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The beast followed the river, staying well back from its edge. Mysterious and hiding all manner of scaly creatures within, the river was the center of her world. Her life-all life-was tied to it, and she knew that to venture too far from it, too deep under the layers of leaves where the shadows forever ruled, was to risk captivity and death. The shadows were the domain of men.
The river was a place of great light this morning. The sun streamed down and made the surface shimmer and brought out all the amazing colors that rose above and beyond the thick forest. So very wide at this point, she could not see to the other side of the river. Birds skimmed low over the swirling current; she liked to watch the ones with wings the shade of wet moss. Some had yellow patches on their crests, as if the sun had sketched on them. The birds called to her sometimes, as they were doing now, the ones wearing pieces of sunlight mimicking her own shrill voice.
The beast thirsted, but waited until she reached a spot where a stream fed into the great river to drink her fill. She trusted this thin water, as she could see to its bottom and could stand in it without worry. It flowed around her massive three-toed feet and made her happy. On a bright day like this, the beast could admire her reflection in the stream. She resembled both monkey and sloth, front legs longer, back sloping, and all of her covered with thick, matted fur, the skin beneath tough like an alligator's. Her snout was long and beautiful and filled with tiny sharp teeth that could easily puncture flesh. But the beast ate fruit and leaves only. She was taller than a man when standing on her hind legs, a pose used to frighten those who ventured to the bank to fish. Sometimes she would rip apart a tree to add to her ferocious image, exude a ghastly stench, and cause the fishermen to run away in panic. The beast preferred to be alone.
At times, though, she would tolerate the friendly dawn-colored fish that could at night become men- or rather something like men. They would sit on the bank and sing, and she relished the melody. And sometimes she would get quite close to a river creature that looked like a child but was not. It had backward feet, and the beast had watched this creature lead hunters to their doom.
The beast had not seen the backward one in some time, and wondered if perhaps the creature was dead. She had, however, in these recent days, seen more and more men come to the river to fish and hunt. They had tried to catch her. Others of her kind had been caught in the past. The foul men had tugged her sisters through the forest. She'd followed them once. The men kept her kind in little villages and had forever stolen their freedom, making them carry things upon their broad backs.
She worried that someday enough men would find her and that they would not fear her stench and shriek, and would tug her to one of their villages deep under the layers of leaves where the shadows always ruled. She brushed the troubling thoughts away and continued to follow the river, listening to the music of the birds and admiring the bright colors the great forest gave her this fine morning.
Roux felt old today.
He was a tall fellow of moderate affluence, white hair draped past his shoulders, neatly trimmed beard edging just below his Adam's apple, gray suit well-tailored and light blue shirt nicely pressed. A retired farmer perhaps, likely in his late sixties or early seventies, who'd come to visit the big city. His skin had that look, like a worn piece of leather weathered by the sun and the wind, his fingers calloused. He was, in truth, more than five centuries old, and his vocation had been swords rather than plow shears. As he stared at the rising spires of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, he swore he could feel every one of those years pressing down on his shoulders.
There were three spires: Tour Saint-Roman; Tour de Buerre-or the Butter Tower, so named because the wealthy paid for it in exchange for being allowed to eat butter during Lent; and Tour Lanterne-this the most recent, having been finished in 1876 and containing a carillon of fifty-six bells. Roux had watched the workers that year put the finishing touches on the seven-hundred-and-forty-ton work of art.
One entrance illustrated the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. The main door depicted Jesus' family tree. The other entrance was dedicated to St. Stephen, considered the first martyr.
No tribute to St. Joan here, and she had been-in Roux's estimation-the most noble and sacrificing of all of Christendom's martyrs. But she would not have approved of the ostentatious pomp this cathedral offered. Joan had been a rather humble soul. Like the years, she weighed heavy on him this day-May 9.
The wind gusted and he wished he'd worn a proper coat. The temperature was in the low fifties, quite cooler than usual for this month. A quartet of young American women brushed past him, chattering and pointing, one of them taking pictures, one of them oohing and ahhing at the massive cathedral. Tourists. There were plenty of them in such a picturesque setting as Rouen.
"City of a Hundred Spires" the city was nicknamed and for good reason. The Gothic architecture was an added bonus.
Roux had walked these streets when the city was greater. It had been second only to Paris until the 18th century. It was a place of wealth and power then because of its impressive wool industry. Later, the Normans named it their capital. William the Conquerer had called it home. Roux had, too, for a brief time.
Roux had been back numerous times since then, the last in the late 1980s when a storm toppled one of the cathedral's pinnacles. The choir stalls and vault were damaged, too. He thought the cathedral's interior, with its vibrant stained glass, was even more impressive than the outside, and that was where he'd intended to pray this morning.
He changed his mind.
Instead, he took slow, measured steps around the side of the Cathédrale. At the back of it, he faced the Palais de l'Archevêché-the Archbishop's Palace, Joan had been tried at the palace in 1431, and "rehabilitated" posthumously there twenty five years later.
