white in the cold. “Let all men know that the Nennernuh are generous. They will heed my wishes in this matter. You, the trader, and his sons may go home. You may take these captives along. They are in exchange for your comrade. He brought his death on himself, but since he was a guest, let that be his price, because the Nermernuh set high their honor. Nor shall his body be harmed, but we will give him decent burial, so that his spirit may find its way to the afterworld. I have spoken.”

A shudder passed below Tarrant’s skin. He had more than half awaited worse than this. Somehow he kept it hidden and said, “I thank you much, senor, and I will tell my people that the soul of Quanah is large.” He believed he meant it.

For an instant the chief let his stateliness drop. “Thank Peregrino. He persuaded me. Begone before sunrise.”

He beckoned to the guards. They followed him toward the Comanche camp.

A mortal might have crumbled to pieces as the pressure came off, cackled and gibbered and swooned. An immortal had more reserves, more bounce. Nonetheless Tarrant’s words trembled. “How did you do it, Peregrino?”

“I pushed your argument as far as it would go.” Again the Indian took time to build and weigh each English sentence. “He wasn’t unwilling to take it. He isn’t a fiend, you know; he’s fighting for the life of his people. But he must convince them also. I had to ... call in all my chips, call on the spirits, finally tell him that either he released you or I left him. He does value my advice as well as ... my medicine. After that it wasn’t hard to get him to release this family too. I will help him convince the warriors that was a good idea.”

“He was right when he told me to thank you,” Tarrant said. “I will for as many centuries as I’ve got left.”

Peregrine’s smile was as bleak as the eastern light. “You need not. I had my reasons and I want my price.”

Tarrant swallowed. “What is it?”

The tone mildened. “I admit I did have to save you. Maybe you and I are the only immortals in the world, now. We must join together sometime. But meanwhile—”

Peregrino reached out and caught Tarrant’s arm. “Meanwhile, here are my people,” throbbed from him. “I wasn’t born to them, but they are almost the last of us who were born to this land and are still free. They won’t be much longer. Soon they will be broken.” Even as Tyre and Carthage were, Galtia and Britannia, Rome and Byzantium, Al-bigensians and Hussites, Basques and Irish, Quebec and the Confederacy. “I told you yesterday out on the prairie, I have to stay with them to the end, reason with them, help them find a new faith and hope. Else they’ll dash themselves to pieces, like buffalo over a cliff. So I will be working among them for peace.

“I want you to do the same. As I told Quanah, letting these few go can earn us a little good will. More will die, horribly, but here is a talking point for you. You claim you are rich and have the ear of powerful men. All right, my price for these lives is that you work on your side for peace, a peace that my people can live with.”

“Ill try my best,” said Tarrant. He truly meant that. If nothing else, the day would come when Peregrino held him to account.

They clasped hands. The Indian strode off. False dawn died away and he was quickly into the shadows.

“Follow me,” Tarrant called to the Langfords. “We have to hit the trail at once.”

What sum of years had Rufus bought for these four? Two hundred, maybe?

<p>8</p>

In Far Western eyes, the Wichita Mountains were hardly more than hills; but they rose steeply, treeless, yet under the spring rains turning deeply green and starred with wild-flowers. In its valley among them a big house and its outbuildings reigned over many acres of cropland, pasture, cattle, and horses, horses.

Grass shone wet after a shower and clouds drifted white when a hired carriage left the main road for the drive to the homestead. A farmhand on a pony, who had been inspecting fences, saw it and rode to inquire. Mr. Parker wasn’t here, he said. The driver, who was likewise an Indian, explained that his passenger’s business was actually with Mr. Peregrino. Startled, the worker gave directions and stared after the vehicle. It was almost as strange to him as the autos that occasionally stuttered by.

A side track brought it to a frame cabin surrounded by flowerbeds, kitchen garden in back. On the porch a man clad in dungarees and sandals sat reading. He wore his hair in braids but was too tall and slender to be a Comanche. As the carriage approached he laid his book aside, sprang down the steps, and stood waiting.

It stopped. A white man climbed out. His clothes bespoke prosperity only if you looked closely at material and tailoring. For a moment he and the dweller were still. Then they ran to grip hands and look into each other’s eyes.

“At last,” Peregrine said, not quite evenly. “Bienvenido, amigo.”

“I’m sorry to have been this long about coming,” Tarrant answered. “It happened I was in the Orient on business when your letter reached San Francisco. After I got home, I thought a telegram might draw too much notice. You’d written to me years ago, when I sent you my_ address, that just that bit of mail set tongues wagging. So I simply caught the first train east.”

“It’s all right. Come in, come in.” With long practice behind it the English flowed easily, colloquially. “If your driver wants, he can go on to the big house. They’ll take care of him. He can cart us to town—how about day after tomorrow? I’ve things of my own to see to, including stuff I’d like shipped after me. If that’s okay with you.”

“Of course, Peregrino. Damn near anything you may want is.” Having spoken to the other man, Tarrant took a Gladstone bag from the carriage and accompanied his host inside.

The cabin held four rooms, neat, clean, sunny, austerely furnished except for a substantial number of books, a gramophone, a collection of mostly classical records, and, in the bedchamber, certain articles of religion. “You’ll sleep here,” Peregrino said. “I’ll roll up in the back yard. No, not a peep out of you. You’re my guest. Besides, it’ll be kind of like old days. I often do it anyway, in fact.”

Tarrant glanced around. “You live alone, then?”

“Yes. It seemed wrong to me, getting married and having kids when I knew that in the end I’d fake something and desert them. Life among the free tribes was different. How about you?”

Tarrant’s mouth pinched together. “My latest wife died last year, young. Consumption. We tried a desert climate, everything, but— Well, we had no children, and this identity has been around nearly as long as is safe. I’m making ready for a change.”

They settled themselves in the front room on wooden chairs. Above Peregrine’s head a chromolithograph gazed from its frame at Tarrant, a Rembrandt self-portrait. Bad though the copy was, mortal sorrow lingered in those eyes. From his bag Tarrant had taken a bottle of Scotch. Illegally, he filled both glasses his host had fetched, He also offered Havana cigars. Mere creature comforts are still comforts.

“How’ve you been doing otherwise?” Peregrino inquired.

“Busy,” Tarrant said. “Not sure how rich I am—I’d have to go through the books of several aliases—but it’s a heap, and bigger every day. One thing I want you for, besides yourself, is to help me think what’s most worth spending it on. How about you?”

“Peaceful, on the whole. I cultivate my patch of land, make things in my woodworking shop, counsel my congregation—native church, so I’m not really like a white minister—and teach in a school. I’ll be sorry to leave that. Oh, and I read a lot, trying to learn about your world.”

“And I suppose you’re Quanah’s advisor.”

“Well, yes. But look, don’t think I’m the power behind bis sad little throne or anything like that. He’s done it all himself. He’s a remarkable man. Among whites he’d have been a, a Lincoln or Napoleon. The most I can claim credit for is making some things possible, or at least easier, for him. He went ahead and did them.”

Tarrant nodded, remembering— The grand alliance of Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, Quanah its paramount chief. The bloody repulse at Adobe Walls, the year of warfare and manhunt that followed, and the last starvelings, led by Quanah, going onto the reservation in 1875. The good intentions of an Indian agent three years afterward, when he arranged for the Comanches to ride out under military escort on a final buffalo hunt, and no buffalo remained. And yet, and yet—

“Where is be now?” Tarrant asked.

“In Washington,” Peregrino said. Receiving a look of surprise: “He goes there fairly often. He is our spokesman, for all our tribes. And, well, too bad about Mr. McKinley, but that did put Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. He and Quanah know each other, they’re Mends.”

He smoked for a while in silence. The ageless are seldom hurried. At length he went on: “Among us Quanah’s more than a rather wealthy former. He’s a headman and judge, he holds us together. The whites don’t like the peyote nor his clutch of wives, but they put up with it because he doesn’t just keep us going, by doing so he keeps their consciences at ease. Not that he’s any sobersides. A genial sort, apt to tell stories or use language that’d make a sailor blush. But he is ... reconciliation. He calls himself Quanah Parker, in memory of his mother. Lately he talks about having her bones and his sister’s moved here, so they can rest beside his. Oh, I don’t blinker myself. We Indians have a steep, tough road to walk, and a lot of us will foil by the wayside. But Quanah’s gotten.us started.”

“And you brought him to that,” Tarrant said.

“Well, I worked against the prophets, I used what influence I had toward getting peace into the minds of the People. And you, from your side, kept your promise.”

Tarrant grinned crookedly. It had cost. You couldn’t simply buy politicians, you had to buy or push men who in their turn could strike deals with the grim incorruptibles. But Quanah did not go to jail or hang.

“I suspect you’re too modest,” Tarrant said. “Never mind. We’ve done our work. Maybe we’ve justified our long lives; I don’t know. So you’re ready to travel?”

Peregrino nodded. “I can’t do anything more here that others can’t whom I’ve helped train. And I have been on this reservation more than a quarter century. Quanah’s covered for me, kept me pretty much tucked in a corner, discouraged those who remember from talking to outsiders about me. But it isn’t like the prairie. Folks are wondering. If any real word leaked to the newspapers—ah, that worry’s at an end. I’ll leave him a letter, and my blessing.”

He looked out the window. It faced west. His hand lifted to his lips the brew of a people who themselves were once barbarians, southward raiding, northward retreating in war after war for their freedom. He said, “It’s time for me to start over.”


1

<p>1</p>

The ranch house was small, a one-room sod cabin, but the more defensible for that. Its two windows had heavy inside shutters and each wall a pair of loopholes. Picket stakes surrounded it, six deep. Men built like this in the west Texas cattle country—such of them as weren’t dead or fled.

“Lord, but I wish we’d cleared out in time,” Tom Lang-ford said. “You and the kids, at least.”

“Hush, now,” replied his wife. “You couldn’t run the spread without me, and if we gave up we’d lose everything we’ve worked for.” She leaned across the table, over the firearms and ammunition that covered it, to pat his arm. A sunbeam through a hole on the east side struck through the gloom within and made living bronze of her hair. “All we got to do is hold out till Bob brings help. Unless the redskins quit first.”

Langford kept himself from wondering whether the va-quero had gotten clean away. If the Comanches had spied him and sent pursuit with remounts, he must already lie scalped. No telling. Though you could see a long ways around here, by day, the war band had appeared at dawn, when folks were just getting started on the chores, and arrived faster than you might believe. Of the hands, only Ed Lee, Bill Davis, and Carlos Padilla had made it to the bouse .with the family, and not before a bullet smashed Ed’s left arm.

Susie bad set and bandaged that limb as best she was able after the warriors recoiled from gunfire and withdrew out of “sight. At the moment Ed had Nancy Langford on his lap.

The three-year-old clung hard to him, terrified. Bill kept watch at the north end, Carlos at the south, while Jim flitted between east and west in the pride and eagerness of his own seven years. A sharpness of powder still hung in the air, and some smoke seemed to have drifted in from the barn as well. The Indians had torched it, the only wooden building on the place. The roar of its burning reached the defenders faintly, like a noise in a nightmare.

“They’re comin’ back!” Jim shrilled.

Langford grabbed a Winchester off the table and sprang to the west wall. Behind him he heard Lee say, “Bill, you help the missus reload. Carlos, you be with Tom. Jim, you go ‘round and tell me where I’m needed.” The voice was ragged with pain but the man could work a Colt.

Langford peered through his loophole. Sunlight brightened the bare ground outside. Dust puffed and swirled ruddy from the hoofs of oncoming mustangs. He got a brown body in his sights, but then the pony veered and the rider vanished, except for one leg. Indian trick, hang yourself down the other side. But a Comanche without a horse was only half himself. Langford’s rifle cracked and nudged his shoulder. The mustang reared, screamed, went over, kicked. The warrior had thrown himself clear. He was lost in the dust and rampage. Langford realized he had pretty much wasted that shot, and picked his next target with care. The bullets had to last.

Riders would never take this house. They’d learned as much, first time. They galloped around and around, whooping, firing. One toppled, another, another. I didn’t get them, Langford knew. Carlos did. A real marksman, him. Brave, too. Could likely have gotten away from where he was when they showed up, but stuck with us. Well, I never did hold with looking down on a man just because he’s Mexican.

“Comin’ on foot, over here!” Jim cried.

Yes, of course, the mounted braves provided covering fire, distraction, for those who snaked amongst the pickets. Langford allowed himself a glance backward. Bill Davis had left the table to join Ed Lee on the north. The black cowhand wasn’t the best with a gun in these United States, but his targets were close, slowed down by the barrier, scornful of death. He blasted away. Susie brought him a reloaded rifle, took his emptied weapon back, fetched Ed a fresh pistol. The screams, hoofquake, shooting went on and on, world without end. You weren’t scared, no time for that, but at the back of your head you wondered if there had ever been anything else or ever would be.

Suddenly it was over. The wild men gathered up their dead and wounded and pulled off again.

In the silence that followed, the clock sounded nearly as loud as—a hammer nailing down a coffin lid. It was a big old grandfather clock, the single treasure from her parents’ home that Susie had wanted carted out here. The dial glimmered through a blue haze. Langford squinted eyes which the powder smoke stung and whistled softly. Just about ten minutes since the attack began. No more, dear God?

Nancy had crawled into a corner. She huddled hugging herself. Her mother went to give whatever comfort she could.


2

<p>2</p>

The wind across the high plains still bore much winter in it. This range wasn’t as bleak as the Llano Estacado, over which the travelers had come, but the spring rains had not started in earnest and only a bjeath of green touched endless sere grass. Trees—willow or cottonwood clumped by whatever streams ran through these miles, the occasional lonesome oak—reached bare limbs into a bleached sky. Game was plentiful, though. It wasn’t buffalo, except for white bones, the work of white hunters; buffalo were fast getting scarce. However, pronghorn, peccary, jackrabbit ran everywhere, with wolves and cougars to prey on them, while elk, bear, and cougar haunted the canyons. Jack Tarrant’s party hadn’t seen any cattle since well before they left New Mexico. Twice they passed abandoned ranches. The red terror woke to all its old fury while the states were at each other’s throats, and the Army had a lot of quelling yet to do, seven years after Appomattox.

Sunlight dazzled eastward vision. At first Tarrant couldn’t see what Francisco Herrera Carillo pointed at. “Hwno,” the trader said. “No proviene de ningun campamento.” He was ;a pale-brown man with sharp features; even on the trail he kept his chin shaven, mustache trimmed, clothes neat, as if to remind the world that among his forefathers were Con-quistadores.

Tarrant looked a bit like him, given aquiline nose and large, slightly oblique eyes. After a moment he too made out the stain rising athwart heaven. “Not from a camp, when it’s visible from below the horizon,” he agreed slowly in the same Spanish. “What, then? A grass ike?”

“No, that would be wider spread. A building. I think we have found your Indians.”

Burly and redbearded, hook newly strapped on to stick out of his right sleeve, Rufus Bullen stumped over to join them. “Christ!” he growled. Two missing front teeth made his English slightly slurred. If others than Tarrant noticed the new growth that had begun to push stubs through the gums, they had said nothing about it. “You mean they’ve set fire to a ranch?”

“What else?” Herrera replied coolly, holding to his own language. “I have not been hi these parts for some time, but if I remember right and have my bearings, that is the Lang-ford property. Or was.”

“What’ie we waiting for? We can’t let ‘em—“ Rufus broke off. His shoulders sagged. “Inutilis est,” he mumbled.

“We will probably arrive too late, and can certainly do nothing against a war band,” Tarrant reminded him, also in Latin.

Herrera shrugged. He had grown used to the Yanquis dropping into that lingo. (He recognized an occasional word from the Mass, but no more, especially since they spoke it differently from the priests.) This quest of theirs was mad anyway. “You wish to speak with the Comanches, no?” he observed. “You can hardly do that if you fight them. Come, let us eat and be on our way. If we’re lucky, they will not have moved on before we get there.”

