Long before Romans made this land their Province, its forests, lakes, plains and mountains were home to men who fashioned tools of stone, ate roots, wild seeds, and small creatures of the bogs. The early folk feared the spirits bound in brooding rock, lurking in shadows of great oaks, leaping in hares, bears, great stags, and wild bulls.
Somewhere in the vast sweep of years they began to generalize their awe, and to understand the underlying unities among stones, bears, stags, and summer thunder. They called such universal spirits gods. Ma meant "breast," and also "Goddess." "Man" meant the folk of Ma. In such ancient syllables lie the beginnings of wisdom, the capacity for awe and worship, the great reality sensed only dimly, never proven, that we call Faith.
This is a tale of a daughter of the land, a child of Ma.
Otho, Bishop of Nemausus -- The Sorceress's Tale
The moon shone bright upon the ancient stones of Citharista, lighting young Marius's dash to the chapel. "P'er Otho! Pater!" he shouted. "Come quickly. The gens are pursuing the witch Elen onto the rocks. Bring the Sancta. Come!" He had to stop, to take breath.
Father Otho rose from his knees, his face more drawn and angry than the boy's unseemly babbling could account for.
Marius shrank back, averting his eyes from the priest, and from the reliquary where the holy bones lay, in their tiny gabled house of gilt cedar encrusted with garnets and gold. He did not understand Otho's anger, because he was too young to remember the revelation of the saint's remains, or to know what was between the priest and the woman who fled.
The moaning Latin chant was a distant dragon growling up the winding path from Citharista. Villagers' torches curled like a glowing serpent from among red-tiled houses and Roman warehouses.
The fleeing masc's eyes, wide with terror, reflected the red and gold of serpentine flames, and when she turned her head toward the dark, wooded path, she stumbled, blinded by torchlight. The roots of twisted cypresses tripped her, slowing her headlong flight. Her twisted ankle felt as if a knife blade pried between the bones.
The moon had withdrawn its light. Had she angered the Goddess, begging for a male child to quicken in her womb? Had the Virgin Huntress abandoned her to that other Virgin, whose torchbearers even now drew close?
She drew her skirts about her knees and stumbled onward in darkness and pain. A refuge lay ahead, the old Saracen fort at the tip of the cape. There dwelled the magus Anselm. The Christian villagers would not pursue her within those walls-but she did not think she could reach them in time.
Pressing on, she fended off stiff, scrubby oak branches grown malevolently hard and sharp, branches that clawed at her eyes as she passed. Abruptly the moon emerged from behind its veil. The path branched. One trail ran south to the cape, another eastward across the headland, where cliffs plunged a thousand feet to the sea.
She let her sash drop on the southbound trail, then hid in the feathery shadow of a tamarisk bush. If the villagers reached the fort without finding her, they would believe her already safe within. Then, later, she would limp around to the fort by a goat path.
"Fulk! Wait!" she heard a distant villager call. `We'll never catch a masc here by the sea, where the old devils rule. Wait for Marius to come with the priest and Sancta Clara's bones." The witch smiled then. Father Otho would not come. The gens, townsfolk, would wait, but young Marius would return alone. Otho would not allow his saint's relic to be so ill-used.
Otho sighed. "I'll go with you," he told the boy. "We need not disturb the Saint."
"Per Otho, the castellan himself commanded it. You must bring her."
Commanded? Otho bristled. Only the bishop commanded him, not the Burgundian soldier.
Otho himself had discovered the holy bones protruding from the cut earth where the Burgundian horseman had ordered a fortification built. The priest's nocturnal vision had revealed the holy one's tale, which he told to the villagers and the Germanic soldier.
Sancta Clara. A name or a description? Clear and holy: Saint Claire. He envisioned her on the road from Massalia, fleeing the Roman hundred with their bloody arrows in her back. There at the edge of Citharista she had died, but her death provided a vital distraction that allowed the Magdalen to escape to the north, to the Saint-Baume and the holy cave where she remained, preached, and prayed for yet another thirty-three years. Thus here in poor Citharista had the life of Mary Magdalene, patron saint of all Provence, been saved.
Otho's fiery inspiration had daunted the big yellow-haired German knight, and he had moved his proposed walls twenty paces north. The shrine now stood over holy Clara's grave. Thus Otho's interest was proprietary, and he did not take kindly to the boy's demand to jostle the saint and carry her bones on a fool's errand.
"Saint Claire was hounded by the Roman hundred," he told Marius coldly-perhaps even a trifle pompously; there was no proof of the tale, only the vision he had been granted during his vigil over the newly-exposed bones. "It's not right that she, the hunted, be used to track down another woman wrongly pursued. Her bones are for healing. You have seen me wash them in balsam and oil. Didn't the drink cure your own constricted throat, a summer ago?"
Young Marius scuffled his feet uneasily. "Elen is a witch, Pater, a masc who doesn't worship God."
"Ah, Elen," the priest murmured. "See what your pagan mischief brings?" Aloud, he said "Wait, boy, while I pray." He knelt again, unhurried.
Elen crouched low as footsteps crunched stones on the path. She plucked a willow twig and urgently whispered an incantation over its lanceolate leaves. For a moment they gleamed like the feathers of a white hen or a gull.
The magics of the world are not evoked in silence, but with words. Elen's words were not in an old, magical tongue, but were mere Latin overlain with Visigothic, a musical tongue that would someday be named for a single word, "yes," which was "oc." The Langue d'Oc.
"Oc," said Elen, satisfied, as the moon again withdrew its face. Her spell had come from the fairy Guihen generations past: Guihen the invisible, who stroked his white hen and disappeared at will. Guihen the Ligure, who righted wrongs and won the daughter of a dux as reward, and a Roman villa, and a chest of gold. She watched her hands fade to invisibility as the moon disappeared.
The footsteps on the trail were quick and light, no heavy farmer's tread, but Elen did not dare raise her face from the curtain of her dark hair until she heard one pursuer speak. "Look! It's Mama's sash." Appalled, the masc recognized her eldest daughter, Marie. "She must be near. See? She dropped it on the path to the cape."
"The Eagle's Nest? Will the gens follow her there?" That was Pierrette, her second child.
Elen's heart sank.
"Let's trick them," suggested Marie. "I'll move the sash to the other branch of the trail, and they'll think she fled east."
Marie and Pierrette had outdistanced the townsfolk. They would "save" her by undoing her own deception. Elen was torn between bidding them leave the sash and remaining hidden. Once undone, Guihen's spell would be difficult to renew. Magic failed oftener than not, or took strange turns.
Otho's knees ached on the unyielding stone. Tonight, his prayers took strange form, a reminiscence of a time that he held close in his heart...
That summer, he had been but thirteen. Elen had been a year older, a dark forest sprite tiny as the fairies from whom her ancient folk had sprung. She had been to Otho a fairy indeed, and he had fallen in love with her by the tiny spring her folk held sacred, the Goddess's breast from which they drank. The day he met her, Otho had hiked miles in search of game for his father's table, and the water in his leather pouch was warm, stale, and sour. When the dark-eyed wood spirit had offered him water fresh from the rock, in a clean beechwood cup, he had drunk greedily, and had fallen utterly under her enchantment.
In truth, the spell had been his own, sprung not from the waters but from the life that pulsed in his groin. Similar magic had flowed in the girl, unchecked by Christian inhibition.
That summer his hunting trips all took him near the Mother's breast, and he never again carried his water pouch. He felt the urge to hunt whenever he felt the swelling of his maleness in the heat of the summer nights, as often as his heart and mind sweetened with the memory of dark eyes, lithe limbs and the warmth between them.
But summer did not last forever. Even before the last leaves fell from the oaks, before the mossy ground grew too chill for revels with the Goddess's child, his brothers discovered the game he hunted. His father bundled him off to the abbey at Massalia, where he had remained for two years.
Returning to Citharista, he bore about his neck a bronze cross, and upon his heart a weight heavier still. Elen carried another burden, for even then little Marie swelled within her-Marie, the daughter of Gilles, a fisherman who also tended a grove of olive trees outside the town.
In two years a second daughter was born to Elen, and Gilles approached the young priest with an odd request. Elen had lost two sons before their birthing, and it was likely the new child would be her last. He did not say that Elen's old Ligurian magic had determined so. Otho suspected Gilles was but a messenger, and that Elen herself had sent him.
Gilles was then thirty-two, and had lost many teeth. He might live another five years or twenty, but without a son to aid him, their Burgundian defender would press him to sell the olive grove to him, and Gilles' family would suffer.
Gilles fished also, as had his father, but his old boat was frail, and he was afraid to sail all the way to Massalia, the only market for his sea urchins, a delicacy among rich folk of Greek and Roman descent, He told himself he was a cautious man. Thus he must have his olive grove.
"I need a son," Gilles said. Otho protested that he was no masco, and could not change the sex of a daughter born. "Then I need only your silence," Gilles replied. "We will raise the child as a boy and call him Petros, which means "a stone." The Burgundian will not know of the deception until I am dead."
"Petros? I can't perform an unhallowed baptism using Saint Peter's name."
"Then don't baptize the child. Merely keep silent for Elen's sake, and we'll call him Piers." In the vernacular tongue it meant the same thing, a stone. Otho did not ask its deeper meaning, suspecting it was Elen's secret reprimand: the stone she had borne beneath her heart, since her first love had left her and taken the cross.
The "boy" Piers was now five, and no one suspected he was not merely small like his mother. Otho speculated that Elen had cast a small glamour over the child, causing the eye to slip past Pierrette's delicate features and focus upon the boyishness of her clothing and short-cropped hair.
Yet whether or not Elen had done so, she had not relented in her effort to bear a son. Her small forest magics failed, but there were others. She visited the magus Anselm in his Saracen keep, and was heard speaking words in a tongue no man could fathom. The pagan witches of the hills were tolerated, for they sprang from the same roots and beliefs as Christian townsfolk, but this new sorcery was not. Folk had talked harshly of Elen and her foreign magics...
"P'er Otho?" At Marius's tremulous query, Father Otho's reverie faded. As smoothly as an aging man could, an elder of twenty-seven with streaks of white in his hair, he got to his feet.
No need for haste; either the gens would catch the poor woman or they would not. He was too far away to affect the outcome. If Elen was caught, they would beat her, perhaps even to death, and he would cry shame and heap penances upon them; if they lost her on the rocks and forest trails, or if she reached Anselm's stronghold, he would meet his flock on their way back, and shame them for their murderous intent.
Then he reconsidered his resistance to the castellan's command: the Burgundian could request a more docile priest. He sighed, picked up the reliquary, and held it reverently on supine palms. There was surely no harm in carrying it forth; the saint, herself a fugitive, might even take pity on Elen and cast confusion over her pursuers. Surely she would do Elen no harm.
The rough voices of the villagers neared. Elen heard a curse as someone fell. "Hold! Wait for the priest and Saint Claire. Marius says they're coming!" Elen lost herself to despair. Even gentle, loving Otho, had at last completed his transformation, his rejection of her. He would bring his magical bones to sniff her out.
"They're closer," whispered Pierrette. "What shall we do?" But the decision wasn't hers. As villagers, priest, and holy bones drew near, Elen felt the Christian magic overpower Guihen's pitiful spell, driving off her hard-won obscurity with its baleful might, with unforgiving Faith. The Moon's round disk again emerged, and the light that shone on Elen was not the Huntress's visage, but a cold, bright, silver lamp that belonged to Otho's celestial God.
