April, Year 1 A.E.
The coast of England was green and silent, save for birds in numbers that made the sky restless. It might have been a morning before man, except that—she focused the binoculars—there was a haze of smoke a little farther to the northeast.
Well, well, Marian Alston said to herself. Then, aloud: “Soundings.”
“Forty feet and shoaling, ma’am. Twenty-three feet under the keel.”
“Twenty-three feet, aye,” Captain Alston replied. “Keep it comin’.”
At least they had the depthfinder; she’d have to remember to have someone trained in throwing the lead line from the bowsprit nets against the day that it unrecoverably wore out. It made her teeth stand on edge to come this close to shore when her shoal charts were useless and the only repair facilities for a steel-hulled ship were a long, long couple of thousand years away. At least the weather looked fair and the glass was steady, just enough wind to scatter whitecaps across blue ocean. Water was lighter over shoals and mudbanks, of which the area looked to have more than its share. The low coast ahead stood green and wild, marsh and tossing forest and occasional clearings. Some of it looked like second growth, scrubby trees and underbrush. Now and then they saw a plowed field green with new crops, but some of the little clusters of round huts were burned and deserted.
What wind and wave there was would be broken a little by the Isle of Wight off to the southwest, and by the sides of the estuary on either hand, safe enough in anything but a really bad blow. She didn’t dare go much farther up the Southampton Water, though, not with the bottom shoaling like this.
“Eighteen feet under the keel, ma’am.”
“Eighteen feet, aye.”
And… there. They were coasting steadily closer to the smudge of smoke that marked a settlement of some type.
“Hampshire,” she murmured.
She’d been here… before. It had looked nothing like this, of course. Perhaps if she was flying over it the resemblances would be more, but too many thousand years of human hands had shaped the lowlands of the coast, draining and ditching, clearing and planting. That land of tacky seaside resorts and naval bases, green fields inland with time-burnished villages and manors—it was all more distant than the moon, than the farthest star. She was adrift in the sea of time.
“On deck! Boats on the beach, there. Big ones!”
She trained her own binoculars. The beach came into view slowly, as the ship ghosted close at a bare three knots. Two boats, right enough; you could even call them ships, especially compared to the dozens of rafts and canoes and hide coracles also hauled up. About sixty footers, she estimated, pulled up on the shore above the high-tide mark. Prows curled up, carved in the likeness of a horse’s head and gaudily painted; there were decked sections fore and aft, open amidships. Masts were stepped, rather short ones—probably they could be taken down at will—but the yards and sails were elsewhere, perhaps used for the big tents she saw a little behind the vessels. Two heavy steering oars, one on either side, canted up now and held by ropes. The hulls were fairly tubby, broader amidships, but with oar ports along the sides, and black with tar or pitch. Men crowded around them, sunlight flashing on their bronze spearheads. Alston scanned right and left. The camp sprawled for the better part of a mile, tents and huts, men in kilts and women in long skirts and shawls, oxcarts, fires and rubbish heaps and… yes, horse-drawn chariots driving down to the edge of the water. Pretty much like illustrations she’d seen, except that the panels around them were higher at the sides than the front. All too far away to see clearly, but it was plain enough that they were getting a reception party ready.
Sensible enough, she thought. If someone showed up off her shore in a ship fifty times the size of anything she’d seen before, she’d have the troops out, and locked and loaded too.
“Sixteen feet under the keel, ma’am.”
“Sixteen feet, aye. Prepare to strike all sail,” she said quietly. “Stand by the starboard anchor. Three shots at the water’s edge.”
Most of the Eagle’s poles were bare already, except for a topsail, the gaff on the mizzen, and a few of the jibsails still up to keep steerage way on her. A minute of disciplined effort and the rest were struck.
“Let go the starboard anchor!”
There was a sharp clung as the blackened steel dropped into the water and the chain took up the slack. The Eagle checked as the flukes dug into the bottom, heaved forward a little, and swung to. The other splashed home as well and then they were still, rocking slightly to the longshore swell.
“She holds, ma’am!”
The quartermaster’s whistle rang out across the deck. “Shift colors!”
The steaming ensign came down from the gaff. The blue Coast Guard jack broke out at the bows, and the national ensign to the mainmast.
Noise grew on the shore, faint across the half mile of waters. Shouts, screams, a weird dunting hu-hu-hu-hu-huuuu that must be some sort of musical instrument. Tom Hiller came up beside her.
“That doesn’t look like a permanent settlement to me, Captain,” the sailing master said.
“No, I’d say they’d only been there weeks, maybe a couple of months,” she said. “Let’s get Arnstein’s tame savage up here, Mr. Hiller.”
Ohotolarix came bounding up the companionway with easy grace; the speed of his recovery had surprised the doctor. When he saw the shore he gave a great shout of joy, then threw up his arms in a gesture that looked religious somehow, palms up to the sky. They’d given him back his leather kilt; it looked a little incongruous with the blue T-shirt he was wearing.
Arnstein and the astronomer followed more slowly. They had all they could do to dam the flow of words from the young warrior, but at last they managed it. After a moment Ian turned to the captain.
“That’s his king’s camp—his rahax,” the academic said. He rubbed a nose peeling a little from sunburn. “Daurthunnicar.” He sounded out the name slowly. “And those are his people, the Iraiina.”
“Eka, Daurthunnicar, rahax,” the young man said happily, smiling and pointing. More gibberish followed. Then: “Iraiina teuatha.”
“That means ‘tribe,’ or ‘people.’ I think.”
“Can you make him understand ‘we come in peace’ and ‘we want to talk to your leader’?” Alston asked.
“I think so,” Arnstein said slowly. “We’ve been working on it.”
