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This isn't the cover you'll see in the bookstores, but your copy of The Veil of Years can have one just like it! Email me for a full-sized self-stick cover illustration to cover up the one on the "real" dustjacket. We'll both be glad you did it!

The sleeping girl is the same as on the production cover, as is the graphic "frame" around the scene, but the rest is only what I wish it could have been, with a proper background scene--Montagne Sainte Victoire viewed approximately from the position of the Roman Camp at Aquae Sextiae Calvinorum, or from Entremont--and without the "real" cover's many anachronisms.


Roman Year 630 (124 B.C.)

The Roman consul Caius Sextius Calvinus wrapped a woolen blanket around his legs and feet. The fabric of his tent drummed with the beat of half-frozen rain, and beads of moisture formed where a careless aide had brushed the fabric. He should have brought a good leather tent, like the ordinary legionnaires used.

The mad Mistral wind drove ice-rimmed puddles into the tent where fabric met rocky ground. So this was fair, sunny Gaul? Calvinus felt like a fool, an old fool, wrapped in a blanket. But it was beneath the dignity of a Roman general to wear bulky bracae-ridiculous baggy trousers, bound at the ankles.

"The veleda is outside, Consul" the centurion rumbled.

"Bid her enter." In this weather, even a crazy Gaulish hag shouldn't have to stand outside for the sake of his Roman dignity.

The centurion pushed the tent flap aside. His words-and the seeress's reply-were whipped away on the battering wind. Calvinus made as if busy with a dispatch he had been trying to write-until the ink had clotted with the cold. To complete his disgruntlement, the oil lamp on his table blew out when the flap was thrust aside. Thus his visitor was no more than a bulky shadow in the dim light that penetrated the wet fabric of the tent.

"Here," she said, stretching forth an arm. From her fingertips, a tiny bright flame leaped to the smoking wick. Again, the warm glow of burning oil illuminated Calvinus's hands, and the crone's veiled face.

"How did you do that?" Startled by the trick, he failed to remark that the single word the woman had uttered had not been in a voice cracked with age-nor had those briefly illuminated fingers been an ancient harridan's claws.

"How? Do you have a Great Year to learn my trade?" A Great Year was the druids' nineteen-year cycle, that reconciled the lunar and solar periods. "You have no time at all."

Now those young, strong fingers reached to loosen her woolen scarf, to toss back the close-knit fabric of her fine, waterproof sagus. She tossed the heavy mantle across a brass-bound chest.

Calvinus stared, at a loss for words. The veleda-the druid seeress-was a girl. Her glossy black hair was piled atop her head in curls that a rich senator's wife would have envied. Her pale blue garment was draped Greek fashion, but was belted with pale leather encrusted in gold.

Despite his goosebumps and the indignity of his blanketed legs, Calvinus was all too aware of his maleness. This was no big, gruff Celtic camp follower, and no starved old woman. Blue eyes the color of summer skies appraised him dispassionately. Small, well-formed breasts pushed against soft blue fabric, their nipples as proud as if just fondled-but that was chill, not arousal.

Aware that he had lost not only his dignity, but all of the initiative in this unfortunate meeting, the Roman gestured at the cloak-draped chest. "Will you sit?"

A smile dimpled her pretty-no, lovely-face. She slid gracefully to the impromptu seat, her legs turned slightly to the side, accenting the smooth curvature of thighs and hips.

"Centurion Varro said you have a message from the Gauls' chief. What is it?" No degree of gruffness, he discovered, could regain him his lost poise.

"Your centurion misunderstood. King Teutomalos has nothing to say to you. He intends outwait you, then send your headless body to Roma. Your head he'll hold for ransom-its weight in gold. Or he'll drive a brass spike through it, from ear to ear, to hold it in a niche by his door." Had anyone else said that-under any other circumstances-Calvinus would have had him flogged, or he would have leaped up, groping for his short sword. As it was, he merely crumpled his goose-quill. The woman's tone had been matter-of-fact, even regretful, not challenging or insulting. He was clear on that, because her command of Latin was as good as his own, despite the sweet lilt of her unfamiliar accent.

"Then whom do you speak for?" he grated.

"For myself-and for a hundred Roman generations to come, whose fate hinges upon the outcome of this siege. You must not wait. Attack now, before it's too late."

"Another legion is on its way. And the Massalian Greeks are levying more troops. By summerTeutomalos will be starving, and I'll overwhelm his pitiful fort."

"By springtime his power will be so great that all the legions that ever were, led by the Scipios themselves, could not prevail. Your reinforcements are not coming, and Massalia is a city of merchants, not soldiers. You are alone. Attack now, and prevail. Wait ... and Roma itself will crumble, and be forgotten in a hundred years."

The woman-the girl-had gone too far. "Who are you? What filthy druid magic is this? What mad Gaulish god whispers in your ear?"

"If I tell you, will you really listen? It's a long story, and a strange one. You may think me mad-and continue to wait, until it's too late."

"I'll listen," he said. "But not here. My soldiers have been repairing the roof of a snug farmhouse with a hearth and a dry floor. Varro! Are my new quarters ready yet?"

They were ready-or near enough. Seeress and general soon retired there, and in considerably more comfortable circumstances, she began a tale that was long indeed ...

Part One: Veni

Provence: a land of harsh contrasts and lovelinesses. Its clear sunlight is tangible, with taste and scent. The master wind that blows down great Rhodanus' valley has a soul, a personality, and a name: Mistral. It blows the miasmas and fevers of the low land away out to sea.

Wind and River are the heart and spirit of the land, and the people are its blood, ebbing and flowing to the beat of Celtic drums, swords against Roman shields, and hoofbeats of Franks and Moors. The pulse of the land is never still. Tribes long forgotten blend their blood with such fresh infusions, each in turn diluted, but never lost.

This is a story of the land, of a woman descended on her mother's side from folk who neither plowed nor sowed, but took what the Goddess gave, and drank from her breasts, the sacred pools of the land. They called Goddess and land alike Ma. Though inscribed in no Pantheon, her name is remembered in in mater, mother, in mare, which is sea, in mammae, women's breasts, and above all, in Man, born of Ma.

This is not a Christian tale, though there are Christians in it. It is not about God who created us, but the scapegoat we created to blame for what God allows us to do, that we should not. Such a demon can be created in the minds of men, but once loosed it cannot be driven back.

Now Darkness looms at the end of time. All that is good will be locked in an ebon box. Evil will lie like gray ash across the land, like leaden clouds across a sunless sky. Yet the Black Time will not come as long as there is magic in the world, nor until the last rules have been written down.

Otho, Bishop of Nemausus
The Sorceress's Tale

Chapter 1: The Goddess of the Pool

Centuries later, long after the fall of Rome

Shadows and sunbeams mingled, a quilt of colors stirred by a breeze from the stony heights. Ferns nodded over moist emerald moss. Pretty red and white mushrooms were rings of tiny dancing girls wearing their feast-day best. In high branches of maple and beech, songbirds twittered and magpies laughed. In a sun-bleached land such a grove, nestled within a deep valley a hundred steps wide, was a magical place.

Stones rattled on the trail, and for a moment the songbirds were silent. The breeze abated as if to hear what had disturbed the afternoon. Was it a deer, come to drink from the pool?

She was not a deer, though she moved with deerlike grace-a girl of fifteen summers, hair black as moonless night, without Roman curls or Celtic color. She held the hem of her skirt in one hand. Entering the cool, moist shade, she wiped sweat from her brow. Her eyes, beneath dark, arching brows, were as blue as the sky at zenith. Her elfin face was modeled on the small folk who built no houses and grew no crops.

She settled by the clear pool. From the folds of her skirt she took a dried yellow-and-blue flower, rubbed it into powder, and formed it into a pill. Cupping water, she washed it down.

She plucked a red mushroom from a troupe of tiny dancers. Grimacing at its bitterness, she took another sip from the pool, then settled back amid rustling beech and maple leaves, and closed her eyes. The dappling, shifting sunlight smoothed all expression from her features, and she drowsed...

Hearing the agitated rustle of dry leaves, Pierrette opened her eyes. A familiar face stared down at her-her own face, as it might be in twenty or fifty years.

"You've been avoiding me!" the older woman snapped.

"I've been busy," Pierrette protested, rubbing sleep from her eyes. "In a month, I'll have what I seek."

"Pfah! You'll remain with your nose in a book until you have answered every question." The woman spun away. The sound of her motion was the crackling of dry twigs, the rustling of leaves. "Anselm's magic is deceitful. Just because the sun never sets within his fortress's walls, time itself has not stopped. The Black Time advances from the Beginning, and falls back from the End. Will you ask what I require, or must I force it on you like medicine?"

Pierrette sighed. The goddess Ma swirled the waters of the pool. Eddies danced, and the depths grew dark. The glittering ripples were silvery stars in a moonless sky. But no, they were not stars...

Cold, hard lights festooned towers of rusty iron, twinkling as greasy smoke swirled about them. Half-obscured by dark engines of unknowable function, great orange flames guttered and flickered atop a black iron sconce taller than the tallest tree.

In the foreground, as if Pierrette were standing ankle-deep in dead and stinking water, the bloated corpse of a small creature bobbed. No flies swarmed. Nothing lived there, not even maggots. The land itself was dead, without leaf or blade to cover its nakedness.

"Is that the Christians' Hell?" Pierrette shuddered.

"It's this world-not now, but soon-where River Arcus empties into the lagoon."

"No!" Pierrette gasped. She remembered a crisp breeze filling a sail, a boat's prow cutting the azure water of that lagoon. The Arcus's channels were overhung with willows and elders. "That can't be!"

"'Can't?'" snapped Ma. "It will be."

"Why are you showing me?"

"Once before, you stayed the advance," said Ma. "You must do it again."

"The demon is gone," the girl protested.

"But the Black Time still comes," replied Ma. "Will you bestir yourself?"

"What must I do?"

"I have foreseen you in a temple with druids in white robes. Beyond the city's walls were the towers you just saw."

Pierrette shifted uneasily. It sounded unpleasantly familiar." Is the town on a hill surrounded by salt-pans red as blood? Are its walls thick and smooth, in the Greek fashion?"

"You know it, then."

"It's Ugium." She had pushed her visions of Ugium into a dark room, and had closed the door. "The temple doorway is festooned with warriors' heads. I'm not ready. I wouldn't know what to do."

"You're as ready as you can be," Ma replied. "And you'll know."

"When I'm a true sorceress, I'll go."

"Don't wait for perfection," Ma grated, turning her back. "This is an imperfect world." Then she was gone, and Pierrette saw only a drift of dry leaves-yellow, russet, and brown, like the patches on the goddess's dress.

Cletus scrambled over broken limestone, his sweat evaporating in the dry, air, cooling him so he could maintain his fierce pace. Eight-year-old legs pumped steadily uphill. He had to find the sorceress!