"Mother!" gasped Marie, seeing Elen. She ran to her, with Pierrette close behind. Both girls, one seven and in skirts, the other five, clad in a boy's tunic and small Frankish trousers, clung to her arms as she tried to rise. "Mother, we must flee! Listen-they come."
"Marie, hear me," Elen said desperately. "They mustn't find you with me. Run to the Eagle's Beak. Stay with Anselm. Go!" The moon was bright. Even the stars seemed unnaturally intense, and she knew there was no hope-but the children must get away.
"Mother, come!" But the sharp crack of Elen's palm on her cheek cut off Marie's words.
"Obey! Go now. Take your sister." She pressed a small, soft leather sack in her youngest daughter's hand. "Take this, my sweet. Give it to Anselm."
It was not her mother Marie saw then, shedding the two girls from her skirts; it was the masc Elen, the witch, and Marie was suddenly cold with fear of sorceries, unnatural moonlight, and darkness among the trees. With a tiny, despairing cry Marie fled, pulling Pierrette after.
Alone, Elen waited, now hearing the priest's sweet tenor joining the chant, guiding it, inspiring it to ever greater volume and power.
Below, shallow caves pocked the three scarps. They looked, from Citharista, like bulging domes of bare, brown rock.
From the sea, the "roof" could be seen as an overflung edge, undermined by waves gnawing at its base four hundred feet below. A pebble dropped from the scarp would fall well out beyond the surging waves, in water as deep as the cliff was high.
The few faint trails to the summits were clogged with thorny-leaved scrub oak that clawed at skin and clothing, and tangles of finely-branched evergreens. Where rock had crumbled to make soil, the spreading parasols of pines shadowed and obscured the narrow ways.
Pierrette had seen the Eagle' Beak from her father's fishing boat. Riding the swell, she'd looked up not to the sky, but to a looming roof of stone.
Now, on the slope, their way obscured by stubborn pines, it was not surprising that two little girls should take a wrong turn, and then, in dismayed confusion find themselves tantalizingly near the mage Anselm's stronghold, but on the wrong side of an unscalable scarp, with the enraged townsmen between them and safety. They huddled in a dank cave, hoping not to be seen.
They were close enough to hear shouts, and the thump of clubs on human flesh-but thankfully not near enough to hear their mother's agony, which was wordless, except for a murmur, perhaps her daughters' names.
Whether or not Elen spoke those names, they were what Cado the fisherman heard as he knelt close to verify Elen's dying. `The brats," he growled. `She's saying something to them. Where did they go?"
"What does it matter?" Someone-a faceless shadow under stark moonlight-raised a club for a last, killing blow.
"Never mind," Cado said, seeing the spreading stain on Elen's garment. "She's dead."
"Where are the whelps?" the other man said again-a harsh devil-face, Cado saw, one that ordinarily belonged to Jules, a carpenter who repaired boats.
The other villagers crowded around the inert masc. "They didn't pass us," someone muttered uneasily.
Otho, last to arrive, bearing his holy bones, pushed through the huddle. He knelt, and gently closed Elen's staring eyes.
The gens backed away, and none would meat his bleak, baleful gaze.
"Murderers," he grated. "Would you kill the children too?"
Those who could, slipped away. Among them were Cado, Jules, and the others who had wielded clubs. Odo lingered, alone with Elen for the last time. At last he covered her battered face, and headed down the narrow defile.
From the shadow of the shallow cave, the two children had heard enough to fear their mother was dead. Marie spun away, covering her face. Little Pierrette stood like chiseled stone, unwilling to turn from her dismay...
And then she saw ... him ... just within the cave.
His hair was white as moonlight, yet his face was a boy's. It had a stiff little nose, and lips like those of the tumbled Eros marble half-buried inside the ruined walls of a Roman edifice. Violet eyes seemed to glow from within, like none Pierrette had seen, in that land where most were brown or black.
His ears were huge. They wiggled.
"You may laugh," he said. "It doesn't bother me." His voice was youthful, yet hauntingly familiar, with inflections like Elen's-who had grown up speaking the old Ligure tongue.
"They'll hear you," Pierrette whispered, her eyes shifting toward the cave mouth behind the strange apparition. He laughed, a sound that carried echoes of tiny bells. Moonlight wafted over his clothing. Pierrette gasped.
His garments-a puffy moon-white shirt, green pantaloons, and floppy-toed shoes-all seemed to be made of willow leaves. Or were they feathers? The shirt glowed like nacre, the short trousers like magpie feathers, first russet, then azure, then green. "They'll hear only the sighing of wind among the pine needles," he said. "They'll see only moonbeams and the flicker of a bat. Not me, and not you."
"How can that be?" the girl queried the apparition.
"Once you knew that," he replied oddly. "Once you knew me." Pierrette had ten fingers, and knew she had fewer years than digits. Her confusion showed. "Later, I'll explain," he said with a touch of sadness. "First we'll win free of this place."
Marie, the older girl, had hardly lifted her face from her sheltering hands. Now, she peered up at the odd little man. "Mother is dead, isn't she? Are you the devil, come to take us as well?"
Pierrette shook her. "Mother can't be dead. And the devil is Pan, with his horns. This is only..." She turned hesitantly toward him.
"I'm your mother's friend, and no devil-not yet. My soul is my own."
Marie rose, shrugging as if she did not care if their guide was a devil, or whether their mother still lived. Together, they climbed down from the cave. No townsfolk were in sight, though their cries could be heard among the rocks and twisted pines.
"They won't see us," said the feather-clad boy-man. He led them through gullies and up long, rough slopes. Red rock gave way to bleached limestone, scrub oak and pine to sharp-twigged, sticky-leaved brush, then to taller oaks with large leaves, thick boles, and heavy shadows that hid the moon and stars.
"We won't find Mother here," Pierrette complained. "Look-the Eagle's Beak is far away." At the extreme tip of the cape, high on the rock, but far below where they now stood, were the geometric shadows of the fort people said Saracens had built long ago.
In the shadow of those walls, something moved, low to the ground, humping from one dark place to the next, visible only when it crawled across a patch of moonlit ground. As it moved, it groaned like a soul tormented, and left behind a faint trail of scuffled pebbles, and dark wetness that glistened momentarily.
Its progress was erratic, yet it moved inexorably toward the wooden gate at the end of a narrow footpath. On either side of the path, the red rock plunged downward. Disturbed pebbles tumbled free and rattled down into silence long before they splashed into the sea.
Humping itself up, the apparition took on almost human shape: a head with hair that hung in rootlike clumps, arms like branches twisted by sea-winds.
"Aaa..." it croaked. "Aaa... Anssselm!" Again and again, it uttered the cry, in wet, broken tones that bubbled up as from a depth of mud.
With a rattling of chains and the thump of a heavy bolt, the fortress's door opened. The yellow light of a candle flickered across the pebbled path. "Who calls? Show yourself!" The voice was high and querulous.
The flickering light revealed an old man in a gray nightshirt that matched his long, tousled hair and beard. A halo of frizzy hairs waved like seaweed across his pate as the breeze rushed past him, up the stairs, to dissipate in the maze of mysterious rooms beyond.
The mage gasped. "Elen!"
"Poor girl, what have you done?" His skinny arms fluttered as he hovered about the broken shape on his path. "Oh, Elen, I warned you. Why couldn't you listen? Look what's become of you."
"My children...." The masc Elen saw the mage through a red haze of blood. The pain of her broken legs, wrist, and ribs were as nothing. Death would free her, but her daughters... "Help me!" she moaned, her words a wind among bare, dead branches.
"I can't," wept the mage. "I don't control the magic that destroyed you."
Elen, knowing full well that the gentes' clubs, not magic, had broken her, shook her head. The creak and groan of her neck-bones was loud in her ears-and she could not see herself as the mage saw her. She had not noticed the stiff, gray bark that wrapped her wrists, fingers and bare forearms. She could not see the beech-leaves in her hair.
Beech leaves, on a windswept seacoast? Beech-trees grew in the sheltered valley of the Holy Balm, where Magdalen's bones lay buried, and by the sacred pool, not by the sea.
Yet Anselm saw them, and realized they weren't merely clinging, but growing. The tips of twigs shaped themselves from clumped strands of bloody hair. "You've destroyed yourself, girl," he murmured sadly. "My own weak magic can't undo that."
"The children," Elen pleaded, her voice dry and rough as branches rubbing against stone.
"What can I do? They aren't here, and if I leave this place, I'll fade away. Perhaps they'll come to me ... I'll do what I can." He hesitated "I don't know what help I may be."
"Hasn't there been enough horror? Look what my magic did to you."
The masc, with sounds of agony, drew herself to her knees and examined her hands. Where fingernails had been pushed small, green leaves. Smooth, gray bark stiffened her fingers and obscured the joints. Nubs and knotholes scarred her arms, and a spur pushed itself from her elbow, a woody protuberance that ended in twigs and swelling buds.
Then Elen knew her destiny-and what must be done. "This is not your magic," she said, though speech became more difficult; beech-leaves rustled where her tongue had been, and her lips were stiff and gray. "This is older. It's Mother's. The children, Anselm. Promise."
The mage nodded. "If they come to me. But you can't stay on this dry path. What's to become of you?"
"Take me to my Mother," she wanted to say. "Take me to the spring called Ma, far up the valley past the old Roman fountain." She tried to say that, but her voice was only the whisper of a breeze among her leaves, the rattle of stiff twigs, of insects upon her gray, smooth bark.
Marie huddled near the small campfire, silent.
Pierrette pulled herself closer. "Mother said I must go to Anselm."
"Elen was distraught." Their big-eared guide fed a twig to the flames. "That's no place for a child."
"Take me," she said, as if he hadn't spoken.
"When you're older and wiser, go yourself. I'll never take you." In his lap between his skinny knees was a plump white hen. Neither grief nor the darkness of the deep woods could still the growling of Pierrette's stomach as she imagined that succulent bird turning on a spit. She could taste it already.
When she said as much, the long-eared fellow reacted with voluble horror. "Eat my hen? Ignorant, nasty girl! Would you kill and eat me too? As well if you did-without my little friend, I would die anyway. Shame! Horrid carnivore!"
Only her tears, when he made as if to leave her by the flickering fire, seemed to stay him. "She is the source of my magic," he explained. "I stroke her feathers, and I become invisible." He made a show of stroking the bird's wings. "Watch," he said. "Now no one can see me."
"You're right there, in front of me. How could I not see you?"
"Oh, mud!" he said.
Pierrette giggled, her misery forgotten for the moment. He was so foolish, with his feathery clothes, his wide, crooked grin, and ears that wiggled as he spoke. His manner-boyish, yet as if inside his skinny frame lurked a grumpy old man-drove away her fear. "Why shouldn't I see you?" she asked.
He scowled. "Didn't your mother tell you who I am?"
Mother had said many things. She pondered for several moments. Feathery clothing, and a white hen... "Guihen?" Her voice was hesitant.
"You do know me!" he crowed.
Pierrette frowned. "I know of Guihen," she said, "but I'm not sure you're him."
"Oh?" He seemed crestfallen. "Why not?"
"My mother said you were old-or even dead. She said all the forest spirits were old, and had gone away to die. Besides, I still see you."
"Wait, let me try again." Once more he stroked the hen's feathers. For a moment, Pierrette thought he wavered, as if heated air from the fire had blurred his image. For one long second she saw, instead of a ridiculous feather-clad man, a small willow, the undersides of its leaves white, the tops rich and green as magpie feathers.
"How wonderful!" Then she smiled mischievously. "But you weren't invisible."
"What?" His features drooped. "What did you see? Sometimes my ears..."
"I saw a willow-bush."
