PART II Chapter 8
"No more patients left," Nicoris sighed, going to the center of the old chapel and turning around slowly under the drum-dome, her arms extended, reclaiming the floor where all the pallets had been spread out. She offered a tired smile. "And we only lost ten of them." It was six days since the Huns had attacked, and the sound of sawing and hammering was filling the little valley as the residents struggled to prepare for another, larger onslaught.
"So far," Sanctu-Germainios appended. "Two of them are still marginal. Oios' fever is too high, and I fear Drinus may not recover from his burns." He moved the last pallet into the rear of the old chapel and stacked it with the rest of them.
"Then why did you move them to the dormitory? Why not keep them here, where you could watch them?" Her hands were on her hips and her posture revealed her exasperation.
"Because their people want to care for them; they want to see for themselves that their comrades and kin are given adequate attention, which they fear they will not have among other wounded," he said quietly. "And I am a foreigner, for all that I have some abilities to treat sickness and injury."
"They distrust you, you mean? Though you're their regional guardian? You've saved many lives, haven't you?" Nicoris started toward him, her movements deliberate, provocative.
"All regional guardians are foreigners, to keep them in service to Roma, and unallied with anyone in their region; the people of the region are not expected to trust them," he said in the same steady voice. "Saving lives was the bargain I have struck with the people of Apulum Inferior, to keep their good opinion of me, foreigner that I am."
"They must not understand how fortunate they are," she said after considering what he said.
"Which they are entitled to do," he said, going on in a deeper tone, "It is no longer in our hands; for a while our work is done."
"That will mean we'll be alone tonight."
"So it would seem," he agreed, his demeanor less melancholy. "Then I'll wait until nightfall, but no longer." She tossed her head, and met his gaze squarely.
His smile was fleeting, fading as quickly as it had appeared. "Will you open the door, Nicoris, so the chapel can be refreshed?"
"Main or side?" She was slightly more than an arm's-length in front of him now, tempting him with her nearness.
"Both would be best, to circulate the air." He nodded to the stack of rags he had used to clean the floor. "I'll take those out to the bonfire. I think we can sacrifice the basket."
Nicoris made a face. "Good. They all stink."
"That they do; warmer weather makes them worse," said Sanctu-Germainios , stepping back from her before going to pick up the large basket filled with filthy rags. He hefted the basket to his shoulder and went out through the side-door toward the bonfire laid in the central court of the monastery.
Luitpald and Hredus had been given the task of laying the bonfire for this night and were going about their work steadily; they were adding charred sections of logs to the fire, the last of the damage done to the walls by burning Hunnic arrows. Looking up as Sanctu-Germainios approached, Hredus swore comprehensively. "We need nothing of your tainted rags."
"Fire will purge the sickness from them, and from this place," Sanctu-Germainios answered unperturbedly.
"He knows what's needed to be rid of infection, messenger," said Luitpald staunchly, touching a half-healed patch of skin on his upper arm. "Here's proof." He took the basket and laid it on the bonfire. "Our friend from Drobetae hasn't had more need of your abilities since what he required when he arrived, which is fortunate for him."
Hredus shrugged in a display of indifference. "Whatever you did stopped the problem." He heaved a resigned sigh. "If burning the basket is what's required - " He glanced at the small, semi-circular scar on his wrist where Sanctu-Germainios had rid him of the animalcules causing his skin to darken and itch.
The afternoon was breezy, wiping away the morning's warmth; the bonfire would be welcome once the sun was down. Snow still capped some of the distant peaks, but around this valley, the thaw was almost complete.
"Some of the refugees are talking about leaving before the Huns return. They intend to be away in four days," said Luitpald, a speculative note in his remark.
"In spite of what happened to Enlitus Brevios and his companions - either a reckless or brave decision, depending on what the Huns do," Sanctu-Germainios countered.
"In spite of that," said Luitpald, a pugnacious thrust to his chin. "They plan to slip past the Huns at night."
"Tell me, Dom, do you think the Huns will strike again?" Hredus asked.
"I think it very likely," said Sanctu-Germainios.
"After they lost their leader?" Hredus persisted.
"Because they lost their leader." Sanctu-Germainios put a slight emphasis on because, then stood still, considered what more to say.
"And there will be more of them?"
"That is what I would expect," Sanctu-Germainios answered carefully.
"But none of the sentries have seen them, not even scouts," Luitpald protested.
