AFTER MY HUSBAND’S FUNERAL, I closed the gate and wandered back to our salt-rimed townhouse, through a throng of youngsters and their bitter songs of Jerusalem. My guardsman trailed at a distance.St. Mary’s overlooked the harbor’s rotted halls. Shadows stretched over the glittering wash, where gulls turned above a crowd of galleys and cogs.
A few of the so-called children lurked under that damned fresco, freshly daubed on the alehouse opposite my home
“Shoo them off, Aremio,” I said, and he did, invoking the militia and the family and all that is holy. My homeland’s sour accent crept into my voice.
Though dusk fell, the painted adventurer’s contours were clear, violence in her kohled eyes, in lips stained with berries and sap. Aremio, misery in his sun-baked face, slipped on the fish-oiled cobblestones. Today, he lost more than I.
“Do you see what it is?” I said. “A promise, a trick, to bring them in there, where they can be taken and sold. They’ve been here all of a day.”
Secco touches were ruined where young hands had scraped at painted gems. I remembered a dark and faded icon in the church of my own youth, a window into another world.
“Old enough to look after themselves,” said Aremio, who knew of my past.
“There’s nothing in adventure,” I said, approaching the painted wall. “Just death’s touch and those who escape it.”
“We’ve seen that today, yes.”
He speaks of his old master, my husband, the casket returned from Outremer. But that hardly matters now.
Only hours ago, the foreign youths swarmed the beach, their knuckles white in prayer. They implored the waters to part and lead them to the Holy land. Waves licked their filthy coats. Then they turned and spread back into the city.
What dreams linger among that crowd now? It’s too sad to bear, the thought of so many stolen by that promise. I know such promises, silenced in far-off lands, by the rope’s final creak. I’ve made them myself.
The woman depicted on that fresco could not exist were it not for me and what I have done. Perhaps the alehouse owner knew I might see it, so he chose to make it a woman.
Inside our home, I lit two candles at each corner of my husband’s oak desk, one for each of us. Before me was a letter.
Every fall for fifteen years I’d received an identical invitation from a certain old man, and I ignored them all. A wax seal reflected a tiny image of the candle’s flame. This time, however, the seal was not his own.
The old man was, therefore, dying. This must be an invitation to observe him in extremis, sent by his patron.
Stinking tallow smoke coiled toward the window.
“By the march count, trusty and well-beloved,
That it pleases the LORD, who changes tears to laughter, sorrow to joy, lament to applause, grief to mirth, when we behold the decrees of nature, you are requested to attend the bedside of Sir M. H. DEE.”
I stopped, though my gaze passed over plans for vigil, mass and committal, signed this ninth day before calends of August, by the count himself, amen.
From one man's funeral to another? My hand trembled, and I permitted myself a weak smile. The old man had finally discovered what would draw me to him.
I recalled the smell of damp leaves on a day after fall’s first and heaviest rainfall, many years before the children came to Genoa, and in a place far removed. On a German church door, pinned over lawsuits and old bulls, was a bounty.
Though I couldn’t read, a young squire chanted the text over and over, for as long as someone in the bustle paid to hear it: the story of a vile knight and his compound errors, holed up in his castle on the empire’s very edge. Smuggling, murder, an unruly retinue, apocryphal rites--it went on and on.
His name was Marlow, his acres were in Abodriten lands beyond the north march, and the special attention of indulgence was to fall on the victor in addition to countless marks (by the authority of all the saints.)
After a week of fast and hungry travel, my stolen coin all but gone, I crested a hill to find a camp near his decrepit fortress. It overlooked a gray sea. Fog coiled from the water and lingered over inky ponds.
Campfires glowed orange in the mist, and I could see a contingent of soldiers preparing for an assault, a catapult having already half-demolished the ramparts. Through the vapors I noticed the Lion prince’s banner atop a tent, and I made my way toward it. Foolish, I was, to wander in such places, but I had already lost that which is most valuable. My boots squeaked on the slick grass as I slid downhill.
Swaddled, I watched the poor locals drift and grin around that muddy camp of Germans, aching to avenge themselves on their unclean lord.
I passed a pair of pagan brutes, crude axes strapped to their backs. Filthy hair clung to their massive shoulders.
