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By Robert Lyndon
Orbit Copyright © 2014 Robert Lyndon
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That morning a Norman cavalry patrol had captured a young Englishman foraging in the woods south of the River Tyne. After interrogating him, they decided he was an insurgent and hanged him on a high hill as a warning to the people in the valley below. The soldiers waited, hunched against the cold, until their victim's spasms stopped, and then they rode away. They were still in sight when the circling carrion birds flocked down and clustered on the corpse like vicious bats.
Towards evening a group of starving peasants crept up the hill and frightened off the birds. They cut down the corpse and laid it on the frozen ground. Eyes, tongue, nose and genitals were gone; its lipless mouth gaped in a silent scream. The men stood around it, billhooks in hand, exchanging neither looks nor words. At last one of them stepped forward, lifted up one of the dead man's arms, raised his blade and brought it down. The others joined in, hacking and sawing, while the crows and ravens skipped around them, squabbling for scraps.
The carrion birds erupted in raucous panic. The human scavengers looked up, frozen in acts of butchery, then rose with a gasp as a man came over the crest. He seemed to emerge from the earth, black against the raw February sky, a sword grasped in his hand. One of the scavengers shouted and the pack turned and ran. A woman dropped her booty, cried out and turned to retrieve it, but a companion grabbed her by the arm. She was still wailing, her face craned back, when he bundled her away.
The Frank watched them disappear, his breath smoking in the bitter air, then ran his sword back into its scabbard and dragged his skinny mule towards the gibbet. Even filthy and travel-worn, he was an intimidating figure – tall, with deep-set eyes and a jutting nose, unkempt hair coiling around a gaunt face, his cheekbones weathered to the colour of smoked eelskin.
His mule snorted as a crow trapped inside the corpse's ribcage thrashed free. He glanced at the mutilated body without much change of expression, then frowned. Ahead of him, pale in the twilight, lay the object that the woman had dropped. It seemed to be wrapped in cloth. He tethered the mule to the gibbet and walked over, stretched out one foot and turned the bundle over. He looked into the wizened face of a baby, only a few days old, its eyes tight-shut. His mouth pursed. The baby was alive.
He looked around. The carrion birds were beginning to settle again. There was nowhere to hide the baby. The birds would be swarming over it as soon as he left the summit. The merciful thing to do would be to end its suffering now, with one sword thrust. Even if its mother returned, the baby wouldn't survive the famine.
His eye fell on the gibbet. After a moment's indecision, he lifted the baby in his arms. At least it was well swaddled against the cold. He trudged back to his mule, opened a saddlepack and took out an empty sack. The baby gave a grizzling sound and its mouth moved in reflexive sucking gestures. He placed it in the sack, mounted his mule and tied the sack to the end of the hangman's rope, above the reach of wolves. It wouldn't keep the birds off for long, but he guessed that the mother would return once he'd left the hill.
He smiled a wintry smile. "Hanged before you're a week old. If you live, you might make a reputation for yourself."
The birds flared up again as another man shuffled onto the ridge. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the gibbet.
"Hurry up," cried the Frank. "It will be dark soon."
Watching the youth approach, the Frank shook his head. The Sicilian was a walking scarecrow. Another night without food or shelter might finish him off, but the only place they would find bed and board would be among the men who'd hanged the wretched Englishman.
The Sicilian reeled to a standstill, eyes dark and dull in his bloodless face. He stared at the ruined corpse and made a sound of disgust.
"Who did that?"
"Starving peasants," said the Frank, taking the mule's reins. "They were still here when I arrived. It's lucky it wasn't you who was leading the way."
The Sicilian's eyes skittered in all directions and settled on the sack.
The Frank ignored the question. "They won't have gone far. For all I know, they're lying in wait for us." He led the mule away. "Stay close unless you want to end up in a cooking pot."
Exhaustion rooted the Sicilian to the spot. "I hate this country," he muttered, so weary that he could only form thoughts by articulating them. "Hate it!"
A faint mewing made him lurch back in fright. He could have sworn that it came from the sack. He looked for the Frank and was alarmed to see his outline already sinking below the horizon. The sack mewed again. Birds fell out of the stone-dead sky, black tatters landing all around him. One of them hopped onto the corpse's skull, cocked an eye at him and crammed its head into the yawning maw. "Wait!" cried the Sicilian, wobbling over the grisly summit in pursuit of his master.
The Frank hurried into the dying light. The ground began to slope away and the outlines of distant hills came into view. Another few steps and he sank to his haunches, looking into a wide valley. Shadows flooded the river plain and he might not have spotted the castle if it hadn't been so new, its whitewashed timber keep still showing the wounds of the axe. It was tucked between the confluence of two tributaries, one flowing from the north, the other looping from the west. He traced the course of the river until it vanished into the darkness rising in the east. He rubbed his eyes and took another look at the castle. Norman without a doubt, laid out in a figure-of-eight, the keep perched on a motte within its own stockade, the hall and a scattering of smaller buildings occupying the lower enclosure. Not a bad position, he thought. Protected by rivers on two sides, each tributary spanned by an easily defended bridge.