Gilles the fisherman had come into harbor under full sail. Seeing Cletus fishing, he shouted "Boy! A Saracen ship beyond the fog! Fetch my daughter Pierrette. Hurry!"

Gilles set off up the red, crumbling rocks of the Eagle's Beak, to alert the mage Anselm. It was anyone's guess who would reach his objective first-the old man on the steep, short trail, the able boy with the longer route ahead ... or the Saracen vessel edging through the fog.

Cletus shouted to those he passed in the streets. "Warn the knight Riekhard! A Saracen is offshore!" He did not stop running. He prayed he would find Pierrette in time-and that all his friends would see him with her.

"There are the Mussulmen!" he would say. The sorceress would cast fire. Muslim sailors would scream and burn. He imagined Pierrette saying "Cletus, my champion; wade forth and slay them." He, tall as a tree, would pick up the ship, emptying men, swords, and ill-gotten treasures.

He had to find Pierrette before Gilles reached Anselm's door, or his chance to be a hero would be stolen by the old magician.

A mile beyond the town he saw her descending the trail "Pierrette, come!" he gasped. "Saracens!"

She looked over the coast, far below. "How far out are they?"

"Still in the fog."

"Will you help me, Cletus?"

He puffed his heaving chest out. "Whatever you wish." He envisioned himself carrying her down the valley in great strides.

"Run to my father's house. Get the big book with the red leather cover, and meet me at the wharf. Are you tired?"

"Me? I'm not even out of breath-but I'll run faster still if you make me tall."

She chuckled despite her black mood, and waved a hand. "There. I've made you agile as a goat." She gave him a push. The boy indeed ran with the gangly grace of an sure-footed goat-but the only magic was his desire to impress Pierrette, the prettiest girl in the town. Yet he would rather have been a giant than a goat.

Cletus arrived at the wharf shortly after Pierrette, clutching a heavy volume against his bony chest. "Will you find a spell to turn the Mussulmen into toads?"

"Be quiet, Cletus. I'm looking for something. Ah! Here it is." She spread the pages wide.

"A spell?"

"Not a spell. Be silent." Shifting from foot to foot as if he had to pee, Cletus obeyed.

It was an observation from ibn Saul's treatise on Moorish navigation. The Saracen captain would depend on a knotted line and a sandglass to measure sailing distance, and upon the line's straightness in the water for confidence that he had not deviated from his course. Above all, he would depend upon his memory of the coastline.

"Give me your fishing line," she commanded Cletus.

She began tying knots in it, one every foot or so.

"You'll ruin it!"

"If the Saracens sell you as a slave, you'll have no time for fishing."

Pierrette tied a splinter to the end of the line. "I need the red box from my father's boat." Cletus scrambled for it, then Pierrette withdrew a sandglass. Working its cork free, she poured a third of the sand into the box. Replacing the cork, she turned the glass, and watched sand trickle through its constricted waist.

"Fog bemuses," she murmured, too softly for gathering townsmen to hear. None came close; she was useful to them, but sorceresses had no friends.

"Sun confuses," she said. "Log and knotted cord confound."

She tossed the cord and splinter "log" into the water.

"Daydreams range, and coastlines change, and trickling sand forgotten falls."

Pierrette turned to the boy. "I need you to look for the ship, and tell me what it does, Cletus. Can you climb that tall pine?"

"If you make me as tall as the tree, instead..."

"If I turn you into a squirrel..."

"I need no magic to climb trees!" he hissed, backing away. "You'll see how well I climb."

She chuckled softly-but none of the stone-faced gentes found humor in her words or Cletus's consternation. Sorceresses were not ever funny.

"I see it!" Cletus shouted, from high within the pine's gracefully-spreading parasol.

The captain of the rakish vessel tugged at his beard. He eyed the ribbon pennant atop the single mast. "You're sure you've maintained course?"

The sailor swore upon his hope of Paradise, the beard of Muhammad, and a list of saintly ancestors. He had payed out the cord and counted the passage of knots with every turn of the twenty-eight minute glass. The line had streamed straight astern.

The captain read the sun's height from the butt of his fist resting on the horizon, to the endmost knuckle of his thumb. They should be east of Massalia-but where were the red rock scarps of the Eagle's Beak? The Saracen knew the coasts from Jebel Tarik to Massalia to Constantinople, from Smyrna to Alexandria to Ceuta. Had buffeting winds addled his brain, or the sun cooked it? For the first time since his beard had sprouted ... he was lost.

"Wear about and follow the coast eastward," he said softly. "Call me when you sight familiar land.

"It's over," he told himself as he descended to his cabin. Never again would men sail with him; they would know his failure.

Wearing-changing tacks by turning downwind and hauling the huge sail around before the mast to the new lee side-was not left to subordinates. Though the mate was pleased to do it himself, it did not take long to register that the change was more than a promotion.

The captain remained below for seven turns of his large sandglass, until he heard the lookout's cry. He recognized the islands ringing Olmia bay, just where they should be if he were indeed exactly seven turns east of the Eagle's Beak. "I am going mad," he muttered to himself, a broken man.

In Citharista, celebration began as soon as the ship was hull-down

"Tell me," the priest Otho asked the elderly magus. "What turned the Saracen away?"

"I have no idea," Anselm replied, his white beard stained with red wine from a jug making the rounds. "I cast no spell. Ask my apprentice."

Otho turned to the dark-haired girl. Such a slim shape could have belonged to a boy, but he was not deceived. How old was she? Fifteen? As old as he, when he had taken his vows. She was as lovely as her mother Elen had been-the same hair, blacker than black, and the same eyes, blue as the waters of the calanques where the white sand beneath them shined in sunlight. Ah, to be fifteen again, he mused, suffused with sweet regret

"What did the Saracen see when he turned eastward?" he asked her.

"I don't know, P'er Otho," Pierrette said. "I only uttered the tiniest of glamours, making him uncertain what his eyes showed him."

"Ah," Otho sighed. "Good."

"Good?" The corners of her shapely mouth dimpled. "Does a small spell condemn me less than had I called up a great storm with black clouds, and..." Even as she spoke, tiny glitters at her fingertips danced and crackled like miniature lightning.

"Stop that!" Otho snapped nervously.

Pierrette giggled, and the display faded. "I'm sorry, Father," she said with false penitence "It slips my mind how even innocuous magic reminds you of Hell's fires, and tormented souls, and..."

"Stop that," he repeated. "I am not the one who should be frightened by your magic."

"You're right," she said, now truly penitent, thinking of her confrontation at the sacred pool. "The one who should be most afraid ... is me."

"Why didn't you kill them all?" demanded Cletus. "They'll come back."

"I'll send them away again," said Pierrette. "I don't like fighting."

"That," Cletus said, "is why you weren't much fun, when you were a boy."

"I was not a boy! My father had me pretend I was, because he had no male heir. The castellan would have forced him to sell his olive grove to some man with strong sons. Everyone knew I was a girl-they just kept quiet so the castellan would remain fooled."

"People say you used magic to fool them."

"Little girls don't know magic. Anyway, there isn't much difference between little boys and girls."

"There is too! Little girls don't have..."

"I mean if I put you in a dress, with a ribbon in your hair..."

"No! The other boys would laugh, and I would be... I would be..."

"Humiliated? Of course you would. It isn't pleasant to have to pretend you're something you are not. You wouldn't make a satisfactory girl-you're far too bloodthirsty."

"Good!" Cletus grunted. He turned his head, hearing iron-shod hooves. "Diodor?!" he exclaimed.

Pierrette watched the knight approach. Diodor? was the youngest of Reikhard's soldiers, and the best looking. Her heart beat faster. Diodor? carried his casque under a mail-clad arm. His coiffed hair was a red-gold crown in the last sunlight of evening.

"You're my nemesis," he said. "The Moors were my chance to dent my shield in real combat-and you chased them away."

"Did you ride all this way to chastise me?" Pierrette feigned indignation. "Are there no brigands to slay?"

"Come. Ride with me." He stretched out a hand. "It's almost dark, and evil stalks."

Pierrette envisioned her cheek against Diodor?'s broad back and her arms around his waist. She shook her head.

"Take me!" Cletus exclaimed.

"You'd wet your pants," said the knight.

"I'm not a baby!"

"I think that's a good idea!" Pierrette said, eying the gathering dusk. "Cletus lives outside the town wall, and should not go home alone."

The young knight put the best face on it. "He need fear nothing," he said, "neither beasts nor malign spirits... But I'll see you safely home first."

He pulled the boy up behind himself. As they threaded the crumbling, narrow streets, Cletus's constant chatter-"What is this strap for?" and "Why is your sword on this side, not that?"-kept the young man from saying courtly things, and saved Pierrette having to think up responses that would neither encourage nor insult. She wanted Diodor? to say such things, but if he did ... she would discourage him.

Life was unfair. She had to spurn him. The goddess had made that clear: Pierrette's mother Elen had died because she had kept one foot in each world. Sorceress or housewife, but not both. Her virginity gone, Elen could not command the great magics-and that had destroyed her.

Now the goddess had put yet another burden upon Pierrette-to abandon her studies before she was ready. To fare out on a fool's errand ... to Ugium.

At the stone staircase to her father's house, she bid horseman and boy goodbye. Gilles's snores greeted her, so she tiptoed to her pallet. Even tired as she was, sleep was long in coming. She promised herself that she would go fishing with her father in the morning. She would doze in the clear Mediterranean sun, and would not think a single unpleasant thought.

Chapter 2: Ancient Ghosts

Had all Provence enjoyed the wondrous spell that lit the keep of Anselm the sorcerer-where the sun shone night and day-its mood might have been equally cheery. But night came, and not all the torches, candles, and wicks burning in oil could push darkness away, and with darkness came footsteps in the night, and the cries of souls in torment. Had Provence been a cold northern land of dank forests and gray skies, its people might have been enured to the terrors that stalked their countryside. But it was not.

Outside Tolonia, at the foot of the mountain called Sainte Victoire, Holy Victory, the shepherd Sinatos found an ewe staked on her back, her entrails spread in patterns like characters from some ancient alphabet.

A monk tending Saint Giles's shrine saw a deer walk on its hind legs around the saint's sarcophagus. The stag's footprints, graven in the stone flags as if pressed into soft mud, gave credence to his unlikely tale.

Near Saint-Mitre, an olive tree uprooted itself and marched across the road. It settled amid grapevines, which bore olives that year, while the tree bore grapes.

The rattle of chain mail and scabbards, the cries and clashes of battle, were heard in the reedy forests along the Druentia, but no reeds were trampled nor bodies left behind. Downstream, an eroding bank released the bones of an ancient Celt, clad in the rust of chain mail. He had no head for the priest to murmur over, only an empty helm of pitted iron.

Bridges shook with marching feet, but no soldiers were seen. Groans of dying men issued from beneath them, yet no corpses remained when the priests came, unsure if unction or exorcism were required.