His sons Miguel and Pedro, young but trailwise, had wakened at dawn and gotten busy. A coffeepot steamed and two pans sizzled on a grill above a fire of buffalo chips—an abundance of which remained—and mesquite. As hard as. the seekers pushed, without time off to hunt, no bacon was left except fat for cooking, but they kept plenty of corn meal to make tortillas and two days ago the father had had the good luck to knock down a peccary. It had been quite a ways off. Every Comanchero was necessarily a crack shot.

The travelers ate fast, cleaned camp gear, obeyed nature, left soap and razors till later, hit the saddle and set off. Herrera varied the pace between trot and canter, now and then a walk. The two whom he guided had learned to heed him. Easy though it seemed, this sparing of horseflesh covered many miles a day. Besides, the remuda amounted to just a pair of ponies each and three pack mules.

The sun climbed, the wind sank. Warmth crept into the air and drew sweet sweat odors from the mounts. Hoofs thudded, leather creaked. The tall dry grass rustled aside. For a while the smoke rose higher, but presently it thinned, blew apart, faded away. Wings as black wheeled where it had been. “You can usually tell a Comanche camp from afar,” Herrera remarked. “The vultures wait for the leavings.”

It was hard to tell whether Rufus flushed. Hats failed to keep skin like his from reddening and chapping. His voice did grate: “Dead bodies?” That was in Spanish, which he could speak after a fashion.

“Or bones and entrails,” Herrera replied. “They have always been hunters, you know, when they are not at war.” A minute went by. “Your buffalo killers destroy their livelihood.”

“Sometimes I think you like them,” Tarrant murmured.

“I have dealt with them since I was Pedro’s age, as did my fathers before me,” Herrera said. “One comes to a little understanding, whether one will or no.”

Tarrant nodded. Comancheros had been trading out of Santa Fe for a century, since de Anza fought the tribes to a standstill and made a peace that endured because he had gained then’ respect. It was a peace with the New Mexicans alone. Spaniards elsewhere, any other Europeans, the Mexicans who ruled later, the Americans—Texan, Confederate, Yankee—who despoiled the Mexicans, those remained fair game; and indeed by now there had been such bloodshed and cruelty on both sides that truce between Comanches and Texans was no more thinkable than it was between Comanches and Apaches.

Tarrant forced his mind back to his horse. He and Rufus had gotten fairly good at riding range style; but damn it, what they really were was seamen. Why couldn’t their search have led them into the South Pacific, or along the shores of Asia, or anywhere but this unbounded emptiness?

Well, the search might be near an end. No matter how often he had thought it before, that coursed through his blood and shivered up his spine. O Hiram, Psammetk, Pytheas, Althea, A t hen ais-Aliyat, Armand Cardinal Richelieu, Benjamin Franklin, how far has the River borne me from you! And all the lesser ones, beyond counting, down in dust, wholly forgotten save for whatever might glimmer in him, a comrade of decades or a drinking companion in a tavern, a wife and the children she bore him or a woman chance-met for a single night—

Herrera’s shout slammed him back into the day: “/Alto!” and a rush of alien gutturals. Rufus dropped left hand to pistol. Tarrant gestured him from it. The boys brought the pack animals to a stop. Their eyes darted around, they were new to this and nervous. Despite his earlier times between jaws ready to snap shut, Tarrant’s flesh prickled.

Two men had come around a brush-grown hillock where they must have been on watch. Their scurry-looking mustangs closed the distance in a few pulsebeats. They checked the gallop with invisible touch of knees and twitch of hackamore; seated merely on blankets, they seemed parts of the beasts, centaurs. Their own frames were stocky, bandylegged, swarthy, clad in breechclouts, leggings, and moccasins. Midnight hair hung in twin braids past broad faces painted in the red and black of death. Leather sunshades had been left behind and the war bonnet of the northern plains was unknown here. One man had stuck a few feathers into a headband. The other bore a great shaggy cap or helmet from which sprang buffalo horns. He carried a Henry repeating rifle. A bandolier of cartridges crossed his chest. His companion nocked an arrow to a short bow. Archers were rare of late, or so Tarrant had heard. Maybe this warrior was poor, maybe he preferred the ancestral weapon. No matter.-That barbed iron head could punch through ribs to the heart, and more shafts waited in their quiver.

Herrera talked on. Buffalo Horns grunted. The bowman slacked his string. Herrera turned in the saddle to regard his employers. “The fight is not ended,” he told them, “but the Kwerhar-rehnuh will receive us. Chief Quanah himself is here.” Moisture glistened on his face. He had gone a bit pale around the nostrils. In English he added, for many Co-manches knew some Spanish: “Be ver-ree careful. Sey ‘ave much anger. Sey can easy kill a w’ite man.”


3

<p>3</p>

The ranch buildings had already been visible. As he drew closer, they seemed to Tarrant, if anything, more small and lonesome in the middle of immensity. He recognized what must be the owners’ home, a bunkhouse, and three lesser outbuildings. Sod, they were little damaged. A barn was smoldering ashes and charred fragments; the family had doubtless spent a lot of money and hope on getting the lumber hauled to them. A couple of wagons had been pushed into the flames. A chicken coop had been emptied and smashed. Hoofs had trampled saplings that were to have grown into shelter against sun and wind.

The Indians were camped where a windmill stood skeletal by the cattle trough for which it pumped water. That put them out of rifleshot from the house and, probably, sight through loopholes. About thirty tipis lifted their gaudily decorated buffalo hide cones across what had been a pasture. At a fire near the middle women in buckskin gowns prepared captured, butchered steers for eating. They were rather few. The braves numbered maybe a hundred. They loafed about, napped, shot dice, cleaned firearms or whetted knives. Some sat grim in front of lodgings from within which sounded keening; they mourned kinsmen slain. A few, mounted, kept an eye on the many horses that grazed in the distance. They were as tough as their masters, those mustangs that could keep going on winter’s grass.

When the newcomers caught the notice of the camp, excitement kindled. Most people ran to crowd around and jabber. The stoic reserve of Indians was a myth, unless they were in pain or dying. Then a warrior’s pride was that not the most prolonged and agonizing torture his captors or their women could think of would make him cry aloud. It was an ill thing to fall into such hands.

Buffalo Horns shouted and pushed his pony through the ruck. Herrera called greetings to men he knew. The smiles and waves that he got in return made Tarrant feel easier. If they took due care, bis party ought to outlive this day. After at!, to these folk hospitality was sacred.

Close by the windmill was a dpi whereon were painted signs that Herrera whispered were powerful. A man too dignified to leave it for curiosity’s sake stood outside, arms folded. The travelers drew rein. Tarrant realized that he looked on Quanah, half-white war chief of the Kwerhar-rehnuh. The name of that band meant “Antelopes”—an American misnomer for the pronghorn, like “buffalo” for bison or “corn” for maize; and curious it seemed for the lords of the Staked Plains, the fiercest of all those Co-manches whom the United States had yet to conquer.

Save for lightning-like bands of yellow and ocher, he wore simply loincloth and moccasins, with a Bowie knife sheathed on a belt, xet there could be no mistaking him. From his mother’s race he took straight nose and a height that towered, thickly muscled, over his followers. However, he was even darker than most of them. His regard of the strangers was lion-calm.

Herrera greeted him deferentially in the tongue of the Nermerauh, the People. Quanah nodded. “Bienvenidos,” he rumbled forth, and continued in accented but fluent Spanish. “Dismount and come in.”

Tarrant felt relieved. In Santa Fe he had learned some of the Plains Indian sign language, but used it haltingly; and Herrera had told him that few Comanches were adept in it anyway. The trader had said Quanah might or might not condescend to speak Spanish with Americans. He had a certain grasp of English too, though he would scarcely handicap himself with it when he didn’t have to. “Muchas gracias, senor,” Tarrant said, to establish that he was the head of this band. He wondered whether he should have used the honorific “Don Quanah.”

Herrera left the remuda in charge of bis sons and accompanied Tarrant and Rufus into the tipi behind the chief. Its outfit was sparse, little more than bedrolls; this was a war band. The light within fell gentle after the glare outside, the air smelled of leather and smoke. The men settled cross-legged in a circle. Two wives left, posting themselves at the entrance in case of a task for them.

Quanah was not about to smoke any peace pipe, but Herrera had said it would be okay to offer cigarettes. Tarrant did while introducing himself and his friend. Deftly left-handed, Rufus took a matchbox from his pocket, extracted and struck a stick, lighted the tobacco. To have such a formidable-seeming man serve them honored both the principals.

“We have come a weary way in the wish of finding you,” Tarrant added. “We thought the Antelopes would be on their home grounds, but you had already left, so we must ask anyone we met, and the earth itself, where you were gone.”

“Then you are not here to trade,” said Quanah in Her-rera’s direction.

“Sr. Tarrant engaged me in Santa Fe to bring him to you, when he had learned I would be able to,” the trader answered. “I did pack along some rifles and ammunition. One will be a gift to you. As for the rest, well, surely you have taken many cattle.”

Rufus sucked in a sharp breath. It was notorious that New Mexican ranchers wanted stock and would buy without questions. Comancheros got small detachments of Indians to drive herds they had lifted out of Texas to that market, in exchange for arms. Tarrant laid a hand on the redhead’s knee and muttered in Latin, against the outrage he saw, “Stay quiet. You knew this.”

“Make your camp with us,” Quanah invited. “I expect we will be here until tomorrow morning.”

Hope quivered in Rufus’ tone: “Uh, you will spare them in yonder house?”

Quanah scowled. “No. They have cost us comrades. The enemy shall never boast that any defied us and lived.” He shrugged. “Besides, we have need of a short rest, as hard as we have fared—the better to fight the soldiers afterward.”

Yes, Tarrant understood, this was not really a plundering expedition, it was a campaign in a war. His inquiries had informed him of a Kiowa medicine man, Owl Prophet, who called for a great united thrust that would forever drive the white man from the plains; and last year such horror erupted that Washington’s attempts at peace came to an end. In fall Ranald Mackenzie took the black troopers of his Fourth Cavalry into these parts, against the Antelopes. Quanah led a retreat that was a running, fight, brilliantly waged—Mackenzie himself received an arrow wound—high up onto the Llano Estacado until whiter forced the Americans to withdraw. Now he was returning.

The stern gaze shifted to Tarrant. “What do you want with us?”

“I too bear gifts, senor.” Clothing, blankets, jewelry, liquor. Despite his remoteness from this conflict, Tarrant could not bring himself to convey weapons; nor would Rufus have stood for it. “My friend and I are from a distant land—California, by the western waters, which I’m sure you have heard of.” In haste, because that territory belonged to the foe: “We have no quarrel with anyone here. The races are not foredoomed to blood feud.” A risk that he deemed he should take: “Your mother was of our people. Before setting forth, I learned what I could about her. If you have any questions, I will try to answer them.”

Stillness fell. The hubbub outside seemed faint, distant. Herrera looked uneasy. Quanah sat expressionless, smoking. Time passed before the chief said, heavily: “The Te-janos stole her and my small sister from us. My father, Peta Nawkonee the war chief, mourned for her until at last he took a wound hi battle that got inflamed and killed him. I have heard that she and the girl are dead.”

“Your sister died eight years ago,” Tarrant replied low. “Your mother soon followed her. She too was sick with grief ‘and longing. Now they rest at peace, Quanah.”

The tale had been easy enough to obtain, a sensation remembered to this day. In 1836 an Indian band attacked Parker’s Fort, a settlement in the Brazos valley. They slew five men and mutilated them as was Indian wont, preferably before death. They gang-raped Granny Parker after a lance pinned her to the ground. Two of the several other women they violated were left with injuries almost as bad. Two more women they carried away, together with three children. Among these was nine-year-old Cynthia Anne Parker.

The women and boys were eventually ransomed back. Though this was by no means the first time the Comanches took females for slaves, the tale of just what those two suffered came to stand for hundreds; and the Texas Rangers rode with vengeance in their hearts.

Cynthia Anne fared better. Capriciously adopted, raised as a girl of the Nennernuh, she forgot English, forgot wellnigh everything of her early childhood, became an Antelope and presently a mother. By all accounts, hers was a happy marriage; Peta Nawkonee loved his wife and wanted no woman after he lost her. That was in 1860, when Sul Ross led a Ranger expedition in retaliation for a raid and fell . upon the Comanche camp. Its men were off hunting. The Texans shot what women and children fled too slowly, and a Mexican slave whom Ross believed to be the chief himself. Barely in time, a man saw, through dirt and dung-grease, that the hair of one squaw was golden.

The Parker clan and the state of Texas did everything they could for her. It was no use. She was Naduah, who only yearned back to the prairie and the People. Repeated _ attempts to escape finally forced her kinfolk to keep a guard on her. When disease robbed her of her daughter, she howled, tore and slashed her own flesh, sank into silence and starved herself to death.

Out on the plains, her younger son perished as wretchedly. Sickness dwelt always among the Indians, tuberculosis, arthritis, worms, ophthalmia, the smallpox that Europeans brought, a litany of ills without end. But her older son flourished, gathered a war band, became headman of the Antelopes. He refused to sign the Medicine Lodge treaty that would put the tribeson a reservation. Instead, he carried terror along the frontier. He was Quanah.

“Have you seen their graves?” he asked levelly.

“I have not,” Tarrant said, “but if you wish, I can visit and tell them of your love.”

Quanah smoked for a while longer. At least he didn’t outright call the white man a liar. Finally: “Why have you sought me?”

Tarrant’s pulse quickened. “It is not you, chief, great though your fame be. Word has come to me of somebody in your following. If I have heard aright, he hails from the north and has traveled widely and long. Yes, very long, longer than anybody knows, though he never seems to grow old. His must be a strange power. On your home grounds, uh, Nermernuh who stayed behind told us that he came along on this faring. My desire is to speak with him.”

“Why?” demanded Quanah. The bluntness, unlike an Indian, betokened tension below the iron surface.

“I believe he will be glad to talk with me.”

Rufus puffed hard on his cigarette. Laid across his lap, the hook trembled.

Quanah raised his voice to the squaws. One of them left. Quanah returned his look to Tarrant. “I have sent for Dertsahnawyeh. Peregrine.” —the Spanish for the Co-manche name: Wanderer.

“Do you hope he will teach you his medicine?” he went on.

“I have come to find out what it is.”

“I do not think he could tell you, if he were willing, which I do not think he would be.”

Herrera peered at Tarrant. “You only told me you wanted to find out what might lie behind those rumors,” the trader said. “It is dangerous to meddle in warriors’ affairs.”

“Yes, I call myself a scientist,” Tarrant snapped. To Quanah: “That is a man who seeks for whatever truth lies hidden behind things. How do the sun and the stars shine? How did the earth and life come to be? What really happened in the past?”

“I know,” replied the chief. “Thus you whites have found ways to do and make many terrible things, and the railroad runs where the buffalo grazed.” Pause. “Well, I suppose Dertsahnawyeh can take care of himself.” Starkly: “As for me, I must think how to capture yonder house.”

There was nothing more to say.

The tipi entrance darkened. A man trod in. While clad like the rest, he bore no war paint. Nor was he a native of these lands, but tali, slender, lighter-hued. When he saw who sat with Quanah he spoke gently in English. “What do you want of me?”


4

<p>4</p>

They walked over the prairie, Tarrant, Peregrino, Rufus trailing a step or two behind. Light spilled out of vastness, a measure of warmth lifted from soil. Dry grass rattled. Camp and buildings soon vanished among the tall tawny stalks. Smokes continued in sight, rising straight and slow toward the vultures.

Revelation was strangely subdued. Or perhaps it wasn’t strange. They had waited so long. Tarrant and Rufus had felt hope grow into near certainty while they quested. Peregrino had nurtured an inner peace to which any surprise was like a passing breath of air. Thus he endured his loneliness, until he outlived it.

“I was born almost three thousand years ago,” Tarrant said. “My friend is about half as old.”

“I never counted time until lately,” said Peregrino. They might as well use that name, out of the many he had had. “Then I guessed five or six hundred years.”

“Before Columbus— What changes you’ve seen!”

Peregrino smiled as a man might at a graveside. “You more. Have you come on any like us, besides Mr. Bullen?”

