Part III Chimena Chapter 3
"They are following us still," said Rotiger to Ragoczy Germainus three nights later as they made camp in a shallow ravine some forty thousand paces from the remote inn. The crags around them looked much the same as the slope where they had found the inn-swaths of exposed rock with occasional dead stumps serving as memorials to the lost forest. Patches of tough grass showed here and there, fodder for the goats that roamed the mountains in large flocks.
"Tomorrow we will reach the forest and they will find other game," said Ragoczy Germainus with a tranquility that was only superficial.
"Do you think so?" He shook his head. "We could travel tonight, and put more distance between us."
"And encounter who knows what in the effort," said Ragoczy Germainus. "No, I would rather be on the road when they are all at rest. If there are as many vampires in these mountains as Olutiz implied there were, I have no wish to encounter them unprepared." He glanced at the goose Rotiger was plucking and achieved a wry smile. "You may not think this is much of a meal, old friend, but it was not taken from any shrine to Chimenae's get."
"No, it was not," Rotiger agreed as he continued to pluck, shoving the feathers into a canvas bag and grinning in anticipation of his meal.
"If only the road were better, we would travel faster," said Ragoczy Germainus, revealing his anxiety in a quick frown. "With so many trees gone, the road may fall away completely in another year or so."
"We have traveled over worse terrain," Rotiger reminded him.
"And in greater haste," Ragoczy Germainus said. "But I do not want to be driven through these mountains in panic if we need not be so." He struck flint to steel and set the spark to the tinder he had gathered. "I do not like the notion of having to kill my own kind, but it would be wisest to be ready for that, as well." He had three straight branches as long as his arm lying near the incipient fire. "I'll get these sharpened when the flames are steady."
"Do you think you will have to use them?" Rotiger asked, doing his best not to sound worried.
"I hope we will not. But it may be necessary, and I will prepare these to be both torches and stakes." He frowned, grief at the back of his dark eyes.
"They would not hesitate to use those, or other weapons, on you," Rotiger pointed out, understanding Ragoczy Germainus' hesitation.
"Perhaps not," he conceded. "But I cannot be easy in my mind about the possibility."
Rotiger said nothing as he continued his plucking. When he was finished, he split the goose and sat down to eat it, after leaving the organs in a small pile a short distance from their camp. "There may still be cats or martens or weasels on these hillsides who will be glad of such food."
"So there might," said Ragoczy Germainus as he busied himself sharpening the last of his branches. He worked in silence, his thoughts carefully kept at bay as he worked, his determination showing in the set of his jaw. How long had it been, he asked himself, since he had had to face other vampires? It was half a lifetime ago, at least, in Judea, and the vampires were thought to be demons; then it had not mattered to him, for the killing gave him a rush of terror that filled him with a furious satisfaction that cut through his despair and left him intoxicated with the potency of the emotion. Only later did he discover the nourishment of love, and came to seek it instead of the inebriation of abject fright.
"What is it?" Rotiger asked, regarding Ragoczy Germainus with unsettled feelings; the expression he saw on his master's face was haunted, and Rotiger knew the memories he had summoned up were ancient.
"It was before your time." He looked up into the sky, studying the stars. "They change so little, even after centuries."
Rotiger accepted this with a philosophical nod. "Egypt, I suppose."
"Before Egypt. Judea." Ragoczy Germainus finally lowered his head and met Rotiger's eyes again. "You would not have known me then."
As always, when Ragoczy Germainus recalled those long-departed times, Rotiger felt a qualm that could not be hidden; his shudder was strong enough to make the goose in his hands shake. "If you tell me so."
Ragoczy Germainus laughed once, so sadly that Rotiger shuddered again. "I hardly know myself as I was then." He took care to build up the fire, using this chore as an excuse to say nothing more.
"Are you going to stay awake all night?" Rotiger asked when he had finished his meal and tossed the bones far off into the darkness.
"I think it would be best," said Ragoczy Germainus, his manner slightly remote. "I will look after the horses and mules. We do not want any misfortune befalling them."
"If you mean Olutiz, no we would not," said Rotiger, spreading out his Roman bedroll on the ground.
"Olutiz or any of the others." Ragoczy Germainus dragged one of his chests of his native earth nearer the fire; it was an easy task for him, though ordinarily it would take two grown men to handle the heavy object. He sat on it, one of his stakes in his hand. "Go to sleep. You have nothing to fear."
"If you say not," Rotiger told Ragoczy Germainus, almost convinced of it himself.
