Soldier of the Mist

Page 18

Hilaeira's mouth opened, and even Pindaros gave a low whistle.
"A miracle - a major miracle - has taken place here today. A great sign. Did any of you see it? See the hand actually move?"
Pindaros, Hilaeira, and I all shook our heads. Io had trotted around the sacred hearth to look more closely at the statue.
"A pity, and yet move it surely did, doubtless at the very moment of sacrifice, when our eyes were on the victim." Polyhommes paused, drew a deep breath, and let it out again. "I suppose you've heard about the dead woman in the city? She's said to have walked until cockcrow and spoken to many persons, and the whole town's abuzz over it. No one knows what it may mean, and now this! Wait until word of this gets out! Can you imagine it?"
"I can," Pindaros said. "I hope I'm far away by then."
Polyhommes continued as though he had not heard him. "This is something you can see for yourself and go home and tell your children about. This is - "
Io called. "There's a clean place on the pig's head where the hand used to be. Come look!"
No doubt it was a measure of our amazement that all of us did, obedient as children to a child's command. She was right. Smoke from the sacred fire had grimed the boar's head, but the broken marble where the goddess's hand had left it was white and new.
"Think what this will mean for our Royal House." Polyhommes rubbed his hands. "For the mysteries!"
"And I was here," Hilaeira whispered.
"Indeed you were, my daughter. Indeed you were! And when you've fathomed the mysteries - well, priests are always chosen from the men of our family, as I've said. But there is a place - the highest of all - for a woman in the ceremonies."
Hilaeira stared at him, a dawning wonder in her eyes. "She too is customarily of the Eumolpides, but that is no insupportable obstacle. There is adoption, after all. There is even marriage. Such arrangements might be made by the high priest, and there can surely be no question now about who the next high priest will be."
Polyhommes threw out his chest. "My uncle is an elderly man, and it would seem that the goddess has made her wishes regarding his successor quite clear. There was, after all, only one priest present at the time of the miracle."
Io asked, "But what does she want?"
"Eh?" He turned to look at her. "The goddess. Why's she pointing at the floor?"
"I'm not sure." The fat priest hesitated. "When such a gesture is used by one in authority, it generally means that something or someone is to be brought to him."
Pindaros cleared his throat. "An oracle in our shining city directed that Latro be brought to the goddess."
"Ah. And he was the giver of the sacrifice - officially, at least." Polyhommes turned to me. "Young man, you must remain in this Royal House overnight, sleeping on the floor or upon one of these benches.
Perhaps the goddess herself will appear in your dreams. If not, I think it likely she'll favor you with some message."
Thus I am here, sitting with my back against a column and writing these words by the light of the declining sun. I have had a good deal of time to think this afternoon; and it seems to me that more than once I have felt the spirit of a house when I, a stranger, went into that house - though I cannot retrieve from the mist those times or those houses. A temple is the house of the god who dwells there, and so I open myself to this house of the Grain Goddess, hoping to know whether it is friendly to me.
There is nothing - or rather, there is only the sense of age. It is as if I sit with a woman so old she neither knows nor cares whether I am real or only some figment of her disordered mind, a shadow or a ghost. A fly may light upon a rock; but what does the rock, which has seen whole ages since the morning when gods strode from hill to hill, care for a fly, the creature of a summer?
Chapter 19 In the Presence of the Goddess
I ate the beef, bread, and fruit Io had brought me from the inn, and drank the wine. When I was finished, I spread the pallet Hilaeira had carried and lay down; but I was not in the least ready for sleep, and when the town grew quiet, I sat up again.
For a time I read this scroll (which I must try always to keep with me) by the light of the sacred fire, learning of the many gods and goddesses who have shown themselves to me; and once or twice I took up the stylus to add some conclusion to the account of today's events I had written earlier. But how can a man draw conclusions from what he does not comprehend? I knew I did not understand what occurred, and it seemed to me that it would be better to wait until the goddess had spoken. Now I sit in the same place to write this record.
