"Thou has been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the Sardius, Topaz, and the Diamond, the Beryl, the Onyx, and the Jasper, the Sapphire, the Emerald, and the Carbuncle, and Gold...thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast on the holy mountain of God; thou has walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Note: Each fiery stone of heaven is corrupted by the fallen cherub, Lucifer, the "Light-Bringer," and it acquires a different character and a guiding deadly creature of evil genius hidden within it.
Agent Letter, Outlines, Strategy
2. The Ten Stones of Fire (Starlike, Jeweline, Super-intelligent, Alien Entities), each performing as OP, or, Opposing Player, with the aim of conquering and destroying the Earths, I and II, and their respective universes.
3. Dr. Pikkard's Computer Wargame, represented by Wally, an electronically-created, free-roaming butterly who fights for humanity's survival against the Alien(s)
4. Human "Alphabetic" or A-Z Champions, also a subgroup called DUBESOR, or the Rosebud Champions
5. Yeshua, the A and Z, the Alpha and Omega, and the Aleph and Tau (also known as FC, the so-called "Forbidden Category")
Waste of Youth's most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of glory, waste of God--War"--Woodbine Willie
This war was, indeed, great in scope and consequence. It would topple the crowned heads of the monarchies of most of the European powers. As prophesied by a bearded, robed, iconic staretz in the Kremlin, this war broke out that would exhaust Europe, killing off nearly a whole generation in all the countries that fought it, then resume again some years later to devastate the entire continent with tens of millions more slain, both military and civilians.
June 28, 1914, two years after the Titanic converged with what was thought to be an iceberg and sank in the frigid Northern Atlantic waters off the island of Newfoundland, the heir to the imperial Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie, paid a state visit to the South Slavs. What was so special about this? State visits by the Archduke were a matter of routine, for he was a world traveller. Where hadn't he visited? So a visit to the Balkans was not special, except that it went wrong, terribly wrong.
An expert huntsman (insofar as it required expertise to shoot game that was driven toward him by teams of men encircling the animals), whose palace walls back in Vienna were covered top to bottom with upwards of 200,000 antlers and mounted heads of every kind of game animal, the Archduke was in turn hunted and his carriage bombed by Serbian nationalists in Croatia.
Shock waves struck the hearts of the many peoples of Europe after the news flew rapidly by telegraph to every capital. Ultimatums were issued from Vienna to Serbia, and when they were not met by the recalcitrant Serbs, war was declared on Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Imperial Germany following suit as an ally.
The banners of all the newspapers blazed with war declarations of country after country. Orders went out to the male citizenry of France, Britain, Germany, and Austria, and other countries--mass mobilizations were begun. Millions of fighting quality age kissed their wives and children and left their homes and jobs and trekked to the army centers and depots for induction, training, outfitting, and weaponry.
Armies already in the field were rushed by train and on foot to positions along the borders between France and Germany. Factories were rapidly converted to supplying the many war machines. All available resources were committed to the war effort. Propaganda offices worked overtime, churning out war posters that portrayed the respective antagonists in the worst possible light. Spies fanned out by the thousands across Europe, slipping discreet bribes to officials in sensitive positions in war departments, using pretty women to lure army officers to divulge information, infiltrating wherever they could into the enemy countries to spot weaknesses or major movements of troops and material.
Army battalions paraded in the streets of a thousand cities, as men marched off to the Front with bands blaring and crowds madly waving handkerchiefs and flags and cheering them along.
All Europe (except neutralist Switzerland, Sweden, and a few other small countries who had nothing to gain from fighting with lions) was caught up in a frenzy of high expectation, terror, anxiety, anger, and vengence. This time the anciently seething wrongs which Europe never could forgive and forget would be righted, the enemy would be crushed and rendered powerless forever. Yet Europe was thought to be so civilized and enlightened by science and the Age of Reason, this time it would be different: unlike in the past, vengeance would not ignite another cycle of strife and warfare like in the past. Modern 20th Century Civilization with its enlightenment of the mind and spirit and nature of man would surely prevail over savagery, the primitive brute creature of base instincts that lingered as a vestigial legacy of ancestral Neanderthals in man's pedigree. Refined by education and the arts, modern man stood poised like an Olympic athlete in white running togs on the cusp of a new era of mankind's upward progress and development, entering a brave new world where there would never be need of war again, for victory would kiss the dove of peace and never let it fly away. A thousand years of peace would prevail over the entire earth, and science and industry would transform it into a paradise where the parliament of man, spoken of by Alfred Tennyson, would sit and levy only just decrees that would treat everyone equally.
This was, from the onset, to be the war to end all war: most everyone (except the grim, dark eyed staretz in the Kremlin) bought this wonderful, shining idea, and it added a burning fervor to the war not seen in all the prior conflicts on the Continent since the Thirty Years War and other wars of religion in the 1700s. The sirens of war, looking either their most seductive or just like the girl next door cried out to an entire generation of young men: "Fight this war, my darling, and win everlasting peace and happiness for yourself and your nation! Do your duty by the Fatherland and the blood of your forefathers! Defend the sacred hearth of the Home and your mother and sister's virtue against the raping barbarian! Crush our enemies, strike him down to the dust once and for all, trample him, etc., and your nation will heap on you imperishable honor and gratitude!"
Flags, flags, flags! Bands! Martial music and marching musicians with little boys tramping alongside with wooden rifles and stick bayonets! Speeches by government leaders before tens of thousands in public squares and grand boulevards. Parades. Cheering masses. Madness...as the dogs of Europe barked and howled from Edinburgh to Moscow.
There had been countless continental wars before, sometimes of great magnitude, especially in the times of Napoleon, so people thought it would be much the same thing, but most wars were not that serious. Surely, this Europe was so civilized that this time time peace would be instituted and maintained indefinitely. After some bloodletting in a battle or two, the peace envoys would confer at some palace or other in France or Britain or Holland, a deal would be struck, and life would revert to the old paths and people could go on as before. But a new player entered the geopolitics in 1914, unknown and uninvited by the Great Powers, which changed everything and opened the abyss itself.
Not stopping over at London Rev. Kennedy went directly to Portsmouth, staggering beneath loaded bags aboard ship to Calais. The crossing was routine enough, with no Zeppelins dropping bombs on them this time, but the choppy water and the rolling old trawler turned transport made him run for the rail a number of times. Then Calais was a mad house. Every kind of transport was taken by military troops or hordes of fleeing citizenry from the provinces affected by the war. Showing his papers, the Customs waved him and his bags through without inspection. But where was he to stay, and how was he to get to the Front? He must have asked a hundred different people before he found a way out of Calais.
After paying an exorbitant amount as a bribe to the station master, he wedged himself and his bags into an officer's berth in a troop transporting train and reached Rouen, stoutly declaring to Customs he was carrying Bibles and religious materials (which was not a blatant lie, since the bags did contain some Bibles and religious materials, and the cigarettes were for the troops' morale). Once he was free of the French authorities, he broke out the first case of cigarettes at the British canteen.
He was a smash hit from the start! The thin, poorly rolled, adulterated French cigarettes were clearly inferior to the British smokes based on prime Egyptian tobaccos, and expensive and hard to get too--and here they were being given free Brit cigarettes by the pack! Easily the most popular chaplain with his boyish looks and his generous way with cigarettes, he was being called "Woodbine Willie," and was talking to as many soldiers as he could before they departed to the Front, just to inject some hope and cheer into the men headed for the trenches. He could see the specter of fear, even stark terror shining in the eyes of the grinning young men--the older ones were resigned to a bullet in the vitals or, for the less lucky, an exploding Teutonic shell with their names on it, but not these smooth-cheeked youths, who looked like mere choir boys to the chaplain. For these he had come--he knew he could drive out that paralyzing fear with love of country and love of God, and everyone knew that the Huns imperilled not only all Christian civilization but their homes and families. He would remind these boys they were here in France defending their beloved British mothers, daughters, and sisters back home, whom the Huns would surely rape if they could break through the Western Front and invade the homeland. The tow-haired Huns and Teutons of Kaiser Wilhelm had already ravished Belgium and to Poland and Russia; they had to be stopped in France, or they would overwhelm the whole West with rapine and barbarism!
He might have stayed in the relative comfort of the ancient, civilized city of old Normandy renowed for its ties to Joan of Arc, the teenaged maiden savior of France, and let the troops come to him. Other clerics might have done that, rather than muddy their shoes and clerical robes in the muck of war. But after waving away a hundred or so of his countrymen, Woodbine Willie felt he was not doing all he could any more. He couldn't just sit in safety and comfort, a nice pension around the corner to park his gear and bathe and sleep, while the troops were off facing and battling the Kaiser's hordes, slogging through mud, mud, and more mud. No, he had to do more! He needed to go with them and experience what they were going through, he decided. He expressed this desire of his heart to a soldier at his table, in fact, since he had nothing to hide in coming to minister faith and hope to Britain's grand warriors.
Then he smiled his most winning way whenever he was dealing with a man of the cloth--since he hadn't always found them men of practical reason, such as military men had to be if they weren't absolute bloody incompetents and flunkeys.
"Are you saying, sir, you'd order me to stop here?"
"No, I am not saying that!" the colonel blustered. "You have your commission and orders drawn up at the War Office, I presume, and no doubt they don't stipulate your precise location of duty--which is generally left at your own discretion in these cases--but, as one gentleman to another, I have seen these wars often enough, and I am just trying to give you a more sensible plan of action, one that will preserve your life for the sake of the troops who need a little cheer-up!"
Woodbine Willie smiled. "Your sentiment is appreciated, but the Lord will preserve me, not the governors of this war. He alone is my refuge, my fortress, my high tower. I'm not afraid of what mere flesh and blood or bombs can do to me. When can I go forward to stand alongside our brave lads? I can have my bags and my gear ready in five minutes, sir, but please afford me ten at least, so I can settle up properly with Madame Leblanc, the proprietress and concierge at my pension. I don't want the French to think we British take advantage of our allies and hosts!"
Motorized columns along with horse-drawn lorries converted from street cabs and wagons were already rolling out from Rouen, carrying cheering, laughing, celebrating troops to the Front on the Somme, where a major offensive by the Germans was just then being launched. They could even hear the distant thunder of the Big Berthas, the Germans' most powerful, long range artillery.
The colonel shook his head over the vivacity and spirit of this young chaplain, which had communicated visibly to most of the army personnel in the crowded room, then send an aide to find a place for him in his own staff car.
As he was moving toward another trench system nearest the German lines, incoming shells from Big Berthas reached the forward position before he could. He found himself wandering about dazedly in the next minutes, his ears ringing, as the ground eventually settled back, the air cleared, and he could see again where he was. But everything was changed, so utterly the terrain looked nothing like what it had been just a short time before. He had been walking through some wizened apple trees of an old orchard that still had apples clinging to unpicked branches, and now the orchard was gone, except for one shattered tree behind him. The farmhouse, requisitioned for the HQ of the frontline commander, Lt. Col. Blastwaite, was also blown away--not a trace remaining! Everywhere, the earth lay in smoking heaps, with craters between. He made his way slowly through the torn up earth and tree roots, trying to find his way back to where he had been, but then heard moaning and wheezing sounds. He went to investigate, and found a soldier lying on his back on the inner lip of a bomb crater. He was moving his arms in a feeble sort of way, flopping them about limp-wristedly, and appeared barely conscious or alive.
Kneeling down by him, he found the soldier was missing his legs from the thigh down. He was ashen colored in his face, and it was certain to Woodbine Willie the young man had only a few more moments of life, if that.
"What is your name, son?" he stammered, as he pressed a cross against his forehead. The young man blinked and answered, and Woodbine Willie recognized him by his voice. Charles Harnsworth, from Tewksbury. He grew up just a few steps from the old Norman cathedral and used to play marbles with his chums on its steps and even in the vestibule until the vicar caught wind of it and chased them off! He had met this very fellow at the canteen in Rouen, and had a jolly conversation boosting his spirits, as unlike his buddies around him he had seemed particularly down at the time, confessing to him that he greatly feared imminent death--what with his fiance waiting for him back home and all.
All he could do was clamp his hands over his head and ears as the horrific explosions took place. Sometimes big clods of mud and earth dumped down on him. One time the shell came so close when it exploded that he felt the earth rise up under his feet, and he was pitched forward. When he realized he was alive and intact, he found he had fallen face into the mud.
He had no time to answer, as he was surrounded by dark forms, which spoke British and had to be his countrymen. He called out for help, and was then dragged from the muck and hauled to his feet.
He stood trying to tell his rescuers what had happened, but nothing coherent came out. He said some strange things--about poor bloody Charles, the cathedral, the marble game, and quite left out that he was a vicar, a commissioned chaplain at the Front, and had got lost in no-man's land after finding poor Charles in such a bad way, virtually legsless.
What did a legless man matter? Hundreds of such happened every hour on the Front. Having seen many a man go daft like this before in the trenches, the sergeant ordered his men to take the noncombatant back to the HQ that had just been set up to replace the one the late Colonel Blastwaite had so briefly occupied. A fire had been started in the ancient ceramic-tiled stove of the farmhouse, a water pot rummaged out of the litter on the floor, some water strained through a cloth from a big puddle where a dead cat lay floating with a doll's head, enough to put on for tea, and a group with some cards was having a little amusement while they waited for a replacement for Blastwaite to show up--probably a rosy-cheeked lieutenant this time, fresh out of officer's school, they figured, as colonels weren't considered as expendable as privates and corporals.
"Hell's bells," one player remarked about his former commander. "You oughta seen what was left of the old colonel. A fair decent bloke for an officer, he was! Let me share his private reserve of a fancy sherry, chilled in a bucket, he brought along from his hotel--which was jolly fine of him. Talked to me as though I were a colonel too! Shame it had to be him, but better than it be me, mates!" He laughed, and the others joined.
Stripped of his coat, scarf, and robe, which had been strung over the stove on a length of barbed wire on two poles, Woodbine Willie sat miserably crouched in his skivvies on a crate, trying to get warm as the fire gained on the wood scraps and tree limbs stuffed into the stove.
"Reverend, you must return to Rouen! This is no place for the likes of you. It's not safe here. You're a gentleman, a man of the cloth. You haven't been trained for it, what you see here. It has shook your mind a bit off the rails, that's all it is, but a day or two in Rouen will bring you back, and you'll be fine again, your old self. Treat yourself a nice, hot drink with whiskey and go straight to bed! That will fix you. We'll send you right back in the motorcar that fetches our new commander. I'm sure that will be fine with him--as he won't be going anywhere soon, not when the Huns crank those Big Berthas in our direction again! You just sit and watch your clothes dry, and I'll speak to the bloody lieutenant when he comes. It shouldn't be long now, as we sent word about Blastwaite in four hours ago. They said they'd send someone immediately! Of course, they had to finish their cigars and brandy first!"
Woodbine Willie cradled his head in his arms. How it ached! His whole body ached. But it wasn't from any injury, it was just from the crashing realization of what war really signified, which he couldn't possibly put into words. Despite the vision in the mud, his every cell and atom screamed speechlessly, "NO, NO, NO, NO!"
God, vision or no vision, couldn't get off so easily with a vision, if that was what it was, he thought. It was still No! to war, to the blowing up of all the bright-eyed, apple-cheeked Charley Harnsworths, and for nothing really! What good did it do to snuff out Harnsworth and tens of thousands of lads like him? Nobody even knew it back at HQ where Harnsworth was or what had happened to him. He had tried to tell the men, but they just laughed and joked.
"Well, well, isn't that so!" they humored him. "We'll not expect him then at reverie, will we chums? Hahaha!"
"And dip me out at mess one more cup of rotten whore's ----, righto?" quipped another, slapping his knee with a card.
Even the chaplain, unused to such filthy talk in clerical circles, recognized the term, the dirtiest he had ever heard as a boy from bad street boys.
Clothes or no clothes, Woodbine Willie wanted to rush out into the night. How could these men be so savage as to joke ghoulishly about the deaths of their countrymen like that, brave men who had given their very lives for the Empire and its cause? War had turned them into brute barbarians! That had to be the reason. Surely, if he could only get back to civilization and the code of honor among gentlemen, he would report them, and they would be hauled out and soundly disciplined as they should be.
But who would listen to him, if he ran out of there practically naked? They might think he had lost all his wits and clap him in the infirmary back at base camp. No, he realized he had to wait, and let his things dry out first, then try to make himself more presentable in the present appalling conditions.
The kindly serjeant brought him a cup he had found among the broken crockery in the cupboards he had filled from a bottle after blowing out the dust and mouse droppings in the cup.
Woodbine Willie looked up at the serjeant.
"Just a little smile from the vine to strengthen your spirits, Reverend," the sergeant smiled. "Try it! It'll warm and settle your vitals. You will feel better soon."
Woodbine Willie took a sip, and realized somehow the serjeant had found a vintage year wine, maybe taken from a hidden cellar he had found and broken into. Centuries old French farmsteads that looked like nothing but peasants' hovels on the outside were renowned for hidden cellars stuffed with first-class cheeses, wines, sausages--which the owners left when they fled the area under attack, intending to return later to empty them out once the armies quit fighting and moved on. But sometimes the farmers were long delayed, as they couldn't get passes through the lines, and so the stocked cellars--if they could be found--fell to whomever was fortunate to find them first.
Slicing the excellent, smoked sausage, the friendly serjeant passed some on his big Swiss knife to the chaplain, along with a wedge of cheese. "Help yourself, sir, it may be some time before you get to a commissary and have a proper meal. It'll keep the life in you until then, that is."
Woodbine took the cheese and sausage, washed it down with the wonderful wine, and he did feel better after a few minutes--though not so merry he wanted to laugh at corpses of dead boys.
Gratefully, he felt a degree of warmth and ease circulate in his body and the terrible drumbeat of war withdrew from his shattered nerves, enough so that he nearly dozed off sitting, a pad in his hand where he had scribbled something that turned out to be his first war poem....
Nothing like it had ever happened before, for soon German troops at their side of the Front began singing Christmas carols, and the Brits and French across the shell-cratered, barbwired strip of no-man's land that separated the two armies responded with Christmas carols, joining the Germans in the celebration. The guns stopped firing. Men began to get up out of the trenches, and the bravest, still singing, began to move forward, without their guns. Slowly, they approached each other, and then the miracle of this first Christmas Eve on the Western Front: men who were committed to killing each other clasped hands and smiled and laughed, wishing each other Merry Christmas in their respective languages.
The light show was incredibly staged, with colors progammed and coordinated to change every few seconds.
He only sensed a tremendous surge beneath of the water whenever the rocket hurdled a bridge, scraping off some of his hull, but losing nothing essential to the engine and on-board nuclear plant.
After leap-frogging the fourth bridge, the Thames took a turn toward the Parliament Houses of Westminster. At that time the BBC had all its chief commentators assigned and embedded in the main event: to all appearances, the Gothic vaulted House of Commons chamber was crammed with M.P.s for an important speech by the Prime Minister. This upcoming speech had already for days been the leading topic in the press, because all the talking heads had were agreed it would mark the apogee of the PM's career as a leading exponent of Climate Change and reduction of carbon "greenhouse gases". Many thought he might even win the Nobel Peace Prize for it, and said so in their articles in the Times, but his press secretary reported that the Secretary thought it should go to greater men posthumously, such as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, rather than himself.
He was reaching a rather soaring point in his loudly applauded speech detailing the heroic sacrifices required from the British people to save the Planet with drastically reduced carbon emissions (thermostats turned down to fifty six, virtually no private cars, far less bathing, thousands of factories and businesses closed either closed or barely running due to failure to secure adequate carbon credits, essential hospital services and medicines cut back, rationing of oxygen to patients with respiratory problems, shutdown of all mines, refineries, coal-fired electric plants...) when Larry's flying bomb displaced the roof and ceiling.
You would have thought Larry's unannounced intrusion would have provided a most spectacular climax to the Prime Minister's concluding words: "Know that I indeed feel your momentary pain and discomfort, my fellow citizens of the world! Yet what little we give up, we gain immeasurably thereby, for after our sacrifices we can look forward to climbing together, hand in hand, entering the broad uplands of human progress and happiness, whilst being strengthened with the full assurance that this frail barque, Planet Earth,with its human, animal, and vegetable burden, will continue to fly for many years to come."
The applause was deafening. It was a magnificent speech. Yet the moment before Larry erupted so rudely upon the scene there was nobody there, the entire edifice was completely vacant.
Listen to their story as it stands, and we will
Try to be like them, each of us in our place;
For each of us has a Golden Fleece to seek,
And a wild sea to sail over, ere we reach it,
And dragons to fight ere it be ours.
Ero, on his flying mast-bot, proceeds from the cyberworld into the surrounding Vampire spirit-form hidden within the Carbuncle. He discovers the inland sea, the Sea of Doubt (which is more the size of an ocean than a sea). He encounters a palace set in the midst of the dark waters, and within the palace he flies through vast halls and pillars and finds a stranger scene, a fountain pouring blood into a big basin. Then he watches in growing horror as a bat flutters down from above and grows enormously, becoming the Great Vampire Spirit-Form that inhabits and directs the Carbuncle star-stone. This evil entity is not cyberspatial, it is real, but can affect Ero in a disastrous way if he is not careful. Yet the Vampire too is somewhat vulnerable, as Ero is not so tiny that he cannot inflict some damage himself. Attacking the Vampire, he finds the Vampire is so much greater in size that he only succeeds in penetrating its eye. Inside the Vampire's eye is a world unto itself, full of photo-files, like the billions and billions of galaxies that populate the universe. These photo-files each contain a world of its own, running along certain themes or people in them. He enters one photo-file and finds himself involved with the life and destiny of a 19th century small town paper's printer's devil who seeks his prospects in the big city of Chicago, and on it goes, event after event including the Great Chicago Fire, until the up and coming young man of society dies in the fire, and then it is on to other events and photo-files. Ero encounters such people as Eryk the fetler on a train in southern Atlantis II, and the free lance photographer, Damon Santiago Coxie, before he is given a twin, Ero II by Yeshua who has been closely tracking them in their progress through the photo-cell and various adventures. Damon is destined to be joined with Ero's twin, Ero II, as a knight of the Axes of Honor.
The hydrogen bombing of Poseidia, and the missiles carrying similar warheads to all the other major cities, are meant to annihilate both Eros and also Damon. Ero escapes through the portal first. Ero II and Damon fly out on the mast-bot from Poseidia before it goes up in a mushroom cloud, only with no where to go. Damon's world is doomed. If that isn't enough, the entire photo-cell is about to be deleted by the Vampire to make doubly certain the "anti-matter" of faith doesn't spread to the other photo-cells, thereby spreading and destroying the entire spirit-form and its star-stone.
But Yeshua intervenes and not only do the two champions, Ero II and Damon, escape through the portal, but they are returned to the original starting point for Ero, the nexus of the Union Train Station in the City of Destiny. The mast-bot is then retired, screwed back on the top of the copper dome. The trusty Kater's Compass from Charles Darwin's voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, which Wally had programed with wonderful guidance systems and very useful popups and helps, that too is retired, completely worn out in their travels.
At the Union Station, they are welcomed by a grand event already in progress, for their testing and then dubbing as knights-errant if they both pass the rigorous questioning by Lord Yeshua. Both prove successful, and they are dubbed knights by Lord Yeshua. Given their respective knight's equipment and gear, they sally forth on their way to Mount Defiance, which is a huge castle mount studded with many seemingly impregnable walls and fortifications and towers. On the way, a storm nearly sweeps them into the bay of the sea below the Mount, but Yeshua intervenes, and they are spared. They rescue a man who would have surely drowned or died of exposure at least on the road. His destiny becomes intertwined with theirs, as he enlists them for a trip to the the court of the king ruling the Mount. They will serve as his knight-retainers, with a page assigned to each. He will sing his epic poems to the lords and ladies and the king, and this will be his swansong, as he is at the end of a long and distinguished career of court minstrel. He hopes for the customary three bags of gold that is awarded the court minstrel on retirement. But, deep in his heart, he knows of a greater purpose than his own comfort when he can no longer earn his bread and butter. So he trains the young champions for the coming jousts he suspect the king will command, for the king is known for jousting tournaments to test the mettle of his knights against any visiting or challenging knights. The winner receives a special prize, of course, either a court lady's hand in marriage together with her entire dowry, or some grant of gold and jewels from the King's purse. The winner can also help himself to the vanquished knight's uniform, banner, horse, equippage, and money purse, of course, and anything else he may have to his name (winner, indeed, takes all!). As for his wife and family, if the loser has them, they become slaves and chattel to the victor.
