Authors: Thomas Harlan
The Greek woman raised her arms and her face, pale and regal, was revealed as the purple silk veil fell away. Deep-blue eyes flickered in the dimness of the narrow room. A mass of raven hair cascaded down over her pale shoulders. The smokes of the crevice rose up around her as she stood in supplication. Far away, behind her, the low beat of a drum echoed in the sun-baked little plaza in front of the temple. She waited, patient and calm.
Finally, as the irregular drumming settled into her blood and she grew light-headed in the haze of bitter-flavored smoke, a figure stirred in the darkness beyond the glow of the brazier. Strands of long white hair gleamed. Withered fingers brushed against the lip of the corroded bronze tripod. A face appeared in the smoke, and the queen barely managed to keep from flinching back. Unlike the gaudy display at Siwa, here there was no grand chorus of priests in robes of gold and pearl, no vaulting hallway of stupendous granite monoliths, only a dark narrow room in a tiny building on a steeply slanted Grecian hillside. But at Siwa, when the oracle spoke, there had been no stomach-tightening fear.
Here the Sybil was ancient and wizened, her eyes empty of all save a sullen red echo of the flames now leaping in the pit below. The mouth of the crone moved, but no sound emerged. Yet the air trembled and the queen, to her utter horror, felt words come unbidden to her mind, forming themselves pure and whole in her thought. She flinched and staggered back, her hands now clawing at the air in a fruitless attempt to stop the flood of images. She cried out in despair. The empty face faded back into the darkness beyond the tripod and the crevice. The fire sputtered and suddenly died.
The Queen lay, weeping in bitter rage, on the uneven flagstones as her guardsmen entered the chamber to see what had befallen her. The vision had been all that she desired, and more.
A boy walked in darkness, his head outlined against the sky by the dim radiance of the River of Milk. His skinny legs were barely covered by a short kilt of rough cotton homespun. He scrambled to the crest of the dune. Beyond it the western waste spread before him cold and silver in the moonlight. A chill wind, fresh with the bitter scent of the desert, ruffled his shirt and blew back the long braids from his face. Breathing deep, he felt his heart fill with the silence. He smiled, broad and wide, in the darkness. Laughing, he spread his arms and spun, letting the huge vault of heaven rotate above him. The great moon, a dazzling white, filled the sky. The river of stars, undimmed by clouds, coursed above him, the Zodiac forming in its eddies and currents.
He sighed deep and laughed again. He sprinted along the ridge, feeling his muscles surge and thrust as he hurtled forward. Gaining speed, he lengthened his stride and kicked off hard as he reached the curling lip of the dune. For a moment, the wind rushing past, he was suspended in the starry dark. His long braids lashed back as he fell through deep shadow.
The water was a slapping shock as he struck the surface. He plunged through broiling murk and felt his feet strike against the sandy bottom. Surging upward, he breached, throwing his head back. The stars glittered down through the arching palms, and Dwyrin rolled over and stroked easily to the reed-strewn shore. Gripping a low branch, he pulled himself from the inlet of the Father Nile. He squeezed muddy water from his braids and coiled them at his shoulder. His tunic, sodden and caught with long trails of watercress, he stripped off. Cold wind brushed over him but he did not feel it.
Pushing through the tall cane break at the edge of the inlet, he looked for a moment out across the broad surface of the Nile. Near a half mile of open water, running silent under the moon, to the far bank. There he could pick out the lights of the village, dim and yellow in the night. His right hand checked absently to see if the oranges were still secure in his cord bag. They were and he took to the trail leading south along the margin of the river.
