Soldier of the Mist


Page 27




I let him go, and he leaned backward until his body was held erect for a moment by the javelin in his back. The point crept from his chest under the press of his weight, two fingers' width of hammered iron that shone in the light of the forge, before he slipped to one side and tumbled down.
One of the slaves of the Rope Makers stood in the doorway holding a second javelin. I said, "Thank you. I owe you my life."
Putting his foot on the body, he drew out his weapon and wiped its head on the smith's leather apron.
"This is my village," he said. And then, "He made this."
"But he would have killed me, when I would not have harmed him."
"He thought you would, and it would have been his death if he had been seen talking with a foreigner.
As it will be mine if I'm seen with you."
"Then let us not be seen," I said, and we dragged the smith's body to a place out of sight of the street; when we had concealed it as well as we could, we kicked dust over the blood, and he led me through a rear door to a yard where the smithy and its heaps of charcoal shielded us.
"You don't remember me," he said.
I shook my head. "I forget much."
"So you told me after we had seen the black god. I'm Cerdon, Latro. Do you still have your book?
Perhaps you wrote of me there, though I told you not to."
"Are we friends, then? Is that why you saved me?"
"We can be, if you'll keep your promise."
"If I've promised something to you, I'll do what I promised. If I haven't, I'll give you whatever you ask anyway. You saved my life."
"Then come with me to the shrine of the Great Mother tonight. It's not far from here."
I heard a faint sound as he spoke: the whisper of a woman's skirt, or the dry slithering of a serpent.
Then it was gone, and when I looked I saw nothing. I said, "I'd do it gladly if I could; but we'll march as soon as the slaves have eaten. Tonight we'll be far away."
"But you'll come if you can, and not forget?"
"By tonight? No. Tomorrow I'll have forgotten, perhaps."
"Good. I'll get you as soon as the camp's asleep. Your slave won't inform on us, and the Rope Maker in your tent is too ill to notice anything." He started to rise.
"Wait," I told him. "How was it you were here when I needed your help?"
"I've watched you since Megara, knowing it was useless to talk until we got here. I knew we'd come, though, because our village is on the road to Rope, and it belongs to Pausanias. When I saw you go away without a guard, that was my chance. So I followed you, hoping to find you alone; and by her grace I did."
I did not understand. "This smithy belongs to the regent?"
"This village, the fields, and all of us. I helped bring the Rope Maker to your tent for Kichesippos.
You didn't recognize me."
"No," I admitted.
"I knew you didn't. Now I must go, but I'll come tonight. Don't forget."
"What about ... " I nodded to indicate the dead man in the smithy.
"I'll see to it," he said. "No one will care but us."
When I returned to the grove where the shieldmen had eaten, they were forming their column while a few tardy slaves covered fires or stowed pots. We marched bravely through the village to the music of the flutes; but when we reached this river, we found the bridge in flames. Though the slaves soon put out the fire, the roadway had been destroyed, and it was decided to camp here for the night. Everyone is weary after the march through Bearland anyway, and they say the bridge will be repaired tomorrow.
Basias's slaves had to carry him in a litter this morning, as well as carrying our tent and the other things. I asked if it was not too much for them. They said it was not - it was no more than they had borne when they left the Silent Country to fight the Great King, because they had to carry ten days' rations. I offered to take one end of the litter; I believe they would have liked to accept, but they were afraid they would be punished.
I asked whether Basias owned a village, and whether they came from there. They said he owned only a farm. All three live on it and work the land. It is south of Rope, and they believe they will be ordered to take him there until he is well. He has a house in Rope too, but they think the farm will be better. If he dies, the farm will pass to a relative.
They did not seem afraid to talk to me; so I told them I had gone into the village, and the people there would not. They said it is different and better in the army, and that no one will inform on them for speaking to a stranger when they must pitch the tent for him to sleep in and cook his meals; but that it would be well if I did not speak to the slaves of others. I think perhaps Basias is a kinder master than the regent, though perhaps it is only that he is not so rich. A man who has only a farm and three slaves cannot afford to lose even one.
