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Chapter 17

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The late-summer rains saved her life.

She had been lying on the shore of the pond with her feet in the water, trying to keep cool in a dense, sultry dusk. Far down in the valley a woman’s full-throated cry went up like a ribbon of smoke in the vast silence of the day’s end. It rose, shuddered, and died away suddenly, followed almost at once by the unmistakable bark of Father Oppius’s dog.

Adriana climbed to the edge of the woods and peered into the valley. Lamps had begun to twinkle in the peasants’ huts. An ox bellowed lazily, the sound of bovine boredom. The scene was peaceful.

She slept badly. The night was humid, full of ill omen. The air seemed abnormally thick and agitated, though there was no wind. A shudder of lightning troubled the heavens. Thunder rolled over the mountain peaks.

She got out of bed and stood at the door to the villa garden, watching the odd play of sky-images in the west. Sheet-lightning flashed behind towers of cloud, writing brief tales of terror across the sky. Spectral cities perished in flames; monstrous grey-robed Persons rose at the Last Dawn; dark ships went down in a wintry sea.

By dawn the sun was back, crisp and autumnal. Adriana did the morning’s chores and took her siesta at noon, lying next to Wolf, naked after swimming, on the beach at the creek’s mouth. With half-closed eyes she watched the pond glitter under the high sun. A bird’s shadow darkened the wet sand; a warm breeze stirred sleepily in the woods.

She stretched and turned to lay her cheek against Wolf’s wet hair. She heard rustlings among the trees, and the crack of a dry stick.

"Who goes?" she demanded, rolling over on her back.

"It is nothing," Wolf said. "It is a wandering pig, or a goat from the hill."

"I’m not a pig," a little boy’s voice said, greatly offended.

Adriana sat up, pulled her discarded tunic across her lap, and peered into the brush behind the beach.

"Come out, come out," she said gently, beckoning at a clump of scrub willow.

Two little boys in white tunics climbed out of hiding and came forward hand in hand, the younger a small copy of the older.

"What are you doing so far from home, little ones?" Adriana said, touching the older boy on the cheek.

"We came up here looking for Maura, the funny woman." The boy touched his temple and shook his head. "Nobody knows where she is."

He gestured with a scornful thumb at his little brother. "He swears by his head, which has no brains, that he saw yellow men with masks and hair like a black goat’s hair. They were humping Maura."

The smaller boy nodded solemnly. "I was in the woods down there at sunset, chasing squirrels," he pointed toward the valley, "and the men wearing masks came into the woods, pulling Maura by the arms. They rolled on her first. Then they hit her. She shouted, the way she does." He covered his ears. "They they threw her down—thump! like that—on the rocks. Then they went away. Why did they wear masks?"

A long chill passed over the back of Adriana’s neck.

"I think they were demons, myself," the older boy said. "No one saw them but him. He’s always seeing things nobody else can see."

The smaller boy nodded vigorously. "I saw them with this eye, and this one."

He made the sign of the cross over each eye.

"Go home, now," Adriana said sweetly, patting each boy on the cheek. "My husband and I weren’t expecting company, or we would have put on our clothes."

The children nodded and ran away.

She lay back close to Wolf. Her scalp tingled with a rising, indefinable alarm.

"Ach," Wolf said, "the people come all the time, there is no privacy."

"Yellow men with masks," Adriana murmured, "and black goat’s hair. I can’t imagine how. . . ."

She let the thought slip.

In the evening, when Wolf and Adriana returned from Old Baldy, the autumnal weather was back. A melancholy gust of wind whirled down from the heights. A raven, sitting on a rotten stump, rose and flapped past Adriana’s head with a mournful croak. She laughed a little at the omen, but the laughter stuck in her throat.

At nightfall there was a continuous, subdued rumble of thunder. An angry wind flowed in from the west, driving a cloud-veil that seemed to shred itself on the pointed stars. Adriana heaped up the hearth-fire and warmed her hands before the blaze of pine-knots that sent out hissing jets of steam.

"We have time to get into bed," Wolf said, sniffing the coming storm. "Bed is the place for wild weather like this."

Darkness fell. Gathering his great shoulders in her blanket and drawing him close, she cradled Wolf’s head on her breast and sang softly while the embers hissed in the glowing hearth and their orange light shifted among the rafters overhead. Lightning flickered in the belly of the tempest as it advanced from the west. A dreary wind moaned along the mountainside; heavy drops of rain fell one by one.

The storm burst over the mountains with a roar of thunder and an icy rush of wind. Flashes of lightning tumbled over one another; wind-tossed vines scratched at the house, like children lost in the night. Sheets of rain pounded the roof-tiles and shutters and the broad-leaved weeds outside the kitchen door. Wrapped all around each other, Wolf and Adriana lay snug in their cocoon of warmth, listening to the storm as it roared through the woods like a flock of damned souls.

When she grew used to the thunder, Adriana fell asleep. She dreamed that she had swallowed a gold solidus and Faustinus was cutting a hole in her belly to get it out. A thunderclap woke her in a panic. She got up and stoked the fire in the hearth. It flared around pine-knots and calmed her with its warmth. She lay in the glow and watched the ethereal silver smoke drift off through the high window, and listened to the inexhaustible rainfall until its hypnotic monotony put her to sleep again.