“Ms. Hendriksson, get the boat ready. Boat crew of the watch, and six of your people fully armed.” With the best Nantucket had had to offer, which wasn’t much. “Remember, we don’t want any conflict, but if they attack, shoot to kill.” She was sending Hendriksson because she thought Walker might be inclined to jump the gun in a tricky situation.
“Mr. Arnstein, let’s hand him the gifts.”
First they returned the boy’s ax, which made him seem inches taller as he thonged it to his wrist. The grin grew wider as they handed over a fire ax, one of the short swords, and necklaces of plastic beads. He touched his open palm to his forehead, bowed, seemed to glow with happiness as the sailors led him away to the boat.
Captain Alston waited tensely as it stroked in toward shore. They had the island’s lone .50-caliber machine gun clamped to the rail, and a couple of sailors with scope-sighted hunting rifles, but it was still tricky sending people to within arrow range. The longboat stroked away, oars flashing in unison. It halted in shallow water, and she could see Ohotolarix jump overboard and wade ashore, holding his treasures aloft. A great screaming roar went up from the crowd on the beach; there must be at least a thousand, possibly two.
“I hope to hell this works,” she muttered.
Daurthunnicar forced his hand to relax on the haft of his ax.
“He bleeds!” the rahax shouted. “He is no ghost!”
A sigh of relief went through the crowd as the young man held up his arm, a trickle of red running down it from where the high chief had scored it slightly. A Dead Walker back from his grave would be cold and bloodless and full of hunger for the living.
“This is a thing for the chiefs,” he said. “All of you, back to your households. Chieftains, the Wise Man—and you, our ally,” he added unwillingly, as Isketerol bowed. “Come, we will make council.” Best to include the Tartessian, who had knowledge of strange lands and peoples.
They gathered around his chariot, casting glances out over the water. The size of the thing! It looked small with distance, but his vision was still good for things far away, had even grown better since the first gray appeared in his beard. He could see folk moving about on it, climbing up the mountain-high masts. Five times the length of the great ships of Tartessos, and those were the wonders of the world. Like a stallion beside a rabbit.
Young Ohotolarix was still grinning like a loon. Well, a man brought back from death had a right to feel joyful. He’d been a little less pleased to give up the strange things he brought, but he knew better than to gainsay his chief and knew he could await rich gifts in recompense. Besides, the Wise Man said the things must be purified, lest they carry a curse.
“This metal, what is it?” Daurthunnicar said, turning the strange ax in his hands.
“Iron,” Isketerol said. “I think, for I’ve never seen more than a small piece shaped as a ring before. The Great King’s artisans know the secret of it, in Haiti at the eastern end of the Middle Sea. But it’s rare and very precious. Harder than bronze, I hear, and it takes a better edge, if you know how to work it.”
The rahax took up the ax. The head shone like silver, and it shaved bare a patch of hair from his forearm when he tested the edge. He swung it tentatively; about the heft of his own war ax, or a little heavier—the strangers must be men of strong arms, since he swung more weight than most. Not badly balanced, either. He swung it down at a stump; the blade sank deep, and when he wrenched it out it was still sharp. The sword was an even greater wonder, finer by far than the goodly weapon the Tartessian captain carried. And no one had ever seen anything like the ornaments, smooth and shining and of colors brighter than the sun. Daurthunnicar felt his greed itch. If he had gifts like this to give out, warriors would flock to him from every tribe of Sky Father’s people.
More than goods. What powers may these strangers have? His people were in need of strong allies.
“Say again how they treated you,” he commanded.
“Lord,” Ohotolarix said. “I woke a little as they hauled me to their great ship. The next I knew, their ruler bent over me. Their ruler is black, lord. With skin the color of charcoal.”
A sigh that held fear rustled through the Iraiina chiefs. The robed Wise Man raised his staff to hold back evil magic, and talismans of bronze and bone clinked along its length. The Night Ones were black… although they did not walk in the light of day.
Isketerol leaned forward. “Was their chief flat of nose, with thick lips, and hair curled tightly, thus?” he asked.
Daurthunnicar frowned at the interruption, but felt new respect when Ohotolarix nodded.
“Strange,” the Tartessian muttered. “A Medjay, here?”
“You know of them?” the rahax asked.
“At Pharaoh’s court. He has warriors from far south up the Nile, in Nubia, the Medjay folk. Very fierce. And voyagers of my people who sailed far south of the Pillars say the folk there are black of skin, too, with features like that.”
“Eka,” Daurthunnicar nodded.
From what he’d heard the sun shone brighter the farther south you went. The Tartessians were shorter and darker of skin and hair than most folk in these parts. Perhaps the sun baked the skin dark, as fire did clay, darker still as you went farther south. Pleased with his thought, the rahax signaled the young warrior to go on.
“Were all of them dark?” he asked.
“No, only a few, my chief. Others were like us, though their clothes and ways are strange. And some were brown, and some had skin the color of amber, and eyes aslant, so.” He put his index fingers to the corners of his eyes and pushed them up. “But only a few. They treated me well, lord, like a son or oath-brother. They healed my hurts with strange medicines, and gave me a soft bed and food— strange, and not enough meat for my liking, but plenty of it. And these gifts, as you see.”
Daurthunnicar looked at Isketerol, and the Tartessian shook his head. Strange to him, then, too.
“The men among them mostly shave their chins,” Ohotolarix continued. “And they dress strangely, both men and women, in garments sewn to fit their limbs, as a quiver fits arrows. Richly, richly, even the commoners are clothed from head to foot in fine woven things. Every one carries a knife and tools of metal.”
The chief grunted. Women along… did that mean the strangers had come to settle? His gut hurt at the thought of another foe, but perhaps an accommodation could be reached. “Did you see cattle, wagons, children?” he asked.
