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This Rough Magic: Chapter Fifteen

       Last updated: Thursday, July 10, 2003 00:00 EDT




March, 1539 A.D.

    A shadow passed over the road in front of their mules; Lopez noticed that his mule flattened its ears at it. He looked up, and did not like what he saw. Those were blunt-winged hawks, not soarers.

    Goshawks, he thought. What were goshawks doing here? In his former life, Eneko had flown hawks against game, as every young nobleman did. You used goshawks in forested lands, not open plains, because they could not soar aloft on thermal currents as the long-winged falcons or broad-winged buzzards could. So why were those two up there, laboring away?

    "Do you see those two hawks up there, Francis?

    The monk squinted. "Well, I can see two birds, Eneko. They're very high. Could be hawks, I suppose."

    Eneko frowned. "This is the third day I've noticed them. Sometimes one, sometimes both."

    Francis shrugged. "Well, there are always birds up there. Why do you think they're the same ones? We've done a fair number of leagues every day, Eneko, since we left Rome. We're already nearing Venice."

    Lopez had actually opened his mouth to explain, when abruptly, explanations became superfluous.

    Darkness fell on them as if someone had just clapped a giant kettle over the road. Flames leapt and roared in the sudden darkness, blocking the road ahead of them. The mules were terrified, bucking and cavorting as if there were caltrops under their saddles and venomous snakes under their feet.

    Only sheer determination had kept Eneko in the saddle. Brother Diego had been less lucky; but Eneko had dragged him up across the saddlebow like a very ungainly sack of grain.

    "It is an illusion," shouted Francis over the wheezing and braying of the mules, and the near-curses of the riders.

    Brother Francis had refused to ride anyway, so he had, perhaps, the advantage of not trying to control a mount. But as Eneko managed to get his beast under a little more control, he could see it too. It was one of the most difficult kinds of sending, a kind of vision from afar. Thus, too, it was difficult to combat. The foe was not proximal. It was no use to attack the vision, they had to reach the sender.

    And to make something of this magnitude required truly unearthly strength. Abruptly Eneko realized, as he struggled with the wild-eyed mule, that there could only be one purpose in this exercise: To delay and thwart them on this the first leg of their pilgrimage. Something wanted to prevent them going on, or at least to hold them up. Perhaps whatever or whoever this was—and it reeked of Chernobog—wanted them to band together and try to pursue and find it. What it didn't want was for them to continue on their way. Ergo: they must.

    "Francis!" he shouted. "A cloth!"

    Francis might not care to ride, but he had least knew what Eneko was calling for and why. There was no reason to use magic to settle the mules. It would be a waste of effort and less effective than a scarf, anyway.

    He unknotted and pulled off the sash he wore in place of a belt or a rope about his robes and whipped it over the head and eyes of the nearest mule, which happened to be Eneko's. Once the mule's eyes were covered, it stopped bucking, and stood, shivering all over. That gave Eneko the leisure to rummage in his pack and pull out the cloth that had lately been home to bread and cheese. Francis gave the next mule the same treatment, and the next, until all of them were blindfolded and no longer fighting to escape the illusory dangers.

    The only inconvenience was that now they all had to dismount and lead their mounts, as well as the pack animals. And the mules were balky, obstinate about going forward when they could not see. Mulish, in a word. But they were no longer terrified, which meant that they were no longer an actual hazard to their riders.

    The four pilgrims advanced slowly, leading their mounts. All four of them were chanting—not magic, as such, but prayers; which were probably just as effective as sacred magic in this situation. In Eneko's case, given their proximity to Venice, he elected to pray to Saint Mark.

    Now they waded through sights and sounds that were nauseating, rather than frightening. Chernobog had plainly realized that it no longer served to terrify the mules. Instead, it flung alternate visions of sacrifice and torture at them. Then, when that failed, sybaritic scenes and succubi.

    "Something together, perhaps, Eneko?" Francis muttered, as Eneko paused for a breath.

    Eneko nodded, and led the pilgrims in the chanting of psalms. At last the way seemed to be clearing ahead. They were on a well-paved causeway across a swampland of slime-covered pools and reed patches. The relief almost beguiled them. But as Eneko was about to step forward, something whistled off to his left flank. An inhuman whistle; the kind that actually makes your eardrums vibrate.

    Despite his resolve, Eneko looked—and saw an undine, rising half out of the water. She was wreathed in long green hair with magnificent bare breasts, much like the other temptations and apparitions.

    Only... she was thumbing her nose at him. Sticking her tongue out. The gesture was so unlike the horror or the seduction of the other visions that had confronted them that Eneko realized immediately this was no illusion.

    As if to reinforce the impression, the undine blew a raspberry at them. Then, beckoned. Eneko felt his brows draw together.

    "Follow it," he commanded. And he stepped off the causeway into what appeared to be waist-deep water.