His gaze lifted to another line of defence on the ridge a couple of miles behind the castle. In a lifetime of campaigning, he'd seen nothing like it – a wall punctuated by watchtowers marching straight across the landscape with no regard for natural obstacles. That must be the barrier the Romans had built to protect their northernmost frontier from the barbarians. And yes, against the darkness of oncoming night, the wintry hills beyond did have an end-of-the-world look.
A blur of smoke hung over the castle. He fancied he could see figures inching towards it from the surrounding fields. Not far downriver was a sizeable village, but the houses had a caved-in look and the outlying farmsteads were smudges of ash. Since crossing the Humber five days ago, the travellers hadn't passed a single occupied village. The harrying of the north, the dereliction was called – Norman revenge for an English and Danish uprising at York two winters ago. In the last of the light the Frank worked out that the way to the castle led through a wood.
The Sicilian flopped down beside him. "Have you found it?"
The Frank pointed.
The Sicilian peered into the gloom. The spark of excitement faded and his face crumpled in disappointment. "It's just a wooden tower."
"What did you expect – a marble palace with gilded spires?" The Frank pushed himself upright. "On your feet. It will be dark soon and there'll be no stars tonight."
The Sicilian stayed on the ground. "I don't think we should go down there."
"What do you mean?"
"It's too dangerous. We can hand over the documents to the bishop in Durham."
The Frank's jaw tightened. "I've brought you safe across Europe, yet now, within sight of our destination, after all the hardships I've endured, you want us to turn back?"
The Sicilian twisted his knuckles. "I never expected our journey to take so long. The Normans are practical in matters of succession. Our news may no longer be welcome."
"Welcome or not, it will snow tonight. Durham's a day's walk behind us. The castle's our only shelter."
All at once the carrion birds fell quiet. They rose in a flurry, circled once, then spiralled down towards the trees. When the ragged shapes had gone, there was a dragging silence.
"Here," the Frank said, thrusting a hunk of bread at the Sicilian.
The youth stared at it. "I thought all our food had gone."
"A soldier always keeps a reserve. Go on. Take it."
"But what about you?"
"I've already eaten my share."
The Sicilian crammed the bread into his mouth. The Frank walked away so that he wouldn't have to endure the sounds of someone else eating. When he turned back, the youth was sobbing.
"What's the matter now?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I've been nothing but a burden and a trial."
"Get on the mule," the Frank ordered, cutting off the Sicilian's protests. "It's not your comfort I'm worried about. I don't want to spend another night with a rock for a pillow."
By the time they reached the wood, the trees had become invisible. The Frank took hold of the mule's tail and let it find its own way. He stumbled over roots, his feet splintering icy puddles. The snow that had been threatening all day began to fall, thin as dust at first. His face and hands grew numb.
He, too, loathed this country – the foul weather, the surly resignation of its natives, the edgy swagger of their conquerors. He wrapped his cape around his head and retreated into a sleepwalking dream. He was walking through orchards, a vineyard, an herb garden drowsy with bees. He entered a villa, crossed a cool tiled floor into a chamber where vine clippings glowed in the hearth. His wife rose smiling from her needlework. His children plunged towards him, screaming with delight at his miraculous return.
Their destinies had crossed last autumn on St Bernard's way across the Alps. The Frank, travelling under the name of Vallon, was on foot, having sold his horse and armour in Lyon. Soon after starting his descent into Italy, he passed a party of pilgrims and merchants glancing anxiously back at storm clouds massing in the south. A shaft of sunlight picked out a herdsman's summer settlement by a gorge far down the valley. It would be as far as he'd get that night.
He'd covered less than half the distance when the clouds snuffed out the sun. The temperature plummeted. A wind that started as a faraway sigh struck him with a blast of hail. Chin nuzzled into his chest, he struggled against the storm. The hail turned to snow, day turned to night. He lost the path, tripped over rocks, floundered through drifts.
He reached flatter ground and caught a whiff of smoke. He must be downwind of the settlement, the gorge to his left. He continued more slowly, probing with his sword until a mass denser than darkness blocked his way. A hut half-drifted over. He groped round the walls and found the door on the lee side. He kicked it open and stumbled into a chamber choked with smoke.
A figure leaped up on the far side of a fire. "Please, don't harm us!"
Vallon made out a gangling youth with bolting eyes. In the gloom behind him another figure stirred in restless sleep. "Calm yourself," Vallon growled, sheathing his sword. He wedged the door shut, beat snow from his clothes and crouched by the flames.
"I crave your pardon," the young man stammered. "My nerves are stretched. This storm ..."
The figure in the corner muttered in a language Vallon didn't understand. The youth hurried back to him.
Vallon fed the fire with chips of dung and massaged the feeling back into his hands. He retired to the wall and gnawed a heel of bread. Draughts flustered a lamp in a niche above the pair in the corner. The man lying down wasn't sleeping. His chest wheezed like leaking bellows.