Masses were well-attended, not because people were pious, but because they were afraid, and were unaccustomed to such fears. Some might say little separated fear and piety.

Guihen the Orphan suffered greatly because of those fears. He was an odd little fellow. He might have been considered deformed, the twisted product of inbreeding among the reclusive folk of the oldest blood. He might, equally, have been a wood sprite, not human at all. His ears were large. His eyes shone violet in the darkness.

Claudia, who made the chewiest boules of honey-colored bread, left a loaf for him every night, but tonight there was no bread; instead, garlic, teasel, and nightshade hung from the peg on her door, and Guihen sickened even before he saw it. He had only enough strength left to crawl away.

Banes also hung from other doors. Herbs deadly to his kind were strewn on windowsills and threshholds. He found no wine or sausage, no sweet olives, not even a cup of milk. He did no good deeds that night, and had no heart for pranks. The once-friendly town had become a trap.

He made one last desperate stop, at a house with no bane. It was a friend's house, a friend who would never turn against him, but no one was home. He could not write, but he left a sign. He would wait in the hills for a day.

There were guards at the town gate-shadowy men in creaking leather and ancient armor. But they had no heads, and they did not watch the roads leading into Citharista, but looked inward as if to keep the townsmen-or vagrants like himself-within. Could anyone but he see them?

The town's walls were crumbled. It was not hard to scramble over them, but even then he was not safe. A stag blocked his path. Its antlers gleamed in the rising moon's yellow light as if covered with gold foil. Its eyes glowed red, and its steamy breath was thick as smoke. Guihen edged off the trail into the tangles. Brush and bushes remained his friends, and though he heard crackling pursuit, he outdistanced it, slipping through dense undergrowth as if it were mist.

He sank into the shadows of a limestone cleft. Slowly his breathing returned to normal. "That is it, then. I can't return to the town." His only listener was the small white hen he carried under one arm, his pet and his friend-his familiar, folk of a later age might say. People said the hen was the source of his magic. Indeed, when he stroked its feathers right then, he seemed to disappear, leaving not even a shadow.

Pierrette surveyed her books. Cato was too serious, Ovid too frivolous, but there was a history-Diodorus Siculus, from whose name the knight Diodor?'s was derived. Its ancient, familiar words would soon lull her to sleep.

She thumbed through the first half until she came to a single word: Heraclea. She shuddered. Heraclea was the Greek name of the town known today as ... Ugium. A Celtic settlement, Greeks had made it a center of the salt trade. Romans had sacked it. Now Ugium was of no importance except to local farmers, but the taint of unknown and ancient evil lay strongly about it. She had not dared set foot ashore, when Caius's boat docked there. She did not know what that evil was, or why it lingered. That made it all the more frightening. She turned the page quickly, reading on:

In the year 650 (104 years before Christ), the Teutons, now allied with the Vocontii, and with help from the league of the Salluvii, defeated Marius east of Aquae Sextiae Salluviorum, and put an end to Roman designs upon Gaul.
What had she just read? She looked back up the page. What tricks eyes and minds could play. Marius had defeated the Teutons in 104 B.C., securing Rome's hold on Provence. He had ordered a canal dug through the marshes of Camargue. She had travelled on that canal only the year before. She read the passage again:
In the year 650 (104 years before Christ), the Teutons, now allied with the Vocontii, and with help from the league of the Salluvii, defeated Marius east of Aquae Sextiae Salluviorum, and put an end to Roman designs upon Gaul.
She pulled the lamp closer. Was it a prank? No words had been erased or changed. The faulty paragraph was identical to the rest. Had the scribe written them wrong, in monkish rebellion against an overbearing taskmaster?

It was almost dawn. Picking up the lamp, she shuffled to the windowless back room for her clothing. A flash of whiteness caught her eye-a white feather. A hen's feather.

"Guihen," she breathed, scrutinizing the stone wall's regular courses for the slightest waver that might give the sprite away "Guihen! If you're here, appear now," she commanded. "I'm too tired for pranks." There was no flicker of motion, no cheery high-pitched chuckle. She spun the feather between finger and thumb.

How strange. That was how he had signalled her when she was little, before anyone was concerned that she had inherited her mother's gift, before anyone thought much about wood sprites.

She would have to delay her return to the relaxed cheeriness of Anselm's high fortress, and go instead to the old campsite in the hills, as she had done when she was a child.

The slope to the high forest was rough and steep, and she had not slept. If it was not one thing, it was another. If not the goddess, then Saracens, and now Guihen. What else would keep her from her studies? What else would thrust between her and her goal?

"Pierrette!" cried Diodor?, spurring his horse forward. There was her answer. She should not ask such questions. "You shouldn't go out alone. There are demons."

Pierrette wanted to flutter her eyelashes to say that with a protector like him, she feared neither brigands nor supernatural manifestations. She sighed. "You're kind to be concerned, but I'm going to meet a shy old friend, to trade for herbs. If he sees you, he'll flee, and I'll return emptyhanded."

"Ah," said the young soldier knowingly-though indeed he knew little at all. "I'll take you as far as the edge of the high woods."

He would come crashing after her at the first shriek of an owl, waving his sword and terrifying poor Guihen. Despite her resolve to use spells only in dire circumstances, she would have to. A very small spell.

From a small leather pouch she withdrew a tiny bell, keeping it out of sight. Guihen had given it to her when she was little. It was shaped like a muguet, a white, sweet flower of the moist woods by the sacred pool. Under her breath, she murmured in an almost-forgotten tongue.

"What did you say?" asked Diodor?.

"I said I hear the church bell," she replied. "I wonder what's amiss?"

"I hear nothing."

"Listen." She moved the tiny flower-bell, and heard not a silvery tinkle close by, but a deep brazen peal at some distance.

"You're right," said Diodor?, frowning. "Perhaps the Moor has returned."

Pierrette jiggled the tiny bell vigorously, and the church bell's peal echoed from the hills surrounding Citharista, and richocheted outward over the ocean, multiplied tenfold. With an apologetic shrug, the knight rode off. Pierrette hurried to a faint trail that led steeply uphill. She hoped Diodore would miss it entirely, when he found that no one had rung the church's bell, and no one but he had heard the ringing.

How old had she been when last she had sat by a campfire here? The scrub oaks pressed no more closely than when she had been five, the night her mother died. She laid dry sticks on the fire, and tried to distinguish the sounds of dry wood burning from the rustlings of small creatures. She would not hear Guihen. She would not see him until he wished it.

When she heard crackling and crashing, the thumping of footsteps, she leaped to her feet, her heart hammering.

The man who emerged was taller than a Frank, though his hair was brown. In the shadowy brush, two pairs of eyes gleamed greenly. "Yan Oors!" she gasped, which meant "John of the Bears."

"It is I, little witch," he boomed "Our leafy friend will be here soon. He's too frightened to walk openly, but skulks from rock to tree." His shaggy companions remained outside the firelight's circle.

Though Pierrette knew Yan Oors meant her no harm, he was terrifying. He wore blackened chain-mail and a leather vest darkened with oil and sweat. His muscular legs were a froth of black, curly hair. His black kilt and flapping leather pteruges were like those once worn by Roman soldiers. From a wide belt depended a sword like a Roman spatha, but half again as long. Its iron scabbard was slung from chains in the Celtic fashion out of style for more centuries than even Anselm the mage had lived.

Yan Oors leaned his wrist-thick staff against a sapling oak. It was brown as old wood, but Pierrette had once tried to pick it up: it was iron-a fallen star forged in Earth's fire and quenched in the Mother's blood.

"Have you ensorcelled yon poor knight?" he asked, using Latin equite instead of Frankish knicht, unpronounceable to a southern tongue. His grin revealed gapped, yellowed teeth, and crevasses spread across his weathered visage. "He's beaten up and down the trail until his poor horse is frothy."

"Poor Diodore," Pierrette murmured. "He thinks he's in love with me."

"As are we all, girl," said a new voice, high and boyish. Leaves and branches coalesced into a figure whose hair was moonlight on bleached stone, a face at once old and young. His eyes picked cool blue hues from the fire. Moonlight colored his puffy white shirt, and his silky pantaloons were embroidered with willow and olive leaves that shifted from russet to emerald as he moved. "Perhaps you've ensorcelled all of us."

"Guihen!" Pierrette exclaimed.

The two odd men settled by the fire-Guihen far from Yan's staff; the smell of iron made him ill. Pierrette glimpsed something white cradled under his arm. "How is Penelope?"

The sprightly fellow snorted in mock disgust. He released his small, white hen to scratch in the stony soil. "Her name's not Penelope. She has never told me her name ... unless it's 'cluck.'"

"She is Penelope," Pierrette insisted. "She never told me she isn't."

"Bah!" replied Guihen.

Abruptly he became serious. "Terrible things are happening. I'm afraid." He recounted how the folk of the towns had rejected him and his kind-the small, ancient folk people called sprites, dryads, and elves (though most of them, like Pierrette's mother Elen, were as human as anyone). He told of banes hung in doorways, rumors of evil magic and changeling beast-children left in the beds of stolen babes.

For many human lifetimes Guihen and Yan Oors had languished in the vast Rhodanus delta, the Camargue, where ancient magics still worked. Pierrette had urged them out to play pranks and do kind deeds, recreating the climate of belief that had once sustained them. She thus felt a proprietary interest. "If you've been playing evil tricks, and not giving people any pleasant surprises, you have only yourselves to blame."

"It's not so," Guihen protested. Other forces were at work. Trees crept through the night like stalking hunters, rocks rolled uphill when no one was looking, and ancient graves folded back their mossy blankets, releasing the dead into the land of the living.

"It's true, little witch," agreed Yan Oors. "I've seen the graves-and bodies wearing iron casques or bronze helms, with no faces inside them."

"Are you sure?" Pierrette shuddered. His words evoked a vision long past, a Gaulish sanctuary where niches held the heads of dead heroes and enemies, reeking of cade oil and spices, iron spikes driven ear to ear: a dream of the very place the goddess Ma wished her to go-Ugium.

"They are fant?mes," said Yan. "Ghosts of ancient Gauls.

"How can that be?" she asked.

"A body is ash and earth," Yan explained, "quickened by breath" The word "spiritos" could mean "ghost" as well as "breath."

"A fant?me," he said, "is desire and craving, hunger, lust, and anger-all things that promote survival. Without a fant?me, a heart would stop and flesh rot. Some time after death, the fant?me departs."

"How can you know when it's gone?"

"Rot or cremation release it-but if someone preserves the head, the soul is trapped too, so the fant?me must linger. It will obey its captor, for a promise of eventual freedom."

"I don't understand," said Pierrette. "Christian beliefs have supplanted old Gaulish ones. No one has taken heads since before the fall of Rome. Where are these fant?mes coming from?"

"Perhaps they are ancient, only now called to service."