Well into the morning the rain stopped at last. While Wolf still slept, Adriana pulled her tunic over her head and went barefoot to see the damage the storm had done. No part of the house was under water. Branches and leaves littered the grassy space around the villa. A driving, restless wind shifted along the mountain slopes, pressing Adriana’s tunic against her body, worrying at her face and breast as if to push her back into the safety of the house. The forest dripped, a spatter of consonants. The pond had swollen into a fast-emptying lake, its surface cluttered with vegetation stripped from the heights. The creek was a torrent, booming and hissing through its gorge. It seemed to be escaping from the mountains while the sobbing forest urged it to stay.

Shivering, Adriana went back to the kitchen. Wolf was up, naked, hugging himself.

"It is time to fish," he said gravely, looking out at the grey day, pulling his tunic over his head, and digging through his effects for his pole. "The storm has washed all the fish out of the mountains."

In vain she searched his face for hints of a German joke. He fished until noon at the edge of the swollen pond, caught nothing but dead branches, and lost his temper and the tip of his pole.

"They are not biting, they do not like old dead grasshoppers," he said. "I must go down to the Widow Phaleria’s and dig worms, which the fish will not be able to resist."

Adriana stood in the doorless vestibule, watching him go, listening to his squelching footfalls above the wind that moaned high in the trees. The thunder of the creek, swollen into a river, had grown louder since dawn. Rivulets dodged and leaped down the forest slopes, splitting and reuniting, shooting along smooth granite, plunging over boulders, rock-shelves, fallen trees.

Alone in the house, she took odd comfort in the attack of the wind, howling among the trees, pelting the roof with bark and twigs. All afternoon she worked to calm herself, knitting, dusting, rearranging the simple furniture in the kitchen. She carried clean water from the spring and chopped pine-faggots, rubbing her palms raw on the axe-handle. She piled up the bedside brazier for added cheer; the pine-knots crackled, spurting flame now and then with a melancholy hiss. She prepared a simple supper of wine and cheese and covered the food with a cloth. Shivering in the grey dampness, she climbed to the edge of the woods and peered down the valley toward the village, hoping to see Wolf swinging up the ascent.

"Are you there?" she shouted. A moist echo came back to her. When it died away, the hills were silent.

She went indoors and stirred the hearth, tidied her supper pointlessly, and lit a lamp of perfumed oil to make the meal cheerful. She listened to the out-of-doors, hoping for what she could not hear. The lamp died. She relit it cautiously with a roll of bark.

She waited. A damp gust of air from the garden, like a spirit, sent up a whirl of sparks from the bedside brazier. A light chill passed down her spine. She began to hear odd sounds in the vacant rooms overhead: faint rubbing, scratching, gnawing, the burrowing of unseen claws.

She sang a little, and broke into a sweat. She looked out the window and swore to herself that there were shapes stealing among the trees and gliding down the slopes: two, three, perhaps five. Perhaps they were wolves. She thought she could see their eyes glittering in the woods, hear their feet stir the last autumn’s wet leaves.

She pinched her cheeks to calm herself. Her mind invented its own horrors. She thought of the fool-woman, her large body being torn by the murderers, her life-blood pouring out at the bottom of a trench in the woods, and the murderers themselves slinking away through the brush. Her heart pounded furiously, like a mallet in a barrel.

Abruptly, she felt exhausted.

"I must sleep, he will come," she said to herself aloud.

She locked and barred the kitchen door that led to the rest of the house. Instinct told her to leave the solitary window unshuttered and the door open to the kitchen-garden and the forest, in case she had to leave in a hurry.

She lay on her bed of ferns. The rush of her thoughts became increasingly bizarre and then extinguished itself abruptly in a dreamless sleep. She woke near dusk. A gust of wind had blown out the lamp. She lay frozen on the bed for a moment, straining to hear, above the moaning of the wind, the human sounds that she knew must be present in the room.

Cautiously she got to her feet and fumbled against the wall, reaching for the lamp. She laid a strip of bark in the brazier, stirred up the coals, and relit the wick with the bark when it had burst into flame.

She could hear nothing but the wind and the monotonous thunder of the creek, but she knew with cold certainty that they were there, and when she turned with the lighted lamp in her hand she was startled, but not surprised, to see them standing at the edge of the orange glow.

*

She dropped the lamp with a crash, and clapped her right hand to the poisoned stiletto that rested against her thigh. The Huns seemed not to notice. With perfect economy of motion, in six noiseless strides, they were on either side of her, smiling the smile that the women of Aquileia had seen on the day they died.

She allowed herself to scream.

The Huns smiled.

Not quite Adriana’s height, the creatures hardly seemed like angels of death. They were compact and smooth-skinned; their most threatening features were their steely muscularity and their overpowering body-odor. The body-odor of Huns was in the bloodstream, Adriana thought, fermented for centuries on the plains of Asia. Bare-chested in the abominable weather, they wore greasy leg-wraps and loincloths that would never be changed until they rotted and fell off. They had few tattoos and no amulets. Perhaps, as children of the devil, they needed no protection from him.

"We hungry," one of them said, patting his flat belly, on which a drift of black hair spoke of some Persian ancestor who had mated with the women of the Asian steppes.

Her tongue was frozen; her hands were frozen.