An acolyte entered without taking the least notice of me and, mumbling a prayer, cast an armload of cedar into the fire. It fell with a deep booming, as though the sacred hearth were a drum and not a stone.
When I dozed, that booming echoed through my dreams and woke me.
I could see the statue plainly in the firelight. The hand pointing to the floor was nearest the flames and flushed with their light, so that it seemed to glow like iron in a forge. I felt it demanded something of me, and I threw off my cloak, hoping that when I was nearer I would understand. The goddess's hand was hot to my touch, but it was only after I had drawn my own away that I looked at last and saw the thing to which she pointed.
There was a small section of floor between the coping around the sacred fire and the pedestal upon which the goddess stood. It was dirtier than the floor in other places, I think because those who cleaned it were fearful to approach her too closely, or were not permitted to do so. I knelt and brushed its surface with the tips of my fingers. Just at the place she indicated, there was a ring of bronze set in the stone, though the depression that held it was so packed with dirt I could scarcely see it.
I wished then for Falcata, but I could not have worn her in the temple, and I had left her at our inn.
There had been ribs among the meat, however, and when I had worked the point of the sharpest under the ring, it came up easily enough. I cast the rib into the fire as an additional offering and pulled at the ring with both hands.
The slab rose more readily than I had expected. Beneath it was a narrow stair and close beside it a pillar of flame; for the sacred hearth was not, as I had assumed, at the level of the temple floor, but here below it. I descended the stair, keeping away from the flames as well as I could.
"Your hair is singed." The voice was that of a woman. "I smell it, Latro."
I looked through the fire and saw her seated upon a dais at the end of the low room. Young she was, and lovely, wreathed in leaves and flowers; and flowers and leaves had been woven to make a chiton and a himation for her. And yet for all her youth and beauty, and the colors and perfumes of so many blossoms, there was something terrifying about her. When I reached the floor, I circled the sacred hearth, bowed low to her, and asked whether she was the Great Mother.
"No," she said. "I am her daughter. Because you are no friend of my mother's it would be best for you to call me the Maiden."
She rose from her seat as she spoke and came to stand before me. Slender and fragile though she looked, her eyes were higher than mine. "My mother cannot be everywhere, though she is in many places together. And so, because you have meddled in my realm, I offered to speak with you for her." She touched my hair, brushing away the scorched ends. "My mother does not wish to meet you again in any case. Would you not rather treat with me instead?"
"But I must meet with her," I said. I had read in this scroll what the Shining God had said and what the prophetess had chanted, and I told the Maiden of them.
"You are mistaken," the Maiden told me. "The Wolf-Killer said only that you must go to a shrine of my mother's, not that you need speak with her. As for the sibyl, her words were but a muddle of the Wolf-Killer's, cast in bad verse. Here is the hearth. You stand in the room below, though it was not always thus. You wished to speak with my mother, but I am before you in her place, more beautiful than she and a greater goddess."
"In that case, goddess, may I beg you to heal me and return me to my friends and my own city?"
She smiled. "You wish to remember, as the others do? If you remember, you will never forget me."
"I don't want to," I told her, but I knew even as I spoke that I lied.
"Many do," she said. "Or at least many believe they do. Do you know who I am?"
I shook my head.
"You have met my husband, but even he is lost now among the vapors that cloud your mind. I am the Queen of the Dead."
"Then surely I must not forget you. If men and women only knew how lovely you are, they wouldn't dread you as they do."
"They know," the Maiden told me, and plucked a lupine from her chiton. "Here is the wolf-flower for you, who bear the wolf's tooth. Do you know where it was born?"
I understood and said, "Beneath the soil."
The Maiden nodded. "If ten thousand others had not perished, this flower could never have been. It is the dead - trees and grasses, animals and men - who send you all you have of men, animals, trees, and grasses."
"Goddess, you say I've meddled in your realm. I don't remember; but restore my memory, and I'll do whatever you want of me to make amends."
"And what of the injury you did my mother?"
"I don't recall that, either," I told her. "But I am sorry from the bottom of my heart."