"Could heads remain uncorrupted for a thousand years? Wouldn't they rot?"

"I believed so," rumbled Yan, "but fant?mes march now."

"What do you expect me to do?"

"Find out why this is happening."

"Help us!" interjected Guihen. "Folk blame us for the ghosts' deeds."

Things got worse and worse. Uneasily, Pierrette recognized that Ma's demand and theirs were not unrelated, but she did not mention Ugium. "When I return to Anselm's keep, I'll look in his scrolls and books."

The rocks of the Eagle's beak slanted upward and westward, overhanging the sea. Built of the same red marl as the scarps, the magus Anselm's keep blended with them. Only a columned portico stood out. Thinking the columns were Moorish, locals called it "the Saracen keep."

A narrow path wound across the scarp to the portico. Steep cliffs fell away on both sides. Pierrette watched her step: the rock was brittle and unstable. A misstep to either side would end in a tumble hundreds of feet to her death.

At last safely between the columns, she breathed a sigh of relief. Taking a small bell from its niche, she summoned her master to open the weathered wood door. She heard the clatter of sandals within as he descended the stone staircase.

"Where have you been?" he demanded crankily.

Pierrette sighed. Inside the keep it was always day, (the same bright day when the spell had first been spoken). A century might pass unnoticed. After a week of study inside, Pierrette could emerge on the causeway at the exact moment she had entered. Perversely, Anselm might never know she had gone, or might think she had abandoned him for a decade. She had never figured it out.

There were compensations. Time yielded to necessary tasks, and there were always hours to finish them. That was how Pierrette, only a girl, had mastered history, Greek, Latin, and especially geometry, from which she had figured out how magic worked-and why it sometimes did not.

"You must have been very busy," she said, "to think I was gone so long."

"I was reading ibn Saul's geography. If I am ever to venture to far lands-or to find my way home-I must know what to expect." Home was far away, in a place that no longer existed-in this world. But that is another tale...

They ascended the long stairway, and emerged in the bright light of eternal noon. The air was always pleasantly cool on the rooftop of Anselm's keep.

"I wish historians and copyists were as reliable as your Arab friend," she said. "Do you remember who won the battle beneath Mount Sainte Victoire in the year 650 after Rome's founding?"

"Calvinus? No, it was Marius."

Pierrette explained what she had read-that Marius had lost that battle.

"Not so. Come. We'll check my copy of Diodorus." He unrolled a scroll on his library's long reading table, and found the passage in question:

In the year 650 the Teutons, allied with the Vocontii, were defeated by Marius east of Aquae Sextiae Salluviorum, and he was accorded a triumph in Rome.

"How strange," Pierrette mused. "Have you left this open in sunlight, master? See how it's faded?" The earliest writing on the scroll was clear and dark, but as she unrolled it past the passage they had examined, it became progressively fainter. At the end, the parchment was entirely blank.

"I have another copy, unopened since I acquired it."

"Good. I'll need your maps as well." She explained what Yan Oors had said about fant?mes. She wished to identify ancient oppida, abandoned hill-cities of the ancient Gauls, to see if there was a correlation with ghostly apparitions and unnatural events.

"What of your other work?" he asked. Discovering that magic, like geometry, proceeded from stated postulates to logical conclusion, and that spells were in fact theorems, Pierrette had freed him from bondage on the cape. He could now enjoy the company of men in the wineshops in Citharista, or visit his friend Muhammad ab'd Ullah ibn Saul in Massalia. His shadow did not disappear when he went too far.

Once sorcerers had whisked themselves wherever they willed, and did not depend on the belief of villagers to give them strength. Why had that changed? Pierrette was close to an answer. Of course Anselm was concerned.

"You're the only person who cares," she said angrily. "All I hear from anyone else is 'Fix this, fix that.' I'll solve this matter of Gaulish fant?mes who refuse to remain gone and forgotten, and then..."

"And then there will be something else."

Pierrette laid translucent vellum over a Roman chart of the Narbonensis, from the Rhodanus to the Alps. She marked Gaulish citadels mentioned by ancient writers in red: Glanum, on the road from the Alps, Heraclea-now Ugium-and the citadel of Entremont, halfway between Alps and Pyrenees. Entremont had been Rome's first conquest in Gaul, the key to the coastal route to Iberia.

She had two lists of ghostly appearances and unnatural events. One was Father Otho's, copied from the letter he was writing to his bishop. The other was her own-the occurrances Yan Oors and Guihen had described, and others her father had heard in the wine shop. She marked each apparition on her map with a tiny Arabic number.

A pattern emerged: preternatural appearances had occurred near almost every Celtic oppidum. Other concentrations must represent old urban or sacred sites lost to historic memory. The two largest clusterings were around Entremont, close to Aquae Sextiae, and near ... Ugium.

Pierrette's eyelids drooped and the tracing blurred. She shuffled to her room, where heavy drapes blocked the noonday sunlight. She slept. Later, when hunger drove her, she climbed the stone stairs to the high patio and supped on olives, bread, cheese, and figs, washing them down with watered wine.

"I've searched everywhere for accounts of the old religions, master,"

"How strange. My library is complete. What, specifically, do you need?"

"The fant?mes are Gaulish ghosts, but the only descriptions of Gaulish religion are Caesar's. Where are the druids' holy books?"

"Ah, child. Druids' apprenticeship lasted nineteen years. Six thousand, seven hundred and ninety-seven days, actually-a Golden Year. That often, sun- and moon-years exactly coincide."

"Did you hear my question, master?"

"Yes, I did. Now, the thirteen lunar months encompass 364 days, but the solar year is 365 and one fourth. That's why Caesar adopted Eudoxius's idea of a "leap year." It was more straightforward than the Gaul's system, though less accurate."

"That's very interesting. But I need to know the postulates of their religion, the irreducible concepts. These ghosts mean that druidic axioms have been incorporated into the magic-the theology-of this time."

Religions were rational edifices constructed upon premises-and magic followed the same rules. A change in premise, in a basic belief, affected the structure above it, just as the replacement of a foundation stone with something else affected a building-for better or worse.

A spell had only one outcome in ancient times, but if its essential postulates had changed, it might have a different outcome today. That was why Pierrette dared essay only simple spells, ones she had examined carefully and tested with great caution.

Anselm sighed. "You won't like what you find."

"Why is that?"

"The dryadeae required nineteen years to memorize their sacred texts. They were never written down."

"Then how can I learn them?"

"Isn't it obvious? You must speak with a druid who has completed his Golden Year."

"The last druids are seven centuries in their graves, or are fant?mes. I can't speak with them in either case."

"You can. You will, if you must."

"Mondradd in mon," she murmured.

Those were the first words of a spell. Once, they had flung her willy-nilly to the end of time, when great, dead machines loomed over Citharista, and the beeches of the sacred grove were only craggy stumps.

"I don't dare." When she had used that spell, she had sensed the tenuous thread that traced down through the centuries, from the Pierrette who lay in deathlike repose by the sacred pool to herself. The thread had been thin, tangled by the seasonal turns of the stars, the spinning of the earth.

That the world spun about the sun was obvious from the spiralling thread that linked body and far-away consciousness. Her mind recoiled from the ponderous movements of worlds, the fragility of that thread.

"I can't," she said. "I'm afraid."

Anselm raised his hands, palms up. "Is there any other way?"

Pierrette had no answer.

Chapter 3: The Episkopo's Ultimatum

At the sound of the tinkling silver bell, Pierrette raised her eyes from the scroll. Anselm, looked up from a Coptic inscription from the Second Century. "Tell them to come back later."

"If it weren't important, master, they would not have braved the path. Shall I bring them to the rooftop patio, or the large hall?"

"The rooftop."

Pierrette had avoided making decisions for seven sleeps. As long as she remained in the keep, nothing would change in the world beyond. She would not have to go on the trail of Ma's vision; Diodor? would remain short of proposing marriage, and no new Celtic apparitions would arise from ancient graves.

She opened the door. "P'er Otho," she gasped. "What are you doing here?" It was hardly a Christian place-though not exactly pagan, either; Anselm gave little thought to any gods.

"Episkopos Theodosius wishes to speak with magister Anselm," Otho said. Then she saw his companion. Bishop Theodosius-lean, ascetic, of middle years-wore a calf-length brown cloak over ordinary wool trousers. But for his bronze pectoral cross, he might have been a merchant. Pierrette eyed him uneasily.

"I'll fetch a light." She could have taken the candle from its niche, and lit it with a flick of her fingers but, under the churchman's eye, she fetched an oil lamp. "Magister Anselm is enjoying the sunlight on the terrace." The sky outside was clear, and it was close to midday; the bishop would not emerge from gloomy evening into the glare of sunny day.

Anselm, unlike his apprentice, was not disconcerted by the eminence's visit. "Bring us wine," he commanded her. "The good episkopos and I have many things to discuss."

He assured himself that Theodosius was comfortably seated on a pillow. "I've read your treatise on daimonion and diaballein-slanderers and spirits. Masterful logic. You must explain your premise."

The old mage's enthusiasm for discourse disarmed the churchman "I'll be happy to. A man of your learning will have no trouble accepting it, once enlightened."

Pierrette set fine Rhodanus red wine between them. She sat to listen to what promised to be an interesting discussion, but Father Otho gripped her arm. "We must speak." He tugged her down the stairs, toward the library.

"What's so important? I wanted to listen."

"You wouldn't like what you heard." He frowned. "I don't think you'll like what I have to say, either." He nodded to the other bench. She sat.

"His Eminence is the knight Diodor?'s uncle. Your suitor has asked him to come."

Pierrette felt a cold weight form deep inside her. "I can't marry anyone! I must remain virgin."

"You're past the age to marry, and too pretty to be ignored. Men don't understand. They strive to bring the wild mare to stud."

The wild mare. Pierrette envisioned a stocky white horse of the Camargue breed-the goddess Epona's own. Would that she were in the Rhodanus's vast delta now, the wild wet plain of grass and reeds where river met sea. "Epi-skopos," she pronounced. "Over-seer. I'm not a slave. Tell him-and Diodor?-to look elsewhere."

"Theodosius intends to perform your baptism himself-and Anselm's."

Pierrette feared baptism, which she had concluded was a powerful spell. It would close the doors to her future as firmly as would loss of her virginity. "What can I do?"

"If you leave Citharista,, the bishop, a busy man..."

She sighed. "Everyone wants me to leave. No one asks me what I want."

"I don't think you have a choice," Otho said, eying the door and the stairs leading upward. "I wonder how the mage and the bishop are getting along?"

Anselm paced in deep thought, his hands in the small of his back, fingers interlocked. He only did that when upset. "I consort with no demons-I don't even believe in demons. Why demand empty words of me?"

"The credo is fundamental truth."