Sat on a log, one pulled a beautiful and heavy bible from a satchel, and balanced it on one knee. I had seen only a few such books in all my life. His companion saw it, uttered an enraged blabber, and tried to slap it out of his hand.
Laughter spilled from a coterie of nearby soldiers, leaning against their giant shields.
That was the first time I saw the old man, Dee. Silent in the tent’s darkness, he sat near the flap on a tiny stool, an island of cleanliness amid the filth of the encampment. He gazed at the tower, as if at a marvelous icon.
With him in the shadows lingered an odd band of foreigners, short and pale, all clad in green. They whispered at each other and bowed at all who came near, a meek discipline in their movements. Marlow had clearly amassed a substantial roster of enemies.
“Myself, you ask?” Dee said to one of them. “I seek something, that shall assist me in my duties as magister. Or it will, at least, resolve a distraction, by God’s grace.”
My memory fails here: I remember a shrill whistle floating in on the wind, then another, and a cry of pain. I saw someone slip in the muck, an orange cap sliding from his head as he fell. He writhed and scrabbled at an arrow stuck in his shoulder.
“Tela!” one of the soldiers shouted, as another shrieking volley rained in. “Up! Up!” He yelled in German, then in the universal tongue, and his men stood their pavises. As the foreigners spilled into the open and returned fire, I crouched behind one of the tentpoles, mud already dried on my face.
I stared at Dee’s muddy boots as he ambled through the flap.
“My dear,” he peered down at me. “This is no place for a young lady. Even one from Denmark.”
His eyes met mine for but a moment, then he walked on past, and peered up at the castle. Unarmed, he was calm as meadow hay. Two soldiers rushed to shield him. I wondered what Marlow possessed that this strange old man sought.
The defenders were gone by the time we forced the doors, which opened to reveal a thicket of weeds filling the yard within. Masonry from the curtain wall lay cracked and tumbled throughout. I heard the sea.
The two brutes stared up at the ruin, as if into the eyes of a worm, but the younger one shook his head, then said something in their angry dialect to his bigger companion, who still clutched that great bible.
“He is first a smuggler, and only lastly a knight. He hides below,” Dee said. The captain of Prince Henri’s contingent muttered about caves. Dee shook his head, leaned into him.
“No. Directly. Through the keep.”
The hem of his yellow robe soaked by the fog-wet grass, he strode on.
Had a score of years passed since then? Perhaps. The march count’s invitation to Dee's bedside in my bag, I retured north from warmer climes, falling each night into a restless sleep, my mouth open and dry. On waking, my first thought was always the hope that I would avoid the misfortune of finding him still alive.
Two weeks, it took, just to pass through the mountains, and day after day I gazed upon the alpine fall.
Another evening at a mountain inn. I declined my meal. That night, I dreamed of my earliest memory, of panic, lost on a foggy night, my father finding me and lifting me from the snow. I still remember harvesting turnips with him. And mother, showing me how to beat copper.
Finally, we passed into the forests, into the Holy Empire’s heartlands. My guards chattered among themselves and called to those we passed. Aremio sat in silence at the wagon’s rein.
I arrived after Dee’s passage. He had whispered nonsense for weeks, I was told, then gave way without warning. As if a penumbral vanguard of my presence closed in on him and throttled him in his sleep.
As we headed through the barbican, someone in the street recognized me. I wanted my desk. I wanted the ledger’s even demands.
The foreigner, the brute, the old man–was it not enough to know their greed, to which I remained, always, an unhappy accomplice? And yet, I had to be there, to see him committed to the soil, to free myself from the memory.
I remember the heat and the torchlight, the close voices, mercenaries peering about, faces sepulchral by fire. Dee darted about, seen in brief moments at the end of a hallway, or through a doorway two rooms hence. The looting effort was in full swing, with all the nervous hurry of a battle too-easily won.
“Where are his men?” a man would say. “Under sail already, no doubt,” came the reply. “All the more for us.”
A cold blot of panic whispered at me that I did not remember the way out.
I remember stairs down, excitement, laughter and the crash of pottery, slammed doors, wine urns spilled and smashed. Waves of musty cloacal air, tinged with salt.