"You make fire," the creature snapped, his eyes glinting. He kicked the bedside brazier, showering red coals on the floor.

"Peace," Adriana said absurdly, the only word she could bring her paralyzed mouth to shape. She set her feet and hands in motion, stoking the hearth with pine-knots, picking coals off the floor with a rusted pair of tongs, blowing with wooden lips until a wisp of smoke announced the coming flame.

Her thoughts were out of control, like birds trapped in a windowless room; she longed for her habitual dry calm in the face of catastrophe. She thought how pleasant the safety of the brigand-camp would be, how unobjectionable to lose a finger for the sake of the ring it wore, or an ear for the sake of a pearl. A fragment of Avitus’s advice presented itself, like a flute-note in a cyclone, that Deity had provided a hundred escapes from every tight place and the trick was to find just one of them.

She forced herself to imagine the possible worst: her head sitting in the crotch of a tree, her limbs dangling from the adjacent branches, her intestines draped over the surrounding bushes like fish-line; and suddenly her thoughts were orderly, as if news of her death had been brought to her and she knew it was false. She turned to the Huns.

"I have cheese," she said, gesturing at the table she had set for Wolf.

"We want meat." The little beast-man’s eyes glittered.

"I have pig," she nodded. "It will take time."

"Take time," the Hun repeated, like a child rehearsing a lesson.

She spitted the last of the suckling pig that she and Wolf had eaten the night before, and set it rotating above the strong blaze. She tempered the fire with water, thinking, with dreadful logic, that slow cooking over a weak fire would let her live longer. Wolf was surely on his way home. She would ply her guests with food and wine, especially wine. God be thanked, there was plenty of wine.

She tended the spit with one hand and turned to the Huns with a gracious smile. They looked like square-set children to her now, standing side by side, their flat chests glistening in the orange light of the hearth.

"You need wine," she said, smiling, "to prepare you for the meal."

"Wine, wine," they said, and giggled, as Huns were apt to do, at nothing in particular.

She brought out the potent wine of the valley, filled her own large goblet and Wolf’s, and served the black draft unmixed with water. The Huns hunkered down near the hearth, drained their goblets, and wagged them in the air.

"More?"

"More."

Giving unspeakable thanks, she filled the goblets again, watching the intruders’ faces for signs of drowsiness from strong drink and the heat of the fire.

The more talkative of the two put his stubby fingers under his loin-apron, kneaded his genitals appreciatively, and smirked up at Adriana.

"Pig cook self. You make dance for Optila."

"Soon it will be time to eat," she said, dismay clutching at her again.

Optila spat into the hearth, raising a puff of steam. He grinned. His brother Traustila grinned. They grinned together, and emitted little nasal giggles.

"First you make dance," Optila said, nudging his brother. "Then we eat. Or we do something else."

Transported by Optila’s humor, the Huns giggled, nudging each other like small boys. Their moon-faces glowed under their patchy beards.

How pleased Flavia would be, Adriana thought with the humor of despair; I’m the she-buffoon in a monstrous farce, a noblewoman dancing in her underwear.

She prepared herself for the mortification of presenting her body for the amusement of strangers. She glanced at her tormentors, sitting elbow-to-elbow in the hearth-light. Her hand itched for the tiny knife that lay against her lower belly; a single well-managed pass of the blade would send both devils to the Pit, after some preliminary discomfort.

"Shall I dance while you eat?" she asked, buying time.

"You make dance. Then we eat—or something else. You take clothes off." The Hun delivered his idiot Latin with great confidence.

Ignoring the last demand, she set the fallen brazier upright to clear a space for herself, kicked the scattered coals against the hearth, and began to dance, clapping her hands, humming her own accompaniment. Ordinarily satisfied with her body, she felt gaunt and ill-shaped as she moved. Her charms could not possibly keep her alive, after all; at most they would postpone her death, or prolong it. With cold foresight she prepared herself for the moment when the Huns grew bored with their play, and closed in to rape and dismember her, according to their custom. Perhaps she could manage to die quickly. Meanwhile, she danced to soothe the beasts; she would put them to sleep if possible. Already their eyelids were heavy with wine.

"You take clothes off." The Hun-voice was petulant. The boy made an imperious gesture.

"Shall I sing?" she asked, pretending not to understand.

She sang. Her voice seemed to her to come from the Huns or the hearth, not her own mouth. How we loved! Who saw us? A star that dropped into the sea, and told the waves, who told the oar, and the oar the fisherman, and the fisherman his wife, who told the whole village!

"You take clothes off!" Optila’s eyes were angry. He had gathered his body, apparently to spring at her.

She tugged at her tunic, pulling it over her head. The Huns giggled at the sight of her breasts. She would die, she decided, before giving up her loin-wrap and the stiletto that it concealed.

She escaped into an ancient dance, ancient gestures, for which her body knew the intimate reasons. In the red glow of the hearth, the Huns nodded and smiled with half-shut eyelids, grunting with pleasure at her performance. Leaping maenads entered Adriana’s bruised imagination, with bleeding faces and breasts. Howling satyrs followed, with sharpened teeth, and there was a thunder of skin-headed drums. As her mind escaped to a place where death could not follow, her feet pursued her mind, and she was running, running through the forest in her mind, and her body ached to follow.