Sanctu-Germainios regarded the young man. "They don't need scouts. They know where this valley is, and how we are situated. Their attack was intended to find out how prepared we are, not to break through."
"Why do you say that?" Luitpald wondered aloud.
"We outnumbered them ten to one. Not even the Huns take on prolonged battles against such odds," said Sanctu-Germainios. "They came to test us. Now that they have their measure, they will suit their force to that."
"But they rely on scouts to report on how things stand here, whatever their test may have revealed," said Hredus. "Anything else would be foolhardy. The Huns are audacious, not rash. They always scout where they plan to attack."
"There are no scouts," Sanctu-Germainios repeated patiently, giving voice to what he had realized had to be the case a few days ago. "The Huns have no scouts on the mountains around us because they have a spy inside these walls. They were too well-informed about the conditions here to have it otherwise."
"You mean there are Huns here?"
"Of course not," said Sanctu-Germainios quickly, continuing more steadily, "There is at least one person working for them, perhaps more."
"But we fought them off," Luitpald protested.
"They chose to retreat, having essayed our fortifications, and forced us to expend arrows and spears and bags of rocks and chains; we will have to work diligently to replace what we lost," said Sanctu-Germainios .
"There is work being done, Dom," Luitpald said. "We'll be ready if they return."
"They also learned something from their spy, I believe."
"Oh, yes. The spy." Hredus laughed cynically. "And what do Neves and Bernardius and Priam Corydon think of your theory, Sanctu-Germainios ?"
"They have not told me," Sanctu-Germainios replied obliquely, having said nothing on the matter to any of those men.
"Perhaps the spy is outside, with the hermits?" Luitpald suggested, nodding toward the crest. "Monachos Anatolios has sought to encourage the Huns, hasn't he?"
One of the women approached, carrying a bundle of small branches and sticks. "For kindling," she said as she gave the bundle to Hredus.
"Good of you," said Hredus, shoving the bundle deep into the heart of the logs and debris. "God will reward you," he told her as he was required to do, then paid no more attention to her as Mangueinic came up to the bonfire with a sack of pine-cones slung around his shoulder.
"Why wouldn't it be Monachos Anatolios?" Luitpald whispered to Hredus. "He says that we lack faith because we fight them."
"Spying is for worldly men, not monks," scoffed Hredus.
"If that's so, it's got to be a soldier or a refugee," said Luitpald, and shook his head, uncomfortable with the implication of what he was saying.
"These will help get the fire going," Mangueinic said, tugging the strap over his head.
Luitpald swung round to face Mangueinic. "Do you think there's a spy for the Huns within these walls?"
Since Enlitus Brevios' departure, Mangueinic had resumed the position of leader of the Watchman, so he gave himself a little time to weigh the question before he answered. "It's certainly possible," he said at last. "Why do you ask?"
Hredus pointed at Sanctu-Germainios. "He thinks there is." Sanctu-Germainios studied the three men. "I would like to discover I am wrong. It would be comforting to think that the Huns had underestimated our fortifications and our numbers, and that they have no current intelligence on this place," he said, and turned away. Little as he wanted to admit it, he was tired and hungry, which were starting to impair his judgment. He could hear the three men arguing behind him, and he hoped he had not added to the tension within the monastery's walls. As he entered the old chapel, he smelled the odor of roasted duck and saw Nicoris starting up the fire, a wooden platter resting on her arm.
"Perigrinos' woman brought this to us, in thanks for saving her man's life." She displayed the duck proudly.
"Generous of her, but unnecessary, at least not for me," he said, and saw Nicoris squirm in disapproval. Realizing he had offended her, he went to her, laying his small hand on her shoulder. "I am sorry. I am preoccupied. You deserve far more than duck for all you have done. Food is a conscientious gesture, and I know you are tired of venison stew. Enjoy your meal."
Nicoris offered him a mollifying smile. "You haven't even had the venison stew; you ask for none of this." She pointed to the duck. "There is nothing for you on that platter, is there? You think I don't notice, but I do. You retire to your sleeping alcove and you claim you dine in private, but I have never seen you so much as take a bite of bread or a sip of wine, and there are no crumbs or dishes left over," she said succinctly, blowing on the spark she had struck when he returned from the bonfire.
"I do not drink wine," he said quietly.
"I know that: that's what I'm saying," she responded with asperity. "I want you to know I've been aware of how tirelessly you've been working. What is your secret?" Her pale eyes seemed to turn darker as she realized she had gone too far; she changed her tone.