So the basement dropped to cellars, and then the cellars wound down to stores, and another tight stairwell led to a damp row of cells, each fitted with rusted tools and shackles. Mutters bounced from damp walls
A yell. I saw the back of Dee’s robes disappear down the stairs, followed by the shine of torches on the barbarians’ skin and their matted hair.
Then a second call, this time a shriek. A frisson of terror tightened my chest. The memories are clouded: were we already in the caves by then? I remember the wonder of it, where torchlight served only to make the shadows darker. Or maybe still on the stairs. Yes, the stairs: they came at us from both directions, shielded by the bodies of their first victims.
I tripped amid the crush, then someone fell upon me. We were forced down into the cavern, only to be surrounded by a wall of stunted, hooded attackers, devils in the gloom. I stumbled over a soldier, the fabric of his tunic black with blood, his eyes empty.
The standard-bearer tried to light his pitch and hurl it before him. It sloshed uselessly to the ground, and fire played over its surface for bare moments.
Lord, I saw them come at me, I saw their savage eyes. With a pleasure my mother had always cultivated in me, I drew my sword and took mens’ work for myself.
Four of us remain. We live in perpetuity as the fabled carriers of Celestine’s orders for the east.
As preparations for Dee’s funeral commenced, I learned that the quiet little foreigner was already in town with King Otto’s court, at which he serves as an ambassador for his distant kin.
The brute, prince of cold lands, arrived only a day before me. He was already engaged in negotiations with Otto’s men, who sought to seal in marriage his long-ago Christianization: apparently, the brute had taken prisoner a priest sent to convert his still-pagan fellows. He traveled with an entourage of savages.
Otto himself was forced to this corner of his realm by the special chaos of imminent war, which in turn forced me to visit and pay my respects, and to speak for my husband’s family.
“Why, have you not heard the legend of the first King Otto and a danish lady?” he said, oblivious to all that I had told him. His habit, of sliding one foot against the opposite ankle, I found curiously unsettling. “And here we have a meeting of another Otto and another northerner. Will you fight for us, lady of the Danes, or build a wall of earth and hide?”
The keep here was small, but clad in marble within, draped in Welf arms without. The polished rock was cold and silent, a reminder of older and greater kingdoms.
Later, hidden in an old inn, I posted my guards to the door and cowered from the street. I declined every visitor; it was two days until I heard the funeral bells, and they still clanged when I slid off my horse and inhaled the night’s foul air.
A crowd billowed near the church doors, the evening filled with a curious loud sobriety. I could no longer see well in the dark.
An ostiary scurried about, unable to organize the throng. My guards grew impatient and pushed the crowd aside to make way for me.
“Not too quickly,” I reined them in, my eye on the little foreigner, who had evidently arrived first and remained ahead of us. Then he was gone, into the building. From within, a portative organ produced a mysterious fuga. Eyes turned my way.
It was only luck, so many years earlier, that saw us emerge into the light beside one another, and then into the adoration of a nation and its children. Even now, I am still the bearer of a dead Emperor’s arms, and an honored sister to the knights of the hospital of St. John. An odd mystic promulgation of the Teutonic Knights names me.
Of course, no honors had come from the far north, from my homeland. Nothing, not a word.
But that was my choice.
The brute shook blood from his axe. He turned to us and stared.
Bodies lay throughout the cavern. A mercenary rifled through his dead leader’s satchel and muttered an uncouth occitan curse.
The foreign brigade, their jerkins filthy with blood, huddled in a circle. They whispered in unison, their eyes downcast. Prayers, perhaps, still words from their distant mien. Salt spray hung in the air.
Dee stood, his back to all, and peered into a dark cave. Piled with casual abandon, plunder lay scattered over the rock.
Where was the brute’s companion? I saw no sign of the man or his great bible. The survivor lurched over bodies to catch up with Dee. Crude graffiti covered every available surface. Ahead of us, a grey light invaded from unseen outlets to the sea.
A smuggler’s cave, tucked under an old fort. Just as in my father’s tall stories.
A mercenary hunted amid the treasure, leaving no corpse unturned. “Finders keepers,” he said, over and over, his voice quivering with fear and shock. Laden, he finally climbed back up the stairway and was gone.