Again, the Huns’ coughing laughter went up near the hearth. Their heads nodded in drunken enthusiasm as they followed her movements with their little eyes. Traustila shut his eyes suddenly, apparently asleep. Optila seemed to have trouble keeping both eyes open at once. He squinted at Adriana with one, then the other. Then he seemed to slip into a trance with the left eye open, the right eye closed.

She hesitated in mid-movement. The Hun registered no change of expression.

The kitchen door stood open, where the creatures had entered. Beyond it, the dark forest dripped into the kitchen garden; beyond the garden lay the path to Probus’s cliff.

She dashed out into the open air, bruising her hardened feet on the stones of the forest floor, and pounded through the grey dusk toward the creek. Her head seemed filled with the clamor of voices calling her name. In her witless panic she thought she would be safe on Old Baldy. The forest undergrowth lashed at her and slowed her. She tripped over an exposed root and dropped like a bird felled by a stone. Her shoulder and thigh hurt abominably, but she dragged herself to her feet by force of will.

Running again, she could see the swollen creek. The sight gave her courage. She misplaced her bruised feet, slipped, and fell against a tree, striking her head with a disorienting flash of pain. Giddy and faint, with a sick, tingling sensation at the roots of her hair, she stumbled to the creek-bank and collapsed down it, bruising her buttocks and hands.

She struggled to her feet and wiped the spray from her eyes. A clump of brush had broken her fall just short of the smooth, oily curve of the torrent, sweeping past her at the speed of a horse’s gallop. All the familiar landmarks had vanished under water. Above the flood, the monk’s rope shifted in the spray. Just west of it the stream broke into a long fury of rapids.

Better to die by water than steel, she thought, throwing off her loin-wrap and biting hard on the sheath of her painted stiletto. In an animated daze she entered the stream where she knew the stepping-stones would be. If the rope held, she could reach the other shore. The flood battered her legs. With raw fingers she dragged herself hand over hand through the boiling current, aware that a moment’s relaxation of her grip would toss her into the white rage beyond where she moved.

She focused on what she could see of the far shore, moving her half-paralyzed hands toward it, hand over hand along the wet ridges of rope, moving her mind toward it, as if she were contemplating the Eucharist. Her consciousness began to wander. She thought of a drowned man she had seen in Tuscany, a mound of flesh washed up on a beach, its eyes eaten away by sea-birds.

Her hands moved of their own accord now, one over the other, chafing against the wet rope. A branch swept past, nearly taking her with it. Choked with spray, she saw rocks looming, dim shapes above the waste of hurtling water. Her feet seemed to take on an intelligence of their own, searching out desperate toeholds on the creek-bottom. Her right foot slipped on a familiar rock. She caught her balance, glanced backward, and saw two human forms through the spray.

She struck out again with the strength of renewed terror, concentrating on her dead feet, trying to remember where the flat stones were. Her knees collided sharply with the far bank of the creek. Hand over hand she pulled herself up the rocky slope, upward among brambles, her legs and body numb, her arms and chest a continuous mass of pain. The stream sucked at her knees and ankles as she pulled them free. She hooked her left arm over a willow branch and pushed her heels into the vegetable rot at the edge of the bank until her feet were secure.

She could see the Huns clearly now. Ignorant of the stepping-stones, they were throwing their whole weight on the rope, dangling from it like apes. She pulled her stiletto free, spat out the sheath, and began to saw deliberately at the knotted rope that strained under the weight of the shapes drawing near, hand over hand, on the lip of the cataract.

The strands split off one by one; the main body of the rope stretched at the cut. She saw the black heads approaching through wreaths of spray, and thought she heard the rush of athletic breathing above the boom and hiss of the torrent.

Her left arm went numb around the branch; her right hand worked with an unfeeling life of its own. She pulled the blade toward herself and sprawled back onto wet rock. The Huns barked as the sundered rope plunged them into the rapids. Their black heads bobbed for an instant above the rushing water and then vanished, like dead leaves before a high wind.

For a while she stared at the space between her feet. Then she allowed herself to weep, silently at first, until her shaking stopped, and she had recovered herself enough to open her eyes and look candidly at the swirling water, making sure that the Huns were gone.

*

She felt starved. Absurdly, she had an appetite for strawberries. Her legs were coated with slime and bits of wet bark. She tried to move, and had no strength. She kept her place and allowed her mind to go numb. For a long while she leaned against the cliff-face, mentally at a great distance from her pain, the raging of the creek, and the souls of the drowned Huns shouting at her from hell in their strange tongue.

Near nightfall there was movement in the trees across the creek, upstream, near the pond. She called out weakly. Wolf’s clear baritone floated back to her above the thunder.

He struck the water outstretched and was half way across the pond, seeming to push the surface out of his way with his powerful stroke. His bright hair showed just short of the falls; then he rose out of the torrent and climbed the rocks to her side, saying her name again and again, shaking his wet head like a seal. He crouched beside her.

"Are you well?" he asked, laying a hand to her cheek and smoothing back her hair with the other. "You will catch cold."

"I’m not shivering from the chill," she said, her hands clenched over her knees in a convulsive effort at self-control.

He noticed blood trickling down her arm.

"You are cut up," he worried. "Your face is like clay."

"I’ve lost a bit of skin," she said, sucking at the scrape.