"You're exhausted. Why not rest for a while now you have the chance? I'll wake you if anyone needs you."
"That is a kind proposition; thank you, I will." He stretched, feeling his shoulders tighten, then release as he twisted to loosen his muscles, his black silken pallium shining with every movement. "I will be rested at the end of the first quarter of the night." Walking to his sleeping alcove, he decided he would remove his thick-soled peri and leather femoralia but leave on the pallium. Once he had taken off his boots and leggings, he put them in his nearest clothes- chest, and climbed onto his narrow, hard bed, slipped under the coverlet, and lay back, enjoying the aroma of roast duck as he sank into the stupor that passed for sleep among those of his kind.
He awoke precipitously some time later, his breath returning in a gasp; he smelled the bonfire's smoke and realized the old chapel was lit not with sunset but fire and oil-lamps.
"Oh, good," said Nicoris, "you're awake." She wriggled into position next to him, clinging to him to keep from falling off the bed that was hardly wider than a coffin; she wore a pale linen palla cut short, and her hair was loose.
"So are you, it would seem." He looked into her face, the darkness having little impact on his vision. "How was the duck?"
"Delicious," Nicoris said, adjusting her body along his. "I've longed to lie with you since the Huns came, for sympathy as much as satisfaction. And you," she added more briskly, "you must want to lie with me for what you require; I saw that you took nothing from those brought to you for help. You could have, and none the wiser. But you didn't."
"Not now, no, I would not. I might have done, long ago: but no more." Memories tweaked at him, of being turned loose on a battlefield to finish off the Egyptian wounded for the High Priests of his captors; they had thought of him as a demon, keeping him caged except when there were dying to be disposed of; there had been the oubliette where he had been kept in darkness, given a terrified sacrifice at the full moon. Chagrin pressed through him afresh as visions of his long years of slavery in Nineveh and Babylon rose in his mind.
From outside came a chorus of shouts and the sound of a scuffle, followed by Mangueinic's stentorian order for the fighting to stop.
"What's wrong?" Nicoris asked, feeling something of his dismay and paying no attention to what was going on around the bonfire.
"I was recalling distant days," he said, "in distant lands."
"How distant?" she persisted. "You tell me you're an exile, have been a student in Egypt, and have lived in Roma, which a man might do in a lifetime, of course, but then you say that you have a business in Constantinople and that you have been to the Empire of Silk, and you claim that you're older than you appear to be." She faltered, then asked the question that had been haunting her for many days. "How much older?"
Wry amusement and despair warred within him; his answer came from this turmoil: "Aeons."
Nicoris wedged her arm along his shoulder. "More than a century?"
He chuckled. "Much more."
"More than a millennium?" There was so much disbelief in her voice that he cracked a single laugh.
"More than two millennia," he said.
She stared, trying to read his expression in the darkness. "Really?"
The silence stretched out between them, thin and strong as a spider-web. Finally Nicoris gathered up her courage once more. "How many years have you been alive, Dom?"
He answered her truthfully. "Thirty-three."
She gave him a half-playful, half-angry slap, perplexity puckering her brows and turning down the corners of her mouth. "You just said you've been alive for more than two millennia."
"No, Nicoris, I did not," he corrected her gently, confining her hand in his own and fixing his compelling gaze on her silvery eyes. "I said I am more than two thousand years old."
"But - "
"The enemies of my people and my family killed me when I was thirty-three," he said remotely, "but they did not know how to do it, and I rose after they - "
"Rose," she repeated with incredulity. "Like the Christians' God - "
"Not quite," he said dryly. "Not. Quite."
"Then what?" Aggravation gave her demand an edge. "What are you keeping to yourself? What could be more incredible than what I've heard already? You tell me amazing things and I believe them, or I want to. But if I sum them up, you would have to be more than a century old certainly, and I have doubts. You are no stripling, but you are full of vigor and your strength is greater than most of the people here realize, and there are no signs of great age upon you. Your skin is both smooth and leathery, but your travels could account for that, not your years. Yet you say it is more than two millennia since you were born." She interrupted herself, asking impishly, "I have got that right, haven't I? You were born."
"I was - at the dark of the year, in these mountains, some distance to the east, more than twenty-five centuries ago." He paused. "So now you have my secret."
If she understood what he was implying, she gave no sign of it. "How did it happen, that you ... lived so long?"
