that sunny dome! those caves of ice!
and all who heard should see them there
and all should cry, beware! beware!
his flashing eyes, his floating hair!
weave a circle round him thrice,
and close your eyes with holy dread,
for he on honey-dew hath fed
and drunk the milk of paradise.
There is very little preamble of my writing life to give at this juncture. When I am not agonizing over a scene in Talldogs which I swear seems eternal in the writing of it, I am toying with new story ideas and making Mirriam break about a thousand promises to herself by filling her mouth with the cinnamon-flavoured snippets of my errant writing. Such moments are wonderful for my self-esteem. Otherwise my life has been topsy-turvy, and not bad, but certainly not seemingly steady just at present; I began the following one-shot as a whim, and when Rachel flung out the April Chatterbox topic as
I was happy to dig it back out and read back over it, and bring it to a close. I am not a brave person, not as a rule, and my writing gives me a sense of courage that you get from reading Kubla Khan and At the Back of the North Wind.resurrection
she was not of his folk
The thunder had ceased some time ago. Xiroot had not noticed when. The mountain air over the pine-tops was clear, almost colourless, and still with the oppressive heat of summer. The cicadas continued to shrill in the fern-brake, the dust-motes swam, the great trees of the mountainside pillared the sky between them, and they all seemed to Xiroot, as he knelt upon the shaded floorboards of his porch, to be infinitely more important than he. His dulled eye wandered over the green-obscured slope before his hut, lifting now and then to see over the pines toward the blue-rimed peak of Delepnir in the distance. With the distance came an impression of awe; with the nearness of the cicada crawling on the edge of his porch came a sense of inestimability. It would not live long—his brown, gnarled finger came off his thin, pocked knee and reached indicatively toward the insect—and the mountain would last forever: between them lay the scope of life, and it was not beautiful to him.
Above the trees, somewhere between Delepnir and the cicada, a host of black birds were circling. They were beyond the scope of life.
With a soft murmur Xiroot put his palms up over his eyes and began to rock back and forth, the murmur turning into a muffled croon. It eased the pain a little—or perhaps it took his mind off the pain for a moment, suspending his body in a concentration of mind without body. Would the great black birds prove too busy to sweep by his little mountain hovel? Would he be alone with the cicada until the jackals came knocking on his door? It was that thought, more than the pain which he knew intuitively would be his last, which made the flat disk of muscle beneath his lungs tremble and make noise.
With a scream of protest a mockingbird shot up from the ferns and took off zigzagging among the pines. With measured gesture Xiroot placed his hands back on his knees and screwed his old eyes to peer into the wood. Who would this be, whose sound was beginning to crash upon his senses, coming through the growth without the skill of a mountaineer’s tread? In the tumult at the heart of the thunder, which was now dead and spoke of both victory and defeat, it could be anyone. From where he knelt with the shadows of the pines and the shadow of death cool over him, Xiroot did not mind who it was.
A figure appeared among the ferns, moving at an ungainly pace, always stopping to swing round as if it were expecting something to be visible among the pines which never proved to be. Xiroot watched with mute curiosity. It came closer, swinging underbrush out from its way, until at last it came into the scant growth around his hut and the hard shafts of sunlight which were bleeding through the pinetops, and it flung up its head to see the little, raised building perched before it. It was a pair of devil-blue eyes in a female face which swept up over him, touched the ridgepole of his dwelling, and came back to his face, a little surprised at first, but then not. Not at all surprised, Xiroot gazed placidly back at her. She was sun-tanned and flecked, but she was still very white beneath the tan, and the hair which she wore plaited and crowned upon her hair was as gold as the fairy thread one heard about in the old mountain stories.
Very clearly, as if she had learned it among the great tents of the steppe-lords, she spoke his language. “Father, hast seen a horse pass this way?”
She was not of his folk, that was clear to him: but she was disposed to be polite, and in his profound loneliness and age he appreciated that. “Nay, my daughter. Thine and the mountain ferret’s feet have been the only to interrupt me today.”
She came forward to the base of his steps and put her hand upon the blunted top of the rail post. She did not know the mountain, not as he knew the mountain, but beneath the fluidity of her movements he perceived a gesture which was masculine. At her back she wore a sword, on her chest she wore a plate of soiled metal. Now that she was so close, he was able to see that there was scarlet among the wayward strands of her golden hair, her hands were burnt-brown and also scarlet, and there were handprints on the thighs of her trousers which showed through the slit of her long tunic that spoke of her having tried, in the recent past, to brush her palms off on her garments.