I picked through the place. If I could get just some of its contents–and myself–to safety, It would take years to squander it. Soon weighed down, I headed for the stairs.
Standing before them, I paused a while and listened to the waves crash at the cavern’s mouth, a hiss reminiscent of copper immersed in the water of the forge.
I turned and walked instead after the old man.
Dee’s funeral. The little foreigner still was in the narthex as my men opened my way in. Our entourages pressed together and merged.
Trapped. He lifted an arm, offered it to me.
“William Ruse, quaestor and secretary of the Order of St. Aelfred,” he said, smiling, as if I might have forgotten. He took my hand and lifted it, as if to plant a kiss. But it hovered, my fingers in his palm. “You forgot your shield today, Lady.”
Enraged, I returned the smile and clutched his robe so as to avoid more substantial contact. The thrill of those around us, how I hated it.
“We delight them,” he said, as if in reply to my thoughts.
“Don’t speak,” I said. “Only happenstance conspires to bring us together.”
Tendrils of incense spun about. Ruse opened his mouth to say something, but temptation fell to disappointed silence. He no longer looked at me.
Before us, our guards combined forces to clear our path. We drifted into the nave.
I couldn’t help myself.
“You appear to have been well imbued by our journeys of times past,” I said.
“That mere happenstance of ours?” his smile reappeared.
“It was all such a long time ago, and still, here you are.”
“Ah, my lady, you didn’t know? We came for duty, my company, after all. Though virtue seemed a part of it, too. Marlow’s men burned my home to the ground when I was quite young, too young to second-guess my order’s call to arms. Thank you for asking.”
“Deception suits you, Ruse.”
“There’s a lot I can confess after so long. Perhaps I should have gone home, back then, because no wealth came of our little crusade, not for me. Maybe for our pagan comrade?”
“A Christian now. I understand he will make a magnificent appearance. No wealth, little man? Such coin as Marlow maintained, it surely couldn’t all be spent in seventeen years.”
“On drink, perhaps. Nineteen years, my lady. A lifetime for a soldier.”
His gaze remained fixed ahead, at the coffin. Nineteen years. Dee was ancient even then.
I glanced at the altar and the long casket before it. The chorus rose as the pipes fell silent. I wondered if our guards could hear our hushed exchange.
“Your German is flawless,” I said.
“Enough” he said, then leaned in. “Yes, I permitted myself, over the years, the imagination of a bond. A fool I certainly am. Not a great bond, as these people imagine, but a gentle and unspoken thing. You see, I responded only once to Dee’s letters, and in--”
“Nothing joins us.”
“--and in his reply he said we inhabited the kingdom of loss. Whatever he meant, it was a curse on me and I fell to it, thinking it glorious.”
“I can promise you this,” I whispered, without malice. “With him gone, we’ll all be forgotten.”
We were before the coffin. A deacon interceded and offered to lead him to his place. Ruse looked back at me, a dark look in his eyes.
“It’s been a pleasure to see you again, Lady. I do hope you don’t feel cheated.”
He swept to his seat, foremost in the northern arm of the trancept. My guards and I were led to the southern side. Ruse and I faced one another and stared at opposite sides of the shut casket.
At the cavern’s farthest reach, damp walls closed in on two great dragons’ heads, carved with inimitable craftsmanship from the rocks either side of a heavy oak door.
One of the foreigners ran a finger over one of the chiseled beaks. Dee approached, his jaw slack with wonder.
A shrill scrape came from the door, an unnoticed hatch. Then Dee shot his gaze back to the carved head, and his sallow face tightened with shock. He fell back, as if punched.
Gouts of flame poured from the carved heads. Heat filled the darkness.
I stumbled backwards and flailed at it all with my shield. The back of my head cracked against the ground. Pain sang, and I pulled myself around and heard my sword clatter to the rock. Blood trickled behind my ear, down my neck. Flame spilled across the rock and fulminated over my shins.
Just as soon as it touched me, it retreated and the blast of light fell to total darkness, the dragons’ roar replaced by screams and retching.