“Not quite. A woman once, but she disappeared. We’ve no idea whether she’s still alive. Otherwise, you’re my first since him. Did you ever?”

“No. I tried but gave up. For all I knew, I was solo. How did you get on my trail?”

“That’s kind of a story.”

“We got plenty time.”

“Well—“ Tarrant drew a tobacco pouch from his pants and, from his shirt, the briar pipe it would have been unwise to smoke before Quanah. “I’ll start with Rufus and me arriving in California in ‘49. You’ve heard about the Gold Rush? We got rich off it. Not as miners, as merchants.”

“You did, Hanno,” said the Van at his heel. “I tagged along.”

“And damn useful you’ve been, hi more tight spots than I can list,” Tarrant declared. “Eventually I dropped from sight for a few years, then showed up in San Francisco under my present alias and bought a ship. I’ve always favored the sea. By now I own several; the firm’s done right well.”

Having loaded his pipe, he laid fire to it. “Whenever I could afford to, I’ve hired men to look for signs of immortals,” he proceeded. “Naturally, I don’t teS them that’s what they’re after. By and large, those of our kind who survive must do it by staying obscure. These days I’m an eccentric millionaire interested in lineages. My agents figure me for an ex-Mormon. They’re supposed to locate—oh, individuals who seem much tike others that dropped from sight earlier, and are apt to appear carrying a pretty fair grubstake—that sort of thing. What with railroads and steamships, I can at last spread my net across the world. Of course, it’s not that big yet, and the mesh is awfully coarse, which may be why it’s caught nothing except a few that turned out false.”

“Until today,” said Peregrino.

Tarrant nodded. “A scout of mine, exploring around Santa Fe, caught rumors about a medicine man among the Comanches, who didn’t really belong to them—the description sounded like a Sioux or a Pawnee or what’ever—but he’d gained a good deal of authority and ... he’d been heard of elsewhere, earlier, several different times and places. Not that any civilized person had pieced this together. Who’d take the fancies of savages seriously? Uh, pardon me, no offense. You know how whites think. My agent didn’t suppose it was worth pursuing. He noted it in a couple of sentences in his report just to show me how industrious he was.

“That was last year. I decided to follow it up myself. Lucked out and found two aged people, an Indian and a Mexican, who remembered— Well, it seemed, if he existed, he’d joined Quanah. I hoped to find the Comanches in winter quarters, but as was, we had to track them.” Tarrant laid a hand briefly on Peregrine’s shoulder. “And here we are, my brother.”

Peregrino halted. Tarrant did. For a space they looked into each other’s eyes. Rufus stood aside, bemused. At last Tarrant formed a wry grin and murmured, “You’re wondering whether I’m a liar, aren’t you?”

“How do you know I speak truth?” the Indian replied as low.

“Tactful fellow, you. Well, in the course of time I’ve cached evidence, as well as getaway gold, here and there. Come with me and I’ll show you enough of it. Or you can simply watch me for twenty or thirty years. I’ll provide for you. Meanwhile, why else on earth should I spin you a yarn like this?”

Peregrino nodded. “I believe you. But how do you know I’m not out to swindle you?”

“You couldn’t have foreseen my arrival, and you did leave many years’ worth of trail. Not on purpose. No white who didn’t know what to look for would ever have suspected. The tribes—what do they make of you, anyway?”

“That depends.” Peregrine’s gaze went over miles where grass waved above buffalo skulls, on beyond the horizon.

When he spoke slowly, often stopping to form a sentence before he uttered it, his English became a language other than what he had been using. “Each lives in its own world, you know; and those worlds are changing so fast.

“At first I was a medicine man among my birth-people. But they took to the horse and everything that went with that. I left them and drifted for—winter after winter, summer after summer. I was trying to find what it meant, all that I lived through. Sometimes I settled down a while, but it always hurt too much, seeing what was happening. I even tried the whites. At a mission I got baptized, learned Spanish and English, reading and writing. Afterward I went deep into Mexican and Anglo country both. I have been a market hunter, trapper, carpenter, wrangler, gardener. I talked with everybody who would talk with me and read every printed word that came my way. But that was no good either. I never belonged there.

“Meanwhile tribe after tribe got wiped out—by sickness, by war—or broken and herded onto a reservation. Then if the whites decided they wanted that land too, out the redskins went. I saw the Cherokees at the end of their Trail of Tears—”

The quiet, almost matter-of-fact voice died away. Rufus cleared his throat. “Well, that’s how the world is,” he grated. “/ seen Saxons, vikings, Crusaders, Turks, wars of religion, witches burned—“ Louder: “I seen what Injuns do when they get the upper hand.”

Tarrant frowned him to silence and asked Peregrino, “What brought you here?”

The other sighed. “I finally thought—oh, I was slow about it—this life of mine that went on and on and on, with nothing to show for it but graves—it must have some purpose, some use. And maybe that was just in the long experience, and being ageless would make folks listen to me. Maybe I could help my people, my whole race, before they went under, help them save something for a new beginning.

“About thirty years ago, I came back to them. The Southwest was where free tribes were likely to hang on the longest. The Nermernuh—you do know ‘Comanche’ is from Spanish, don’t you?—they had driven out the Apaches; they had fought the Kiowas as equals and made allies of them; for three hundred years they had stood off the Spanish, the French, the Mexicans, the Texans, and carried war to the enemy in his home country. Now the Americans aim to crush them once for all. They’ve earned better than that. Haven’t they?”

“What are you doing?” Tarrant’s question seemed to hover like the dark wings overhead.

“To tell the truth, I was among the Kiowas first,” Per-egrino said. “They are more open in their minds than the Nermernuh, also about long life. Comanches believe a real man dies young, in battle or the hunt, while he is strong. They don’t trust their old ones and treat them bad. Not like my birth-people, so long ago. ... I let my ... my reputation grow with time. It helped that I know some things to do for the wounded and the sick. I never set myself up as a prophet. Those crazy preachers have been the death of thousands, and the end is not yet. No, I just went around from band to band, and they came to think I was holy. I did whatever I could for them in the way of healing or advice. Always I counselled peace. Finally—it’s a long story—I joined up with Quanah, because he was becoming the last great chief. Everything will turn on him.”

“Peace, did you say?”

“And whatever we can save for our children. The Comanches have nothing left from their ancestors, nothing they can truly believe in. That eats them out from the inside. It leaves them wide open for the likes of Owl Prophet. I found a new faith among the Kiowas and I’m bringing it to the Nermernuh. Do you know the peyote cactus? It opens a way, it quiets the heart—”

Peregrino stopped. A tiny laugh fluttered in his throat. “Well, I don’t mean to sound like a missionary.”

“I’ll be glad to listen later,” said Tarrant, while he thought: I have seen so many gods come and go, what’s one more? “Also to any ideas you may have about making peace. I told you I have money. And I’ve always made a point of getting wires in my hands. You savvy? Certain politicians owe me favors. I can buy others. We’ll work out a plan, you and I. But first we’ve got to get you away from here, back to San Francisco with us, before you take a bullet in your brain. Why the hell did you come along with these raiders anyway?”

“I said I have to make them listen to me,” Peregrino explained wearily. “It’s uphill work. They’re suspicious of old men to start with, and when their world is falling to pieces around them they’re afraid of magic as strange as mine and— They’ve got to understand I’m not unmanly, I am on their side. I can’t leave them now.”

“Wait a minute!” Rufus barked.

They stared at him. He stood foursquare, legs planted wide apart, hat pushed back from roughened red face. The hook that had pierced foemen looked suddenly frail under this heaven. “Wait a minute,” stumbled from him. “Boss, what’re you thinking? The first thing we got to do is save those ranchers.”

Tarrant moistened his lips before it dragged out of him: “We can’t. We’re two against a hundred or worse. Unless—“ He cast a glance at Peregrino.

The Indian shook his head. “In this the People would not heed me,” he told them, dull-voiced. “I would only lose what standing I have.”

“I mean, can we ransom that family? Comanches often sell prisoners back, I’ve heard. I’ve brought trade goods along, besides what was intended for presents. And Herrera ought to turn his stock over to me if I promise him payment in gold.”

Peregrino grew thoughtful. “Well, maybe.”

“That’s giving those devils the stuff to kill more whites,” Rufus protested.

Bitterness sharpened Peregrine’s tone. “You were telling as how this sort of thing is nothing new on earth.”

“But, but the barbarians in Europe, they were white. Even the Turks— Oh, you don’t mind. You ride with these animals—”

“That’ll do, Rufus,” Tarrant clipped. “Remember why we’ve come. Saving a few who’ll be dead anyway inside a century is not our business. I’ll see if I can, but Peregrino here is our real kinsman. So pipe down.”

His comrade whirled about and stalked off.

Tarrant watched him go. “He’ll get over it,” he said. “Short-tempered and not very bright, but he’s been loyal to me since-before the fall of Rome.”

“Why does he care about ... dayflies?” the medicine man wondered.

Tarrant’s pipe had gone out. He rekindled it and stared into the smoke as it lost itself beneath the sky. “Immortals get influenced by their surroundings, too,” he said. “We’ve mostly lived in the New World these past two hundred years, Rufus and I. First Canada, when it was French, but then we moved to the English colonies. More freedom, more opportunity, if you were English yourself, as of course we claimed to be. Later we were Americans; same thing.

“It affected him more than me. I owned slaves now and then, and shares in a couple of plantations, but didn’t think much about it either way. I’d always taken slavery for granted, and it was a misfortune that could happen to anybody, regardless of race. When the War Between the States ended it and a great deal else, to me that was simply another spin in history’s wheel. As a shipowner in San Francisco I didn’t need slaves.

“But Rufus, he’s a primitive soul. He wants something to cling to—which is what immortals never can have, right? He’s gone through a dozen Christian faiths. Last time he got converted was at a Baptist revival, and. a lot of it still clings to him. Both before and after the war he took seriously what he kept hearing about the white race’s right and duty to lord it over the colored.”

Tarrant chuckled unmerrily. “Besides, he’s been without a woman since we left Santa Fe. It was a terrible disappointment to him when he found on the Staked Plains that Co-manche women don’t free-and-easy receive outsiders like they do, or used to do, farther north. There must be a white woman or two in yonder cabin. He doesn’t imagine he lusts after them himself—oh, he wouldn’t dream of anything except being respectful and gallant and getting adoring looks—but the thought of redskin after redskin on them seems to be more than he can bear.”

“He may have to,” Peregrine said.

“Yes, he may.” Tarrant grimaced. “I must admit I don’t relish it, nor the idea of ransoming them with guns. I’m not quite as case-hardened as ... I must behave.”

“I think nothing will happen for hours.”

“Good. I have to give Quanah my presents, go through any formalities—you’ll advise me, won’t you?—but not right away, hm? Let’s walk on. We’ve a lot of talking to do, you and me. Three thousand years’ worth.”


5

<p>5</p>

Warriors gathered around. Now they were still, in wildcat dignity, for this was a ceremonial occasion. The westering sun cast gleams over obsidian hair and mahogany skin; on the eastern side it lit flames in eyes.

Between the ranks, before his tipi, Quanah received Tar-rant’s gifts. He made a speech in his father’s language, lengthy and doubtless full of imagery in his fathers’ wise. Standing by the visitor, Peregrino said in English when it was done: “He thanks you, he calls you friend, and tomorrow morning you will pick out of his horses whichever you like best. That is generous for a man on the warpath:”

“I know,” Tarrant said. To Quanah, in Spanish: “My thanks to you, great chief. May I ask a favor, in the name of the friendship you so kindly give us?”

Herrera, in the front row though well back, started, tautened, and squinted. Tarrant hadn’t stopped by him upon returning, but had collected his presents and gone straight here. Word flew quickly about, and when he saw the braves assemble, Herrera came for politeness and wariness.

“You may ask,” said Quanah, impassive.

“I wish to buy free those folks you hold trapped. They are useless to you. Why should you spend more time and men on them? We will take them away with us. In exchange we will pay a good price.”

A stir went through the Comanches, a rustle, a buzz. Those who understood whispered to those who had not. Hands tightened on hafts, here and there on a firearm.

A man near the chief uttered a string of harsh words. He was gaunt, scarred, more deeply lined in the face than was common even for aged Indians. Others near him muttered as if in agreement. Quanah lifted a hand for attention and told Tarrant, “Wahaawmaw says we have our fallen to avenge.”

“They fell, uh, honorably.”

“He means all our fallen, through all the years and lifetimes, deathtimes we have suffered.”

“I didn’t think you people—thought that way.”

“Wahaawmaw was a boy in that camp where the Tejanos took Quanah’s mother,” Peregrino related. “He found cover and escaped, but they shot down his own mother, brother, two little sisters. A while back he lost his wife and a small son; the soldiers were using a howitzer. The same has happened, different places, to many who are here.”

“I’m sorry,” Tarrant said to any who would listen. “But those people yonder had nothing to do with that, and— well, I carry plenty of fine things like those I’ve given your chief. Wouldn’t you rather have them than a few stinking scalps?”

Wahaawmaw claimed the right to speak. He went on for minutes, snarling, hissing, flinging up his hands and crying aloud to heaven. Anger answered in a surf-noise. When he was done and had folded his arms, Peregrino scarcely needed to translate: “He calk this an insult. Shall the Ner-mernuh sell their victory for blankets and booze? They’ll take more loot than they can carry off the Tejanos, and the scalps as well.”

He had warned Tarrant to expect this kind of outcome. Therefore Tarrant looked straight at Quanah and said, “I can make a better offer. We have rifles with us, boxes full of cartridges, things you need as you need horses if you are to wage war. How much, for those poor lives?”

Herrera took a step forward. “No, wait,” he called.

Quanah forestalled him. “Are these in your baggage? If so, good. If not, you are too late. Your companion has already agreed to trade his for cattle.”

Tarrant stood moveless. Wahaawmaw, who must have gotten the gist, crowed at him. “I could have told you,” Herrera said through the rising crowd-noise.

Quanah brought that down while Peregrino breathed in Tarrant’s ear, “I will see whether I can talk them into changing the deal. Keep your hopes on a tight rein, though.”

He launched into oratory. His fellows responded likewise. For the most part they spoke soberly. The effort always was to reach a consensus. They had no government. Civil chiefs were little more than judges, mediators, and even war chiefs only commanded in battle. Quanah waited out the debate. Toward the end, Herrera had something to say. Soon after that, Quanah pronounced what he took to be the verdict, and assent passed among his followers like an ebb-tide wave. The sun stood low. Wahaawmaw cast Tarrant a triumphant glare.

Sadness dulled Peregrino’s English. “You have guessed, no? It did not work. They have not gotten much blood yet, and are thirsty for it. Wahaawmaw claimed it would be bad luck to give quarter, and quite a few were ready to believe that. They can spare the half a dozen to round up this ranch’s herd and bring it to New Mexico. They enjoy that trip. And the Comanchero told them he is not a man to pull out of a bargain once it’s been struck. That made them extra touchy about their own honor. Also ... Quanah didn’t argue either way, but they know he has an idea for taking the house that he would like to try, and they are curious what it may be.” He stood silent for part of a minute. “I did my best. I really did.”

“Of course,” Tarrant answered. “Thanks.”

“I want you to know I don’t like what will happen, either. Let’s ride off and not come back till morning, you and me— Rufus if he wants.”

Tarrant shook his head. “I’ve a notion I’d better stay around. Don’t worry. I’ve seen enough sacks in the past.”

“I suppose you have,” said Peregrino.

The meeting broke up. Tarrant gave Quanah his respects and walked among knots of warriors, whose looks on him ranged from sullen to gleeful, toward Herrera’s camp. It was several yards from the nearest tipi. The New Mexican found men to talk with and thus delayed himself.

His sons had a fire started. They were busy with preparations for supper, before the quick prairie dark should fall. Long sunbeams trailed through smoke. Bedrolls waited. Rufus sat idle, hunched, a bottle in his single fist.. He looked up when Tarrant approached and asked, needlessly once he had seen, “What happened?”