Not long before dawn, Ragoczy Germainus awakened Rotiger; the fire was low and their animals were beginning to be restless. "There are men on horseback coming this way. If you listen you can hear them. We had better be prepared to meet them. Rise and arm yourself quickly." He went to build up the fire and to saddle their mules and horses.
"Are you certain they are men?" Rotiger asked as he tended to his bedroll, securing it with braided thongs before tying it to the cantel of his saddle where it stood on its pommel-end for the night.
"No doubt whatever. They all have pulses and by the sound of their orders, they are Moors." The self-possession he displayed was familiar to Rotiger, who shook his head.
"You have no apprehension about Moors?" He went to find his short sword and thrust it into its scabbard before buckling it onto his belt.
"Of course I do," said Ragoczy Germainus. "But not as I have about vampires." He was strapping his Byzantine long sword in its scabbard across his back, and he had taken his double-curve bow from its place in their packs and now strung it with an ease that would have shocked its Mongol maker. That done, he slung the quiver over the opposite shoulder to his sword, saying as he did, "I think I will leave the crossbow packed. The Moors are not likely to think it a hunting weapon."
The sound of the approaching horseman was louder, now, and their pace had picked up from a walk to a trot.
"They have seen the smoke of our fire," said Ragoczy Germainus, and began to saddle their mules, starting with the jenny he had treated a few days ago. "Keep on with your tasks, old friend. Do not appear too ready to fight. That would encourage them."
Rotiger's dun whinnied suddenly and was answered by four of the approaching horses.
"If that is what you want," said Rotiger as he picked up the long stakes Ragoczy Germainus had fashioned the night before. "What about these?"
"Put them into the pack with our weapons. We will not need them during the day." He secured the breast-collar to the girth and began to buckle the girth. "Put the lightest packs and chests on this one. I'll saddle the jack next." He picked up the largest pack-saddle and its sheepskin pad and went to the second mule-a strengthy mule whose neck and shoulders revealed his cart-horse dam-and put the pad in place on his back. The jack immediately inhaled and held his breath. "Very funny," said Ragoczy Germainus and went on with putting the saddle in place, then the breast-collar, and then began to tighten the girth, leaving it slightly loose. He was saddling the third mule when a company of Moorish soldiers topped the rise of the ravine in which he and Rotiger were camped.
The leader of the troop shouted out a greeting that was also an order for immediate attention in a language that might have been Frankish, and was surprised to be answered in his own tongue.
"May Allah bring you good fortune and many sons," said Ragoczy Germainus, offering the Moors the traditional salaam.
The leader of the Moors held up his hand to halt his men. "How does an Infidel dog know this?"
"I have spent some years among your people, when I was younger," said Ragoczy Germainus, not mentioning that he had been a slave and had escaped from his owner thirty years before.
"And you follow the ways of the Franks?" The leader spat.
"Because it suits my purposes, yes, I do. I am not a Frank." Ragoczy Germainus did his best to maintain a cordial manner, but his dark eyes were flinty.
"You do not follow the Prophet?" The leader's bearded chin jutted forward.
"I have not learned enough of your faith to embrace it with understanding," said Ragoczy Germainus in his most cordial tone.
The leader nodded and sat back in his saddle. "Then how is it you are on this road? You are not a merchant, by the look of you."
"No, I have other business that occupies me." Ragoczy Germainus pointed to his three mules. "A merchant would have more goods than I carry."
"Tell me what your business is." The leader drew his scimitar and held it at the ready.
"I am a messenger for the Comites Egnacius of Touloz"-he used the Moorish version of the name of the territory deliberately-"bound for Asturica at the Comites' behest. He has ordered me to attend on the Dux of Asturica on his behalf."
"And you have come by this road?" The leader looked doubtful as he moved his horse a little closer.
"The road in the north is blocked, by avalanches, we were told," Ragoczy Germainus said. "We would have preferred to go that way, but it would have meant a long delay, perhaps into the summer, which the Comites would not approve for I must present myself to the Dux with all haste."
"So you have come this way. Did you not think there would be fighting?" The leader held up his scimitar as if to underscore his remarks.
"From what we have been told, fighting is the least of what we have to fear," said Ragoczy Germainus. "Everywhere we have heard tales of terrible attacks on the unwary. This region is said to be afflicted with demons." He cocked his head as if considering the possibility.
"It is," said the leader, his face revealing more than he intended, for as he glanced over his shoulder, his expression was tainted by fright.
"How can that be?" Ragoczy Germainus asked. "Have not holy men come here? Is the place not protected by prayers and amulets?"
