A fight at the Temple of the Black Cloud

In the year 2514, Sam Rosamski has been left behind on a neo-primitive planet, in the company of a robotka, an artificial female designed to serve humans, but also with a mind and will of her own.  She was originally called Servilla but now uses the name Aslizette.  They are trying to pass themselves off as locals.

They walked on until they were just 20 minutes away from the Haldanian Temple.  At which point Aslizette decided to take a break and remind Sam of who they were supposed to be.  He remembered and could repeat it back to her, but then showed his ignorance by asking “but won’t they mostly be much smaller than us?”

“Danny asked the same; he was hoping they’d not be much bigger than him.  It was true enough in mediaeval Europe, and in all the other Advanced Agricultural Societies where populations grew to the limits of famine.  It’s different in this Revert… in this Neo-Primitive place.  The population stays much the same from century to century.”

“They know birth control?”

Hadn’t she already told him that?  Never mind, if the lesson had been forgotten, then say it again with all due patience.  “They do not have any good methods of birth control, and if they did, they’d not use them.  Everyone wants as many children as they can feed.  You grow stronger and more respected the more kin you have.  But this place is watched over by IronFort and they control fertility without the natives knowing anything about it.  IronFort keeps the population in balance via the Hallian Temples.”

Sam accepted that, but then Aslizette remembered that things were not quite in balance.  There had been a puzzling surplus of women in the Baronies that she’d visited as the Domains’ robotka.  Five women for every four men, and this in a land that was too crowded anyway.  Far too many of Daggerland’s soil-folk had become ‘dwarfholders’, poor families who perched destructively on mountainsides where they cleared necessary trees to make a little farm after they were thrown off the good land.  At the time it had just puzzled her: now she worried about the future of this Revert culture, though she also remembered Harbinger’s wise words about the dangers of meddling with human cultures that you did not fully understand.

They were now close to their destination, so she gave Sam a final briefing.  “The Temple of the Black Cloud is a safe place even if they do suspect what we are.  They’ve met Sky-People before.  This may be where the DropPoint livestock went.  Even if it isn’t, we can buy a pair of horses and a mule, maybe two mules.”

That was the plan.  But as she came within earshot—robotka earshot, a couple of miles—she heard the sound of battle and then the screams of women.

“Oh my!  I think the Temple of the Black Cloud has just got hit by raiders.  Very unusual, holy places are mostly respected in small local wars between Baron and Baron or Baron and Forester-Band or Baron and Karlhome.  More likely these are bandits, killers outside any rules of honour.  Bandits are also called ‘Kings Men’ here; there was bad stuff in the early days, and it led to the ban on any title higher than ‘Baron’.  Bandits are the sort to attack a temple, thinking that they have treasures, which they probably don’t.”

“Can we help them?”

“Not if it’s a bandit army, or a large raiding party.  I don’t really know the people at the temple, and we don’t know how the quarrel started or what’s the issue.  For all we know, the victims we see caused as bad or worse for others we don’t see.”  //That was properly Harbingarian, wasn’t it?  He’d said a lot about the virtues of inaction and non-intervention.//

Regardless of the ethical merits, she saw it wasn’t working.  The silly man would probably try something on his own if she held back.  Also the sounds sorted themselves out, telling her that this was less than a dozen men, most with cheap leather armour rather than the chain-mail of Baronial forces and the more dangerous bandits.

“OK, let’s creep up quietly and see if we can take them.  We dump most of our stuff here, shields and heavy weapons included.  You put on your mail-shirt—it won’t be a long fight, and you may need it.  But don’t get too bogged down; we take just our bows and our rapiers.”  She’d intended the light sword just for show, but it would be useful after all.

With her infra-red vision, Aslizette could see that there were no guards or lookouts, the raiders were not expecting rescuers to arrive at this isolated spot.  Coming closer, she saw a small wooden temple about the size of a large three-story house, with a cluster of wattle-and-daub huts all about, set in an harmonious garden of shrubs, trees and flowers.  The harmony was just now being shattered: she could see several women being manhandled, one held down and being raped, while elsewhere an old man in priestly garb was being slapped and kicked.  There was also a man dressed in a motley of several shades of green lying flat on the ground, lying in a pool of blood.  The infra-red coldness of his body said that he was dead.  And he looked remarkably like the man who had followed them earlier, giving her a guilty twinge when she realised that she might have caused his death, however unintentionally.