He brightened. "Well, then, I was invisible after all. You saw a willow, and I am not a willow. Q.E.D."
"Q.E.D., child. Quod erat demonstrandum. 'Thus it has been shown.' The conclusion of a mathematical or geometric theorem. It means I was right: you saw a willow, not me, therefore I was invisible. Q.E.D."
"I don't know what `mathematical' means," Pierrette confessed, "but yes, I saw a willow, not you, and you aren't really a willow tree." Her words were slow and thoughtful, uttered with un-childlike precision.
Guihen grinned broadly. "You have a talent for logic. Someone should teach you."
Pierrette thought of the priest, P'er Otho, who knew much. Then her face twisted in painful memory. He had climbed into the hills with the vengeful townsfolk. She looked away. She dared not think of her mother, yet she could not keep from thinking of her.
"What's wrong, child?" asked Guihen. "Why the dried-fig face?"
"The gens caught my mother. What will happen to me?"
Marie emitted a throaty wail like a terrified cat. "Now see what I've done!" Pierrette cried. She threw her arms about the older girl, muffling her wet, burbling sobs. "There, Marie," she crooned, stroking her sister's tangled hair, "Soon we'll go home to Father." She did not believe that, but giving comfort allowed her to lock her own torment in a cellar, deep within the edifice of her mind.
Marie lapsed silent, and her breathing became soft and regular. Across the dead ashes, Guihen sat, illuminated now by the first light rose-petal tendrils of dawn weaving themselves among the trees.
Pierrette asked him, "Is my mother dead?" Dawn took the edge from emotion. Someday, Pierrette knew, she would weep... But not in the ashen light of this new, empty day.
"Am I dead?" he retorted. "I'm a thousand years old, yet still a boy. Perhaps I'm the oldest boy alive-or dead. I suspect there's something in between the life ordinary folk know and the death they fear, because I am here-or so I believe."
Time and place were abstractions in the damp woods. In the aftermath of emotion, gray light made whimsy of forbidding things and permitted one not to care. "I will believe Mother is dead," said Pierrette, "when I see what remains of her. Not before." And not unless, said the voice deep in her personal cellar, hoping it would not happen, and that Elen would continue to live, saved by the ignorance of a five-year-old child.
Gilles, Pierrette's father, was hiding.
The skinny peasant's breath whistled between gapped brown teeth, and he clenched his jaw to prevent them from rattling against each other. Not that anyone would have heard, for he was too afraid to venture near the gentes' campfire. Were his children there? Had the townsfolk found them?
Gilles was not brave. "Cautious," he said when villagers chided him for refusing to take his sea urchins to Massalia for the best price. "The coast is gray and dangerous," he told them. "The currents are treacherous, the fogs constant, and any cove might hide a Saracen pirate."
Yet tonight he could not justify cowardice as caution. Any man worthy of the name would have rushed from his hiding place to fight the torch-wielders who had killed his wife. A man would have died if needs be, with the mother of his children, but Gilles had watched Elen die. What then was he?
He watched the distant firelight. If the children were there, he would see them when dawn illumined the camp.
A short distance from Gilles's hiding place, Marius slumped against a flat face of limestone, which reflected the flicker of firelight. The bludgeons, the murder weapons, had long since been consumed by the flames. Now Father Otho and several townsmen huddled close, sheltering the embers from wind that swept over the bleak heights, feeding the fire with twigs, stretching their meager fuel, praying they might make it last the endless hours that held away impending dawn, and the return of God to this forsaken place.
The townsfolk were afraid of ghosts and their own guilt. Yet Otho was not afraid; he was sickened, grief ridden, and worried about two small girls, huddled alone and cold in that hideous night.
"I saw beasts out there," Marius muttered, his teeth clattering as with intense cold. "I saw a terrible, starving man. And two pairs of eyes as big as limes glowed in the shadows. I saw them! I did!"
"Bears," said Cado the fisherman. "His bears! Yan Oors."
"John of the Bears is only a story," said the priest, annoyed that Cado was further agitating the boy. "We've no bears here. The Romans killed the last of them, and are themselves dust. The boy saw the old hermit Anselm, and the glowing eyes were deer, startled by our thrashing about."
"They weren't deer," Marius said sullenly. "And the old magus has white hair, and never leaves his fortress. This man had a fat staff, as tall as a doorway."
"Yan Oors has an iron staff," said Cado. "He rights wrongs and protects the innocent."
"Who here is innocent?" snapped the priest. "Have you no blood on your hands?" Elen's blood, he thought. Elen, whom I and Saint Claire failed to save.
"That's not what I meant," Cado said. "I fear he has come.. for us."
"Then pray. If anything walks the night it is Satan, not some long-dead Gaul. Fear for your soul, not your bald head."
"That too," grunted the fisherman.
Otho knew what he was thinking: Cado had been caught up in the townsmen's rage. Otho had felt the power and elation of the mob. Even the night, realm of devils and beasts, was no proof against the villagers' frenzy to catch the masc Elen, the pretty witch who had spurned all of them, who had married Gilles-bad-teeth, and had birthed his brats.
Whether Satan or Yan Oors trod the rocky hills made no difference, thought Otho. Neither would save them from what they and their bloody clubs had done.
"Careful! Careful!" warned old Anselm. "Her tender roots."
"She has reached between the rocks," said his tall, gaunt companion, leaning on a heavy staff. The cudgel-liver-colored like rusted iron-was wedged in a crack. "I must free her from them."
The two men stood on the narrow causeway to the fortress. A strong breeze blew from the open sea westward of them, and over the glittering waters of the fjordlike calanque east of the ridge, yet it disturbed neither the smooth drape of the mage's robes, nor his tall companion's rough-woven, patched cloak. Their task concerned a small beech tree, a slender, muscled trunk the same silver-gray hue as the sky, which dawn and impending sun had not yet quickened to blue. Small leaves not darkened by day's burning heat fluttered at the ends of tender stemlets.
"The sun comes!" the oldster hissed. "Hurry! You must carry her to the spring Ma."
"Shall I hurry, and damage her roots?" rumbled the tall man.
"Bah! Do as you will. Don't stop to converse."
"Then put your breath to work by removing the stones I have loosened." For some time thereafter the only sounds were the rattle of red marl and quartzite pebbles falling, and the iron clank of the big man's staff working loose rock for his companion to drag away.
At long last the work was done. The big man removed his frayed cloak and spread it. Both men gently lifted the small uprooted tree and placed it on the cloak. They packed pale, exposed roots and clinging soil with soft pine needles, and wrapped the cloak tightly around all, binding it with twine from the mage's sandals.
Carefully lifting the bundle, the gaunt one turned to depart. The mage nodded, and turned away toward the yawning darkness of his fortress's gate. Then, as an afterthought, he said, "Be careful; the gens of Citharista will be returning home. Don't allow them to consummate their murderous intent."
"They won't see me," said the other-sadly, or so it seemed. "I almost wish they would." He didn't explain, but the mage seemed to understand, and replied, "I too yearn for the old times, but that is not to be." Did tears glisten in his eyes, or was it a reflection from the bright blue-green waters far below?
The big man-call him John-strode purposefully down the long rough slopes, making his own path. If men saw him, they averted their eyes, concentrating on their own precious footing, or pretended that they recognized him as someone safe and familiar-the priest, perhaps, in his dark garment-or saw merely the shadow of a scrub oak disturbed by unfelt movement of the air.
He walked along the narrow trail south of the town, and those townsmen who might otherwise see him turned aside into the brush to relieve full bladders, or bent to relace sandal-strings that had been snug a moment before.
The hairs on the necks of such villagers stood on end as they urinated or fiddled with their footgear, because they felt eyes staring at them from brush and shadow, eyes that-without their looking up-they knew to be green, as large as limes, and belonging to no wayward deer.
Striding softly despite his purposeful pace, John carried his bundle across the sandy spit south of Citharista port, and past old stone wharves, built in Roman times. He walked on gravel, but beneath the rattling stones was Roman pavement, limestone quarried high on the slopes where white dragon bones protruded from the bleak, fearsome hills.
None saw him as he passed through Citharista. At the pool where the crumbling aqueduct ended, women bent low to fill their jugs with extra water. Their burdens, walking back to their houses, would be heavier than usual, but they would excuse their excesses. "It's a good day to dye that cloth I wove last winter," one might say. "I have roots to color it a yellow as sunlight, and a jar of old wine to set the dye. It's a fine day for it."
"Today promises to be dry," another woman might say. "I'll need more water than usual. Octavus will be thirsty when he returns from the hills..."
Other folk, other rationales. John continued out of the town unseen. The road widened between fields of scruffy grain, vegetables in crooked rows, and grapevines on frames of split poles. North of Citharista he left the last cultivated plot behind. Sheep grazed on the slopes where the valley narrowed. He crossed a tiny stream once captured by the aqueduct and led downward to the town, now freed to make its own way, or to be soaked up by the thirsting soil, evaporated by the relentless sun.
He passed a last ancient olive grove, planted five hundred years earlier. John had not seen that particular grove since it had been young, but he remembered it and assured himself that for all the changes the centuries had wrought, he was on the right trail. It wound over increasingly rough ground, among ancient trees far younger than he-who remembered an earlier forest there, one long-since cut for ridge-poles and ships' timbers.
At last he neared his destination. Obscured by trees and a tumble of eroded rock were the cut stones of a Roman fountain long dry. The channel that had fed it was clogged with roots old as the forest. The spring that welled up from Ma, the mother of folk more ancient than he (who considered himself a Gaul), was ahead, restored to its ancient place.
There, amid beech trees that thrived in the shelter and shadow of hills north and south, amid maples and broad-leaved oaks entirely unlike the seaward kind, he set his burden down. He contemplated the grove, the upwelling spring and the great, mossy stones as if seeking instruction from them. Then, with an inaudible sigh, he plunged his staff into the soft mold to loosen it. Gently pushing aside pine needles and moist soil, he unwrapped his cloak from the small beech tree's roots. He held the sapling upright in the hole, and sprinkled crumbles of soil over the tender roots. As the hole slowly filled, he tamped them with prodding fingers.
At last, he was finished. He brushed detritus over the disturbed soil. From a rock exposed to afternoon sun he rubbed dry moss, crumbled it further in the palm of his hand, and blew it over the dirt. Moss would grow from the fine powder, and in a year or two there would be no hint of what had transpired there.
Yan Oors, John of the Bears, then cast his eyes upward at the barren peaks to the north. No one saw him, of course, when his feet followed where his vision had gone ahead. He almost wished someone had-some shepherd, perhaps, who might have hailed him, hoping for news from the town. But though there was a shepherd, he saw only his sheep, for he sensed the presence of wild beasts, and was afraid. He hailed no one-for in truth, no one was there.
"In truth," a dispassionate observer might have said, "Elen died upon the path to the Eagle's Beak, and someone-likely her husband Gilles-carried her poor remains away and buried them. That a spindly beech tree now grows in the ancient sacred grove means nothing, because the logical place for young beeches is where their parent tree's seeds fell. If indeed Elen is buried there, then the new seedling merely found the freshly-turned soil hospitable." But no such observer had been on the Eagle's Beak that night, so who was to say what really transpired?
Far below-though high above Citharista, and in a forest also-Pierrette gently nudged her sister awake. "Guihen says it is safe now, Marie. We'll return to town. Papa must be terribly worried."
Marie's eyes, always dark, were lost in shadows her sister could not fathom. Would she ever smile again? "I want Mama," Marie said without inflection.