"Your truth! 'I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth...' Define 'God.' Define 'Almighty,' and 'Heaven.' For that matter, define 'believe.' Until you're sure that what I 'believe' is 'Almighty' is what you believe, they're empty words."

Theodosius sighed. "You're a difficult man. Credulous farmers find salvation easy. Nonetheless, you must be baptized. You must confess, and attend mass-and above all, you must publicly avow that your magecraft draws only upon God."

"We have not defined 'God,'" Anselm protested. "Your Christian magic draws upon the universe at large, and the credulity of witnesses. Will you accept my profession, if that's how I define 'God?'"

"If not from God, then your powers stem from Evil."

"I'm neither good nor evil! Have you drawn so firm a line across the world that every creature must choose a side and jump across? Is an osprey God's, because he's graceful and beautiful-or Satan's, because he kills his prey?"

"Fish hawks have no souls. You are a man."

"Define 'soul.' See? We don't speak the same language. You'd have to trust that I meant my words as you define them."

Theodosius nodded. "I'll accept that as given. We need not haggle as long as you know what I mean." He got to his feet. "I won't pronounce upon the matter at once. I'll come back in a month. Are you ready, Father Otho?"

"I'll see you to the gate," said Pierrette.

Outside, on the narrow path, the bishop turned to her. "Urge your master to reconsider. If he refuses, he won't have to wait for Hell to suffer."

"What did he mean?" Pierrette demanded of the mage. "What will he do?"

"He'll destroy me. Can this fortress, preserved in the eternal moment, survive if I deny its premises-set by an older god than Theodosius's?"

"It's my fault," cried Pierrette. "Had Diodor? not become infatuated... Oh, I wish I were ugly. Must I go away, master? That's what everyone wants."

Anselm eyed her pensively, without rushing to reassure her. "I don't think our good bishop will let go, now that he's got my soul in his teeth. But you might be wise to disappear."

"What will happen to you?"

"Theodosius and I will talk again. He won't act in haste because, just as I enjoy debate, so does he. No victory is as sweet as the battle itself. Take what time there is, and discover the source of what plagues us."

"The source?"

"Isn't it apparent? Our side can never win, you know. As long as people like Theodosius keep drawing lines in the sand, they will place more on evil's side than good's. I hear it all the time, from people who ask my aid. At Easter they say 'Sell me a bane to drive away the evil fox. It killed my favorite hen.' Then at All Saints, they demand that I furnish poison to kill the evil rabbits that have eaten their garden-the rabbits no fox was there to eat. Definitions of evil expand. The Black time will arrive when the last wart and toothache have been declared not unpleasant, but evil."

"It's him, isn't it? It's a new trick, to bring the Black Time." It was true. She had seen it. Priests called old Pan the Devil's disguise, and he acquired the old god's cloven feet. They called Cernunnos evil, and Satan grew horns. Name a thing evil, and feed the appetite and growing power of the Christians' other god.

"You must find out how it's being done. I don't think the answer is in my library."

Pierrette did not want to believe that. She did not want to tread the path to Ugium. Seeking an alternative, she spent long hours with her maps and scrolls, and went through several thick tomes before she found the clue she sought. It was in Titus Livius, Book LX:

124 B.C.: C. Sextius, proconsul, having failed to destroy the Salluvian capital, retired to Rome in ignominy.
That was clearly wrong. The siege of Entremont had not been lifted. C. Sextius Calvinus defeated Salluvian Gauls and Ligures, and overran the oppidum of Entremont-not in 124 B.C., but in 127. He founded Aquae Sextiae Salluviorum on the site of his camp, by the thermal springs that gave the colony its name.

Just as Diodorus's scroll had faded, so had Livy's book-as if all history following the critical siege had itself faded. Or, she realized with cold dread, as if the new history that resulted from the revision had not yet been written.

She awakened Anselm from his doze in the sun. "It's now clear. Marius lost his battle against the Teutons because Calvinus did not take Entremont and remove the Salluvian threat. With no secure base, his rear was unprotected. He only dared put half his infantry in the field."

"You speak as if things actually happened that way," reflected Anselm. "But we know otherwise, despite what those books now say."

"Do we? I fear that the history we remember has been falsified. and that the Eater of Gods is writing a new one, in which Rome never won Provence and Julius Caesar, having no secure Province west of the Alps, did not conquer Gaul, and founded no Empire."

"How can you be sure?"

Pierrette laid her hand on a thick tome whose green leather covers were inlaid with silver and garnets. "Do you recognize this?"

"It's Virgil's Aeniad-his mythical tale of the founding of Rome."

Pierrette opened the book. "What do you see?"

"It's blank! Where has Virgil gone?"

"Virgil, Rome's foremost propagandist, was a Gaul, from the Padus Valley. In this new history, he never wrote it." Without a victory at Entremont, Calvinus did not found a colony. Without a colony, Marius lost Provence. Without a base for his legions, Caesar never came, saw, or conquered." Pierrette did not have to pull "De Bello Gallico" from the shelf to know it too would be blank.

What else would change? She pictured Entremont as a stone tossed in the sacred pool, ripples spreading, changing the world she knew, effacing first written histories, then events themselves, until a strange new present emerged without Rome. Without Rome-and thus without Emperor Constantine to legitimize Christianity. Without saints to convert Gauls and then Germans to the new faith.

In this new history, had the Eater of Gods found a better source of sustenance that pagan gods and Christian sinners?

"You're right," she said, slapping Virgil's cover. "You, Guihen, and Ma. I have to find out what's behind this, before the world changes to match what we've read."

"You'll go to Ugium?"

"I'll go where the Gaulish fant?mes are thickest. Where this all began-Entremont." She felt herself clever. The ruins of Entremont were a short walk from the bishop's city of Aquae Sextiae, which was said to be lovely, with fountains that jetted warm, healing water. Whatever she found there would not be as bad as Ugium.

Part 2: Vidi

The old gods are not especially clever, and they can sometimes be tricked by mortlas, but gods are manifestations of more fundamental principles, and those are immutable. Even gods cannot cirvumvent them. Better to abandon the gods (which we ourselves create to explain why things are as they are) and instead to study those immutable principles.

Chapter 4: : Changing Times

Citharista bathed in miraculous sunshine reflected through clean, pine-scented air from white rock and azure ocean. Would she see the first sign of change, or would she change with it, remembering nothing of a past no longer hers?

She found herself looking closely at familiar things, like the incised Roman letters on the stable's old stone blocks. Had the inscriptions, belonging to the old reality, began to fade?

"There you are." she said. The buff and white donkey rolled his large, brown eyes. "Yes, you." She reached for a rope halter. "It's time to earn your oats."

The beast sidled away.


Reluctantly, the donkey allowed itself to be haltered. Pierrette draped wicker panniers across its skinny back. One, she filled with cloth sacks of grain, and the other with a thick wool blanket, a cooking pot, two jugs of wine that would serve as canteens later, clothes, and simple food-dry cheese, salted mullet, olives, figs, bread, and a fat sausage.

On the way through town, she did not look up from beneath the brim of her conical straw hat, afraid of what she might-or might not-see. When Citharista was a scattering of red-roofed miniatures below, she did not look back, afraid she might see the shadows of great machines, enormous engines that could lift a cargo-laden ship like a child's toy, visions of the Black Time.

The road north of the town led only past isolated farmhouses. In each succeeding valley, a trail joined it, and her road became wider and well-trodden.

On every ridge-top, and again in each valley, she uttered the words of a small, simple spell. In Citharista or Anselm's keep, it was a fire-lighting spell. In other places, it caused a glow like marsh light or a white, heatless glare. On high ridges, the spell had no effect. She used it to warn herself when the magic of a region changed, because innocuous spells sometimes became dangerous, where their postulates meant something the writer had not intended. High ranges stifled spells, and if there were to be a change in magics, it would be on the far side of a ridge. Thus far, the hills had not been high enough. She had not needed flint and steel to light her fire, the first night out.

There were few other travellers. When she heard someone ahead, she hid until they passed. For all she knew, others did the same when they heard her first. Sometimes she felt eyes upon her back.

She encountered a carter in a narrow defile. His wain was heaped with hay, and she could pass only by squeezing close by his cart.

He had a fatherly face. "Climb up, girl. Old Brownie won't notice he's pulling a bit more."

Her sandalled feet burned from two days walking. Still holding Gustave's lead, she put a foot on a spoke. The carter grasped her arm and lifted her-one broad hand cupping her buttocks. "Soft little thing, aren't you?" He seemed less fatherly.

He climbed up beside her and, grasping his switch pole, goaded his mule. Ahead, the roadway widened. He laid the pole against the wain's side posts. "Brownie knows the way," he said, laying down the reins. "Come here now."

Grasping a handful of her skirt, he pulled her toward himself. The slippery hay offered no purchase. She could not pull free. She felt a calloused hand under her loose blouse, and cool air and sunlight on her exposed legs. His weight pinned her into the deep hay.

He struggled to get his rope belt loose and still keep her from getting away. Pierrette's mind raced. He thought it only rape but, deflowered, she would be no more a sorceress than her mother. She would fail. The Black Time would come. She whispered soft words.


Her nostrils widened. "I said, 'Your hay is on fire.'"

"Hah! Are you that hot?" He reached between her thighs. "I'll quench you."

His mule and Gustave brayed, and the cart lurched. The carter raised his head, cursing. Both beasts' nostrils flared, and their eyes were wide. Sharp, white smoke billowed from the hay.

He leaped to calm his mule, and Pierrette rolled off the cart. She flung herself belly-down across Gustave. The donkey honked loudly, and half carried, half dragged her away. A hundred paces down the track she got her feet under herself.

The carter was pulling armloads of hay from his wain. Pierrette saw billows of smoke, but no fire. She hoped his entire cartload would burst into flame.

A mile down the trail, she watched the smoke pinch out at its base, the column thrashing like an angry snake's tail. She had gotten her wish-dry hay in full flame gives off little smoke, but the heat of it still rises. Then she felt sorry. The man surely had family, who would suffer for his loss.

She camped early that afternoon, off the trail a distance. She shook out coarse woolen bracae, Frankish trousers, and donned a grayed cotton tunic-boy's clothing. She should have done it at the start.

The baggy bracae were less loose than a year before, but her hips had not widened too much. Her small breasts pressed against the fabric across them. In the morning, she would bind them with cloth torn from her skirt, and would tie her hair atop her head in a soldier's coif. Her floppy hat would cover it.

There was a village at the intersection of the stone-paved Roman road and her trail. She skirted it and crossed the Roman road. She had expected traffic, and was not wrong-but it was all one way. A steady trickle of carts, mounted men, and folk afoot headed eastward, none west.

Where her chosen trail led north toward a cleft in the next range of hills, rough mule teamsters had kindled a fire. One hailed her to join them. She shook her head. Beyond were a man, woman, and two children. She approached their fire instead.

She had checked her appearance that morning, using wine poured into her pot for a mirror. She looked boyish enough.