“No dice.” Tarrant lowered himself to the trampled grass and reached out. “I’ll take a swig of that whiskey. Not much, and you’d better watch it closer.” Its bite went beneficent down his gullet. “I’ve failed altogether. Peregrino won’t leave the Comanches, and they won’t take ransom.” Curtly he described the situation.

“That son of a bitch,” Rufus breathed.

“Who? Quanah? He may be enemy, but he’s honest.”

“No, Herrera. He could have—”

The trader glided into view. “Did I hear my name?” he asked.

“Yeah.” Rufus lurched to his feet, bottle in hand. He stayed with English, except for, “Vipera es. You snake. You greaser. You could’a—could’a—sold Hanno—sold the boss those guns an’—”

Herrera’s right hand moved toward his Colt. His sons edged left and right, not yet drawing their knives. “I could not change a bargain that had been made,” he said. Spanish was too soft a language to convey the full coldness. “Not unless they agreed, and they refused. That would have hurt my reputation, damaged my business.”

“Sure, you breed, you’re always ready for sellin’ white men, white women, sellin’ ‘em for—for money. Blood money.” Rufus spat at Herrera’s feet.

“We will not speak of blood,” said the trader most quietly. “/ know who my father was. And I saw him weep when the Yanquis robbed our country from us. Now I must step aside for them in the streets of Santa Fe. The priest tells me I should not hate them, but need I care what becomes of them?”

Rufus groaned. His hook slashed. Herrera slipped back in time. The pistol sprang forth. Tarrant jumped to his feet and caught Rufus by the arms before the redbeard could try to draw. Slowly, the boys sheathed their blades.

“Behave yourself,” Tarrant panted. “Sit down.”

“Not with these!” Rufus coughed in Latin. He shook free of the grasp on him. “And you, Hanno. Can’t you remember? Like that woman we saved, way back when hi Russia. And that was just a single man, and he wouldn’t have cut her belly open afterward, or given her to the females with their knives and torches—“ He stumbled off, away from everybody, still gripping the bottle.

Looks followed him for a little. Then Tarrant said to Herrera, “Let him be. Hell get his wits back. Thanks for your patience,” with less than total sincerity.


6

<p>6</p>

Twice during the afternoon, Tom Langford ventured outside. When he saw the encampment, he stepped quickly in again and rebarred the door. Toward evening he said, “I s’pect they’ll try a night attack. Why else would they hang around this long? Maybe again at dawn, but could be any time. We’ll just have to keep alert. If we stand ‘em off then, they ought to up and go. Injuns don’t know how to lay a siege.”

Bill Davis laughed softly and richly. “We ain’t wuth it,” he opined.

“Los vecinos vendrdn indudablemente a ayudarnos—‘Elp weell come,” Carlos Padilla ventured.

“I dunno how fast, if ever,” Langford sighed. “S’posin’ Bob got through, the neighbors are scattered pretty thin these days. Maybe a cavalry troop is somewhere close enough.”

“We are in the hands of God,” Susie declared. She smiled at her husband. “Yours too, dear, and strong hands they are.”

Ed Lee tossed and muttered on the Langfords’ bed. His injury had lit a fever in him. The children were more than ready for sleep.

First there was supper, cold beans, bread, the last milk. They had no firewood to speak of, and little water. Langford asked his wife to say grace. Nobody minded when Carlos crossed himself. Afterward the men one by one and bashfully went behind a sort of curtain Susie had rigged in a corner to hide the bucket all muSt share. Langford had emptied it whenever he stepped out. He hoped nobody more would have any real business there till the Indians were gone. That would be kind of nasty, in these close quarters with a woman and a girl. The privy was sod, it ought to be around yet. If not, well, they’d have the tall grass for walls, the freedom of these acres for which he had saved and toiled and now fought.

Dusk thickened to night. A single candle burned on the table amidst the guns. The Langfords and the hale men stood watches, two peering out loopholes taken in turn while two caught naps, on the floor or alongside poor Ed. Stars crowded what they glimpsed of sky. The ground was gray-black vague. A waning sliver of moon would be scant help when it rose shortly before the sun. Meanwhile the cold and the stillness gnawed away.

Once the wife whispered from her side of the room, “Tom?”

“Yeah?” He allowed himself a look at her. In this dim light he couldn’t see dirt, exhaustion, hollowed cheeks and black-rimmed eyes. She was the girl of his courting days, from whose front porch he’d walk home on the rainbow.

“Tom, if—if they do get in and you have the chance—“ She must take a breath. “Would you shoot me—first?”

“Christ, no!” he choked, and could taste the horror.

“Please. I’d bless you.”

“You might live, honey. They do sell prisoners to our people.”

She stared at the floor, then quickly, remembering her duty, out a loophole. “I wouldn’t want to live. Not after—”

“Do you s’pose I’d ever turn my back on you? Reckon you don’t know me as well as I thought.”

“No, but you— I’d be without you on earth. Why not together in Heaven, at once?”

He knew the redskins wouldn’t spare his life. Unless he was lucky, he wouldn’t be a man when he died. Not that knives and fire, or being staked out under the sun with his eyelids cut off, would leave him in shape to think much about that. “Well, you might still manage to get the kids through.”

Again her head drooped. “Yes. I’m sorry. I clean forgot. Yes, I was bein’ selfish.”

“Aw, don’t you fret, sweetheart,” he said as cheerfully as he was able. “Nothin’ bad’s goin’ to happen.’Next week our biggest worry will be how we can keep from braggjn’ too loud.”

“Thank you, darlin’.” She turned her attention outward.

The night wore on. They had divided it into four watches, then all to be afoot in advance of dawn, when attack was likeliest. About three in the morning by the grandfather clock, the Langfords finished their second trick, roused the hands, and stretched themselves out, he on the floor, she beside Ed. Should the hurt man stir from the heavy sleep into which he had dropped, she’d know it and see to whatever need was his. The other men would shoot better, the more well rested they were.

A shotgun blast kicked Langford awake.

Bill thudded against the wall and fell. The lead had sleeted across the cabin and taken him in the back. By candlelight and monstrous flickery shadows the blood that gushed from him shone blacker than his skin.

Carlos crouched on the north side, rifle aimed and useless. Two broad muzzles thrust in by the west loopholes. One smoked. It withdrew. Instantly another took its place. Meanwhile the second roared.

Langford jumped to the bedside and Susie. Sick understanding billowed through him. Hostiles, just three or four, had crawled under cover of night, slowly, often stopping, shadows in the gloom, till they were among the stakes and under the eaves. When they shoved their guns through, maybe they hoped they’d fire straight into an eye.

No matter. Shooting blind, wedging the barrels to and fro, they made defense impossible.

Whoops lifted, nearer and nearer. Thunder beat on the door. No tomahawks, Langford knew; that was a regular woodcutting ax, probably his. Panels splintered. A gust blew out the candle. Langford fired and fired, but he couldn’t see anything for sure. The hammer clicked on emptiness. Where the hell were the loaded guns? Susie screamed. Maybe he should have saved a bullet for her. Too late. The door was down and the dark full of warriors.


7

<p>7</p>

The racket brought Tarrant iwd the Herreras from their bedrolls, hands to weapons. Tumult went murky among the tipis. “El ataque,” the trader said beneath yowls and shots.

“What’re they doing?” Tarrant grated: “Another frontal assault, in the dead of night? Crazy.”

“I do not know,” Herrera said. The noise rose rapidly to crescendo. He bared teeth, a dim flash under the stars. “Victory. They are taking the house.” Tarrant bent to put on his boots. “Where do you go? Stay here. You could too easily get killed.”

“I’ve got to see if I can do anything.”

“You cannot. Myself, I stay, not out of fear but because I do not want to see what comes next.”

Tarrant’s pain lashed: “You told me you don’t care.”

“Not much,” Herrera admitted. “But it would be evil to gloat, nor have I the heart for it. No, my sons and I will pray for them.” He plucked the other man’s sleeve. You slept fully clad in such a place as this. “Do stay. You, somehow, I like.”

“I’ll be careful,” Tarrant promised, and loped off.

He skirted the Comanche camp. More and more torches came to life there, flared, bobbed, streamed sparks on their hasty way. Sight of them dimmed the stars that hi their uncountable thousands gleamed frost-bright across black. Nevertheless he had light enough to turn the soil gray for him.

Where the devil was Rufus? Probably snoring out on the prairie alongside the empty bottle. Just as well. No matter how self-controlled, a white man took a risk, showing himself to red men in blood-rut.

So why did he, Hanno, Lugo, Cadoc, Jacques Lacy, William Sawyer, Jack Tarrant, a hundred different aliases, behave like this? He knew he couldn’t save the ranchers, and didn’t mean to try. They must perish as star-many had perished before them and would in the future, over and over, world without end. History chewed them up and spat them out and soon most rotted forgotten, might as well never have been. Maybe the Christians were right and mankind was like that, maybe it was simply in the nature of things.

His intention was practical. He hadn’t survived this long by hiding from the terrible. Rather, he kept alert, aware, so he’d know which way to jump when the sword swung. Tonight he’d observe from the fringes. If an impulse arose to wipe out his party too, he could talk it down, .given help from Peregrine and maybe even Quanah, before it got out of control. In the morning he’d start back toward Santa Fe.

The chief stood huge near the cabin, a long-helved ax on his shoulder. Torchlight guttered across painted face and body, horned headdress; it was as if he flickered in and out of hell. The braves were mostly less clear, blobs of night that swarmed, pranced, screeched, waved their brands like battle flags. Squaws capered with them, knives or sharpened sticks hi hand. The doorway gaped hollow.

They kept clear a space in front of it. Three dead men sprawled at the threshold, dragged forth. The Anglo’s left arm was splinted; someone had cut his throat before stopping to think about sport. Rib ends stuck out of a hole torn in the Negro’s back. A third seemed Mexican, though he was so slashed and pulped it was hard to be sure; he had gone down fighting.

Lucky bastards. Two squaws held fast a small boy and a smaller girl who screamed, blind with fear. A tall Anglo sat slumped. Blood matted his hair and dripped onto clothes and earth. He was stunned. Two warriors locked the arms of a young woman who writhed, kicked, cursed them and called on her God.

A man bounded from the ruck. A torch swung near him for a moment and Tarrant recognized Wahaawmaw. He had slung his rifle to free his hands. The right gripped a knife. He laughed aloud, caught the collar of the woman’s dress in his left, slashed downward. The cloth parted. Whiteness gleamed, and a sudden string of blood-beads. Her captors forced her down on her back. Wahaawmaw fumbled at his breechclout. The man prisoner stirred, croaked, struggled to regain his feet. A brave gave him a gun butt in the stomach and he sagged, retching.

A grizzly bear growl resounded. From around the cabin stormed Rufus. His Colt was drawn. He swept his hook back and forth. Two Indians stumbled aside, faces gashed open. He reached the woman. The men who pinned her sprang up. He shot one through the forehead. He hooked an eye from the other, who recoiled shrieking. His boot smashed into Wahaawmaw’s groin. That warrior tumbled, to squirm by the white man. He sought to choke down agony, but it jerked past his tips.

Flambeau flare made Rufus’-obeard its own hue. He stood with his legs on either side of the woman, hunched forward, swaying a little, flaming drunk but the Colt rock-steady before him. “Aw right,” he boomed, “you filthy swine, first o’ you makes a move, 111 plug him. She’s gonna go free, an’—”

Wahaawmaw straightened on the ground and rolled over. Rufus didn’t see. There was too much else for him to watch. “Look out!” Tarrant heard himself yell. The Indian bowls drowned his voice. Wahaawmaw unslung his rifle. Prone, be fired.

Rufus lurched back. The pistol fell. Wahaawmaw shot again. Rufus crumpled. His weight sank onto the woman and held her fast.

Wild, Tarrant shoved men aside. He sprang into the clear space and went on his knees beside Rufus. “O sodalis, amice perennis—“ Blood bubbled from the mouth and into the red beard. Rufus gasped. For an instant it seemed he grinned, but Tarrant couldn’t really know in the shifty torchlight or even by the light of the stars. He clasped the big body to him and felt life ebb away.

Only then did he hear what a silence had fallen. He looked aloft. Quanah stood above him, the ax held out tike a roof or a buffalo-hide shield. Had he roared his folk into quietude? They were a massive blur, well back from him and the dead, the wounded, the captive. Here and there a blaze briefly picked out a face or made eyeballs glisten.

Tarrant hauled Rufus off the woman. She stirred, stared, mewed. “Easy,” be murmured. She got to hands and knees, made her way thus to the man. Squaws had let go of the children, who were already at his side. He’d regained consciousness. At least, he could sit straight and lay his arms around them all.

The warriors Rufus injured had joined the crowd, except for the slain one and Wahaawmaw. He had risen but leaned on his rifle, shakily, holding himself where the pain was.

Tarrant got up too. Quanah lowered his ax. The pair of them regarded each other.

“Bad is this,” said the chief at last. “Very bad.”

A skipper from Phoenicia learned how to snatch at every chance, no matter how thin a shred. “Yes,” Tarrant answered. “A man of yours has killed a guest of yours.”

“He, your man, broke murdering into our midst.”

“He had a right to speak, to be heard hi your council. When your Nermernuh would bar his way and likely attack him, he acted in self-defense. He was under your protection, Quanah. At worst, you could have had him seized from behind, as many men as you command. I think you would have done that if you had gotten the chance, for everyone calls you a man of honor. But this creature shot him first.”

Wahaawmaw groaned outrage. Tarrant didn’t know how much he had understood. The argument was weak, almost ridiculous. Quanah could dismiss it out of hand. And yet—

Peregrine stepped forth. He overtopped the chief by a couple of inches. He carried a medicine bundle and a wand on which hung three buffalo tails, things he must have brought from his tipi. A hiss and mumble went through the crowd. Torches wavered. Dertsahnawyeh, the undying one, had power to raise awe in the fiercest heart.

“Stay where you are, Jack Tarrant,” he said quietly, “while Quanah and I go talk.”

The chief nodded. He spoke certain commands. Wahaawmaw snarled but hobbled obediently off to lose himself in the throng. Several warriors came rifles in hand to keep guard on the whites. Quanah and Peregrino departed into the night.

Tarrant went over to the prisoners and hunkered down. “Listen,” he said low, “we may be able to get you free. Keep still, don’t make any fuss. This band’s had a shock that cooled them down some, but don’t do anything to remind them they meant to destroy you.”

“I got you,” the man answered, clearly if not quite firmly yet. “Whatever happens, we owe you our prayers, you and your partner.”

“He came like a knight of King Arthur,” the woman whispered.

He came tike a goddamned drunken idiot, Tarrant thought. I could have headed him off if I’d known. I would have. Oh, Rufus, old buddy, you always hated to be alone, and now you are, forever.

The man offered his hand. “Tom Langford,” he said. “My wife Susan. Nancy. Jimmy, uh, James.” For out of grime and drying tears and the start of a bruise, the boy had cast his father a reproachful look. Tarrant wanted to hoot laughter.

He choked it down, shook hands, gave his name, and finished, “We’d better not talk more. Besides, the Indians expect me to see to my dead.”

Rufus lay about ten feet from the Langfords. It might have been ten thousand miles. Tarrant couldn’t wash him, but he straightened the body, closed the eyes, bound up the jaw with a bandanna. He drew his pocket knife and cut himself in the face and along bared arms and chest. Blood welled and dripped, nothing serious but it impressed the watchers. This was their way of mourning, not the white man’s. Surely therefore the dead was mightily important, to be avenged with cannon and saber unless his friends were appeased. At the same time, the friend who was here did not wail over him, and that too was eerie. By ones and twos and threes, the Nermernuh melted off toward the comfort of their camp.

Well, Rufus, you did have fifteen hundred years, and you enjoyed just about every day of them. You wenched and fought and sang and gorged and swilled and adventured, you were a hard worker when we needed work done and a better yet man to have at my back when we needed that and in your rough gruff style a pretty good husband and father whenever we settled down a while. T could have done without your stupid practical jokes, and by ourselves for any length of time your conversation got so boring it was physically painful, and if you saved my life now and then, I staked my own as often to pull you out of some scrape you’d blundered into, and—and a lot of gusto went out of my world tonight, Rufus. A lot of love.