"They are not enough," said the leader uneasily. "Many have disappeared, and nothing found of them again. Not even bones."
"Could not that be the work of bandits?" Ragoczy Germainus suggested. "If men disappear, it would seem to me that other men would be suspect."
"Not in this region," said the leader. "Scoff if you will, you will see for yourself if you continue through the mountains."
"You have men in these mountains," Ragoczy Germainus pointed out, indicating the remnants of logging that marked the slope. "You have had many men here, and not so long ago. Why should we fear to go where you have gone?"
"Our slaves were under guard, and even then, some of them vanished," said the leader.
"They ran away," Ragoczy Germainus countered. "Slaves will do that."
"Not here," said the leader. "Here they are glad to stay with their overseers and to work where they are ordered to go, so long as they are guarded day and night." He leveled his lance in Ragoczy Germainus' direction, saying forcefully, "If you do not go east to the coast, we will not protect you. You will be on your own against the demons that hunt here."
"Why should we go away from Asturica rather than toward it?" Ragoczy Germainus asked, his smile as affable as if he spoke to a comrade. "It may be that there is danger in these mountains, but that does not mean that demons are the cause. I have a crucifiz with me, blessed by the Pope, that no demon can withstand." He pulled a small silver crucifix from his wallet and held it up. "For Christians, it is proof against all evil."
"Then you have nothing to fear," said the leader, not quite concealing his sneer.
"So we think," said Ragoczy Germainus as he made sure he was able to keep an eye on all the men in the troop.
"If you should discover otherwise, we will not be able to help you," the leader warned, pointing toward the distant ridges where trees still grew. "And once you are in the forest you will be beyond all help."
"No doubt," said Ragoczy Germainus, salaaming again. "I thank you for telling me of the risks I may run. My manservant and I will be cautious in our choice of companions as we go."
"If you think that will be enough," the leader said, "so be it, and Allah witness what we have said."
"Amen to that," Ragoczy Germainus said, crossing himself and motioning to Rotiger to do the same. "You have nothing to worry about, good Moor. We are grateful to you for your coming to inform us of what lies ahead. Our crucifix will protect us, now that we know we must have it to hand."
The leader shifted in his saddle, making a sign to his men. "We ride on," he announced. "There is nothing more for us here." He wheeled his horse, then swung it back toward Ragoczy Germainus. "When you reach the wood, be on guard: there are patrols that may kill you before they know you are nothing to fear."
"Thank you again; I am twice in your debt," called Ragoczy Germainus, and stood, watching the Moors ride on, their horses leaving a cloud of dust hanging in the air to mark their departure.
"Do you think they accepted what you told them?" Rotiger asked when the Moors were far enough from their camp that the dust of their passing was settling once again.
"I think they were disgusted enough to decide not to question us any further. We have nothing they want, and that makes it easier for them to leave us to our fates." He did his best to smile, but his eyes were bleak. "If they should change their minds, we may find the going rather harder than before."
"How do you mean?" Rotiger paused in his work of breaking camp.
"I mean they could waylay us up the road and detain us." He shook his head. "Once in their prisons, we would be hard-pressed to conceal our true natures, for they are inclined to look for vampires and ghouls in these times, and in this place. They would be done with us quickly." He went and tugged the girths on the jack-mule's tight, smiling briefly as the mule huffed indignantly.
Rotiger looked appalled. "Surely not. You and I have been in prisons before and nothing happened worse than torture and hunger."
"Ah, but then our captors assumed we were living men. That would not be the case now." Ragoczy Germainus lifted the largest of their chests-one filled with his native earth-onto the pack-saddle on the jack-mule-saying as he did, "Now they would be watching us closely, and we cannot find ways to hide our...appetites." He began to strap the chest in place before reaching for the second, working with an ease that belied the weight of the chests.
"Then perhaps we should find another road, or make our own," Rotiger suggested. "They will not want to pursue us into the forest."
"They might not want to, but they would." Ragoczy Germainus shook his head. "If we deviate from the road we declared we were following now, they might come after us because of it. Having professed myself unconvinced of the presence of...eh...demons...I cannot now behave as if I believed in them. No," he said, setting his second chest of earth on the other side of the pack-saddle. "I must continue as I have begun with them."
"Do you think they will bother with us?" Rotiger asked, puzzled by Ragoczy Germainus' apprehension, "They left readily enough."