I went into the tent then and talked to him, telling him about the burning of the bridge, because I was growing more and more curious about this strange land. Although I cannot say what customs of other nations are, I feel certain those I have known have not been like this; there is no sense of familiarity in anything I hear.
He was weak, but I think not in much pain. Io says he is feverish sometimes and thinks himself a boy again, talking of his old teachers; but he was not like that when I spoke to him.
I told him of the bridge, and he said the slaves across the river had done it hoping we would take some other route - that the slaves here would want us to pass through as quickly as possible. Naturally I did not tell him about Cerdon or what happened in the smithy. He asked about the fields we had passed, and whether they had been plowed for the fall sowing. I was surprised, thinking he would have seen them himself as we marched; but he said he had slept most of the morning, and he could not see much from his litter anyway, because of those who walked beside it. I told him the fields were still in stubble, perhaps because so many men were with the army.
"Time to plow," he murmured. "Before the rains."
"You won't be able to plow for a while, I'm afraid. I'm sure your slaves can manage it, with you there to direct them."
"I never plow. I'd no longer be a Rope Maker, see? But it's got to get done. On the Long Coast the shieldmen have farms and slaves, and work their farms too. I wish I could. We need another hand, but I have to drill."
"The war's nearly over," I told him. "That's the way people talk, at least."
He rolled his head from side to side. "The Great King'll come back. If not, we'll go there, loot Susa and Persepolis. Or there'll be a different war. There's always another war."
He wanted to drink. I brought water from the slow, green river and mixed it with wine.
When I held the cup for him, he said, "I won't wrestle you any more, Latro. You'd beat me today.
But I beat you once. Remember that?"
I shook my head.
"You wrote when we were through. Read your book."
Soon after that I left him, sitting before the tent in the sunshine to do as he had suggested. Not knowing where I might find the account of our wrestling, or even whether it was there, I opened this scroll halfway and read of how I had seen Eurykles the Necromancer raise a woman from the dead. I was glad then that it was day; and every few lines I lifted my eyes from the papyrus to watch the peaceful river slipping past and the thin black smoke from the timbers the slaves had pulled from the bridge.
After a time, Drakaina came to sit by me. She laughed when she saw my face and asked what I was thinking.
"What a terrible thing it must be to have memory - although I wish it."
"Why, if it is so terrible?"
"Because not having memory, I lose myself; and that is worse. This day is like a stone taken from a palace and carried far away to lands where no one knows what a wall may be. And I think every other day has been so for me as well."
She said, "Then you must enjoy each as it comes, because each day is all you have."
I shook my head. "Consider the slaves in that village we passed. Every day for them must be much like the day before. If only I could find my own country, I could live there as they do. Then I'd know much that had happened the day before, even if I could not remember it."
"A goddess has promised you'll soon be restored to your friends," she said. "Or so I've been told."
Joy shook me. Before I knew what I did, I took her in my arms and kissed her. Nor did she resist me, and her lips were as cool as the brook of shining stones where once I washed my face and paddled my feet.
"Come," she said. "We can go to Pasicrates's tent and tie the flap. I have wine there, and his slaves will bring us food. We need not come out until morning."
I followed her, never thinking of my promise to Cerdon. The tent was warm and dim and silent. She loosed the purple cords that held her cloak about her neck, saying, "Do you remember how a woman looks, Latro?"
"Of course," I told her. "I don't know when I've seen one, but I know."
The cloak fell at her feet. "Then see me." She drew her chiton over her head. The swelling of her hips was like the rolling of a windless sea, and her breasts stood proudly, domed temples roofed with carnelian and snow. A snakeskin was knotted about her waist.
She touched it when she saw my eyes upon it. "I cannot remove this. But there is no need."
"No," I said, and embraced her.