False dawn chilled the east. Quanah and Peregrino were dim in sight until they reached the cabin and halted. Tarrant rose. The guards glided deferentially aside. From the ground the Langfords stared dull-eyed, wrung dry, their children uneasily asleep.

Tarrant stood waiting.

“It is decided,” said Quanah. The deep voice rolled like hoofs over the plains. Breath blew ghost-white in the cold. “Let all men know that the Nennernuh are generous. They will heed my wishes in this matter. You, the trader, and his sons may go home. You may take these captives along. They are in exchange for your comrade. He brought his death on himself, but since he was a guest, let that be his price, because the Nermernuh set high their honor. Nor shall his body be harmed, but we will give him decent burial, so that his spirit may find its way to the afterworld. I have spoken.”

A shudder passed below Tarrant’s skin. He had more than half awaited worse than this. Somehow he kept it hidden and said, “I thank you much, senor, and I will tell my people that the soul of Quanah is large.” He believed he meant it.

For an instant the chief let his stateliness drop. “Thank Peregrino. He persuaded me. Begone before sunrise.”

He beckoned to the guards. They followed him toward the Comanche camp.

A mortal might have crumbled to pieces as the pressure came off, cackled and gibbered and swooned. An immortal had more reserves, more bounce. Nonetheless Tarrant’s words trembled. “How did you do it, Peregrino?”

“I pushed your argument as far as it would go.” Again the Indian took time to build and weigh each English sentence. “He wasn’t unwilling to take it. He isn’t a fiend, you know; he’s fighting for the life of his people. But he must convince them also. I had to ... call in all my chips, call on the spirits, finally tell him that either he released you or I left him. He does value my advice as well as ... my medicine. After that it wasn’t hard to get him to release this family too. I will help him convince the warriors that was a good idea.”

“He was right when he told me to thank you,” Tarrant said. “I will for as many centuries as I’ve got left.”

Peregrine’s smile was as bleak as the eastern light. “You need not. I had my reasons and I want my price.”

Tarrant swallowed. “What is it?”

The tone mildened. “I admit I did have to save you. Maybe you and I are the only immortals in the world, now. We must join together sometime. But meanwhile—”

Peregrino reached out and caught Tarrant’s arm. “Meanwhile, here are my people,” throbbed from him. “I wasn’t born to them, but they are almost the last of us who were born to this land and are still free. They won’t be much longer. Soon they will be broken.” Even as Tyre and Carthage were, Galtia and Britannia, Rome and Byzantium, Al-bigensians and Hussites, Basques and Irish, Quebec and the Confederacy. “I told you yesterday out on the prairie, I have to stay with them to the end, reason with them, help them find a new faith and hope. Else they’ll dash themselves to pieces, like buffalo over a cliff. So I will be working among them for peace.

“I want you to do the same. As I told Quanah, letting these few go can earn us a little good will. More will die, horribly, but here is a talking point for you. You claim you are rich and have the ear of powerful men. All right, my price for these lives is that you work on your side for peace, a peace that my people can live with.”

“Ill try my best,” said Tarrant. He truly meant that. If nothing else, the day would come when Peregrino held him to account.

They clasped hands. The Indian strode off. False dawn died away and he was quickly into the shadows.

“Follow me,” Tarrant called to the Langfords. “We have to hit the trail at once.”

What sum of years had Rufus bought for these four? Two hundred, maybe?


8

<p>8</p>

In Far Western eyes, the Wichita Mountains were hardly more than hills; but they rose steeply, treeless, yet under the spring rains turning deeply green and starred with wild-flowers. In its valley among them a big house and its outbuildings reigned over many acres of cropland, pasture, cattle, and horses, horses.

Grass shone wet after a shower and clouds drifted white when a hired carriage left the main road for the drive to the homestead. A farmhand on a pony, who had been inspecting fences, saw it and rode to inquire. Mr. Parker wasn’t here, he said. The driver, who was likewise an Indian, explained that his passenger’s business was actually with Mr. Peregrino. Startled, the worker gave directions and stared after the vehicle. It was almost as strange to him as the autos that occasionally stuttered by.

A side track brought it to a frame cabin surrounded by flowerbeds, kitchen garden in back. On the porch a man clad in dungarees and sandals sat reading. He wore his hair in braids but was too tall and slender to be a Comanche. As the carriage approached he laid his book aside, sprang down the steps, and stood waiting.

It stopped. A white man climbed out. His clothes bespoke prosperity only if you looked closely at material and tailoring. For a moment he and the dweller were still. Then they ran to grip hands and look into each other’s eyes.

“At last,” Peregrine said, not quite evenly. “Bienvenido, amigo.”

“I’m sorry to have been this long about coming,” Tarrant answered. “It happened I was in the Orient on business when your letter reached San Francisco. After I got home, I thought a telegram might draw too much notice. You’d written to me years ago, when I sent you my_ address, that just that bit of mail set tongues wagging. So I simply caught the first train east.”

“It’s all right. Come in, come in.” With long practice behind it the English flowed easily, colloquially. “If your driver wants, he can go on to the big house. They’ll take care of him. He can cart us to town—how about day after tomorrow? I’ve things of my own to see to, including stuff I’d like shipped after me. If that’s okay with you.”

“Of course, Peregrino. Damn near anything you may want is.” Having spoken to the other man, Tarrant took a Gladstone bag from the carriage and accompanied his host inside.

The cabin held four rooms, neat, clean, sunny, austerely furnished except for a substantial number of books, a gramophone, a collection of mostly classical records, and, in the bedchamber, certain articles of religion. “You’ll sleep here,” Peregrino said. “I’ll roll up in the back yard. No, not a peep out of you. You’re my guest. Besides, it’ll be kind of like old days. I often do it anyway, in fact.”

Tarrant glanced around. “You live alone, then?”

“Yes. It seemed wrong to me, getting married and having kids when I knew that in the end I’d fake something and desert them. Life among the free tribes was different. How about you?”

Tarrant’s mouth pinched together. “My latest wife died last year, young. Consumption. We tried a desert climate, everything, but— Well, we had no children, and this identity has been around nearly as long as is safe. I’m making ready for a change.”

They settled themselves in the front room on wooden chairs. Above Peregrine’s head a chromolithograph gazed from its frame at Tarrant, a Rembrandt self-portrait. Bad though the copy was, mortal sorrow lingered in those eyes. From his bag Tarrant had taken a bottle of Scotch. Illegally, he filled both glasses his host had fetched, He also offered Havana cigars. Mere creature comforts are still comforts.

“How’ve you been doing otherwise?” Peregrino inquired.

“Busy,” Tarrant said. “Not sure how rich I am—I’d have to go through the books of several aliases—but it’s a heap, and bigger every day. One thing I want you for, besides yourself, is to help me think what’s most worth spending it on. How about you?”

“Peaceful, on the whole. I cultivate my patch of land, make things in my woodworking shop, counsel my congregation—native church, so I’m not really like a white minister—and teach in a school. I’ll be sorry to leave that. Oh, and I read a lot, trying to learn about your world.”

“And I suppose you’re Quanah’s advisor.”

“Well, yes. But look, don’t think I’m the power behind bis sad little throne or anything like that. He’s done it all himself. He’s a remarkable man. Among whites he’d have been a, a Lincoln or Napoleon. The most I can claim credit for is making some things possible, or at least easier, for him. He went ahead and did them.”

Tarrant nodded, remembering— The grand alliance of Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, Quanah its paramount chief. The bloody repulse at Adobe Walls, the year of warfare and manhunt that followed, and the last starvelings, led by Quanah, going onto the reservation in 1875. The good intentions of an Indian agent three years afterward, when he arranged for the Comanches to ride out under military escort on a final buffalo hunt, and no buffalo remained. And yet, and yet—

“Where is be now?” Tarrant asked.

“In Washington,” Peregrino said. Receiving a look of surprise: “He goes there fairly often. He is our spokesman, for all our tribes. And, well, too bad about Mr. McKinley, but that did put Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. He and Quanah know each other, they’re Mends.”

He smoked for a while in silence. The ageless are seldom hurried. At length he went on: “Among us Quanah’s more than a rather wealthy former. He’s a headman and judge, he holds us together. The whites don’t like the peyote nor his clutch of wives, but they put up with it because he doesn’t just keep us going, by doing so he keeps their consciences at ease. Not that he’s any sobersides. A genial sort, apt to tell stories or use language that’d make a sailor blush. But he is ... reconciliation. He calls himself Quanah Parker, in memory of his mother. Lately he talks about having her bones and his sister’s moved here, so they can rest beside his. Oh, I don’t blinker myself. We Indians have a steep, tough road to walk, and a lot of us will foil by the wayside. But Quanah’s gotten.us started.”

“And you brought him to that,” Tarrant said.

“Well, I worked against the prophets, I used what influence I had toward getting peace into the minds of the People. And you, from your side, kept your promise.”

Tarrant grinned crookedly. It had cost. You couldn’t simply buy politicians, you had to buy or push men who in their turn could strike deals with the grim incorruptibles. But Quanah did not go to jail or hang.

“I suspect you’re too modest,” Tarrant said. “Never mind. We’ve done our work. Maybe we’ve justified our long lives; I don’t know. So you’re ready to travel?”

Peregrino nodded. “I can’t do anything more here that others can’t whom I’ve helped train. And I have been on this reservation more than a quarter century. Quanah’s covered for me, kept me pretty much tucked in a corner, discouraged those who remember from talking to outsiders about me. But it isn’t like the prairie. Folks are wondering. If any real word leaked to the newspapers—ah, that worry’s at an end. I’ll leave him a letter, and my blessing.”

He looked out the window. It faced west. His hand lifted to his lips the brew of a people who themselves were once barbarians, southward raiding, northward retreating in war after war for their freedom. He said, “It’s time for me to start over.”


XV. Coming Together

1

2

3

4

5

<p>XV. Coming Together</p>
<p>1</p>

Rain roared. It washed away heat and grime, turned the air into flying, stinging gray. When lightning flashed, the hue became brief mercury, while thunder trampled down noise of motors, horns, water spurting from wheels. One bolt stabbed the new Empire State Building, but dissolved in the steel web under the masonry. Though the hour was early afternoon, headlights glimmered on cars and buses. Even mid town, pedestrians became few, trudging hunched beneath umbrellas or dodging from marquee to awning. Taxis were not to be had.

Uptown, Laurace Macandal’s street lay altogether bare. Ordinarily it bore life enough, and after dark bustled and glittered. Several night clubs had sprung up among the neighborhood’s modest tenements, small shops, and this old mansion she had renovated. Hard times or no, white folks still came to Harlem for jazz, dance, comedy, a little freedom from care such as they told each other Negroes were born to. Just now, everybody was inside, waiting out the weather.

She glanced at a clock and beckoned to one of the maids. “Listen well, Gindy,” she said. “You haven’t been long in service, and something very important will happen today. I don’t want you making mistakes.”

“Yes, Mama-lo.” Awe shivered in the girl’s voice.

Laurace shook her head. “That, for instance. I have told you before, I am only ‘Mama-lo’ at holy times.”

“I, I’m sorry, ... ma’m.” Tears blurred sight of the woman who stood before the girl—a woman who looked young and yet somehow old as time; tall, slim, in a maroon dress of quiet elegance, a silver snake bracelet on her left wrist and at her throat a golden pendant whose intertwined circle and triangle surrounded a ruby; too dark to be called high yellow, but with narrow face, arched nose, hair straight and stiff. “I keeps forgettin’.”

Laurace smiled and reached to pat the maid’s hand. “Don’t be afraid, dear.” Her voice, which could be a trumpet, sang like a violin. “You’re young, with much to learn. Mainly I want you to understand that my visitor today is special. That’s why no men will be around except Joseph, and he’s to stay with the car. You will help in the kitchen. Don’t leave it. No, there is nothing wrong with the way you serve at table, and you’re prettier than Conchita, but she ranks higher. Rank must be earned, by service as well as faith and study. Your time will come, I’m sure. Mainly, Cindy, you are to keep silence. You may not speak a single word to anybody, ever, about who my guest was or anything else you might happen to see or hear. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’m.”

“Good. Now be off with you, child. Oh, and do work harder on your English. You’ll never get anywhere in the world unless you sound educated. Are educated. Master Thomas tells me you aren’t deing so well at arithmetic, either. If you need extra help, ask him for it. Teaching isn’t just his job, it’s his calling.”

“Y-yes, ma’m.”

Laurace inclined her head and half closed her big eyes, as if listening. “Your good angel hovers near,” she said. “Go in peace.”

The girl trotted off, pert in her starched uniform, radiant in her sudden joy.

Alone, Laurace prowled about, picked up objects, fiddled with them, put them down again. She had made this room Victorian, oak wainscots, heavy furniture, thick carpet and drapes, glass-fronted cabinets for carefully chosen curios, a shelf of books still more select, on top of which rested the white bust of a man who had been black. Electric bulbs in a glass chandelier were dim; rain’s twilight crowded close. The effect was impressive without being overly strange.

When, from a bow window, she saw the car she had dispatched arrive at the curb, she set restlessness aside and straightened. Most would depend on what impression she herself made.

The chauffeur got out, unfolded a large umbrella, came around to the right side and opened the rear door. He escorted his passenger to the porch, where he rang the bell for her. Laurace didn’t see that, but she heard and knew. She likewise knew of the two maids who received the visitor, took her coat, and guided her down the hall.

As she entered the room, Laurace went to meet her. “Welcome, welcome,” she said, and clasped both hands in hers.

Clara Rosario’s fingers responded only slightly, as did her mouth to the smile offered her. She seemed alien, her own finery a little too bright-colored. Though her hair was marcelled midnight, skin tawny, lips full, she was of white race, hazel-eyed, straight-nosed, wide across the cheekbones. Laurace stood three inches higher. Nonetheless Clara carried herself boldly, as well she might, given a figure like hers.

“Thank you,” she said, with a staccato accent. Glancing about: “Quite a place you got here.”

“We’ll be private in the sanctum,” said Laurace. “It has a liquor cabinet. Or would you prefer tea or coffee? I’ll order it brought.”

“Uh, thanks, but I could use a drink right now.” Clara laughed nervously.

“You can stay for dinner, can’t you? I promise you a cordon bleu meal. By then we should have completed our ... business, and be able to relax and enjoy it.”

“Well, not too late. They expect me there, you know? I jolly them along and— Could be trouble, too, for me to head off. Men are kind of on edge these days, wondering what’s going to go wrong next, you know?”

“Besides, we don’t want anybody wondering what you’re up to,” Laurace agreed. “Don’t worry. I’ll send you back in plenty of time.” She took Clara’s arm. “This way, please.”

When the door had shut behind them, Clara stood a while, tensed. Between curtained windows, the smaller room was wholly foreign; Straw mats -covered the floor, leopard pelts the curiously shaped chairs. Two African masks dominated one wall. On a shelf between them rested a human skull. Opposite stretched an eight-foot python skin. At the farther end stood a marble altar. Upon its red-bordered white cloth were a knife, a crystal bowl full of water, and a bronze candlestick with seven twisty branches. Lighting was from a single heavily shaded lamp on a table beside silver boxes for cigarettes and matches and an incense holder whose smoke turned breath pungent. Almost lost in their everydayness were the cabinet and console radio that flanked the entrance, or the coffee table which near the middle held glasses, ice bucket, seltzer, carafe, ashtrays, small dishes of delicacies.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said Laurace. “You must have seen magicians’ lairs in the past.”

Clara nodded. “A few times,” she gulped. “You mean you—”

“Well, yes and no. These things aren’t for use; they’re meant to convey sacredness, power, mystery. Also,” Laurace added matter-of-fact!y, “nobody would dare open that door without my leave, under any circumstances whatsoever. We can talk in perfect safety.”

Clara rallied. She would not have endured through her centuries without ample courage; and her hostess offered nothing but friendship, of a sort and provided it be possible. “I guess we’ve gone mighty different ways, you and me.”