Surely, the king, on espying the strength and youth of Ero and Damon, will not miss the opportunity to challenge them to jousting on on the field of contest, which is Cheney Field, an ancient baseball field that lies hard against the northern flanks of the Mount. With the two jewels the minstrel has reserved and hidden away for his old age, he buys the necessary mounts and equipment needed for his knights, so that they can make a splendid showing before the assembled court and the king. After some training sessions on Cheney Field, and the minstrel meanwhile seeing to all the necessary wardrobe for himself, his two knights, the two pages, and their mounts, they will set forth for the gates of the outer wall of the Mount to present themselves for the court's pleasure at the king's yearly birthday banquet and royal ball. This was his plan, but the best plans of mice and men can go awry, as the poet Robert Burns once said--particularly when something called a dragon inserted itself into the program.
Comforted by that thought, Damon tried to deal with the present challenges of landing in such a strange city, the City of Destiny. What Destiny did it offer? He had seen his own destiny destroyed before his eys--was there a better one in return for the burning ashes of his own world?
As the mast did not seem like it was going anywhere soon, and the Kater's Compass did not respond to Ero's questions, they realized that they might have to explore the city on their own.
They soon decided they might as well climb down the dome and the building to street level and take a look around.
Ero had climbed up on the west side, but this time they climbed down the north side, which put them on a flat roof of the train depot's offices. Here they found a metal, roof-access ladder that let them get down to the ground.
They were right on time. A grand reception was waiting for them, though they could see no one present!
A gala platform of tented material, with heraldic banners, materialized. The banners were the most remarkable they had ever seen, of two main kinds. The first featured a magnificent golden rampant lion, crowned. The second kind showed two axes on a blood-red background.
The two candidates for knighthood, who did not know they had already served their apprenticeships and been approved, walked around looking at each item. What was this all for? they wondered, glancing back at each other.
Then there silence, and the sound of footsteps. They could hear the footsteps and see the impression of them in the carpet as someone invisible walked by them toward the front, and sent to the pavilion and turned around and faced them.
A mighty roar erupted all around the two candidates, that almost knocked them off their feet. People were cheering and shouting a single name. "Yeshua?" wasn't it? both candidates thought. Yes, it was. There could be no mistaking it. Gradually, the calling of His name receded, and there was a thump, three times, of the lictor's standard on the ground, and again, dead silence. The hair on the back of the candidates' necks stood up, they could feel thousands of eyes turned to them. It seemed they were waiting for their response, but what should it be? The candidates had no idea.
He felt a gentle pressure on his shoulders, as if two hands were being pressed there, and he realized it was what he thought! He knelt.
Damon's heart slowed. He could hardly draw a breath, and he felt as cold as if a bucket of ice water had been thrown suddenly in his face. He would have sweated, though cold as he was, if he could sweat in cyberspace, realizing then that a life and death choice of some kind was being set before him, a test of his character and life that would allow him no appeal if it went badly. And it was what he felt, he soon discovered--a test, the most serious one he had ever faced.
Would he pass the Trial of the Candidate? Unlike medieval candidates, he had not spent the whole night before the Test in solemn fasting and prayer, kneeling alone before the Cross and the altar in a chapel, but had been running for his life in a speedboat, Sasan at the wheel, chased by gangs of spies and government police down the canals of Poseidia!
What was that going to do for him now? His knees felt very weak, gone to water. Now he knew why the cushion was there and he was kneeling, because there was no way he or any other candidate could manage to stand up at such a moment! He felt it was all over with him.
For the first time he heard a voice! It had the tone of a commanding officer's too! A general, or a field marshal, would sound so authoritative, Damon knew. He had met and photographed several such in private sessions attended only by a few chosen aides, but this commander sounded even more impressive. His voice seemed to penetrate his whole being and then flood out into the world, causing the whole world to stand still and listen.
At the sound of that Voice, Damon felt like he was standing alone on the docket before the Supreme Judge of the Universe, not just a commander or even a commander-in-chief.
He wanted to flee, to bolt, to even spring up into a tree, but he had no strength to do it!
The Voice was speaking, in perfect Greek too, and Damon heard every word of what was the "Test of the Three Vows".
Again the first Voice sounded. Damon felt relieved beyond words. Apparently, his unspoken vow had been heard and approved by higher authority.
It was now the time for the third question of the Test, the climatic one that decided whether Damon would pass and become a Knight or not. Two right answers so far would not win him knighthood. He had to answer all three perfectly.
As if the whole congregation present were well aware of the gravity of this very moment, the very air was rigid with suspense. Everything hinged on his handling it rightly. The whole scene was deathly still, and a preternatural silence it was, as if it were the dawn of the eight day, the day after the Week of Primal Creation, when all the Earth was reformed and given order and all the living species, with Man installed as the reigning Sovereign.
"I--I can't...!" he gasped out.
"It's impossible for me!"
At the moment he said that, there was a tremendous stir, as if the whole invisible host of nobles and knights of God present were struck aghast--as if no Candidate before him had ever dared say anything of the kind.
Damon felt he was finished! He had blown it utterly! He was disgraced. He was was disqualified. What now? Would they drag him out and throw him into a dungeon somewhere, to live out the remainder of his days in chains? But, still, he felt he had said the right thing, the only thing he could say honestly, even if it exposed him in all his weakness--something he had never revealed to anyone before--that for all his strength and bravado about being a man's man, he really couldn't say he could stand up to torture on, for example, a cross and still remain true to his vows. Every man had a breaking point, didn't he? He knew he would break too, if the pressure was great enough.
The congregation of witnesses exploded as the tribunal lictor thumped the base of his standard for order in the assembly. There was no other word for what had happened: it was "sensational".
Still gasping, Damon felt hands on him, holding him upright on the cushion. He felt so faint he was liable to pass out right where he was. When the rejoicing and congratulations for Damon died down, the ceremony concluded.
This was not altogether pleasant, either. It was not pleasant at all, in fact. Even with his head down, Damon could see the diamond sword being uplifted, as if his head might be severed in the next instant. Instead it was lowered slowly, and touched...not his head, not his shoulder, but his heart..
Damon felt a blazing warmth spread through his chest and through his entire frame from head to feet, making him feel as if he was going to explode with strength and power, and he also felt ...what? Joy? Yes, it was joy!
But he was deceived by appearances. He was not forsaken. He found himself instantly garbed head to foot in chain mail and a tunic, holding a spear with a standard and a shield, with a helmet and sword to complete his knightly equippage. It was wonderful gear, though somewhat antiquated, as he understood warfare. Nevertheless, he knew he could do some damage with it! Just give him some practice and the opportunity to prove his prowess, and he knew he could wield a sword with the best of them!
Yeshua again spoke, but this time it was a private audience. He awarded the hero a new name, inscribed on a white stone, which no one else would know or see. After several more words in from Lord Yeshua, Damon stepped aside to wait for the second Candidate to be interviewed.
Ero II had watched Damon go through some sort of medieval age ceremony, without seeing who was performing it, and then the lights went out momentarily, it was completely black, but Damon stood there, highly visible, or was it someone else in his place? He was dressed completely different, with two axes set along side his head on a metal helmet, wearing a shining green and cobalt blue tunic over a chain mail body suit. He wore a sword, and in his right hand held a spear holding a standard emblazoned with the two axes on a red background. In his left hand he held a shield emblazoned with two axes on the same blood red background. What was going on? Ero marvelled. He tried to move from his spot, but something seemed to hold his feet fast where he stood, as if he were set in concrete!
After a short time, while Damon seemed to be talking and being talked to, he stepped backwards, bowed deeply, then moved to one side of the carpet and stood quietly and glancing back toward Ero.
It was Ero II next who felt like he was being propelled forward to the base of the Judge's pavilion. The concrete was gone, he could move his feet again. It felt like someone had given a push to his shoulder, as if a page were at his side who knew all the fine details of the ceremony and testing, giving him the nudges so he could perform the right moves according to the tribunal protocols.
He started forward and then paused at the base of the pavilion. The cushion, rich in plush red velvet, encrusted along the edges with what looked like diamonds, was still there waiting for him. He realized what it was for. He knelt on it.
Then as he waited, totally awed by what was happening, he saw Yeshua appearing before him, for he had been there all along, Ero knew, but was not visible to his eyes until then, for some reason he could not understand.
He dared not look up, but saw only the fringes of his robe, his hands up to his open holed, red nail-pierced wrists, and there was one thing more, a glittering white sword, an incredible weapon seemingly cut from a single diamond, blazing with light and fire in the right hand.
The sword was so blindingly bright that Ero couldn't look at it! What was he going to do? Cut off his head? Ero II wondered just as Damon had before him. He really didn't think that would happen, but he had never been knighted before, and it was too far back in Greek culture, hundreds of years in fact since Greeks were knighted at various courts in the medieval Byzantine times.
The candidature "ceremony" was brief and demanded sharp attention. There was nothing casual about it. It felt like he had been summoned to appear at a military event, a tribunal of the highest order-- in every detail, extremely solemn, perfect in execution, and almost frightening lest anything not be done not just right according to regulations, thereby bringing dishonor to the commanding officer, the Judge that presided over the Tribunal.
Wondering what role he could possibly play, Ero was even more surprised by the test questions. He was first asked,
But he thought again, "Warriors, even the best, still die with such things in their possession, they can still be conquered and slain, so really, such things do not save a man from a more powerful enemy. What then can I trust in?" Suddenly, it flashed upon him, how Yeshua had come through for him, time and again. It hadn't been his own bow or arrow that had saved it, it had been Yeshua. Surely, that would never change. Yeshua had been proven faithful, always. He had only one answer he could give: "Yes! to the question.
Then he waited, afraid he would be told he was wrong, that he was being ignorant, presumptious, without common sense, thinking he could go forth into battle without any normal gear.
The lictor thumped his standard, declaring: "The Candidate has answered rightly. For it is written: "His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day..."
The assembly erupted in rejoicing for the Candidate's success at Test Question 1. Ero took a deep breath.
The Judge's voice thundered again:
What was he going to do? Guess? But a mistake would cost him the candidature? He would not be able to join and continue on with his warrior-brother, Damon. What would he do then? He knew he was utterly lost, for his destiny was tied up with Damon somehow, and he couldn't let them be parted now!
Fortunately, as he wracked his memory in the few seconds allotted him to answer, he recalled in sharp detail what the family's nursery maid had read from the old family Bible Storybook. There was Noah, of course. Then his wife. And he had some sons too. How many? Two at least! And weren't they married? There were at least six in the family. But what if there had been three sons, that would make eight altogether, right? Now which was it, six or eight? Six or eight?
He didn't know it, but he was so bothered, that he was mumbling, even speaking out loud, and it tumbled out "...eight? eight?"
There was an ominous silence. Ero thought he was a goner, he was flat wrong. Oh, if he had only opened his Bible more! He was so terribly ignorant of the Bible--how could that be justified before Yeshua?
In a daze, he heard the lictor thump the standard pole, making him shudder with a sense of doom, and then the lictor announced: "Candidate has answered rightly! Eight souls were saved from the waters of the Great Flood in the ark!"
Ero felt faint, and a hand steadied him as the assembly again voiced its joy for him. Gathering himself together, Ero squared his shoulders and prepared for the final and climactic question. It came, amd literally blew Ero's hair back.
How could a boat, or an ocean-going vessel such as the ark, made to float but not sail, be a "who"? That meant it was really a person! That was logically impossible, patently absurd!
"Oh, Lord!" he exclaimed, at a total loss. He finished now!
The lictor thumped his standard. "The Candidate for noble knighthood has answered rightly. The Lord is the Ark, by which all men are saved from the Great Floods!"
This time Ero, hardly able to stand, could hardly believe what he was hearing. What had he said? He had answered right? Didn't they know he--? But he could see the ceremony was not over, except for one thing. He was to be equipped for the coming battle, was he not?
Ero stood and watched an Olympic torch appear in Yeshua's hand. Yeshua held it out to Ero, and Ero took it with a trembling hand.
The Tribunal hall went instantly dark, and Ero stood there, with the torch glowing bright, while the lictor quoted from the Scriptures:
"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
It was impressive, doubtless, Ero thought. But is this all? Is this all I have to defend myself with?
No body armor?
Not even a helmet?
From the most ancient times, every Greek that went into battle had at least a spear and a shield, even he didn't have a stitch of clothing to keep off the cold at night. A lighted Olympic torch? He glanced down, however, at the stem, and saw an inscription. It was in Greek! What it said was his answer, he discovered as he read it. He knew he would not need anything more. He had everything he needed. It was more than he had expected, in fact.
Ero and Damon were left a moment later, free to go, but they lingered, looking over each other's equipment.
Ero was excited. He had followed Damon his newfound brother for a long time, and now he had a thousand questions he wanted to ask him. Here was his chance. To think he would be able to share Damon's adventures, no longer just an observer, but standing side by side with him through thick and thin! He hoped Damon felt the way he did--and from the looks of him and the way he acted, he thought he did.
"Let's go explore what there is here! This gear is meant to be used! Well?"
Together they set out, and discovered that in just a few moments the entire City of Destiny had crumbled away, or been transformed into something very different: a huge castle mount that filled the whole skyline with forts, walls, towers, and defensive gates.
Awestruck, the two brother-warriors now joined, stood taking it in. It was a glorious sight. But what were they going to do on this new, unexplained quest? They had no idea.
After gazing at the castled mount, they decided to go and find out if they could.
In high spirits they set out, feeling as though they were both homeward bound--as a minstrel at a shining court in a grand hall full of knights and nobles, holding a golden rose from the king's hand, once described it:
"I am homeward bound! But I cannot tell
How near may the haven be,
Or if many storms may be may beset my barque
Ere I gain the Crystal Sea?
But I know that my Pilot is near at hand,
And that is enough for me.
I am homeward bound!
And the sun sometimes shines
out of the golden west,
Till it almost seems like the gate of home
And I think I am near my rest;
But if long or short may the voyage be
Still my Pilot knoweth best.
And I know I shall reach the port at last--
The haven where I would be,
Where the storms of life shall distress no more
And there, by the Crystal Sea
The loved ones whose earthly voyage is o'er
Are waiting to welcome me.
I am homeward bound! 'Twill be 'Home Sweet Home'!
I shall see my Pilot's face;
Not a stranger there in a far off land--
I shall feel His blest embrace;
And shall know more fully than e'er before
All His sovereign love and grace."
A typhoon blew up against the coast, its roiling black clouds rapidly climbing the slopes above the northern shores of the sea that encircled the peninsula of the Mount. It happened so fast that the champions were taken by surprise. Even as they stood and looked at it, they realized in a few moments that they were in a struggle for their very lives.
The light went out, and then downpours that pounded them, along with chilling sleet, soon made the road vanish before their eyes. Water rushed around their ankle and legs as it ran to escape down to the bay. But they remembered their objective and plunged on into the darkness and flood.
It almost seemed that part of the world at least had liquified and was going to slide down as a mass into the bay and be drowned. If only they could reach higher ground! was their single thought in all their struggling.
Ero kept his torch held up, determined not to let it be swept away. As long as the light remained to light the path, he had hope they would make it to safety. Fear was his greatest enemy, he found. If he let it take any ground in him, he knew he was finished, he would slacken off his struggle and be swept away!
In the shrill roaring of the wind, which sounded like an asylum of maniacs all screaming for their blood, Ero thought he heard a groan or a cry. He wasn't sure where it was coming from. Yet was it that log he had stumbled over? Was it no log at all but some unfortunately human being?
Ero turned around and held out the torch, feeling more with his feet, trying to stay upright and not be knocked down as he searched. Then he found what he was seeking: a man, fallen on the ground, on the verge of being swept over the side and thence down the steep slopes that tumbled into the bay. Ero grabbed the man by the hand, holding him back as the streams pulled him downward, and then Damon too appeared, and he too helped get the man back on his feet. Together they pulled the man with them toward the slopes of the Mount where they stood more of a chance of finding shelter.
The man was now unconscious, and silent, but they would not let him drop, even if he was a dead weight.
Was he gone? They did not know. But perhaps there was some life in him, if only they could find shelter, and revive him there.
Ero and Damon were certain of it. Lord Yeshua was not going to let them die there, along with the poor old man in their arms. Yeshua was Master even of the greatest storms, which they discovered when it lost intensity and began withdrawing from them on both sides. The water stopped rushing over the roadway, and they were able to sink down on their knees, in relief as well as to pay homage.
It did not take them long, even carrying the old man, to reach the Mount's village, which nestled on its outer wall, just beyond the first gate and towers that guarded the entrance and the road upwards to the Castle.
From a distance it looked idyllic and so peaceful they thought it must be a place of friendly, even kind souls.
"Not a drop of rain fell here!" remarked Damon to Ero. "There's not a single sign of any storm here, no damage from the weather!" Ero marvelled. "Will they believe us when we tell them about it? But strange as this is to see, Yeshua commanded us to warn them, nevertheless, of the burning Flood to come, the fire next time that will consume everything we see, this mountain will split wide open and the castles on it and the village beneath it will be swallowed by the fiery streams that boil out of the earth, killing all the people and their animals. They must all flee this place, seek refuge in the Ark of Yeshua, or be destroyed in the fires Yeshua said were coming soon. We must tell them before we travel on to other parts!"
As they entered the first lanes that wound down to the village square, they did not feel much of a friendly spirit, despite their first impression.
Eyes peered at them coldly in the windows or between cracked shutters in the windows, and no one came out to help them or ask what they might need. Not a drop of rain had struck the town, amazingly, wheras the knights were drenched, shivering, their hair wet, and the old man himself half-alive after being nearly drowned!
Looking everywhere for someone to ask directions from, Ero and Damon exchanged glances and then continued looking. The town seemed all the more hostile to them even as they approached the center. Wasn't anyone going to come out and at least say a word to them?
They could hear dogs snarling, leaping up against doors and gates, and Ero and Damon braced themselves for attacks, but none came out, as if the owners could see they might lose them if they were loosed.
Finally, the knights stood in the square, facing a single large building or house that might be an villager inn. As they started toward it, the old man in their hands groaned, opened his eyes, and as they paused, he recognized the place.
"Take me in there!" he croaked. "It will do for now. I know the place, and they know me well, from my stops to buy their forage for my horse. And sometimes in earlier days I hired the entire establishment, and celebrated there after leaving the king's castle with his gifts. But the place has grown more evil with the passing years, till I don't dare abide there overnight. And I haven't been able to return to the Mount lately until now, being too old, and the way up is so hard these days, and the queen prefers younger singers these days... but who are you, sirs?"
Then the man's eyes turned up, and he sank back in their hands. Hurrying, the knights carried the old man to the door, and it was flung open in their startled faces. A woman with a big cloth tied round her chair, and a floury apron wrapping her large middle, thrust her hard-boned face out, screaming something like "Who's causing trouble here at my door? Git thee--"
She eyed the knights up and down, but then saw what they were bringing. Her expression changed. It did not become kinder, but she jerked her thumb, thrusting open the door wide as she stood aside, wiping her mouth with her flour-caked and stained apron.
The knights looked in, saw many faces gaping at them, but there was a fire burning in a huge, smoke-blackened hearth, the clasthing sound of crockery and metal cups clanking on tabletops and many men dining with their assortment of womenfolk, all crammed elbow to elbow from one end to the other of the large public room, and it was clear what this place was: a public inn and taverna in full spate. Half the town must have been there! The smell of sweat from unwashed bodies and stale beer and cheap perfume, mingled with thick tobacco fumes and smells of rancid food kicked under tables a nd chair, it made the knights want to hold their noses. Was there none other? Ero and Damon did not like the looks and manner of the mistress of the establishment. She evidently did not like their looks either. Damon was dressed as a proper knight, to be sure, and Ero, well, he was a near naked slavey or serf acting as the knight's attendant--a common enough sight in the village, nothing remarkable about that. They had seen their share of lackeys treated worse than dogs, hardly fed, scantily clothed, and groveling at the heels of their masters worse than any dog!
Should they enter, or try some other place? But the village was not likely to have another place, or anything better, they realized. As for their burden, it was his interests they were seeking, not theirs, so they went in.
The moment they got him indoors and lay him down on a bench, the inn's mistress barked orders, and her servants rushed to get a room and bed ready for him upstairs, along with suitable quarters for the knight next to him, and a straw pallet thrown on the rush-strewn floor for the slave-page.
"But where, pray tell, are your horses and palfrey?" the woman screamed at them. "Have you come unhorsed to my stables? I never heard of such a thing! What has happened to the good man's mount? He always comes with fine apparel and an embroidered blanket on his horse, with plumes on its head, and ascends the mount and sings to the court of the high lords and ladies of the castle! So where are his good horse and jaunty equippage!"
Ero and Daman stared at each other. What was she talking about? All they had of the man's possessions was the troubadour's instrument, still covered with leather tightly corded, so it might not be ruined after all if it were laid out carefully to dry. As for a horse and whatever else it carried? Had it gone over the cliff?
They shook their heads. Damon spoke first, finding the language close enough to understand to what he had been spekaing in Poseidonia, even though their accents were so thick and coarse. "Madam, I have no knowledge of his horse or equipment. Was it lost in the storm perhaps, or was he robbed?"
The woman screwed her fat-pillowed neck and made big owl eyes round about her, and then threw her thick, big bellied body back in a laugh that rocked her whole frame, and set the entire company laughing with her at their expense. "'Was it lost in the storm perhaps?' she jeered, cocking her head and neck one way and the next, her hands on her hip and her elbows akimbo as if she were dancing. "This fine gentleman and noble knight saith, 'Was it lost in the storm perhaps?'"
The room exploded, and wine and beer flagons flew through the air, dashing their contents against the walls.
Damon's face flushed dangerously as he eyed the woman, but Ero did not make a move, and Damon resisted his own anger. How dare they insult him! He came from a noble family in Poseidia and bore a mighty sword, did he not? Yeshua had dubbed him a knight in full regalia. Yet he had to wait, as Ero touch his arm for caution.
The woman in the breadmaker's apron and cap sneered right in his face. "Methinks," and she jerked her head and indicated the whole watching group with her thought the same thing as she, "you, sire, are the robber of this good man!"
Damon stiffened, and even Ero's hand did not hold him back now. He was on his own.
"Methinks," she went on, her eyes gleaming, even as they glanced pointedly at his sword and his hand hovering over the hilt, "you are the dastard, the montebank, the dirty jackanapes that has dealt him a terrible loss this day, taking his horse and all he carried with him to the Castle yonder. What of that? How do you acquit yourself! Say!"
He looked at them with contempt, without a twinge of fear. He knew he could do them far more damage than they could do him and Ero, though whatever damage he inflicted on the men, he would not strike the fat old shrew of a woman, however offensive she was. But what about the man whose life they had come here to save? He had no chance of surviving if there erupted a deadly brawl.
It was terrific how he struggled in a brief moment to master his rage. But he conquered it evenso. He even bowed his head to her in deference.
"You do well, Madam, to seek the best interests of this unfortunate gentlemen. We found him lying close to death on the road, his head under water, unable to help himself. Of horse and possessions, we saw nothing. We carried him here immediately. Will you help him, and please accord us quarters too, or we will go and look elsewhere? But please do what good you can for this man, we beg of you. Then we will leave here in peace, when we see he is taken care of."
Mistress Follie, for that was her name, hearing his civil speech, seemed to be at a loss, her jaw dropped open.
"Why, I--" she began. "We all saw no storm hereabouts you claim did this, but there are some signs of wet on him, 'tis true..." Then, frowning, she turned upon the assembly, who were all standing with knives and swords drawn, ready for the moment to spring upon Ero and Damon.
Disgust and disappointment in her expression, she thrust herself through them, scattering some to either side, as she went toward her kitchen. Swearing, she sent her maids scurrying to do the work to get the three guests accommodated, and then vanished into the kitchen.
Relieved, as it had been a severe test indeed for Damon's self-control, Ero and Damon followed the porter, or whatever he was, that led them up the rickety wooden stairway into a narrow, badly lit hallway that in turn twisted and turned through the upper rooms. Some rooms were open, and scenes in them were things that both Ero and Damon glimpsed with disgust--as this was not just an inn, but a bawdy house in full progress.
The porter stopped before a door, then kicked it open, and they all went in. There the knights found a big, four poster bed with a tattered, moth-eaten canopy with faded heraldic patterns of some bygone dynasty and lay the old man out on it, and the maids quickly had him in thick wool blankets, and were then hurrying to get some hot coals in brass foot pans to put in with him to bring life back to his limbs.
