Soldier of the Mist

Page 33

"One word only."
"Agreed, but no tricks."
For a moment I thought the strategist had fallen asleep. His eyes closed and his chin dropped to his chest. Then he opened his eyes again and straightened up.
"Yes, isn't it?" Drakaina said.
"And a dream told him to do it?"
Drakaina rose, knotting the six silver owls into her robe. "We really should go. The child wants to see your city from the summit."
"One more for the dream."
"Come, Io. Latro."
Drakaina did not sit down again. "The dream - "
"Who was it? The Huntress?"
"The Queen Below. Had it been the Huntress, I wouldn't be telling you these things. She promised him that the fortress would fall soon after the young men arrived, and the regent believes her implicitly.
Now you know all I do."
As Corustas counted out three more owls, he asked, "Why the Queen Below? It should have been the Warrior, or perhaps even the Sun."
Drakaina smiled. "A strategist, and you've never seen the fall of a city? Believe me, there's little enough drill or light then, but a great deal of death."
Outside, she asked the bearers whether the lochagos had paid them, and when they said he had, ordered them to carry us to the temple at the summit. They protested that they had been paid only to bring us up from the city and return us to the place where they had found us. Drakaina said, "Don't trouble me with your impudence. We've been conferring with Strategist Corustas, and if you won't earn your money like honest men, he'll have you whipped in the marketplace." After that they did as she told them.
The temple was small but every bit as lovely as it had looked from below, with slender marble pillars and elaborate capitals; its pediment showed a youth offering an apple to three maids.
When the bearers were out of earshot, Io whispered, "You didn't tell him about Latro. I thought you were going to."
"Certainly not. Suppose Corustas had decided to keep him here? Do you think the regent wouldn't have guessed someone talked? And that it was you or me? Now have a look at the view; I told Corustas you were going to."
Io did and so did I, feeling the sea breeze would never be so pure again as it was today, nor the sun so bright. The white city of Tower Hill spread in two terraces below us. Its gulf, stretching away to the west like a great blue road, promised all the untouched riches of the thinly peopled western lands, and I felt a sudden longing to go there.
"By all the Twelve, that's Nausicaa! " Io exclaimed. "See, Latro? Not on the skid, but waiting to get on. Notice her cutter bow?"
Drakaina smiled. "Quite the little sailor."
"The kybernetes taught me when we sailed with Hypereides. And I talk to our sailors too, instead of holding my nose in the air."
A jeweled and scented woman with golden bells in her hair passed us, jingling as she turned her head to smile at Drakaina; she carried two live hares by the ears.
Chapter 36 To Reach the Hot Gates
A ship can follow either of two courses, as our captain explained. He is a white-haired old man, fat, and stiff in all his joints, but very knowing of the sea. When he saw I did not understand, he sat on a coil of rope and drew the coast on the deck for me with a bit of chalk.
"Here's the skid where we went across." He drew as he spoke. "And here's Water and Peace."
Io asked, "Does that name [Salamis (Gk. oaeaìßò). Latro translates the Phoenician root. - G.W.]
really mean 'peace'? That's what Latro says. It seems like there's been so much fighting there."
The captain looked far away, out over the dancing waves. "Because in the old times it was agreed with the Crimson Men there'd be no raiding on the island. In the old times - my grandfather's times - everybody took what he could, and there was no shame to it. A ship came to a city, and if her skipper thought his crew could take it, he tried. If you met a ship that could beat yours, you ran, and if you didn't run fast enough, you lost it. A man knew where he stood. Now maybe it's peace, and maybe it's war, and you don't know and neither does he. Last year the Crimson Men were the best in the Great King's navy. I mean the best sailors - the Riverlanders were the best sea fighters. And the Crimson Men would have fought on Peace if they could have landed. The old promises don't count, and the new aren't lived up to.
"Kings used to look for places where both wanted the same. Then they'd make an honest bargain and keep it, and if they didn't, they'd be disgraced, and punished by the gods, and their people too. Now it's all trying to get the advantage by tricks. What's the use of a bargain, when the other man's not going to keep it as soon as he sees it's a trick?"
Io pointed. "Thought must be right about here."