"Ach, I did not come, Adriana, because we were looking for the demons who killed Maura—all of us, the priest, the dog, everyone. Ach, we looked everywhere but here. The demons must have known we would do that."

"I was their quarry," she said. "Maybe they waited until I was alone. It’s all right."

"You need wine and a fire. I will carry you home."

He swung her up in his arms like a child and carried her along the shore. At the edge of the pond where the current could be breasted safely, he lowered her gently into the water and followed with a splash. She relaxed under his arm and let the dark water flow by her ears as he drew her with his powerful one-armed stroke, snorting like a dog with a stick.

Her teeth had stopped chattering when they reached the house. She was faint, as if from fasting. Wolf built a fire, wrapped Adriana in a blanket, laid her near the hearth on their bed of fern, and brought her a goblet of hot spiced wine. She drank it and shivered.

"I rarely catch cold," she said hopefully, and sneezed. The wine numbed her; she grew drowsy as the warmth penetrated her bruised, chilled body. A rush of words came to her lips as she lay with her head in Wolf’s lap, explaining her brush with death.

"I saw a woman from the East once," she babbled, "a delicate little wisp the color of an apricot. Don’t you think Huns must come from the mating of Eastern women with lions? They’re said to be inexhaustible in bed. My sister Flavia’s ambition is to own a Hunnish slave. She says she’s always wanted a lover who has to be kept in a cage."

She talked and talked, and sobbed a little. Her tongue would not stop moving. Wolf pillowed her head against his shoulder and smoothed her hair with his hand. The wine took full effect at last. Soon her voice trailed away, and she slept like an exhausted infant.

When she came round, warmth had crept back into her thighs and upper arms. The weather was softening; a light breeze stirred the soaked underbrush outside the kitchen window. "Why," she asked, looking up at Wolf, "does a cup of wine always taste sweetest when it’s nearly gone?"

"I do not understand, madam," Wolf said softly.

"We’re being played with," Adriana said hopelessly. "He builds up our hopes so he can crush them."

"Faustinus?" Wolf asked.

"He has an infinite number of eyes and ears, and the help of the devil besides," she said.

Depression gripped her intestines like a hand of lead. "He could have destroyed us any time, but he’s playing with us. He won’t pluck the pear before it’s ripe. He’ll find a way to drag out the game until he gets tired of it. It’s hopeless."

She spread her hands. "If we stay here, he’ll hound us to death. If we move on, he’ll run us down."

"God is cleverer than Faustinus, and more patient," Wolf said resolutely.

"God brought us here, I think," she nodded. "There must be other places like this, tucked away where nothing important happens. Maybe we can find one. If we do, we’ll drink deeply in a hurry, before Faustinus can take the cup of pleasure from us again."

She pressed closer to Wolf. The smells and sounds of the forest deepened her melancholy.

"But now it’s time to leave," she said after a while, in a voice that carried all the weariness of the world.

*

The skies had melted over the Sila. The valleys were bogs; the roads were chutes of clay. The forest was still dripping. Vanished creeklets had left their traces in stands of pine, around the trunks of holm-oaks, through clumps of chestnut, running away to the sea. Small plants lay draggled on the floor, in a litter of branches and fallen leaves.

Taking Wolf by the hand at dawn, Adriana walked to the creek and looked carefully at it, booming through its gorge.

"No one could have survived that," Wolf said, and Adriana nodded, grateful that the devil had claimed his own.

With a wooden spirit she went through her customary morning-motions, feeling like the last of the summer’s flowers, odorless and dull. Perhaps the day would be easier after she had said her farewells in the village. Without conviction she arrayed her hair, smoothed her tunic, beckoned to Wolf, and went out into the grey day.

They crept barefoot down the mountainside, moving from bush to bush along the path where it had become a slide. The only street in Curia was a morass. Adriana and Wolf squelched their way to the church. Spino blocked the door, half asleep, lifting his head now and then to make a gigantic snap at the flies that teased him. Seeing Adriana, he barked joyously and came to lick her hand.

Father Oppius was at prayer, kneeling in an aura of lamplight and incense. Adriana went to her knees, crossed herself, and waited patiently in the golden semidarkness of the little refuge until the priest looked up to see why Spino was thumping his tail.

The old saint got off his knees and bowed to Adriana and Wolf in turn.

"Come," he said, taking each of them by an elbow and leading them out of the sanctuary.

In the courtyard he turned and examined Adriana’s face in daylight.

"You’re leaving," he said simply, reading her eyes.

"I must. I’ve made promises. I’m no longer safe."

"Ah." Father Oppius nodded. "There’s no changing your mind. Your eyes say so."

He shrugged sadly. "Well, God be thanked anyway. You were good for us. You let us see that decent people can be from anywhere, even Rome. Come to the house. I must give you something for your trip. What shall I give you? Ah, Flora. I can’t give you Florus the mule, alas, but Flora is one more donkey than I need. She’ll carry everything you pile on her and thank you for the privilege, the good creature."

In Father Oppius’s stable, Flora the donkey glared at Adriana like an old woman preparing to curse.

"There’ll be no charge," the priest said, with a sad little wave of the hand. "It’d be like selling a member of the family. She belonged to my brother, great man that he was. The evening before he died he made a drink of meal and water for her, just as if she were our sister. May you live well, Flora!"