Was the old man going to live? Ero and Damon watched, as they worked to revive the fellow, and finally they seemed satisfied and went for some food and drink from the kitchen when it seemed he would not die but live a while more.
At last the man regained enough strength to speak to them and even move about the room with Damon or Ero holding his arm. He started telling them more about his life--how it had once been easy, with much gold flowing from his rich patrons into his money belt, but with advancing age, his voice had grown thin even as his beard lenthened, and the king's women particularly did not invite him up so often to sing of lovers' exploits and whatever else they thought might amuse them at their parties. As for all the noble songs and lays, the Song of Roland, El Cid, Arthur and the Round Table--they no longer wanted to hear them, much preferring the racier tunes and lyrics about adulteries and betrayals. If he had been able to find another line of work, he would have done it. But abject poverty stared him in the face, whenever he sickened of what he was singing about, and he could not stop for fear of it.
"I am feeling my strength increase apace in my bones again," he remarked to the knights, as a maid came with his dinner and set it down beside him on a small table.
"Later, later perhaps! I'm not hungry at the moment--how they stuff a person around here! Pork with drippings, honied ham, quail and goose with breaded mushrooms, sauced lamb, breadstuffs, gravies, cheeses, blackbird pie, grog and malt beer and wines and ale and sack...! Now, perchance you gentlemen will be quitting this place, and I shall lose your good company! But I pray thee, abide with me a bit longer. I have something for you to consider-- will you do that? I cannot ask you to do anything more for me, but though I haven't the gold and silver for your just reward for saving me, I will yet do something for you, if you are willing?"
"We ask nothing of you, sir, but that you be of good health and prosper as you once did! We perceive you have a good heart, and wish you success, but we must be going as Our master has commanded that we go and tell the words he gave us to the whole mount."
The old minstrel was taken aback. He cocked an eye at the knights.
"Your lord commanded you what? What were his commands to thee? Pray, tell me--"
But they could have held back their words to him, for when they went to explain the Lord Yeshua's commandment--to warn the people they met to flee to the Lord's ark, lest they be all consumed in the coming fires--they found he had literally dropped asleep. He had slumped back down, sitting back on the bed, his head fallen down on his chest.
They heard someone clear her throat. Then:
"Sir?" Damon and Ero hadn't noticed the maid, they thought she had gone out, and were startled to see the speaker now creep out of the shadows. She bowed to them both.
"What is it, Missy?" said Damon. "Are you needing something?"
"No, not for myself sire. But I ask your great favor, sir, that you consider my two brothers for service."
"Oh? What could they do for me?"
"They are growing to be striplings, sir, and wanting some honest trade to enter. What future is there here in this small village? I don't want them working in this--this place! It would work great harm on them!"
All the time of her little speech she glanced fearfully toward the door, as if she might be overheard.
"Don't be afraid, you can tell us what it is on your heart, Missy. Please continue!"
"My two brothers require work and guidance. They are of age to be pages to a knight. They have no suits and equippage of their own, but could you still take them. My father was the blacksmith in the village, but he has died of black lung, and my mother is not well, so I work here so we may be provisioned. But my brothers--their appetites--well--"
Damon and Ero glanced at each other and laughed. "Yes, we understand what boys can eat! Bring them here at your convenience. We will speak with them first."
The little maid turned to go, but Damon remembered and stopped her. "And their names and ages?"
"Henri and Louis, and they are aged both twelve years, being twins."
"Splendid, just the age to start their training to be squires, so bring them here when you are able. Perhaps the gentleman here will look kindly on them and engage their services. He needs pages to run errands and look after his equipment."
The maid smiled profusely, bowing repeatedly, and backed out of the room, knocking against the doorframe and dropping her tray and utensils, but hastily gathering them sped away. A few moments later the knights heard a clatter of the same tray and utensils, and obviously she had dropped them again down the stairway!
The knights lay the old man gently on the bed, covering him with his blanket. Yet less than an hour later, he awoke, and his eyes were bright. He sat up, then moved to the edge off the bed, waving aside the dinner tray offered him but accepting a long overcoat to keep his body warm. "I had a most refreshing dream, my lads! I would tell thee the dream, but no matter! Some other time! First straightway to the signal business I have to broach with thee!"
"Far and wide, they called me 'Tithonus the Golden Mouth,'" he mused. "I had a deep lusty voice back then in my youth and even into my prime I could draw a multitude to hear me sing. There was not a song of heroes I did not know and could not sing perfectly, without mislaying a single rhyme or line!"
His eyes glittering with his grand memories, he seemed to look afar and forget where he was for a few moments.
"I--I don't recall from whence I come, there has been so many changes hereabouts in latter days, but always find myself on the road approaching the village and the Mount at this precise time of the year, only the storm broke upon me this time..."
Then, with the memory of it still fresh on his mind, he returned to the reality of the scene at hand, seemed a little confused, then recovered his train of thought. He offered them a position with him in his entourage. He had a feeling this was his last venture of this sort, and he wanted to do the best he possibly could and perhaps win a stipend or income from the king! They would assist him at the court, and draw many a eye of the beautiful ladies, who would all the more gladly have him, an aged singer of lays and epics, when attended by such noble and handsomely appointed young knights.
If either or both sang, that would also help.
Did they sing? Did they compose and quoth courtly verses?
Damon shook his head, but Ero could not say he did not do such things. Being Greek and born and bred in the isles, he too was a born poet and a singer, and he listened to the minstrel describe his offer and the duties it entailed with growing interest.
The minstrel turned to Ero. Would he join him in his singing ballads and love lays at the castle? Maybe he could slip in a noble song or two of a grand hero of old--"Jason and the Golden Fleece," for one! Or, portions of the Iliad, for another.
He could also use Damon as a knight attendant to present a more stately impression. All they needed were some mounts suitably caparisoned and plumed to make a splendid showing at the castle. "But all my baggage of fine suits and velvet and brocade capes and plumed hats and gold-engraved sword--except for my lute, they were all lost, with my horse!" the old man suddenly lamented. "Alas, my lads, the cruel waters swept them all away!"
"Not all lost," Damon smiled. "While you rested we have been away for a few hours, and when we climbed down the cliffs, we found your finely crafted things. You are not to go without them. Go see for yourself, sire! We can take you to them at once.
Damon went on, as the old man seemed close to tears but anxious to hear how they fared. "Yes, your fine things are now drying on racks in Mistress Follie's kitchens, with an attendant I ordered stand and watch there to see the things were not stolen, and most seem to be all right, and you can see for yourself what can still be of use to you. Your horse too is in the stable, and will be mending from his bruises and cuts. I checked him over, sire, and he wasn't lame as you feared, just had a bruised forelock on the right leg, and should be recovered soon."
The old minstrel was delighted. He clapped his hands together. He must go at once, hanging on Damon and Ero's arms, to see for himself in Mistress Follie's kitchens.
Meanwhile, while Damon went to see to the minstrels' horse, Ero brought the lute that Tithonus called for. It had been carefully put out to dry in a soft, indirect light for days now, and had not cracked but slowly dried and was as good as new. After inspecting it and seeing it was not the worse for being doused in a stream, with only a leathern case to protect it, the old minstrel loosened a couple strings, and then moved a tuning peg or two, and a secret panel moved in the handle and two bright objects slipped out into the palm of his hand.
"They were to be my retirement, my lad! I earned them as rewards in the days of my greatest success and renown as a singer, when the whole world was a ring on my finger! But I have better use for them now, as I feel I will not need the little cottage and a servant and cook I had planned to comfort my last days with. No, there seems to be a better use for them. I have been lying abed for hours, awake or asleep I do not know, and these curious ideas and scenes keep coming into my poor old head--"
He slipped the huge jems worth a king's ransom into Ero's hand for safe keeping, then lay back, sighed, and told Ero what he had been dreaming. "I perceive you are a holy knight, my lad, and you carry a special sword of your own, that blazing torch of yours. In my dream I saw you with a red cross emblazoned on your naked chest, driving back all the forces of darkness assaulting you, wielding that torch as your only weapon! It was a most wonderful sight! And your noble brother knight, he too will play a great part in the coming battle. He will, as I saw in my dream, ride a fine horse one of these two jewels will buy for him along with a great spear for jousting. Now all we require is two experienced, trustworthy, squires, one for each of you--yet where can we get them? This village has no such clean young men available--they are all wastrels and scroundrels and louts by the time they attain manhood! Pfau! I wouldn't even consider using one of them to dust my chimney! But maybe we can go look in some other place..."
"Not necessary, sir! A little, sweet faced serving wench has offered her two brothers, twins, who are of age to be pages at least. Would you be interested to see them? She seems a fine girl, so unlike the other wenches of this inn, so perhaps her brothers are suitable too."
The minstrel was surprised. "Here, say you? You think there may be suitable people here? I doubt it! Ha! I wager my entire worldly pelf they would just as soon strip me of all my clothes and purse and possessions as serve me! Why, without your constant presence, in my condition, I would not sally forth from here with a single nightshirt to cover my nakedness--beaten and robbed, that would be my certain fate, then turned out on the public road to starve and beg from passers-by, now that I am reduced to this woeful, feeble old age! I've seen it happen often enough to better, stronger men, how could I hope to escape?"
Ero did not question what the minstrel said. He had early on seen enough of the inn and its denizens to know that the minstrel was not misrepresenting it in the least. It was an evil place, indeed, and anyone at its mercy could not expect to leave without losing something dear. All sorts of nasty-smelling, knaves and cutthroats, their hair and clothes and under-linens unwashed, beards matted with dirt and hanging in ropes and filthy with lice, men who had the stealthy manner of footpads intent on skullduggery and the eye of murderers seeking helpless or unwary prey--they infested the place and vicinity, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.
Then the main body of inhabitants were lawless too. A drayman's wife drove her cart so fast and reckless of life and limb, that she dragged the dog behind it to its death. Fights broke out at any time among the gamblers who crowded the doorsteps and any least shelter along the streets. Knives flashed, with stabbings, and the assailant ran off, leaving his bloody deed unpunished by the constable, who was too deep in his cups at Follie Inn to go do his duty and chase down the murderer. As for the bailiff and beagle, they too kept to the inn and its amusements. Merchants plied their wares, but cheated the people with false weights. The customers cheated the merchants, too, whenever possible, their offspring stealing items while the mother or father distracted the merchant. Spoiled fruit and vegetables were laid beneath the goodly ones, then the lot sold. Buttons fell off clothing from poor thread, colors ran in the first washing, patterns dissolved. Shoddiness was made to look fine enough to fool the most sharp of eye. Children were kidnapped and sold for slavery, and locked away, never to see the light of day--made to work on endless mean jobs assigned them in windowless garrets or, worse, in foul, damp basements and cellars. The money lenders of Rotten Row foreclosed on the houses of widows, after greatly increasing the rates on loans so that they could not repay them. Pawnshops did a thriving trade too, giving a pittance for valuable things, then reselling them at a huge profit when the owners failed to return with the redemption money. Butchers sold tainted meat, and called meat any name they imagined would sell it, rather than name its true, detestable origin. Animals sick and infirm and even dead, were carved and sold as fresh, good meats. Furriers did the same--naming rat and dog and cat and mule and even skunk by other names. The potter's wares crumbled or leaked when water or wine or milk was poured in, they were not fired sufficiently. The baker's breads were full of millstone chips, sawdust, and mouse tails, and sometimes the dough was left moist in the half-baked goods, since he was niggardly with his wood supplies for the oven. In Blind Lane, an uncobbled track just behind the jail, the worst miseries ran like open sores , the lane so overhung with foliage it resembled a dark tunnel. Here witches brewed potions of every kind, casting spells for a fee, and herbalists and fortune tellers too eluded the law of the Mount that forbade them in principle (but taxed them for the king's revenue). So it went in the village aptly named Strangways.
All this the old minstrel knew from experience, and which Ero too could testify having witnessed after only a brief residence at the inn and while walking the lanes.
Just then the maid, Minnie O'Flaugherty (a daughter of a Mutiny on the Bounty sailor and a native island woman), came in with the daily dose of posset, hot, cream-rich milk in a pitcher that was curdled with ale. It was medicinal, reputed to revive the ailing body, even being attributed with raising those with one foot in the grave. Seeing her, Ero was reminded of their previous agreement, and turned to the minstrel, pointing the maiden out:
"She is the fair, young damsel, sire. Her young brothers are applying for service as pages. Will you see them?"
The minstrel thought about it, then nodded his head.
"Since you have spoken for them, I have changed my mind. I should not be too quick to judge all men by the ones I find here. Yes, tell her to bring them in here eftsoon, so I may see how they answer certain questions. If both give me fair enough reply for their tender age, for I shall not suffer fools of any age to attend me, I will engage their services and pay them well."
Hardly able to contain her excitement, the maid set the posset next to the minstrel on his little serving table, then hurried out on her errand (hoping she would not be reported to Mistress Follie and suffer a tongue lashing and a beating for leaving her work). A few minutes later, just as Damon returned from the stable, where he had seen that his instructions to the stableboy were carried out rightly, Minnie hurried back, breathless, with her two twin brothers in tow.
A year younger than herself, and shy because they had no father to give them boldness, they hung back, disappointing their guardian sister, but she made them go and kneel beside the bed where the minstrel lay during the day, propped up by big pillows and cushions.
The sister retreated toward the door with her serving tray, then paused and waited, her heart beating hard in her breast, so anxious she was that the interview go well. Without success and favor of a patron, these two decent but fatherless churls had no chance of making anything of their lives, their prospects were so wretched in the dirty, crime-infested village without parents who could protect and guide them rightly. But if they were employed to serve knights, only then did they have a real chance to get clean out of the village, which she herself as a lone commoner female without a dowry could not hope to escape. She herself was doomed, but they at least had a chance to make a better life, and that would be her one comfort in the coming days.
"Blacksmith," replied Louis in a tiny, soft voice.
"Speak up!" said the minstrel. "I want pages who will not strain my ears! So use your pipes like a man! Now try again."
"Blacksmith, sir!" growled the page. "That's better. But answer the question. Was he honest in his work?"
The boy looked uncertain, but as he thought, it was apparent he was searching his memories, and then he thought of something.
"Yessir! I remember he gave a woman back her money once when she said her horse was limping, though it warn't--I ran around to check on it, and it was standing just fine and dandy in the street. She was lying, sir, but my papa paid her back anyway, then she rode away and her horse did not limp once!"
"Fine story! Do you swear this is the truth? You did not make a word of it up?"
The boy cried, "My father would not cheat anyone, leastwise a woman!"
"That's enough, Louis my boy, I believe you. Now for your brother Henri, I set this question. If I command you to tell someone I am out, when I am in my chamber, will you obey?"
Henri darted a glance at his brother. "Remove yourself from the room, Louis. Your brother must answer for himself!"
Their sister hurried forward, snatched Louis by the arm and took him out. The minstrel turned back to Henri, who was very nervous by this time, and near to tears. "Calm yourself, my boy! Just answer truthfully, that is all I ask. Now again, would obey me if I commanded you to tell a visitor I am out, when actually I am in my chamber and wouldn't want to speak with him?"
The boy squirmed, and then glanced back where his sister and his twin had disappeared out the door. But suddenly he squared his shoulders. "No! I won't tell a lie for you!"
"Peppers and blackbird pies!" the minstrel cried. "You're both hired! I couldn't get better pages than you. Now, once you have your uniforms prepared, expect to be called to duty at any hour of the day. You are first to attend to me, run my errands, receive or turn away visitors--ah, truthfully, that is--and anything else a page must do. Will you do that, my boy?"
Before he could answer, the minstrel had the knights bring the other boy and his sister back in. There they received the good news. The sister's face almost flooded with joy, but she swept her apron up over her face as if to cover all her emotion, and left the room. The boys looked at each other, slowly realizing they had done well and would be embarking on a whole new life. They glanced back at the minstrel, and he smiled, and let Damon and Ero explain their first small duties to them, including where they would make their beds, and what their mealtimes would be.
Once that was finished, the minstrel spoke again. "Let them return now to their home, and take leave of their family, such as it is, and return tomorrow for service. If they require more time than that, let them have it. It wouldn't be easy, at their ages, to leave their homes and families and go to work for a stranger."
The new pages now returned home to spend some hours with their mother and sister and talk over the changes this service to the minstrel would entail. Then two days later they returned, without their sister, and and went and stood smartly before the minstrel, awaiting his instructions.
The minstrel eyed them for a moment, then looked very pleased. "I think they are going to both do very well," he later commented to Ero and Damon when the boys were gone on various errands. "I only had a problem telling them apart, so I thought of a way. From my stock of earrings, I had an earring put in Louis's right ear, and an earring in Henri's left ear. What could work better than that?" he laughed.
Damon did not require much outfitting as he could wear his knight's fine costume, of course, when they ascended the Mount. Ero? Well, he wasn't sure what the handsome young fellow would accept from his wardrobe, and so decided to approach him later about his costume. The horses also required proper gear and decoration. But even before all these arrangements were concluded, Master Tithonus decided to make his mind known to the two knights. He had himself dressed in his costume, and the pages in theirs, and called the knights and the pages to attend him out on the Jousting Field, where they could speak privately.
His pages bearing the minstrel's long, velvet train to give them practice, he proceeded with the knights to the expanses of Cheney Field, where no little bird could overhear and fly and tell the crafty king of the Mount of what was being said.
The minstrel shook his grizzled head. "Nay! I will venture it too, if I must. We must present a most splendid appearance, for we will not go as poor beggars to the court but as peers of the realm. Now I know why I felt I had to load up and bring all my fine things on this journey to the Mount. They will see this at once when we are presented--that we are their equals. Then I shall sing the best piece I have in my bag of songs, and Ero? You shall join me if my voice should falter--for it may fail me. You will learn the verses and sing them for them, wherever I leave off. Will you agree to that?"
Ero nodded, for he loved to sing the epics of his homeland, and hoped that the minstrel would choose one of them.
That business concluded, the minstrel turned to the more pressing matter on his heart and mind. "I brought you all out here, for this purpose. After entertaining the king and his court, whether there is a reward or not that is won by us, we shall challenge the king to a jousting contest. You, Sir Damon, being my knight to engage the pick of his best knights. Will you agree to that? If you win the contest, three bags of gold at least will fall to you, and two of the three will be mine as your lord, but I will ask only one. Then all the fallen knight's possessions, equippage, and wealth, will be yours as well. I only ask the one bag of gold, it will be enough for me, since my remaining days will be few, whereas you are young and your road ahead is long. What do say, aye or nay?"
Damon looked uncertain, though it was not about the division of the treasure. He wasn't sure he could fare well at jousting.
"Sire, I will do anything you ask, but I have no training with that long spear, the lance of the knights, nor much time in the saddle either. Could I be trained? Is there time for that?"
The minstel smiled. "Yes, there's time enough. It will not take much time to learn. The lance is simple to employ, though heavy to bear, and your horse only requires a brave master who will ride straight at the opponent, who rides straight at you. Both of you will be armored head to foot. Whichever one emerges alive after that fatal convergence, and still mounted, while his opponent falls to the dust, will win. Unhorsed, you suffer disgrace, even if you bear no wound, for that is a black mark against you to lose your horse to the challenger. Even if your horse is injured and I provide a speedy replacement, he will not bear the same armorial blanket and plumes as the horse you lost, and your appearance will be spoiled. So you must keep your horse under you and never drop your lance or your shield. And do not worry about the training you lack. I have sent word to the Mount to engage a trainer. They have plenty such for hire. One I know by name returned word for you to appear here on the morrow, just after dawn. Will you do this? Have you the courage for the task?"
Damon nodded, though his face was rather pale.
The minstrel looked from one to the other of his champions, then motioned to his pages to bear his train and he started back toward Strangways. Then he paused and looked round at the knights, who were not following. To Damon he said: "See what thy brother wishes for his costume. I forgot to ask him, and now I am weary and must seek my bed. Will you do that, and then report to me what he requires. I will get the things made for him."
Damon glanced at Ero rather sheepishly after the minstrel and his pages were gone.
"Tell me one thing, brother, why do you wear so few clothes? You have done this since I first I met you."
Ero shrugged. "I feel no need of more, that's why. I am Greek, and we have a saying: 'Clothe a pig, he's no less pig; clothe a man, he's no more man.' That's why we Greeks have, since the earliest times, put no great stock in clothes. Clothes do not make the man. Whoever said that was a fool, and certainly not a Greek!"
"Really?" Damon laughed. "But don't you feel the cold sometimes? I know I do, even with all my clothes!"
"Yes, I do feel the cold sometimes. When I was flying high with the mast, it was cold at the high altitudes. But if I do feel cold, I just press my right wrist here." He showed Damon.
"When I do that, these buttons pop out. I can press the first two, to feel warmer, or even warmer. The third button will cool me if I am too warm. It works very well for me. Don't you have them too?"
"Not that I know," replied Damon, pressing his wrist and finding nothing of the sort.
Damon still had a question. "But people look at you, and it makes me uncomfortable at times, to see you go about with so little in all sorts of weather. They don't know or care you are a Greek runner. Isn't that reason enough to take the costume Sir Tithonus will want to give you?"
"I didn't know he intended one for me. I should be happy to wear it, only I don't feel strange as I am. It is all I need, my native Greek skin. All I really need is a pair of good running shoes. I can run better that way, without clothing to slow me down or get in the way."
Damon clapped Ero across the shoulders. "That's all right then with me, if you prefer your skin over a lot of clothes. Shall we go and tell the minstrel what you decided? He will then be spared the expense and trouble. He has enough work to do to make his horse and yours presentable to the court, I think!"
"Wait a moment," Ero said, almost as an afterthought. "I forgot something. I have something else to show you."
He reached down and pressed both ankles with his finger and immediately small wings popped out. Then he gripped his hands at both wrists, and shot upwards, astonishing Damen, who stared as Ero rose high up over the jousting field. He was still standing there awestruck as Ero lowered to the ground, laughing at Damon's expression.
"This might come in handy, brother!" Ero said. "I think we could both fly together, if you hold tight on to me. Want to try?"
Damon jumped at the chance. He gripped Ero round his middle, and then Ero's winged feet propelled them upwards once again, and he could, by leaning, go any direction he wanted. When he wanted to descend, he merely put his feet together.
Damon could not get over it. "That's wonderful, what you can do! Why didn't you show me that before? I would have loved to let you fly me anywhere you would take me!"
"But I didn't need to use it before," said Ero. "I had the flying dome, and then the mast. I have neither of them anymore to use, and when Yeshua told me at the dubbing ceremony that I had such powers, he said I may need to resort to my wings from now on, in a pinch that is. If anyone from Strangeways saw them, they would probably try to kill me to for them! So you see why I haven't been flaunting them."
"Wouldn't they now!" laughed Damon. "By the looks of most, they would just as soon cut off your feet rather than your head, if they thought they could strap them to their own feet and fly with them! Have you ever seen such degenerate people as these Strangwayans? If they are that wicked and shameless in the village, what will the people be like on the Mount?
It was meant to be amusing, but the moment that was out of Damon's mouth, they both realized it was no laughing matter. Sobered by it, they walked back to the inn in the village without another word.
Ero, however, paused at the door. "But brother, do you think you will be trained well enough to beat your opponent? The loser often dies in these jousting matches. Aren't you jumping into water that's too deep, when you're just a beginning swimmer? You can be trained, but your contenders will have been in a number of matches, and known every trick there is--whereas--"
Damon considered Ero's caution, but his eyes were steady as he faced his brother-knight. "Don't worry about me," Damon assured him. "Yeshua told me back at the pavilion that this would be coming, and gave me this word, 'For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.' I believe He's going to help me win the victory, so I am not afraid. He also said to me, "The horse is prepared for the day of battle, but deliverance is of the Lord."
Ero smiled. "Well, if I see you are in bigger trouble than you can handle, I'll run and let you grab my ankles, and off we will fly out of danger!"
"Thanks," laughed Damon, as he pushed open the door, "but it won't be necessary. You'll see. If I do all I can, which is the possible, then Lord Yeshua will do the impossible. He promised me He would, and I believe his word."
Observing them, Ero and Damon were struck with the feeling of imminent doom, a sense that had grown all the stronger as days passed since they climbed up to the road, after going to retrieve the minstrel's belongings. They had seen the steam and the fiery glows in the side of the cliff as they climbed--it was clear to them that what Yeshua said was going to happen, as the fires built up within the Mount, flooding up from deep within the earth. How long before the fire burst out, destroying everything and everyone in a vast explosion of fire and smoke and ash? It might happen in weeks, or mere days. But they sensed it would not be long in coming. How could they warn these people of the fiery wrath to come? Who among them would listen?