The bandits numbered only nine, five assaulting the women and three beating up the priest, while the last kept a rather useless look-out from within the tree-shielded temple compound.  All but one looked low grade, louts with swords and wearing grubby armour made from boiled leather.  A proper raiding party would have had an archer up a high tree, looking out for new arrivals.  Still, the leader looked formidable, a Freeblade whose shield bore the black silhouette of a red-eyed wolf on a field of green.  She’d not let Sam face that man, and there were eight more besides.  So in a doubtful voice she asked “Is it worth getting killed for?”

As if in answer, they heard shrill scream of a woman, abruptly cut off.  The larger portion of the band had finished with one women and now were taking another.

“It is worth getting killed for, Aslizette” declared Sam.  He had a determination matched only by his inexperience; he had even brought along his morning star, slung by its strap on his back, as if such a massive weapon would be useful in this skirmish.

“OK, we pitch in and rescue them, be nobly heroic like good Freeblades in a ballad or romance—and like dead Freeblades in real life.  Follow my tactics and we should survive.  No chivalrous challenges are needed for such honourless scum, we make a sneak assault and just fire arrows at them.  When six are down, we charge in.  But remember it must be six and no less. Please don’t go in early, you’ll ruin it.”

“We must help the women before their lives are entirely destroyed.”

“Brides needn’t be virgins in this place, nor priestesses either.  And can you reliably hit a man from this range?”

“No, and I might hit an innocent.”

“Fortunes of war.  So work forward to what you think a good range, and start shooting when I hoot like an owl.  Go on shooting till I hoot twice again.  You are to target the men beating up the old priest, I will take those assaulting the woman.  You don’t need your morning star, rapiers are much better for this fight”

“Rapiers against rapists, right?”

Deciding it was meant as a joke, Aslizette laughed softly, then went about her business.  But as she was working her way round to a good position, she saw one of the raider grab a woman who’d been kneeling and praying, saying “Thinketh you that your petty god has to power to save you from a strong warrior, dogess?”

It was a moment too good to miss: a human would surely have seen it so. Of course a human could not have taken an arrow, notched and fired in less than a second.  Only a champion archer could have put it precisely through the side of the man’s neck where it would terrify and disable but not kill—Rossumite robotkas were allowed attack and even injure humans who misbehaved grossly, but intentional killing was a much more serious matter.  She shot to wound, and simultaneously she managed a hoot that would have fooled another owl, never mind a human.  Next she shot off two more arrows with deadly accuracy, taking one bandit in the belly and another in the thigh quite close to the groin.  This she managed by firing one arrow every six seconds, fast but within the range of human possibility.  Three down, three more to drop and the last three would be no match for a pair of bold Freeblades with anti-rapist rapiers.

Meantime Sam had managed two very inaccurate shots: clearly he’d let his emotions get the better of him.  The men he was aiming at saw only that some of their comrades were hit, so they scattered and by a fluke, one ran into an arrow that would otherwise have done him no harm.  It went right through his neck and he fell down dead.  Good humans killing wicked humans when mercy was not an option was excellent and must be supported by good robotkas.  All going to plan.

When a plan survives the first contact with the enemy, it generally goes wrong soon afterwards.  This case was no exception: Aslizette was horrified to see the man with the wolf-eyed shied raise his sword to slay the priest. It had been four seconds since her last arrow, and if she stuck rigidly to her schedule the victim would die tragically.  She decided one little extra would pass muster, or perhaps be seen as an ‘act of God’.  But then she realised that Sam had seen it too and was pitched in, bellowing ‘Rosamski, Rosamski’ as an impromptu war-cry, brandishing his rapier and still carrying the useless morning star.