"Are you from the coast?" asked the man, a sleeping baby on his lap. "Are things as bad there?"

"What do you mean by 'bad?'"

The man glanced toward his wife and their older child, a boy of three or four. When he saw that the child slept, he spoke. "There are demons," he whispered. "They've taken Aix." Ecks? Oh-he had slurred "Aquae Sextiae" into a single syllable. Was that how languages changed-? She should write that in her journal, when she returned to the cape. If she returned...

"Have you seen them yourself?"

His eyes filled with tears. "My brother has become one," he said.

With gentle urging, Pierrette encouraged him to tell her that tale.

The brothers Barcos and Cotos shared their father's farm, a wife, and two children. There had been no strife until Cotos took their olives to market. He returned covered in mud, sullen, and would not say what had transpired.

One night later, when it was Cotos's turn to lie with Dosia, she fled the little cabane, and sought Barcos, who was sleeping warm among the pigs. "Cotos desired an unnatural thing," she said, but would not describe it.

In the morning Barcos remonstrated with his brother. "It isn't your affair," said Cotos, "what I do with my wife."

"She's my wife too."

"Last night she was mine."

When the brothers went to their grove, they worked apart, neither holding the ladder for the other.

Days passed.

"Where did you get that?" Dosia asked Cotos. It was a battered bronze sword, an ancient thing. Cotos was sharpening it with a stone. He muttered something unintelligible.

"What did you say?"

"Are you deaf?" he growled.

She backed away, not having understood him at all. His words were foreign and harsh. That night she did not go to bed. Cotos had to find her. He had stiffened his blond hair into spikes with white clay. He dragged her to the tiny hut and raped her brutally.

Next day, he put on a pitted iron helmet. He would not say where he had gotten it-even had he tried, neither Dosia nor Barcos could have understood him. Strangely, he was angry with them, as if they were the ones who no longer spoke intelligibly. Odder still, little Galbos, probably Cotos's offspring, understood him, so they were able to continue with the work of the farm.

When the last olives were in, Cotos donned his rusty helm and, sword in hand, made as if to leave. He had packed food in a scrap of cloth. "Wend'h 'hra teutos malos rheeks," he said.

"What did he say?" asked Dosia of her small son.

"He's going to find some people's hammer," said Galbos.

"We don't own a hammer," Barcos mused.

Cotos set off on the road to Aix. Perhaps the hammer he sought was in the grave where he had found the sword and helm.

"Where will you go?" asked Pierrette.

"Away. Anywhere." Barcos shrugged. "It doesn't matter. A flux took the pigs, and the olives will endure until we can return."

The boy Galbos had awakened. He saw Pierrette, and said something that his parents could not decipher. Pierrette responded in the same tongue. After that, both parents stared at her with such unease that she got to her feet, and bid them farewell. She was no longer welcome there.

Barcos was right, she reflected as she put the crossroads and the wide valley behind herself. It did not matter where they went. The blight would follow them. She and little Galbos had spoken in Gaulish, a dead language. Pierrette had learned old tongues in order to read Anselm's books, but the child should not have known it.

What Cotos had said was also Gaulish: "I am going to King Teutomalos," he had said. "Teutomalos" might mean "Hammer of the Tribe," but it was a proper name. "Rheeks"-Rix-meant "king." Teutomalorix. The king who, according to Diodorus Siculus, had been defeated by Calvinus at Entremont-or who had defeated him.

Those poor folk of Gaulish ancestry (as were most people in Provence) could not escape themselves, their blood. Cotos succumbed first, but already little Galbos spoke better Gaulish than Oc, the debased Latin of the formerly Roman Gaul. If Rome had never conquered in the first place, then Latin would never be spoken here, except by traders from across the Alps.

Pierrette slept poorly, and was glad when dawn at last lightened the crest of the mount where Marius had won (or lost?) his battle with the Teutons.

Was she nearing Aquae Sextiae? The mountain's distinctive white limestone scarp was a long, bright line on the northern horizon. The peak was a beacon, visible from any bare hilltop. From ancient times people had oriented themselves by it. By the time she approached the Bishop's seat, the massif would be east of her and, seen end-on, should resemble a crooked triangular peak. She still had far to go.

Magic had not changed. Her fire-spell still lit her tinder when she stopped for the night, between two hills, looking down upon the Via Julia Augusta, as that portion of the main road between Italia and Iberia was called. Moonlight washed the Roman paving stones white. Campfires flickered.

There were dozens of people down there, with carts and wains heaped high with the miscellany of farm and household: refugees. She did not need them to tell her how bad things were. She could feel the old, angry, Gaulish spirits that brooded in the hillsides, in gnarled old trees no Romans had ever cut. In her world, Caesar's men had hacked and burned such sacred trees when he outlawed the druids, and Christians had completed his task.

Screams and the rumble of hooves awakened her. She crawled to the edge of the slope. Swords glinted. Shadowy folk ran this way and that. Plumes of feathers and horsehair bobbed atop bronze-trimmed helms.

A warrior rode down a child. A single swipe of his long sword took head from shoulders. The Gaul gave a harsh cry, and leaned from his horse to sweep up the rolling head.

Pierrette backed away, and vomited her meager supper. By the time she recovered, there were no more cries. The moon had sunk behind the weastern hills, and below was darkness. An unseasonal drizzle drifted down. The only sounds were Gustave's mumbled complaints.

At the first wan light, she shook out her blanket and loaded Gustave. She did not feel like eating, but she forced down a soggy crust.

She had to cross the Roman road; that meant going through the refugees' camp. Still forms lay amid the wreckage of the camp, but there were no sounds. They were all dead. Men, women, babes ... all headless, even the littlest ones. Again she vomited.

Eyes brimming, she eyed the hard-surfaced road. The mountain was invisible in the mist, but Aquae Sextiae could not be more than six or seven miles west. What would she find there? The bishop's city, with warm fountains and sunny streets ... or a Gallic fane below the looming walls of an Entremont grown large, a city never vanquished, that had never known Rome?

Something was nagging at her. Something she had seen in the horror of the refugee camp? She forced herself to look. The headless bodies of children were just dark lumps.

That was it. Gauls took the heads of fighting men. Warrior fant?mes were powerful. But children? What use had Celtic druidae for the captive ghosts of infants? It made no sense.

The clatter of hoofbeats startled her. With nowhere to hide, he stood frozen as a single horseman reined in, his long Celtic spatha bared. His horse's nostrils flared at the scent of blood. The rider looked anxious. He was afraid. Of her?

"Who are you?" His blade wavered between them. He spoke Gaulish.

"I'm called Pierrette," she replied in that tongue.

"You're not ... with these?" He indicated the sprawled, headless refugees.

"I just arrived from the south. I camped up there, and I heard the sounds in the night... I came down to see what had happened to these people."

"People? These aren't people, they're demons."

"They don't look it. That one's a child."

"An imp." He accepted that she was not a "demon"-because she spoke Gaulish? "They appear out of nowhere, speaking the evil Romish tongue. They worship a horrid dead god who hangs on a tree. If not demons, they are mad. If not demons-then where did they come from?"

Pierrette's mind raced. This Gaul soldier thought the refugees were demons? Just as such ordinary folk thought the fant?mes were? But of course-this was the new history that she now inhabited. The soldier was in his own world, The refugees were the apparitions here.

"I'm taking you to my wanak," he said, almost apologetically. "He'll want to hear what you can tell him of the South. By the look of you, you're a Ligure, aren't you?"

"My mother was." Ligures had inhabited Provence before Gauls or Romans. In her world they were considered fairy-folk, and lived in remote places. Was it different here and now? Did her mother's people have it better here?

Wanak? In the Greek of Homer, Wanax meant "king." Was she to meet a Gaulish king?

"I have little to tell," she lied. "I met no one on the trail from my father's farm. I saw nothing but rocks and trees-until this."

"Nonetheless," he replied. "Come." She led Gustave, and followed him eastward, not toward the town.

She walked and he rode. She prodded him with casual-seeming questions, and got some idea of the changes in this world. Teutomalos the Eighth ruled an empire of Gauls and Germans. The capital had not been at Entremont for generations, but was in the north. The empire stretched from the Alps to the northern sea, from the Atlantic to the great marshes of the central continent.

Things were much as she had imagined, had there been no Rome. The only thing she could not have imagined was ... the heads. The children's heads. Had the religion of the druidae become so corrupt? The warrior-Segomaros-did not know what the priests did with the heads. "I don't want to know," he said.

After a mile, realizing she could not keep up, Segomaros pulled Pierrette up behind him. She tried to imagine herself riding behind Diodor?-but he was in another world. Was it gone-or had she merely passed some unseen line, up in the hills? Might Citharista, Diodor?, and Anselm still exist, if she fled back that way?

For some time, she had been catching whiffs of a foetid odor, as if something large had died at no great distance. They rode on and on, at a walk, and the stench thickened. Was there another field of slaughter nearby-one days or a week older than the one she had seen earlier?

When she looked, she saw that the mountain called Holy Victory was now an elongated scarp, white teeth gnawing at the horizon, more west than north. Then she knew what the nauseous odor was: she was near the, the campi putridi, the "stinking fields" where Marius had fought the Teutons and had, in this universe, been defeated. The malodorous swamp had been drained in her own "history," and no longer stank, but here ... When the battle had gone against the Romans, had they fled to the swamp? Were the "stinking fields" the Gauls' victory monument, as the mountain had been ... might have been ... Marius's?

There had been a Gallic oppidum, a hill-city, near the campi putridi, and when she saw hills rising ahead, she knew their destination was near. But before they reached the hills, a sentry stepped out from sheltering rocks. Segomaros explained his mission in a spatter of rapid Gaulish Pierrette could barely follow.

The sentry gestured with a thumb. "The captain-wanak meant captain, not king-"will return at dusk. Take her to the south entrance, and wait there."

They skirted the camp. Segomaros handed her down from the horse. "Wait over there," he said. "I'll get something for you to eat and drink." He rode into the camp.

"What shall I do now?" she asked Gustave, who only snuffled as he tried to reach the pannier that held his oats. What could she do? Had she already lost the battle against the Black Time, before she had begun to strive? The drizzle continued unabated. She found a dry spot beneath a platane's spreading branches, and sat down to wait.

The sun had just set, and the gloom was deep. Had she drowsed? She heard voices a way off. "Where is she?" boomed a voice that echoed as if from a deep well.

"I left her here, wanak. She must be nearby."

"She is one of them," said the captain, who wore a hooded mantle. "She cast an enchantment on you."

Pierrette edged backward into thorny brush. She looped Gustave's lead so it would not drag. "Go now!" she whispered. The donkey ambled away.

Someone lit a torch. The sappy wood cast an ugly orange light. Segomaros and three others stopped under the platane. "She was here. See? Donkey shit." The wanak took the torch, and bent downward.