She rubbed at her brow with the crook of her wrist and glanced up at him. In the icy blue eyes he saw that she was also weary—not as desperately as he was, but perhaps just as profoundly.
“Father,” she began again, and her voice dropped all veneer of a warrior to become gentle and coaxing, “hast within thy tent a cup of water?”
With his hands already cold against the skin of his knees, Xiroot stared unblinkingly at her, wondering to whom the battle had gone: did he face a victorious foe upon his doorstep, and ought he to despise her, or was she a renegade fleeing from a rout, and would more soldiers be soon upon her heels to drag her down like hounds?
Either way, it was a tempting piece of adventure on the threshold of his grave.
“Come into my hut, child. I will get thee a cup of water.”
A brief smile flashed on her features, crooked, not altogether pleasant, and she dropped her hand from the rail to ascend the stairs unaided. The stairs, he saw, were well known to her: she mounted them with a practiced tread and even lifted her chin a little, as he imagined a princess might. She smelled of blood and horse-sweat and abelmosk, and things for which he knew no name. But the curious thing was, as she came abreast of him and stood under the porch overhang, she swung her head round to look at him, eyes dilated with an unmistakeable expression of shock and sympathy—then in the next moment the look was gone, though Xiroot knew, though he was not sure how, that the golden thing had smelled the smell of his death holding out its hands to him.
She looked away at once and ducked her head to peer through the dark doorway into his hut. “My father has a pleasant place here in the mountains,” she remarked casually.
Not deigning to use the porch beam for support, Xiroot rocked himself to his feet and stepped before her, bent and twisted however much he tried to straighten, and thin as a dog where she was rounded with health and femininity. “Come within,” he bade her, and walked gingerly into the room of his house.
She came in after him, darkening the doorway and filling the place with the gentle ringing of her buckle as she slipped the sword from her waist. He noticed that she was not intent on keeping it in her grasp: a soldier on the run would not be quick to release such a blade. She set it down by the door, propped against the frame, then straightened to dig her fingers down within the armpit of her plate: with a clink and a jerk the panel swung open off the compressed, wrinkled garment beneath and she dropped it off her other arm, setting it, too, by the sword. Next she removed her heavy riding boots and came after him with cool, wide-flung interest to the place where he had knelt at the side of the square fire-pit set deep into the floor.
“Indeed—” the language came quicker on her tongue “—it is delightfully cool within! Thy bower is a prince among bowers.”
As she folded to her knees he gave her a careful, creased smile. How polite she was, and pretty beneath the blood and debris. He did not know if the imminence of death or the reduction of his age would have made him appreciate her presence more. She was like a goddess, come suddenly upon a crippled mortal in the remote mountains. He wondered what she meant to do.
With a hand that trembled despite his efforts to steady it, he poured out a wooden cup of water for her, a little browned and brackish; putting the ladle back in the iron pot, he held the cup in both hands and presented it to her. With a sudden smile on her face which was almost masculine she inclined at the waist and took the cup from him, and she drank the water gently, slowly, and without flinching as her soft pale throat was subjected to the peasant taste. With a flutter of her lashes she broke off at the last drop and drew the cup away from her lips, the smile softened to a woman’s again.
“Thou hast surely saved my life this day, father,” she remarked. With deliberate care she positioned the cup on a knot in the floorboards by her knee. “I have not drunk wine nor water since before the grouse came out of the furze this morning, and this day has been like the preamble of hell.”
Now that he had brought her in and treated her to a drink, Xiroot felt he could begin to ask her questions. Prevaricatingly, he prompted, “Thou has lost thy horse?”
Her eyelids shut tremblingly upon irritation. “Yea! A pine branch caught me under the collar like any greenling and took me out of the saddle. My horse—also like to a greenling!—I think must needs find water or companion and leave me among the fern to walk my own way to my tent.”
“Thou has surely gone in the wrong direction for thy tent,” remarked Xiroot. He was not sure what she meant by greenling, nor did it sound like any word his meagre education could find room for. Perhaps it was a word she had brought with her pale skin.