"Later, child," said their elfin companion. "She is resting, and must not be disturbed." That seemed to satisfy Marie, who was easily led down the trailless slope and out onto open ground.
"Why did this happen, Guihen?" asked Pierrette. "Why can't Mama come here right now?"
"She made a choice long ago, child," said the odd man, his ears hardly moving at all, as if they were leaves that had wilted in the sunlight. "Someday you'll remember, and will understand."
"How can that be?" asked the child-who knew that whatever choice had been made, it had surely been more than five years ago-and knew, though without training in mathematics, that she herself was but five. She explained that to Guihen.
He shook his head. "It's true that you are only five," he said, "but I remember when you were a great sorceress with magic in your eyes and flames dancing on your fingertips. That was very long ago, when I was not so young as I am now-or is it old? Oc, I think so. I was not then so old." He looked around himself, as if confused, his expression conveying dismay.
"What's wrong?" asked Pierrette, frightened by the change in him.
"I must go," he said. "I begin to fail. I've been away too long."
"Don't leave us alone."
"Look below. There are the red roofs of Citharista. You can find your way. I must go. Do not ask me to die for your loneliness."
"Where will you go? I'll find you someday."
"The Camargue," he said, edging away as if she might compel him to stay, "where the great river meets the sea-where the white horses roam free and salt lies in drying pools." The Camargue, the delta of River Rhodanus, was unimaginably vast and far away.
"Goodbye!" Pierrette called out, though he was already gone. Had he rubbed his hen's feathers, to disappear so abruptly? She looked for a willow-bush, for leaves that fluttered where no breeze impelled them to move, but saw only oaks with leaves the size of her small fingernails, and pines, and stony ground.
The gentes' passion was gone, and in its place were bland, sheepish faces that wore a burden of unexpressed guilt. The Burgundian knight Reikhard-baptized in his youth as Jerome-was as close as anyone to being a magistrate. He had demanded that P'er Otho take several men and recover Elen's body. When they came back and announced their failure to find it, the knight announced that without evidence of murder he could not establish guilt. The gens collectively breathed a great sigh of relief, and went back to their occupations.
Elen's children were mostly ignored in the weeks and months that followed. Marie hardly spoke to anyone, even Pierrette. The younger girl-the boy Piers as far as the villagers were concerned-seemed to recover more completely. Of course, said the common wisdom, boys are resilient, and Piers's tender age helped too. Likely the child would forget everything in a year or two. The villagers were content to pretend that nothing had happened. Later, as their natures dictated, they would be overly kind to the half-orphaned children or would continue to look past them as if they-and the reason for their orphaning-did not exist.
Thanks to the intervention of Guihen (who might, of course, have been a "just pretend" creation of the girls' imaginations), neither child had witnessed their mother's demise, and their last memories of her were less horrible than were their father's. They only knew she was gone, and many years would pass before Pierrette began to understand the connection between the townsfolk's silence about that night's events, and her mother's absence. Marie, older, scarred by her sketchy yet terrible comprehension, chose not to remember anything at all, and no one was wise enough, or cared enough, to worry that such denial might sow the seeds of madness within, to sprout when conditions were right for them...
Pierrette hid the little sack her mother had given her on top of a rafter, and let it slip from mind. She did not, though, put her mother's memory aside. "I will someday be a powerful witch, and I will put terrible spells upon those who hurt Mama."
"Oh, no!" exclaimed Marie (who was the only person Pierrette confided in). "That would be a terrible sin. I will pray to Mary that she turn your heart from unChristian revenge."
Pierrette did not protest. Marie was her mother now, and she would not gainsay her. Of course, Marie was only a child, and ill-fit the maternal role, but it was enough for Pierrette. Despite Marie's growing piety and Pierrette's lack of it, the two sisters would grow ever closer as time passed.
Gilles, the girls' father, didn't forget anything, but being a quiet, gentle man, consumed by his own guilt and cowardice, and being of little importance among his fellows, his mute agony meant little to anyone, because they didn't see it.
A niche in the front room held a leather-wrapped bundle, old and cracked. Within was an ancient sword, a Roman spatha, that had belonged to an ancestor of Gilles'. When the olivier's eyes fell on it-far too often for his peace of mind-he imagined himself unwrapping it, and running to stand astride the torchlit path to the cape, defying the murdering gentes. Yet it was too late for that, even had the Roman blood not run thin in his veins. Gilles left the sword where it was. But there was another reminder of his wife and his personal failure; he packed up Elen's little sacks and jars of herbs and powders, and pushed them into a tiny cellar between sloping bedrock and timbered floor.
Pierrette, with a strange, distant expression, watched her father hide the wooden box. Despite Marie's prayers, she dreamed of being a masc like her mother. Those dreams would have frightened Gilles.
She had another dream, a recurring nocturnal one of a lovely, secluded calanque where she lived with ... the Golden Man. He was taller than anyone in Citharista, and his hair was the color of late-afternoon sun. He wore only a fur skirt, so she knew that the hair of his chest was gold against the darker bronze of his skin.
The Golden Man laughed when she told him of Citharista. There were no towns in his world. His laugh was kindly, though, and if she had been older she would have put her arms around him as women did with men they loved. But she was a child, and did no such thing-and she told no one, not even Marie, what she had dreamed.
Pierrette had her Golden Man. Gilles had his own dreams, but while hers came in her bed, or dozing in the shade of an olive tree, or even while her head nodded in sea-reflected sunlight on her father's fishing boat, Gilles dreams came only in one place-the sacred grove of beeches and maples, beside the pool called Ma.
"You were gone all night, Father," said little Pierrette, close to tears. "I looked for you in the olive grove, and at your boat." Gilles laid two loaves of bread on the stone hearth and enveloped her in his long, skinny arms.
"There is a place, a long walk from here," he explained, "where I go when I feel lonely and old." Where I go when my yearning for Elen, and my inability to be both father and mother to my children, overwhelms me.
"I don't feel old," Pierrette mused, "but I am sometimes lonely. Will you take me there?"
"It's a long walk, and you are too big to be carried." In truth, Pierrette was small for six or seven years, even for a girl, but Gilles didn't wish to burden her with concerns over his health. He could not chew a thick crust of bread without soaking it in oil or wine, and he often left the table half-satisfied. In the olive grove, the children did most of the work.
"I'll wear thick sandals. I can walk a long way."
Gilles didn't agree at once. The spring Ma lay almost five milles, five thousand Roman paces, up an ever-steepening, rock-strewn valley, a long walk even when the sun's heat didn't drain one's strength, when the hard Mistral wind didn't blow down from the mountains like a great, cool hand pushing him back. Several things had yet to occur before Gilles would consider his daughter's wishes. Even he was not aware what they were.
"In the beginning," children learn, "was only God." Yet God created an Earth and a Universe to surround it. From what font did He gather the materials? For a child, remembering its amazed pride of creation when it first grasped conscious control of its own bowels, it is no great step to assume that all matter sprang from the bowels of God.
Pierrette's logic outpaced most children's. Foeces demanded food, and in God's beginning, there had been none. Logic was not satisfied. "Someday I will figure it out," she promised herself, but for the time contented herself with lesser logical exercises.
Her restraint, had anyone known of it, would of itself have defined her as a very logical being.
Children who are different often isolate themselves. By the time Pierrette was ten or eleven, her separation was conscious and deliberate. No doubt discomfort with the deception she was required to practice contributed. Her small stature and inability to compete in boyish striving limited her, too. But I suspect it was mostly natural inclination.
Some lone children become merely strange. Those with God-given resources may become observers of the human condition, practitioners of solitary arts like painting, philosophy ... and magic.
Pierrette, spurred by innate intelligence, by vague comprehension of her mother's arrested ambitions, contented herself with developing her logical mind far beyond what might be expected of a child of her years.
In the tiny cellar, Pierrette dipped her fingers in water. She dribbled the fluid on a pinch of tinder in another bowl, while a dun snake watched with silent stare. It was a viper, subsisting on occasional mice, but she imagined it a friend.
Touching the wet tinder to the candle's flame didn't ignite it. Yet tinder dribbled with olive oil burnt with sputtering and black smoke.
"The essence of fire," (she didn't frame her thoughts in quite such mature words) "is in tinder and oil, but water is heavier and stronger, and drives it away."
Flames fascinated her. Were they alive? Were the flames of a burning log the escaping soul of the tree? Was steam the soul of water, rising until the pot boiled dry? Was a person's soul a fire within?
She dared not discuss such speculations with anyone, even Father Otho.
Perhaps her preoccupation arose from memory of the gens' bonfire, the night she and Marie hid in the cave, or of the torches the villagers had carried, a snake of lights creeping into the hills. Perhaps it was the flames that lit the almost-forgotten face of their rescuer, of whom Pierrette remembered only feathered clothing and mobile ears that grew larger in her memory as months, then years, passed.
The hidden wooden box gave new scope for experimentation. She recognized the aromas of some powders: rosemary and thyme gathered on the unforested hills, other herbs from woods and garden, white ashes and black, powdered charcoal. But there was also red powder that smelled like spoiled liver, and white crystals that puckered her tongue. Some burned easily, giving off strong odors. Others didn't burn at all, or smothered flame.
Liquids didn't burn, having-as she thought of it-watery souls. Then she found the tiny bottle, blue-green glass with a stopper so carefully ground that no essence had escaped in two years' storage. That liquid made tinder burn fiercely. It even burned all by itself in a bowl, and the flames pooled like water, filling it, then overflowing onto the bedrock floor. Had Pierrette known the word, she would have announced to herself that fire, like water and air, was a fluid, and that those three elements were unlike the fourth, which was earth, and which didn't flow.
Her curious play, limited to the selection of materials in the box, inevitably involved substances in various combinations. Always, the unifying element was fire.
One particular melange, when dampened with the liquid essence of fire, burst with a loud poof! into a ball of flame. Acrid, rolling smoke forced her outside. Her eyes streamed, so she didn't even see the smoke that crept up between aged floor-boards and out through the house's loose shutters.
But Gilles, ascending the steps to the house, noticed, and saw his small daughter wiping tears with a soot-blackened hand. He pulled her away from billows of foul smoke.
"Oh, not again!" He knew the source of the poisonous stuff. In his child's wet, blackened face, he saw what he most feared.
Elen's eyes, streaming tears.
What now? He should have destroyed Elen's powders, but he had so little that had been hers. He sat rocking his child, bewildered and hurt.
By the time Marie returned from her stall in the marketplace the smoke had dissipated, but an acrid stink clung to walls, clothes, and bedding.
She too knew what the odor meant. Unlike Pierrette, Marie had become devout in the aftermath of death and terror. "I'll find Father Otho," she said, and her set face-a Roman face not at all like Pierrette's or Elen's elfin visages-allowed no disagreement.
Otho squatted in the dusty street, and Gilles, more stiffly, did the same, bringing their faces level with Pierrette's. P'er Otho looked sad and amazed, as if she were a spirit from some far past. Gilles's eyes held fear and anger. The men looked from her to each other, knowingly, with resignation.
Elen, thought Otho. Elen, before I knew her. He should rise up, red-faced, and threaten her with God's wrath, denouncing her pastime, but he did not, as he had not chastised her mother.
Otho wondered if Gilles knew of his long-past dalliance with Elen, by the spring Ma. Unlikely, yet in that triangle of figures, two large and one small, Otho sensed a common love, a shared loneliness evoked by the elfin-faced child.
"I promised to take her about," Gilles said. "I should have shown her more work in the grove, and taught her to pull in my nets."
"She shouldn't be left idle." Otho pondered. "She has an agile mind. Perhaps I should help occupy her. But how?" Again, silence reigned.