One big but inexperienced human against three vicious bandits was bad odds, so she kept an arrow notched so as to save him at need.  Let the priest die, he was a stranger.  At which point an unhelpful quotation from Harbinger floated into her mind: Love of friends and family is a beginning, but means little until you understand that strangers are just as valuable.  It was confusing, but her prime goal remained the survival of her man.  And luck was with them: upon hearing Sam’s noisy warcry, the bandit-chief forgot about the priest and turned to meet this new challenge.

Meantime three out of her five targets were hurt and making slow bids for escape.  She’d catch them later.  One had been grabbed by their former victims, emboldened by the apparent answer to the prayer of the ‘dogess’.  A fifth bandit with his trousers missing was weaponless and running away.  With neither the priest nor Sam in immediate danger, she shot one last arrow into the naked arse of a fleeing rapist.  She then pitched in to stand by her man, notching another arrow as she ran.  She saw the ‘look-out’ bandit deftly duck under Sam’s swinging blade and stab him neatly in the belly.  The fool wasn’t used to fighting proper warriors, the stab was easily stopped by Sam’s mail-shirt and Sam bowled him over by sheer momentum, though also tripping and cutting himself on his own sword.  Full of fighting spirit, Samuel D. Rosamski bounced up again, still holding the rapier, looking for a foe to fight.  Meantime she heard a man’s shrill shriek, most likely a captive bandits was being gelded by the women he’d wronged.  This was a rough and brutal land, and the man had started it.

Aslizette was thinking to fire another arrow when luck abruptly deserted her; she tripped over an unnoticed stone and she automatically let go of the bow and arrow as she steadied herself.  Meantime Sam was taking on two experienced warriors, either of whom might be deadlier than he was.  Aslizette swiftly drew her own rapier and ran towards them as fast as she could, but her top sprint was only about double the human maximum and would not be fast enough.  It was also much too far to throw a knife, even if she’d had one handy.  Sam might die before her eyes without her being able to do anything about it.

Luckily Sam had been well trained by ‘Captain Tom’: he suddenly veered to his right and also switched his blade to his left hand, coming at one foe in an unexpected manner while the other was blocked. As they closed he stooped and thrust up the rapier in a gap in his opponent’s leather armour.  Too vigorously, it went in deep and he failed to pull it back, then sensibly twisted it and abandoned the weapon inside of the dying man while his right hand reached for the morning star.

The surviving foe—the bandit-chief who had decorated his shield with a wolf—had stopped in his tracks, disconcerted by this deadly stranger whom he must now fight man-to-man.  Like a real-life wolf, he had no wish to face a foe of his own strength or better.  He ran for his horse, with Sam in full pursuit but not fast enough as the man leaped onto his animal and the well-trained beast began to ride off.

At this point Sam came up with one last trick, throwing the morning star as a crude missile.  Amazingly, this worked—a lot of computer time must have been expended by someone at IronFort to come up with a morning star than would fly aerodynamically.  It hit the man on his armoured back, drawing blood but doing no larger damage, bouncing off with chains flying and tearing up a flower-bed as it landed.

The bandit-chief must have felt the blow and chose to swerve his horse, maybe saving it from having its legs entangled.  That much was good riding, even brilliant riding.  But the man seemed unaware that he was now riding at a solid branch – did he think it was just a bunch of leafy twigs?  If so, he soon found otherwise.  The stallion ducked under the branch but the bandit-chief slammed right into it and he was knocked off, landing with a thud behind the horse’s tail.

It must have been a well-trained warhorse: instead of running off, the horse doubled back and looked ready to defend its fallen master from Sam, who did not back off, but instead retrieved his morning star.  The horse reared up and whinnied loudly: it would have scared most men, but Sam grasped his weapon and seemed ready to slug it out.

Aslizette was too far away to intervene directly, but she spotted a fallen apple, picked it up and flung it directly at the stallion’s testicles.  It whinnied in pain and then fled.  She was a bit sorry to strike such a low blow against an admirably loyal animal, but either the horse would have killed Sam or Sam would have killed it.  This way was obviously better.