“None, my chief.” Ohotolarix hesitated. “It seemed as if all were one warband and its wives or concubines. Perhaps they hold them in common, for there were far fewer than the men… I think. When the black-faced high chief spoke, all others obeyed. The chiefs under him spoke, and his word was carried out, the others obeying like the fingers of a man’s hand.”
This time the chiefs grunt carried envy. He’d always wished his underchiefs obeyed like that. They did better than the Earth Folk, who went each his own way, but…
“And what powers did they have?” the Wise Man asked, leaning forward. His seamed face was calm, but his eyes glittered with interest.
“Wise One,” Ohotolarix said, looking more nervous than he had facing the rahax, “they had many. Light they could make appear in darkness, light as bright as the sun. They could make water appear in their bowls at will, and when they voided themselves into vessels of fine clay, the water came and took away their filth.”
“Knossos,” Isketerol muttered, then shook his head when the rahax looked his way.
“I don’t think they showed me all their powers,” the young man went on. “I learned a few of their words, they a few of mine—there was a man, an old man, very tall, and his woman, who tried to learn our tongue. And they had a curious magic they worked, one that I couldn’t see the purpose of. They made marks on thin-scraped skins, so—” he picked up a short stick and mimed tracing on a square held in front of him—”and they would look at the marks, even hours later, and repeat my words.”
The Tartessian started again, narrow dark eyes going wide. Daurthunnicar bared his teeth in the silence of his head. His ally knew something he did not, and wasn’t telling.
“But I think,” Ohotolarix said, “that I know why they come. They showed me pictures of grain, of bread, of cattle. They want these things, and they will give rich gifts for them.”
“Ahhhh,” Daurthunnicar sighed.
He looked at the ax, at the wonderful sword, at the shining jewelry. A chieftain who could open his hands and give such things to his followers would have power beyond power. A thought nickered through his mind: canoes, coracles, a night raid. Then he looked out again at the ship, its masts towering to pierce the sky, bulwarks like cliffs, the blood-red slash across its side and the cryptic symbols down the hull, the great golden eagle-god figure at its prow. No, no, he wouldn’t raise blade against that power unless he must, for the lives of his folk. Better to deal in peace with such strength, if it could be done without offending the tribe’s guardian gods. He would make parlay with these People of the Eagle.
“Wise Man?” he said.
The priest leaned on his staff. “I sense no great evil here,” he said. “The Powers are at work, yes, but as likely to bless as to curse. Best I go to my tent, and ask of… others.”
A few of the chiefs made signs as the old man stalked off. Daurthunnicar rapped the blunt end of his ax against the thin bronze panels that sheathed his chariot. “Hear the word of your rahax,” he said. “We will send an envoy to these strangers, with a green branch and a white shield. You”—he pointed at Ohotolarix—”will go with him. We will bid them guest with us; they will share bread and meat and blood, and they will be peaceholy in all the camps of the Iraiina folk, unless I unsay the word of peace or they break it. Hear me! Any who raises hand against them, who insults them, will answer to me and to Sky Father and the Horned Man.”
The chiefs bowed their heads. That was good, that meant they thought his word was wise. If they hadn’t, he’d be hearing objections by now, loud and frequent. Most of the chiefs were his kin, and he was rahax as long as the most of them wished it, just as they were chiefs as long as the warriors respected and feared them.
“We will bid them to feast with us,” Daurthunnicar went on. “We will speak of alliance and the giving of gifts. Sky Father is with us, and the Horned Man; they send us strong aid, much magic, much luck.”
Swindapa lay motionless on her side, her knees drawn up to her chest, trying to ignore the aches and the itching and burning between her legs, and the cold feeling in her chest that never went away. The bonds that held her hands behind her back chafed, and so did the thick collar on her neck. That had a leash whose other end was braided around a wooden stake pounded into the ground. Even with her hands free she couldn’t have removed collar or leash, not without a knife; they were twisted cowhide many strands thick. Everyone had gone away; she could hear the Sun People screaming and crying out down by the water. Her head lifted from the ground in a tangle of dirt-crusted hair. Nobody, not a dog, not the children who’d prodded her with sticks and thrown clods of earth, not the pack of older boys who sometimes hung around waiting for a chance to rush in and force her while her keepers’ attention was elsewhere…
She shivered and ground her teeth, feeling herself starting to shake again. No. Instead she started working her bound hands down her back. If she could get her feet between them she could start gnawing on the hide that bound her wrists. With a grunt of pain she fell back on her side, panting. She was too stiff from lack of stretching and the binding was too broad. Tears of frustration ran down her cheeks. A tethered goat on the other side of a dead fire cropped at a bush and looked at her with unblinking eyes as it chewed.
Swindapa tried to whisper a Cursing Song, but it didn’t feel right, as if the Moon Woman couldn’t hear her in this place. She started again as footsteps moved toward her, from the other side of the two-wheeled oxcart. Please. It wasn’t time for the woman who brought her food and water. Brought most days; sometimes they forgot. The big leather tent twenty paces away in that direction was Daurthunnicar’s. Sometimes men came over from there and forced her or hurt her in other ways. That hadn’t happened for twice seven of days; she’d tried to make herself too filthy, by voiding in the dirt instead of the trench they’d made her dig, and rolling in the mud. If they were drunk enough on mead or hemp they might not care—
It was the woman, and a few others with her, and behind them the whole crowd was returning to camp, chattering. There was a high note to their voices, excitement or fear.
The women paused around her. “She stinks,” one said. “The guests will be insulted.”
Swindapa stayed huddled on the ground, legs drawn up under her and ready to scrabble away. Sometimes the women were kind, but other times they kicked her, or dropped the food in the dirt.
“She did that to keep the men off,” another voice said. This one was younger, and there was colored work in the shoes beneath the dyed woolen skirt. “They haven’t been at her for two seven-days now. She’ll look all right when she’s cleaned up. The bruises are mostly gone.”