“Time we bring them together. Would you like some music? I can get two good stations.”

“No, let’s just talk.” Clara grimaced. “I don’t need music all the time, you know? I run a high-class house.”

“Poor dear.” Much sorrow was in the gentleness. “You don’t have it so easy, do you? Have you ever?”

Clara lifted her head. “I get by. How about that drink?”

She chose a strong bourbon-and-branch, together with a cigarette, and settled onto the sofa before the table. Laurace poured a glass of Bordeaux and sat down on a chair across from her. For a space there was silence, apart from the dulled noise of the rainstorm.

Then Clara said, half defiantly, “Well, what about it? What are we going to talk about?”

“Suppose you start,” Laurace answered, her words continuing soft. “Whatever you want. This is just the first of pur real meetings. We’ll need many more. We have everything to learn about each other, and decide, and finally do.”

Clara drew breath. “Okay,” she said fast. “How did you find me? When you showed up at my apartment and, and told me you’re immortal too—“ It had not brought on hysteria, but Laurace had soon realized she’d better go. Afterward it had been a matter of three careful telephone conversations, until now. “I thought at first you were crazy, you know? But you didn’t act it and how could a crazy person have found out? Later I wondered if you wanted to blackmail me, but that didn’t make sense either. Only ... all right, how do you know what I am, and how can 1 know you really are what you claim?” She raised her glass in a jerky motion and drank deep. “I don’t want to offend you, but, well, I’ve got to be more sure.”

“Naturally you’re cautious,” Laurace said. “Do you think I’m not? We’ve both had to be, or die. But look around you. Would something like this belong to any criminal such as you ever knew?”

“N-no... Unless the prophet of a cult— But I never heard of you, and I would have, as rich as you must be.”

“I’m not. Nor is the organization I lead. It does require me to maintain the appearance of, m-m, solidity. As to your questions, though;” Laurace sipped of her wine. Her voice grew slow, almost dreamy:

“I don’t know when I was born. If any record was made, I couldn’t tell where to find it, and probably it’s long lost. Who cared about a pickaninny slave? But from what I remember, and what I deduced after I began to study, I must be about two hundred years old. That isn’t much, set against your age. Fourteen hundred, did you say? But of course I wondered, more and more desperately, whether I was quite alone in the world or not.

“Any others like me must be hiding the fact like me. Men can go into a variety of occupations, lives. Women have fewer opportunities. When at last I had the means to search, it made sense to begin with the trade that a woman might very well, even most likely, be forced into.”

“Whoredom,” said Clara starkly.

“I told you before, I pass no judgments. We do what we must, to survive. One such as you could have left a trail, a trail often broken but perhaps possible to follow, given time and patience. After all, she wouldn’t expect anybody would think to try. Newspaper files, police and court records, tax rolls and other registers where prostitution had been legal, old photographs—things like that, gathered, sifted, compared. Some of my agents have been private detectives, some have been ... followers of mine. None knows why I wanted this information. Slowly, out of countless fragments, a few parts fitted together. It seemed there had been a woman who did well in Chicago back in the nineties till she got into some kind of trouble, curiously similar to one in New York later, in New Orleans later still, again in New York—”

Clara made a slicing gesture. “Never mind,” she snapped. “I get the idea. I should have remembered, in fact. It happened before.”

“What?”

“Back in Konstantinopolis—Istanbul—oh, Lord, nine hundred years ago, it must have been. A man tracked me down pretty much the same way.”

Laurace started to rise, sank back, leaned forward. “Another immortal?” she cried. “A man? What became of .him?”

“I don’t know.” Belligerently: “I wasn’t glad to be found then, and I’m not sure I am now. You are a woman, I guess that makes a difference, but you’ve got to convince me, you know?”

“A man,” Laurace whispered. “Who was he? What was he like?”

“Two. He had a partner. They were traders out of Russia. I didn’t want to go off with them, so I shook them, and never heard anything since. Probably they’re dead. Let’s not talk it about it yet, okay?”

The rain-silence descended.

“What a horror of a life you have had,” Laurace finally said.

Clara grinned on the left side of her mouth. “Oh, I’m tough. Between the times I work, when I live easy on what Fve earned and saved—or sometimes, yeah, I’ve married money—it’s good enough that I want to keep going.”

“I should think—you told me you’ve mostly been a, a madam since you came to America—isn’t that better than it ... used to be for you?”

“Not always.”

<p>2</p>

She hated sleeping where she worked. In Chicago she had an apartment five blocks away. Usually she could go home about two or three A.M., and the afternoons were her own; then business was slack enough for Sadie to manage. She’d go shopping downtown, or enjoy the sunshine and flowers in Jackson Park, or visit one of the museums built after the Columbian Exposition, or ride a trolley out into the countryside, all sorts of things, maybe with a couple of the girls, maybe by herself, but always ladylike.

Gas lamps flared. Pavement stretched ash-gray, empty as the moon. Lightly though she walked, her footfalls sounded loud in her ears. The two men who came out of an alley were tike more shadows until they fell in on either side of her.

She choked down a gasp. Fear chilled and keened. He on the right was a hulk, bristle-chinned and smelly. He on the left was hardly more than a boy. He had no color in his face except for the pus yellow the lamps gave it, and from time to time he giggled.

“Hello, Mrs. Ross,” the big man said. His voice was gritty. “Nice evening, ain’t it?”

Fool, she raged at herself, fool, I should have been careful, I should have spent what a bodyguard would cost, but no, I couldn’t be bothered, I had to save every cent toward my next years of freedom— In a way that was ancient with her, she killed the fear. She couldn’t afford it.

“I don’t know you,” she said. “Let me be.”

“Aw, we know you. Mr. Santoni, he showed us on the street when you was passing by. He asked us we should have a little talk with you.”

“Go, before I call a policeman.”

The boy tittered. “Shut up, Lew,” said the big man. “You get too impatient.” To her: “Now don’t be like that, Mrs. Ross. All we want to do is talk with you a while. You just come along quiet.”

“I’ll talk to your boss, Mr. Santoni, I’ll speak to him again if he insists.” Buy time. “Later today, yes.”

“Oh, no. Not so soon. He says you been real unreasonable.”

He wants to add my business to his string, he wants to end every independent house in the city, we’re to do his will and pay him his tribute. Christ, before it’s too late, send us a man with a sawed-off shotgun!

It was already too late for her. “He wants Lew and me should have a little talk with you first. He can’t waste no more of his time arguing, you got me? Just come along quiet now, and you’ll be all right. Lew, put that goddamn shiv back.”

She tried to run. A long arm snapped her to a halt. The way they pinioned her was effective; further resistance could have led to a dislocated shoulder. Around the next corner waited a cabriolet and driver. The horse hadn’t far to go before it reached a certain building.

Several times the big man-must restrain the boy. Afterward he would sponge her, speak soothingly, give her a smoke, before they resumed. Drawing on past experience, she avoided damage that would be permanent, on her if not on a mortal. They actually let her out of the cab in front of a doctor’s house.

The hospital staff were amazed at how fast she healed, quite without marks. While they did not interrogate her, they understood more or less what had happened and expected it would be a very meek, obliging, frequently smiling person who left them. Well, a body so extraordinary might generate a personality equally jesilient.

Just the same, Carlotta Ross cut her losses, sold whatever she could and dropped from sight. She had never heard of the rival who later bushwhacked Santoni. She seldom bothered taking revenge. Time did that for her, eventually. She was content to start over elsewhere, forewarned.

<p>3</p>

“I get along, though. I’m used to the life. Pretty good at it, in fact.” Clara laughed. “By now, I’d better be, huh?”

“Do you loathe all men?” Laurace asked.

“Don’t pity me! ... Sorry, you mean well, I shouldn’t’ve flared up. No, I’ve met some that I guess were decent. Not usually hi my line of work, though, and not for me. I don’t have to take them on any more myself; just take then-money. I couldn’t have anybody for real anyway. Can I? Can you?”

“Not forever, obviously. Unless someday we find others of our kind.” Laurace saw the expression before her. “Others we like.”

“Mind if I have a refill of this drink? I’ll help myself.” Clara did, and took a cigarette from her purse. Meanwhile she asked, no longer aggressive, almost shy: “What about you, Laurace? How do you feel? You were a slave once, you’ve said. That must have been as bad as anything I ever knew. Maybe worse. Christ knows how many slaves I’ve seen in my life.”

“Sometimes it was very bad. Other times it was, oh, comfortable. But never free. At last I ran away. White people who were against slavery got me to Canada. There I found ‘ work as a housemaid.”

Clara studied Laurace before murmuring, “You don’t talk or behave like a servant.”

“I changed. My employers helped me. The Dufours, they were: kindly, mildly prosperous, in Montreal. When they saw I wanted to better myself, they arranged schooling for me—after working hours, and servants worked long hours in those days, so it took years—but I’ll always be grateful to the Dufour family. I learned correct English, reading, writing, arithmetic. On my own, consorting with habitants, I picked up French of a sort. I turned into quite a bookworm, as far as circumstances allowed. That gave me a patchwork education; but as the years went on, I gradually filled many of the gaps in it.

“First I had to master memory. I was finding it harder and harder to pull whatever I wanted out of such a ragbag of recollections. It was becoming hard to think. I had to do something. You faced the same problem, I daresay.”

Clara nodded. “Awful, for maybe fifty years. I don’t know what I did or how, can’t recall much and everything’s jumbled. Might have gotten into real trouble and died, except—okay, I fell into the hands of a pimp. He, and later his son, they did my thinking for me. They weren’t bad guys, by their lights, and of course my not growing old made me special, maybe magical, so they didn’t dare abuse me, by the standards of the, uh, eighth century Near East, it must have been. I think they never let on to anybody else, but moved me to a different city every few years. Meanwhile, somehow, bit by bit, I got myself sorted out, and when the son died I felt ready to strike off on my own again. I wonder if most immortals aren’t that lucky. Somebody insane or witless wouldn’t last long without a protector, most times and places. Would she?”

“I’ve thought that myself. I was luckier still. By the early twentieth century we had a science of psychology. Crude, largely guess work, but the idea that the mind can be understood and fixed makes a huge difference. I found autohyp-nosis did wonders— We’ll talk about this later. Oh, we have so much to talk about.”

“I guess you never got too badly confused, then.”

“No, I kept control throughout. Of course, I moved around. It hurt to leave the Dufours, but people were wondering why I didn’t age like them. Also, more and more I wanted independence, true independence. I went from job to job, acquired skills, saved my money. In 1900 I moved back to the States. There a colored person was less conspicuous, and here in New York you can go as unnoticed as you care to. I opened a small cafe. It did well—I am a good cook—and in time I was able to start a larger place, with entertainment. The war boomed business. Afterward Prohibition made profits larger yet. White customers; I kept another, less fancy den for blacks. One of my white regulars became a friend. At City Hall Be saw to it that I didn’t pay off exorbitantly or have to worry about the mob muscling in.”

Clara considered her surroundings. “You didn’t buy this with the proceeds from two speakeasies,” she said.

Laurace smiled. “Shrewd, aren’t you? Well, the truth is that presently I took up with a pretty big-time rumrunner. White, but—”

<p>4</p>

Donald O’Bryan loved wind and water. At home he filled shelves with books about sailing ships, hung pictures of them on the walls, built models of them whose exquisite detail seemed impossible for such large hands. Besides the power cruiser he used in his business, he kept a sloop on Long Island Sound. When he started taking his black “housekeeper” on day trips, she went unchallenged by members of the yacht club. Everybody liked Don but nobody who was smart messed with him.

Heeled over on a broad reach, the boat rushed through swoosh and sparkle. Gulls soared white above.the wake, into which he had merrily cast scraps from lunch. When you ran before the wind, its booming was hushed to a cradle song and the air grew almost snug, so that you caught the live salt smell of it.

Reaching, a steersman must be careful. Don had secured the boom against an accidental jibe, but control remained tricky. He managed without effort. His body belonged where he was. His being had turned elsewhere.

Between watch cap and pea jacket, the snub-nosed face had lost its earlier cheerfulness. “Why won’t you marry me?” he pleaded. “I want to make an honest woman of you, really I do.”

“This is honest enough for me,” she laughed.

“Flora, I love you. It’s not only that you’re grand in bed, though you are, you are. It’s ... your soul. You’re brave and dear and a thousand times more bright than me. It’s proud Fd be to have you bear my children.”

Humor died. She shook her head. “We’re too different.”

“Was the Queen of Sheba too different from King Solomon?”

“In this country she would be.”

“Is it the law you fret about? Listen, not every state forbids marriage between the races, and the rest have to respect it once it’s happened where it’s allowed. That’s in the Constitution.”

The same Constitution that says a man can’t take a glass of beer after a hot day’s work, she thought. “No, it’s what we’d have to live with. Hatred. Isolation from both your people and mine. I couldn’t do that to our children.”

“Not everywhere,” he argued. “Listen, you’ve heard me before, but listen. I won’t keep my trade forever. In a few more years I’ll have more money piled together than we could -spend in a hundred. Because I am really a careful, saving man, in spite of liking a good time. I’ll take you to Ireland. To France. You always wanted to see France, you’ve said, and what I saw made me want to go back, during the war though it was. We can settle down wherever we like, in some sweet country where they don’t care what the color of our skins may be, only the color of our hearts.”

“Wait till then, and we’ll talk about this.” Maybe by then I can bring myself to it, to seeing time eat him hollow. Maybe I’ll be sure by then that he won’t grow bitter when I tell him—because I can never deceive him, not in any way that matters—and will even be glad to have me there in my strength, holding his hand as he ties on his deathbed.

“No, now! We can keep it secret if you want.”

She stared across the dancing waves. “I can’t do that either, darling. Please don’t ask me to.”

He frowned. “Is it you fear being the wife of a jailbird? I swear to God they’ll never take me alive. Not that I expect they’ll catch me at all.”

She looked back at him. A lock of hair curled brown from beneath the cap and fluttered across his brow. How like a boy he seemed, a small boy full of love and earnestness. She remembered sons she had borne and buried. “What difference would it make whether a justice of the peace mumbled a few words over us, if we aren’t free to stand together in sight of everybody?”

“I want to give you my vows.”

“You have given them, dearest. I could weep for the joy of that.”

“Well, there is this too,” he said, rougher-toned. “I don’t plan on dying, but we never know, and I want to make sure I leave you provided for. Won’t you give my heart that ease?”

“I don’t need an inheritance. Thank you, thank you, but I don’t.” She grimaced. “Nor do I want more to do with lawyers and the government than I can possibly help.”

“Um. So.” He gnawed his lip for a minute. “Well, I can understand that. All right.” His smile burst forth like the sun between clouds. “Not that I’m giving up on making you Mrs. O’Bryan, mind you. I’ll wear you down, I will. Meanwhile, however, I’ll make arrangements. I don’t trust bankers much anyway, and this is a profitable time to liquidate my real estate holdings. We’ll put it in gold, and you’ll know where the hoard is.”

“Oh, Don!” The money was nothing, the wish was the whole world and half the stars. She scrambled to her knees in the cockpit and pressed herself against him.

He bent over. His left arm closed around her shoulders, his mouth sought hers. “Flora,” he said huskily. “My beautiful strange Flora.”

<p>5</p>

“—We loved each other. I’ve never been afraid to love, Clara. You should learn how.”

The other woman stubbed out her cigarette and reached for a fresh one. “What happened?”

Voice and visage grew blank. “A revenue boat intercepted him in 1924. When he bade fair to outrun them, they opened fire. He was killed.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

Laurace shook herself. “Well, we’re familiars of death, you and I.” Once more calm: “He left me a quarter million in negotiable instruments. I needed to get away, sold my night clubs and spent the next four years traveling. First Ireland, England, France. In France I unproved my French and studied about Africa. I went there, Liberia, then the colonies along that coast, hoping to discover something about my ancestors. I made friends in the bush and added to what I’d learned from books, more of how those tribes live, what they live by, faith, ritual, secret societies, tradition. That caused me to return by way of Haiti, where I also spent a while.”