Black-ringed welts rose on my knees, but even as I hissed in agony, another wave of noise and light flooded toward me. I lifted my arm to shield myself, but I had already dropped my buckler yards away, where it still rolled like a giant bowl, its leather straps ablaze. Smoke caught in my lungs.
Screams pealed, but not from my throat. Dizzy, my shoulder was wet with blood. Stains of fire faded as I slipped into unconscioussness, like yellow blooms passing into shadow.
I awoke to fumes. Light shone from inside the now-open doorway. A lanky figure shambled in front of it, to cast a shadow into the cavern before him.
Dee advanced toward the room. He raised a hand and coughed. Viscous fire still drooled from the siphons, and I peeled my head from the rock.
“Naphtha, lime and old bones,” Dee said, without a hint of anger or fear.
“Not Greek!” said the figure in the room, and I knew it was Marlow himself. “My own formula!”
Dee entered the room and closed the door behind him. “As we agreed,” he called back to the brute. “I will be but a moment.”
The horrendous smell of burned flesh and leather filled my nostrils.
“What happened?” I asked. I pulled myself up.
“You are a fool to come here, girl,” the brute muttered, his German poor. He offered a hand.
I blinked. There was only he and I left, lost in a sea of corpses. Angry, I started toward the door.
“Wait,” a thin voice piped, and I saw a third man, one of the foreigners, half-concealed behind a dragon’s head. He clutched a bow to his chest and smiled at me, his eyes sad and strange. How long had I been unconscious?
A crash came from behind the doors, then a shout of pain, and a curse. Glass smashed. Wood split. Muffled and incomprehensible shouts.
“We have to get in there…” I said, smoke in my nostrils.
“He said to follow only if silence falls and he does not emerge.”
“What?” rage filled me. “The old man, to get the spoils for himself? I see none of his men alive. Why accept his orders?”
The foreigner’s lips parted in an incredulous, mirthless smile.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Willia..”
I silenced him with am angry shake of my head. I stepped over the bodies and puddles of liquid fire to retrive my sword and shield.
The brute smiled at me and lumbered past. His boot slammed into the door.
After mass, the brute finally arrived.
Fur billowed from his neck, a vast shaggy cape of the most perfect white foxfur, clasped at his neck with bronze. He reached out, ran calloused fingers over the coffin. He frowned. He wore a circlet, not a crown.
“For glory, the battle fought,” his herald said. I narrowed my eyes and blocked out the reverberations. “He fought for honor, for his brother, the destined King, slain by the vile Sir Marlow’s agents even as the Lord’s hammers descended into his lair.”
The herald’s story fell away, somehow, to a hum beneath my thoughts. So, that other barbarian, his companion, the carrier of that immense bible, was his brother.
The sound of my name snapped me back to attention. The herald pointed at me, bowed at me. He turned to Ruse.
“And finally, by the efforts of he who would see the glory of the holy empire and speak for his distant principality, to bring an embassy to them in the cause of such victories as unite Christian princes.”
The legend was refreshed. Briefly, I thought of what Ruse had said about duty. What of those young crusaders in Genoa? Was their journey, too, not also a kind of greed?
The brute looked at me. He stared, for a moment longer than was comfortable, and then turned from Dee’s casket and swaggered down the nave.
His entourage drawn into his wake, the brute drew an extravagant cross on his chest as only converted pagans might. As the deacon resumed the service, a man in a red doublet approached the brute, and, rebuffed by his retainers, pursued him out of the chamber. I looked back to the coffin as another prayer began.
Ruse’s head drooped. His eyes were clouded.
They lit balsam and candles, then hauled Dee off to be buried. My men and I escaped as the crowd followed the casket into the night. That same red-clad man, grey haired and wincing, appeared before me as I paced toward my horse.
“I beg your ear, lady,” he said, then sidled a little too close. “You were named. If it pleases you to attend, and it imperative to my master that you do so, ah, to come following the rite.”
“Named? By whom? Come where?”
“To the disposition of my master’s estate. Sir Dee’s estate. Did my correspondence not reach you? My name’s Glodeg,” he crossed his ankles and ducked. “Euderus Glodeg. His papers mark me as executor, so the task falls to me to dispose of the matters at hand.”