Another voice chuckled. “It’d take more than a whiff to keep that boar-stallion away when he’s had a few horns.” The tone changed. “Diasas. Get up.” The toe prodded her in the ribs.
“Yes, Iraiina,” Swindapa said.
The tribe-name meant “free” or “noble” in the Sun People tongue. She came to her feet, gritting her teeth and stretching. The Iraiina women averted their eyes a little; it was shameful to go without clothes among the Sun People. That was why they’d kept her stripped, to shame her. Among her people, clothes were for warmth or comfort or show, but now she knew what their word naked meant. It meant helplessness.
A kinder voice spoke: “Come. The rahax says you are to be washed clean.” That one made a tsk sound between her teeth. “He should have bestowed you long before this. He wouldn’t treat a dog so, why a woman?”
“Wirronnaur’s arm festered where she cut him,” the younger woman explained. “And her kin wouldn’t pay enough for her, they don’t, you know—they say that if they pay for one, we’ll take others, so it’s against their law. The rahax was angry.”
“Well, he still shouldn’t have let them treat her like this, as if this were a raiders’ camp. Come on, Earth girl, we have to clean you and see you’re sound.”
“Why?” Swindapa asked.
The woman sawing the leash tugged on it painfully. “The rahax says it.”
“Careful,” the older women said. To Swindapa: “Foreigners came today, in a great ship.”
“Wizards,” the younger woman said, spitting in the dirt and making the sign of the horns. “Night Ones, maybe.”
“No, these Eagle People are men. Maybe wizards, and very strange, but men,” the older woman said. She had a plump face, with four braids of graying black hair secured by bronze rings. Her voice was not unkind as she spoke to Swindapa. “Don’t worry, you’ll be treated better when you have one master to protect you. The rahax is to give you as a feasting-gift tomorrow. You’ll be the stranger chief’s. If you please him, you might be free soon, even become a second or third wife. You’ll live well then—the strangers are rich and powerful. Come, we’ve got soaproot and sweet herbs, and then we’re to feed you. That will feel better, won’t it?”
“Why do we have to carry these pigstickers, sir?” one of the cadets asked, looking dubiously at the spear he’d been handed.
“Because the natives don’t know what guns are, and we aren’t going to let them know unless we need to surprise them, and we don’t want them to think we’re unarmed except for funny-looking clubs, either,” Lieutenant Walker said. He looked around with a bright-eyed interest that was somehow also cool. “Now shut up.”
Alston noted the byplay and forced herself to stop fiddling with her gloves. She was in dress uniform—well, mostly, damned if she was going to wear a skirt—and a lot was riding on the impression she made. The medal ribbons were ridiculous, but that was one of the Coast Guard’s little foibles. You could get four or five of them just for getting out of boot camp or the Academy.
There were twenty in the shore party: herself, Arnstein, Rosenthal, Walker, and an escort of cadets, picked largely because they still remembered how to march smartly in step, not something the Coast Guard generally put much emphasis on. The cadets all had Army Kevlar helmets from Nantucket, a little incongruous but better than anything available locally. They carried spears and shields made up in the island machine shop, for show, and likewise short swords. The pistols at their waists and the rifles and shotguns across their backs were for emergency use. If it came to that she supposed they could shoot their way out without much problem; people who’d never been exposed to firearms of any sort would scatter at the first blast and not stop running for a while.
And it had better not come to that. They needed the grain back on the island. Badly. Besides, she didn’t relish the thought of gunning down men virtually unarmed.
She was wearing a sword herself, one she’d saved several years to buy, back in her early twenties in San Francisco, and a shorter companion on the other side of her belt. She wondered for a moment what Sensei Hishiba would think of where the set of katana and wakizashi had ended up…
“Let’s go,” she said. “Ms. Rapczewicz, you have the deck.”
The boatswain’s pipes squealed. “Eagle departing!” rang out as she stepped into the boat and the davits swung out to lower it. The ship’s bell rang three times, then again a single time.
Oars bit the water; the boats threw long shadows ahead of themselves as the sun sank behind. Bonfires blossomed ahead, up and down the shoreline, but the forest inland was a rustling sea of darkness. When full dark came, the sky overhead would be a frosted blaze of stars, as it never was ashore in her own time. A low chanting was running through the crowds ahead, backlit against their fires, deep men’s voices and a keening female oversong weaving among trumpets that sounded like nothing so much as Tibetanradongs. Drumbeat thudded under it… no, she realized, that was the sound of feet, pounding the earth in unison. A crawling went up her spine, less fear than sheer lonesomeness. The oars caught slightly.
“Steady there,” she said.
The boats’ keels grounded on sand and shingle. Oars nipped up in unison, and the landing party disembarked. The sailor crews pushed the boats off again, to wait ready just in case.
Marian Alston stepped ashore onto dry land that crunched under her boots. The chanting and stamping cut off. A bristle of trumpets sounded again, upright shapes six feet long with gaping mouths shaped like the heads of wolves and boars. The cadets formed around her and the other officer, except for those who were lugging the bundles of gifts. She blinked aside strangeness and the failing light to see what awaited her.
More of the green boughs, for starters—evidently a peace signal, like the Biblical olive branch. A group of men waited, in the leather kilts she’d come to expect but with brightly dyed tunics and leggings as well, bracelets and neck rings of chased gold, pendant necklaces of amber and gold, silver pectorals set with colored stones. Behind them their chariots were drawn up. The horses wore headdresses of nodding plumes, and hangings of felt covered with writhing colored applique shapes of animals and monsters along their flanks.
“Captain,” Arnstein murmured into her ear. “Look at the ones standing off to the left.”