"That's Tieup. Thought's up here on the hill. I don't go there much any more. We're way past all that anyhow. Here's where we are." He continued the coast to the north, then made a long mark beside it.
"That's Goodcattle Island, a great place for sheep. With a regular crew, we'd be going wide of it; there's a narrow channel, and the wind's from the north, mostly. But with all these stout lads to pull the sweeps, there's no reason to, as the noble Pasicrates says. We'll spend the night at the Hot Gates, and he can make his sacrifice. There's nothing like a fair wind, but the ash wind blows whichever way you want."
By "the ash wind" he meant the sweeps, long oars that one or two pull standing up. There are twenty on each side, and I took my turn at one with the men of Rope. It is hard work, and it blisters the hands; but it is made easier by singing, and it strengthens the whole body. My head cannot remember for long, but my arms, back, and legs do not forget. They told me they had been wasting in idleness and desired to strive with the blue giant; so I did, and laughed to see men (who so often make poor beasts serve their will) rowing the bawling bullock tied to our mainmast across the sea.
None of these things are of much importance, perhaps, but they are the first I remember; thus I write them, having waked from my dream.
Only eighty could be used at the sweeps, and we have more than four hundred, with Pasicrates and myself and the crew, a number that let all of us rest far longer than we rowed. When the sun was halfway to the hills on our left, a wind rose behind us. The crew hoisted both sails, and we ported our sweeps.
Pasicrates proposed wrestling matches, there not being room enough on the deck for any sport but wrestling or boxing. A lovely woman called Drakaina came to watch, taking a place close beside me.
She has a purple gown and many jewels, and the Rope Makers moved aside for her very readily; she must be a person of importance.
Sniffing the wind, she said, "I smell the river - that air has crocodiles in it. Do you know what they are, Latro?"
I told her I did and described them.
"But you do not remember where you saw them?"
I shook my head.
"Are you going to wrestle, when your turn comes? Throw the other man over the railing for me."
It was something the victors often did to show their strength. Our ship trailed a rope, and the loser swam to it and climbed back on board, many saying the cool plunge was so pleasant after the heat of the deck that it was better to lose than to win. I promised Drakaina I would if I could.
"You're a good wrestler - I've seen you. You nearly defeated Basias, and I think you could have if you had wished."
I asked, "Is Basias here?" because I did not know the names of most of the men from Rope and thought I might wrestle him again.
She shook her lovely head. "He has gone to the Receiver of Many."
Hearing that, I feared I was defiled by his blood, for I know something is not well with me. "Was it I who killed him?"
"No," she told me. "I did."
Then it was my turn to wrestle.
Pasicrates had matched me against himself. He is very quick; but I am a little stronger, I think, and I felt I was going to win the first fall; but just as I was about to throw him to the deck, he slipped from under my arm so that I was left like a man who tries to break an unbarred door.
The railing caught me at the hip, and Pasicrates got my right leg behind the knee and tossed me over.
How cold the water was, and how good it smelled! It seemed to me that I should not be able to breathe it as I did; but though it was much colder than air, it was richer too and strengthened me as wine does.
When I opened my eyes, it was as though I were suspended in the sky like the sun; the blue water was all about me, a darker blue above, a paler, brighter blue below, where a great brown snail with a mossy shell crawled and trailed a thread of slime.
"Welcome," said a voice above me, and I looked up to see a girl not much older than Io. Her hair was darker than Drakaina's gown - so dark it was nearly black. Almost it seemed a cloud or aureole, and not such hair as men and women have.
I tried to speak, but water filled my mouth and no sound came, only bubbles that fell to the pale ground and vanished.
"I am Thoe, daughter of Nereus," the girl told me. "I have forty-nine sisters, all older than myself. We are permitted to show ourselves to those who are soon to die."
She must have seen the fear in my eyes, because she laughed; I knew then that she had said what she had for the pleasure of frightening me. Her teeth were small and very sharp. "No, you are not really going to drown." She took my hand. "Do you feel you are suffocating?"
I shook my head.
"You see, you cannot, as long as you are with me. But when I leave, you'll have to go down there again, unless you want to die. It's just that mortal men aren't supposed to see us too often, because they might guess at things they're not to know; mortal women hardly ever see us, because they know when they do. We can show ourselves to children as often as we like, though, because they forget the way you do."