Then Pierrette saw. Her heart hammered dangerously loudly in her ears. The wanak had no face. Beneath cowl and helm was only darkness. Couldn't Segomaros see that? Or ... didn't he care? The wanak was a fant?me.

The torch dazzled the searchers and left concealing pools of shadow. She remained absolutely still, hardly breathing. The men moved on.

There was no moon. She pushed through the brush, using the flickers of firelight from the camp as her guide. There was a trail, but all too soon-she could not have gone a mile-it petered out. Then she found it again. It had made a complete turnaround, traversing the slope upward in a series of hairpin bends. She would have to walk a mile for every quarter-mile of height she gained, but she did not dare scramble directly upward in the darkness. She plodded on, numb with exhaustion and chill.

When gray dawn edged westward toward her, the sky was still overcast, but she could see to climb straight uphill, over the tumbled rocks. Was there a pass through the forbidding scarp ahead? There had to be, or there would be no switchbacks-that was a trail for laden beasts, not men afoot. It had to cross over. She pressed on, panting, reeling. She had hardly slept for two nights.

"There she is!" Something-an arrow-clattered on the rocks above. She kept climbing. Arrows rattled beside her, behind her. The horsemen were following the trail; their steeds could not master the rocky slopes directly. Arrows clattered behind her, so she guessed she was gaining. She looked back. Two dismounted men were scrambling up after her.

For the dozenth time, she crossed the trail, but now it headed directly south, through a steep cleft. She found a loose, round stone beside the track, and rolled it downward. It rattled and clacked as it went, not slowing at all. "Watch out!" someone yelled.

She hurried on, keeping her eye out for more cobbles. There were squarish ones, and sharp-edged slabs, but no round ones. She was so tired. She could not go much farther. Her breath came and went in gasps. Sweat blurred her vision. The cleft ended in a brush-filled cul-de-sac. Loose twigs and brush collected there, out of the wind and drizzle. She stopped, and wiped her eyes.

There was a pole with lashed rungs. She scrambled toward it, and put one foot on the lowest crosspiece. It twisted, and her foot thumped on the ground. She would have to pull herself up by her arms, and only put her weight on both sides of the crosspieces at once.

Voices echoed between the walls of the cleft. She scrambled upward. Her arms felt like they would pull from her shoulders. She was sure to fall.

"There she is!"

She was over the top. The Gauls were running the last hundred paces to the ladder. She tried to pull it up after her, but could not. She murmured the words of her fire-spell, twisting a tuft of coarse grass. It lit, and she tossed it down. A wisp of smoke puffed from the tangled brush, then ... nothing. It had gone out. She looked for another clump of dry stuff, but found none.

Weeping with frustration, she got to her feet, to stagger on. She kicked at the pole ladder, and it fell away-into an almost invisible sheet of hot flames. Sparks flew.

"Watch out! Everything's burning." The foremost Gauls pushed back against the rest. The fire spread. Flames rose from the ladder pole. The rungs' lashings flared brightly, then fell away. The flame had not gone out: it burned so hotly there was still almost no smoke at all. Pierrette sank upon the stony ground at the top of the pass, and wept.

The Gauls had given up. She saw a line of tiny men on toy horses, heading away. Somewhere down there was Gustave, and her few remaining supplies. Thirsty, she sucked sweat from the cloth that had bound her hair. Below, on the far side of the spinelike ridge, was a broad valley, a green, tree-clad vale. There would be water there, amidst greenery as rich as the grove of the sacred pool.

Chapter 5: The Real Story

Since crossing the divide, Pierrette no longer felt the staring eyes of trees and stones, of a nature in which every entity had a soul, and thoughts. She rested often, down the brushy slope to the valley, aching in every limb, scratched, and exhausted. A sun-warmed shelf of rock beckoned. In this lovely vale no clouds masked the sun. A colorful patchwork of cultivated fields spread before her, gold of wheat, emerald green rows of legumes, russet and tan, and the dark shades of fresh-tilled soil yet undried by the sun. The far slopes, leading to a towering gray scarp, were covered with forest, the green of late spring, of Ma's glade.

The warm rock was a balm, soothing her aches. She might take a short nap. Then she would have to decide what to do. Was the change she had witnessed only a patch of another reality not yet spread afar? She hoped so.

It seemed unreal now. Perhaps she had gone mad, and dreamed everything that had happened on the other side of the pass. All thought of visiting Aquae Sextiae was gone. She would not willingly brave the terrifying world of Celtic domination and ancient faceless ghosts again, in dream or reality. Here and now, she felt safe, as if she had indeed passed into another magical realm where her enemies could not enter. She let heavy eyelids close...

"Well, boy! You'll never get a job dozing in the sun." Pierrette sat up, startled. The sun was low. She had slept most of the day.

The speaker was between her and the sun, his booming voice jovial and unthreatening-and he was speaking not Gaulish, but Oc, good Proven?al Latin. She rubbed sleep from her eyes. "A job? Where? What job?"

"Why, I suppose that depends on your trade. You're small for a mason or a carpenter. A woodcarver? A glazier, making those brilliant baubles of Celtic glass and lead? How did you get those cuts and scratches?"

Pierrette's confusion multiplied. What did the one have to do with the other? The big man sat. His lumpy leather sack clanked. His close-cropped hair was red-brown, as was several days' unshaved beard. His tunic and trousers, and the leather apron over them, were well-worn.

"I'm not looking for a job."

"No? Have you run away from the monks?" He chuckled. "I wouldn't blame you. Saint Cassien's brothers aren't strict, but I myself wouldn't like such a pious life. I'll build their fine hostel-but when I'm paid, I'll be off again."

Then Pierrette understood. The Saint Cassien monks and their hostel were well known-in her history. The establishment lay near the base of the escarpment where Saint Marie Madeleine had spent her last years.

Once, the goddess of the sacred pool had promised Pierrette she would speak with the saint. Only a child then, she had believed it literally, and had asked everyone where Mary Magdalene could be found. Her father and the priest Otho had chuckled indulgently. Otho told her of the shrine and the monks who tended it.

"You're a mason?" His heavy sack was full of tools.

"I'm Cerdos of Tarascon, a master mason. Perhaps you've heard of me? No? Then you're definitely not a tradesman. I've built bridges and churches from Tolosa to Nicaea. I helped build the Frankish king's new palace."

"I'm sure the monks will welcome you. Are they expanding their hostel?"

"Expanding it? They're building it anew. A careless pilgrim's candle set it afire. They're housing travelers in the barns." He stood up. "There's no time to waste. Every hewer and breaker of stone in all Provence is converging on the place, and if they begin without me, there's no telling what mistakes will be made. A good foundation is the key. I won't build a chicken coop on another man's weak courses. Are you coming? Or are you hiding out? You never said."

"I'll go with you. It isn't monks I fear."

A half-hour's walk brought them near a cluster of barns and sheds. "Good," Cerdos said. "They've dug trenches, but have laid no stone."

He pointed to a nearby field. "There are my children," he said. Pierrette had thought the white objects were grazing sheep. They were blocks of quarried stone. Children, indeed, in need of their father's shaping.

"I wonder who's here?" said Cerdos, eagerly looking around. Monks in dark robes scurried among lay brothers in workaday clothes and tradesmen dressed as colorfully as Gypsies.

"Cerdos!" one fellow shouted. "Are you come to carry my tools? I need a husky apprentice." Cerdos, far from insulted, flung a burly arm around the smaller man, then slapped the back of his head.

"Ow! Release me, you ox."

"This is Ferdiad," Cerdos told Pierrette. "He's an Irish sparrow who plays at joinery. He'd be happier as a monk in a choir, or as a grammarian."

"Don't believe the big liar," said Ferdiad in clear, scholarly Latin, not the patois of Provence. "Just because I speak properly, and sing a bit... But who are you?"

"That's Piers," Cerdos answered for her. "He has no trade, and doesn't know where he's going-so the two of you should get on famously." He guffawed. "Who's in charge?"

Ferdiad pointed him toward a tall monk who carried a writing-board and a charred stick of vine. Cerdos strode off.

"Cerdos is a good fellow," Ferdiad told Pierrette. "What did he mean about you?"

"Just that I was going to Aquae Sextiae," she said, matching his classical accent. "I became frightened when someone-something-chased me, and I fled here. Now I'm not sure whether to try another route, or to go home, over yonder scarp."

"I've heard tales," said the Irishman. "There may be more than brigands out there. Old ghosts are astir-I know, because I've felt their like in my own land."

"You have? Where is that? I thought such apparitions were new."

"My island is a Gaelic land," Ferdiad explained, "never conquered by Latins or Germans-thus our Celtic ghosts are with us always."

"Are Gauls and Gaels the same?"

"The same stock. We Irish descend from the first warriors to harness horse to chariot-the tribe of Dana, goddess of the great river of the East. Of course we're all good Christians now," he hastened to add. "In fact, we were Christians long before Clovis and his savage Franks professed the Faith."

He peered at Pierrette, who had withdrawn into deep thought. Was the Irish land the source of the fant?mes, then? Was she wrong to seek their origins in the oppida of ancient Gaul?

Cerdos returned. "Befitting my position and repute, the brothers have allotted me a room with a hearth. Will you two share it with me?"

Ferdiad pretended to weigh the question. "If you can refrain from overfilling our chamber with hot air, we'll be comfortable."

Cerdos guffawed. "Hot air will drive away the icy draft of your piety, Irish midget," he replied.

Cerdos's fat purse implied his boasts of skill and fame were not empty. He bought food and wine for the three of them. Across the hubbub of beasts and men, tents and drays, arose a commotion. A man's cried out in anger and pain. An ass brayed, no less upset. "That is Gustave!" exclaimed Pierrette.

"I think Gustave's donkey had bitten him," Cerdos said.

"No-Gustave is my donkey. I thought him lost in the hills." She tried to push through.

"Let me." Cerdos's bulk parted workers, lookers, and sellers like a heavy boat parts reeds. Pierrette followed in his wake.

They broke into a clearing Gustave had opened with his flailing hooves. A man stood nursing a bloody forearm, holding the donkey's lead with his good hand.

"Gustave!" Pierrette shouted. "Behave yourself." The ass stopped in mid-bray and swivelled his laid-back ears in her direction. Pierrette took his lead from the unresisting man. "Thank you for finding my donkey. I'm sorry he bit you."

The wicker latch-loop on one pannier was loose. Though Gustave had himself tried to get at the grain he carried, he had not suffered a stranger to meddle with it. He had no assurance that he was to be fed, so he had bitten the snooper.

The donkey's abrupt change in manner rendered further proof of Pierrette's ownership unnecessary. She led him away.

Room and hearth were as promised. Having eaten, Ferdiad produced a small harp from a canvas sack. "Let's go to the common fire, where my appreciative audience may throw coins," he said. "I'll sing a tale dear to all tradesmen."