Her eyes moved that way. Several men. Shorter than the ones about them, black-haired and olive-skinned, cleanshaven, dressed in linen tunics, their ornaments more restrained and subtly… different. She gave an imperceptible nod and kept up her steady pace. A man was moving out to meet her, flanked by warriors of his own. Big, easily six feet, three inches taller than she and towering by the standards of this age, she guessed, and massively built. His chest strained at his sheet-bronze breastplate, decorated with raised hammered spirals over the nipples and gold studs along the neck and waist. The impression of height was increased by the bronze helmet he wore, rounded at the front and back, flat sides rising to a peak embellished by a fore-and-aft crest running from brow to nape of neck.
Talk about your dickheads, she thought irreverently; it helped break the hieratic mood.
A gold disk engraved with the sun hung on his chest; the haft of the war ax sloped over his shoulder was set with rings of bronze and gold, the falcon-bill head inlaid in silver, and he bore a long bronze sword at his waist. His beard was glossy brown streaked with gray, forked and held by more rings of gold where it trailed down on his barrel chest. The beginnings of a potbelly added to his impression of thick-armed strength. He raised the ax in a curious gesture and rested it on the ground, spoke in a rumbling bass.
“Daurthunnicar son of Ubrotarix,” came through eventually, with Arnstein helping out. “Rahax of the Iraiina folk.”
Alston saluted; it seemed to suit the occasion. “Marian Alston, captain of the Eagle,” she replied firmly, meeting the impassive blue eyes. That got through too; Ohotolarix had known what to call the ship’s gilded figurehead. “American,” she added.
A slender boy came forward with a platter of basket-work. It held a golden cup, a piece of coarse dark bread, a slab of cheese, and a knife. Daurthunnicar picked up the knife and pricked his thumb, squeezing out a few drops of blood into the cup. Alston felt her own hands move in dreamlike precision, stripping off a glove and placing the razor-edged bronze against her skin. Her own blood fell into the liquid in the cup; that was yellow, the color of straw. The native chief picked up the cup in both hands; it seemed to vanish in their hamlike vastness. He raised it to the setting sun and pronounced something long and sonorous; she caught Diawas Pithair, the name of their chief god. Sky Father; cognate with Zeus and Jupiter and Tiwaz and the old Norse Tyr, according to Arnstein. Others, a list of them—Mirutha, which seemed to be some sort of angels; a Horned Man or god of beasts and forests; Hepkwonsa, who was the Lady of the Horses, and her sons the Twin Riding Brothers; the Crow Goddess, whose true name was Blood Hag of Battles…
He drank, slurping, then handed the cup to her. About half the contents were gone; on impulse she took it in both hands as he’d done, tilting it back until the last drops ran down her throat. It was alcoholic, no doubt about that, and sickly-sweet.
The crowd gave a long sigh. The rahax proceeded to cut the bread and cheese and sprinkle them with salt. She ate her portion and gave a polite smile as he grinned back at her out of a crumb-filled beard. This time the watchers cheered, waving weapons and torches over their heads.
“That makes us guests,” Arnstein murmured again. “At a guess, we’re now holy and inviolate.”
“Hell of a thing to have to guess at,” she said. It made sense, though.
Daurthunnicar waved a few others forward. Introductions, Alston thought. She tried to keep the names straight—or they might be titles, of course—but she was glad of Rosenthal busy writing on her pad.
Arnstein stiffened beside her when the one of the other men, the dark clean-shaven ones, was introduced. “Isketerol of Tharatushus.”
“Tartessos?” he echoed.
The Latin-looking man nodded. “Isketerol. Tharatushus,” he replied, pointing southeast.
Arnstein burst into another language. Isketerol replied, and Arnstein turned to Alston, excitement ablaze on his face.
“Captain, he speaks Greek! It’s very archaic, and he’s got a thick accent, it’s not his native language either, but I can catch about one word in every two—more, with a little practice. He’s Isketerol, and those ships on the beach are his. They’re from Tartessos—it’s a city-state in southwestern Spain, not much known about it except that it was wealthy and important in the late Bronze Age and down into early classical times. I didn’t know it existed this early, but nobody’s ever found the site of it—very obscure.”
Finally! Alston thought. “You can translate through him? Excellent. Tell the sachem here we’ve got gifts for him. And by the way, be careful with the Iberian.” Anyone who could survive as a merchant adventurer here was likely to be on the ball, and her antennae were prickling anyway. “He’s sharp.”
Isketerol smiled and inclined his head, before turning and speaking in the harsh choppy Iraiina language. Daurthunnicar seemed to sigh with relief as well.
“He says that he’s got gifts for us too, we’re his guests— ‘guest-friends’ is the term, it’s fairly serious if it means the same thing in this dialect of Greek and if he’s translating accurately—and we’re to come to the feast, you and your warriors, and eat with him and his.”
“Lead on,” Alston said.
“Be careful,” his cousin said to Isketerol. “Whether or not they’re wizards, you can see these strangers aren’t as brainless as the local oafs.”
Isketerol nodded, legs folded gracefully before him as the feast began. “That grunting boar Daurthunnicar hasn’t realized that the Nubian is a woman, did you notice? I think he knows about the one with the man who speaks a little Achaean—you can scarcely mistake those breasts— but he hasn’t spotted the leader, or the ones among her spear-bearers.”
The trader chief’s cousin nodded. It wasn’t surprising that the Tartessians saw deeper, although stay-at-home kin in their native city might have been fooled as well. When you sailed all over the Middle Sea, though, and the shores of the River Ocean, you met innumerable different styles of dress, of custom. Your eyes saw more, after a while. Tartessians were real voyagers, not like the Achaeans, who composed an epic on their own bravery if they spent one night out of sight of land.
“The plump woman is writing,” he said to his elder. “That looks like papyrus, don’t you think?”