I said nothing, sick with dread at the pointlessness of it all.
“I have no interest in his quest for power, or in the retorts of his laboratory,” I said. “Nor for the useless results of his alchemical investigations.”
And yet, thinking about it, I found that this was no longer the case.
Marlow fell on his back. His head bobbed weirdly as he tried to rise and look down at his wounds. He twisted to look at Dee, but the gesture was too much, and his arm fell to his side. He propped himself up on his elbows, then let out a crazed sigh.
Shards of a curious orb lay near him, triangles of shattered yellow glass spattered with his blood.
“Lucky we came,” I said, to Dee, who wheezed in a corner, his protests a rasping babble. Exhilaration fired in every fiber of my body. The brute saved Dee from a killing blow; the foreigner’s arrow cut Marlow down, and I destroyed the sorcerer’s orb–for that is what Marlow truly was–and shattered his spell.
My gaze drifted from Marlow back to Dee. “You fought alone and you lost.”
“It is all broken, alas,” Marlow said. “Broken like the bodies of those you brought to me. Indeed, that was a heroic effort.”
Marlow saw the jewels and the chains and the purses hung from my belt, taken from his treasures in the cave. He grinned, and strength filled his eyes. His lips parted to show red-stained teeth, and a staccato peal of laughter rose, each wail of it announced by a wet slap of blood clicking at the back of his throat.
My sword hovered above my head, and my arm ached, ready to deliver the silencer.
As his energy failed again, I saw that another blow would be pointless: his eyelids fluttered, his skin was white, his injuries were mortal.
“So much endeavor, for so much loss,” Marlow said up at me, into me. “I’ve never seen such bravery.”
I expected more laughter but he simply stared, impassively.
“Mock me all you like,” I said. He smiled and closed his eyes. I gazed at him as his breaths became shorter and shorter. I thought he was dead, but then he glanced over at Dee. I looked to the foreigner, whose focus did not waver, watching, waiting for him to go. I shut my eyes for a while and listened to the old man’s rasps of fatigue.
When I opened them, Marlow was dead.
In Dee’s rotten and cramped townhouse, Euderus Glodeg took us into a long study. By the time I ducked in, he was already behind a curved oak desk, rifling through a stack of parchment piled on one corner. A long, thin box lay on the desk.
“I’ll be quick, so you must leave soon. His patrons will be here to collect the books.”
His face was shadowed and lined by the light from a mottled glass window. Everything from the Soliloquies to Solinus were stacked on the countless shelves that sufficed for walls.
“I will leave when I choose,” said the brute, uneasy without his horde.
“You will choose to stay long enough, I hope,” Glodeg shuffled to the corner at our left. In it stood a huge easel, which held a huge board covered in a muslin tarp.
“Qaestor Ruse of the order of St. Aelfred,” Euderus said, his voice rich with ceremony. “My master bequeathed to you a painting.”
I saw a skeptical smile turn the corners of the little foreigner’s lips, a deep, bored calm in his eyes. Euderus shuffled over to the easel, and stood behind it.
Ruse turned to the brute and I, then smiled and raised his eyebrows. He grasped a corner of the veil and looked up at the executor, as if asking permission. Euderus nodded.
Ruse tugged at it and the veil tumbled loose. His first utterance trailed to mute silence.
Beyond him, lit by lamplight, lay a composition of the most subtle workmanship. Not tempera, as with a fresco, it shone with an odd and glossy character I had never seen. It was inordinately detailed, and yet the scene contained no narrative or obvious allegory. It portrayed a simple village, dark homes on an oaken slope. People stood in the forest and tended to indefinite tasks. They worked, built, repaired, talked, half-lost in the painted valley’s mists.
Ruse touched the curious work. He looked up, deep into the scene, transfixed by it.
“Duty,” he said. “That’s what they said, duty.”
He turned to stare at Glodeg.
“Before he died,” Glodeg said, “he said that if you could not bring yourself to go home, he could at least bring it to you.”
“I wanted to kill him,” Ruse said, and it took a few moments before I saw that he spoke of Marlow. “I wanted to finish him, but couldn’t. We waited until he died. I knew killing him would not restore what he took. But I always thought I would be able to go home, if only to the ashes.”