Pierrette stirred. "Teach me," she said firmly. "Teach me to read."
Thereafter the child found no idle hours for her cellar.
From Gilles she learned how best to prune long, green shoots that bore no fruit. He showed how such shoots, packed with moss, could grow roots. "The new trees will bear fruit for a lifetime or two," he said, drawing upon ancient lore transmitted through generations, "and then they'll die. It's better to plant the olive pits. Trees grown from them will live forever."
Perhaps "forever" wasn't attainable, but the thickest, most gnarled trunk in the grove had-though Gilles didn't know it-been grown from a seed planted by a Greek settler from Massalia, when Rome itself was a collection of mud huts on just one of its seven hills, thirteen centuries earlier. The tree from which the seed was taken had grown in a grove in Phoacea, in Asia, and had lived six hundred years. It had died the same year the Christ had been hanged on the wood of another tree.
Gilles knew none of that, but he knew olive trees, and he taught Pierrette to fish, too. He did not, for many weeks, lead her to the sacred pool, though he yearned to spend a day with his bittersweet memories, where he felt closest to Elen.
Father Otho filled Pierrette's remaining hours. Books, of course, were so rare that Otho had not one. But he chalked letters for her on the chapel's red tile floor. Often he sent her with a sanded plank and charred grapevine to copy inscriptions from the Roman funerary steles, amid grazing goats that belonged to Marcellus the Dacian.
"What does this say?" she asked one day, her smooth board filled with odd letters copied from a stone washed out of the bank by winter rain.
"Is that Celtic? Where did you come on that?" His tone was wrathful. "Erase it! I'll break the stone."
"What does it say?"
"I forbid you to think of it."
He might as well have commanded the hills to dance to a shepherd's flute; Pierrette could think of little else. Not only were there Latin and Greek, but another sort of writing, in a tongue with its own mysteries.
That night she dreamed of a deer-horned man dancing about a deep grave-pit, a dark place like the cellar. His chant was familiar, but she could not understand the words. The tune she remembered hearing from someone who held her. It brought memories of warm softness, and something that tasted like goat's milk, but thinner and sweet. She awoke with damp cheeks and stinging eyes, and an urgent need to go to the hills.
Though it was hours before dawn, Pierrette rose and dressed. She carried her sandals until she reached the outskirts of the village, where dust, sand, and ancient cobbles gave way to gravel and sharp stones.
The wind was off the land, not the warm sea, and she shivered, even though her exertion on the steep upward trail should have warmed her. Ghosts of memories arose with each step.
Here had wound the glitter-scaled dragon, the winding line of torches, that had hunted her mother.
There was the cave where she'd hidden, abandoned by mother and father alike. Beyond, as she turned southward beneath tall pines, was the barren cape, plunging on either side to the sea, narrowing to a natural stone span that led outward ... to a dark wooden doorway now closed.
She hesitated near an odd willow-like bush. Where had she seen one like it? The upper surfaces of its leaves were rich green, their undersides pale and silvery.
She stared, as if the very force of her gaze would penetrate its illusion. Gradually, limned with light and shadow, she saw what she suspected was waiting for her to see.
"Ha, child!" said Guihen. He wiggled his overlarge ears. "That didn't take you long. Are you growing stronger, as well as more lovely? Or am I losing my touch?" His grin was toothy. "But then, you always saw through my illusion."
Pierrette wasn't sure what he meant about growing stronger. And more lovely? She was a small, bony-kneed child of seven. Later, she would think about that, and wonder.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"I came to warn you."
"Of what?" Wisps of fine hair at the back of her neck stiffened. "You're only a willow-bush, and I'll push you aside." She was angry. She wanted her mother.
Guihen sighed. "Elen is not here, child. She lives in a green and lovely vale."
"She's not in heaven. P'er Otho said so."
"No, her place is of this earth, but you won't find it on the Eagle's Beak. But here, beyond that gate, is the magus Anselm ... and a terrible fate for a little girl."
"Mother said to seek out the mage."
"She was distraught. She didn't think. Go back to your father and sister."
"Don't try to stop me!"
"If you knock on that gate, you won't return to Citharista unchanged." Guihen's ears flapped, as if agitated. "Would you deny yourself an ordinary life: husband, children, a place to call home?"
"Go back, or be doomed to make your bed in strange places. Go back, lest time itself bend about you, and you not find what you seek for a hundred hundreds of years!"
Pierrette was too young to value the prospect of a husband and children. And her own bed was not the secure place it had seemed before that terrible night she first had met Guihen.
The sprite's speech gave her pause, but the dark gate ahead beckoned. "Are you sure Mother isn't there?"
"Elen rests in the arms of her own mother, and her mother's mother, beside the pool called Ma. Seek her there, if you must." The gentle pressure of Guihen's spidery hand on her shoulder turned her. "Go home," he commanded. "Enjoy what little you have, for it is sweeter by far than what awaits you here."
Pierrette felt the soft branch brush against her shoulder, a willow-branch, not a hand. The downhill trend of the trail quickened her steps, imparting a false eagerness to her pace.
She did as she was told, and made her way back to the village. But Citharista, her father and sister, her lonely, motherless house and bed, gave her heart no ease.
New men and old found differences to ponder: earth gods and sky god did battle in their faculties. To survive, the earth folk resorted to slyness, theft, and lies; inevitably the sky folk lumped those faults with the old ways and customs. They coined new words, and with the words were born the realities: Evil and Good.
"I miss my mother," Pierrette said, after Marie had left for the marketplace with her jars of oil.
Lonely pain crossed Gilles' face. Must she remind him? The child's uncanny resemblance was hard enough. Then, chiding himself for his selfishness-and indulging himself as well-he sighed and said, "I'll take you to a place your mother loved."
Her motherless state was more his fault than Elen's. Her quest for a spell to give him a male heir had driven the villagers to fear and murder. He could not give the child her mother, any more than he could restore his wife, but perhaps the shimmering pool, where water upwelled in bubbles from its sandy bed, would ease her pain as it did his.
For him, the pool Ma assuaged guilt as well as loneliness.
Citharista lay ringed by rocky hills, open on the southeast to the Middle Sea. The rough ridge of the Eagle's Beak sheltered it from west winds. Atop the southernmost of the three scarps forming the Beak, at the sea's edge but high above it, stood the mage Anselm's keep.
North of the scarp, hills swelled so high that the Beak seemed no more than reddish fragments of broken pottery at the sea's edge. One trail followed the coast west to Massalia, and another led north, where it joined an east-west Roman road. Only one other led out of the town, Gilles' chosen path; it led northeastward and up into an ever-narrowing valley. Only a few shepherds ever used it.
When they passed beyond the last house, the last fig and olive tree, Pierrette fell a few steps behind. Her eyes missed no detail of rock, tree, or silhouetted mountain; she engraved in her mind the way to their destination.
Once arrived, tired, thirsty, and footsore, father and daughter drank like deer on all fours. They tossed sandals aside and laughed as they plunged dusty feet into the clear, icy pool. Then Gilles stretched out to nap, his mind more at peace than at any time since his last pilgrimage here.
Her thirst slaked, Pierrette looked about. Sunbeams wound their way downward between wide, flat leaves, and turned dark moss to a green like the water of the sea.
The spring Ma created about itself a strange foreignness. She knew nothing of how seeds blew from far-away places, how trees and flowers responded to water-soaked ground, to hills that sheltered them from drying winds. The tiny, moist cleft seemed a world unto itself, open to them only by cosmic accident, God's oversight, or ... magic.
Pierrette wandered about among the odd trees-beeches, Gilles called them. Their gray, rippled bark reminded her of Father's thin, muscled arms as he pulled in a net or strained to reach a high olive branch.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, muting her voice with a hand. "How beautiful." Sunlight illuminated dry leaves spread about the base of a small beech no thicker than her slim wrist, making a hollow much like the lap of a woman clad in a heavy woolen skirt. A ring of tasty-looking mushrooms grew around it.
Pierrette lowered herself amid the leaves, curling up in the sunbeam, and rested her cheek on a closely folded arm. Warm sleep was only moments in coming, drifting on air as soft as a blanket made of sea-bird's down.
She only slept for a little while, yet she felt rested. Her feet no longer tingled. Father slept, oddly silent; at home he often snored.
As she got to her feet, something fluttered from her shoulder-a magpie feather with a black vane on one side of its central spine, and bright green that shifted to indigo, then to russet, on the other. Pierrette picked it up and spun it between thumb and finger, delighting in the shifting colors.
Watching, spinning the feather, she hummed a tiny tune. Unbidden, her lips moved ever-so-slightly, shaping half-remembered words, staccato consonants, vowels that rubbed against them like oily fish in the net. "Mondradd in Mon," she crooned. "Borabd or? perd?." Words flowed, dancing within the tune, never repeating themselves, yet always almost the same. "Merdrabd or vern," she sang, "Arfaht ar? camd?."
She dipped the feather in still water. How had she gotten to the spring? She didn't remember walking. With the wet feather, she dribbled a pattern on white limestone that was bare of moss. A beak, and wings. A long, long tail that seemed green, rust, and blue, but mostly green.
"Magpie fly," she sang, "Magpie chatter. Where will the road go... and does it matter?" Silly words, she thought. What do magpies know of roads? She tossed the feather, and it fell upon the stone. Feeling dizzy, Pierrette shut her eyes, and raised an arm to steady herself-yet she found no support. She fell...
She fell, and fell, and at last spread her wings. With a thump of speeding air brought up short, she swept upward, her tiny body teetering on long feather-clad wings, her tail streaming stiffly behind, trembling in the rush of fluid air that buoyed her. Below, vast black hills spread, and past a wingtip was the sea. A dull, leaden sea, no sunlight upon it.
Pierrette the girl would have felt a sudden chill, though Pierrette the magpie did not. What land lay below? Where were the trees, the open sea, the sun? No clouds billowed or promised rain. The sky and sea were dull as old, musty cloth.
Where was Ma? Where was Citharista?
As if someone ... something ... heard her silent plea, she found, along the brown, unlit coast, several familiar narrow bays. At the head of one, she saw great, spidery towers that concealed the waters beneath them: Citharista, seen with magpie's eyes. She recognized it from the distinctive shape of the Eagle's Beak.
Yet it was unlike the town she knew. The towers were topped with wheels threaded with ropes like ships' rigging, brown and orange as rust. The towers themselves were built of spidery timbers. Beyond were dark, windowless stone boxes high as the cliffs of the Eagle's Beak, that pushed out into the sea beyond the last wide, black road. Of the red-rock fortress that crowned the Beak there was no trace. Below the cliffs, waves thick as honey oozed over the rubble.
Her magpie's eyes traced dark lines eastward and north. Roads with no carts, donkeys, or men's feet upon them. Gaunt walls of broken houses large as Citharista's forum marched up steep hillsides where trees should have grown.
Where the valley grew narrow, she spotted a glitter of water, as if a single sunbeam had momentarily broken through the moss-thick sky. Magpie eyes marked the spot. Magpie wings tilted her toward it.
She landed in a rattle of stiff feathers upon the rotted shell of a great tree. Devoid of bark, it retained a hint of muscular texture that proclaimed it to have once been a beech.
Pierrette trembled. With hands no longer wings she reached down and lifted a tiny green feather, the only color that brightened the dead landscape.
Beyond an oily swirl of water that stank of dead things, her father should have lain asleep, but only bare rock the color of old bones, protruded from powdery ash. Sinking onto sooty dust that should have been crinkly leaves, she covered her face with her hands. Dry, wracking sobs shook her shoulders.