“A little, but that isn’t Egyptian script… although women learn to read there, sometimes, noblewomen. And they had a woman as Pharaoh long ago, what was her name… Hatshe… I can’t remember. But they don’t have woman warriors. How does the ink get on that pen, I wonder? Or is it like a grease stick?”
“How did they learn Achaean? You hardly ever see those reaver bastards west of Sicily—for which thanks be to Arucuttag of the Sea. Should we tell Daurthunnicar about the Nubian?”
“Don’t be more of a fool than the Womb Goddess made you,” Isketerol said. “Of course not. It might be useful sometime. You know the saying: Give away your goods for nothing, rather than a secret.”
His eyes glittered. “Look, they’re laying out their gifts. Have you ever seen the like?” A rhetorical question. “The king himself back home doesn’t have anything like that. The Crone take me, Ramses in Memphis doesn’t have anything like that, and they’re throwing it away on these savages as if it were a wad of grass they’d used to wipe their arse!”
Both the Tartessians looked over at the strangers with profound respect. Wealth like that deserved it.
“Well, that worked,” Alston said to Arnstein. “So far,” he said.
The gifts had been received with rapture, particularly the bolts of brightly colored synthetic cloth, the glass bowls and tumblers, and most of all the leaf-spring longsword in a sheath of wood bound with brass wire and glued-on polyester; Daurthunnicar kept that by his side, stroking the hilt occasionally. Lieutenant Walker had demonstrated it by hacking through a bronze spearhead, and the warriors had roared and pounded their fists on the ground.
Now they sat in a small circle between two fires; other circles were dotted around the open meadow. The rahax had a heavy wooden chair; it was ancient, made of blackened oak and bone, with eight-foot wooden pillars at its back in the shape of men—or perhaps of gods—with erect phalli; the carvings moved like something alive in the uncertain light of the bonfires. A smaller chair was placed across the circle from him for his guest of honor; everyone else sat or squatted on blankets or furs over straw. Women in long skirts, shawls, and what looked like primitive sweaters came through and handed everyone a horn; many of them wore copper or gold stomachers and jewelry. Arnstein sipped at his, and found it was some sort of mead, honey-beer. The savory scent of roasting meat filled the air.
Damn, he thought. You couldn’t put a hollow cowhorn down while there was anything in it; that probably meant everyone was supposed to get thoroughly blasted.
Isketerol sat a little forward of the throne, then leaned forward and began to speak in deliberately slow Greek:
“You understand, now the wannax—absurd to give this tribal chief the title of the High King of Mycenae—will give you gifts in return. Tonight everything must be an exchange of gifts, for honor’s sake. Tomorrow they will dicker. Badly.”
Arnstein heard the Tartessian through two or three times, wishing that the surviving Mycenaean texts weren’t all inventories and taxation lists, in a script badly adapted to the sounds of Greek. With a wrenching mental effort he made himself think in Homeric Greek, and kept the Linear B word lists in the forefront of his mind. Doing that and talking at the same time made his forehead and scalp shine with sweat.
“They’re going to give us gifts,” he said to Alston. “It’s a big symbolic thing. We’d better look pleased.”
“That won’t be hard, I imagine,” she said.
Isketerol spoke again: “By the way, Ianarnstein, did you want our host to know that your leader is a woman?”
“You mean he doesn’t!” Arnstein said, his voice half a squeak.
“By no means. He may listen well to his wives or even fear their tongues in private, but a man of the Iraiina does not sit at council or feast with a female. They make a great concession by allowing your woman to attend you.”
Again, repetitions were needed to make meaning plain. Swallowing, Arnstein relayed the information to the commander.
She smiled thinly. “Don’t deny it, but don’t make an issue of it, either,” she said. “I’ve run into the same thing abroad. If the people you’re visiting have got really strong and rigid dress codes for the sexes, and you don’t have the sort of figure that pushes itself on the eyes, it’s not uncommon to be mistaken for a man. They don’t see past the costume and the way you’re acting.”
Ian nodded and spoke in turn to the Tartessian, careful to shape his handling of the language to the merchant’s.
“Very perceptive of your captain,” the Tartessian said. “Ah, here are the gifts.”
Weapons piled up at Alston’s feet: spears, axes, a long leaf-shaped slashing sword with a broad bronze blade inlaid with swirling patterns and a beautifully worked hilt in gold wire. Jewelry, barbarically splendid and often skillfully made. Some of it didn’t seem to be in the same sinuous, whirling style as the rest. Plunder, he thought. These people were obviously invaders here. Furs, glossy and well-tanned, wolf, otter, fox, martin, ermine, a couple of huge bearskins big enough for grizzly. A leather bag made of a whole sheepskin that Isketerol said contained wine from his homeland; Alston received another cheer when she had that opened and shared out. It was too sweet for Arnstein’s taste, halfway between Manischewitz and a coarse sherry, but an improvement over the tooth-hurting mead or the thin sour beer flavored with spruce buds that were the alternatives.
Well, now we know why there wasn’t any Mediterranean pottery of this era for archaeologists to discover, he thought sourly. It wasn’t because there was no trade in wine and oil this early; it was just that the Iberians transferred everything to skin containers before they left home, and those rotted away untraceably. He reached into his knapsack, took out the reference book, and flipped to the illustrations, ignoring Isketerol’s fascinated glances as he held it to the firelight, comparing the images with the heap of gifts and muttering to himself:
“Flame-shaped spearhead with short socket… yup… round shield… sword with solid-cast flanged hilt… Celt-socketed ax… collared thin-walled pottery… yup, Penard-group stuff—very early Urnfield. Okay, that settles the question of how the Deverel-Rimbury period ended. These guys chopped it into dogmeat. Mid and later thirteenth century B.C., spot on.” He closed the book and looked at the spine. The Age of Stonehenge, by Colin Burgess. Martha had dug it up out of a private library in a summer vacationer’s house. “God bless you, Colin Burgess, wherever you are.”