Glodeg nodded, as if expecting every word.
Ruse summoned his men, who maneuvered the painting downstairs with the utmost care, then slunk from the room after it.
“Revenge,” Euderus grinned at us with a conspiratorial glint in the eye, when Ruse was gone. “That's the truth of it. Concealed in duty’s fold, and concealing something else entirely. You both know how it is to leave home behind, no? A home of one kind or another.”
Euderus glanced at the brute, then paced back to the desk. I heard the wooden scrape of a drawer, and he pulled out a huge leather-bound book.
“Prince Thorvald, son of Signjotr. Master Dee bequeathed to you an illuminated Bible.”
Euderus held it out.
A shudder leapt from the brute’s jaw down his neck. He tilted his head down and to the side. He reached out and grabbed the book.
Staring at its tatty cover, he frowned and scrutinized its authenticity. His brow contorted into a knot and he held it tight, like a shield or block of wood. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing emerged. His eyes darted around but did not meet ours.
A deep breath drew strength into his frame. Then opened it up. The instant he saw the text within, he held it to his chest as grief took him completely.
For a long while he sobbed. Eventually, he turned and left, then cast back a hand, like a salute, at the room, and perhaps at Dee.
Agape, I stared at the space where he had stood.
“Merlin Haius Dee had a way of knowing people, of seeing the mazes of people’s minds,” Glodeg said, then took a deep breath.
“Lady Thyra de Oria. My master bequeathed to you a broken scepter.”
He opened the box. Marlow’s orb. It was as I last saw it, under a fort overlooking the balticum, smashed into pieces. The blood was long-dry, a dark flaking skin.
The barbarian’s footsteps thumped on the staircase.
“What is it, then?” I asked. “This thing, the power he sought? And why give it to me?”
Glodeg’s look of paternal mischief vanished. A long moment passed.
“Power?” he seemed mystified. “What do you think it is? He told me nothing of it, and I thought its meaning would be clear to you.”
My jaw tightened. After another uneasy silence, he picked up a quill, tapped the goose-feather on the desk.
“Well, that is all, my Lady,” he said. “Allow me to accompany you out.”
“That is all?”
“I’m sorry, if it means little to you. There is nothing more.”
I snorted and rolled it back onto the desk. Glodeg watched it come to rest in front of him. He looked up at me from under grey brows, the calm look gone from his eyes.
“It’s odd to think,” he said, “that each of you returned from that place with what you wanted, but left so much behind there. My master, he went to such consuming efforts to retrieve this for you … I cannot understand any of this, but I assure you, he did not find what he sought. He did not bring anything back.”
“For me?” I laughed, my voice almost a shout. I cast my mind back to when the four of us had emerged from the keep. Dee carried the orb’s remains then, did he not? Did he not?
“Of course he didn’t get what he wanted!” I said. “Useless as it might now be, that thing was worth a little to the old man. I saw it with my own eyes. And now he plays games from the grave?”
Glodeg frowned and settled back into his chair.
“You think it a sorcerer’s tool?” he said. “Has Italy not civilized you past your ancestors’ customs? Listen. Ruse called vengeance duty and it fell around him like a cage. Thorvald called love honor, then left both dead in that cavern,” he shook his head, the smile back on his lips. “Love too is a cage. And you?”
I gazed at the broken scepter, and let my fingertips brush it. Glass and copper, like an expensive lantern. I turned and slunk away, toward the bookshelves.
“I told myself it was for Christ. But it was for fortune, and for fame.” I said. “I was wrong about them both, I know. I was here just now. I saw.”
“Avarice? Greed? To place your crown on your fellows’ heads and hate them for wearing it?”
A quiet discomfort gathered in the back of my mind, inscrutable, like the voice of a lost friend in the palace of sleep.
“To think of them as fools,” I nodded. “So I could take what I took.”
For long moments, I felt his gaze on me. I heard the chair creak beneath him. Then, he laughed.
“A good story, with a convincing twist,” Glodeg said. “And you believe it too. But Dee, he was wealthy enough, and if that were all, I think he might have shamed you with it in his will. Didn’t he give the others what they wanted? Then why not you? No, I think your story is false.”