He kissed the donkey between the eyes. She turned, stretched her neck, and bit Adriana’s hand.

"Come, break your fast," Father Oppius said, and led his guests back to the house. In the cheerful simplicity of his kitchen they shelled boiled eggs together. While they ate, Basilia ran through the village. The plain folk of Curia began to appear at the priest’s door, taking time from their chores to bid the strange visitors goodbye.

The old women wrung their hands and sniffled. The old men saluted and said "Farewell!" in their thin voices. Women held up their babies. Girls came to kiss Adriana and Wolf as they left the house, and whispered Vale! in their ears. Adriana found a little girl’s warm hand in her own. She picked up the small person and hugged her, feeling a touch of envy that the child would enjoy the simple life of the hills all during the distant spring.

The priest brought a red rose and fixed it above Adriana’s right ear. He had tears in his eyes.

"Goodbye, goodbye," he said, tracing crosses in the air with two fingers. Spino barked mournfully.

Adriana’s sadness dragged her toward the ground as she walked away from the people of Curia for the last time, with a burning sensation in her throat. Passing through the village gate into the countryside, she turned so often to wave and blow kisses that her neck ached when at last she set her eyes on the hills and threw herself into the climb. At the top, she could not bear to look long at anything, the pond, the friendly profile of the collapsing house, the tiny meadow in which she had half-hoped to plant cabbages and beans in the spring.

Flora the donkey had dragged her feet spitefully all the way up the hill. Adriana led the creature into the house, tethered her in the vestibule, and gave her some of the priest’s barley that she had carried up the hillside.

She wished for nightfall. Somehow the agony of departure would have been minimized if the familiar surroundings had been concealed. She went through the morning with numb determination, gathering her effects, directing the silent Wolf with curt phrases, as if he were her slave again. They agreed to travel sparely; the load that Wolf draped over the resentful Flora was hardly staggering: a pair of coarse blankets, a pair of wicker baskets with spare sandals, a change of tunics, and food that would be slow to spoil.

Adriana went through the house, touching familiar things: the cold hearth, a vase with wilted wildflowers, a broken statue in the atrium with dead leaves gathered at its base. She went alone to the ruined garden for the last time, and touched the broken sundial and the willow pole in which Wolf had notched the passing days. The rain had greened everything. The place was restful and fragrant, like the garden she had left at Rome.

"I’m sorry, I must go," she said quietly to the flowers, and turned to leave.

She closed the doors to the kitchen and did her best to align the broken shutters over the window. Wolf gave her a stout staff that he had cut, and took one of his own. They slung their bundles over their shoulders, carrying fresh bread and goat’s ham cured in the mountaineers’ fashion, and set off into the forest. The breeze from the mountains followed them, carrying the smell of pine.

On the westward path Adriana turned where she knew she could still see the house, and made the sign of the cross over it, whispering a blessing in the names of the Trinity.

"When I’m dead, bring me back here if you can," she murmured to Wolf with a terrible ache in her throat, and turned westward again.

*

Dank smells rose from the forest undergrowth on either side of the charcoal-burners’ track. There was hardly a sound in the grey day, sometimes a goat’s bell, or the murmur of cattle in the mountain meadows.

Flora took stubborn care placing her hoofs on the slopes, treacherous after the storm. In the afternoon she put her nose into a clump of thistles and refused to budge. Wolf tugged at her bridle and she showed her teeth. His lips grimly set, Wolf took the beast’s head in a hammer-lock, dragged her back to the path, and kicked her into motion. She was docile the rest of the day.

By early afternoon, Adriana and Wolf walked the damp stones of the southbound Via Popilia. Halfway down to the plain of the River Lametus, the decayed walls of a giant villa loomed out of a mountainside. The wreck depressed Adriana, because it seemed to stand for all that had been her life, but there was dry hay for a good night’s sleep in the deserted stables. In the morning she and Wolf bargained with a peasant woman for a breakfast of eggs, and took to the highway again with stomachs half-full.

Charcoal-burners had assaulted the lower forest pitilessly; the unrestrained rainfall had rushed down the mountainsides, flooding the lowlands and carrying away animals and houses. But two days after the storm, the abused land had dried out as fast as it had become saturated. The lower countryside lacked the clean light and shadow of the mountains. The infrequent peasant huts were often deserted. Others were sties inhabited by famished ex-serfs, clawing a living from fields no longer rich.

Flora suddenly quickened her pace and bit Wolf on the hand.

"She’s hungry," Adriana said wearily. "Her ears are hanging. Let’s turn her loose among the thistles."

They did. The donkey ran away, but not very fast, because of her age. Adriana sat on a stone by the highway while Wolf chased Flora through the brambles and dragged her back to the path. Scanning the landscape, Adriana saw a green slash in a yellow field, announcing a spring. She rushed to it. Even Flora was content to rest by the tiny trickle of water with her persecutors, who drank sparingly and gathered their strength.

The highway emerged from the foothills of the Sila. Through sparse woods the plain of the Lametus appeared, simmering in the August heat, and beyond it the great mirror of the Tyrrhenian sea.

"Lord, what a desert!" Adriana said. "There’s a house over there, with people, thank God. Perhaps they’ll put us up for the night."