"Not so fast, gentlemen knights! Here I am with my friends, enjoying a cup or two of cheer, and see you don't imbide. Join us! We needs fine fellows such as yourselves--you might have a goodly story or two to your names, exploits of knights and some such thing, and we are all ears to hear ye out! Sit ye down! Let us join company!"
Damon and Ero looked the speaker and his "friends" over, and decided it was not so friendly as the butcher made out. Ero nodded toward the stairs.
"Thank you, sirs, but we must decline your invitation, as we have to attend to our patron. Yes, we do have something very important to render you that you should hear. But--perhaps some other time is better."
Shoulder to shoulder they pushed forward, knocking over chairs and drawing their weapons at the same time.
Ero and Damon did not move, though Damon had his hand on his sword. Damon suddenly had a word for them: "The Lord says to you, Do not rob the poor because he is poor, nor oppress the afflicted at the gate. For the Lord will plead their cause, and plunder the soul of those who plunder them."
Anyone present could hear these men who heard this rebuke gnashing their teeth, and they were all the more furiously going to throw themselves upon Ero and Damon. At that moment a screeching voice rang out--and the butcher and his gang heard it and paused. Mistress Follie came storming out and confronted them. "Git ye back into your stinkin' kennels, or I will throw you out myself! You dare touch the retainers of my good, paying customer, do you?"
She raised the big wooden ladle and the men fell back, as if cowering before her, though all she had to thrash them with was a wooden spoon.
The entire room, which had grown deathly quiet, now began to get noisy again, and everyone turned back to whatever they were doing. The butcher and his troublemaking friends also turned and slumped back at their table, gazing up at Mistress Follie, who hurled a few choice curses at their heads, then departed.
Ero and Damon went first to check on the minstrel's fine belongings still drying in the warm kitchens near the ovens. As they saw that their guard was doing his job properly, they turned, but happened to noticed the street boys, most fatherless and abandoned, gathered in the merchants' delivery door.
Damon smiled, extending his hand. He had something for them, a coin, but they snatched it immediately, for they never had money, unless they could steal it. "This is your wage for something I want you to do for me. Get yourselves some sweets from Mistress Follie and share them equally, but be sure and guard this door well, we don't want anyone coming in here to take things!"
"Yes, Sir Knight!" they all cried in a chorus, and Damon had to hide his smile, as they looked so earnest and brave, after he had hired. Then Damon and Ero went up to see how the minstrel was faring. They found him anxious to give them instructions, and had a jousting trainer beside him, ready to meet them.
Even as this meeting was taking place, a courtier who kept his ear close to developments that could affect the king and his interests, was giving a word of caution to a Knight of Dishonor--strangers were in the castle village outside the gate, attached to a certain minstrel, and rumor was that they were going to be trained for jousting matches by an expert trainer the minstrel had found the money to hire.
"Beware the dark horse!" the nobleman warned the knight, who was rather dark himself in costume, and he nodded, and went straightway to inform the other Knights.
Now there were other fine details that need not be mentioned by the worldly wise courtier. The Knight of the Axes need not discuss them with him, as they were well-known, accepted axioms in their society, particularly figuring in the arena of jousting.
What made the newcomers unpalatable was simply this: displaying a certain moral caliber as they did, whether feigned or real, a troubling question arose concerning their future performance in the joustings. Would they take a fall, as newcomers must, in order to play the game as it had been played for time beyond counting? The prize was rotated, from knight to knight, on the basis of seniority and noble rank--it would never be let go at the onset to a newcomer, a foreigner, a parvenu. And if these fellows would not play according to the rules and take a fall, then they would be eliminated--they would not ride away from the field! On the other hand, if they were wise enough to cooperate, the system would work well for them, in a given time. But they must know they couldn't just ride roughshod in, at the minstrel's invitation and under his banner, and seize the grand prize and carry it off!
The courtier glanced toward the inn, considering if now was the time to make his approach on the foreign knights. He rather wanted to intercept them on their walks, loathing the inn's company and the many watching eyes that were greedy to horn in on other people's business. But if they didn't come out, he could not stand there all day and draw attention to himself.
So the courtier waited for a few more minutes, then slipped away toward Blind Lane, as he had business there.
"As you wish!" the old man said. "But hurry back as soon as you've done. We have more to go over concerning the joustings. As your knight's squire, you need to know all his duties well, learned by heart, so that you can carry them off flawlessly. A single mistake will be fatal to your knight in this game. You'll see! But if you are careful, you will help him win the grand prize! Think of it! It is more money than I was awarded in all my years of minstrelsy! And I would have been rich if I hadn't spent and squandered almost all of it on fine robes and gewgaws and-- the charms of women! Ah! How foolish I was in my youth! But you, lad, are just the opposite, and your knight too--he isn't a bad sort either. How you two shine-in this dark and dirty pesthole of a village--"
A beggar was not long in coming. He was the same that crept about the floorboards of the inn, searching for dropped morsels of bread and bones with some meat or gristle on them that the diners threw down for the dogs. Sometimes a sot would drop a half-filled bottle of ale or stout, and then he would drink himself insensible. But that was rare--it usually poured out before he could catch it.
Ero slowly approached the beggar that came scraping and dragging his way slowly toward the inn. It was painful even to watch him. His useless legs and feet bent back and off the ground, all the wretched fellow could do was use his hands and arms to pull himself forward while his body dragged on the ground. No one would make him a a little sledge or cart to help him along--he was too poor to have one made too by a carpenter. So he had to make his way everywhere as a kind of foot crushed, wounded beetle might, that had lost the function of its lower limbs.
The man's eyes glazed over.
Ero bent closer and could feel no breath on his cheek. He laid the man's head down with care, then drew the cowl over his face.
He looked around. "Feverfew"? Did he hear right? The friar said something about it being a medicine for fever. Could he find it?
He searched the area, and then saw a bag with a cross stitched on it torn open, and around the bag was scattered a tufts of what looked like dried weed. Was that the Feverfew? He stuffed it into the bag, and then, because there was no time to lose, left the bodies of the poor friars undisturbed where they lay and went directly into the village.
He got some ugly looks from various passers-by and loungers in Blind Street, but he pressed on, glancing in at one hovel after another, asking anyone who would listen to him about the washerwoman. Finally, after being given some choice oaths and some thrown slop water from out a window, he was told where she lived. He came to the door, and it was partway open, so he looked in, then entered as he saw it was full of wash lines and laundry. This had to be the place!
He found the widow hard at work beside a big tub of soapy water, scrubbing out linens on a scrub board. She looked up and saw him and her hands froze on the scrub board. In the room was a little boy, clinging to the tub and staring at him, his eyes like saucers.
Before he gave it to her, he explained. "It is the medicine the good friar gave me to help your daughter. He cannot come with it himself, for he was waylaid by vagabonds on the road and--your daughter, is that she?"
He glanced toward what looked like a wooden feed trough, and in it a little girl lay, her hair wet and tangled against the pillow.
The mother seized the bag and brought out the herb in her hand, her eyes widening.
"It is the medicine the friar sent me to take to her," Ero repeated. "He has been murdered, I regret to say. I found his body with the others of his order on the road--"
The washerwoman's eyes suddenly began to pour. She wiped her eyes with her apron, then hurried to the stove and dropped the herb into the hot water boiling there in a pot. Ero watched as she soon poured out some into a saucer, and she hurried over to the crib. After blowing on the tea, she got her daughter to accept a few sips of it.
She did not turn round, and continued to sit by the crib, crooning to her daughter as she urged her to drink more of the medicine.
Ero saw no reason to remain any longer and was showing himself out, when he found the widow darting out to stop him.
He turned back to her.
"Thank ye, sire! I have no money for ye, will you accept a fine coat I have for a gentleman knight?"
It would be unthinkably uncivil to refuse her now, Ero realized, so he too the sumptuous garment. The moment he looked on it he realized it was a royal prince's robe, and he was astonished. How could an impoverished washerwoman ever come into possession of such? Had she stolen it? She would be hauled up before the king's magistrate, sentenced and hung for that.
As if she divined his misgivings, the woman cried out, "Nay, sire! I didna' filch it! She's mine. I washed her up fine and ironed her for the fine knight, but he never showed--he forgat it, or he died. I never did hear which. So she's mine for the keeping, for the cost of the washing and pressing, and it's been years I kept it nice in a chest, just in case --with rosemary and thyme to keep out the moths. But it's been so long, he must have been kilt in the joustin's or such. Sire, you take it, wear it proud, for it is yours. I have no other way to repay ye!"
Ero's mouth dropped open. He didn't need to be repaid, and leastwise was he willing to deprive this poor woman of a princely garment she could sell and gain quite a living by. But there was nothing for it. What if he refused? Wouldn't she be crushed by his rejection of it?
Her question next interrupted his seeking a way out of this. "Where is the little father? I wish to thank him too. I know the medicine is working. My daughter is breathin' better already, she is! Her sweat is coming down too, she's dryin' out, she is!"
Ero was much relieved to hear that. But having to her the grim facts about the friars was very hard. But he did, and she wept right where she stood, her tears coursing down her cheeks while her red, scalded and scaled hands reached up to tear at her own cheeks.
Ero had to say something, to see if he could comfort her somehow.
"He wanted you to have the medicine. It was his last words, telling me who you were, and how your daughter was very ill with fever, and what I was to do to find you. They were his last words. But apparently they saved your daughter's life."
The widow stopped weeping and wringing her hands, gazing at him with red eyes, then a look he would never forget lit her features as she gazed away toward the road. Bending down, the widow vanished back into the hovel. When she returned, Ero held out the garment. "Madam, I really can't--" he began, but she paid him no heed and ran up the street, toward the high road. He watched her stop in a a couple doorways, and then several men came out and followed her toward the road. Ero understood that they would see to the friars' burial, so he left Blind Street and made his way back to the minstrel's apartments.
Ero told him everything he had seen. It was still so fresh, he had no appetite, and neither did Damon after he heard the whole story. Together they sat and were silent for a while as the pages consumed the dinner Damon handed to them.
Ero turned to his brother knight. "Should I sell it and give the money to her? You should see how meanly she lives with her children, and how hard she must work to support just the two of them! Her patrons must pay her next to nothing! It is a shame, since they could afford any price she named, since they can wear such clothes as she gave me."
Damon thought, then his face lightened. "I'll talk to the minstrel. Perhaps he has an idea. He might think of some more employment for her, something better than washing clothes for miserly lords and ladies."
Damon left the pages at the stable to keep watch on his horse, and took leave for the evening, to return to the inn with Ero. Together they presented the needy case of the widow to the minstrel.
He heard them out in silence, then nodded for a while, and finally he slapped his hand against his thigh. "Of course! Just the thing for her! It's a proper line of work, respectable for a widow to do. She'll be a cook for me, our private cook! I never met a woman yet who couldn't make a meal for a man, so why must I rely on Mistress Follie's fare--she will poison me yet, for a good enough sum! How do I know what all she slips in my sauces and stews? It might be a pox to carry me and you off, for all I could tell. So it's done. She's Cook! Send for her at once. I doubt she'll refuse."
Damon and Ero, very glad to hear of a solution, hurried off on their errand. In a short time after the friars had been given proper burial, the widow had gathered what few possessions she wanted to carry away from her cottage. Ero and Damon hoisted the widow's things on their strong backs, and the widow carrying her little daughter, her son tugging at her skirts, they made their way to the inn as every eye in the village seemed intent to watch them go.
The feminine component was not far behind the masculine element in all this preparation for pitting horse against horse, man against man, lance against lance. Little birds seem to carry news to the highest towers of the Mount, for the ladies knew all about the two new contestants that had come on the scene--actually, a knight and his attending squire, and the two pages they had acquired as well. With the necessary equipment, there was no keeping them from challenging any warrior of the Mount and in the king's elite circle. It was clear they had come to do this, and the ladies, from the queen on down to the lowest chambermaid and scullery drab, were already manuevering to get more information, and if possible, a word or two from them.
Elizabeth the queen was not to be upstaged by her inferiors, and so she wasted no time and sent out her chief lady-in-waiting, Lady Margarethe, to take a close up view of Knight Damon on his training exercise field. As for the king, well, he had his mistresses, and so she felt free to engage in similar dalliance. In fact, she felt propelled to show everyone she was still attractive to men, even if her own royal spouse picked the blooms in other gardens than hers.
She herself could not condescend to go personally on such an spy's errand, but the countess's eyes were just as sharp and good as hers, she wagered. Lady Margo could answer all the questions she had about Damon, who cut a most dashing figure of a man to her imagination, and so allay some of the fascination she already harbored in her heart and which already disturbed the slumbers in her royal bower.
Calling some attendant knights and squires and pages to attend her messenger, she waiting impatiently after they departed for Cheney Field.
Lady Margarethe herself was impressed as she viewed the wonderful physique and agility and courageous pricking of the young knight being run through his paces by his trainer. Would he be the one to win the grand prize this year? she wondered. She thought he might have quite a good chance, having seen the knights of the mount perform in past matches. It had all bored her to watch the games, as everything seem so routine and without any real excitement. Bets were always laid on the contestants, but somehow everyone seemed to guess who was going to win, so the stakes were not very great and the gambling takes were lower year after year, as there were few dark horses and upsets, if any. But this newcomer seemed to her eyes to be different from the others. He had a vigor and beauty and presence the others lacked. There was a shining quality about him, unlike the others. Her blood ran quicker in her veins as she watched him dash first one way and then another, leveling his deadly lance at the leather targets set up at opposite ends of the jousting field.
Crown Princess Egbertine also had her eye on the dark horse, the young knight in the service of the old minstrel, Tithonus. Like other aging beauties at court, she vied (with poisons for rivals if need be) to maintain her social position, by laying claim to the most handsome and dashing knights for her lovers. She would die before letting any other lady take what she laid claim to. She knew all about her mother the Queen's lady-in-waiting and her "secret" visit at Cheney Field, and fumed that the Queen had beat her to it. What could she do now? She would have to consider her options. Poison? No, that was risky, as there would be a scandal if the poison were traced to her apothecary, and he testified during torture of having sold the henbane to her. That is, if she didn't dispose of him first! What else could she do? It was a knotty question. She wanted an answer quickly, too, for the jousting was soon to be declared, and by then the Queen and also knight's chosen lady would be sitting in the royal viewing box, ready to throw the Queen's garter to the victor. She must be his chosen lady! It was unthinkable that the Crown Princess should be passed over for an inferior! She had not enjoyed that supreme honor for several jousting matches now, and was determined to regain her former glory, and the envy of all the younger ladies at court.
Her hairdressers standing back and a mirror set before her, Princess Egbertine paused to take a sidelong glance at her image.
Annoyed that there was someone observing him like that, Damon let the horse go for the moment, and turned to see what the man wanted.
"Where are the stableboys? Did you send them away?"
The stranger did not even look up, he just kept puffing at his pipe. Then he finally spoke. "Yes, I sent them away. Privacy is required for what I have to say to you. It is growing high time we came to a little understanding. I have been appointed to tell you about the deal we are willing to make with you. It is most generous. Will you listen carefully? I won't repeat it."
Damon was even more annoyed at the arrogant manner and speech of this cavalier, and the mention of a "deal" with him and his kind really put him on edge.
"What business do I have with you? I have no such thing with anyone like you. Who are you anyway?"
The man looked at Damon in the eyes for the first time, then put down the pipe. "Lord Ratchet, Thirteenth Earl of Ratchetbury, at your service! Now I will get straightway to the point of this interview. It is simply this. There is no way we will allow you to win the prize of the king, this first time of yours on the field. This cannot be allowed of a stranger and a commoner. You are new here, and so you must begin at the bottom of the list. But you can expect, if you prove obedient to our wishes, to gain favor and eventually be awarded the prize. We do not ask your compliance, we demand it. It is either this, or face expulsion from the field, or worse. Now this is what you do for when you give way to your antagonist on the field. Before the joust, simply strap a bladder full of pig's blood beneath your suit, and prick it with your knife as a suitable time after you pass his mount, and then go and salute the king and the queen while you are dripping blood. With such a grave wound, it will appear very gallant of you, and the people will cheer you off the field. Well?"
Damon's face flushed. His hands clenched, and the whip whished back and forth in his hand, as if he could barely control his urge to use it right then and there. "Get out!" he said in a an even more menacing voice.
The gentleman shrugged and slowly rose, knocking out his pipe's still glowing ashes on the straw-strewn floor, despite the hazards of fire.
"Did I hear you right?" Lord Rachet asked. "Do you dare address me like that?"
"Get out!" Damon repeated, and he took a step toward the man.
The visitor's face now colored, and he seemed to feel a great possibility of being bodily assaulted and thrown headfirst out of the stables if he lingered a moment longer.
Darting Damon a look of pure venom, the visitor turned to leave at once.
Stepping posthaste toward the exit, he must not have noticed the height of the doorstep in the frame, for his boot spur caught on it, and he was flung headfirst, right into a pile or two of fresh horse droppings.
Damon looked out as the nobleman moved, his breath knocked out of him momentarily from the hard fall.
Rising slowly, noticing that his clothes were covered with stinking filth, Lord Rachet got back on his feet, tried to brush it off, standing unsteadily, his features lit with fury. "You--you will pay for this indignity! I will not live another day if I allow the likes of you to humiliate a nobleman of the Mount like this!" Damon stepped out of the stable door, his whip raised, and the man thought better of taking vengeance now and bolted to his horse, which was tethered a short distance away, and galloped off toward the Mount.
The darker side of this whole enterprise had just been revealed to Damon, however. In the shadows behind the grand and glittering spectacle of lords and ladies in their finest robes and jousting costumes lurked a conspiracy, the ignoble cabal of a select few who decided beforehand just who was going to ride off with the grand prize. It disgusted Damon to think the whole affair was no more than a sham for gamblers, and he wanted nothing to do with it. He returned to Minstrel Tithonus and revealed what he had learned, but the minstrel, a man of the world, shrugged.
"I suspected as much," he said to Damon. "But you, my lad, don't have to play their nasty little game. You can do your best, which I suspect will carry off the grand prize despite all their cowardly, sneaking back-room strategems to keep you from it!"
The minstrel offered a caution. "Beware of anything out of the ordinary, that might trip you up. If such men were scheming to take you in their net, now that you have rejected their offer, they have become your bitter enemies and will do everything within their power to set snares and traps for you to fall into."
That was a sobering thought for Damon. He himself was not afraid of anything they could do to him. But he thought of something, and the minstrel smiled as he divined Damon's thought. "Yes, your horse, they will try to slip it something in its water or feed that will render it unsuitable on the day you ride. You won't have time to train another mount to do what this one will do for you without flinching. They know that, and will target your horse--that will take care of you without a fight! From now on you must guard your mount yourself, or risk whatever they will attempt. You can't even trust a stableboy who might be trustworthy in the past. They will threaten him with harm to his family to make him do anything they want, and pay him royally too. Money will usually make a thief of most any poor working man who has his family to support." Hearing that, Damon felt much better, and decided not to withdraw, and keep a strict watch himself on his horse, day and night.
Another thing Ero noted. Instead of taking heed, the king himself was constantly heightening the towers on his walls and castle and fortresses and gates. His main castle was also being expanded, to accommodate important guests, who were coming in increasingly numbers.
The conference concluded with a consensus, that if Knight Damon refused to work with them, then they would have to eliminate him entirely. So the Mount's knights began showing up on the Field for conspicuous practice, which was not only to show the weaker sex on the Mount that the men still ruled but to let this parvenu from out of nowhere know he wasn't going to carry off the prize without inflicting real pain on himself.
The fitter put finishing touches on the new tunic too, using the light where the mica windows were the largest in the house.
To see if the things fitted, Ero submitted to a grand rehearsal, in which he put on all the things so far gathered. After the mail suit, he was to wear the widow's tunic, which was now fitted perfectly to him. First on the list, the mail suit was no joy to him, however, being heavy chain covering every inch of his body, leaving only his face bare if he drew up the cap. But it was necessary to be in full uniform if he was to present himself as a knight, so he pulled on the mail suit, then stood in it to see if it was a close fit or not.
Whether he liked it or not, he decided to continue wearing it, as he had to become accustomed to it, as if it were his own skin if he were to function properly in his full armor.
He had immediately asked Tithonus, who was later in rising, but still very much awake, who had come and done it. But the minstrel stoutly declared no one, there had been no one in his rooms that night, as he had an ear for the slightest shrew creeping about for crumbs under the table and chairs, and so he would have known if there had been an intruder in the night. Besides, he added, a smithy was needed, a skilled craftsman too, to do such work!
"It's not this place or the training, brother, it's me."
"Let's go talk, where we can be more private," said Ero, and he told the pages to wait for them, and they were glad to stay in the stable and went to help the stable boy feed and water the horses.
Damon and Ero walked out into the pastures beyond the jousting field, where the grass was tall and waving in the cool morning breeze.
"It isn't the training, nor this having to bide my time in a stable watching the horses," he repeated. "Rather, I am missing my own world, my own country. This place is strange to me beyond saying, even with you, my brother, close by. I understand that Lord Yeshua has me here, and you too, for his grand purpose, but what is it exactly? Am I just to joust with strangers and seek to throw them to the ground and win a prize for which I care nothing? That seems so pointless to me? I lost my whole world, for this? for some a man's spilt blood and a sack of gold florins and ducats?"
Ero didn't know how to respond for a while. He struggled to deal with his own feelings too, as they were much the same as Damon's. He too had lost his beloved country, Hellas, and his home island of Seriphos, where was it? Could he ever find his way back to it? Would Lord Yeshua give him leave to return home? Or would he wander forever on various quests, as he had been doing for some time now?
"I have lost my country too, brother," he replied. "My family, not to mention, my friends--I have no idea how they are faring, or if they are even living. But Lord Yeshua--he has taken me up as his knight in liege to him, and I am in his service for life, and I desire to be too. I cannot forget his face! Nor his words, which still burn in my heart! He is like no one else I ever met. For him I think I would endure anything--"
As they talked further, they came to no answer, but it was a great relief to see how similarly they felt and thought, and discover at the same time they were knights knit in heart, as well as in destiny--for both felt that there was a greater destiny yet to be revealed, beyond the coming appearance at court and the jousting match. What was it? Would they greet it with joy or dread and dismay? They had heard talk of dragons, being in earshot of conversations of patrons of Follie Inn, where there was much talk of strange beasts attacking villages such as Strangeways. Dragons were seen flying in the vicinity of the Mount, it was said, spewing out fire and smoke that consumed whole houses at a time. But what of the most important thing: warning the people of the coming conflagration? That was Lord Yeshua's solemn command to them, as Knights of the Order of the Axes of Honor. Surely, that would be more fearsome than any winged, fiery beast?
They were thinking the same thought, for they turned to each other, and read the thought in each other's eyes.
"We haven't fulfilled our mission," Ero said, "until we warn every soul who will hear us. So far, we haven't had our opportunity, but soon we may. We must wait for the right opening, which I believe will have to be an incident that scares the living daylights out of them! We must not quit now. Yeshua said this is our mission, did he not?"
Damon nodded. "Perhaps, when we present ourselves with Master Tithonus at the court before the king and queen, that will be our opportunity! Surely, they will hear it then. These simple villagers seem to care for nothing but carnival, food and cheap wine--when they aren't fighting and robbing one another! If there isn't mischief that hasn't ever been done, they will be sure to think of it first! Mind this, brother! What with all the gambling they are doing at the trade fair, they are desperate for money and valuables they can wager. I've seen some of them lose every stitch they have on, and get kicked out of the gaming house to spend the night lying in the cold grass, which is all they have to cover them! I've given away all the rags we keep to wipe down the horses, so they can get back to their homes with some shred of decency, but the next day they are back, gambling again, this time with their wives and their children's clothes torn off their backs! Keep your post, brother, at the Minstrel's door, or they will pick the place clean, and leave him shirtless in his own bed!"
Ero rose, laughing. "Isn't that so? Will they ever change their foolish, strange ways? I have to wonder! Yet they must be given the warning too, before it is too late, even if it falls on deaf ears. There might be a few at least who will take heed and flee from this wretched dungheap of Strangways!"
Obedient to the will of Yeshua, Ero rose in the morning and spoke of his dream to Tithonus, who nodded in agreement with it, saying that he felt such a thing was truly imminent, and an extra warning on his shield would be well to place there. Calling in an artisan good with paints, the artisan no sooner appeared at the door with his brush and little paint pots in his wooden carrying case, when the emblems appeared on their own, without the artistry of a human hand! Tithonus was spared the expense of the man's labor, but he paid him anyway, he was so pleased with the work he had not done!