“A good animal, a bad owner” muttered Aslizette.  Then she went over and kicked the fallen bandit-chief twice in the belly, just in case he was thinking of getting up to escape or renew the conflict.  The man vomited violently and looked terrified, but she felt no pity.  No one had to be a bandit, there were always better alternatives, including suicide if there was no honest way to live.  But this fellow looked resentful and not at all repentant.  He’d do more banditry, robbery and rape if he survived.

Which meant he must not survive.  Mr Domain would have been most definite on that, rape was ‘outside code’ except as a merited punishment for a woman guilty of some major offence, while robbing religious places was unforgivable.  And she figured that Harbinger would have agreed with Mr Domain on this particular matter.

“You ought to kill this one, Sam.  He fled from honour-combat, so he merits a coward’s death.  Run him through or cut his head off.”

Sam looked upset and shook his head.  “I can’t kill a helpless man, however much he may deserve death.”

And nor could she, Aslizette discovered.  Harbingarian ethics told her that it would be excellent if someone killed the bandit chief, but her deeper robotka nature held her back, just as she’d held back with her arrows.  So instead she retrieved her fallen bow and took an unhurt horse, issuing a scent enormously reassuring to horses so that the animal accepted her at once.  Then she rode round and collected the four she had wounded: they were cowed enough that they made no trouble.  The women meantime had piled both dead and tied-up prisoners into a large wagon, and were now making a great fuss over the fallen man in green.

“I thank you, thrice-worthy Freeblades” declared the old priest.  “Do you count these men as your captives, or may I have the disposing of them?”

“They offended against you, so you judge them” said Sam.

“Well-answered, man of the rose-in-darkness” replied the priest.  “Wolf-Eyes and his bandits must go to Goldenvoice for judgement by its Baron.  Once there, the dead will likely be raised up on posts for wild animals to feed upon, while the living will choke on the end of a rope.  But though oneself is the injured party, oneself has an older and a sacred duty not to profane a place sacred to Holy Hoyle with any further blood or deaths.”

On this planet, Hoyle was a demigod associated with Lord Haldane, she recalled.  A demigod based loosely on the 20th century cosmologist, just as Lord Haldane was a hybrid of the 20th century biologist J. B. S. Haldane and the ancient Norse god Thor.  The Malisti religion was bizarre, a mix of confused memories and the whims of the early high-tech monitors when IronFort was young.  But to the Malisti it was the True Faith, and these bandits had offended against it.  Rape and killing among Karls was common and often forgiven: offending against the presumed Higher Powers was another matter.

“What of the wicked Sprog?” asked one of the women, the one who’d been called ‘dogess’ and was now being treated as slightly sacred.

“Ourselves may not rule on the fate of Wolf-Eyes, Sister Dogess.  Perhaps Goldenvoice will hack off his head, since Sabredrawn has cut kin ties.”

“By your leave, Father Priest, oneself would wish to go with the Freeblades, making what use a small woman may make of a new name and seeming divine favour.”  She looked at Sam, as if seeking affirmation.  He in turn looked at Aslizette, who nodded—robotkas were not jealous, or not often.

“You can come with us, though I can’t promise anything about ‘divine favour’.  We came here just as travellers, without the least idea ourselves could be useful.  But who knows if some higher power guided our feet?”

“We are most grateful to you: but regarding the Higher Power, oneself must ask why they could not have guided you here an hour or two sooner” said the priest.  “Or else that my nephew might have been a little less swift to get here.  The sacredness of this site is well known, so oneself might have seen off these bandits with just food and fresh horses.  But the over-bold lad chose to respond to their mocking and unwisely challenged the wicked Sprog to single combat.  When the poor lad lost, as himself was bound to lose against a famously evil swordsman like Wolf-Eyes, they ceased to dread the wrath of Lord Haldane.”

“Which fell on them regardless” said Sister Dogess, flaunting a bouquet of daffodils that she now wore.  Suddenly Aslizette made the connection: this was the token of a change of name given for religious reasons, the mocking name ‘dogess’ taken up as a mark of the sacred.

Killing bandits was also nothing to be upset about, as she saw it, but Sam was surprisingly depressed for a victor.  She decided to jolly him out of it, saying “What’s up?”