"Perhaps too readily," said Ragoczy Germainus as he lifted the third chest-his red-lacquer one-onto the other two and began to secure it in place with the broad, buckled leather straps that held the load and kept it from shifting; it was Ragoczy Germainus' own design, developed over centuries, combining elements of Roman, Scythian, Hunnic, and Mongol pack-saddles, made on a flexible, partly Roman, partly Moorish tree that adapted to almost every load.
"Then you are not satisfied that they accepted what you told them." Rotiger drowned the last of the fire with a pail of water and finished strapping bed-rolls and sacks of food to the second jenny's saddle, then went back to brush down his horse.
"No. That is why I have not removed my weapons," said Ragoczy Germainus. "I recommend you do not remove yours, either." He put their case of weapons on the larger jenny's pack-saddle, adding, "Keep her close to you. We may have to fight."
"You are expecting trouble," said Rotiger as he removed the hobbles from his dun's legs.
"I think it is possible," Ragoczy Germainus countered. "I hope the Moors will find more to occupy them than two foreigners traveling alone. Had we come with an escort we might as well be at a clash of arms now." He took his bridle from where it hung over the cantel of his up-ended saddle and put it on his horse, taking care to be sure the bit lay properly in the grey's mouth.
"You are going to fight these Moors, aren't you?" Rotiger demanded, his patience worn thin.
"Only if I must," said Ragoczy Germainus, and went on tacking his horse.
By mid-day they were in a deep valley cut by a stream. Along the distant ridge they could see gangs of men working to cut down the few remaining trees. Although they were many thousands of paces away, the sound of their labors came back to them.
While they watered their horses and mules in the stream, Rotiger looked about. "We are not far from Mont Calcius," he said, using the old version of the village's name.
"No, not far. It is a bit to the south of us, and, as I reckon it, Usca is directly west. The forest around Mont Calcius must be gone by now; I can think of no reason to go there. Once we reach Usca, we will have a direct road to Asturica. If there is no fighting between Usca and Asturica." Ragoczy Germainus glanced up at the men laboring high above them. "They are determined to clear out the trees."
"You do not approve," said Rotiger, recognizing the neutrality of his master's tone for condemnation.
"Not as they are doing it, no, I do not." He pointed to where a section of slope had slid. "Mountains need their trees, or they crumble. The Moors should have left the younger trees to grow, so that there will be more in fifty years, and they may build more ships. If they cut down much of the brush, they could graze their flocks in the forests as well as on the hillsides. But they will not do this, for they want the land cleared. So as it is, when those trees they are logging are gone, they will have no more generations, and the mountains will fall away. Remember what happened around that Byzantine outpost after the Huns came through. That was four hundred years ago and the forest is only starting to grow again."
Rotiger could think of nothing to say in response, nor did Ragoczy Germainus appear to expect anything, so he nodded once and turned away from the activity on the ridge, and a little while later was glad to move on.
By the time they made camp that evening, it was dark, and the place they found was a remount station where horses were kept saddled in the courtyard for the couriers and officers who used the road. For a piece of silver and two of copper, the Moorish landlord gave them room in the field behind the stables, and a paddock for their animals for the night.
"Will you hunt?" Rotiger asked his master, growing uneasy on his behalf for his long fast; he had just finished eating a haunch of lamb he had bought from a shepherd who had brought some of his stock to the remount station for the kitchen there.
"No. We are too close to the station for that, and there is not one within I can safely visit in sleep." He was lying back on his bed-roll, laid atop his largest chest of earth. "A night on this will restore me."
"How long can you continue this way? And do not remind me that you have gone much longer without sustenance of any kind." He held up his hand to show he had not yet finished. "I have seen you in those times, and I know what they do to you."
"Well and good," said Ragoczy Germainus. "I will hunt once we reach the forest. It will be safer there."
"With only Chimenae's minions to trouble you," Rotiger said, his sarcasm more worried than angry.
"I know what to do about vampires," said Ragoczy Germainus. "Little as I may know Chimenae herself, she is of my blood, and to that I am no stranger."
"I am sure this will serve to make allies of them all," said Rotiger.
Ragoczy Germainus chuckled sadly. "I doubt it, though it would please me to think so." He smiled up at the brilliant sky. "If only the nights were not so short, I would take the chance and hunt, but-" He lifted a hand in resignation.
"Speaking of hunting," said Rotiger in a different voice, "I have not sensed that we are being followed any longer."
"No," said Ragoczy Germainus. "We are not."
"Perhaps Olutiz has grown tired of the chase and gone back to his inn," Rotiger suggested, spreading out his bed-roll.
"No," said Ragoczy Germainus.
"Then what has become of him?" asked Rotiger as he settled himself down to rest.