They all--Tithonus, Ero, the pages, and the artisan, stared at the shield, for on it appeared the Ark triumphant upon the Flood that destroyed the wicked world of Noah's time, while above glowed a bow of shining colors. Yet that was on one panel, the other held something different. It was unmistakable, a shofar of warning and proclamation--warning that the sin-ruined old world was going to pass away in fire, and proclaiming at the same time the beginning of an unspoiled, righteous, happy new world, the Millennial Kingdom of Yeshua!
He told them a great fire was going to break out in their midst, and consume not only the village but the entire mount! It was time for them to flee, and take only what they could comfortably carry, as they need to flee in haste and not be overly burdened down! When would this great fiery judgment fall? He knew only it would be very soon, and every passing day brought it closer. Best not risk being caught in the flames! Leave this place now, before it is too late. Flee the Mount of destruction--for it had defied God, and now its defiance would bring its due reward. If they care for their children, their wives, their friends and the old ones, take them away now to safety! he urged the men. "What say you, people of Strangways"?
Response? There passed a few more moments of silence as the people looked round at each other, then with one voice and mind laughter and jeers erupted from the whole village. The Strangwayan children were even guffawing and making funny faces at Ero and the pages. One buffoon who fancied himself the village wit grabbed his woman and together they spun around in a mockery of a ballroom dance, each partner parroting Ero's "What say you?" in high and low voices as the crowd clapped and roared back with "What say I?"
The bad scare the dragon had given them all was completely forgotten. They had already paid no attention to the cracks in the Mount and fire and smoke issuing from them day and night--portentous signs of great fiery wratch boiling up from beneath the mount, were they not?
Shaking his head, Ero gave up trying any more words on them, and he and the pages went to to see how the Minstrel was doing and attend to any needs he had.
He had gotten together from somewhere several benches and low tables, had them set up with slate writing boards, and they looked like a kind of school was about to commence in his quarters. They soon were apprised of that very fact, indeed.
"Henri and Louis, you are going to learn your letters, starting today!" Tithonus announced. "And Ero my lad, you are their tutor. I can't have my pages ignorant as uncouth stableboys who can't even scribe their own name! Besides letters, they will learn music, art, good manners and gentlemen's deportment, along with the usual archery, swordsmanship, hunting, riding, and such, as they progress--if they work hard and progress--into squirehood. Well! Might as well get started, time is a'wasting!"
Later, reading the summons, Tithonus sighed. He turned to face his knights and pages. "Well, our time of play is over, it is now to work, I see! We must present ourselves, fully equipped and garbed, ready for service, either at the ball or at some other event of the king's choosing, on the morrow. I had meant to teach Knight Ero some of my songs. I am sorry to say, we must go as we are, without that! I had hope for a little more time here. But the king would never allow a choice, he doesn't bear with choices by his subjects--all must do what he commands, you see, or lose his head! So--be prepared. We depart early, as soon as we have a good breakfast, that is! It is hard to say if we will have a good meal after that--you never can tell with this king, whether he will treat you royally or meanly. It all depends on whether we please him, and that is impossible if he is not first in a mood to be pleased."
He paused, then eyed them sharply. "Ah, I see the real reason for this impertinence. The herald looked a bit rattled and affrighted to me! What has put him off his heels? It has to be the dragon! The king was at his wits' end, and still is, regarding it. All his crossbows and fighting men, yet he knows the dragon is not his match! Perhaps he wants everybody on board, so that he can be emboldened to go against the beastly fowl and expect to win, or at the least teach it a lesson and drive it off. Yes, it has to be the dragon! That is what engages the mind of the king--it cannot be a mere ball or jousting. Formerly, he was so pleasure-loving, but now he has changed. He has no doubt quite forgotten such trivialities, now that his very castle mount is in danger of being laid desolate by this flying monster! As for the village, it is a wretched place and it can burn, far as he is concerned, but his castle? No, he must risk us all to save it! What a brute this king is! He cares nothing but for his own skin! Thus, the royal summons!
They hurried to get their equipment and proper dress, and went down to the street, finding people milling about in the inn's parlours, all talking at once, and found the same thing outdoors. Many carnival people were in the crowd, too. The trade fair--had it been called off?
But no, the Tithonus was told, when he asked a carter for his charges to carry his trunk and other things to the Mount's main castle. "That dragon's done dampered it," the carter cried. "How can they do a merry job of it when any moment that thang can drop on 'em and carry someone off! They be lookin' all the time up to see if he's comin,' and how can they do their business then, prithee, tell me that, sire?"
"Our lives were cast in the king's deceitful scales the moment we enter here. It is hard to say how we will fare with him. It cannot be good entirely. I knew his father, but I hear he is locked up, blinded with burning hot tongs, languishing like some chained animal in some dungeon or tower cell, his throne taken by the son who did not care to wait until his scion's death. I doubt there will be much singing of heroes and battles of yore, as the whole Mount is consumed with this matter of the dragonbird's appearance. But if he does call me to sing away his cares, I will do my best. I doubt it will please a man who tortures his old father in order to sit on his throne, as my voice has grown so thin these days, and my grey hairs and reedy legs turn away the women's admiration to younger men. You, Knight Ero, may then sing your own people's fine heroic tales of Jason and the Golden Fleece, or others as you choose them, and see if they will please them better. But as I say, I think the king is anxious to inspect our arms and prowess with the sword and spear for use against the dragon, rather than be entertained by our courtly verses and charming voices.
Let us continue, but beware the next steps down the long walk that leads to the stepped road to the Castle! Many have started out there and not reached the Castle, waylaid by armed men positioned in the shadows. Whether the king sends them, or they are rivals to us, who will know? There is one guard, at the start of it, but he is only there to give word of any bodies to be pulled out by horse and rope. Well? Do you still wish to continue with me? If not, I will go alone. My life is not worthy of longer life. I might as well die doing what I was destined to do."
Tithonus turned to them for their responses, but they answered by not moving.
Ero, however, drew Tithonus aside privately. "We will attend you to the end, sir! Is there anything we might do to find this poor, old father of the king and set him free? Surely, we can, if we only know where they have hidden him."
"A brave heart you have! But that is not publicly known," Tithonus whispered. "Anyone who tells the place will be drawn and quartered. And there are hundreds of caves and tunnels under this Mount, many of them locked and guarded, so it is impossible to reach him by stealth or cunning or force, even if we can find out where they keep him. I might find out something, if I ask the subordinates, such as the scullions in the kitchens, who hate their superiors and might risk telling us for a sum of money. They are probably sent with whatever food the king wishes his father to have, so they might well know his location. What you ask is impossible to carry out, however, unless--"
Thinking of something, he paused, then turned back to Ero, "--unless you dress as a scullion and go with them when the guards come for the old king's rations. Would you dare to do that? It might be the only way to reach the old king. But you would have to fight your way out from there. Are you equal to that? And then afterwards--what will we do once the king finds out? Wouldn't he send his entire force after us?"
Ero went to say something to Damon, who listened, then nodded. Together, faced him. "We are both agreed. I will go with the food to the king if it can be arranged for me to carry it. And Damon will follow at a distance, or proceed as far as he can. I will unwind a ball of thread, so that I will be able to find my way out once I take care of my guards in the passageway. I will bring the old king with me. Damon will be guarding our rear, and together we will return with him to the kitchens, then together we will lead you out as if nothing has happened, the old king disguised as a sick scullion who needs care in the village immediately. Surely, the king will not know of it, and we will be allowed to pass."
The old minstrel could not disagree with the plan, but he still had misgivings. "This is most bold, to attempt to take the old king out of his cell. How will you break him out of his chains? The lock for the chain must have only one key, and that was probably thrown away by his son!"
"We don't know how that can be done, but we must try anyway. I will take my strong sword, and Damon has his, and I will cut the chain if I must."
So with this agreed upon, they continued on after Tithonus, who led as they passed into the gate under the deadly spear-ends of the portcullis that had been drawn up, while bowmen eyed them through slits in the stonework above them on both sides. After submitting the writ of royal summons, a beadle or bailiff of the Mount examined the writ and the royal seal, then motioned for Tithonus and his party to proceed. The guards swung the grated gate open, and they entered the Assassins' walk. At that point, they were on their own.
The royal bailiff stood forth and charged them with treason.
"I arrest you foul plotters and assassins in the king's name. Every word of your treacherous plot was overheard, while you stood on that grate before entering the gate!" he shouted at them. "For this crime you will all be hung, or drawn and quartered, when the kings hears about it! He has commanded we take you to him, and he will hear of this plot and then decide your fate. Now march!"
King or no king, the Knights of Honor were not going peaceably to their deaths, however, if they could help it. With drawn swords they meant to fight to the death if necessary. But the minstrel commanded them to stop. "It is no use! No use fighting the whole force of the Mount. Let me speak to the King! I will tell him that you are but foolish youth, and did not know what you were doing, having no knowledge of the old king and his madness. Surely, he will not punish us all, and will let you go free if I insist on taking responsibility. Let him kill me in your stead. If that doesn't divert him, perhaps money will speak more kindly in our behalf. I can pay him something handsome to provoke his royal mercy!"
They moved closer, until the man in the chair spoke again. "Stop! That is close enough. I have something to put to you all. You can fight for me, if you are wise, or fight me, which will be your certain death. Which do you choose? Say now! I do not suffer delay or many words!"
"But why should we fight for you, Majestic One, when you have plenteous knights in your charge?" Tithonus responded, for he knew the man had to be the king, by the sound of his voice. "What do you propose will be our wages?"
"Ha! I knew you had a price in mind! Well, you will have most generous livings granted you, for your lifetime that is, not your descendants, such as a castle apiece, with servants, and a handsome stipend of gold to keep your wants amply supplied? Any pretty women you like, wenches or ladies--well, they are free for your asking. What say you to that? My daughter's hand, well, she is for the victor too!"
Tithonus did not have to think about it. The king's daughter was cream that had aged beyond its prime and turned rancid. Who would want her now? As for the castles, how long would they be permitted to enjoy them? Surely, not long, with so many envious knights on the same mount, knights they had shamed in winning the king's contest over them. As for the wenches and ladies, he knew his knights. They would take women as chattel, as the king and his knights did. But he knew that to decline the king's offer was to invite soon and swift assassination.
"We would request one thing first, Your Majesty."
"What be that?" the king barked. "I've offered you far more than you deserve for your services, in this, ah, emergency."
"What would be the specific object of our service?"
The king rose and walked over to an arched window. "Oh, don't you know? I can hardly believe that! But come here! Take a look then."
The king stood aside as Tithonus and his knights looked out the window. There they saw on a number of the defensive towers recently outfitted with trebuchets against the dragonbird.
"All right then! But be quick about it! I will return here in a few minutes, and you had best have your reply ready!"
The king swept out of the room, and they were left alone, or so it seemed.
Tithonus drew his knights close. "If you still entertain ideas of setting the poor old king free of his shackles, here is my plan. I will suggest to him that we are not all the knights he has to challenge the monster. Let the king's justice be prevailed upon, and the other knights be entered fairly as equal contestants, and may the best man win! That man would win the king's rewards, including his daughter's hand, and none other. Surely, the king will do this, as we will refuse any other course of action, risking our lives to do so."
The king returned as soon as he said, and then the lights were lit, as attendants stepped up with flaming torches to every sconced taper in the tower chamber. Now they could see the king in all his finery.
Bowing, Tithonus began. "Thy rule of justice, O great one, demands that fairness be exacted among all thy subjects, does it not? Whoever sits on a throne and is truly great must show no partiality, particularly among noble knights who are all gentlemen of great honor and courage. Thus it is that I humbly propose this, Your Majesty--"
The moment Tithonus was through speaking, the king erupted, stamping his foot and furious.
"I'll have your heads for that! And there is more to your treachery! I know all about plot, and--"
Then a chief counsellor hurried to the king's ear and whispered something.
A sly look crept over the king's features, and he spoke again, only more guardedly.
"We have been too hasty perhaps. Surely, there is some sense in what you propose, Most Honorable Tithonus! I must have your knights in my defense of the castle, but on your terms I can still have them. Only let the other knights already under my banner now compete with yours. Let all things be done fairly, with no, er, partiality! Let the best man win the royal largess! But how do you propose to gain the dragonbird's compliance with your plan? Surely, you have not parleyed with the flying beast?"
The bodyguards were even snickering at this point, as the king's humor and scorn was obvious. Shown to be fools? Tithonus did not even blink an eye. He bowed stiffly, and with cool voice informed the king that should the dragonbird return, all they had to do was lure it away from the castle to the jousting fields with carved up mutton or cattle, and then challenge it there.
The king has not thought of this obviously, for when the counsellor returned to his side, he was waved away with a few choice oaths. "Of course, I thought of that before you did, minstrel! Let the carrion be set out on the fields, a large quantity of it to draw the monster thence! And let summons to all my knighthood be published immediately by the herald, and all convene on the jousting fields when the dragonbird has flown to devour the meat!"
A trumpet was blown as the king rose and departed, adjourning the private conference and leaving Tithonus, his knights and pages to show themselves out apparently.
Damon turned to Tithonus, catching his sleeve. "But sire, you did not even mention the shackled prisoner, the old king! What of him? How shall he be set free?"
The minstrel smiled. "Yes, I did think upon him in this venture. When you are victorious, as God grant you victory, you shall stand before the assembled queen and all the nobility and the commoners as the victor, and say this: "One thing only I will have from the King's hand as my reward. Not his daugher, and not his gold. And keep the fine castle for another, but give me only the shackles of the king's sire!" Trust my understanding of these people. That word, which lets the king's cat out of the bag, will cause such an uproar, even the beginning of a riot, that he will be unable to refuse you, which would be unthinkable before such a crowd, most of whom hate and fear him in equal quantities and need only a spark to ignite in a fury against him. He will grant your request with a splendid show of magnanimity, and we will have to be very careful of our backs as we go to see that the shackles are indeed removed and the old man is set free. Then we must take him away from this place altogether, lest we all die from all the assassins that inhabit this mount. Will you do this feat? We are depending on you to be a man of courage, if you really are determined to set the old king free."
Damon and Ero moved away a few steps, conferred, then they returned to Tithonus and the pages. "Yea to all you propose." Damon said simply. "With Yeshua my Lord, and Ero my brother-knight, I will attempt it, for I cannot bear to think of this old man being left at the king's mercy. It is an outrage to treat the old ones this way."
The plans were as good as they could be, but the dragonbird, as it turned out, paid their plans little respect. After being driven off by the violent tempest, all the more ravenous and lusting for a fight, it returned. Sighted by the tower guards, the warning hornblasts brought the entire force of soldiers and guards and knights running to their stations.
Many of the knights were too drunk to get properly attired in their mails suits and armor and came in their sleeping gowns, if not half naked. But though the guards were much better prepared, it did not go well with them, and the soldiers were soon fighting for their lives too, as the monster landed on this and that tower and picked off the men defending it with his talons and beak as armed men were mere ants.
Finishing off some of the towers and trebuchets this way, which the dragonbird outmaneuvered by circling out of reach of their fired stone balls and then diving down to attack the men, it tired of the game and went for the main castle buildings. Landing on the roofs, he tore them to shreds with its huge beak, while clawing them open at the same time, then beating its gigantic wings to blow the rafters far and wide. Fires started as the chimneys were destroyed, and then began to sweep through sections of the castle.
Not like the heat and fire much, the dragonbird moved to the other fortresses and guard posts, to level them too.
After much devastation, the dragonbird must have smelled the fresh carrion already carted out to Cheney's Jousting Fields, and immediately it had to go and investigate the wonderful fragrance of blood that wafted up to it.
Seeing the destroyer fly off toward the bait, the defenders of the king's castles crawled out of the ruins, or tried to put out the flames as best they could, and saw to the wounded and the dying.
The king was safe, having fled deep into the castle mount, where he had secret chambers set up and provisioned for such an exigency, but he returned to the surface to find his domain half in ruins and the other half threatened with fire.
Yet he couldn't attend only to his castle, as the dragonbird might decide to return at any moment. The monster had to be challenged at once. But who would go?
Commands did not go well with the knights at this point, they were all so terrified, but the king's threats grew even more violent, and they realized they had to do something, at least put on a show of force for their lives' sake.
Riding out of the mount and toward the dragonbird, they did manage to make a good show, as the king watched them, following from a safe distance with his personal bodyguard.
As for Tithonus and his knights, they were no where in sight. Where were they? But the king did not have opportunity as yet to send spies or listen to intelligence, as his entire aim was to challenge and destroy the dragonbird now before it did him any more harm.
Waiting back at the stands, he peered through his telescope, and watched as his knights rode within challenging distance of the dragonbird which crouched above the pile of cow carcasses on a low ridge.
Suddenly, it seemed to him that the whole knighthood broke in panic and disorder, each man fleeing to save his own life, some even on foot.
"Will you now challenge the monster?" the king cried. "It must be stopped! If you kill it or at least drive it off, I will give you what you ask, plus the grand prize for the jousting matches. As for my daughter--"
As he hestitated, Tithonus stepped forward. He bowed. "I beg a word with the king!"
The king nodded. "Say then, Tithonus!"
"I beg to speak for my knights. They seek no woman of thy court, nor even the hand of thy fair daughter. They are common men. They do not presume to such privileges and noble honors of thine, Majesty. Rather let them do this great feat you ask, and release the old man that is in the dungeon, that only is their request. You know of whom I speak. But ask the knights themselves, they can speak now."
The king turned to the knights, and they both said, "Yes, O king, that is our request. Release the old one, and we will be rewarded. You can keep the king's prize of treasure, except that we would like it to go to Tithonus, our wise master who is not asking for himself anything. Give it to him instead!"
"Done! I accept your terms! But now go and challenge the monster! If you are triumphant, only then will you receive all what you asked."
Tithonus conferred with his knights, and then they all turned, bowed, and retired from the king's presence.
Within minutes Damon was riding out against the dragonbird. When he came within bowshot distance, it paid him scant attention as it gorged upon the cow carcasses.
Damon drove his mount forward, shouting, then halted, wheeled around and rode away as if in flight. He repeated this maneuver again and again, and the dragonbird grew even more annoyed and wanting to swat the fly-man.
Finally, the dragonbird was angry enough to leave his unfinished meal to kill the fly. It moved down from the rocky ridge toward Damon, who now had the creature where he could be reached with his long killing lance.
Praying for Yeshua's strength and that his lance tip would find and pierce the monster's wicked heart to the quick, Damon charged.
The dragonbird followed him, though it flew upwards and circled him first. Finally, it was coming for him again, and Damon once again charged. Was this going to be the deciding moment of convergence? He would soon find out!
It seemed right, so he threw with all his might, and pulled up so sharply, Buchephalus nearly fell back and threw him.
But as the horse scrambled to get its footing, Damon caught a glimpse of the shaft of the lance speeding toward the dragonbird's head.
Was it possible, what he was seeing? It shot like an arrow from a crossbow, with a tremendous velocity he couldn't possibly have given it with human strength. And the monster turned its neck just then, just as he had hoped and prayed, and the lance skewered it, exactly piercing the main artery!
Shaking its head, the dragonbird crashed, hopping about, squawking in high-pitched screams, and tried to fly off with the dragon-biter dragging from its neck, but it couldn't seem to get aloft despite much beating of its enormous wings. He watched it grow rapidly weaker and weaker, both in wingbeats and squawkings, as its own blood gushed over its breast and feet and bathed the ground wherever it tumbled and thrashed about.
It was death throes he was watching, and then Damon heard a roar going up, the watching crowd had seen the victory from a safe distance and were now running toward him, to celebrate his great victory and their deliverance.
The first fellows who reached him grabbed him and slung him aloft on their shoulders, while Buchephalus was covered with garlands. Cheering him at every step, they bore him to the stands where the king and his court awaited the champion.
The king stood, with the victory crowns for the champions, but beside him stood a vengeful Lord Rachet, a disappointed Queen, and a jilted princess who felt slighted before the whole court--not a very welcoming sight, particularly as they were flanked by dozens of humiliated courtiers who had fled from the dragonbird.
When the crowds quieted at the behest of the lictors, the king spoke.
"Your terms of our agreement are now being carried out at my command. Our royal dungeon releases the one you spoke of, and the grand prize goes to your master, Sir Tithonus. At my command it shall be done!"
The crowd cheered, while the king and his court and courtiers and royal bodyguard remained icily silent.
A chest of treasure was brought forth for Tithonus, borne on a wagon, it was so full of golden things.
Bowing to the royals, the old minstrel accepted it graciously.
"Speak, speak!" the crowd cried.
The king was reluctant, but he motioned to the minstrel, who in turn deferred to his knights to say whatever was on their minds at such a moment as this.
Damon, with Ero standing by his side with the two pages, spoke for them.
"O People of Strangways and all you nobles of the Mount, we thank Yeshua, who is Lord of all, for this victory, that He has seen fit to deliver you from the flying monster. It was not by my might, but by His spirit, that the dragonbird was slain. But that is not what I am to tell you, for a greater danger is looming over your heads and beneath your very feet. You have seen signs of it for some days and weeks now, and they are true signs of doom and destruction. Flee this place now while you still can! Forsake wickedness, and choose life! Why should you be destroyed when the fires burst forth from beneath this Mount, and consume you all with it? What say you? Take your families, but do not try to rescue your belongings, there is so little time you must all leave now. What say you? Will you take this warning and go now, or will you disregard it and take your chances in a place marked for destruction?"
This was hardly the victory boast they had been expecting to hear. Few understood what he was saying. Leave Strangways? Whatever for? What was a little smoke and fire issuing from the Mountain, high and low anyway? They could live with that! And this talk about wickedness--well, everybody did whatever they pleased, and that was how they liked it. Who was he to tell them how to live anyway, even if he had slain the dragonbird! No! They wouldn't even consider leaving Strangways!"
Hearing crowd muttering, and the general rejection of his plea to them, Damon glanced at Ero, who shook his head, and both looked to Tithonus, but he was standing with downcast eyes.
Suddenly, at the king's signal, all the king's trumpeteers blew a blast, and that told everyone the king was going to say or do something.
But Tithonus frowned when he saw the arrangement. It did not ring true to him.
He stayed the knights, and took them aside. "No, I sense something is wrong. I fear the old king is dead by this time, but now we are next in gravest danger. We must not go with them. I will go, but you must not go! I will tell them you will follow as soon as you see to Bucephalus's care in the stables. But the moment we have left the field, you must turn and make speed out of here! Do it--it is your only chance to escape. And don't worry about me-- I am too old for the king to care about--and too famous to kill in the sight of everybody. He will let me go, for it is you he wants to capture and kill, not this old baggage!"
"But I am right, he won't kill me alone, for there is little satisfaction in that for him and his knights to smash a mere bug! No, he will let me go, just to get rid of the sight of me. I will be safe enough, even if he divests me of the treasure he gave me! Even then, I have outwitted him, for here are some jewels you may keep for me on my return. And if I should not return-- take them as your own, for you truly earned every one, not I!"
Slipping a bag of gold and jewels into their hands, Tithonus turned and joined the king's entourage, after speaking to Lord Rachet, who scowled, but gestured for the knights to go and attend to Bucephalus but detailed some guards to remain to see that the knights did not run off the field.
Damon and Ero were well aware of the guards posted to see that they did not run off, but they slipped out of the stables and came jumping upon them suddenly from out of a window, and it was such a surprise they dropped their swords and spears and ran off toward the Mount, forgetting their horses.
Laughing, the knights proceeded out of the area and retraced their steps to the road.
When they reached the far end, they halted and waited, wondering if Tithonus would join them.
But to their horror the whole Mount suddenly exploded, fire and ash shooting upwards, consuming the very rocks! They could hear the cries of doomed Strangways, and higher up, even above the roaring and the explosions of the volcanic eruption, the piteous screams of those caught in the garrisons, and towers and gates and the castle itself, realizing it was too late to save themselves by running.
Smoke and fire swept over the roadway, all the way toward the knights, who wondered if they shouldn't leave at once or be swept away themselves.
Yet what were those struggling forms on the road? They peered into the smoke, and then it cleared a bit, and they could see a woman, clutching a a baby and leading a small boy, and beside them was something low on the ground also wriggling as fast as it could--a crippled beggar!
As soon as they reached ground that was not shaking or shooting forth flames and smoke, they paused to rest with the washerwoman and her children and the crippled beggar, while hoping and praying for Tithonus, that somehow he had escaped the Mount's destruction.
Still they could not help glancing over their shoulders for the old minstrel as they hurriedly helped the refugees along, carrying the children and crippled beggar too as fast they could in their arms and across their shoulders.