The food came in, heaping mounds of fresh bread, cheese, onions, steamed roots, stews in clay bowls, pigeons and ducks on skewers, sausages, and endless roasts of pork, beef, mutton, and what he learned was horsemeat. The old man in the long robe stood and blessed the food with a staff topped with looped holly branches, and everyone fell to.
It wasn’t quite the Henry VIII scene of two-fisted gorging and swilling he’d expected. The women laid slabs of tough dark bread down on the basketwork platters, then piled on the meat and other dishes, or brought clay bowls marked with waving patterns. There seemed to be an elaborate etiquette about who got what, and Daurthunnicar sent several pieces over to Captain Alston. Men cut portions with their belt knives and ate with their fingers, wiping their mouths and fingers occasionally with more pieces of bread ripped off loaves nearby; those might be eaten, or thrown to the big hairy dogs that also lay about. The serving women kept the horns refilled unless a man held his hand over the mouth—which few did. He noticed that while the chiefs and guests here had one horn or cup apiece, most farther from the throne of the rahax shared a beaker. The food was seasoned with sage, dill, sorrel, fennel, basil, and herbs he didn’t recognize. Salt went around in wooden bowls, to be sprinkled between thumb and forefinger.
He sipped again at the heavy wine. The glaze it put over things seemed familiar, like the glassy sense of unreality that had been plaguing him and most of the others for the past few weeks. It was one thing to study history, or to imagine it. This was something else entirely.
The Iraiina cheered again. Ian looked up as he felt Alston stiffen with rage beside him. The last gift was brought forward.
“Captain,” he hissed in her ear, as her hand fell to the Beretta at her waist. “Not here, not now. Please!”
“Ah, that thing at her waist is a weapon,” Isketerol said in Tartessian as the last gift was presented.
His cousin Miskelefol nodded. “And she’s angry to be offered the slave girl,” he said. “I wonder why? Indifferent would be understandable, but why angry?”
Isketerol ran an experienced eye over the naked woman of the Earth Folk. The bruises had faded to very faint marks, so the Iraiina weren’t offering spoiled goods; that couldn’t be it. Except that she wouldn’t be a virgin, and as the saying went you didn’t find a slave virgin or a sweet olive, and anyway the Earth Folk didn’t even have a word for virgin. A good enough figure, looking to be even better when she’d been fattened, young, very pretty. Although there was a good deal of unbroken spirit behind the downcast eyes. That was probably why her hands were bound behind her, as well as having a rawhide leash and collar around her neck. If the strange woman didn’t want her for a servant or otherwise—he knew nothing of their taboos; these folk might be as odd a tangle as the Iraiina for all he knew—she’d be a valuable item for resale.
“I wouldn’t mind taking her off the stranger’s hands myself,” Miskelefol said, echoing his thought. “I’d pay well in bronze or wine, and make it back again twice over on Tartessos dockside, four times over if I fed her up first.”
Daurthunnicar’s rumble interrupted them, demanding a translation.
Isketerol sighed behind a bland exterior. Achaean wasn’t his favorite language, but it was still a pleasure to speak next to the local hog-tongue. Someday he would be rich enough to sit at home in Tartessos and send younger relatives out as his skippers on these long dangerous voyages. He would lie on a soft couch in the courtyard of his house and eat grapes and count the ingots and bales in his storehouses, the fields and workshops he owned. But for now he must work; he set himself to translate into Achaean simple enough for Ianarnstein to understand. Odd. The stranger spoke sometimes like a poet with a mouth full of ornate kennings, and then like a child who hadn’t mastered the endings of words… but he’d improved even in the few hours they’d spoken. Where had he learned his Achaean?
“We can always turn her loose later,” Arnstein was hissing into Alston’s ear.
“I realize that, Professor,” she gritted out through a broad, false smile. “What’s that potbellied pervert with the beard saying?”
“Ah… this girl’s a… high one? Something like that.” He paused for back-and-forth with the Tartessian. Translating through three languages, two of them not native to the interpreters, was like trying to get the last garbanzo out of a slippery salad bowl without putting it over the edge. “She’s a… princess or something of that nature, of the Tiernan Bohulugi,’ the… I think it means People of the Soil, Earth Folk… the locals here. Daurthunnicar’s men captured her and he was going to hold her for ransom, but he gives her to you as a sign of his friendship. I think that means the negotiations fell through.”
He translated that back to Isketerol. The man from the south nodded with a cynical wink. “Knowing the Earth Folk, they were afraid she’d contracted bad luck,” he said. “They think everything in a man’s life is governed by the stars at his birth, and it’s misfortune to interfere with it.”
Alston tugged unwillingly at the leash, and the girl crouched at her feet. “Tell our host I’m delighted.”
Daurthunnicar grinned back and made a joke that sent the other Iraiina laughing and hooting; the girl looked down at her feet, her mane of yellow hair hiding the disturbing glint in her eyes. That prompted Arnstein to ask another question.
“Yes,” Isketerol said. “She speaks the Iraiina tongue, or one close to it, as well as her own. Daurthunnicar’s people aren’t the first to invade the White Isle; there are other tribes kin to them living north and east of here, who’ve been settled some generations.”
Marian Alston had always considered herself a calm woman, even phlegmatic. Inch by inch she won back to full command of herself, controlling her breathing and forcing rage-knotted muscle to relax in the manner the Way had taught her through nearly twenty years of practice. At last she could pick up another morsel of food without choking on it, even smile and nod across the firelit circle.
I must be calm by nature after all, she thought ironically, looking at the girl crouched at her feet. I can get that angry and not kill someone. She’d come to get what she needed to help her people, and that was what she’d do.
