Volume II: The Hound and the Falcon
by Judith Tarr
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O City, City, jewel of all cities, famed in tales throughout the world, leader of faith, guide of orthodoxy, protector of learning, abode of all good! Thou hast drunk to the dregs the cup of the anger of the Lord, and hast been visited with fire fiercer than that which in ancient days descended upon the Five Cities….
…And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
—W. B. Yeats
Rain and sun and thirty years’ neglect had faded the tiles of the courtyard and softened the curves of the marble dolphin in the center. But the fountain played still, though half choked with weeds and leaves and verdigris.
The pilgrim sat on its rim, letting her veil fall, here where there was none but her companion to see her face. She was very pale, her gold-bronze eyes enormous, staring at the fall of water without truly seeing it.
“Thea,” the other said softly. When she did not respond, he knelt by her and took her hand. “Althea. Was it wise to come back?”
She blinked and shook herself. “What? Wise? That’s a virtue neither of us has much of. Are you still determined to watch the Frankish armies overrun Byzantium?”
“Are you still determined to stay here and be reminded over and over again of what time can do to the rest of the world?”
“Aren’t both our follies actually the same thing?”
He bowed his head. His hat’s broad brim hid his face; she took it off, uncovering his hair. It was thick and long and very pale, silver-gilt like the eyes he raised to her, just touched with gold. “Do you know,” she said, “if I’d left here even a season later than I did, I would have been caught in the plague.”
“Would it have made any difference?”
“Who knows?” She spoke easily, lightly, as if it did not matter. “I promised you a bath and a good supper and a soft bed, and the best company east of Anglia. Will you forgive me if all I can offer you is a roof over your head?”
“You know there’s nothing to forgive.”
“Such a good Christian Brother.” She rose. “Shall we sample the hospitality of House Damaskenos?”
The fountain gave them water to bathe in, and Thea’s wallet yielded an ample supper. They settled for the night in a wide cool room where the painted walls retained much of their splendor: a wild garden full of fierce golden beasts.
“I did that,” Thea said, sitting in a corner, clasping her knees. “Miklos wanted lions, and I gave him lions, eight of them, one for each of his birthdays. He was delighted, though not everyone else was. Father used to test people here. He’d ask them what they thought of the painting, and if they said it was outrageous, he knew they were honest.”
The other smiled. “Do you remember the lion of Saint Mark? Poor bedraggled creature, shut up in a cage for people to stare at. I like your lions better.”
“They’re not very good ones. I wasn’t a very good painter. It was easier to become a lion, though it upset people if they caught me at it.”
“Only upset them?”
Upon her mantle lay a great tawny lioness with Thea’s eyes. He regarded her in neither surprise nor fear. And, as she returned to her own shape; “I’m of your own kind,” he said.
“And I know you.”
“Do you?” asked Thea.
“I know you shouldn’t stay here. Let’s go to Constantinople. Now. Tonight.”
“Why? The house is empty and so are our purses. We can tarry here for a while, rest, tell a white lie or two; and when we’re well ready, go to the City in proper style.”
“With nothing but bare floors to sleep on, and no bread but beggars’ bread, and the chance of being stoned as witches.”
“Food and furniture are easy enough to come by.”
“And the other, Thea? What of that?”
She sat on her heels near him. “What of it? Are you afraid, little Brother?”
“Someone is bound to remember your face.”
She shook her hair away from it. “And if someone does? Althea Damaskena ran away thirty years ago. She’s an old woman now. And how old am I?”
“Ancient. Newborn.” He leaned toward her, not quite touching her. “Thea, no good will come of it if we stay here. I know that.”
“As you know you have to go to the City?”
“So,” she said calmly, “you go and watch the spectacle. I’ll stay and be one.”
“I haven’t been with you for so long to leave you now.”
“I thought it was I who’d been with you through no choice of yours. Now you can be free. I’m back where I came from; you can go on with no one to threaten your holy purity. Think of it, Brother Alfred of Saint Ruan’s Abbey. Or should I call you Abbot Alfred? You would have been that if the Brothers had had their way. Now you can go back to it.”
“No.” His voice was barely audible. “I asked for my vows to be dissolved, and they were. I’m neither monk nor priest nor abbot. I’m only Alf.” He drew a breath. It helped the pain, a little. “I won’t let you face this alone. You went to the stake for me; should I do any less?”
“Little Brother,” she said. “I knew exactly what I was doing. And I had, and have, no scruples at all about using witchery. You do all you can to make yourself human. You won’t even shape-change as I did, to fly away from the fire.”
“You could if you would. But it’s too uncanny. Who ever heard of a man, or even a saint, who could be any living thing he wanted to be?”
“That’s not my gift. But I can do what a friend must do. A kinsman. A brother.”
“You don’t look anything like Miklos.” She traced the shape of his face with a light finger and let it continue down his cheek to his jaw, along the line of his neck to his shoulder. “I wish Father could have met you. He admired genuine innocence. It was the last thing a merchant could want, he said, but it was the first requisite of a saint.”
“A saint must also be human. Not—what I am. Whatever I am.”
“Changeling. Enchanter. Elf-wight. Demon, daimon, one of the Jann. Pilgrim from Anglia, healer in the hospital of Saint Luke beside the Holy Sepulcher, traveler to the Queen of Cities. And a very handsome—young—man.” Her arms circled his neck. “Do you love me, Alf?”