Beech leaves rustled. Leaves fell upon her dark hair. Amazed, she peeked through dampened fingers.
Spread before her was a wrinkled brown cloth, homespun, with patches where it had been torn, or where wool-worms had eaten it. A skirt... and within it, legs. Her gaze moved upward.
Odd, fey blue eyes much like her own, gazed sadly. "Pierrette." The voice was like hers, too. "My little stone."
If Pierrette had known what madness was, she would then have thought herself so. In her relief, delivered from her magpie-dream, she didn't question the strange woman, or note that their two voices had not awakened her father, or that the woman knelt exactly where the smallest beech tree should have been, but was not.
"It was a terrible place," Pierrette whispered. "All dead, and I was lost."
"It's well you were afraid, my child," the woman said, in words neither Roman nor common speech, but clear to Pierrette. "Terrible it is-and worse, it's not entirely dead. Evil reigns there, and the living howl in torment unending. You saw a place of tears and wailing, where laughter is unknown."
"Don't send me back," Pierrette pleaded.
"The spell you spoke sent you, not I." The woman's brow furrowed. "Do not seek to see ahead-or else endure again what you saw."
"But I don't know any spells."
"You know enough. I sang the words when you suckled at my breast. How else could I leave them for you? I, unlike you, didn't learn to write on wooden boards or the skins of sheep."
"I don't understand," Pierrette said, almost weeping.
"Oh, child! Remember this: When your confusion gives no peace, when the questions burn and will not be answered, seek the mage Anselm in his fortress, as I once bade you. I taught you what I could with my milk and lullabies. I've nothing to teach you now, that you don't already know."
The woman shook her head, jostling long, black locks as laden with dry leaves as Pierrette's own. "Come, child, finish your nap. See? The sun has not moved. There's still time." She smiled. "Yes, there's still time." She guided Pierrette's head to her lap, stroking leaves from her hair. "But time is not so sure of itself as the gods might think."
When she awakened, her father also stretched, with a mighty sigh. He glanced at her and saw nothing amiss-a small girl nestled in a heap of leaves, beneath a small beech-tree hardly as tall as himself.
"You didn't breathe the dust from those, did you?" Gilles indicated the fat mushrooms ringing the tree. "That kind is poison." That kind, he reflected, your mother gathered, and ate. Elen said they helped her grow wings like a magpie, and fly so high that the days of yore were visible as far as the veil of night.
"I didn't breathe the dust," she said truthfully.
Her father turned away. "We must go, or spend the night here. See how the sun has flown?"
Pierrette glanced toward the sun, far to the west now. Its glare wiped away the image of a ring of mushrooms, incomplete, and turned-up moss where one had been plucked from the ground.
She brushed pale crumbs from one corner of her mouth, then glanced again at the small beech tree. "I'll see you again, Mother," she said. Though her words were strange and staccato, they were yet slick as fish-scales.
"What's that?" Gilles said, startled. "What did you say?"
"Nothing, Father. The words of a song. I don't remember where I heard them."
Gilles was silent. He didn't speak the tongue of the most ancient folk, but he had heard it on Elen's lips.
Hiking home through darkening hills, Pierrette tried to understand. One long-unasked question had been answered. Her mother's body had never been found, so there was no grave. When she asked P'er Otho where her mother was, he said, "I don't know." Had it been anyone but Elen, he might have said "In heaven."
Now Pierrette knew, and would not have to ask.
"Goodnight, Mother," she whispered.
No shark-sailed Saracen vessels ranged the rough seacoast. The Franks ruled from their damp northern cities, and the Church sent bishops to tend men's souls. But neither Franks nor Church bought goods or traded. No Frankish silver marks wended their way south, and no Moorish solidii, minted to the full Roman measure, found their way to Citharista.
The trading cities of Arelate and Avennio lay devastated, their bid to keep Mediterranean trade alive by alliance with the Moors overthrown by Frankish Carolus's brutal conquest.
Elsewhere-in the crowded ports of Sicilia, the Levant, and the African coast, ships offloaded Egyptian cotton, gold from Senegal, fine horses from Andalusia. But without trade, outlets for Provence's figs, apples, wine, and salt were gone. Salt pans in the Camargue lay untended, until spring floods claimed them. Men worked their groves and vineyards, harvesting enough for local trade alone.
The land was at peace, but Pierrette was not. Even years later, she would speak uneasily of the dream-within-a-dream that haunted her. Raucous magpies taunted her by day, and visions of a dead future tormented her nights.
"Your soul wanders because you remain unbaptized," said Father Otho, when she told him of her torment.
"I'm afraid of magic." She sounded wise and old.
The priest had an eerie sense of having sat on the half-fallen stone wall in another time, of having the same conversation with someone much like Pierrette, many years before, and with no more success.
"The rite is not magic," Otho wanted to say, but he kept silent. He knew he was right, but couldn't explain it, even to himself, and as he had failed to convince Elen, so he feared to fail with her daughter.
Gilles also knew no peace. Branches fell from his olive trees, and when he poked and pried at the dead wood, white grubs and black beetles tumbled in a dismaying rain. One tree, an old one named Pelos, put forth a final meager crop, then died. The other trees were miserly as well, and one day the Burgundian knight Jerome visited Gilles in the grove, eyeing the sickly trees with ill-concealed scorn.
"What a shame." Jerome tugged at a branch that had kept only a few forlorn leaves. "Such a grove is too much work for one old man and your little Piers. You need someone strong to maintain it."
Gilles, with sinking heart, knew the German's desire. The grove had been in his family beyond recall. A Greek ancestor had planted some of the first trees; a Roman one had expanded it and built around it the now-falling limestone wall. Conquering Goths left the grove in his family's hands, claiming only the first pressing of oil as their due, recognizing that the trees didn't love them as they did Gilles's ancestors.
Now a Burgundian lord held a throne in Aquae Sextius, in fee from the Frankish king. His vassal Jerome ruled Citharista-a light yoke for the villagers to bear, as Jerome's horsemen gave security in return. No brigands or bands of homeless soldiers raided Citharista. Yet in the new order, slaves often prospered more than free men.
Gilles was a free landowner, yet he was poor. His neighbor Jules, whose forefathers had been senators of Rome itself, was nominally Jerome's slave. Yet Jules prospered, and Gilles did not. Jules had sold his trees, his sons, his wife, and himself, to the Burgundian, in exchange for Jerome's soldiers' help at harvest-time and a promise that he and his family would never go hungry. Now Jules wore white linen, and Gilles contented himself with an old homespun shirt.
If Gilles pledged himself to Jerome, and sold his grove for a silver mark or two, he too might prosper. Yet he balked. "It's only evil winds," he told the knight. "Next year they'll be warmer. Then there'll be no rot in the crotches of my trees."
"Next year you'll have no crop." Jerome dangled a small purse. "This would tide you over."
"I will think on it," Gilles said grudgingly.
But he thought instead that the grove had once flourished with little labor on his part, that the trees, for all their thick-trunked age, had given fruit so full of oil that even the final pressing was rich, green, and sweet.
But in those times, he'd had Elen.
He'd pretended not to notice when she had crept from their bed. Once, only once, he followed her, and saw her toss off her night-shift at the edge of the grove. With a fascination almost erotic, he watched her glide gracefully, entirely nude, from tree to tree, embracing this one and that as if they were lovers, gnarled old men, yet not without dark, woody desire.
Gilles understood why the grove no longer flourished. Only a week before, he had found cloth-wrapped herbs in a rotted crotch-a bundle dark with years of decay. Elen's magic. No harvest aid from Jerome would restore his trees.
Pierrette overheard Gilles speak with the knight. Losing his trees would kill her father; he was far more devoted to them than to his boat and nets.
She, too, felt the tie to his small patch of land, fine, rooty tendrils that reached from her most remote ancestors to wind themselves about her heart.
How could she allow harsh-tongued foreigners to harvest her trees? She gritted her teeth and strode away.
Her steps took her along the harbor toward the cape. Guihen had warned her of risks beyond that dark gateway, but... Her mother had bade her do so. She weighed choices as if they were pebbles and her mind a balance scale. Mother said that when Pierrette's confusion gave her no peace, the mage Anselm could give her solace. Hadn't she? Was it solace, or was it knowledge Elen promised?
A breeze sprang up, cooling her forehead. Pale leaves of a wild olive flickered with dappled sunlight.
"Guihen?" she whispered uneasily. Quickly as it had arisen, the wind died.
Guihen had warned she would be denied husband, home, children if she went to Anselm the mage. Yet if Gilles lost the olive grove, what would she, in turn, have to pass to her children? If Gilles allowed himself the security of servitude, then she, her children and their children, would be servii.
She looked down on the town. Was the Golden Man of her dreams part of the future she would be denied?
Her child's reasoning was not clear like P'er Otho's; her weighing of choices was not exact. Hers was a battle of facts and emotions, not sedate debate: Guihen's voice and her mother's, arguing inside her head.
She clenched her fist. There was no way to decide.
Her vacillating footsteps took her to a path that led into the high, thin forest above the cape. The rough terrain gave her only one choice: retrace her steps or, continue on and perhaps become lost.
"Come," a faint zephyr breathed.
"Guihen? Is that you?" There was no reply. Pierrette pressed on. The air was sullen and still, its silence portentous.
Between two white limestone slabs she stepped on a low, grasslike growth, and a sharp spiciness wafted up from the crushed plant. Rosemary. She plucked the damaged sprig, recalling the rich melange of similar scents from the wooden box in the cellar.
The tiny leaves rustled. "Now you understand..."
Her heart thumping as if she had run a great distance, she tucked the sprig in the waist of her boy's pants, and climbed farther. From the stump of a long-dead oak she scraped red-brown fungus into a little sack made from the hem of her shirt.
Cheerily now, she hummed a strange little tune as she tapped yellow pollen from white starflower blossoms, and plucked dry, brown petals and swelling, reddening hips from a tangled rose.
It was as if the odd words and melody came from somewhere outside herself. As if it were her mother's voice, not Guihen's, not hers. With newfound resolve, she set foot on the faint trail back to Citharista and her father's grove.
The eighth winter of Pierrette's short life promised to be severe, and she was grateful for the fat bundles of dead branches she and Gilles gathered in the olive grove.
"Wait, Father," she protested, as Gilles fingered a promising branch. "That one may not be dead."
Her father examined the tips of the twig, looking for the first swelling buds of midwinter. "Not a single new bud on the tree." His tone was bleak. "If I had a good axe, I'd split the trunk for firewood."
"We don't need that much wood, Father. The nights are less cold than a week ago." She needed time for what she'd done to have its effect. Too weary to argue, Gilles shrugged and climbed down from the tree.
Spring came, and winds no longer blew bitter in the mountain valleys. The few clouds were high and puffy, and under the strengthening sun the ground dried.
Gilles and Pierrette surveyed the grove. "You were right," he crowed, cradling a leafy branch in both hands. "The tree lives! Look at those buds. Next year, we'll harvest a whole basketful from this branch alone." Olives do not bloom or put forth fruit every year. This year's rich foliage held a promise of something more.
As they walked home, Gilles rehearsed to his daughter how he'd rebuff Jerome the Burgundian when he came again to buy the grove. Pierrette, never really talkative, said little. Gilles saw nothing unusual in that.
Gilles's good cheer stemmed not only from the tree's rebirth, but from the shattering of a belief he had held for several seasons now: that the grove's decline began with the death of his wife, and that it was irreversible. Now he could speak with true conviction when he told Jerome that its ailment had been only a fluke of the weather.