Beyond the narrow strip of fields and palms, stones and boulders rose from a long tongue of hills that arrowed out of the waste into the Nile. Here, where the river had long ago curved about an outcropping, men of the Old Kingdom had raised a siege of pillars and great monoliths. Dwyrin clambered up through the debris that marked the fallen northern wall of the temple. A looming shape hung over him, ancient face blurred by the desert wind. Swinging over the massive stone forearm, Dwyrin squeezed through a small space beneath the fallen statue. Within the ancient temple, long rows of pillars arched above him. The wide stone passages between them were littered with blown brush and sand. Dwyrin picked his way to the great platform that fronted the temple. From it three great seated figures stared north, down the Nile, to the distant delta and their realm of old.
At the center reigned the bearded king, his arms crossed upon his chest, broken symbols of divinity and rule held in massive sandstone hands. His eyes were dark as he looked to the north and the havens of the sea. To his left sat the languid cat-queen, his patroness, her face still and silent in an ancient smile. One great pointed ear was sheared off, showing dark-grained stone beneath the smooth carving.
Her, Dwyrin avoided, for her long hands were tipped with claws and she always seemed cool and aloof. Instead, he turned to the rightmost statue, that of the mightily thewed man with the head of a hawk. He climbed up, over the pleats of the old god's kilt, and sat in the broad curving lap, his legs swinging over the edge. Beneath him the Nile gurgled quietly.
He sat and peeled his oranges, one by one, and waited for the return of Ra from the underworld. He ate them all, juices staining his fingers and lips. They were tart, and sharply sweet.
Dwyrin reached the edge of the school grounds with his breath coming in long ragged gasps. His sandals, tied around his neck by their thongs, bounced against his back. He vaulted the low fence bordering the vegetable plots without breaking stride and rounded the corner into the stableyard. Distantly, over the whitewashed rooftops of the school, he could hear the morning chanting of the monks. Ra was only just over the horizon, but he had lingered too long at the old temple, skipping broken pieces of shale from the platform into the dark green-brown waters. The stable boys looked up in amusement as he ran across the hard-packed mud of the yard to the rear garden gate.
Sprinting to the wall, he leapt up and caught the top of the bricks with both hands. With a heave, he swung up and over, landing hard on the low grass inside and rolling up. He dodged through the long row of columns that skirted the garden, sliding to a stop at the door to the junior students' dormitory. Within he heard faint grumbling and the snores of the Nubian boy at the end of the bunk line. Glancing both ways down the colonnaded breezeway, he eased the door open and slipped inside. He stripped off the tunic, now dry, and hung his sandals on the pegs by the door.
The thick woven cane door at the far end of the hall swung open and the sharp clack of the journeyman master's cane rapped on the pale rose tiles. Dwyrin froze by the doorway. Master Ahmet, he saw, had turned back to say something in passing to the master of the older boys' section. He had not yet looked fully into the room.
Dwyrin dove to the floor and rolled under the nearest bunk. In it, one of the Galatian students turned over in his sleep. The rapping of the master's cane resumed and the first sharp slap of cane stick on bare foot resounded from the end of the hall. The boy nearest the far door woke, groggily, and rolled out of bed. Dwyrin slid forward under the bunk and on to the next.
Unfortunately, his bed was on the far side of the hall, across the walkway, and halfway down. He slithered forward on his belly, checking the progress of the master's broad feet through the bedposts. Opposite his own bunk, he stole a look down the walkway. The master had turned away from the line of bunks where Dwyrin hid. Dwyrin reached into his rolled tunic and dragged out the rinds of orange within. Heart beating furiously and hands shaking just a little, he waited until the master had turned away again. With a flick of his hand, he skated the rinds down the row of bunks to lodge nearly soundlessly against Kyllun's bunk, where the ball popped apart and spilled its remains in an unsightly pile by the head of the bed.
Dwyrin drew his feet up under him and edged out into the space between the beds. The master reached Kyllun's bunk and gave him a sharp switch on his exposed foot. Then the master paused, dark eyes narrowed, spying the rubbish by the side of the bed. His hand was quick as he turned and grasped the sleep-befuddled Kyllun by one large sun-browned ear.