But she lifted her palm toward the encroaching rafters. “I seem to have been directed none so poorly.”
Are all the gods like this? he wondered. Her eyes sparkled in her dirtied, angular face, her expressive, incongruous smile blazed across his dark, wrinkled countenance without any touch of condescension, and somewhere in his body he felt a little stirring of strength.
“May I ask the great one from whom she cometh, and to whom she will go, and what the thunder which filled my day hath meant in scenes too removed from her servant to matter?”
The great one smiled softly into the fragile heart of the tiny fire that still burned within the pit. Bending forward, one hand on her knee, the other hand flung out at the wrist over the flame, she seemed to pull the fire upward; its light beat upon his face and kindled in the momentary colourlessness of her eyes.
“The day went to us, my father. An’ sooth, my heart gladdens to know these be things which to thee doth not bear import, else I should be sorry to tell thee thy masters have lost.”
He lifted gnarled palms from his knees, turning them upward toward the ceiling. “To the old the world growth thin, and the movements of armies art foolish and the foolishness of the boastful. But my guest doth warm an old heart, and the old heart seeketh interest in the interests of my guest.”
She looked at him curiously for a moment, swinging her head a little so that she was looking at him from under her clay-coloured brows, and none of the mountain-water clarity nor the laughter was in her eyes. There seemed for a moment a great, uncanny distance from him to her, with the black birds in between… Then the laughter came back into the face, slow and spreading like dawnlight or disease, and she reared back, chin thrown up, hands upon her knees.
“I will paint for my father a picture of the battle which went forward this day, so that he may be young again in my eyes.”
With a sweep of her hand she had the warmed sand of the fire-pit at her mercy, and had quickly formed a mimicry of the mountains and the river valley which lay below. “Dost know the warlord Peregrine,” she inquired, “who comes out from among thine own people?”
He leaned forward to watch her depictions. “The warlord with a thousand white mares, and the mask like a man’s face upon his own?”
She smiled and her teeth gleamed. “The very man. Hast seen him?”
But Xiroot shook his head. “Nay, daughter. Only that his fame spreads abroad. To come upon his servant’s ears here in the mountains, he must be a great warlord, one upon whom the sun and the sun-gods shine.”
The lady’s face crumpled into disagreeable thought under the blow of these words. “A dark day for him today,” she mused. “He whose surname is the Serene will have all need for his serenity tonight when the sun makes the gleam of a cat’s eye upon the disappearing horizon. A very great warlord,” she conceded, and began thrusting two fingers in a row through the sand—“an’ a worthy opponent! But we, also, put forth the flower of our army upon him, and our stock and God’s providence hath proved the stronger today.”
He looked at the indentations she had left, thinking they looked like rabbit tracks, wondering if they were meant to depict soldiers. Despite himself, a great interest rose up in his chest—and his chest, for the first time in a long time, did not hurt as though it were being weighed down into the grave.
She flung out her hands, palms upward, and jerked them at the mock landscape. “And now for my own—the heart of my heart! My grandfather would say to us it was a putting of all the eggs into one basket—or the putting of all my grandmother’s eggs into one basket, as the case may be—” she laughed soundlessly at her own joke—but not, Xiroot thought, with undue irreverence: a great light of tenderness swept over the harshness of her aristocratic face.
“The valley is too wide for an army to make use of the mountain aspect. We fought it all out upon the grasslands of the vale—and it was beautiful and naked under heaven. There was no tussock under which a soul could crawl to hide: all—all was laid bear before the eyes of him with whom Peregrine had to do! An’ see, old father, the place upon the woodshore where Thundertang couched himself in wait. See here the banner of the Black Prince—and midst of them all, the Devil’s Cub!”
She spoke with a throb in her voice: though she talked of Peregrine the Serene with a well-earned salute in her tone, she spoke the names of the southlander warlords with a tremble of affection in her throat.
“We turned out of the tents before the grass-silver had burnt. The wind was cool, the eyes of man and horse bright with the dawn and the coming battle. Oh, my father! If thou couldst see also the banners afloat over us in the breeze—blue, scarlet, white like star-fire, here and there a harlequin yellow-and-black. We bore the black and the blue of the Dragon’s Eye among us, and to my mind it was coolly alive and watching us as we moved beneath its gaze.”