Concealing a sigh of disappointment at her continued reserve, he said, "When I was thirteen, I was initiated into the priesthood of our people, all of whom were undead." He fingered a stray tendril of her hair, musing on the recollections that flooded his mind. "My father called himself a King, but he was more a warlord, and as such he maintained a chain of fortresses to protect his lands; until the mercenaries of the Hittites came he controlled a large part of the eastern hook of the Carpathians."
"Carpi, or Daci?" she asked.
"Neither. Nor Goth, nor Gepid. They were the Erastna; you have heard nothing of them, for the name of my people is all but forgotten in these mountains. They left long ago, routed by enemies from the east. Some went south into Anatolia and some went west into Italia; none remained here." This admission troubled him more than it had in five centuries, and he decided that this was because he was so close to his native earth he could feel its pull.
Perplexed, she pulled on his ear. "You're alive, Dom. You can't deny that."
"I am undead: not quite the same thing."
"Because you rose?" She stared at him, incredulous. "Only you, of all your people?"
"Yes," he said quietly.
The enormity of his acknowledgment bore in on her: quite suddenly she moved atop him and gave him an impulsive, wet, enthusiastic kiss and wrapped her arms around his neck, her legs straddling his hips. "I don't know how you stand it," she said when she came up for air.
"Stand what?" he asked, bemused.
"The loneliness." She regarded him narrowly. "I have lost my family, and ..." She stopped herself, then resumed speaking. "Sometimes it is unbearable to remember them. I have no knowledge of what became of my sisters and brother; our father may have sold them, if they lived. Not knowing is almost worse than being an orphan. But you - you have lost so much more: everything is gone."
"The earth remains," he said pensively, aware that some of what she was telling him was untrue.
"So much the worse, I'd think; all the world is a graveyard," she said, propping her head on her hands, her elbows flanking his ears.
"Not for those of my blood. We are bound to the earth, and it sustains us, as you will learn if you decide to become one of our number. The earth is as nourishing as blood is," he said, feeling the strength of it from the chest underneath them through the thin mattress. "We are creatures of the earth and we draw our endurance from it. Separate us from our native earth, and our ... durability goes with it."
"If that is what sustains you - the earth - then I want to know about the blood: how can both of them nurture you?" she said, her breath coming more quickly. "What do you gain from the blood?"
"Life," he said.
"Truly? You don't need much of it." Her skeptical observation was punctuated by a kiss to his nose.
"No, not if it is ..." he said, faltering as he tried to explain, "Apodictically given."
"What do you mean by that?"
He took a long, ruminative breath. "Blood is more than blood for me, and those of my kind: it is the totality of the person whose it is, the most undeniable substance of personal uniqueness. If in taking blood there is genuine intimacy, when something of each passes to the other, my needs in terms of quantity are quite small; it is the whole person that sustains me, not the palmful of blood. If there is pleasure but no touching beyond dreams and flesh, then I require a little more - not much more, perhaps half again as much as what knowing closeness compels - So be nourished. If there is nothing but anguish and dread, then I need more, but then it is a hunger for poison, and if I succumb to it, blood taken in agony passes that pain to me and blights my soul."
Nicoris stared at him, fascinated. "Do I nourish you?"
"You do," he told her, smiling up at her. "The whole of you." He hoped again that she would reveal what she was striving to hide.
"Do you want sustenance now, Dom?" She was teasing him with her nearness, deliberately leaning down to kiss his throat; she offered nothing more of herself.
"Yes," he said. "But there are a few things I have to tell you before we continue."
"What things?" she asked, annoyed at any delay.
"I warned you that there was a risk in lying with me more than five times, and this is the fifth time for us." He could see curiosity and irritation in her face; he touched the sharp crease between her brows. "Let me explain, Nicoris, for both our sakes."
She relented. "All right - but don't take too long."
"As you wish." He paused to order his thoughts. "This is the last time we may touch without that part of me that has passed to you reaching a point that when you die, you, too, will rise and be undead, as I am."
"What do you mean?" she asked, laughing breathlessly.
His dark eyes were enigmatic, his voice musical. "I mean that you will become one of my blood. You will live as I live, be what I am."
"Undead." When she remained silent, he went on, "Those of my blood also sustain themselves through the most profound touching, through the communion of making love."
"We've done that already," she said, dismissing his concerns. "But it will not continue after you die," he said somberly.
Her eyes glinted with dawning outrage. "Why not? Do you not love those who are like you?"
He could feel the tension in her body; he took a little time to answer. "With those of my blood there is always a bond, and it endures until the True Death."