She wriggled off through the water like a serpent, waving for me to follow. I shouted but produced only a rush of water from my mouth.
"Europa told me about you. She's rather a friend of mine, except that she's too fond of herself because she used to lie with the Descender. Sometimes Father shows himself to sailors before storms, if he thinks the storm will kill them all. Do you know about that?"
Thoe glanced over her shoulder to observe my answer, and I shook my head.
"Then the sailors say, 'Look! It's the old sea man!' and they take in their sail and put out a sea anchor, and sometimes they live. It's good of him to warn them like that, don't you think?"
I nodded. We were swimming up and up, circling as a hawk soars on a rising wind. The brown slug looked very small now, but I saw men's legs kicking all around it.
"And sometimes my sisters and I show ourselves to ships about to strike a reef. We call warnings, but our voices are high when we're out of water, and the sailors tell each other we're singing to lure them to their deaths."
From what she had said, I guessed why I had been unable to speak. Pitching my voice high as I could, I said that was unjust of them.
She laughed at my croaking. "But sometimes we do. You see, sometimes the ships aren't wrecked, and so we try to call them back so we won't get in trouble. We comb each other's hair then and admire our beauty like mortal women. It usually brings them. We aren't cheating, because we lie, sometimes, with them, if any live through the wreck. We do it before they get too weak and thirsty. Except for me, because I'm the youngest. This will be my first time."
Until she said that, it had seemed to me I had been flung into another world from which I might never return; and I had been too dazed by the beauty and strangeness of it to try. Now I understood that if only I could reach the air below, I would again be with Drakaina and the men wrestling on the deck. I gestured to show what I meant to do, and Thoe caught me by the hair.
"You need not fear," she said. "We bear your children beneath the sea, so they drown." When she saw my horror she said, "Kiss me at least before you go, so that I will not be shamed before my sisters."
Slender and cold, her arms wrapped my neck. When her lips brushed mine, it seemed to me that I had been fevered all my life, and that I wanted nothing more than to cool myself forever in the icy billows of northern seas, where snow drifts from the sky to the waves like the feathers of white geese.
My head broke the surface. I shook sea water from my hair, and when I opened my mouth to gasp for breath, more water vomited from it, as water is spewed from a face of stone in a fountain. This water was bitter with salt; it ran from my nostrils too and stung them.
A wave broke over my head as I spluttered and gasped for air. I could not remember whether I could swim well or not - surely I could not swim as Thoe had - but I felt Pasicrates would not have thrown me over the railing unless he had known I could; and before I had finished those thoughts I was swimming, though I could not have said where.
It was nearly dark, and as I swam, lifted by the waves and cast down again, the stars came out one by one, shaping gods and beasts. I found the Great Bear, and from it, Polaris. The captain had said a north wind would be foul for us; thus we had been sailing north, with the mainland to the west and Goodcattle Island to the east. I kept Polaris at my right shoulder, hoping to find land or the ship.
Thoe leaped across the waves as though springing from rock to rock and stopped to stand upon a beach and laugh at me. When my foot touched the sand she vanished, and her laughter was only the lapping of the waves. For a long while I was too exhausted to do anything but lie sprawled like a corpse driven to shore.
It was thirst that made me rise. Mingled with the soft laughter of the waves, I heard the chuckle of a brook glad to have come at last to the sea and rest. I searched and found it, and drank deeply; and though I saw the red gleam of a fire far away and heard men's voices, I did not walk toward it until I had filled my stomach with water. (Not long ago I asked Drakaina what god it was who shaped the world.
She said it had been made by Phanes, the four-winged and four-headed, who is male and female together. How cruel it was of Phanes to make the seas salt, and how many must have died because of it!) The voices were those of the men from Rope. When I saw them, I could not help wondering whether Thoe had guided me to them, and I recalled our captain's saying Pasicrates meant to sacrifice at the Hot Gates. Stone columns stood there. Before them was an altar, with a driftwood fire on it. Pasicrates held the halter of the bullock; a rude garland circled its neck.
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