She laughed, tickling and kissing me. "You don't recall our sitting side by side on a hillside of this very island, Latro. How I hungered for you then! And now you are mine."
"Yes," I said. And yet I knew already that it was no, though I burned with desire. I longed for her as a dying man for water, a starving man for bread, a weak man for a crown; but I did not long for her as a man for a woman, and I could do nothing.
She mocked me and I would have strangled her, but her eyes took the strength from my hands; she tore them away. "I'll come to you when the moon is up," she said. "You will be stronger then. Wait for me."
Thus I sit before our fire and write this, hoping someday to understand all that has happened, watching the pale moth that flutters about the flames, and waiting for the moon.
Chapter 30 The Great Mother
The terrible goddess of the slaves appeared last night. I touched her and everyone saw her. It was horrible. Now the camp is stirring, but there is no need to write quickly; the market will be full before the bridge is mended. I will have time to read this again and again, so that I will never forget.
Cerdon crept to the fire while I sat staring at the flames, and crouched beside me. "There are sentries tonight," he whispered. "We must be careful. But the Silent One has gone, and that's more than I let myself hope for."
I felt that Drakaina might yet come and that Cerdon would not grudge us a few moments together, so I asked who the Silent One was and added, "I think you are all silent here."
"The young one." Cerdon spat into the fire. "The Silent Ones are always young men, because young men haven't begun to doubt."
"I'm a young man," I said. "So are you."
He chuckled softly at that. "No, you're no Silent One. Nor I. Besides, they're younger than either of us. They're Rope Makers, chosen from the first families - families that own whole villages and many farms. Do you know about the judges?"
I shook my head, glad of another delay.
"The judges rule. The kings pretend to rule; and they lead the armies, fighting in the first rank and often dying. But five judges rule our land. Only the kings can make war; that's the law. But each year the judges meet to make a war that's outside the law."
I said, "If there's a new war each year, you must always be at war."
"We are." Uneasily, he glanced over his shoulder. "The war's against us."
"Against you slaves?" I smiled. "People don't go to war against their own slaves."
"So I heard when I was in the north with the army. Masters there would laugh at such a thing, just as you did. Here it's so. Each year the war's voted in secret, and it's a war against us. The judges speak to young men, to the men who were boys until the full moon, when they were whipped for Auge. They become Silent Ones, seeming just untried shieldmen but each having the ear of some judge. A Silent One may kill us as he likes. You know the Silent One, I think. His tent stands over there. Do you remember his name?"
It was the tent to which Drakaina had taken me, and I remembered what she had said. "Pasicrates?"
Cerdon nodded.
"If the identity of the Silent Ones is kept secret, how can you know?"
"There's a look about their eyes. An ordinary Rope Maker - an Equal, like the one in your tent - may kill only his own slaves. If he kills another man's, even a Neighbor's, he must pay. A Silent One looks at you, and his hand moves by a finger toward his dagger, maybe because the others respect you, maybe only because you've talked to a foreigner." Cerdon shook himself as men do when they wake from evil dreams. "Now it's time to go," he said. "Past time. You'll have to leave that sword behind." He rose, motioning for me to follow.
I unbuckled Falcata and laid her in the tent. Cerdon was about three strides ahead of me. "Hurry," he said. As he spoke something moved beside his leg, and he cried out. It was but a muffled cry, smothered behind the hand with which he covered his mouth, but Io must have heard it in her sleep. She came running from the tent as I knelt beside him.
"Master! What happened?"
I told her I did not know. I carried Cerdon to the fire and by its light saw two wounds in his leg. Five times I filled my mouth with his blood. Io brought wine and water when I was through; I rinsed my mouth, and we poured wine on the wounds. By then he was dripping with sweat.
I asked Io whether Basias's slaves were awake as well. She shook her head and offered to get them up.
"No," Cerdon gasped.
Io said, "When Basias was bitten, the regent's healer said to keep him warm." I nodded and told her to bring my cloak.
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