Glancing back again, they were suddenly transfixed by the sight of more refugees appearing from a wall of smoke and flame that was fast approaching them.
Who were they? What were they? They had huge tusks, many of them, strange heads that looked more animal or insect like than human. Some were hooved likie cattle, but had serpent tails. Others had monkey bodies and tails but crocodile heads. More horrible shapes than these followed that could not even be described.
Bellowing, squeeking, shrieking, wailing, defecating, farting, these monsters fled up the road, directly toward Ero and Damon and the refugees. Damon and Ero realized they had to stand there and fight them off, or they would all be killed, for these things were not real beasts but something else--horrors! the demons of the Mount-- who had no living, wicked human hearts to reside in now that the Mount had exploded into flames and jetting molten rock.
The champions looked at each other with the same thought passing between them, unspoken. What were they going to do now? These were not creatures of flesh and blood that swords could pierce!
The first demons leading the pack were demons of lust, and big and bad enough to confront, but others followed close on hooves and claws, even more fierce.
At that moment he held up the torch and the Red Cross appeared as his standard, the maggoty namblas, which swarmed in the darkness of wicked acts and loved only to defile what was innocent, stopped in their tracks, petrified with terror by the mere sight of truth blazing at them, exposing them to a withering X-ray of truth that they could not possibly endure without the most excruciating pain. No wonder they stopped, piling up in their hundreds, unable to move forward, or even to retreat, since the mount behind them was threatening to explode at any moment.
At the same time Ero felt like leaping, and as he did so his ankle jets ignited and he flew upwards.
Damon also had his hands full.
Just at that moment the whole earth shuddered, and the Mount of Defiance blew skyhigh, taking everything and everyone, human, devil, and beast, with it.
One moment the knights were standing, the next they found themselves on the ground, which rolled beneath them like many charging bulls.
Moments more passed, and they were consumed. As the knights recovered, rising up on their feet again to look about, finding each of the refugees had also survived the cataclysm, the heavens rolled back, like a scroll. Indescribable light and glory shone forth into their world from another world and dimension. Shielding their eyes, they could still see a form of Someone moving down toward them from the boiling white and gold clouds. The clouds turned out to be an almost infinite number of winged beings, not real clouds at all. And the Form of a Man, it turned out to be Yeshua, with a word to the champions.
What could they say in response? Damon and Ero, and the refugees threw themselves down on the ground.
Rufus Urbanus was upset, for the sake of his Honorius. Was this to be the memory of it bequeathed by a father to his son? If so, it was a bad journey! Rufus thought, feeling he should have gone alone and faced such things rather than expose his young son to them. Yet further on they found the real borders of the shrunken Western Empire still held firm, for the time being anyway. Beyond was Roman civilization as it had always been--glorious and proud and well-ordered--and they proceeded south on the Roman road directly to the Queen City itself. There young Honorius would see the sights that would forever blaze in his memory: Roma in her full glory and splendor, a city beyond description, the like of which the world had never seen before and would never see again after the barbarians broke through the borders and had their way with her.
Continuing his journey within the malevolent, evil eye of the Carbuncle's spirit-form, the great Vampire, Ero has no idea what he was going to encounter next, of course. There is no explanation from pop-ups. Yet he isn't particularly worried. This photo-file seems to have landed him a a nicely verdant country, quite unlike most stretches of the more arrid, coral and calciferous White Continent of Atlantis, he finds. It is most pleasant to the eye. He likes the look of its gentle, rolling hills and winding rivers and streams with their thick forests of oak, framed by a line of low cloudy mountains on the horizon. What kind of country was it? Would he find it inhabited? What era was it? Where they civilized? Or barbaric and backward in culture? He knew he would soon find out. He wondered how Damon was faring, but that was somebody else's concern now--somebody who looked surprisingly like himself, he recalled from the brief look he had of him before he was whisked away to other worlds. He had helped Damon all he could (even going beyond the perimeters that Wally had set), but whether that would bring Damon to his destiny, that was something he could not know. Just the same, he hoped it would be a good journey for the young gentleman with the camera--that the best was yet to be.
Finally, the mast-bot began to move again without his direction, following to figures in the morning travelling on horseback. They looked to be a man and boy, and then the popup informed him he was correct, he was observing Honorius (the boy) and his father as they were beginning their trip to Roma. Honorius's father had business dealings to take care of primarily, but he took his son along this time, who was now of sufficient age and understanding to learn a great deal from the sights, both along the way and in the Roma. It would be a good education for him, better than any book the boy had, the father thought.
It was a long trip, indeed, once they left Roman-civilized Britannica and sailed across to Roman Gaul. But the same Roman roads that crisscrossed Britannica led straight across the immensity of Gaul to Italia and Roma, and there were numerous inns along the way, strung out between cities, where they could stop at night and take a meal and bath and then rise refreshed the next morning for the day's journey. He even had a fine intinerarium of the Western Roman Empire (purchased at a bookship at the exit of Vicus Tuscus on the Forum behind the Temple of Castor), he could consult any time along the way, with the storehouses, cisterns, inns, halting stations, cities, pretoriums, and some of the major sights marked with easy to read notes and symbols.
The main obstacle would be the great mountains of the Alps, which even Roman engineers had not been able to conquer completely, but once they made it through by the high, narrow passes into northern Italia, it would be a nice, quick run down the straight roads directly to Roma.
Honorious listened carefully, taking in her words, though he did not exactly know what she meant by his father teaching him adult things. What could they be?
At Gesoricum, however, after consulting with various authorities, Rufus Quartus decided not to venture his son on the now unpatrolled roads but to put the horses on board a ship going to Lutetia instead. This would rest their mounts considerably and also provide more safety, as they were less likely to be accosted by brigands on the road when travelling by water, what with Roman warships still patrolling its whole navigable length.
A vessel, a merchant of sundries which took some passengers and livestock too, was soon found at Gesoricum that was on its way to Lutetia, which was a busy port dealing with the north-south trade and provided the entrepot for a great deal of river traffic. They boarded and their horses were quartered in the hold and given straw to bed on, with barley to eat, while they were given a cabin to share with the captain.
Good sailing weather brought them to the oppidum of Lutetia and the first of two bridges over the river.
It went: "The high gods smile on a sober and decent man, but love a drunkard in his cups far better."
Rufus Quartus, not so easy in his tastes and worldly in his views as the captain, was not so pleased. "Is this such a wicked place as you describe? I hesitate to take my son there, even as we approach it!"
The captain shrugged. "Well, sir, it is plenty rank and rotten as these river towns go, but not so bad in some parts, you'll see. It has many temples to the gods, and they carry on as they always have done there, with the prostitutes, both male and female, adult and child, that can be had there for a denarius, but Christians have their assemblies too in various places. After the persecutions, they were free to take the temples as their houses if they wish, but some prefer the simple houses they live in for meetings still and leave the temples to fall to ruins."
Rufus was interested, as it was near to the Sabbath. "I should like to attend one of those meetings, if I might. Would you know the location of one, where I can find some brethren, for you must know, we are Christians."
The captain nodded. "It takes all kinds to make a fine world such as this, sir! I divined you were one of the Christians, by your manner of acting and your speaking too. I would be happy to tell you what you need to know."
So by the good offices of this captain, they were soon following his instructions and made their way to the church that met in the lower chamber of a ruined temple for the worship of Augustus Caesar, which had burned but was not rebuilt.
"Sister Constantia is well-known to most of us assembled here today. We welcome her in the name of the Lord! We are always blessed whenever she can leave her aged mother in a sister's care and come to share with us what the Lord has granted her so richly of the Spirit. She always comes with a good word for us we should closely heed and obey, as she is a true prophetess, affirmed by the scriptures and by the testimony of witnesses."
The gray bearded elder paused and looked over the people. "But this is somewhat different in its message, for it entails the future and even the far future of this very place and city. It is speaks of a people to come in this city, and what will befall them through the ages, though there is one terrible prince of the Goths coming to invest our city, who will be here in but a few years time. Could you bear with such a grand vision, for that is what it is, and then soberly consider, with fear and trembling, how it can help you walk a straighter way in your own life and time? We must not think it engages only those who will come in the dim future, and so think their troubles need not concern us now, but take it to heart all the more, since we abide here at the beginning of all these woes you shall soon hear about. If only we change our hearts and lives now, and follow the Lord in true obedience, repenting of our wickedness that lurks deep in human hearts, then perchance the city will suffer fewer of the terrible things our sister has been shown by the Spirit of God. But I say too much, as your faces are falling already! It is a truly good word from the Lord, of exhortation and warning that, given to us now, is meant to spare us, not judge and condemn us. Pay close heed and you will be blessed, my children!"
The elder seated himself, and then the prophetess began.
First, she closed her eyes and stood for a time, as if she were seeing other times and an another world. Slowly, without opening her eyes, she spoke almost in a whisper, so that people leaned forward to hear her.
He heard her say the name of the Gothic robber-prince, Alaric, who will be called the Scourge of God. He would come from the east with his hordes and beseige our city, sacking and burning the built up parts on the left bank of the river, but the Lord would afflict Alaric's hosts with plague and runnning of the bowels and he would not take the citadel of the opppidum on the island and would depart--and so they would be spared, because there remained still some righteous people in Lutetia in the church who would pray and fast for their city's deliverance, and the Lord would hear these few. Yet future times would not be so fortunate. The city would be overflowing with screamingly wicked people one day. Spirits of the Adversary, the Devil, all evil, arose from the rank, unredeemed pagan hearts of the tribes and Romans before Christ, and would beguile and deceive them all. They would build many magnificent churches with lofty walls and towers and steeples and much stained glass, but there would be no faith in them, just people going in and out daily to admire the noble architecture. They were tombs of the dead, not living edifices of faith! she said. Then she went on about the people who were mired in immorality, luxurious living, sensuality, endless pursuits of pleasure and even perversity. This city would rise to such heights of influence, birthing emperor after emperor, that it would pollute the entire world with its ways. Its fashions in clothes, building, arts, and luxuries of all kind would dominate the souls of countless men and women. Palaces of a size and splendor unequalled in the world would cover whole sections, and mighty triumphal arches and avenues would make this city the most beautiful on earth. But with all the beauty, wealth, fashion, and luxury, the wickedness would increase all the more. Rebellion, anarchy, and godlessness would become a brutal, bloody religion to replace the one that had build the great basilicas--and this godless religion that worshipped man and anarchy would fill the public squares with headless bodies and baskets of severed heads. Worse was to come yet. A world war would erupt, but even that was not the end of evil. Serving as the site for the most treacherous treaties, Paris would host a conference of the triumphant king, who would impose such brutal vengeance upon the defeated nations that they would provoke mass slaughter of all their peoples in yet a greater war that would sweep across not only Europa but the entire world, killing many tens of millions of people, including six million of the Lord's Chosen People the Jews, and--Honorius's head swam as he listened, and tried to keep his eyelids open.
She mentioned some lesser far-future despots, naming them D'Estang and Mitterand and Sarkozy, who betrayed their country and their people into the hands of those who wished to rule all Europa as one realm, even as Roma had once ruled it--only they would rule with an iron fist of such cruelty and inhumane spirit that even Roma under the mad Caesars after Caesar Augustus would have been appalled if she had known of it...
Nudged several times by his father, he tried to stay awake and not topple over.
"This city will be called 'Paris' one day," she said. There was a stir in the assembly at the barbaric sound of it. 'Paris'? After her licentious, half-converted tribe? How could that be? Were the Romans going to permit that? It seemed to be impossible. The Parisii were hardly of such power and number that their name would be chosen to supplant the city's proper Roman name, everyone naturally thought.
But she repeated the name. "Yes, that the name the angel told me, for he said the city will someday overflow with the ancient wickedness of my people, who were lost in the sins of perversity and adultery and all manner of lusts since the most ancient times, and Paris will continue that way shamelessly until the Lord comes a second time his people free."
When the woman had finished, it was just in time, for Honorius was then falling forward, but the assembly standing sudddenly to its feet caught him, and he stood bolt upright with them.
Yet the meeting was not over! Several men and even another woman spoke in turn, speaking in tongues and then interpreting what was spoke in unknown languages from the Spirit of God.
Honorius, miserable by now and wanting only to get out of the church and get some fresh air, heard only scattered phrases of the prophecie that amplified the vision and cast its light upon distant ages and British peoples yet to be born.
"The land of the many tribes of the uttermost islands of Britannica will see a great light. Bearers of this word are present in our midst that spring from the loins of most ancient kings. One here shall stand with the Lord's apostle, by the name Patricius, in that latter day, and help in the work of that great man of God, so that an entire people of warring tribes bound in the shackles of the Devil, worshipping every foul demon and idol and drinking continually and committing adultery and every evil deed, will be set free and cleansed of all their iniquities and walk in the light as noble sons and daughters of the Living God! Only long after will the people again turn back to their filthy idols and serve demons of lust and pleasure and power and wealth, and again be shackled and bound in darkness, with all their churches empty or shut up or turned into granaries and drinking houses. Lying, wicked, silver-tongued men, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair by name, will be the false shepherds who will lead Britannica's people back into abject slavery and bondage, casting away even their nation for the sake of a government over all the earth that will only act to crush them under. Yet even then I the Lord will hear the cries of the oppressed and remember My people and preserve a holy remnant among them, and not suffer all to be destroyed in their sin and rebellion."
So the woman's vision was affirmed by the continuing testimonies, and then it was over. As they all filed out, Honorius was so glad he was free at last, he hardly noticed that his father was talking with a deacon who was walking with him down toward where they had their horses quartered.
"I really can't say we are the ones, sir!" his father told the man. "I am open to such a thing, as I believe the woman's vision, but I am not an evangelist as such. Could it be someone else present in the assembly today?"
The deacon shook his head. "We have inquired, and no one else from Britannica was present today but you and your young son! Then we are all bearers of the holy evangel, if we are God's true children! Maybe it will happen in years to come when we are all gone, but it is going to happen, for these were true visions and prophecies, as all the elders have confirmed them." said the deacon. He lay his hands on them and blessed Honorius and his father, asking the Lord for their safety throughout on their long journey, and with that as his farewell, along with a basket of food, sent them on their way in the name of the Lord Yeshua.
But central Gaul was not in as good a shape as Rufus Quartus had wished, for they saw disturbing things. Once a splendid province that Julius Caesar had conquered from the Gauls and filled with Rome's civilization, raids from barbarians had driven away much commerce and spoiled a number of cities and towns, leaving them desolate. The roads had once been full of traffic night and day, crowded with tradesmen and agents of mercantile business, and imperial mail couriers, not to mention the sight and sound of legions with their bugles blaring time for the march of countless feet and horses' hooves and war wagons. Now the roads stretched empty, with only occasional retreating garrison troops drawn from outposts that were being emptied in the face of advancing barbarian hordes. Goths! There seemed to be no end of Goths! They came by many names, but they were all barbarians, greedy for Roman lands. Refugees too were seen, in decreasing numbers, for most had already fled southwards, leaving vast areas, even entire orchards, farms, and vineyards open to brambles and weeds, with the return of the wolves and bears and robber bands. Barbarians had already left their mark, in burned temples and ruins of villages and towns and villas. What inns were left were few and poorly run, charging high prices for filthy, lice-infested beds and wretched food. Horses could not be had at any price.
Honorius's pater was upset by what he saw, but he told his son things would improve when they crossed over the mountains and got to Italia proper. There things would be fine, with all things done according to law and order.
Coming upon a ruined temple that his father recalled, they went up to view the ruins more closely, leaving the horses.
"The sight makes me very sad, my son. It was once a temple of the pagans, with the foul idols of the Greeks in it and a lot of temple prostitutes, both male and female. But that passed away, and a church cleansed the premises and met there, a church established by apostles on their way to our own Gloucester in our own country, and I worshipped the Lord in it, when last I rode this way," Rufus told his son. "But there is no sign of the church now--nothing--all gone!"
A lone figure appeared on the road and stopped, watching them touring the ruins and then start back to the road.
Honorius's father drew his sword and approached first, but found the man, after a few words, was a veteran of a disbanded legion, his head balded by long years under an iron or brass helmet in the burning sun. He sheathed his sword.
He gave a rueful look at his own lone sword.
"Who might you be, sir?" replied the veteran soldier. "I see you are of the curial nobility, from your fine garments and insignia. I can also tell by your accent there is some connection with my own homeland and native speech."
Honorius's father introduced himself and his son. "I am Rufus Quartus Urbanus, and this fine boy is my son Honorius. Our forefathers' country is Britannica, and our city is Glevum on the western coast. Do you know of it? It is a small but pleasant city. And you, my man? What is your name?"
"Decius Sylvannus Flamminus--that's what it was properly, though I don't go by it--for the Emperor Decius was very cruel to us legionnaires, without cause, decimating an entire legion in Achaea just to kill the Christians in it who refused to worship him as a god, so when my men saw I did not like it, they called me "Lancio" commonly, for I was always best at throwing the javelin rather than wielding a sword--as I never missed with it. I am from your own isles, and though I know little of your coast, I can tell by your speech you are from there too. Fair and pleasant Britannica of the many green isles! How fares she? I have been many years fighting with my arms and strength, serving in the legions of Italia and also those in the East that fought for this and that emperor favored by our legions. But that is over! All my strapping, brave lads I left Britannica with--they are all gone! We were tens of thousands, bursting with pride of country and zeal to win fame and fortune in the Emperor's service! Alas! They are not returning to their home isles, they were slain in heaps far from home, or perished of sickness, or went into service for some other general than the one we started with. The others have retired to a city in Syria Majorica. At least my own land is still held by my name, located in a village nearby the big river and Londinium's fort, wharves and shipping, however much it has been changed from the one I knew as a youth, will be better. Or is it altered to my loss, ravaged perhaps by barbarians?"
Honorius's father assured the old veteran it was not altogether changed, though the land was drained, bled white of its farmers that made good, strong fighting men, having lost them to the constant demands of the legions and the emperors.
"Now concerning this new emperor of the West, the youth Honorius, is he a fit ruler of the Romans? Or is he weak-willed, and the barbarians can get the best of him? I go to attend to business I have in Roma, as I deal with spices and pepper, and the emperor's chief baker was a chief client, and he no longer answers my letters I sent to him."
The veteran paused to spit to one side. He wiped his mouth with his tattered sleeve. "Your court baker may have no business to give you! Or he's left the city for Constantine's City. Our West Emperor, a feeble willed youth, has quit Roma, if that will do him any good. He doesn't dare reside there anymore, says it cannot be defended, even with the walls and forts round about it. No, there is little hope for Roma with him at the helm. You see this--that has happened since he ascended the throne, and he and his counsellors did nothing to prevent it, nor will they prevent worse in the future."
Honorius looked up at his father's face, and it seemed to turn gray in a moment.
"Quit Roma? The immortal city of the Caesars with no supreme ruler? Where has he gone then?"
"Ravenna, the fortress city in the swamps of the River Po which you can only reach by boat! You must sail up to Classis on the northeastern coast, then proceed west from there to it. I've seen it once as we set guards and delivered boats with masons and stonework from the port. He can have it! All he's got is his big palace and a lot of slaves to serve him, and what gold he could carry out with him. That's where he's run, with the whole court! Left the rest of the Romans and the whole of Italia wide open to the barbarians! What a country this is now, with no proper rule over it. No wonder it looks like this wretched area!"
After speaking a little more, Rufus thought of something, and it shone in his face. "Lancio, I have an offer for you, for I perceive you are a good, honest man in your heart and ways. I did not know the roads would be this bad, and the barbarians so numerous in the country, so I did not take my servants for guards. For my boy's sake, I would like you to attend us, to Roma and Ravenna and thence homeward. I will pay you well. Will you be willing to interrupt your journey to aid us in ours? Think about it, and give me your answer.
The veteran bowed, lay his sword and javelin before Rufus, then rose and grasped hands with him, and the deal was struck. Honorius, amazed at what he saw, had to be nudged by his father, and then he hurried off to get their mounts.
Lancio took Rufus Urbanus aside privately. "Lord Rufus, I did not say all, for I did not wish the boy to hear this, but I have a further reason for accepting your offer of work. It might frighten him, and this is a trip he should enjoy, for it will remain long in his memory."
"Oh? What is your full reason, Lancio. I think I can bear to hear it."
"You must have heard along the way here, but the Goths passed through Gaul and Cisalpine Gaul a while ago and then ravaged the provinces and cities of Spain, burning, looting, raping the women, enslaving the ones they didn't kill, the length and breadth of it. The savage horde loves nothing better than to burn and destroy the fine Roman things they cannot make themselves. Their commanders led by Alaric have bided their time like wolves in a den, plotting their grand venture, hatching their schemes, until they have gathered enough arms for their forces, to capture and sack the city. I do not believe they will be stopped. Though the legions cannot be beaten if led properly, there is not the will in the young Emperor to lead with courage. Nor will he send an able general to do what he is afraid to do."
Rufus paled. "I regret I named my son after this emperor, if he is so weak in the knees. When will the Goths do this evil? Who told you these things?"
Lancio smiled thinly. "Soldiers of my age have acquired many, far-ranging ears and eyes common citizens do not have. We take care of each other, too, and so this warning passed to me of what is happening with the horde advancing from the north and east (for they split into two main wolf packs, the Visigoths and the Vandals of the far north of ice and snow. We have followed them and kept track of them all the way down to Carthage. So we know They will soon be coming for Roma which is the grandest prize of war they aim to seize, but we should have just enough time to see it while it still stands in its glory. We do not have time to waste, for your son to see it and you to conclude the business you have there. I will attend both to the city and our own home isles."
"You will ride my son's horse, and he will ride behind me on mine. That way we will make better time to the next stop at an inn or city."
He turned to Honorius, who had sharp ears and had caught some of the exciting talk about the barbarians.
"Hand Lancio the reins, son. I am giving your horse to him, as it befits a man of his worth to ride his own horse, not one that is lent to him. You will ride with me until I get you another mount."
Honorius's face fell, and he reluctantly gave the reins to Lancio.
"Bow, son! Be noble and civil as I have taught you to behave to your elders! He is no slave of yours and mine. He is a freeman, a citizen, and I have hired him to be our guard on this journey, so respect him as he deserves, he is a veteran of many campaigns of Roma's legions, defeating the barbarians on the frontiers and keeping our country safe!"
Honorius's eyes widened, and he gave a deep bow, and Lancio chuckled.
"When there is time on another day, I will show you my javelin and how to throw it!" he said to the boy, and Honorius brightened up, smiling.
"Yes, I would like that, sir! I don't want the sword first. Teach me how to throw your big spear a long way--a whole mile! I want to kill a hundred of the Goths!"
Then Rufus Quartus Urbanus, also chuckling, pulled Honorius up behind him, and they made off toward Roma, with the veteran going ahead, as he had better knowledge and would know where they could safely stop and rest for the night.
Rufus, seeing they had no other choice for the night, asked to stay the night with his son and retainer. "Do you have lodgings for us?" he asked. "I regret we have come upon you so late, but we came not knowing things would be so disturbed by the barbarians hereabouts and--"
The man nodded. "Please enter, sirs," the man said.
"How is it that the table is all prepared?" Rufus Quartus Urbanus asked her in his amazement.
"We have been expecting you, sirs," she said, bowing
She gave them her name, Prisca.
Rufus Quartus was very much surprised. "Howso, woman? We are coming as utter strangers at nightfall, and you were expecting us?"
She smiled. "Yes, sir, it is the truth I tell you. The Lord told my husband and me that we would have late guests, saying there would come a noble gentleman, and a soldier, and the noble gentleman's young son. So knowing the appetites of hungry men, I kept the soup kettle warning near the fire tonight, and there is some good meat stew too, and pastries and wine and fruit to go with it. It is not much to offer you, but it is all we have, as our farmers and their livestock have all moved away. You see, the country is very much forsaken now here, the many vineyards eaten up by the birds and the wild goats, as the barbarians have come so close, and might break through any time to burn everything, as is their custom."
Rufus frowned. "Yes, so we have heard and seen! But this is dinner enough. Let us sit and refresh ourselves, and give thanks to the Lord for it!"
After handing their cloaks and gear to the man and woman, they sat at the table and gave thanks first and then ate their simple but filling dinner. The innkeeper's wife stood by to refresh the glasses with water and wine, or bring some more linen or additional bread, and after a time Rufus Quartus Urbanus turned to her.
"So you are disciples of Christos here? I am so pleased by what you said. To think the Lord speaks to you like that! Even telling you we were coming!" "Yes, otherwise we would not dare to remain alone here after all the others packed up and journeyed to Roma and elsewhere where there are soldiers to protect them."