He settled near the fire, where all could hear him. "This is the tale of Master Jock," he said. Soft notes from the harp filled the air.

Master Jock (as Pierrette later remembered the tale) was an architect in ancient Judea. Everything he built, from cottage to palace, was perfection itself. Had he not designed Solomon's temple and the hanging gardens? Had he not selected just the right stone for the pyramids in Egypt? People said that he gave heart to stones, souls to wooden beams, wings to roofs, and spirit to windows. But his talents drew the envy of one Soubise, an architect who had the ear of the king...

Unwelcome at home, Master Jock departed for Provence to start over anew. Just off the boat in Massilia, he sought a wine shop.

"What do you do?" asked a burly workman.

"It's said I give heart to stones, souls to wooden beams, and wings..."

"You are Master Jock!" the fellow growled. He and four others got to their feet. "We are followers of Soubise," he said. They threw the unfortunate architect out. One man picked up a cobble to crush his skull. Master Jock fled. East of the wharves was a cane marsh, where he immersed himself in murky water, and breathed through a broken reed.

At nightfall, he crept from the swamp. He walked eastward through the night, and in the days that followed put many miles between himself and his enemy's supporters.

He arrived in the valley of the Holy Balm, and because it was dusk, missed the hostel of the good brothers. Seeing a glimmer of light high in the cliff, he ascended the rocky slope, and found a lamp burning in the mouth of a cave. No one was there, but he found a soft bed, upon which he fell, exhausted.

In the morning, he saw that his mattress was woven of fine blond hair that shimmered in the early light.

"This is Mary Magdalene's cave," someone whispered.

"She lived here thirty years, naked but for her long hair, from which she made her bed," said someone else. They were high, childlike voices, like fairies.

"Who are you?" demanded Master Jock, terrified. He could see no one.

"We are your apprentices," said a tiny voice.

"We searched all night for you," said another.

"What do you want of me?"

"We'll bring you food and wine. You are safe here. A fresh, cold spring gushes from the rock, in the cave."

"Why are you so kind?" Master Jock still saw no one.

"Teach us to give hearts to stones," said one voice.

"And souls to wooden beams," said another.

"Teach us to build roofs with wings, and to give spirit to windows," the rest chimed in.

And so it was. Master Jock taught them everything he knew, there in the mouth of the cave. Blue thistles nodded in the sunlight, and the lovely vale spread out before him. Soon lovely new houses sprang up in surrounding towns, pure works of art. People said the roofs had wings, and the stones souls.

When word of those houses reached Massilia, the followers of Soubise, ever jealous, set out for Sainte Baume. Following the light of a single lamp on the rocky hillside, they found Master Jock asleep. They stabbed him many times, then fled the way they had come.

In the morning Master Jock was barely alive. That day, for the first time, he saw his apprentices clearly, and thus knew he was dying, for they were small elfin folk, dark-haired men of the race that neither plowed nor sowed, but lived off the bounty of the land, and drank from the Mother's breast. "Don't seek revenge," he begged them. "Continue to build as I have taught you. Thus will I triumph." He breathed his last.

His disciples removed his bloody clothes and washed his body. They buried him naked in the depths of the cave, as was their custom.

Going through his pockets, they found an unbroken fragment of the reed that had saved his life in the cane marsh-that had saved him so he could teach them. "This reed will be our emblem," they decided as one. As was customary, they divided his clothing among themselves.

"This hat is mine," said one who soldered colored glass with lead cames, making lovely windows for churches and palaces, giving them spirit indeed.

"I claim his work-apron," said a stonecutter, promising that he would faithfully follow the master's precepts, and would give heart to his stones.

A locksmith took sandals.

"I will make roofs with wings," said a carpenter, taking Master Jock's cape.

"I," said a hewer of wood, "will give souls to my children."

"And thus," sang Ferdiad, "down through all the centuries, fair weather and foul, when sun shines or wind blows, we Companions of Master Jock come to climb the rocky hill to the cave, in his memory."

Those who had coins to throw did so. The little Irishman caught them in the air. His purse jingled merrily on the way back to Cerdos's room. The mason produced a clay jug of wine and cups, and fed fresh splints to the fire's embers. "A fine tale," he admitted-"at least, in the presence of the monks of Saint Cassien." He raised an eyebrow at Pierrette. "Now shall I tell the real story?"

"I know it already," said Pierrette-though it had only come to her that very moment.

"How can that be?" asked Ferdiad.

"Within every Christian tale," said Pierrette, "there is an older one. When the priests first came to this land, they chopped down holy trees and built shrines to Christian saints with the wood. They changed the old stories to Christian ones, and at length the old gods and spirits changed also. Saint Giles, who saved a doe by catching a hunter's arrow in his hand, was once Cernunnos, a god. Mary Magdalene-who indeed lived in that cave in the cliffs above us, supplanted Ma, the goddess of the spring."

Both nodded thoughtfully. "Father Jock," she said then, "is none other than Lugh the light-bringer. Lugh Long-Arm-whom you Irish call Samildanach, 'skilled in many arts.' The disciples unseen were Ligures, small folk, my mother's kind, who build and make, but do not plow, sow, or reap. Is it so?"

Ferdiad nodded. "The god took refuge with the Mother. That is the truth of it. But you're only a boy. How did you know?"

Pierrette then told them everything she knew about the Black Time, and myths that mutated, turning old gods into saints-thus feeding their unassimilable pagan essences, that the priests named Evil, to Satan, the Eater of Gods.

She told them about her master Anselm and his library, and how she had spent years reading his books and scrolls. "I learned about you Gaels from them," she said.

"You're not a day over twelve," Ferdiad protested. Indeed Piers, her male persona, seemed younger than Pierrette.

"Look within," she said ever so softly, and raised her eyes to his. Ferdiad's eyes widened. He drew back, as if the slight boy had become ... something else.

"What's going on?" Cerdos asked anxiously, looking from Pierrette to Ferdiad. "What did you see?"

"He's old," Ferdiad said. "And he's a woman."

"Now I know you're mad," Cerdos scoffed. "I always thought so."

"I don't know if I'm old or not," Pierrette mused. "I'm fifteen-or perhaps fifty-and yes, I'm a girl. But there's a long story behind what you saw in my eyes, Ferdiad. Do you want to hear it?"

"I'm a singer of tales. Need you ask?"

"Two thousand years ago," Pierrette began, "on an island far to the east of here, a great sorcerer sensed changes deep in the earth. He awoke from a nightmare of fires that burned even rock, destroying his island and all who lived there.

"The sorcerer Minho hurried about his island and set everything in order. He banished warriors, tax collectors and usurers, and invited craftsmen, philosophers, and other peaceful folk to join him there. Then he waited, while the fires and turmoil beneath his land grew.

"When the first wisps of smoke burst from the top of the mountain at the center of his realm, he uttered a spell such as the world had never heard ... and lifted his island from the world of time and circumstance.

"When men dared brave the roiling sea and the poisonous smoke that welled from it, they found his island ... gone."

"A volcano!" exclaimed Cerdos. I saw just such a smoking mountain in the south, on Sicilia."

"Shut up," said Ferdiad. "What happened to the sorcerer and his island?"

"The island appeared again, centuries later, in the gulf not far from Tiryns, in Greece. Some say that Heracles, who built Tiryns's great walls, learned the architect's trade from the sorcerer-king. I'm not so sure of that, because later the islands-actually, there were several, separated by canals and narrow passages-spent many years near the mouth of the River Baetis, and the city of Tartessos grew up under their influence. Since Heracles had to go to Tartessos to steal Geryon's cattle, the city had to be there already, I think.

"Tartessos?" asked Ferdiad.

"Your Bible calls it 'Tarshish.' It was once in Iberia, on the Atlantic coast." She shrugged. "The Isles' exact whereabouts don't matter. They were seen again further north, where Phoenecian Ys flourished in Armorica. By then, people were calling them 'The Fortunate Isles,' because wherever they was, the lands and peoples flourished."

"I know about the Fortunate Isles!" exclaimed Ferdiad. "Brendan the Bold visited them."

"Shut up!" said Cerdos. Then to Pierrette: "Finish your tale."

"Centuries passed, and again the sorcerer began having fearful dreams..."

"I knew it! The volcano..." Pierrette frowned at Cerdos. "Sorry. Go on."

"He dreamed of a new religion, Christianity, that would destroy all the old ways, that would consume all the magic that kept his kingdom safe, and him immortal. So he devised a plan to nip it in the bud. He sent my master, who was his best student, to subvert the promulgators of the nascent faith, to divide it into a thousand cults, like any others. But there is a certain inevitability to history, a pattern that resists being changed, like water flowing around a cobble tossed in a rivulet: there may be much splashing and foaming at that spot, but a few paces downstream, all seems much as it was before. Perhaps had Minho, the sorcerer king, attended to it himself, things would have been different, but he could not venture outside his great spell's influence, and Anselm, a lesser mage, failed completely.

"Now the Isles lie beyond mists of confusion, and can't easily be found. Anselm recreated his master's spell to bind time about his fortress home, and when I go there to learn and to read ancient works, I don't age." She shrugged again. "So I'm only fifteen-but I feel old, and I'm very well-educated."

Pierrette then explained what she had learned from Yan Oors and from the map she had made-and told them what she had experienced on the other side of the mountainous ridge to the north, from whence she had fled. "I feel like I've gone mad," she said. "Perhaps none of it was real. Perhaps you should put chains on me, and let the monks lock me in a cellar."

Ferdiad put a comforting hand on hers. "You're not mad," he said. "The veils that separate our world from ... another ... are sometimes thin. I know many tales of voyagers like yourself." He shuddered. Nonetheless, when I go home, I'll go by ship, the long way around. Though related to those Gauls, I prefer to sit the fence between Christian and pagan. I don't like fant?mes."

"I agree," said Cerdos. "Will the blight cross the pass in pursuit of you?"

Pierrette could not reassure him. She had thought to find out about changes in written words, and had discovered a changed world. She had wasted time, and did not know what she could, or should, do. Perhaps with all her stalling, it was now too late.

"Tomorrow we will make pilgrimage to the cave," Cerdos declared. "Perhaps ... someone ... there will help you."

But the cave had been home to Master Jock-to Lugh, a Gaulish god. Would she be jumping from the pot into the fire? She reassured herself that Ma, the goddess, had been here before men had conceived of the sky-god, out on the high plains. Would she still be there, in a shrine dedicated to Mary Magdalene?

She sought her pallet. Just before she fell asleep, she remembered what Ma had told her when she had been little-that she would meet Magdalen someday. Reassured, she fell into sleep, hoping that the world was not entirely mad, that she was not either, and that tomorrow would be that long-foreseen day.

Comments and conversation are welcome. I'll try to answer everyone who wants to talk.
Copyright 1999-2009, L. Warren Douglas Version 2.1, April 18, 2009

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