“Toad,” I said. “As if he would know.”
“Your story is false,” he said. “You differ from the others only in that you lie again and again, to yourself. Have you not heard of the children of this country, so many of them, gone south to conquer the holy land? To conquer it, they say, with love. But what is of value, lady? What they search for, or what they leave behind?”
I held myself still before him, above him, pulling my coat over my shoulders. On the table before him, the final yellow shards of glass clung to the scepter’s head. They were dull, like the windows of an old church.
“I’ve no use for this broken toy.”
Glodeg shrugged, stood and walked to the window, to gaze over Brandenburg’s shivering treetops.
“Truly, then, that’s all,” he said.
“What about the old man?” I said. “As the Lord judges all of us, our concerns have been judged, clearly, in this room. But you didn’t tell me what he went there for. How are we, then, to judge him?”
Set against the light from outside, he turned his head a little, an odd pout on his lips. He seemed to see elsewhere, into another world.
“For Marlow. He went to find his son.”
I stared at the back of his head, at the hands clasped behind his back. I stared for a long time at his boots and listened to my heartbeat, to the blood in my ears. Then I turned and left.
Dee’s funeral behind me, I led the train, my guardsmen behind me. Aremio again took the wagon. We headed south, toward invading Ghibelline armies, back to the warmth of the inner sea.
The gates opened for us, and for no others, and then were closed behind us. Hours passed in silence after the city’s sounds faded.
Was it Merlin Dee’s magic that filled my mind’s eye with sights from afar? I dreamed of Qaestor Ruse. In my reverie, he crested a hill to see the ruins of his village, and wandered its blackened eaves. Echoes of earlier times assailed him. He closed his eyes, drew his bow and shot at memories, at casks of spoiled ale on the stock, his companions’ ghosts with him one final time.
These thoughts are Dee’s lies, his veins of wit. Sorcery, it must be.
I dreamed of the day I buried my husband. Heading out from Portofino, south of town, we sailed to Genoa’s harbor just as seven thousand German youths filled its beaches, an incredible spectacle. In my mind’s eye I saw him again, that boy, their saint, pray in the sand for the sea to part, to reveal a road to the holy land. I saw again the stretched tendons of his neck, the rictus grin of despair, the whispered begging. Again and again he called to the ocean, until his followers dragged him to it and held his head beneath the water. I saw him thrash, a justice watched impassively by the old priests and inverts that traveled with the starving crowd of children.
Murmuring waves clawed up the sand and pulled the body out to sea, taking him, perhaps, to The City.
I dreamed of Prince Thorvald, returned east, enthroned before his captive friar, who pleaded for his life at the foot of the great man’s wooden throne. What use might a barbarian have for such a man? I know, I know. So I dreamed of the captive teaching Thorvald the words in a book, which will be read by no man until the barbarian himself learns to read, just as his brother once had.
And I dreamed of a girl, in a dark hallway, occluded by a cloak, edging past the pall of light cast from an open door. She crept toward the night air and snuck past the gap as best she could. In the bright room, a man and woman sat at a table and ate turnip stew. They tried to ignore her, pretended not to see her pass. The woman was better at it, bitter creases at the corners of her lips, but my father, how his eyes danced around, looking everywhere except to the hallway where I hovered. And yet, without a word, on I went.
I awoke to the fire of a German ale-hall, quiet in the fell hours. Tears streamed down my cheeks.
The guard on duty dozed against the chimney. The next morning, I rode with the sun to my right.
“Lady, where are you going?” Aremio called.
“North. To Denmark.”
There, the house was gone, so I went to the graveyard, my boots punching through frost, and forced open the gate.
My parents were not difficult to find, buried a yard apart in frozen Jutland soil. Good flint marked their places of rest.
All that I felt came from the silent earth. I was with them again.
Did they hear the stories? Did they hear of how others followed me, to adventure and despair, inexorably to the sea, like ghosts born in my wake?
In my parents’ house it must have been quiet, as it is quiet now. I imagined myself kissing their headstones, but it was too cold, and my lips would stick to the rock.
Echoes of their voices, of the first memories and the last, welcomed me home. For I am also in Jerusalem, and I know they are proud.