Ragoczy Germainus' answer robbed him of his equanimity. "He and Dorioz are hunting the Moorish soldiers now," he said, continuing to study the night sky.
Text of a letter from Atta Olivia Clemens in Roma to Ragoczy Germainus in Touloza, written in Imperial Latin and never delivered.
To my most dear and oldest friend, Ragoczy Germainus-as you now call yourself-my affectionate greetings from Roma at the beginning of what promises to be a miserable summer here at Sine Pare.
I can but hope that this will reach you before you go on to another country with another name, for then I would have to wait until you have the inclination to write to me, and hope that I will still be here to receive it. You have been unusually peripatetic, even for you, since your escape from slavery in Hispania. You would think that the forces of the Emir's son could pursue you even now, and that if you remain anywhere for more than five years, you will be taken again. Yes, I am chiding you, for you know you could come here and have nothing to fear but the whims of the Pope, or from the soldiers who claim to garrison the city. Not that the Pope and the soldiers cannot be dangerous in their way, but I have found that a sack of gold is most salutary in its effect, and these days the Pope has other things to worry about than those raising horses on the outskirts of the city, and the soldiers are willing to accept money so they can gamble and whore.
Yes, I am truly now on the outskirts of the city. I have, in the last ten years, purchased land from the old limits of Sine Pare to that first line of villas, three thousand paces beyond the north gate of Roma itself. I have more than trebled my holdings, and I am about to purchase more. Or rather, my absent-but-very-wealthy-husband is about to purchase more, and to leave it to my care while he travels the world for the purpose of enriching our household. Niklos has twice gone to fetch the gold necessary for this expansion, and twice has managed to return with the whole sum intact. I am most pleased with him. Not simply for his skill at preserving treasure, but he has proven apt in keeping alive the myth of Servius of the Orsinus gens, my supposed husband. Even now, so many centuries later, I cannot bring myself to use the name of Cornelius Justus Sillius, though he was truly my husband, for fear that in so doing I might once again find myself hostage to a man. So Servius Secundus Orsinus is my spouse, far-traveled that he is, and Niklos is able to convince everyone in Roma that he has seen and talked to the man a year ago. How else, he says, can anyone account for my increase in wealth? No one here knows of the three stud farms I have, or the mills I have built in the Frankish territories. So now as no more wars ransack my holdings, I should have a good period of prosperity, which I am more than eager to share with you.
Very well, I admit it. I am lonely. I am lonely and I hate it. I have had lovers who have pleased me, but it is not the same as having you, for you know the demands of long life, as well as its delights, and with you, I may speak of the past without fear that I may reveal too much, and thereby bring myself and all I have worked for into danger. Niklos is a help, for he, too, is familiar with this gulf that yawns between us and the living, and he is willing to speak of it with me, but it is not the same. I know you have learned to accept the separation from the living, and to accommodate in a way I have not mastered. If you were here, you might be able to teach me how I might achieve the acquiescence you have acquired; as it is, I cannot keep myself from railing at the loss of rights that have forced me to invent husbands and fathers to enable me to have what is mine. When I was young and living, I would not have required such a ruse. No one here can comprehend my feeling of disadvantage that continues to thwart my ambitions, for they have never known another way; I am left to fret on my own, without the comfort of shared indignation. I do not mean to cark at you. It is good that you are willing to bear with me when I do, for you understand how one can miss what has been lost so many, many years ago: bear with me now.
Roma is not as you remember it, of course. It is not as I remember it, either. The walls are broken in several places, the baths are used for very little bathing, and those that are still standing are more brothels than anything else. The farmers raise pigs and sheep and cattle inside the walls, and where many great houses stood there are now only ruins half-buried in the earth. There are days when I wander the streets-with Niklos to escort me-and try to recall how it looked when I was growing up. It is at those times that I can comprehend why you return to your native earth, no matter who lives on it now, or what has become of your own people, for I know what was here seven centuries ago, and I know I am still part of that.
How maudlin of me. How can you bear to read this? Well, if I have not succeeded in putting you off entirely, let me say again how much I would enjoy your company at Sine Pare for as long as you care to remain. I am aware that two of our kind cannot stay in close proximity for many years, for it draws attentions to our habits and alerts the living to our presence, which is never useful. Still a year or two would not put either of us in danger, and it might be worth the chances we would have to take. I cannot promise you much better conditions than you have in Toulosa, but I can make sure you and Rotiger are protected from all but the forces of nature.
This by my own hand on the 6th day of June, according to the Pope's calendar, at Sine Pare.