The approach to the peasant hut was dismal. Two bony hens, pictures of despair, scratched mournfully in a clutter of broken amphorae, dead leaves, dung, brambles, and rags. A black pair of horns had been sketched with charcoal over the door of the hut to prevent witches from crossing the threshold.

Adriana rapped on the door. The knock was answered by a pinch-faced woman who could have sat for a formal portrait of Destitution. She was old at thirty, dull as lead, the product of years of sour wine, miscarriages, too little biscuit, and hard digging in dry fields.

"Who are you, in the name of God?" the farm-wife asked wearily.

"Will you give us supper, madam?" Adriana asked.

"We have no wine worth drinking and no supper worth eating," the creature answered, and shut the door.

Adriana knocked again.

"We’re prepared to pay."

"If you will, I’d like to bargain with you for that handsome donkey," the woman said, casting sad eyes on Flora.

"Take her and good riddance," Adriana said. "The dishonest beast doesn’t earn what she eats, even if she eats it in the woods. I’ll give you a coin just to take her away."

She found a copper piece in her purse and put it in the farm-wife’s palm.

"I’m Ursina; you’re welcome here," the woman said, not smiling, and motioned the travelers into her hovel.

The interior was predictably squalid, with a hearth of unmortared stones, walls as sooty as the hearth, and a smoke-hole in the roof that seemed to let light out of the house rather than bring it in. Black cobwebs hung from the rafters. The dirt floor was crisscrossed by trails of dung from the yard. Two scrawny hens ran in and out of the living space. An evil-looking black pig dozed in the rubble. A pale man lay on a pallet, spitting against the wall.

"He has a demon, no one knows its name," Ursina said wearily.

Adriana and Wolf stood in the center of the room, looking for a place to sit. A spindly son of the house got up with an expression of resentment, shook the droppings off a mat on which the hens had been roosting, and spread it on the floor for the guests.

"The weather has been from hell," Ursina whined, kicking the pig out of its doze and sending it squealing out of the house. "Enough rain to drown the rich man’s cattle and the poor woman’s chickens, but not enough to make decent grain. A week ago everything was dry as Satan’s spit, and now the crops are drowned."

She turned to chase a hen that had invaded the family’s store of grain and was eating three times her own value in one meal.

"Eh," she said, "the world is full of hungry stomachs. Why? Because when we need sunshine the devil sends water, and when we need water the devil sends sunshine. They say it’s God’s will. I say it’s the devil’s."

The husband coughed weakly. He turned to the wayfarers. Sweat beaded his forehead and the sacs under his eyes. The eyes were alive with suspicions and schemes; the man on his deathbed could still think of ways to cheat a guest.

His wife showed him Adriana’s coin.

"Reminds me of last year, when I got a whole denarius for a couple of chickens that died of the pip," the husband said, coughing.

"I don’t think we’ve had any luck since then," the wife said sorrowfully, and presented her left breast to a child who stood at her knee. A wasted baby, apparently the youngest child, moaned in a corner of the room.

"The Undead are sucking him, I think," the mother said wearily.

"What’s the ailment?" Adriana asked.

"Who knows? What the devil wishes, he has."

With a handful of wilted ferns Ursina brushed the flies from her face and breast, and talked wearily of death and decay. In their youth, she and her husband had started well, but their best pig had died, the goat had died, the geese had died thirsty with their mouths hanging open, the donkey had turned vicious and stamped around in the cabbages and then had kicked Junius in the stones, which was just as well because the household could not afford more children, but more had been born anyway, and most had died, which was just as well. The dog had developed a passion for egg-sucking and Ursina had killed it with her own hands, and in any case the hens that had not died had stopped laying regularly but ate twice as much as before, as the devil would have it.

She unhooked a pot that hung on a chain over the hearth. "It’s time to eat, but we’ll see the color of your money first," she said.

Adriana presented a second coin. The woman poured bean porridge out of the pot into a clay bowl, pulled a black loaf to pieces, and handed the rough gouts around the circle of diners. The family ate as noisily as pigs, and with less delicacy. Ursina gave her best to the guests: an extra helping of coarse bread, broken with dirty fingers, and a clay tumbler of muddy red wine.

She fetched up a vast sigh from somewhere below the breastbone.

"Lord, when I was a girl there was bread for everyone—bread for the dogs and the pigs, even, and the loaves were as big as the stones in my garden, and we had wine and chicken whenever we wanted it. Lord! Chicken! You might as well take down the moon to eat for supper now. What kind of a life is this? The hens won’t lay, the pig is lean as a cricket, the cabbages have worms, the children have worms, for all I know the worms have worms."

She spat into the hearth-fire.

"We’ll sleep now," Adriana said, rising. "We’ll leave early tomorrow, to stay out of the sun."

"Go with God," Ursina said, and followed her guests to the door.

They walked to the barn, their feet catching in dry weeds. Lampless, they climbed a ladder into the dusty hay-rick, and nestled in a corner under the eaves. The loft was open at one end, admitting the last light of day. There was a tart smell of parched hay and old manure. Spiders watched from the corners; two rats, ignoring the newcomers, chewed busily at a heap of rotten skins.

Adriana lay staring up at the roof, whose confining presence she could feel more than see. There were stealthy scratchings in the hay as night fell. The rats, at least, were wide awake: in the hay, in Rome, in the world.