She flung out one hand rhetorically, as if these images had hung long enough before them and she must brush them aside to make room. They were the colours of his enemies, and yet Xiroot’s heart tingled under their touch, like a limb coming back alive after a loss of blood. He was a little loath to see them go.
“The banners of Peregrine the Serene are only white always. The Devil’s Cub hath told me, somewhere between one glass and the next, that the warlord of your people goeth clad in mail and faced with steel, and weareth always upon his hands kid-gloves of white construction. I was not sure in my heart that I believed it until this day. But I saw him—” her eye kindled with blue flame “—I saw him upon his great white mare coming through the archangel ranks of his soldiers, and what sport he gave the Devil’s Cub! Ah, father—” her body shook like an otter which is too happy to be contained “—if I could but transport you to that moment and we could watch together the things I saw! How lovely they were, and how my heart loved them!”
Xiroot smiled a little: the gesture was one he had not made in many years, and his mouth was not sure how to make the movement. “I am old, my daughter,” he reminded her patiently. “What use would I be upon the battlefield of the young?”
But she pressed her palms together and touched the sides of her first fingers against her lips, gazing at him gently from under the rough golden shock of her hair. “Ancient of Days!” she laughed softly. “Would that I were a Great Spirit: I could whisk thee thither and back again, and thy soul would be young again in thy revered body.”
At that mention, so slight and with the passing obeisance a friend might give another, it occurred to Xiroot that the sweat-stained female which knelt across from him was herself no mere soldier. She must be some great creature which her own breeding forbade her to mention even as she made a list for him of the combatants present. His wrinkled, walnut eyes peered at her and the disk beneath his lungs trembled: who was she, and why should she kneel at his fire as though he were a goodly-blooded warlord, not a gnarly, dying peasant upon whom even the gods would spare no glance?
He had heard that the southlanders were strange: he had not thought to live to see how curious they could be.
She clapped her hands and spread them again. She be expressive with the hands, he mused. Doth mean, in these folk, that she be at ease?
“Kenneth Aldarök, who is close kin to me,” she remarked with a casual cant to her brows, “for the same womb bore us, was also there amongst us, and I saw him teethe his sword on the ribs of Malcipar, whose tent will lie empty and cold this night…
“Theodora Pepperspur opened with mounted archers against Peregrine’s left—ladies first! Undercover of her fire the Dragon’s Eye brought down the axe. The air trembled with the rolling of their hooves! Stately and strong: not one to let his temper get the better of him. But then we had a rain of arrows in our faces, and for a time it was little to me what the Dragon’s Eye did or did not do upon our right.
“Perhaps thou hast not felt the lift of the horse between thy legs: to have such power bridled in thy grasp, and to hear the drum and whistle of thy own going in thy body and thine ears—! Yea, father,” she leaned forward and put her hands palm-flat upon the floorboards. It seemed to Xiroot that the veining in the backs of her hands glistened—perhaps with sweat, and sunlight coming through the meagre thatching—and the wood beneath them began to rumble. His heart skipped in his chest: it was a thunder he recognized.
“Yea, daughter,” he replied, and also leaned forward to place his hand upon one of hers. The trembling ceased. His head felt dizzy with breathlessness. “Hast felt that thunder from afar off today.”
She threw her weight upon her left hand and with her right patted the top of his hand reassuringly. Then, taking back her hands, she drew herself up and twisted away a little, beginning to meddle protractedly with her far side. “Much work was done between the Black Prince and the Devil’s Cub. They got Peregrine between their teeth and clamped down upon him so that he should not move. Then did Thundertang come out from the brise-vent like an alaunt and hammer himself into the exposed forces of his serenity. They buckled. We hammered and they buckled. Half of the Black Prince’s troops, whom he had held in reserve, caught up Peregrine’s right flank from round the back and compacted them upon our swords. The Black Prince’s force remingled and broke the right flank as a man shatters the stem of a glass. Peregrine’s right was in ruins. The Devil’s Cub and the warlord himself locked in single combat. We were melting in our jerkins and not a soul of us cared. Victory became of our own right: that only I know. This evening I will kneel at the feet of the Devil’s Cub and hear the story of things I ought to have paid closer attention, and then I will know.” She flung a furtive, self-deprecating smile at him, and in the tiny lull Xiroot saw her thrust her hand wholesale into some inner part of her side and withdraw it, an arrowhead shiny with blood clamped between her fingers. Very little blood came flowing down her side. She put the arrowhead in the sand, where it left a little dark damp stain, and cupped her left hand upon her right side, and went on with her story much as though the thing had not happened.