"So! You are the rascal who has been into the orchards of the holy monks!" Kyllun barely had time to yelp before the cane swatted him sharply across the buttocks. "You'll not be doing so again, my lad!" the master cried, and sharply marched him to the far end of the room, giving him the cane as he went. Kyllun was wailing by the time he and the master reached the end of the room. While the master was turned away, Dwyrin scooted across the gap and into his own bed. Safe.
Kyllun's wailing had roused the rest of the boys now, including Patroclus, whose bunk was next to Dwyrin's. The Sicilian boy eyed Dwyrin with distaste as the Hibernian slid under the thin cotton sheets of his bed and assumed a peaceful expression of sleep.
"You owe me your sweet at dinner," Patroclus hissed as he cast back his own sheets and ran long, thin boned hands through his lank black hair.
"You might as well get up now, everyone else is," he whispered at Dwyrin, who responded with a semi-audible snore and rolled over artistically, his sheets askew and one bare white leg sticking out. Patroclus shook his head and rubbed sleep from his long face with both hands.
The master returned and paused by Dwyrin's bunk, eyeing the Hibernian's recumbent form. One almond-shaped eye, keen and dark, widened a little at the sight of the boy's foot and the cane twitched in his olive hand.
"Lord Dwyrin," he cooed, "it is time to rise and greet holy Ra as he begins his long journey through the heavens." Dwyrin snored again and buried his head underneath the thin straw pillow. "Oh, Dwyrin... Get up, you lazy, thieving, treacherous, duplicitous lout!" the master shouted, and caned the backs of Dwyrin's legs fiercely. Dwyrin shot up out of the bed like a porpoise sporting in the Aegean waves. The quick dark hand of the master secured his protruding red, freckled ear and dragged him into the walkway. Dwyrin yelled as the cane was sharply laid across his bottom.
"Young men who sneak out at night," the master growled, "should take pains to clean the grass stains from their feet before they reenter the dormitory!"
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" Dwyrin wailed, as he too was frogmarched to the end of the long room. The other boys stared in amazement as the red-headed boy was dragged into the master's cubicle at the end of the dormitory. The master dismissed Kyllun with a quick motion and the Cilician went quickly, rubbing his ear and glaring sheer hate at the unrepentant Dwyrin.
"Now, young master Dwyrin," the dorm master said as he closed the door behind him, "let me see if I can remember the punishments for stealing, breaking curfew, and causing the unjust punishment of another student."
Dwyrin gulped as the door slammed shut.
Day's end came at last, the ship of Ra dropping once more beyond the western hills to begin its journey through darkness. Dwyrin looked up from the basin at the back of the kitchens to see the sky turn gold and purple, then fade into deepest blue. Two of the cooks came out of the low door, bearing another heavy tray of bowls and cups. Bone weary, his hands red and sore, Dwyrin heaved the copper bucket onto his shoulder and stumbled to the well at the end of the rear court. His hands throbbed as he cranked the wheel around, dropping the bucket and its corded hemp line into the cool darkness below. There was a distant splash and the too-familiar gurgle of the bucket tipping over and filling. Dwyrin leaned on the wheel against the growing weight. His bronze-red hair was gilded by the setting sun. There was laughter from the court within; the junior boys were leaving dinner and going to the night studies. "Ho! Dwyrin! Thanks for doing the dishes!" Patroclus and Kyllun leaned over the top of the wall, smug smiles broad upon their faces. Each held an extra sweet, dripping with honey and crumbs. Their self-satisfied faces, Dwyrin thought, were loathsome to look upon. He made the horns at both of them and cranked the wheel back around. The bucket dragged heavy, even against the wheel and its pulleys. The two, hooting with laughter, disappeared from the wall and ran off, sandals slapping on the tiled walkway. Dwyrin cursed silently as he winched the heavy bucket out of the well.
I could have stayed home and done this,
he thought bitterly.
Learning to be a thaumaturge sure takes a lot of lifting and carrying...