"But why do you remain? Your business cannot be good, with so few passers-by on the road nowadays and so many bandits to scare and hurry any patrons away."
She glanced to her husband, who exchanged it. "We wait on the Lord, for the time we are to go. We trust in Him to protect and care for us. He is the Good Shepherd. He will not permit us to remain a moment longer than is good."
Rufus turned to his son. "Remember that, son! Our hosts speak well of the faith. God has our lives in his hands. No matter what it looks like, he is God. He is over all!"
They slept well in clean beds. Only Honorius tossed about on his pallet, for he was dreaming of fierce battles with the Gothic barbarians, battles he and his legionnaires always won handily. Afterwards, as a champion of Roma and the Empire, he was paraded in a Trumph in a big golden chariot, with the emperor standing at his side, passing with thousands of captive barbarians in chains through the streets of Roma while the multitudes cheered. That was wonderful! Yet always there was a voice of a man at his shoulder, disturbing his mind and spoiling his success, hoarsely whispering: "Remember, you are but a man and you will die!"
"What do you mean?" Rufus protested.
"We are to take nothing, sir. Please go on your way, with the Lord's blessing!"
Rufus could not understand how they could do this. "But--" he said. "Sir," Prisca said, "we are old and childless, and have our life savings, and need no more earnings to keep us in our last days. In the night, the Lord said for us to pack what we want to take with us, and go to the church we will find in Smyrna of Asia, so we are going now. You are last patrons, and we could not possibly charge you anything. Please accept it from the Lord."
This was so unheard of, but being a Christian, dealing with Christians, he understood, and nodded.
Outside, as they were brought their horses, all fed and groomed and watered and ready for the day's journey, Lancio turned to Rufus, bowing, with an amazed look on his face. "I have never seen such things! How can they not charge us! Surely, they are daft with old age!"
Rufus Quartus smiled, then mounted his horse, thanking Prisca for the wrapped package of cheese, dried meat, and fruit she handed him, free of charge. "Lancio, there are more things in Christianity than your religion knows of! You will learn in time what we have in Christos. Bear to learn them in time."
Both men were surprised when Prisca came hurrying back with a white horse, a mare, from the stable, all ready for its rider. After bowing to Rufus Quartus Urbanus, she handed the reins to Honorius. "I see you could use another horse, sir, for a more comfortable journey!"
Rufus reached for his money bag, but the woman shook her head. "No, sir, that is not necessary, as the Lord told us to give you this horse. We have no need of it, as we have two remaining, sufficient to take us on one while the other carries what little we need to take with us for our journey to Asia."
Now all three travellers were astounded. This was simply too much for Lancio. "What kind of faith is this, that you give away such valuable horses as this one, to utter strangers! Even I had to walk, having had to give up my horse to save the expense of keeping him on a long journey. I desire such a faith, which I have never seen before. Surely, you love each other beyond what anyone in my religion loves!"
"We have been given much, so we cannot help but freely give. And the Lord commanded us. We seek only to obey and please him by helping strangers such as yourselves on their way."
"'Lord'--who is this Lord of yours? I know Mithras, but he is not like your Lord, and you are not like his followers. None of them act as you do! They do not have any such love as yours! I want to know your Lord as my own."
A little while later, it was done. The innkeeper and his wife, who had been among the elders and leaders in a local church, with Rufus Quartus Urbanus and Honorius, witnessed the renunciation by Lancio of his pagan god Mithras and his expressing belief in Jesus Christos as his Lord and Savior, and then they baptised him in a large pond behind the inn that was spring-fed, out of which flowed water to the nearby aqueduct.
Lancio emerged from the water, shaking off the water from his hair along with a few water weeds, and looked extremely happy.
"What do you say about this?" Rufus Quartus asked him when he was standing, drying off with a blanket and towel brought to him. "Do you feel different? Are you changed?"
"How do I feel? Better than I ever felt! It is like I was a baby new born! Even the leaves seem more green and the sky more blue! I feel also a wonderful, burning in my chest, around my heart, and it is a good feeling. It is glorious--what is it?"
He slapped his chest with his hand.
Gratian and Prisca smiled to each other, then proceeded to instruct the brand new convert to Christos.
"The Holy Spirit has put the Spirit of Christos himself into you. You are now born anew by His Spirit. You are now a child of God, a heavenly being that happens to live on this earth. All the promises of the Word of God are yours too! Read the Word, son, and be instructed in holiness and righteousness. You must read the Word of God faithfully and pray. It will keep you safely to the end, when your soul returns to God who created you."
"What Word of God?" Lancio asked Rufus Quartus when later they were on their way again. "I want it!"
"I will show it to you. You yourself will see and read it at the next city after we stop there for the night."
Just beyond it, they met the first signs that the country was once again under Roman rule, with anarchy dispelled. People were moving about freely in the countryside, as though they had nothing to fear, and wagons carried produce and livestock for the markets of the city Rufus Quartus was approaching.
This was an encouraging sign. They found it even better when they sighted a garrison manned with a full complement of troops, both infantry and horsemen, all fully armed and ready for any barbarians that might show up at the gates or seek to ravage the farms and villas outside the city's walls.
Here Rufus Quartus dismounted, to get some news from the garrison, Honorius, with Lancio keeping an eye on him, went to take a close look at one of the soldiers standing duty.
"I have no need of it anymore, Master Honorius," he replied, trying to restrain a chuckle. "I am not in the wars now, and I am no longer young, so it is time to lay down my arms and go back to farming."
Honorius's face showed his disappointment. "But why--?"
Lancio shook his head. "If Roma calls me to defend her against the Barbarian, then I will gladly return to the ranks, but not until then. I have served and done my duty these 25 years, and am discharged. I have land now to till and restore at home, and there I will go to spend my later years." He almost added piously, "by the gods!" but caught himself, reminded that he was serving the Son of God, not Mithras from the east and the old gods of Rome and Greece.
The cities and towns were still splendid-looking overall but it became obvious even to Honorius at closer quarters that many great buildings in them were dropping masonry into the street or standing abandoned, and no new ones were being erected in their place or repairs being done. Also, shops were boarded up, with the owners packing everything aboard wagons carrying 1,200 pound loads of merchandise and belongings. Where? To Roma of course, if not straight to Port Ostia! Roma still seemed the only place left that was most safe. That the Barbarian could ever breach the walls built by Aurelian, that circled the entire city with forts and garrisons, was unthinkable.
Moving through the markets and squares of the cities, Rufus Quartus, Lancio and Honorius could see clears signs that many people were going hungry too. They found many beggars in the streets, reaching out to them for alms. Christians had alms houses going, which were jammed with the poor. And yet there were more that could not get in for help. The slave markets were also jammed, as many men had sold their hungry children into slavery, rather than see them starve. Even freed men, citizens, sold themselves too, rather than starve. In one of these markets, Lancio halted, staring at a particular man who was offering himself as a slave, though at his neck hung no scroll giving his name, age, and health. In evident poor condition, he should have drawn no interest without the required titulus, and indeed he drew no eye until Lancio came.
Rufus Quartus Urbanus noticed what Lancio was doing, if not knowing why, and stopped Honorius, and they waited. They watched Lancio go to the man and take a closer look, then return to Rufus Quartus.
"What about him, that fellow without a titulus?" asked Rufus Quartus Urbanus. "He looks like any other wretched man in his condition, does he not, Lancio?"
"No, sire, I see something different about him. Look at his face, how pale it is! Something is different. His eyes too, they squint, as though they are not used to the full light of day. I am certain that man has been a miner, a slave in the mines!"
Slavery in the mines was a death sentence for criminals, they both knew. Speaking in low voices, Rufus Quartus continued. "Well? If he has somehow escaped and run off to this city, he has evidently found nothing here to sustain him so he is going to sell himself back into slavery. He is going against the law and may be he murdered someone, and was sentenced to the mines for life. Maybe he will succeed in selling himself now, maybe he will not. Give him this for a good meal at least. He looks as if he has not enjoyed a good meal for quite some time!"
Rufus Quartus held out several denarii, but Lancio declined, bowing.
"No, sire, he is not like that. He is not just a runaway criminal slave only. I can tell somehow. There is a good man in him. Let me go and speak to him before we leave him to his fate."
Rufus Quartus Urbanus nodded, and he and his son waited for Lancio to speak to the pale-faced, squinting man on the slave auction block.
Rufus was a bit shocked. "You mean to buy him then as your slave?"
"Unless you prefer to have him, sire, I will take him. He will come with me after our journey is over, to help me attend to the work on my farm. He says he has no family still living, as he already inquired in his native town and found they were all gone, his parents dead and his brothers scattered to distant parts he cares not to go. None of his parents' neighbors were willing to help him, nor would they give him any food or shelter. Without relatives or friends, he had no choice but to seek any work he could find in the country, he said, but there was nothing--as we ourselves can seee. Everyone is leaving south, for Roma, abandoning these places, so they are not going to taken on laborers when they are going out of business or leaving their homes and properties! He was starving when he thought to do what he is doing, go sell himself in the market to some landowner or tradesman, rather than slowly starve to death."
"But what did he say about his being an escaped criminal? What was his original crime? Did you ask him that?" said Rufus Quartus.
"We should be breaking the law if we gave him shelter, when the state may still be looking for him." "I did ask him. First about his escape. He said the barbarians raided the imperial silver mines in Hispania, and killed all the guards, so the slaves used the mallets and other tools, broke their shackles and ran off. The barbarians were more interested in silver than slaves anyway, and took all the silver that was in the guards' strongboxes and then departed, rather than make the slaves dig for more. He was free! No guards came to replace the ones lost, as Roma could not spare any to send to retake the mines and round up the slaves--and besides they had no rule over that area once the barbarians ravaged it. It might be years before Roman rule returned. What could he do? Wait until then? No, he decided it was best to save his life if he could. He would not stay there, which was a place to die only, but try to make it back to Italia. And he succeeded, only to find the conditions very bad, even in the ruled parts. Concerning his crime--he when a mere boy struck back at his master who was brutally beating him, who had accused him of stealing a necklace of his wife's. He said another slave had done it, and cast the blame on him. The master did not care which slave really did it, he took the first slave's word, since he was a grown man. To escape worse beatings, he then fled to the authorities for justice, but they too upheld his master's judgment, and since his own hand was raised against his master and he was nothing but a slave boy, that was sufficient to send him to the mines for life."
Rufus Quartus Urbanus turned to the slave and took a keen appraisal of him and the expression of his face and eyes before he spoke. "You are most fortunate you were not caught and branded fugitive on your forehead and returned in chains to the mines! Or they might have cast you into the galleys. Heaven has smiled on you! I greet you in the Name of Christos. I am Rufus Quartus Urbanus of Glevum, Britannica. I have heard many similar stories, but I believe the report you have given us. Lancio is now your master, for he has paid your stated price. Later, I can have a proper document drawn, when there is more time. I will not require anything of you myself in service. Do whatever he tells you to do from now on. I know he will treat you well. We are all Christians in this party, and we cannot mistreat you, or our Lord will punish us for our mistreatment of an unfortunate man. As for your past, whatever put you in the mines, it is over, since you have paid your sentence as long as you could. The barbarians freed you, as God's instrument evidently. I have heard what sad circumstances put you in that place, how God set you free by way of the barbarians. You have chosen to serve your master, Lancio. A horse will be provided you, for we must travel quickly to Roma and then return home to our native land soon thereafter. Now, what is your name, for you bear no titulus?"
But the man could scarcely say his name, Gaius, in an audible voice at first, he was weeping so uncontrollably as he saw how heaven had indeed smiled on him to send such kind men his way.
Honorius was not so sure it was heaven! His expression showed it plainly, that he did not at all like the idea of this dirty, half-skeleton coming along with them on their journey. He would spoil it all! he thought.
"Does he HAVE to come with us?" he asked his father plaintively. "I don't like his smell and his looks. He is so old and dirty and just a pile of bones! What good is he?"
His father's face showed he was not very happy with his son, and he took him aside.
Rufus put his hands on his son's shoulders and looked keenly into his eyes.
"Remember this, son, and never forget it. You and I are no better than any slave, we are all flesh and blood, our substance drawn up from the dust and fashioned by the same Creator. He has dignity, the image of God just as we have, only his circumstances are unfortunate, as you can see. That is not necessarily his fault, I am informed. Even if it were, our Lord the Christ forgave us sinners our many trangressions, so ought we to forgive others their transgressions. Now I don't want to see that unmanly and unchristian look on your face again! You have nothing to be sorry about! He will be a big help to Lancio and us too, after he has gained strength with some good meals and had a hot bath and a new set of clothes! You'll see!"
Honorius was almost beside himself, but he didn't dare show any more displeasure at his father's decision, so he screwed on a smile of sorts, and his father let him go.
After the fourth member of their group was taken care of in the town, they continued their journey. But at the next city, Praeneste, which was wealthy and of considerable importance still to West Roman government, there resided a consul that Rufus Quartus Urbanus knew personally, since he had been assigned to Britannica in years past. He paid a call on the consul at his government house and were led into the consular hall, waiting until they were announced and told to proceed. Since being moved from Roma to the this city for its better security, the office had done the emperor's business for the whole of that region. It did not take a long wait, as the hall was virtually empty of business and people at that hour, and Rufus Urbanus's name was well known to the consul.
With unpleasant things out of sight, Honorius could turn to more interesting sights. Having lived all his life in a great house such as this, he knew the most interesting parts.
Rufus Quartus Urbanus was shocked.
"But this is your country! You are not Greek-speaking, and surely you will feel ill at ease among the Eastern Romans! They scarcely speak a creditable Latin, I've heard, nor do they care, since they prefer Greek far above our mother tongue!"
The Consul's smile faded. "It is absolutely necessary, my friend! I will do my best to learn their Greek with the best tutors I can find. When Roma draws back from any area, the country will soon turn savage wilderness. But worse will soon fall. The tribes of the Goths, hearing of the exposed weakness in our borders and defenses, will break through and ravage what is left. It is only a matter of time before they return for booty. Radagaesus destroyed three quarters of northern Italia, destroying hundreds of towns and many cities, and now he or others like him are moving westerly again with their hordes, intent to seize and ravage the central parts of Italia, and maybe even take Roma herself if they quit their rivalries and combine into one army! No, we must go, it is now or never. Otherwise, what is there for my wife and me? We will be left refugees, vagabonds, with no imperial office, no future at the imperial court at Ravenna either since the emperor's family was always a bitter rival to my own in past generations. We will possess only what we can carry away with us if we happen to elude the rampaging Goths! We cannot remain!"
Rufus Quartus Urbanus bowed, but declined. "I have no time to spare, sir, for such a gracious favor of yours, but I should like to greet your wife for a few moments, since it has been years since I have last spoken to Lady Julia. And I know my wife will be cross with me, if I do not seek to exchange a few words with her. You know how wives are always interested in each other's families and situations. Is she as well as ever?"
The Consul's face seemed troubled. "Yes, she is well, and looks well as ever, but she has never borne children, which is a sorrow to her, and of course I would have liked to sire a son or two to carry on our family name and serve Roma in imperial administration or in the officers corps of the Army. But it was not to be. We are no longer young, so children are not going to be our blessing, it seems."
But the sad look partly left his face as he turned, and saw his wife was approaching.
"Here she comes now. Please stay for dinner and speak to her. It may give her some diversion, as there is only myself and the servants usually these days. We get few visitors of any note."
Rufus Quartus Urbanus turned and saw the aristocratic lady of ancient Roman family (one of the Gracchi) waiting at the edge the consular hall, and he decided he must take the time to speak with her. Anything less would be disrespectful and most ungracious, considering how many times he and his wife had been invited to the consul's fine villa just outside Londiniuum.
He found her as lovely as he remembered, as the consul led him up to her, but there was no happiness in her expression, only a kind of patient resignation in the face of a hard, inescapable destiny. The jetstone miniature of her husband at her neck, and the jetstone ear pendants, they went along with her fatalism, he thought. Didn't they have any hope of the Resurrection? Perhaps he could share with her something of his faith, just as he had done with her husband on previous occasions. He knew there might not be another chance, as they would not be meeting again in this life, he knew. Britannica, he loved, and he could never leave her, whether Roma abandoned his country or not. As for New Roma, he knew he would slowly wither there in a gilded cage--better to face the barbarians in the West than feast amidst the sophisticated Greek-speaking "Romans" of the East, blue-blood courtiers and officials who would never accept him and his family as their equals, since the Urbani, like all British nobility, were originally Celts and provincials with only a few generations of Roman civilization to their names! What would they care if he told them his family line sprang from kings--they would smile at him and detest the thought that barbarian kings were anything to be proud of! No, rather than endure such humiliation and the slights of courtiers, a rustic but dignified obscurity in Glevum was much preferable, and so he and his son and Lancio and his servant were returning to Britannica as soon as his business with the pepper imports was finished in Roma!
The lady laughed, yet her husband the Consul looked very serious. "It would be more likely for you to come our way instead. We doubt we will see the Western Empire again--it is going into such bad hands these days, there may not be much left of it in a few years. The barbarians--"
She looked off, and her husband frowned. "But I am not a very good hostess, reminding you of such unhappy things!" she said, brightening up a bit. "Won't you please stay and dine with us? We have so few guests ourselves these days since we were relocated all this way from Roma. Imagine, no consul residing in Roma--who could have imagined such a thing!"
Rufus Quartus Urbanus bowed, but declined again. "It is most urgent that we reach Roma and conclude our business there. The pepper fleet is in, I have been informed. I must speak with the captains and the collegia and the others in charge of the trade, to insure that Britannica receives its yearly allotment according to the imperial edict. If I don't catch them this time, it may be years before we get the import trade re-established on former lines--as we have had to make do with such scanty stocks of pepper the people at home are growing very unhappy. As a middleman for a league of cities, I am held responsible by all parties, even if I am not making any profit at the end!"
He reached up and grasped the rein as Rufus Quartus Urbanus mounted his horse. "One question, my friend, will you grant me that? We may not meet again in this life."
Rufus Quartus Urbanus's eyebrows raised. "Yes? Is it as serious as your expression tells me?"
"My wife cannot bear children. We have tried for years, and now we are nearly past the age, I think, for child bearing. It is a hard thing for my wife particularly, even if I lack a son to carry on our name and inherit the properties and servants. Here is my question. Is it true your god, your Christian God, is a healer? I heard tales that he has granted children to the barren women in your assembly. Is there any hope for us in your God?"
Rufus Quartus Urbanus spoke very quietly with the troubled Consul for a few moments, and then prayed for him. Urbanus saw it was time to go, when he saw that the Consul truly understood the reasons for faith and how to become right with God, and they moved away. "Let me know by imperial post whether God has answered my prayer!"
The Consul saluted him. "Yes, I will. And I and my wife will believe God, believe Christ his Son for a child, as you instructed me to do in faith! We will follow His way. Farewell!"
"One last favor I ask of you, my friend. Would you give this to the imperial post, my friend? My wife will be anxious to hear of us." Rufus Quartus handed the Consul a scrolled letter.
"Certainly, in the very next post! And I will put my own seal upon it, so it receives the most protection and arrives under guard as far as Gesoricum!"
Rufus Quartus bowed his head, then turned his horse, and his son followed.
What Honorius liked most of all, other than the towers to climb and the wild beasts kept in the palace zoo and the special, glassed-in gardens where monkeys and butterflies and exotic plants thrived, were the imperial garages situated next to the marble-floored and gold-decorated stables. In the garages the Emperor Honorius had left numerous rows of imperial conveyances, such as the raeda. The splendid, four-wheeled vehicle was pulled by two to four horses. It was ornamented inside and out with gold decorations, and had space for a whole family to travel with the emperor.
Honorius climbed inside an even larger carriage, the carruca. It was a sleeper and contained a splendid bed with pillows, with blinds to close off the light from the windows.
"Couldn't we get one of these to use, Pater, instead of riding horses?" he asked. "It would be so nice traveling in one of these! We wouldn't ever get wet or cold again. And there's a place to sleep and eat in them too!"
Rufus Quartus chuckled. "All you would be able to do is sit or lie down, you would soon be bored with traveling! Besides, you are not as high up as on a horse. What is a little wet or cold? It toughens a man, rids him of his softness, so he can endure whatever hard things life brings. No, it is best to see the country as we are doing, from horseback, and, besides that, a carucca or raeda out on the roads blazing with gold decorations would just draw the bandits down on us, so we would require a special guard of soldiers to accompany us."
Yet it was apparent to even Honorius's star-struck eyes that something was missing--namely crowds of people. Finally, he turned to his father. "Where is the Emperor, Pater? Has he gone on a hunting trip and has not yet returned?"
His father sat him down, and looked intently into Honorius's eyes. "I see I must tell you, now that you asked. He is gone, with all his people, since he will no longer live here in Roma. It is too dangerous for him."
Honorius was astonished. "But why? Roma has great walls! What can he be afraid of, Pater? He has many soldiers, doesn't he! What about the legions?"
His father shook his head. "They are no longer enough, son. The Emperor knows that, so he has moved to a city in the north, Ravenna, that is surrounded most sides with water and swampland. There he and his nobles and family will be safe enough."
"Safe? Safe from what, Pater?"
"The barbarians, who cannot all be stopped. They cannot beat our legions man to man, but they can overwhelm our poorly manned border garrisons with their numbers, as they are doing in place after place. We saw what they did in Gallia Cisalpine, and they will be coming all the way south to Roma next, and this greatest of earth's cities will be taken, burnt, pillaged, and maybe destroyed to the foundations. That is why I wanted you to see it now, my son, before it is swept away, or changed so greatly you would not want to see it."
Honorius's eyes fell, and he was silent for a time.
"I do not believe that will happen to this place and this city, Pater. It is too big and great for that."
His father chuckled. "Yes, it certainly appears to be. God will decide, in any case. So let us go on then."
He had an idea. He would run away! But what would he eat, where would he sleep? He had seen the hundreds of poor, beggar boys in the streets. They sold little things to the crowd, which dealers gave them to sell, or things they had stolen in the many big houses that were shut up by their absent owners with boards across the windows, or they just begged anyone who looked like he might have some money. Would they like it if he tagged along with them? Of course, they wouldn't! They didn't have enough to feed themselves, much less feed him too. Besides, he didn't like their smell, and the dark, filthy rags they wore, and their thin faces and clutching hands. He liked the fine, clean, purple-bordered clothes his father gave him, and the clean hot and cold and tepid water baths, and the good food and the soft, scented blankets of his bed at night. These things were necessary to civilized life. He didn't want to join the animals in the dirt! So what was he to do? He felt trapped, he couldn't live on his own without money, and his father kept all their money, except for a denarius or two that he gave him each week!
A thought crossed his mind. He could do something after all. Rise up in the night and steal the money bag, and then he'd have plenty to live on for a long time! He could be his own master, with no one telling him what to do. He would be wondrously free, like a bird is free to fly anywhere it likes in the wide sky. The thought kept him awake after he lay down in his bed and the servants had left the room. Before the dawn, he was still awake, and then he crept out of bed, careful not to wake anyone with a noise, and made his way to his father's chamber.
He knew where his father kept his money purse, because he had seen his father put it away time after time when he retired, at home and on the road, and so he found it easily in the dim light that entered the cracks of the shuttered window. He had just turned the corner of the door and shutting it softly when his arm was seized in a viselike grip. At the same moment the money bag was taken from him, and he was pulled right up to someone.
Honorius wasn't going to let someone manhandle him like this, so he struggled,twisting his body and pulling with all his might to get his hand free, but he felt an arm clenched around his body, lifting him up. .
He was taken down the hall, someone's hand over his mouth as he was carried. "He was going to cry, "How dare you!" to him, but Lancio's mouth was still over his mouth, and Lancio spoke instead.
"If you want your father to come and discipline you severely for this, it is for you to choose, Master Honorius. But if you will go to bed and sleep, I will put the money back and say nothing in the morning. Well, what do you choose?"
Set down in his room, he was enraged and could not think what to say at first.
Lancio repeated his offer and added the warning, "Otherwise, your father will hear everything you did, and surely you will be disciplined. Well, what is it going to be?"
In a movement too swift to see, Lancio stepped aside, seized the lampstand, and also grabbed Honorius.
Honorius felt Lancio's arm wrap around him, but he still had his head free so he opened his mouth and bit as hard as he could on the arm.
Lancio did not even flinch as Honorius's teeth sank in. Lancio swept Honorius up as though he were a pillow's goose feather and laid him on his bed, though he was kicking and struggling all he could in Lancio's iron grasp. But it was to no avail. Honorius was soon exhausted, and he began to weep. "Let me go," he whimpered. "You're hurting me."