    "We should stick to the path, Eneko," said Brother Pierre worriedly. "Swamps are treacherous. And why do want to follow this illusion?"

    For an answer Eneko pointed at his feet. "Because she isn't an illusion, Pierre. My feet are not wet."

    "You look to be about waist deep!"

    "It is the water that is an illusion. We are already lost. The horrors and visions were just a distraction while Chernobog or his minions tried to trap us more subtly. That undine is not an illusion. It is real."

    "Non-humans can be treacherous," Pierre warned.

    Eneko stepped forward boldly. "Not more than Chernobog. And if I judge this correctly, she is the emissary of an ally of ours. An alliance of convenience, in which not much love is lost between the allies, but the common foe is worse."

    There was, he thought, no point in mentioning that he thought this undine had come directly from Marco Valdosta, who had inherited his Strega predecessor's adherents. That would complicate matters altogether too much at the moment.

    They walked slowly toward the undine, who smiled, showing altogether too many shark-like teeth. Brother Diego glanced back, perhaps feeling doubtful, and yelped.

    "My God!" he shouted, his voice rising a great deal. "Look!"

    Eneko turned with the others to see what it was that had Diego so shocked. Behind them the illusion was dissolving. Ahead lay a far more dilapidated looking causeway. They were just on the edge of the reed-brake around some swampy pools. Behind them the ground was in fact higher. Higher and lashing with something that hissed unpleasantly, with distinctly reptilian tones.

    The darkness lifted; the sun, long obscured, came out and cast reflections onto the still pools. And Eneko felt a warm breeze...and thought, perhaps, that he saw a reflection of something gold in the water.

    "The Lion," said Pierre.

    Eneko nodded. "Our guide has deserted us, but I think we no longer need her."

    The breeze swayed the reed-brake. Indeed, it seemed to say.

    Brother Francis shook his head. "I feel we are in the presence of some powerful magic. You and Pierre seem to understand what is happening."

    Eneko led his mule forward. "Chernobog made an effort to turn us before we could reach a place where he holds no sway. When it failed... it tried to kill us, by luring us away from the safe paths and deeper into the swamp and the bogs, where something cruel and bloody lurks. But we are now in the lagoons and marshes of an ancient neutral power. One which is bound to a Christian soul."

    "The Lion of St Mark," said Pierre. "The Winged Lion of Venice."

    Brother Francis looked troubled. "Why would one of the neutrals aid us?"

    The undine stuck her head out of the water. "The Lion bids you a grudging welcome to his marches. He sends messages to Eneko Lopez. By the inner flames that must be you, man. The Lion bids you come in haste. He needs you for a bonding. And he says that you should remember that although your God allows you free will, he too has plans. And that one such as he, guides many threads."

    The undine slipped back under the water. Then she popped her head up again. "Oh. Sorry about the nose-thumbing and the raspberry. But the Lion says the one thing Chernobog cannot understand nor feign is humor." She pointed. "The path is over there. Stick to it."

    Lopez remained thoughtfully looking out at the horizon for a long time after she had gone. Francis, meanwhile, had taken the blinders off all the mules. Finally Pierre nudged him, and he started.

    "What's wrong, Eneko?" the Brother asked.

    "It strikes me that this was a singularly ineffective attack, compared to what we have faced from Chernobog before this." Lopez turned to look into the faces of his companions.

    "Well..." Pierre began, then nodded. "You know, you're right. But we did weaken him considerably, and this may be all he can mount."

    Francis snorted. "We weakened his instrument, Pierre. We never touched Chernobog himself. He can always get new instruments."

    "My thought exactly," Lopez replied, with a frown. "So why this half-hearted try at stopping us?"

    "Because we aren't as important as we think we are?" Pierre replied.

    "Your humility is appreciated, Pierre, but—" He thought a moment. "But Chernobog would assign an importance to us out of all proportion to how we actually rate in the Lord's grand scheme," Lopez said firmly. "We hurt him. We hurt his mortal vessel, physically, and we hurt his pride—and pride, as you well know, brothers, is highly cherished among the dark ones. No, I think there must be another answer."

    "He's dividing his attention?" Pierre hazarded into the silence.

    Eneko nodded. "I think it must be. He is confined to a mortal vessel, and has limitations imposed by that confinement. At the moment, something is occupying his attention that is far more important to him than we are."

    Francis snorted. "Well, I, for one, am going to consider that a blessing!" He turned and strode off up the road, leaving the rest to follow.

    But it was Pierre who voiced precisely what was troubling Lopez, as he nudged his mule with his heels, and sent it after Francis.

    "If there is something more important to Chernobog than we are, what is it?" he asked aloud. "Why haven't we heard anything about it, and why haven't the Grand Metropolitan's seers gotten any hint of it?"

    "Why, indeed?" asked Lopez, and sent his mule after Pierre's. "Whatever it is, I fear it will come from a direction that none of us can anticipate."

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