Vallon swigged some wine and winced. "Your companion's sick."
The young man's eyes were moist highlights. "My master's dying."
Vallon stopped chewing. "It's not the plague, is it?"
"No, sir. I suspect a cancer of the chest. My master's been ailing ever since we left Rome. This morning he was too weak to seat his mule. Our party had to leave us behind. My master insisted we go on, but then the storm caught us and our groom ran away."
Vallon spat out the sour wine and wandered over. No doubt of it, the old man would be rid of his cares before dawn. But what a life was written on that face – skin stretched sheer over flared cheekbones, the nose of a fastidious eagle, one dark, hooded eye, the other a puckered scar. And his garments glossed an exotic tale – silk robe fastened with ivory toggles, pantaloons tucked into kidskin boots, a cape of sable that must have cost more than the ring winking on his bony hand.
The dark eye found him. Thin wide lips parted. "You've come."
Vallon's neck prickled. The old man must imagine that the spectre of death had arrived to usher him through the last gate. "You're mistaken. I'm just a traveller sheltering from the storm."
The dying man absorbed this without contradiction. "A pilgrim walking to Jerusalem."
"I'm travelling to Constantinople to join the imperial guard. If I pass through Rome, I might light a candle at St Peter's."
"A soldier of fortune," the old man said. "Good, good." He muttered something in Greek that made the youth glance sharply at Vallon. Struggling for breath, the old man groped beneath his cape, drew out a soft leather binder and pressed it into his attendant's hand. The youth seemed reluctant to take it. The old man clawed at his arm and spoke with urgency. Again the youth glanced at Vallon before answering. Whatever response he made – some vow or pledge – it seemed to satisfy the dying man. His hand fell away. His eye closed.
"He's going," the youth murmured.
The old man's eye flicked open and fixed on Vallon. He whispered – a rustle like crumpled parchment relaxing. Then his stare travelled up to some region beyond sight. When Vallon looked down, the eye was already veiled.
Silence gathered like a mist.
"What did he say?"
"I'm not sure," the youth sobbed. "Something about the mystery of the rivers."
Vallon crossed himself. "Who was he?"
The youth snuffled. "Cosmas of Byzantium, also called Monophalmos, the 'One- Eyed.' "
"Philosopher, geographer and diplomat. The greatest explorer of our age. He's sailed up the Nile to the pyramid at Giza, explored the palace at Petra, read manuscripts from Pergamum given by Mark Antony to Queen Cleopatra. He's seen lapis lazuli mines in Persia, unicorn hunts in Arabia, clove and pepper plantations in India."
"You're a Greek, too."
"Yes, sir. From Syracuse in Sicily."
Fatigue quenched Vallon's curiosity. The fire was nearly out. He lay down on the dirt floor and wrapped his cloak about him. Sleep wouldn't come. The Sicilian was intoning a mass, the dirge merging with the droning wind.
Vallon hoisted himself on one elbow. "That's enough. Your master's at rest. Now let me take mine."
"I swore to keep him safe. And within a month, he's dead."
Vallon pulled his cloak over his head. "He is safe. Now go to sleep."
He skated in and out of nasty dreams. Surfacing from one hag-ridden doze, he saw the Sicilian crouched over the Greek, sliding the ring from his master's hand. He'd already removed the fine fur cloak. Vallon sat up.
Their eyes met. The Sicilian carried the cape across and arranged it over Vallon's shoulders. Vallon said nothing. The Sicilian went back to his corner and stretched out with a groan. Vallon placed his sword upright on the ground and rested his chin on the pommel. He stared ahead, blinking like an owl, each blink a memory, each blink slower than the last until his eyes stayed closed and he fell asleep to the roar of the storm.
He woke to the dripping of water and mysterious muffled thuds. Daylight filtered through chinks in the walls. A mouse scurried from his side, where the Sicilian had laid white bread, cheese, some figs and a leather flask. Vallon took the meal to the door and stepped into scorching sunshine. Streams of meltwater braided the cliffs. Footprints ploughed a blue furrow towards animal pens. A slab of snow flopped from an overhang. Vallon squinted up at the pass, half- wondering if the party had reached the summit refuge. During his halt there, a monk had shown him an ice chamber stacked with the corpses of travellers withered in the postures in which they'd been dug from the snow. Vallon tilted the flask and swallowed tart red wine. A glow spread through him. When he'd eaten, he cleaned his teeth with a twig and rinsed out his mouth.
Only a spear's throw from the hut, the gorge plunged into shadows. He went to the brink, loosened his breeches and pissed, aware that if his path last night had strayed by an arm's span, he would now be a mash of blood and bones too deep in the earth even for vultures to find.
Back inside the hut he lit the lamp with flint and steel and gathered his possessions. The Greek lay like an effigy, hands folded on his chest.
Excerpted from Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon. Copyright © 2014 Robert Lyndon. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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