“I know that in the end it was a rout, and Kenneth and I were very busy between us to clean up the mess.”
“Until,” he interjected, “thy horse should have scraped thee off upon a tree branch.”
Her brows bated like the wings of an angry falcon. “Until that. He will tell me about it for some time, I think, and I will not be made to forget it quickly. And now, as for the reason we are here,” she settled in more comfortably and Xiroot watched her out of the corner of his eye, his gaze placidly laid over the oblong shard of iron in the sand, “we are here for death and for destruction—that is why the gods come down, is it not?”
He lifted his gaze off the arrowhead then and looked back unblinkingly into her eyes. She was laughing at him in a gentle way…and he could not remember the last time there had been anyone to laugh at him, nor anything in his life to laugh at. He shook out the wrinkles of a tender smile and laid it over his face. “The gods are very mysterious. What would their servant know of them?”
“Perhaps not much,” she admitted frankly. With a little rocking motion, pattering a little blood upon the floorboards, she rose to her feet and looked down upon him with the late light fanning round her head. “But while the Devil’s Cub rules me oft than not a wayward thunderbolt than a calculated barb, I am knowing that bounds and seasons are appointed to even the like of Peregrine the Serene, and it is sometime the purpose of the gods to be sure the boundaries and the seasons are kept.”
He had been too long a time kneeling at the threshold of a dark door to mistake the sense of something coming to an end. His forefingers stroked the pocked wood under his knees… With a likewise rocking motion he lifted himself to his feet and found he could come upright without the old clawing of pain through his limbs. A tremble of wonderment betrayed his sanguine nature.
The woman’s lips flashed backward briefly, smiling off the teeth, and came forward again in a cultured curve of titian colour. “I came down to the well and the Lord sent Rebekah out to draw water for me. Enfin, I am alive and I must go.” She swung toward the door and scooped up breast-plate and sword and boots into her hands, and turned back upon Xiroot as he stood motionless by the fireside, staring at the strange witching beauty of her and of the words she spoke. He was suddenly afraid, for the black birds which had been omens for him had vanished, and the scope of the living landscape had taken back on the virile strength it had borne during his youth.
Truly—truly the gods were strange and wonderful!
Perhaps she caught his thoughts. Standing in the doorway with the late light flooding around her, she smiled a gentle, crooked smile, and dipped her chin coaxingly toward her collar. “I think perhaps thou wilt see such sights as the war-plain we have made, and learn with thine own ears what we will make of Peregrine the Serene. When thy feet come down from the mountains, my father, come up into the arbours of our gardens. The birds of paradise live there, and the oil comes down out of the olive trees, and the fruit, my father, is like none thou hast ever tasted.”
The dark door had been shut. He could not answer.
With a little spin upon one heel the woman turned about and plunged into the golden light, seemed to become one with it, and vanished out of sight. He could hear her moving down the steps and walking through the scrub—whistling, too, a light little song whose tune he loved—but it seemed to him that she had melted into the sun.
Had she come? His freshened heart began to race. Had she been a real thing, or a thing more real than man? His body trembled with blood and life and the freedom of being broken out of the shadow of death. It was then that he realized what she had done, unspoken and unasked, and somehow his feet took him to the doorway. He looked out upon an empty woodland slope, blanketed in late hot sunlight and the skirling of the insects, even as it had been before her coming. But he was changed, and so it seemed through his eyes the whole world had taken on a renewed aspect.
The sun was going down, the curve of the world glimmering chatoyant around the silhouetted bulk of Delepnir. The hillside was plunging into mothy gloom. But the golden mantle of the woman’s healing lay about Xiroot’s knobbly shoulders, and he felt that if he could move his hands he could drag the witching thing close about him and keep himself warm with it through the night.
“Tomorrow.” His trembling palms lifted and pressed together in an unconscious gesture of worship. “Tomorrow I will go out and find this hill garden of which she speaks.”