The summer passed slowly.
At the marketplace, Marie's preferred spot to sell pots of last year's olives and jars of oil was at the end of the stone-paved square, where the columns of the Romans' forum shaded the cobblestones from the afternoon sun.
Behind the crumbling brick arches was a weedy open space, from which issued a wooden clatter. "They're swordfighting again," Pierrette said. "I'm going to watch." Marie, who seemed to have no interest in anything except olives and oil, shrugged.
Pierrette was-in the eyes of the gens-a boy, Gilles's son Piers, so it was only natural that she should gravitate toward boyish things. As a girl, albeit disguised, she considered boys pretentious little imitations of men, who puffed and postured in a manner she could not imitate without an inward laugh.
Her ready smile served a purpose: the genuine boys-most of whom were taller than she was-seldom pressed her hard. Her thin arms were hardly capable of wielding even a wooden sword, should she be invited into the game. She was neither a leader not a scapegoat. As if by some unremarked magic, she was never really noticed as all, unless she made a point of it.
She peered through an irregular doorway. Of the boys with wooden blades, she only had eyes for one: Marius, whose father owned the largest boat at the wharf. He was tall, with curly hair and a long, straight nose. Older and half again her height, he seemed manly and mature. As always, he was getting the best of his opponent.
"When I marry," Pierrette promised herself, "it will be to Marius." Then her face twisted. She would marry no one. She was, as far as they all knew, a weak, ineffectual boy.
When, if ever, could she reveal herself as a girl? Would she ever get over the teasing, the laughter, when the townsfolk learned her secret?
Avoiding Marie's notice, she slipped down a narrow street, and away from the market. How unfair life was. Marie, who didn't care whether boys noticed her or not, drew their attention with her quiet, indifferent gaze, her ethereal smiles and downcast eyes.
The street opened onto the empty place between the last houses and the half-fallen town wall. Pierrette gazed outward and upward-to the three domelike rocks that formed the Eagle's Beak. Guihen, on those very heights, had warned her away from Anselm.
But what difference would that make? She had no real friends and no prospect of a husband, anyway. Why not continue westward right now, to the mage Anselm's?
The long, upward trail daunted her, and it was past noonday. She let her steps take her instead to her father's flourishing grove. Best if she spoke with Gilles, make him let her end the charade, let her wear skirts and bind her hair with bright yarn or a ribbon. If they did it now, the boys might in time forget her father's deception.
She found Gilles under the tree he had believed dead. He stood, stiff as a crow-bane, his face immobile and pale, staring at a small, brown object in the palm of his hand.
Pierrette's steps slowed as if beneath her feet was sticky mud. A confrontation was at hand. Better here in the grove, she decided, than at home where Marie might hear.
Gilles stretched out his hand. She glanced indifferently at the twist of once-white cloth, stained where rain had soaked powdered leaves and burnt bone within. His glance was accusing, yet overlain with something resembling grief. "You are too young for witchery. Who showed you?"
"How? You were only five when...." He could not, even now, speak of Elen's death. "She sang words in the old tongue. Did she teach you those too?"
"She came in a dream. The spells were hidden in her lullabies."
"Dreams lie, child!" He swallowed, summoned his courage. "Have you been to the Eagle's Beak as well?"
"I can't go there. Guihen says...."
"Guihen?" Gilles's eyes widened. "Didn't Otho tell you such creatures are Satan's tricks? You risk your soul!"
"I don't know about souls. Only about olive trees, and powdered blood, and...."
"Don't tell me!" Gilles backed away, his eyes troubled. "P'er Otho says the nuns in Massalia will take lost children. That's where I'll take you."
"Those hags with long noses? They'd beat me." She saw the nuns as pale wraiths with red and knobby knees and harsh raven voices, haunting a windowless warren.
Her father seemed obdurate.
"Father," she coaxed, "who'll help with the harvest? All the trees-all the olives..."
Gilles glanced uneasily toward his grove, realizing the reversal of his fortunes wasn't due to his skill as olivier, or to favorable weather. Elen had wandered among his trees, talking to them as if they were house cats or children. The little bundle in his hand was not the first such fetish he had seen. Pierrette, whether through innate talent or witchery from beyond the grave, had taken up Elen's task.
Gilles was freshly ashamed. He had risked and lost his wife for a rich crop and a male child, but he would not so use his daughter. "After the harvest," he mumbled. "I'll speak with P'er Otho. After the harvest feast, you'll go to the nunnery."
Despite his words, Pierrette knew she'd gained a respite. She would not be bundled off to Massalia in someone's oxcart, not right away. Yet she felt no joy, no victory. Silhouettes loomed across the harbor: the Eagle's Beak, and the mage Anselm's keep. "I should have gone there today," she whispered. "Perhaps the sorcerer might teach me to be wise."
For almost the first time since their mother's disappearance-Pierrette would not say her death-Marie laughed. She laughed often, until the sound no longer startled Gilles, Pierrette, or the women in the marketplace. Though no breasts stretched the fabric of her chemise, her walk became less the motion of a young goat, all knees and elbows, more the sway of a tall pine in an offshore breeze, the dip of sails on a ship far out on great ocean swells.
Marie, returning from the market, regaled her sister with talk of babies, and of boys who stopped to ask the price of a jar of olives or a bottle of oil. The family purse was now fat with coins-Frankish pennies, worn silver obols from which the faces of forgotten emperors were almost effaced. "Someday I will exchange them all for a shiny silver denarius, and later my denarii for a gold solidus from Byzantium..." Marie's enthusiasm grew with her imaginary fortune, and after years of silence, neither Gilles nor Pierrette thought to quiet her.
Bertrand, the smith's son, brought her wildflowers. Neither parent nor sister saw fit to reflect aloud that Bertrand was fat (though strong) or that he was not very smart (though a hard worker). Marie's happiness was a fragile bubble that could be punctured by a sharp word or a returning memory.
For Pierrette, Marie's rosy projections of Bertrand, domestic and carnal bliss, and children at her breast, were like thorns pricking her own tiny bubbles. No boys noticed her. How long could Gilles's deception continue? With the grove so happy, was it necessary? Yet Gilles refused to discuss it, and she remained Piers in the eyes of all. Others knew of the charade, but few villagers associated with our Burgundian overlord, so the secret was safe from the only person who mattered.
Pierrette's loneliness, her motherless state, and her self-enforced isolation drove her to long walks eastward up the valley past the ruins of the Roman fountain...
Again, Pierrette lay amid the folds of her mother's leafy skirt-for what was "ma" but "mother," her mother Elen? She drifted into sleep...
"Anselm!" murmured the soft, motherly voice, the rustle of beech and maple leaves. "Anselm! Within his magical walls, where the sun always stands at high noon, you will find what you seek."
"Guihen warned me away." Pierrette's voice was like the dry passage of a preening magpie's beak along its feathers.
"Guihen!" Beech-twigs rattled their annoyance. "What does Guihen know? You cannot remain a child. You must grow, and feel pain. Did Guihen explain that?"
Guihen had not. Guihen had given her a choice between two futures so alike as to make no difference at all-between being childless, husbandless, and alone in the village, or equally childless and alone somewhere else. The spangle of sunlight descending through high branches became Marie's smile as she contemplated Bertrand, as she planned the fine two-room stone house he would build for her. Pierrette's hands formed tight, jealous fists.
"I will go to the cape," she murmured. "I will learn magic from the mage. I'll wear a long skirt, and a ribbon in my hair."
Pierrette arose from slumber, brushing dry leaves from her sleeves. "I'll do as you say, Mother." The gray trunk seemed thicker than before; the silvery branches reached outward in silent benediction.
Gilles was angry. "In a month, the bishop will arrive to bless the harvest. Must an old man do everything, while you frolic afield?" Gilles treated Pierrette as if she were indeed Piers, a strong boy, and berated her when she failed to measure up.
There was another facet to Gilles's anger. Pierrette was free to visit the pool Ma, yet Gilles was not-or so he told himself, citing work always uncompleted. There was an element of self-inflicted punishment to Gilles's denial: when he slept in the moss and leaves, in the shade of the great, sheltering trees, the pains of age, labor, and guilt were wiped away. Yet Gilles had used his wife's fairy-magic for his own ends, to her destruction, and now used his daughter similarly, for the rich harvest of his grove. He didn't deserve solace, so he denied himself.
For a week, Pierrette also denied herself, carrying baskets of fat olives from the grove to the great press, shared by several growers. The press bed was a basalt slab with a groove around its edge for oil. Atop it rested a loose-staved cask with a lid that fit loosely inside, forced downward by a weighted beam that magnified the force of the rock's weight.
The oil that dribbled into the waiting pots was thick and rich. Before the harvest was pressed, they would run out of vessels to contain it.
Gilles would never allow Pierrette to wander off until the last of the crop was pressed, and they would be lucky to be done before the festival, her father's imposed deadline. There was no time to hike to the cape during daylight hours. She sighed, and made up her mind to leave as soon as her father and sister were asleep. If the mage would take her in, her father's threat would be moot. If not, she would lose only a night's sleep.
The moon was half full. Pierrette's steps were light. She imagined herself dressed in white Egyptian cotton, a red leather belt, and shoes to match. She pictured a room with ten lamps, a long shelf of scrolls and books.
Stumbling over a fallen branch, her fantasy shattered. She had come almost all the way up the crevice between the northernmost scarps. Ahead, something moved. She became as still as a startled hare. No concealing brush or trees grew on the rough rock. Nothing could hide there.
No moving shadow occluded the stars, yet the prickly sensation didn't abate. Two stars seemed to swell as she focused on them, to blur and become fat and green-hued, like staring, unblinking eyes. Across the starry cleft, high on her left, were two others.
Those star-specks, exaggerated by her narrow perspective into great, glowing eyes, turned her to stone. Ahead was a dark presence unseen. Behind, she heard her mother's voice, soft as rustling leaves. "Anselm will give you what you need...."
"Go back!" said the hollow wind blowing over the cleft. "Go back, or wander forever."
"...Only where the sun always stands at high noon...." promised the voice from behind.
Unable to push forward or to flee, Pierrette's helpless terror changed to the anger of a cornered beast-and with rage came clarity of thought. Behind, her mother's voice urged her forward. Ahead... Guihen! The wood-sprite played tricks to frighten her away. With forced bravado she stood with hands on skinny hips. "You can't make me go, Mother." The sound echoed hollowly from the rocks.
"And you!" she spat, facing about, "you can't scare me away, either. Both of you stop it. I'll do exactly as I please."
The sense of presence behind evaporated, as if her mother's spirit had withdrawn. She thrust herself upward. Another step, then another... Her head and shoulders were above the enclosing cleft. Limned against the moonlit sea were the black walls of the mage's keep-but between her and that destination was a darker mass, not part of the rock. "Guihen, let me pass."
The blackness shifted, stretched upward in the shape of a man. A man... but not Guihen. Pierrette shrank back, her heart thumping. He was dark, and no feathery willow-leaves glimmered on his rough clothing. He towered over her. A crudely-woven kilt ended short of knees gnarled and twisted as old olive trunks, calves thick with coarse black hair, and knotty feet with long, yellow toenails.
This was not Guihen. She forced her eyes upward, fearing what she would see... P'er Otho's Satan, with his bronze helmet and deer's horns, passed before her eyes, wavered, and faded. It was an ugly face-but not a demon's. She met his eyes-blue like her own, beneath bushy eyebrows. His nose twisted like an old root, and his cheekbones flared. Deep crevices delimited the corners of his narrow-lipped mouth, then lost themselves in a tangled black beard.