She had been captured, accused of heresy, but Roux knew it was all politics-condemning her was merely an attempt to undermine her king. The trial began in January and took a winding course before the unfortunate, but never-in-doubt end. May 9 stuck in Roux's mind because he'd been in the Castle of Rouen trying to visit her that day, but had been denied. He'd a plan to break her out. That day she'd been threatened with torture lest she decry the "voices" and yield to the city's clergy. Roux had made it as far as the prison tower and was close enough to hear her screams.
"Je refuse! Je désavouerai tout ce que vous me ferez dire!" I refuse! I will retract anything you make me say!
So strong of mind and body, Joan was. There were many words of hers that he would never forget.
Sometimes he came to Rouen in May to pay his respects to Joan, though sometimes he purposely stayed away because the memories were too thick here. One of Joan's knights, Roux had failed her. Unable to save her, he witnessed her horrific burning. He'd shared a special connection with the Maid of Orléans.
And now he had a different connection-with Annja Creed, the woman who'd inexplicably inherited Joan's sword. Today he was here for Annja, not Joan. He'd thought-sensed-that Annja was here. And he'd sensed serious trouble brewing.
But something was wrong with his thinking. She was nowhere in Rouen, or in France for that matter, and the special connection they shared-and that somehow usually let him know where she was-at this moment, had become a frayed thread that stretched to where?
Roux's dreams the past several days had been troubling. Annja's and Joan's faces had been merging, one woman interposed over the next, and Annja's form becoming more indistinct with each passing night. Merely dreams? Or some sort of omen?
He wasn't responsible for Annja; he had his own life filled with the simple pleasures of young women and fast cars, and only occasional complexities. But he was tied to Annja somehow, and maybe his future was linked to hers. Roux enjoyed his immortality, but once in a while genuine worry crossed his thoughts. After Joan's death, her sword had shattered and seemed lost to the ages before it mysteriously reformed and landed in the grip of Annja Creed. If Annja died, would Roux age like a normal man? He wasn't obliged to look out for her, but perhaps she was responsible for his continued existence.
Where was she?
He walked the streets, alternately musing about Joan and Annja, eventually arriving at Vieux-Marché, where Joan had been tied to a pillar and burned to death. He sat on a bench and tipped his face up to the sun, reached in his pocket and pulled out a phone. Roux didn't call Annja often; he didn't want her to think he was checking on her or meddling. Today, it was to ease his soul.
The dreams, and this city, and the fragmented, troublesome memories .
No answer in her apartment or on her cell phone. He used the number for her satellite phone, his concern building with each ring.
"Annja, where are you?"
There was a pause, and in the background he heard men talking, something about a boat. A bell rang-a clunky sound, not musical like a church bell. Horns honked, taxis maybe. Laughter, music.
He had difficulty hearing her for the ruckus. "Did you say Bethlehem?"
"No." She spoke louder to compensate for all the background noise. "Though yes, I suppose. Belem. The city's name literally means Bethlehem. What's this about, Roux?"
He paused. "I am in Rouen, and I was thinking of you."
"Listen, we landed about a half hour ago, and we're waiting for a van. I'm in the country for three weeks," she said. "So when you're thinking about me, think about little biting insects. I've been told to expect a lot of them. We're filming a series for-"
"-Chasing History's Monsters." Roux thought it an alternately interesting and silly television program. He watched it avidly, though he did not admit that to Annja.
"I'm pretty busy here, Roux. We have to get to our boat."
"O Seguro. It's Portuguese, means the dependable boat. And my crew is depending on me to keep us on schedule. So do you need something? Is anything wrong or- Ned, don't leave your bag just sitting there. Ned! Sorry, Roux. Didn't mean to shout in your ear."
"Nothing's wrong. I was just thinking of you, that's all. Be well, Annja." He ended the call.
She sounded well. Her voice was strong.
But the connection he felt, the thread that somehow let him know where she was he still couldn't feel it.
Roux shivered, and not from the brisk wind. There were four places open for lunch in his line of sight. He selected la Couronne, built in 1345 and functioning ever since that date as a restaurant; it was perhaps France's oldest. Being one of the first patrons of the day, he was able to sit on the main floor near the window, where he could at the same time admire the view and the room's old wood paneling and array of photographs displaying its famous guest.
He made pleasant small talk with the waitress, saying he'd just arrived in Rouen this morning and hadn't bothered with breakfast. Hungry, Roux ordered a salad, the Dover sole, Calvados soufflé for dessert, and a glass of Bordeaux, only a small part of him registering how delicious it all was.
He used his phone to look up "Belém," discovering that it was a large port city in Brazil with a five-hour time difference. It had been just shy of 8:00 a.m. there when he'd reached Annja.
He ordered a strong cup of coffee, paid the waitress, and asked if she could recommend a good travel agency, as he'd prefer to deal with a person rather than making reservations with his phone. She gave him an address, 12 Rue De La Champmesle, a woman in the hotel there handled bookings.
"I make my vacations with her. She finds the best prices. But why do you want to leave our beautiful city so soon? You said you just got here." The waitress tsk-tsked. "We have so much to see."
"I've seen everything," Roux returned. More times than he cared to count. "And I need to be leaving as soon as possible." For Brazil.