But I’m damned if I’ll sit here looking at those hands. The collar was four-ply twisted rawhide, it would take tools to remove, but the bonds on the girl’s wrists were simply thongs. The horn was empty; she laid it beside the wicker plate and leaned forward with her knife in hand. It was a Swiss Army model, with a built-in fork and spoon, which had aroused a good deal of attention. The girl gasped, shivered, and stiffened in well-hidden terror as hands touched her wrists. She’d been casting sidelong glances at theEagle’s captain, which was no wonder when she’d probably never seen a non-Caucasian before.
“Hold still,” Alston said. The words didn’t mean anything, but the tone did.
She cut carefully at the tough leather; there were raw chafemarks beneath it. More hoots from the Iraiina warriors made the girl clench her teeth. Alston could hear them grind, very faintly, and smell the faint woodsmoke-and-sweat odor of the blond hair under some soapy-herbal scent. The eyes that glared across the circle were cold blue. They turned and focused on Alston with the same wariness and hate, perhaps the more so because of her strange skin and features. Then they went wide, flickering up and down the other woman’s clothes. She blinked in puzzlement, then carefully lowered her eyes again, rubbing at her wrists where the thongs had worn through the skin and left it angry.
Well, no flies on this one, Alston thought. Evidently the… Earth Folk could see past unfamiliar clothes. “Professor, tell her to eat, would you?”
The cold hate in the eyes dimmed a little, down to wariness. After a moment’s hesitation she scooped food off the platter and ate with wolfish concentration. Not too well fed lately, Alston thought. The bruises told of a savage beating some time ago, and lesser ones since. She could guess the rest.
Looks English, she thought; evidently physical types endured longer than languages or cultures. Straight-nosed oval face, bowed lips, long-limbed shape. Under the recent gauntness she looked to have been well fed most of her life, which her five-six of height bore out, and she had a dancer’s or a gymnast’s muscles. The teeth that tore at bread and meat were white and even; the notoriously bad British record with cavities and crookedness must have entered later in the island’s history, if she was at all typical.
“And what’s her name?”
That took some doing, until Arnstein suggested that Isketerol ask her directly.
Think about this later. Perhaps they could drop the girl off with her own people… a good deed for the day, and if she really was of an important family, an opening for trade. No way to tell if they’re any less disgusting than this bunch. Later, later, keep your wits about you, woman.
She glanced over at where her cadets sat in a clump. They were eating heartily, smiling meaninglessly at equally uncomprehending smiles from their neighbors, and drinking very lightly, with the upperclassmen keeping a watchful eye. Good.
One of the men near Daurthunnicar stood up; the old one with the robe and odd staff. He stretched the staff out, and near-silence fell. Then he threw back his head and began to sing, his voice occasionally cracking but still astonishingly full and sweet; a younger man beside him accompanied the song on something like a harp—not much like a harp; it was semicircular rather than triangular with the strings stretched over a parchment-covered soundbox, and the effect was closer to a guitar or mandolin. She had half expected the music to be wholly alien, but it was instead hauntingly familiar, the tone and scale easy to follow. The verses were rhythmic, not exactly rhyming…
Arnstein leaned close to Isketerol to whisper, then back to the captain. “It’s the ancestors and deeds of our host,” he said. “Sort of like the begats in the Bible, with an occasional blood feud or war thrown in. Takes his bloodline back to their gods.”
“Great, saga-singing biker gangs of the Bronze Age,” Alston muttered, and settled down to listen. This wouldn’t be the first long ceremony she’d sat through… and the food was good, at least. She’d been getting damned sick of fish.
The bosun’s pipe whistled as the captain came back up the hanging stair and over the bulwarks. “Eagle arriving!” barked the watch. Three bells rang, and another as her foot touched the deck.
The welcome stuttered a little as he saw who was included among the party following her, but made a creditable finish.
“Eagle aboard. Captain on deck!”
“As you were,” she said, returning the salutes of the watch. “Ms. Rapczewicz has the deck.” Then, with the same toneless precision: “Get me a pair of bolt-cutters, and some clothes for Ms. Swindapa here. On the double.”
They came quickly, the tool and a blue sweatsuit. Swindapa had been glancing around, her eyes enormous. She bit her lip at the sight of the long-handled cutters.
Probably thinks it’s some instrument of torture, Alston thought grimly.
Carefully—the collar was tight—she maneuvered the blades under the tough rawhide. The leather parted with a dull snap; Alston pulled off the broken collar with her hands and threw the pieces overside. An ungovernable impulse made her spit after them.
“What’s that phrase for ‘You can go home’ and ‘You are free’?” Alston asked. Arnstein relayed it, and Swindapa’s eyes went very wide. Alston mimed bound wrists, and then breaking them. It took a moment more to show her how to put on the clothes, and turn her over to the surgeon’s assistant. Especially when she threw herself to her knees and clutched at Alston’s legs, weeping.
“You’d better do the examination,” she said to the assistant, who was also a woman. “Check for infection and so forth.
“Well, that’s done,” she said more normally to the officers. “Yes, things went fairly well. We were lucky; there are a couple of people there who speak a form of Greek that Professor Arnstein halfway understands. The natives are friendly, and we can probably do the business we came for, PDQ. Our trade goods seem to have enormous relative value here.”
Sandy Rapczewicz rubbed her chin. “You don’t seem to like the taste of it much, skipper,” she said.
Alston shrugged. “No, I can’t say that I do. I really don’t approve of handin’ out human beings as party favors.”
The XO blanched. Alston went on: “But that buys no yams. It won’t be the first time I’ve done something that stuck in my craw in the line of duty.”
Several of the others nodded; they’d been on the Haitian refugee patrol too, turning starving people back into the hellhole of junta-ruled Port-au-Prince.
Rapczewicz shrugged. “At least it’s in a better cause than rescuing some politican’s credit with the voters,” she said.