"Here we are again," she said. "We have our brief moment of joy, then we spend the rest of our lives in a frenzy trying to make the joy come again."

"We will make it come," Wolf said. "We are together, and if we both wish it, it will come. Not even the king can stop it from coming."

"Not even the king," she repeated, with a mental shrug.

"Lord, it’s so hard to go back," she said after a time, and wept. She buried her face against Wolf’s chest. When the tears left her at last he was sleeping peacefully.

Her cloak drawn up around her head, she lay awake, listening to a rising wind that stalked the shed like a hunter of blood, clawing the roof, breathing hard in the eaves, hurling itself against the rotted walls.

She closed her eyes and remembered floating silently with Wolf on clean water, in clean sun, with a clean wind rustling in the pine-tops, and everything quiet underneath except the chattering creek, parting over stones and logs and rounding into bright pools that flashed where the sun descended warm through willow branches and made the sleek leaves glow against the shade.

She slept. The wind battered the stable and brought down dead matter from the oak that overspread it. The disturbance woke her in confusion, and she thought she was in her grave, that the sound above her head was the shuffling of feet, of all the tormented multitudes that had wandered the world since time began, moving forever aimlessly over the surface of the dark earth where she lay.

*

She started awake when something dragged itself over her feet and scurried away through the straw. The darkness was still intense. The wind had died; cool night air flowed evenly through the loft. She could see the Dog Star through the open end. Wolf woke and shifted against her.

"Is it time to leave?" he asked.

"I think so," she said. "There’s light enough to show the road."

In the dark she checked herself by hand to be sure her undergarments were securely tied, and that the pope’s ring, the stiletto, and her sack of coins were in place, along with the remaining dry bread she had brought from the mountains, which the rats had no doubt smelled when her body had warmed it.

Wolf followed her down the ladder into the starlight. The landscape was pale and weary-looking, as if the night had been unable to refresh it. A hazy moon was slipping below the western horizon. The wretched thickets that passed for forest on the fringe of the seaside lowland were absolutely silent. Adriana would have been grateful for the sound of a lizard rushing through the grass, or for the screech of a single night-hunting bird.

The sun rose all too soon. The touch of its rays on the backs of her arms felt like fire. In late summer in the South, the sunrise had no charm. It seemed to add one more trouble to a predictably troublesome day.

By mid-afternoon, leaning against Wolf for support, Adriana toiled up the long slope to Vibo, past clusters of mud huts that the next earthquake would rattle against one another like dice in a box. On its sunbaked eminence, the city dozed and reeked like a monk on a pillar.

"It’s Rome all over again," Adriana said, passing through the gate. She felt like a runaway child who had fled in a circle and found itself at home. The noise, the stench, the anguished tedium were all Rome: the familiar dirt and dust, eggshells, bones, fish-heads, decaying vegetables, excrement; the sad vagabonds crouched around the dry fountains, sunning their tatters and searching for vermin on each other’s scalps; the priests wandering in a dream of the hereafter; the madmen lecturing the air; the old women cursing everything; the dull-eyed little boys making faces at the old women, the madmen, and the priests.

She took Wolf’s hand and climbed the blazing east-west thoroughfare, between grim rows of houses shut tight against the heat. There was no worthwhile shade in the forum. Only the lizards seemed charmed by the sun, sliding like quicksilver among the crannies in the walls.

A huge, decapitated bronze body, with rippling muscles, towered above the pedestrians, awaiting the head of a new emperor.

Whose head?

The question froze her blood.

"Pardon me, Father," she said, turning to a pleasant-looking old man with a white beard. "I wish to ask a question about that statue."

She pointed to the bronze hulk.

"Whose head used to be there?" she asked.

"I think his name was Maximus."

"And whose head will be there now?" She held her breath, preparing herself for the Name.

"Who can say?" the old man shrugged. "One loses track. I can’t even remember the name of Placidia’s son, who used to stand there."

"But a new emperor has been announced?"

"I don’t know."

A dozen catastrophic possibilities jostled each other in her mind.

"Where is the bishop, Father?"

The old man made an eloquent gesture, due west. Adriana thanked him with a coin, and dragged Wolf out of the forum. She hurried to the great church, followed by a dwindling clientele of dogs, boys, and loafers. The neighborhood improved; the wealth of Vibo seemed concentrated in the vicinity of the bishop’s palace, next to the cathedral.

"Wait here," she said to Wolf at the porter’s wicket. "Find some shade. I don’t want to take time for introductions just yet."

She showed the pope’s ring and letter, and passed into the cool opulence of the palace with a suddenness that made her cheeks tingle. In silence she followed a deacon down polished corridors lit with a dim religious light.

The bishop of Vibo received her in his garden, pungent with roses and hyacinths. He bowed cordially, excused her disorderliness, and handed her a pouch of money and a small scroll, written in the pope’s own unmistakable hand.

She read the message, excused herself with thanks, and left the bishop, thinking of Avitus, her childhood friend. She was afraid for him, and grateful for his presence in the world.

Wolf was waiting patiently in the shade of the palace portico.

"The Senate in Gaul has moved into the power vacuum," she announced, kissing him on the cheek.

"Meaning?" he shrugged.

"That I’m going to get drunk," she smiled. "Eparchius Avitus is emperor at Rome."

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