"And what is that: the True Death?" she demanded.
"It is the end of our life. Even we die, in the fullness of time."
"But you've died already," she protested.
"Yes, but not fatally." He began to stroke her back, easing the tautness from her muscles. "One day, the True Death will come, as it comes to everyone, and all things." He waited again for her to speak. "Then you can die?"
"Most certainly; all vampires can."
The word made her flinch. "Don't say that."
"Say what - vampire?" He gave a single, sad chuckle. "What word would you prefer I use?"
Her aggravation was confined to a sniff. "If you must call yourself that, I suppose you must," she allowed, then kissed him again, this time with turbulent passion; as their kiss grew more intense, she reached around behind her to grab his hand and pull it to her breast, panting a little as the kiss ended. "None of that matters right now - what matters is that you love me."
"I do love you," he said, feeling her rapid pulse and mounting desire flood through her.
"Then show me," she said, and pressed her mouth to his again.
This kiss was more ardent as it lengthened, deepened, became more complex; Nicoris pressed herself into his hand, moaning as she awakened to the first quivers of rapture. "You know what gives me pleasure, Dom."
He moved, still holding her, so that they were lying side by side, with only space for his hand between them. "Slowly, Nicoris. There is no cause to rush."
"But it has been many days, and I - "
His hand between them worked down to raise her palla, lifting it gradually from her knees to her hips, finding the soft inner folds at the meeting of her powerful thighs. There he lingered, exploring the recesses, persuading her body to release its secrets to him.
After a time, she became more languorous, except for an occasional frisson of excitement. "Are you going to ..."
"All in good time." He eased her palla farther up her body so that most of it was crumpled under her arms, revealing her breasts; he slid down her body to tongue her nipples while his hand quested for the core of her.
Her fulfillment, when it came, came quickly, coiling tightly like the skein on a ballista, then releasing in pulsing flourishes that were accompanied by little cries, like the calls of birds, her hand caught in the loose waves of his hair as the last of her spasms encompassed her. Finally she sighed and lay back, quivering in the glorious aftermath of their rapture; she clung to him, caressing his face, kissing his fingers, whispering endearments to him in the language of the Huns.
Text of a dispatch to Metropolitan Evangelos in Constantinople from Praetor Custodis Mauritzius Corvo at Narona, Province of Il- lyricum, written in Imperial Latin in fixed ink on sanded linen, carried by the Imperial bireme Princeps Gloriae, and delivered fifteen days after it was written.
To the most reverend Metropolitan Evangelos of the Emperor Theodosios at the City of Constantine, Praetor Mauritzius Corvo, resident at Narona in the Province of Illyricum, on this, the twenty-ninth day of April in the 439th Year of Salvation: Ave.
I have recently received a request from one Patras Methodos of your city that is of so startling a nature that I am compelled to bring it to your attention, for it appears to me that in his zeal, Patras Methodos has overstepped his mandate to the detriment of his office, to wit: he has commanded all records of the Eclipse Trading Company operating in this port as well as many others, with accounting of all monies transferred to and from that company's treasury for the last ten years; he indicates that he has made similar demands of factors for the company in all cities allied to the Roman Empires, East and West, along with official tax records, to be sure that there has been no attempt to defraud the government, nor to conceal smuggling or other wrong-doing.
I am familiar with this company, and its factor here, Pollux Savinus, who has been factor for twelve years and is a man of impeccable probity - I could wish that many another merchants' factors were as upright as this man. To bring his character into question is offensive to anyone who knows him, and an insult to the company for which he works.
The company itself is an exemplary one. I have only once met its owner, Dom Feranescus Rakoczy Sanctu-Germainios, who called upon me when he was returning to his post as regional guardian at Apulum Inferior in the former Province of Dacia, where presently he has been engaged, so I am informed, in battling the barbarian Huns, which is a service to Roma, East and West. To call his character into question is unthinkable.
All of this is by way of saying that it appears to me that Patras Methodos has exceeded his authority and has earned at least a reprimand, and the assignment to other cases than this one, for clearly he has exercised poor judgment and abused his position. There is no wrong-doing at Eclipse Trading Company, so the detention of any of its personnel - and Patras Methodos informs me that there has been such a detention - dishonors the laudable conduct of this company, its owner, its staff, and its employees.
Most gratefully, and commending my information to your good consideration
Praetor Custodis at Narona Province of Illyricum
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