Clara’s eyes widened. “Voodoo?”

“Voudun,” Laurace corrected. “Not black magic. Religion. What has sustained human beings through some of the crudest history on earth, and still does in some of its most hideous poverty and misrule. I remembered people here at home, and came back to Harlem.”

“I see,” Clara breathed. “You did start a cult.”

Momentarily, Laurace was grim. “And you’re/ thinking, ‘What a nice racket.’ It isn’t like that in the least.”

“Oh, no. I didn’t mean—”

“You did.” Laurace sighed. “Never mind. A natural thought. I don’t blame you. But the fact is, I had no need to prey on superstition. Investments I’d made before going abroad had done well. I didn’t like the look of the stock market, and pulled out in time. Oh, by myself I’d be quite comfortably off.” Seriously: “There were my people, though. There was also the matter of my own long-range survival. And, now, yours.”

Clara showed near-bewilderment. “What’ve you done, then, if you haven’t founded a church?”

Laurace spoke quickly, impersonally: “Churches and their leaders are too conspicuous, especially if they achieve some success. Likewise revolutionary movements. Not that I wish for a revolution. I know how little bloodshed ever buys. That must be still more true of you.”

“I never gave it your kind of thought,” Clara said humbly. Her cigarette smoldered unnoticed between her fingers.

“What I am organizing is—call it a society, somewhat on the African and Haitian mode!. Remember, those outfits aren’t criminal, nor are they for pleasure; they are parts of the whole, the cultures, bone and muscle as well as spirit. Mine does contain elements of both religion and magic. In Canada I was exposed to Catholicism, which is one root of voudun. I don’t tefl anybody what church he should go to; but I open for him a vision of being not only a Christian, but belonging to the whole living universe. I don’t lay curses or give blessings, but I say words and lead rites in which I am—not a goddess or Messiah, not even a saint, but she who is closer than most to understanding, to power.

“Oh, we have a practical aspect too. A Haitian would know what I mean by the surname I’ve taken. But I don’t call for gaining control—not by vote, like the Republicans and Democrats, or by violence, like the Communists, or by persuasion, like the Socialists. No, my politics is individuals quietly getting together under leadership they have freely accepted, helping each other, building a life and a future for themselves.”

Clara shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t quite see what you mean.”

“Don’t worry.” Warmth was in the reply. “For the time being, think of it on the spiritual side as offering my followers something better than booze and coke. As for the material part, now that breadlines have gotten long, more and more hear about us and come to us, black, white, Puerto Rican, every race. Openly, we’re just another among hundreds of volunteer groups doing poor relief. Quietly, as newcomers prove trustworthy and advance through our degrees of initiation—we take them into a community they can belong to, work in, believe in, modestly but adequately and with hope. In return, when I ask for it, they help me.”

Laurace paused before continuing: “I can’t explain it much better than that, today. You’ll learn. Truth to tell, I’m learning too. I never laid out any grand scheme, I fumbled my way forward, and still do. Maybe this will crash to ruin, or decay. But maybe—I can’t foresee. Immortal leadership ought to make an important difference, but how to use it, I’m not yet sure. About all that I feel reasonably sure of is that we have to keep ourselves from being noticeable.”

“Can you?”

“We can try. ‘We’ includes you, I trust.” Laurace lifted her wine glass. “Here’s to tomorrow.”

Clara joined in the toast but remained troubled. “What are your plans for ... for the near future?”

“Considerable,” Laurace answered. “And you can do a great deal. You save your money, right? Well, we, the society, we’re stretched thin. We badly need operating capital. Opportunities go begging. For instance, since the crash, stocks are at rock-bottom prices.”

“Because we’ve got a depression. I thought you said you left the market.”

Laurace laughed. “If I’d foreseen exactly what would happen two years ago October, I’d have sold short at the right point and now own Wall Street. But I am not a sorceress—nor do I claim to be—and I’ve learned to play cautious. That doesn’t mean timid or unthinking. Look, depressions don’t last forever. People will always want homes, cars, a thousand different good, solid things; and sooner or later, they’ll again be able to buy them. It may take fifty years to collect our profit, but immortals can wait.”

“I see.” Clara’s features came aglow. “Okay. With that to look forward to, I can stand another fifty years in the life.”

“You needn’t. Times are changing.”

“What men want won’t change.”

“No, though the laws may. No matter. Clara, shake free of that sordidness as fast as you can unload.”

“What for? What else can I do? I don’t know anything except—“ With forlorn determination: “I will not turn into a parasite on you. I won’t.”

“Oh, no,” Laurace answered. “We take no parasites in. Quite aside from the money you contribute, you’ll earn your keep. You may not appreciate it yet, but you have fourteen hundred years of experience behind you, with the insight, the intuition, that must have brought. Yours may well be a bitter wisdom, but we need it.”

“What for?”

“For the building of our strength.”

“Huh? Wait, you said—”

“I said I do not intend to overthrow the government, take over the country, anything stupid and ephemeral like that,” Laurace declared. “My aim is the exact opposite. I want to build something so strong that with it we can say ‘No’ to the slavers, the lynch mobs, and the lords of state.

“Men seized my father, bore him away in chains, and sold him. They hounded me when I escaped, and would have caught me if other men had not broken their law. A few years ago, they shot down the man I loved, for nothing worse than providing a pleasure they said nobody must have. At that, he was lucky. He might have died earner, in their damned useless war. I £ould go on, but why? You could tell more, as much longer as you’ve lived.

“What’s brought this death and misery, but that men have had power over other men?

“Don’t mistake me. I am not an anarchist. Human beings are so made that the few will always rule the many. Sometimes they mean well—in spite of everything, I believe the founders of the United States did—but that doesn’t long outlive them.

“The only partial security we who want to lead our own lives will ever have, we must create from within us. Oneness. Ongoing resolution. The means to live independent of the overlords. Only by guiding the poor and helpless toward this can we immortals win it for ourselves.

“Are you with me?”


1

<p>1</p>

Rain roared. It washed away heat and grime, turned the air into flying, stinging gray. When lightning flashed, the hue became brief mercury, while thunder trampled down noise of motors, horns, water spurting from wheels. One bolt stabbed the new Empire State Building, but dissolved in the steel web under the masonry. Though the hour was early afternoon, headlights glimmered on cars and buses. Even mid town, pedestrians became few, trudging hunched beneath umbrellas or dodging from marquee to awning. Taxis were not to be had.

Uptown, Laurace Macandal’s street lay altogether bare. Ordinarily it bore life enough, and after dark bustled and glittered. Several night clubs had sprung up among the neighborhood’s modest tenements, small shops, and this old mansion she had renovated. Hard times or no, white folks still came to Harlem for jazz, dance, comedy, a little freedom from care such as they told each other Negroes were born to. Just now, everybody was inside, waiting out the weather.

She glanced at a clock and beckoned to one of the maids. “Listen well, Gindy,” she said. “You haven’t been long in service, and something very important will happen today. I don’t want you making mistakes.”

“Yes, Mama-lo.” Awe shivered in the girl’s voice.

Laurace shook her head. “That, for instance. I have told you before, I am only ‘Mama-lo’ at holy times.”

“I, I’m sorry, ... ma’m.” Tears blurred sight of the woman who stood before the girl—a woman who looked young and yet somehow old as time; tall, slim, in a maroon dress of quiet elegance, a silver snake bracelet on her left wrist and at her throat a golden pendant whose intertwined circle and triangle surrounded a ruby; too dark to be called high yellow, but with narrow face, arched nose, hair straight and stiff. “I keeps forgettin’.”

Laurace smiled and reached to pat the maid’s hand. “Don’t be afraid, dear.” Her voice, which could be a trumpet, sang like a violin. “You’re young, with much to learn. Mainly I want you to understand that my visitor today is special. That’s why no men will be around except Joseph, and he’s to stay with the car. You will help in the kitchen. Don’t leave it. No, there is nothing wrong with the way you serve at table, and you’re prettier than Conchita, but she ranks higher. Rank must be earned, by service as well as faith and study. Your time will come, I’m sure. Mainly, Cindy, you are to keep silence. You may not speak a single word to anybody, ever, about who my guest was or anything else you might happen to see or hear. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’m.”

“Good. Now be off with you, child. Oh, and do work harder on your English. You’ll never get anywhere in the world unless you sound educated. Are educated. Master Thomas tells me you aren’t deing so well at arithmetic, either. If you need extra help, ask him for it. Teaching isn’t just his job, it’s his calling.”

“Y-yes, ma’m.”

Laurace inclined her head and half closed her big eyes, as if listening. “Your good angel hovers near,” she said. “Go in peace.”

The girl trotted off, pert in her starched uniform, radiant in her sudden joy.

Alone, Laurace prowled about, picked up objects, fiddled with them, put them down again. She had made this room Victorian, oak wainscots, heavy furniture, thick carpet and drapes, glass-fronted cabinets for carefully chosen curios, a shelf of books still more select, on top of which rested the white bust of a man who had been black. Electric bulbs in a glass chandelier were dim; rain’s twilight crowded close. The effect was impressive without being overly strange.

When, from a bow window, she saw the car she had dispatched arrive at the curb, she set restlessness aside and straightened. Most would depend on what impression she herself made.

The chauffeur got out, unfolded a large umbrella, came around to the right side and opened the rear door. He escorted his passenger to the porch, where he rang the bell for her. Laurace didn’t see that, but she heard and knew. She likewise knew of the two maids who received the visitor, took her coat, and guided her down the hall.

As she entered the room, Laurace went to meet her. “Welcome, welcome,” she said, and clasped both hands in hers.

Clara Rosario’s fingers responded only slightly, as did her mouth to the smile offered her. She seemed alien, her own finery a little too bright-colored. Though her hair was marcelled midnight, skin tawny, lips full, she was of white race, hazel-eyed, straight-nosed, wide across the cheekbones. Laurace stood three inches higher. Nonetheless Clara carried herself boldly, as well she might, given a figure like hers.

“Thank you,” she said, with a staccato accent. Glancing about: “Quite a place you got here.”

“We’ll be private in the sanctum,” said Laurace. “It has a liquor cabinet. Or would you prefer tea or coffee? I’ll order it brought.”

“Uh, thanks, but I could use a drink right now.” Clara laughed nervously.

“You can stay for dinner, can’t you? I promise you a cordon bleu meal. By then we should have completed our ... business, and be able to relax and enjoy it.”

“Well, not too late. They expect me there, you know? I jolly them along and— Could be trouble, too, for me to head off. Men are kind of on edge these days, wondering what’s going to go wrong next, you know?”

“Besides, we don’t want anybody wondering what you’re up to,” Laurace agreed. “Don’t worry. I’ll send you back in plenty of time.” She took Clara’s arm. “This way, please.”

When the door had shut behind them, Clara stood a while, tensed. Between curtained windows, the smaller room was wholly foreign; Straw mats -covered the floor, leopard pelts the curiously shaped chairs. Two African masks dominated one wall. On a shelf between them rested a human skull. Opposite stretched an eight-foot python skin. At the farther end stood a marble altar. Upon its red-bordered white cloth were a knife, a crystal bowl full of water, and a bronze candlestick with seven twisty branches. Lighting was from a single heavily shaded lamp on a table beside silver boxes for cigarettes and matches and an incense holder whose smoke turned breath pungent. Almost lost in their everydayness were the cabinet and console radio that flanked the entrance, or the coffee table which near the middle held glasses, ice bucket, seltzer, carafe, ashtrays, small dishes of delicacies.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said Laurace. “You must have seen magicians’ lairs in the past.”

Clara nodded. “A few times,” she gulped. “You mean you—”

“Well, yes and no. These things aren’t for use; they’re meant to convey sacredness, power, mystery. Also,” Laurace added matter-of-fact!y, “nobody would dare open that door without my leave, under any circumstances whatsoever. We can talk in perfect safety.”

Clara rallied. She would not have endured through her centuries without ample courage; and her hostess offered nothing but friendship, of a sort and provided it be possible. “I guess we’ve gone mighty different ways, you and me.”

“Time we bring them together. Would you like some music? I can get two good stations.”

“No, let’s just talk.” Clara grimaced. “I don’t need music all the time, you know? I run a high-class house.”

“Poor dear.” Much sorrow was in the gentleness. “You don’t have it so easy, do you? Have you ever?”

Clara lifted her head. “I get by. How about that drink?”

She chose a strong bourbon-and-branch, together with a cigarette, and settled onto the sofa before the table. Laurace poured a glass of Bordeaux and sat down on a chair across from her. For a space there was silence, apart from the dulled noise of the rainstorm.

Then Clara said, half defiantly, “Well, what about it? What are we going to talk about?”

“Suppose you start,” Laurace answered, her words continuing soft. “Whatever you want. This is just the first of pur real meetings. We’ll need many more. We have everything to learn about each other, and decide, and finally do.”

Clara drew breath. “Okay,” she said fast. “How did you find me? When you showed up at my apartment and, and told me you’re immortal too—“ It had not brought on hysteria, but Laurace had soon realized she’d better go. Afterward it had been a matter of three careful telephone conversations, until now. “I thought at first you were crazy, you know? But you didn’t act it and how could a crazy person have found out? Later I wondered if you wanted to blackmail me, but that didn’t make sense either. Only ... all right, how do you know what I am, and how can 1 know you really are what you claim?” She raised her glass in a jerky motion and drank deep. “I don’t want to offend you, but, well, I’ve got to be more sure.”

“Naturally you’re cautious,” Laurace said. “Do you think I’m not? We’ve both had to be, or die. But look around you. Would something like this belong to any criminal such as you ever knew?”

“N-no... Unless the prophet of a cult— But I never heard of you, and I would have, as rich as you must be.”

“I’m not. Nor is the organization I lead. It does require me to maintain the appearance of, m-m, solidity. As to your questions, though;” Laurace sipped of her wine. Her voice grew slow, almost dreamy:

“I don’t know when I was born. If any record was made, I couldn’t tell where to find it, and probably it’s long lost. Who cared about a pickaninny slave? But from what I remember, and what I deduced after I began to study, I must be about two hundred years old. That isn’t much, set against your age. Fourteen hundred, did you say? But of course I wondered, more and more desperately, whether I was quite alone in the world or not.

“Any others like me must be hiding the fact like me. Men can go into a variety of occupations, lives. Women have fewer opportunities. When at last I had the means to search, it made sense to begin with the trade that a woman might very well, even most likely, be forced into.”

“Whoredom,” said Clara starkly.

“I told you before, I pass no judgments. We do what we must, to survive. One such as you could have left a trail, a trail often broken but perhaps possible to follow, given time and patience. After all, she wouldn’t expect anybody would think to try. Newspaper files, police and court records, tax rolls and other registers where prostitution had been legal, old photographs—things like that, gathered, sifted, compared. Some of my agents have been private detectives, some have been ... followers of mine. None knows why I wanted this information. Slowly, out of countless fragments, a few parts fitted together. It seemed there had been a woman who did well in Chicago back in the nineties till she got into some kind of trouble, curiously similar to one in New York later, in New Orleans later still, again in New York—”

Clara made a slicing gesture. “Never mind,” she snapped. “I get the idea. I should have remembered, in fact. It happened before.”

“What?”

“Back in Konstantinopolis—Istanbul—oh, Lord, nine hundred years ago, it must have been. A man tracked me down pretty much the same way.”

Laurace started to rise, sank back, leaned forward. “Another immortal?” she cried. “A man? What became of .him?”

“I don’t know.” Belligerently: “I wasn’t glad to be found then, and I’m not sure I am now. You are a woman, I guess that makes a difference, but you’ve got to convince me, you know?”

“A man,” Laurace whispered. “Who was he? What was he like?”

“Two. He had a partner. They were traders out of Russia. I didn’t want to go off with them, so I shook them, and never heard anything since. Probably they’re dead. Let’s not talk it about it yet, okay?”

The rain-silence descended.

“What a horror of a life you have had,” Laurace finally said.

Clara grinned on the left side of her mouth. “Oh, I’m tough. Between the times I work, when I live easy on what Fve earned and saved—or sometimes, yeah, I’ve married money—it’s good enough that I want to keep going.”