"Ah, you are no longer so stiff-necked as once you were. If this were my affair and not hers, I would do something for you now, perhaps. But it is hers, not mine." She smiled the infinitely kind smile of a woman who will not do what you ask. "I will convey your apology to her and plead your case most eloquently."
I think she saw the fury in my eyes before I knew of it myself, for she took a step backward without turning away from me.
"No!" My hand reached for Falcata, and I learned why the gods forbid our weapons in their temples.
"You threaten me. Do you not know that I cannot be harmed by a common mortal?"
"No," I said again. "No, I don't know that. Nor that I'm a common mortal. Perhaps I am. Perhaps not."
"You and your sword have been blessed by Asopus; but I am far greater than he, and your sword is elsewhere."
"You're right," I said. "My hands are all I have. I'll do the best I can with them."
"Against one entitled to your reverence as a goddess and your respect as a woman."
"If there's no need of them, I won't use them. Goddess, Maiden, I don't want to harm you or your mother. Yet I came hoping ... " It seemed a bite of dry bread were caught in my throat; I could not speak.
"To be as other men. To know your home and friends."
"But by threatening me, you will only come to Death. Then you will be mine as so many others are, your home my kingdom, your friends my slaves."
"Better that than to live like this."
The stench of the grave filled the room, so strong that it masked the smoke from the cedar fire. Death rose through the floor and stood beside her, his skeleton hand clutching his black cloak.
"I need only say, 'He is yours,' and your life is past."
"I'll face him if I must."
Her smile grew warmer. "When you die at last, some monument will read, Here rests one who dared the gods. I will see to it. Yet I would rather not take such a hero in his youth."
Death sank from sight as quietly as he had come.
"You asked three favors of me; I will grant one, and you may choose the one. Will you be healed? Or returned to your friends? Or would you prefer to see your home again, though you will not recall it? I warn you, my mother will have a finger in it, whichever you choose; and I will make no further concessions. If you threaten me again, you will walk in the Lands of the Living no more."
I looked into her lovely, inhuman eyes; and I could not think which to choose.
"May I offer you refreshment?" she asked. "You may sample my wine while you decide, though if you drink deep of it, you must remain with me."
Glad of any argument that might postpone the choice, I protested, "But then, Maiden, I could see neither my friends nor my city."
"Both will be mine soon enough. Meanwhile you are young and very brave; come and share my couch, that a greater hero may be born. Our wine is in the columbarium there."
She pointed, and I saw a niche in the wall. In it stood a dusty jar and a cup, once the castle of some spider queen. Fear woke my hair. "What is this place?" I asked.
"You do not know? How quickly they forget, above! Your race might beg for memory better than yourself. You stand in the megaron of King Celeos. Behold his walls, where sits Minos his overlord, painted from life when he visited Celeos here. Celeos is my subject now and my husband's, and Minos one of our chief justices; no judge could better find the guilt attached to every party in a dispute than Minos. Behind you burns the fire in which my mother would have purified Celeos's son. When at last it dies, all this land will come to us."
I could only stare about me.
"This room has waited you a whole age of the world, but I will not. Have you chosen? Or will you die?"
"I'll choose," I told her. "If I ask for memory, I will indeed know who I am. But I may find myself very far from my city and my friends, and I've noticed that those who remember are generally less happy than I. If I choose my city, without friends or memories it will be as strange a place to me as this town of Advent. So I'm going to choose to rejoin my friends, who, if they are truly my friends, will tell me about my past, and where my city lies. Have I chosen wisely?"
"I had rather you had chosen me. Still, you have chosen, and one additional drop joins the flood that whirls us to destruction. Your wish shall be granted, as soon as it can be arranged. Do not cry out to me for succor when you are caught by the current."
She turned as if to go, and I saw that her back was a mass of putrefaction where worms and maggots writhed. I caught my breath but managed to say, "Do you hope to horrify me, Maiden? Every man who has followed a plow knows what you've shown me, yet we bless you all the same."
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