He was as stiff as a stone, and as still, but no stone had ever burned as he burned. “Yes,” he answered, “I love you. As a sister.”
“I’ve been that to you, haven’t I? Once I started to care enough about you to respect your vows, even Brother Alfred, famous for his chastity, couldn’t rebuke me. And I’ve held to it. Five years now, Alf. There are people who’d say I was lying if they knew how long I’d traveled with you, lusty wench that I am, and never came closer than you’d allow. And you with a face like an angel and a body to drive a woman mad.”
Only her arms touched him, but he felt the rest of her as if she had pressed close. Her face, tilted upward, was painfully beautiful, her voice low and piercingly sweet. “Your vows are gone. No need now to be poor or chaste or obedient. You can be the man you were meant to be. Swift and strong and fair, and as alien to a monk’s meekness as a hunting leopard.” Her arms tightened. They were body to body now with only threadbare linen between; their hearts hammered just out of rhythm.
With a sound between a gasp and a sob, he broke free. His robe lay draped over a broken bench; he lifted it with shaking hands. Once it had been the habit of a monk of Saint Jerome. He drew it on with fumbling haste. It felt, heavy, constricting, damp from its rough washing in the fountain.
Thea knelt where he had left her. There was no anger in her. Not yet. Only shock, and a deep, tearing pain.
In a low dead voice she said, “You poor, innocent, pious priest.”
He said nothing.
She rose slowly. “Go to the City. Sing in the angels’ choir in Hagia Sophia, and wait on emperors, and be as pure as your saintly heart desires. The wild witch-woman won’t trouble you any more.”
“Thea—” he began, but she paid him no heed.
“She’ll leave you alone. Her family is dead; she can run off again and find another victim. One who knows what a man is for.”
“Althea.” This time she did not silence him. He went on steadily, “You expected to find your kin alive and well and not much older than they were when you left them. You’ve found only an empty house and a market tale; and it’s struck you at last what price we pay for what we are. Beauty and strength and great power; life without age or sickness or death. And with it the reckoning: to love what must die.”
“Or what must not,” she said through clenched teeth, “And what will not give love in return.”
“You’re bitter. The house you loved is empty. The humans you loved are dead.”
“The man I loved is a preaching priest.” Her eyes blazed upon him, green as a cat’s. “If God is just, Brother Alfred of Saint Ruan’s, He will damn every one of you who ever cursed the love He made for man and woman. That is the sin, little monk. That is the horror which feeds the fires of Hell.”
“Is it love, Thea? Or is it grief and anger turned to desire?”
“If that were all it was, would I be flinging myself at you, knowing what you are?” She stopped and shook her head. “But no; you’re used to that. Everyone stares, gasps, and falls at your feet. And you step over them in pious disdain and walk on undefiled. Saint Alfred of Ynys Witrin, saved from burning by an angel, rapt up to Heaven before the eyes of his King. Who was just as besotted with you as I am, and just as incapable of understanding why.”
“Don’t tell lies, little Brother. Just look at me. Once on a time I was the Lady Althea of the Court of Rhiyana, renowned for her beauty, her valor, and her pride, and proud not least of her strength of will. Nothing frightened me; I could laugh at Death himself if he came too close to me. As for priests with their lice-ridden robes and their shaven crowns, what were they? Mumbling fools, as lecherous as any under the cant and the chanting. Then I saw you. There you lay by the fire under the trees, with your vows upon you like chains of silk and steel. But under them, fire and magic, asleep but easy enough, thought I, to wake. You were never meant for a monk, you who could promise so much with a glance or a smile or a turn of your shoulder.” She hunched her own, then flung them back. “The rest pretended to be chaste. There was no pretense in you. I learned it soon enough, but by then it was too late for me. I was bound. When I tried to escape, I couldn’t. When you fled your vows and your strangeness, I followed. All the long way to Jerusalem, through all the places between. Leagues. Years. Now as a woman, now as a hound, now as a falcon—and never as your lover.”
Mutely he reached for her with healing in his hands. She eluded him to stand with her back to the wall, the center of her pride of lions. “Oh, no, Alf. No witcheries. Only stand and tell me the truth. Do you love me?”
“As a sister,” he answered again.
Her eyes were all green, her white teeth bared, her face more cat than woman. “Sister!” she spat. “I am no man’s sister. I am no man’s kin. They are all dead. Dead!”
Again he tried to touch her, to heal her. Claws raked his hand. He snatched it back. A cat crouched by the wall, ears flat to its head, tail lashing its sides. Its mind was a fierce cat-hiss. “I have no kin. I have no friend. I walk alone.”
“Thea.” He was almost weeping. “Thea. beloved—”
Her tail stilled save for its restless tip. Beloved? She flexed her claws. Your soul is a cold cloister full of chanting and incense. Love to you is but a word, a spell to keep the mad witch quiet. And mad I was to follow you so far for so little. That is ended. I encumber you no longer. I encumber no one. I love no one. I want no one.
She arched her back and spat and sprang up to the window ledge. The cat-shape blurred and melted; a falcon spread its wings, glaring at him with a mad golden eye. Even as he cried out, it took wing into the night.
The Golden Horn
Volume II: The Hound and the Falcon
by Judith Tarr
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-175-7