“I should think—you told me you’ve mostly been a, a madam since you came to America—isn’t that better than it ... used to be for you?”

“Not always.”


2

<p>2</p>

She hated sleeping where she worked. In Chicago she had an apartment five blocks away. Usually she could go home about two or three A.M., and the afternoons were her own; then business was slack enough for Sadie to manage. She’d go shopping downtown, or enjoy the sunshine and flowers in Jackson Park, or visit one of the museums built after the Columbian Exposition, or ride a trolley out into the countryside, all sorts of things, maybe with a couple of the girls, maybe by herself, but always ladylike.

Gas lamps flared. Pavement stretched ash-gray, empty as the moon. Lightly though she walked, her footfalls sounded loud in her ears. The two men who came out of an alley were tike more shadows until they fell in on either side of her.

She choked down a gasp. Fear chilled and keened. He on the right was a hulk, bristle-chinned and smelly. He on the left was hardly more than a boy. He had no color in his face except for the pus yellow the lamps gave it, and from time to time he giggled.

“Hello, Mrs. Ross,” the big man said. His voice was gritty. “Nice evening, ain’t it?”

Fool, she raged at herself, fool, I should have been careful, I should have spent what a bodyguard would cost, but no, I couldn’t be bothered, I had to save every cent toward my next years of freedom— In a way that was ancient with her, she killed the fear. She couldn’t afford it.

“I don’t know you,” she said. “Let me be.”

“Aw, we know you. Mr. Santoni, he showed us on the street when you was passing by. He asked us we should have a little talk with you.”

“Go, before I call a policeman.”

The boy tittered. “Shut up, Lew,” said the big man. “You get too impatient.” To her: “Now don’t be like that, Mrs. Ross. All we want to do is talk with you a while. You just come along quiet.”

“I’ll talk to your boss, Mr. Santoni, I’ll speak to him again if he insists.” Buy time. “Later today, yes.”

“Oh, no. Not so soon. He says you been real unreasonable.”

He wants to add my business to his string, he wants to end every independent house in the city, we’re to do his will and pay him his tribute. Christ, before it’s too late, send us a man with a sawed-off shotgun!

It was already too late for her. “He wants Lew and me should have a little talk with you first. He can’t waste no more of his time arguing, you got me? Just come along quiet now, and you’ll be all right. Lew, put that goddamn shiv back.”

She tried to run. A long arm snapped her to a halt. The way they pinioned her was effective; further resistance could have led to a dislocated shoulder. Around the next corner waited a cabriolet and driver. The horse hadn’t far to go before it reached a certain building.

Several times the big man-must restrain the boy. Afterward he would sponge her, speak soothingly, give her a smoke, before they resumed. Drawing on past experience, she avoided damage that would be permanent, on her if not on a mortal. They actually let her out of the cab in front of a doctor’s house.

The hospital staff were amazed at how fast she healed, quite without marks. While they did not interrogate her, they understood more or less what had happened and expected it would be a very meek, obliging, frequently smiling person who left them. Well, a body so extraordinary might generate a personality equally jesilient.

Just the same, Carlotta Ross cut her losses, sold whatever she could and dropped from sight. She had never heard of the rival who later bushwhacked Santoni. She seldom bothered taking revenge. Time did that for her, eventually. She was content to start over elsewhere, forewarned.


3

<p>3</p>

“I get along, though. I’m used to the life. Pretty good at it, in fact.” Clara laughed. “By now, I’d better be, huh?”

“Do you loathe all men?” Laurace asked.

“Don’t pity me! ... Sorry, you mean well, I shouldn’t’ve flared up. No, I’ve met some that I guess were decent. Not usually hi my line of work, though, and not for me. I don’t have to take them on any more myself; just take then-money. I couldn’t have anybody for real anyway. Can I? Can you?”

“Not forever, obviously. Unless someday we find others of our kind.” Laurace saw the expression before her. “Others we like.”

“Mind if I have a refill of this drink? I’ll help myself.” Clara did, and took a cigarette from her purse. Meanwhile she asked, no longer aggressive, almost shy: “What about you, Laurace? How do you feel? You were a slave once, you’ve said. That must have been as bad as anything I ever knew. Maybe worse. Christ knows how many slaves I’ve seen in my life.”

“Sometimes it was very bad. Other times it was, oh, comfortable. But never free. At last I ran away. White people who were against slavery got me to Canada. There I found ‘ work as a housemaid.”

Clara studied Laurace before murmuring, “You don’t talk or behave like a servant.”

“I changed. My employers helped me. The Dufours, they were: kindly, mildly prosperous, in Montreal. When they saw I wanted to better myself, they arranged schooling for me—after working hours, and servants worked long hours in those days, so it took years—but I’ll always be grateful to the Dufour family. I learned correct English, reading, writing, arithmetic. On my own, consorting with habitants, I picked up French of a sort. I turned into quite a bookworm, as far as circumstances allowed. That gave me a patchwork education; but as the years went on, I gradually filled many of the gaps in it.

“First I had to master memory. I was finding it harder and harder to pull whatever I wanted out of such a ragbag of recollections. It was becoming hard to think. I had to do something. You faced the same problem, I daresay.”

Clara nodded. “Awful, for maybe fifty years. I don’t know what I did or how, can’t recall much and everything’s jumbled. Might have gotten into real trouble and died, except—okay, I fell into the hands of a pimp. He, and later his son, they did my thinking for me. They weren’t bad guys, by their lights, and of course my not growing old made me special, maybe magical, so they didn’t dare abuse me, by the standards of the, uh, eighth century Near East, it must have been. I think they never let on to anybody else, but moved me to a different city every few years. Meanwhile, somehow, bit by bit, I got myself sorted out, and when the son died I felt ready to strike off on my own again. I wonder if most immortals aren’t that lucky. Somebody insane or witless wouldn’t last long without a protector, most times and places. Would she?”

“I’ve thought that myself. I was luckier still. By the early twentieth century we had a science of psychology. Crude, largely guess work, but the idea that the mind can be understood and fixed makes a huge difference. I found autohyp-nosis did wonders— We’ll talk about this later. Oh, we have so much to talk about.”

“I guess you never got too badly confused, then.”

“No, I kept control throughout. Of course, I moved around. It hurt to leave the Dufours, but people were wondering why I didn’t age like them. Also, more and more I wanted independence, true independence. I went from job to job, acquired skills, saved my money. In 1900 I moved back to the States. There a colored person was less conspicuous, and here in New York you can go as unnoticed as you care to. I opened a small cafe. It did well—I am a good cook—and in time I was able to start a larger place, with entertainment. The war boomed business. Afterward Prohibition made profits larger yet. White customers; I kept another, less fancy den for blacks. One of my white regulars became a friend. At City Hall Be saw to it that I didn’t pay off exorbitantly or have to worry about the mob muscling in.”

Clara considered her surroundings. “You didn’t buy this with the proceeds from two speakeasies,” she said.

Laurace smiled. “Shrewd, aren’t you? Well, the truth is that presently I took up with a pretty big-time rumrunner. White, but—”


4

<p>4</p>

Donald O’Bryan loved wind and water. At home he filled shelves with books about sailing ships, hung pictures of them on the walls, built models of them whose exquisite detail seemed impossible for such large hands. Besides the power cruiser he used in his business, he kept a sloop on Long Island Sound. When he started taking his black “housekeeper” on day trips, she went unchallenged by members of the yacht club. Everybody liked Don but nobody who was smart messed with him.

Heeled over on a broad reach, the boat rushed through swoosh and sparkle. Gulls soared white above.the wake, into which he had merrily cast scraps from lunch. When you ran before the wind, its booming was hushed to a cradle song and the air grew almost snug, so that you caught the live salt smell of it.

Reaching, a steersman must be careful. Don had secured the boom against an accidental jibe, but control remained tricky. He managed without effort. His body belonged where he was. His being had turned elsewhere.

Between watch cap and pea jacket, the snub-nosed face had lost its earlier cheerfulness. “Why won’t you marry me?” he pleaded. “I want to make an honest woman of you, really I do.”

“This is honest enough for me,” she laughed.

“Flora, I love you. It’s not only that you’re grand in bed, though you are, you are. It’s ... your soul. You’re brave and dear and a thousand times more bright than me. It’s proud Fd be to have you bear my children.”

Humor died. She shook her head. “We’re too different.”

“Was the Queen of Sheba too different from King Solomon?”

“In this country she would be.”

“Is it the law you fret about? Listen, not every state forbids marriage between the races, and the rest have to respect it once it’s happened where it’s allowed. That’s in the Constitution.”

The same Constitution that says a man can’t take a glass of beer after a hot day’s work, she thought. “No, it’s what we’d have to live with. Hatred. Isolation from both your people and mine. I couldn’t do that to our children.”

“Not everywhere,” he argued. “Listen, you’ve heard me before, but listen. I won’t keep my trade forever. In a few more years I’ll have more money piled together than we could -spend in a hundred. Because I am really a careful, saving man, in spite of liking a good time. I’ll take you to Ireland. To France. You always wanted to see France, you’ve said, and what I saw made me want to go back, during the war though it was. We can settle down wherever we like, in some sweet country where they don’t care what the color of our skins may be, only the color of our hearts.”

“Wait till then, and we’ll talk about this.” Maybe by then I can bring myself to it, to seeing time eat him hollow. Maybe I’ll be sure by then that he won’t grow bitter when I tell him—because I can never deceive him, not in any way that matters—and will even be glad to have me there in my strength, holding his hand as he ties on his deathbed.

“No, now! We can keep it secret if you want.”

She stared across the dancing waves. “I can’t do that either, darling. Please don’t ask me to.”

He frowned. “Is it you fear being the wife of a jailbird? I swear to God they’ll never take me alive. Not that I expect they’ll catch me at all.”

She looked back at him. A lock of hair curled brown from beneath the cap and fluttered across his brow. How like a boy he seemed, a small boy full of love and earnestness. She remembered sons she had borne and buried. “What difference would it make whether a justice of the peace mumbled a few words over us, if we aren’t free to stand together in sight of everybody?”

“I want to give you my vows.”

“You have given them, dearest. I could weep for the joy of that.”

“Well, there is this too,” he said, rougher-toned. “I don’t plan on dying, but we never know, and I want to make sure I leave you provided for. Won’t you give my heart that ease?”

“I don’t need an inheritance. Thank you, thank you, but I don’t.” She grimaced. “Nor do I want more to do with lawyers and the government than I can possibly help.”

“Um. So.” He gnawed his lip for a minute. “Well, I can understand that. All right.” His smile burst forth like the sun between clouds. “Not that I’m giving up on making you Mrs. O’Bryan, mind you. I’ll wear you down, I will. Meanwhile, however, I’ll make arrangements. I don’t trust bankers much anyway, and this is a profitable time to liquidate my real estate holdings. We’ll put it in gold, and you’ll know where the hoard is.”

“Oh, Don!” The money was nothing, the wish was the whole world and half the stars. She scrambled to her knees in the cockpit and pressed herself against him.

He bent over. His left arm closed around her shoulders, his mouth sought hers. “Flora,” he said huskily. “My beautiful strange Flora.”


5

<p>5</p>

“—We loved each other. I’ve never been afraid to love, Clara. You should learn how.”

The other woman stubbed out her cigarette and reached for a fresh one. “What happened?”

Voice and visage grew blank. “A revenue boat intercepted him in 1924. When he bade fair to outrun them, they opened fire. He was killed.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

Laurace shook herself. “Well, we’re familiars of death, you and I.” Once more calm: “He left me a quarter million in negotiable instruments. I needed to get away, sold my night clubs and spent the next four years traveling. First Ireland, England, France. In France I unproved my French and studied about Africa. I went there, Liberia, then the colonies along that coast, hoping to discover something about my ancestors. I made friends in the bush and added to what I’d learned from books, more of how those tribes live, what they live by, faith, ritual, secret societies, tradition. That caused me to return by way of Haiti, where I also spent a while.”

Clara’s eyes widened. “Voodoo?”

“Voudun,” Laurace corrected. “Not black magic. Religion. What has sustained human beings through some of the crudest history on earth, and still does in some of its most hideous poverty and misrule. I remembered people here at home, and came back to Harlem.”

“I see,” Clara breathed. “You did start a cult.”

Momentarily, Laurace was grim. “And you’re/ thinking, ‘What a nice racket.’ It isn’t like that in the least.”

“Oh, no. I didn’t mean—”

“You did.” Laurace sighed. “Never mind. A natural thought. I don’t blame you. But the fact is, I had no need to prey on superstition. Investments I’d made before going abroad had done well. I didn’t like the look of the stock market, and pulled out in time. Oh, by myself I’d be quite comfortably off.” Seriously: “There were my people, though. There was also the matter of my own long-range survival. And, now, yours.”

Clara showed near-bewilderment. “What’ve you done, then, if you haven’t founded a church?”

Laurace spoke quickly, impersonally: “Churches and their leaders are too conspicuous, especially if they achieve some success. Likewise revolutionary movements. Not that I wish for a revolution. I know how little bloodshed ever buys. That must be still more true of you.”

“I never gave it your kind of thought,” Clara said humbly. Her cigarette smoldered unnoticed between her fingers.

“What I am organizing is—call it a society, somewhat on the African and Haitian mode!. Remember, those outfits aren’t criminal, nor are they for pleasure; they are parts of the whole, the cultures, bone and muscle as well as spirit. Mine does contain elements of both religion and magic. In Canada I was exposed to Catholicism, which is one root of voudun. I don’t tefl anybody what church he should go to; but I open for him a vision of being not only a Christian, but belonging to the whole living universe. I don’t lay curses or give blessings, but I say words and lead rites in which I am—not a goddess or Messiah, not even a saint, but she who is closer than most to understanding, to power.

“Oh, we have a practical aspect too. A Haitian would know what I mean by the surname I’ve taken. But I don’t call for gaining control—not by vote, like the Republicans and Democrats, or by violence, like the Communists, or by persuasion, like the Socialists. No, my politics is individuals quietly getting together under leadership they have freely accepted, helping each other, building a life and a future for themselves.”

Clara shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t quite see what you mean.”

“Don’t worry.” Warmth was in the reply. “For the time being, think of it on the spiritual side as offering my followers something better than booze and coke. As for the material part, now that breadlines have gotten long, more and more hear about us and come to us, black, white, Puerto Rican, every race. Openly, we’re just another among hundreds of volunteer groups doing poor relief. Quietly, as newcomers prove trustworthy and advance through our degrees of initiation—we take them into a community they can belong to, work in, believe in, modestly but adequately and with hope. In return, when I ask for it, they help me.”

Laurace paused before continuing: “I can’t explain it much better than that, today. You’ll learn. Truth to tell, I’m learning too. I never laid out any grand scheme, I fumbled my way forward, and still do. Maybe this will crash to ruin, or decay. But maybe—I can’t foresee. Immortal leadership ought to make an important difference, but how to use it, I’m not yet sure. About all that I feel reasonably sure of is that we have to keep ourselves from being noticeable.”

“Can you?”

“We can try. ‘We’ includes you, I trust.” Laurace lifted her wine glass. “Here’s to tomorrow.”

Clara joined in the toast but remained troubled. “What are your plans for ... for the near future?”

“Considerable,” Laurace answered. “And you can do a great deal. You save your money, right? Well, we, the society, we’re stretched thin. We badly need operating capital. Opportunities go begging. For instance, since the crash, stocks are at rock-bottom prices.”

“Because we’ve got a depression. I thought you said you left the market.”

Laurace laughed. “If I’d foreseen exactly what would happen two years ago October, I’d have sold short at the right point and now own Wall Street. But I am not a sorceress—nor do I claim to be—and I’ve learned to play cautious. That doesn’t mean timid or unthinking. Look, depressions don’t last forever. People will always want homes, cars, a thousand different good, solid things; and sooner or later, they’ll again be able to buy them. It may take fifty years to collect our profit, but immortals can wait.”

“I see.” Clara’s features came aglow. “Okay. With that to look f