A frightening face, but not Satan's, for there was no evil in it, only pain long denied, and unrelieved fatigue. "Go back, child," the man said. "Seek happiness, for there is no joy in wisdom."
No joy in wisdom? Was there joy in foolishness and ignorance? Then she envisioned Marie and her sweetheart Bertrand, gazing into each other's eyes like placid sheep. "I don't care about happiness," she said. "I wish to learn mathematics, and magical words in strange tongues, and how to mix charcoal, brimstone flowers, and bitter salt without them going poof! in my face."
The gaunt man nodded. "Anselm's magics do that, sometimes. Spells don't work the way they used to. The nature of magic has become twisted-that's why he's trapped in that stone-heap, and can't visit your village any more." He sighed. "But yes, Anselm can teach you," he admitted reluctantly, "if that's what you really want."
"It is," she stated-but his words were hardly reassuring. "Will I lose my soul, as P'er Otho says?"
The gaunt one grinned, displaying large, yellow teeth with gaps between. "That frightens you? Good. Fearlessness and foolishness are one. Listen to your fear. Go home. I'm not going to let you pass." He spread his arms, and splayed his fingers, which were long and gnarly, with huge knuckles, covered with a mat of black hair.
Pierrette's eyes darted. On the left, she saw something massive that humped up as big as a cow Great yellow-green eyes glowed unnaturally. On the right eyes also glowed, a sickly hue, a dull phosphorescence. There was no way she could get past the man and those ... things ... too.
"I'll come back," she said. "I'll come back in daytime, when you're not here."
"What makes you so sure I'm a creature of the night?" he rejoined. "When you have answered your own questions-about your soul, and all that-then I won't stop you."
"I will," she said. "Goodbye." He didn't answer. It was as if once she turned from him, he just faded away.
Pierrette did think about it. She thought about P'er Otho's Christian heaven, which appealed to people whose lives were pointless repetition and grueling work. There should be more to eternity than refuge from the unendurable. Did she really care if she was denied entrance to a tedious Heaven?
Yet if the mage's spells were no more successful than her sooty experiments, what was the use? Can't I just go on as I have? she asked herself. That, she decided, was what she would do, at least for now.
The last of the olive pulp was discarded in a heap. Cool air had speeded the work of carrying baskets of fruit to the press and heavy jars of oil to Gilles's storehouse.
Pierrette's thoughts had a similar pace. The olive grove was real. The warm ache in her arms at the end of a hard day was genuine. Was Guihen as real? What of the voice of the spring Ma, whom she thought of as her mother? Was reality determined by effects? She had never touched sun, moon, or stars-yet they illumined day and night. She had never touched a cloud, but had felt rain and tasted it.
She stayed awake long after Gilles and Marie slept. Her struggle was real, too. Had she known how to phrase her question, she might have asked if something with measurable effect needed a real cause, and if her confusion proved that the cause-Guihen, for instance, and the gaunt man-were also real.
P'er Otho pleaded that his years in Massalia had not prepared him to resolve such things.
There was only one person who might help-a person no more "real" than Guihen or the gaunt, hairy man. She would demand that Ma defend her own reality, as justification for Pierrette risking her own (however nebulous) soul.
It could not have been the same magpie feather, lying there among the contorted roots, because Pierrette had left that in the box where she kept the little sack her mother had given her. She twisted the feather. The musty aftertaste of mushroom clung to her tongue.
"Mondradd in Mon. Borabt or? Perd?..." She waited for the dizzying fall, the sudden snap of magpie wings. Nothing changed. Frustrated, she stepped away, intending to kneel at the pool and wash the foul taste from her mouth.
She swayed, dizzy, feeling light as the magpie feather. She saw that her hand was empty. She gasped.
There, unmoved, still holding the feather, she stood. Yet here she also stood, looking at herself. Which one was she-the Pierrette who had moved, or the one who had not?
"I am real!" she said, perhaps aloud, though she felt no air in her throat. "That one is illusion." She could see through that other Pierrette. She could also see through the little beech tree, and where it stood was a shadow image, not a small tree but a great gray stump.
"I'm real!" she cried, frightened, because all around her were doubled images-young trees and old, rocks covered with moss and the same stones half-buried in ashes, under great, dead branches that bore no twigs or leaves.
If the dead trees, and the oily, scummy pool were illusion, then the Pierrette she felt herself to be, the one who moved in that bleak world, was also, and the Pierrette who stood as if frozen beside the little tree was real. But if not....
She slumped to her knees. Tears blurred her eyes. "Which am I?"
The dull water's reflectionless motion caught her eye. An old woman waded ashore.
"I am Ma-who-is-not," the woman said. Thin lips covered a gap-toothed mouth. "Just as you are Pierrette-who-is-not. The spell has twisted, child."
"The spell? I don't understand."
"Mondradd in Mon", the crone said. "'The Parting of the Veil'-a divination spell that used to allow a glimpse into days ahead-days of the masc's choosing."
"I didn't choose this black place," Pierrette protested.
"You cannot choose, child. The spell leads always here-to the far end of all time. Or so I believe, because here all I have is memories of times past." The old woman sat on a bare rock, and squeezed water from her shapeless dress. Pierrette saw, beneath yellow, wrinkled skin and brown age spots, the mother she remembered.
"Why am I here?" she asked, almost weeping.
"You must know of it... to prevent it. You are the last-but one-who can. You must choose the path to the Eagle's Beak, to knowledge wherever it leads, or this place will be all that is."
"Guihen says I will lose everything. The gaunt man says I will lose my soul."
"Guihen?" She spat. "What does a wood-sprite know? And Yan Oors-the dark one-once earned a kingdom and a king's daughter for his bride. Now look at him. The old scarecrow. His great bears are wraiths without substance who steal starlight to fill their eyes. Choose."
"I can't! You goad me, but they bar my path."
The old woman sighed. "I suppose I'm being unfair. Here, look into the water..."
The crone swirled the oily surface with a thin, spotted hand. "This is your first choice..." she said, and an image appeared...
A young woman cradled her boy-child in the crook of her arm. She laughed at the antics of her daughter, who had put chicken feathers in her hair and waddled in the dust, clucking. "Elen! You're scaring the real chickens." The child looked up. Its face was Pierrette's own... and her mother's.
The old woman again swirled the water.
The young woman had aged, though no white strands marred the blackness of her hair. "Never go to the cape," she said to her daughter, perhaps ten years old. "You will lose your soul and be denied heaven."
"But I must, Mother," the child replied in a voice like Pierrette's. "I must go, because you did not."
"Who have you been talking to?"
"To Guihen and old John, the hairy man-and to Grandmother, by the pool up the valley..."
"No! Remain in the village, or you will be destroyed." She held the child close, sobbing.
"Was she my mother's mother?" Pierrette asked the hag. "The first woman?"
"Oh no, child. I didn't show you what was, but what will be. You were that woman, weeping for the fate of your daughter Elen."
"If I don't choose the path to the cape, then my daughter must face the same choice?"
"She'll have no choice. You'll go, or she will, and she'll fail, for Evil will be stronger then-just as it will be harder for you than for your mother."
"But Mama chose to be a masc."
"She chose to seek a male child. Before that, she chose to give her maidenhead to the boy Otho, by this very pool." Each time the old woman said "chose," spittle sprayed from her stiff lips. "The way narrows, girl. If you wait until springtime, it will be too late. Even now Samonios, the winter festival, approaches, and the mass for Christ's birth soon after."
Pierrette resented the crone's criticism of Elen. "Is maidenhood important to a masc?" she asked softly.
"To a backwoods herbal woman? Hardly." The old woman's lips drew down in scorn. "But for a great sorceress, as for a goddess, it is vital. Diana, Selene, Epona... virgins all."
"Is that why I would have no children? Not because of the curse?" Despite herself, the words "great sorceress" had piqued more than just curiosity.
"A curse? Who told you that? Guihen? Starved John?"
"I'm not sure anyone actually said it, but..."
"Don't assume. Know!"
"Know what?" Pierrette had overcome her fear of the crone. "I'm confused. Are there no other paths?"
"I hoped you wouldn't ask. I hoped duty would move you-that glory wouldn't be necessary."
The crone roiled the scummed water with skinny fingers. "See what will become of you..."
Black clouds mounted the horizon, swirling, twisting, darkening the foam-tipped waves of the world-river Oceanos. The young woman's fingers tapped a rhythm on the gilded arms of her throne. "Come, Taranis," she said. "Thunder, come." She laughed, and raised her fingers. Storm-winds whipped her long black hair. Lightning glittered from her fingertips, and leaped toward the swelling clouds.
Beside her was another throne-and a man. Black curls tumbled to his shoulders and intermingled with gold about his neck. Flashes from the approaching storm highlighted his features. "Enough! Send it away." He laughed.
She waved a hand as if dismissing a servant. Winds abated, the sky lightened, and distant currents of air tugged at the tops of the anvil-clouds, tearing them to wisps.
"There! Your Fortunate Isles are again at peace. See what a terrible disruption I would be?"
"Better storms with you than sunshine without. Marry me! Rule with me!"
He gestured. Pierrette saw a ring of black mountains above harbors, wharves, rich green fields, and waterways. Had the jagged peaks continued upward they would have joined in a single, enormous volcanic cone, larger and heavier than the earth's breast could support. "All this," said the king-for such she knew him to be-"will be yours until the last day of the world."
"Who was he?" Pierrette asked the crone. "Where?"
"The king? Ask Anselm. Once his kingdom, the Fortunate Isles, were on the sea-route to Egypt. Some say they stood in a great marsh-the Camargue, or near Tartessos in Iberia. Now, who knows? They aren't ordinary islands."
"Are those visions my only paths?"
The next visions the old woman stirred up made her wish fervently that she had not asked. In one, she saw herself floating face-down in the pool Ma. She didn't need to see her face to identify the bloated corpse. She simply knew.
In another, she saw Gilles in rags. He had no teeth, and his cheekbones were sunken with starvation. "Bread!" he pleaded. "Please, a morsel of bread." His right leg was missing. The pedestrian-who ignored him-was little better off, except for having two legs. The place was Citharista-but the buildings she remembered were crumbled heaps.
"No!" she breathed. "Not that!"
"This?" asked her guide, rippling the pool. Pierrette saw Gilles, Marie, and herself sitting at a polished wood table, on a terrace tiled in a mosaic of dolphins and boats against a rich blue sea. Behind them reared the smooth walls of a fine stone house.
Pierrette-who-watched saw her father gesture toward new warehouses far below, by Citharista's harbor, and knew they were his. Fat merchant ships waited their turns to offload goods. Her father's arm was sleeved in silk. That vision was more comforting.
Again, as the pool's surface quieted, Pierrette saw herself dressed in furs and red wool, peering from a window. Beyond were tall steep-roofed houses with wooden shingles, snow-blown plains, and a great river. Kiev. The name came to her out of nowhere.
Window and high palace dissolved, and she was atop a pyramid of stairstepped stones. A green blanket of trees stretched to the horizon, broken by patches of fields and rooftops. Around her stood hawk-faced men draped in bright robes made of songbirds' feathers. They looked to her with awe, but she saw also fear in their eyes-and hatred.
"Enough!" said Pierrette, grasping the crone's wrist. "They can't all be real. What good are such visions?"
The old one laughed, a brittle, harsh cackle. "How many choices in a lifetime, child? Nothing is sure-except if you do not choose. See what indecision will entail..."
Pierrette saw the dead pool, the blackened stumps, and the dry, ashy ground.
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