He felt Lancio's grasp relax, and then let him go.
"So you are forcing me to tell your father? I could do that now, for you are still fighting me, are you not?"
"No, don't tell him!" Honorius gasped, getting his breath back. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to strike at you like that. I will do what you say, sir!"
Honorius lay there, his chest heaving, trying to think of what to do. But Lancio seemed to have total control of him, for he was strong as a bear. There seemed no way to elude him or get around him. But still Honorius did not give up. He would think of something, he decided. There had to be way to get round Lancio.
"I promise I won't cause any more trouble," Honorius said as meekly as he could. "Please go now and sleep in peace. I will go to sleep now too, and you need not stay with me any longer. I am used to sleeping without servants, for I am a big boy now."
"I will not go far, for you may change your mind," said Lancio grudgingly. "Oh, no, I won't change my mind! I promised you. I will go to sleep now, just as I said!" He heard Lancio sigh, then go out, shutting the door. Waiting a bit, Honorius got out of bed and slipped over to the door to listen. He thought he heard Lancio's rough breathing on the other side, so he knew he couldn't get out that way.
Honorius had already thought of another way, which would be a bit harder, but he knew he could still do it. He was on the second floor, which let down to the garden behind the house. If only he could slide down far enough he could reach a tree beneath. From there he could climb to the ground. He waited a while, which was just before dawn, and took his bed sheets to the balcony outside his window. Tying end to end of the sheets to make a rope that he then tied to the balcony railing, he was soon sliding down to the top of the almond tree. With one hand he held to the sheet, while the other searched for a big enough branch to bear his weight. He thought he found one big enough, and swung over to it. There was a snapping sound, then he tumbled, and found himself a moment later on the ground. He got to his feet, and though his tunic was all mussed up with leaves and twigs, he felt no bones were broken. A moment later however, his arms and legs began to burn all over where the bark had scraped them.
He danced up and down, trying not to cry out.
Gradually, the fire died down, and he limped away, for his ankle seemed to have been knocked on a limb on the way down. He felt like crying, but he kept his mouth clenched and tried to be a legionarire instead. He still had to get out of the garden. Where was the back gate, if there was one? He had to find it, or else try to scale the high wall by first climbing a tree nearest the wall with his paining ankle.
His breath knocked out, he lay gasping, crawling, and trying to get to his feet. Finally, he was on his feet, dazed and cut and filthy and his clothes torn up and covered with dirt. Stumbling, with his eyes choked with tears and dirt that covered his face, he moved forward across the forecourt of a neighboring palace and didn't see what he was getting himself into. Boys as ragged and dirty as Honorius were busy running about the main entrance pavement, scrambling to grab the stolen items from the house either thrown down by the boy on the porch roof into the shrubbery or, if too fragile to survive the fall, let down by a rope in a bag.
Honorius, half his senses knocked out of him, dumbly obeyed and carried the heavy item away toward the street. There he was joined by other boys, running with their items, and they hustled him down the street, and into an alley, and between houses and, still running, led him into an abandoned building, that might have been a bathhouse at one time, for it had pools in most every room, only they were dry and filled with rubbish.
Scrambling with Honorius in tow down some steps, they entered the basement, and steps led them further down into the gloom of a buried temple of the goddess Juno, the walls covered with flaking red and gold paint and arcane symbols known only to long-gone priests. Here lamps gathered from palaces were lit and set in wall niches, and already some of the wolf boys were sorting through their loot.
Honorius, confronted by this big, fierce boy realized he was in real trouble. Lupus had a tight hold on his arm, twisting it while he was demanding information, and Honorius, shaken badly by his falls, put up no resistance.
"Please, don't hurt me," Honorius gasped. "I didn't join your family. They thought I was one of them, and dragged me alone, that is--"
"Liar! You joined in with my boys just to grab some loot for yourself, and then run and tell the authorities where we were located! Right? I've seen your kind often enough. I will make a lesson of you, so that no one else will even think about trying it again!"
"But I vow to you on my honor, I'm not a thief!" Honorius protested, but no one would listen to him, and jeered at his protests. Lupus dragged Honorius over to the altar, then lifted him up and slammed him down on it.
His breath knocked out, Honorius was helpless, and Lupus and his cohorts quickly bound his hands and feet, so he couldn't resist even if he wanted to.
"Your father?" jeered Lupus. "Who, I pray, is your father? Just because you have one, you needn't be a crybaby about it--he's not going to rescue you from me, at any rate."
Now Lupus was enraged by Honorius's mere mention of his having a father. None of the boys could point to theirs, in fact. Lupus especially had no one father he could name, as his mother, a prostitute, served many men, hundreds over a period of a year. Then one day she was beaten to death by a drunken legionnaire, and he vowed to avenge her death any way he could. Casting his lots in with the wild boys of the streets and gutters, he went to live with them under bridges, in abandoned houses, even in tombs, wherever they could find shelter in the terrified city where multitudes of poor people were crammed in, trying to avoid the dragnet of the Goths as they swept closer and closer to Roma with their barbarous armies.
He had run with street boys most of his years anyway, so it was no new thing to him, to have to fend for himself this way, using only his wits. But he now has leadership over other boys, who were all in the same condition--being fatherless and motherless orphans. The authorities were brutal, and ever so often would make a sweep of the streets and their other haunts, killing as many as they could catch and throwing their bodies into the Tiber, so they had to be always on the alert and ready to flee the soldiers.
Lupus hated the legionnaires especially. In fact, he had a passion that consumed him, that one day he would do them the greatest harm he could. In the meantime, it gave him satisfaction and something to do to organize the boys of the street gangs and rifle the home of the rich and powerful, paw through their treasures and take whatever he please, while urinating on the rest, before setting fire to the whole house. But to strike at the legions, whom he held responsible for his mother's head being bashed in with the butt of a sword and her naked body left half hanging out a window of their apartment, he had to do something greater than ransack and burn great houses. He knew the weaknesses of the city's walls were in the gates, because he knew many of the gatekeepers and their ways. They were corrupt and took bribes, he knew, and he had many fine things of high value cached away in secret places that he could use for bribes when the time came. As soon as the Goths were at the walls, he had a plan prepared, to open at least one of the gates through bribing the gatekeepers and guards, and let the Goths do whatever they wanted with Roma--burn it down after looting it, that was his heart's passionate desire.
As for this boy sneaking into his own family, he couldn't allow it. Perhaps he was a spy for the Prefect, who may have gotten wind of Lupus's plan and wanted to also smash the street gangs that terrorized whole districts now that law and order were breaking down in the city, even in daylight hours.
Following Lupus's orders, the boys ran back up the steps and then soon returned with sticks of wood and tree branches and whatever else they thought would burn. This they began piling on top of Honorius, who was rigid with horror at the thought of what that meant.
Lupus grabbed Honorius's hands, inspecting his nails and skin, then smiled. "I thought so! You're from some noble family, from the looks of your soft skin and your fine ways. You never did a bit of grubbing for money in your life, did you now?"
"What are you doing? Let me go! My father will call the soldiers to come and punish you! You will be all executed for this! Let me go!"
But Lupus held him down all the more, as the pile of wood and sticks was made to cover Honorius.
"A lamp from over there!" he barked to a boy. Honorius screamed as the lamp was brought close to his face, the flame singing his eyebrows.
"No," said Lupus, "don't burn his eyes out just yet, let him see what we are going to do to him first."
Perhaps the group was so intent on making the pyre and terrorizing their upper class victim that they didn't hear a sound of someone coming. Or the man was silent as a phantom spirit when he moved swiftly down the steps and then jumped into their midst. Instantly, he swept them aside with a big stick he carried, and he grabbed Honorius, sweeping him up off the altar, and with one hand free, fended off Lupus who came back at him with a patrician's ruby and diamond-studded javelin.
The javelin went flying as Lancio, for Honorius saw it had to be his father's servant, knocked it from Lupus's hands. The other boys had knives too, of course, and could do him some serious damage, but they weren't any more successful in getting to the worldly-wise, veteran legionnaire who knew all their possible moves before they could make them. Honorius was soon lifted out of Juno's temple and into the bathhouse, and Lancio kept going, and then they were outside in the street, with the gang hot on their heels but wary of his big stick.
The nearest large building happened to be the Coliseum, which was hard by the Arch of Constantine and also the bronze Colossus of Helios. He didn't have to think long about it, and turned in immediately at the nearest entrance.
How long would that be? It was the darkest time of night, and that meant dawn would be breaking in about an hour.
Just in case there were watching eyes of wolf boys to trace his route, he took a round about run through the inside arches and then went up a stairs and came out a vomitorium, only to cross over the stands to another vomitorium and go down the stairs, crossing yet to another stairs to ascend to the upper levels.
He encountered no police or guards on patrol. He found only occasional slaves at work cleaning in preparation for the coming day's events, with others risking a lashing by sleeping in corners, their bags of trash used for pillows. He had hoped to cross the path of at least one arena guard on nightwatch duty, but there wasn't one, they had cut back so much in their forces since the panicky emperor and his court and chief government officials and nobles fled to Ravenna and security was drastically reduced. The guard could have called for the others, and the wild boys would have been forced to make a rapid retreat. But not one showed up as he ran through a big swath of the arena.
Yet it wouldn't be long before they had to come out of their headquarters. Arena guards, he knew, would make their routine sweeps through the premises, to clear out any loiterers before the first rush of spectators was admitted in the forenoon. If only he had remembered exactly where guards were quartered on the site, he could have run straight to them, and endured their jibes for his running from mere boys, though he didn't need to explain how he had Honorius to defend. In service to the father, he wasn't about to risk his son for a fight in which he was vastly outnumbered. Even if he survived, Honorius could be badly hurt, and what then? He would have failed the father. Besides, he had no taste for slaughtering mere boys, even if they were savage and would try to kill him!
Just to make it doubly sure he wasn't followed, he climbed to the highest gallery, then explained to Honorius what he wanted him to do.
Lancio popped the grate with his foot, which had small iron nails to hold it, centuries old and rusted in their mortar, so they easily released the grate just enough so he could pull it away and not let it fall to the pavement, alerting any wolf boy scout below that they were in the gallery.
With the grate out of the way, Honorius could squeeze out. He wanted to crawl head first, but Lancio wouldn't let him. "Better you don't look down, even if it is too dark to to see much just yet," he said. "Just hold to the side and that will keep you."
Honorius wriggled out feet first, and with difficulty found the ledge and crouched on it, his hand gripped hard by Lancio.
When Honorius got his breath and settled down, Lancio assured him, whispering, "Good job! Just remain there, and if we are discovered, they will see just me, and I will do what I told you I would do. But you must hold to the window frame, and that will keep you safe until it is safe for you to climb back in. Wait until it is light. Then return to your father, with or without me! I told Gais to follow us, but he may not have kept up, or he doesn't care come up here and give our whereabouts away, so you will have to get home alone somehow with your bad foot. Can you do that?"
His stomach churned, he was freezing cold, yet feverish at the same time, and then he retched up his last meal. When the last of it left his mouth, spilling on the side of the Coliseum, he couldn't use his hand that gripped the ledge, so he had to wipe his face on his own shoulder. He would have loved to wash his mouth out from the awful taste, but he couldn't. He had to endure it, but spit a couple times, and that helped a little.
"If I had only stayed in bed!" he had time to think, wondering if Lancio had heard him spewing his stomach. He could have spared himself all this misery and trouble! What was going to happen next? Would they escape safely? He had no idea, and despite Lancio's assurances it seemed there was little hope for them. Suddenly, Lancio released his hand, and manfully trying not to cry out, Honorius grabbed the edge of the window frame and held on for dear life.
"Lancio?" he called as loud as he dared, but Lancio did not answer.
Honorius was petrified. Had the wild boys reached their perch? Was Lancio being chased? He knew Lancio could easily kill them, but he didn't because he was a Christian, so he let them chase him instead to hopefully wear them down. It was too dark, and he couldn't tell what was going on. That was the worst thing about it all--not knowing!
"Yes!" Honorius almost screamed in shock.
"They're coming up here, so I am leaving you to play fox and hounds. Do as I told you. You will be all right here. Don't move until it is light. Be a good soldier and obey! Then you will see your father and your mother again."
Then silence. Cold, hard silence! And Honorius knew Lancio was gone. He felt sick at heart, and so cold and faint he could hardly hold to the stone ledge--but then he remembered Lancio's words, "Be a good soldier and obey!"
That shamed him, for he knew Lancio was trying to help him, and he stiffened up, and quit crying and settled down to wait, though he wondered what Lancio was doing.
He heard little of what was going on, but there were wolf boy whistles, some shouts, and then a few things flew over the side, which might have been pieces of crumbled masonry.
Knocking at the huge bronze doors, he got a servant to open, and the doors shut again. Knocking again with all his force, he got more servants to come, but they looked at the heap of dirt trying to gain entrance, and didn't recognize him. But one remembered he had heard a guest say his young son was missing that morning, and in fact many of the servants were already searching the grounds and all the buildings for him. Was this wretched person him?
The lady of the house was brought word about the boy at the door, and then his father came from around the side of the house just then making for the entrance. He saw his son and ran up the steps to him, snatched him up, and hugged him so he couldn't breathe.
His father and the lady and the servants were amazed at his terrible condition. He was dirty all over, his face almost black, his clothes torn and filthy too, and he was groaning from the pain in his bulging ankle.
"Where were you, son? What happened to you? Did someone take you captive? How is it that Lancio couldn't protect you? Where is Lancio? And Gaius, where is he? They shouldn't have let you go alone like this."
The lady brought them all into the house, sending a servant to fetch the family doctor immediately, and Honorius was given a bench to lie on while the bed was being carried to him.
Honorius was weeping. He couldn't help himself. "I did what he told me to do--wait for the first light, then climb back down from the gallery of the Flavian arena and return here as fast as I could. And I did what he said, but I haven't seen Lancio. I don't know what happened to him."
"But what did you do? Where did you go, so that Lancio was with you. Did he lead you away from here in the dead of night? I cannot believe that!"
"No, Pater, it was my idea. I ran away, when he was guarding my door, and got out a window and climbed over the wall. But some wild boys I ran into thought I was one of them, and took me to their secret place where they keep things they steal from the houses, and--"
"But where is Lancio?" his father interuppted. "Is he in trouble from these boys somehow?"
"Yes, Pater, he may be. Are you going to help him? Please do! It's the Flavian arena--that's where we were, hiding until the wild boys left. He's maybe still there."
That was all the father needed to hear. The lady released her youngest, strongest men servants, and they left at once for the Flavian arena. A hard run down the hill got them there, with Rufus Urbanus carried in a sedan chair.
Guards were now on duty, and they joined in the search for Lancio after Rufus told them what had happened to his young son.
Rufus left the sedan chair and ran toward him, hoping against hope. Lancio recognized the man approaching him and they quickly reunited, clasping each other's hand, though Lancio's face grimaced and his bloody shoulder showing a bleeding gash.
Rufus Quartus shook is head as he examined the wound. "I see it needs a physician, to bind it up properly. We shall do that shortly, if you will return with me now to the house in the chair. I was most concerned for you, Lancio! I thought you might be badly hurt not to return with my son. I owe you an immeasurable debt for rescuing him, only name it, I will pay it somehow! Ask my estate if you will, it is yours! I will become a laborer on your fields. All I possess would have meant nothing to me if my son were lost."
"No, sir, I only did my duty by you and my Lord Yeshua. I am a simply a man under authority, that is all. I have no reward coming for doing my duty. But if you wish to do something, you might give Gaius my servant something of means that will help him, since his best years were taken by his long imprisonment and he cannot do much labor anymore and will need something for his old age if I am not able to provide for him."
Rufus smiled. "Done! But where is Gaius?"
"The last time I saw him, Gaius was doing as I instructed him, to follow at a distance and then report back to the Lady Domnia if we--your son and I--got into serious trouble. If could be he will be at the house when we return."
As soon as they were seated and Rufus Quartus bound a small cushion to Rufus's wound to staunch the blood, the bearers took them back up the Palatine to the great house of the Lady Domnia Juliani. On the way, Rufus Quartus spoke again. "But where exactly were you all that time before our meeting, Lancio? What happened to you? Retrace your steps for me, and explain how my son was free to return, but you were not?"
Lancio smiled ruefully and glanced backwards at the topmost gallery of the receding arena.
"Just before we met and I had seen it was safe for your son to return to you, I was up there, pursued by packs of wild boys, and then--"
He paused, and Rufus Quartus could not wait. "Yes, what happened?"
Lancio's face showed a sense of humor and bewilderment too, a rare expression on his features, which made him look almost comical.
"I don't know exactly. I was up there, struck on the arm by a large piece of stone, when something like a god appeared--but--"
"'Something like a god?' Surely, Lancio you don't mean that! Was it God, or was it not? You are a Christian. There are no lesser gods! Those gods of old Roma and the Greeks were nothing but demons and idols and superstition, by which the people were hoaxed into giving huge gifts to the temples and the priests. God was never in any of that sham and flummery!"
"Yes, I believe that with all my heart, sir. Only this strange being who flew to my rescue, lifted me off the side of the building onto a great shield that bore a long lance in the midAdle of it-- well, he was like no other man I ever saw. He seemed to know me, and wanted to help me, even if the rocks were striking at him too when he came close enough to pull me aboard his strange flying shield."
Rufus thought Lancio was suffering too much pain to be in his right mind, or perhaps a rock had struck the senses from his head, and so he quickly ushered him into the house himself before the household servants could do it for him.
It was now a new day, with chattering birds and bright morning light breaking upon the city, and the wild boys had seen the first glimmers and rapidly retreated from the arena, even before Lady Domnia's servants entered the arena to search for Lancio. Cursing guards, carrying whips, were clearing the arena of any loiterers and sleeping slaves. The wild boys had gone just in time to escape the guards, leaving in disgust after a god had swept down on his flying shield and swept Lancio away to safety. They were just about to cast more replaceable senators' heads down on him they had removed from senatorial statues, and would have knocked him off his perch for sure, when the god intervened.
What god could it have been? Lupus wondered. Mars? Jupiter? Mercury? Whoever he was, the god's sudden appearance had struck fear upon them, so that they couldn't do anything but stare with their mouths open, though smaller boys screamed in terror and ran away, first dropping what they had in their hands.
He could see the stares of common laboring people and farmers as they passed, glancing admiringly at the raeda and the horses. It satisfied Honorius for being deprived of his own horse temporarily, as his ankle was still wrapped up with bandages by the doctor and would have pained him too much to ride alongside his father.
This carriage was almost as good as his own horse, he thought, and maybe better. How he enjoyed being the object of admiration and envy. After all, how many boys his age ever got to ride in a patrician's luxury car, a raeda straight out of a glittering, golden palace in Roma? Very few! he thought. Yes, he knew they had to turn it back eventually to the drivers, who would return it to Lady Domnia on their reaching Classis, but until then could act like a great nobleman's son on way to the imperial court to see the Emperor Honorius (his namesake) himself. He knew that was exactly what people were thinking who were watching them pass by--"There is someone very important going to the imperial court in Ravenna". Ha ha ha! Oh, if only little Glevum could see him now!
As they had to wait for the morrow to take ship to Ravenna, Honorius's father found lodgings with a godly elder of the local church. There they joined in the Christmas celebration of the birth of Yeshua in Bethlehem. A church met in the house, and many people came and sang songs and worshiped and broke bread and drank from a common cup together in remembering Yeshua the Christos, his death, the purpose for which he had come and been born on earth. Honorius, who knew all about Yeshua, he thought, enjoyed the good meal provided, but would have liked to go out and look around the city--only his father forbade him, since the Christians of Classis were under a kind of siege, due to so many pagans taking to the streets with their drinking revels, adulteries, knifings, beatings, rapes and robberies.
In the night, awake in a strange bed, Honorius decided he would get up and see what was going out in the streets, for he knew Saturnalia was going on, and he went to the window, hearing a lot of noise outdoors, not wanting to miss out, despite his father's instructions to keep to his bed. Glevum had nothing to compare. What he saw kept him on the balcony, for he didn't want to miss the incredible show going on.
Lancio said something to Honorius about not going to close to certain untrustworthy pagan sailors on board, and Rufus Quartus caught Honorius snapping back at him.
The father took Honorius's arm firmly and led him back to where the ropes were piled, behind piled up wine amphorae and earthenware grain stores for the imperial household.
"You have disobeyed me, my son!" the father said. "You were up long into the night, weren't you? You were no doubt watching the wickedness in the streets, as I told you not to. Look at you now! You are not well, which is your own fault. Then you are disrespectful to Lancio, who is an honorable, freed man in my service, not a mean slave. Even a slave can be dignified with the faith of our Lord, and must be treated with respect. Besides that, they are your elders. I won't let you act like this."
The crew heard a loud whack with a paddle or some such flat implement of wood, and a big, wailing howl from a boy, then a little later the father and his son came forward to join the others, the boy manfully trying to keep from crying as he limped along, his head down.
The rest of the trip was quite uneventful, and even when Ravenna's domes and towers hove into view, Honorius did not take particular notice. He was sick to death of Italia! Its grand promenades and fear-stalked streets, the squalor and the splendor all jumbled together, and the sight of people who still could afford to leave taking all they could carry of their possessions and then cramming into every outbound ship. That hadn't bothered him much at the time, since he knew he had a secure home waiting for him back in Britannica, but somehow the chastisement had taken all the wind out of his sails in regard to sight seeing and playing like he was a great aristocrat's son. He had no desire anymore to join the royals in a royal banquet or do anything else with them.
Lancio noticed the change in the boy immediately after he spoke to him, and the boy answered him civilly, with genuine respect. Strange, he thought, how a little humbling can change a boy's whole outlook! He commented on the change in the boy's attitude to his father, and he nodded and replied: "But the Word of God can tell us that, Lancio, as the prophets of old commanded parents not to spare the rod, or they will spoil the child."
Yet a boy's heart was feeling the distance from home and the alien strangeness too of his surroundings. He had grown homesick. He could also see his mother's face, and remembered her loving arms around him. Behind her rose the pleasant green hills and the pastures were he could run and play all he wanted without any harm. It made him yearn to start the homeward trek as soon as possible!
"Can we go home now, Pater?" Honorius pleaded with his father, as the ship moved toward the docks of the Imperial Capital. "Please, sir, I want so much to go home."
Rufus Quartus smiled down at his son, and tousled his hair. "Yes, I feel the same. Home looks all the more sweet from such a distance as this. It has been a long journey. We will spend as little time as I must in this place. I have no taste for imperial etiquette and banqueting. We will decline all that nonsense, and get to the business of our coming here, and depart immediately on the morrow, God willing, for the western coast, where we take ship for Spain and the road north to Gesoricum. The mountains are now choked with snow and ice. If we attempted the northern routes now by way of Carnumtum, we would certainly have to winter there, if we made it there safely! I have seen it before, it not a bad place to reside, with many baths, taverns, halls, and lodgings, but still very expensive. No, we shall go by way of the west and south and skirt as much of the icy heights as we can."
What a relief it was to the chastened Honorius, that it happened as his father hoped. His father concluded the ratification ceremony, for that was all it was, just a mere formality, and the pepper agreement was signed, sealed, and delivered to the proper high official, who threw it to his servants to put away someplace in the archives to be lost forever. Everybody knew that the Ravenna court was virtually powerless and of no use to the Western Empire, and whatever happened there had little or no effect in the outside world. As for the Emperor, after being notified, he declined to condescend to give an audience to mere provincial gentry hailing from Britannica. Rufus Quartus heaved a sigh of relief at the news. Departing the palace, bowing to each official in turn, he was careful not to show his relief as long as any court dignitary was in sight. Even useless old lions have a claw or two, he knew, that they might use if offended in parting--and he didn't want the emperor to think his slight was most welcome. If offended, if he still could, Emperor Honorius might cut back on Britannica's pepper allotment, and then what would the Britons have to put zest and savor into their porridge and meats and sauces?
Within hours, they were back on board a warship patrolling the river as far up as it was navigable through the swamps. From thence they would take the road to the coast, and sail to Hispania past Capri and over to the east coast of Hispania. The roads north from there would take them through mountains, of course, but not as high as the Alps, and they could skirt the worst of them too. Once over, they would be quickly on their way to Gesoricum, with no more mountains to climb, just warm and sunny plains and valleys.
Honorius gazed up to the mountains rimming northern Italia, the soaring, snow-capped granite mounts of Cisalpine Gallia, where the eagles nested fearlessly in the crags.