“I don’t deserve the praise I am getting.  I wasn’t very wise or careful, and I forgot all of your instructions.”

“Including that you’d not be needing your morning star.  Maybe we did everything wrong apart from winning.  For certain, we did it together, and we fought well.”

“I’ve never fought a serious fight before now, nothing worse than ‘fisticuffs’ which would end when one of us said he’d had enough.”

“So civilised?  Then you did extremely well.”

“I killed a man, no I killed two men.  I should feel guilty.”

“No you shouldn’t, Sam.  Think of all the suffering we have prevented by stopping this ‘Wolf-Eyes’.”

“Have we?  Maybe they will kill this ‘wicket Sprog’ at Sabredrawn.  But he remains blood-kin, even if they’ve officially cut him off.  Where I come from, we expect families to look after their own, we wouldn’t wish it otherwise.  That’s why we have an impartial police with wide powers, supported by a powerful legal system that can brush aside even the strongest family protection.  I doubt they have that here.”

“They don’t, and that’s bad”  //in this particular case.  I don’t share Sam’s fondness for law-and-order: I am naturally anarchic and like most sorts of lawlessness.//  “OK, they maybe let him off.  But this land has lots of bandits already.  One more or less is not worth getting killed for.  Promise me you won’t go challenging him, regardless.”

“All right” said he, surprisingly compliant.  Maybe he was still in shock, a good man upset by deeds that cruder fellows would have been proud of.  So she let him talk it through.

“Reflecting on it, Aslizette, killing is always a serious matter, but must be seen in context.  If I’d killed an innocent, even accidentally, I doubt my conscience would let me live with it.  At least not if I were somehow at fault, even without intent to kill.  The quality of who you kill makes all the difference.  I turned aside from a military career, in part because I knew it might mean killing people not unlike myself, definitely not bad men.  What Barnet’s World did at Avalon was heroic in a way, but some of the killing was doubtful.  Here on this planet, with a crude unjust society, I maybe can’t avoid fighting.  A thief I would not kill, regardless.  But these are bandits – as a teenager I thought banditry was heroic, but they gave me some of the real un-romanticised histories and I learned better.  Shits like Salvatore Giuliano in Sicily shooting unarmed socialists – he may have begun as a hero, but it wore off with the hardships of bandit life.  Even Robin Hood is a creep in the earliest version we have of him, helping a knight who owes money to some monks and ignoring the poor and needy.  No, the life of bandits and pirates is the terror and death of others.  Killing them is almost a moral duty.”

“I’d not argue.  But I wonder what a lawyer would say?”

“If they were safe on your planet, a cog in an immensely strong social machine, they would probably tell me off.  If they were here and dependent on my protection, most of them would be singing a very different tune.  Not all – there are a few sincere pacifists and some believers in strict obedience to the established rules.  But most of them are lawyers grey in wig and gown, comfortably far removed nature red in tooth and claw.”

“Who said that?”

“Just me – I think.  I’ll have to check, because I am likely to use it sometime.  Of course ‘red in tooth and claw’ is from Moaning Lord Tennyson, but not linked to lawyers.  But I may have reinvented someone else’s idea, you never know.  Three separate people re-invented genetics in the years when Mendel was forgotten.  I will check when I come to write up my travels in this place.”

“But where are your notes?”

“Inside my head.  I have an extremely good memory.  For instance your first words to me after your family left were “ready for some adventures in mediaeval-land, Sam?”.  And then when I asked why you looked different, you said ‘We robotkas can change.  I could be Afro or East Asian if you liked, only…’ – never mind, that’s not really needed for my eventual write-up.  But I do have it, right?

“I’ve also got more ‘interactive’ than I planned.  We fought and killed, I killed, and that is about it.  Is it?”

“Yes, there are no police or anything to report it to.  But to keep within local standards, we need a ‘purification’—just a basic wash in cold water plus a bit of chanting.  It means no more than the bits of bread and wine they dish out at Christian communion, mostly not to robotkas but one nice priest will let us participate as equals.  All of it quite empty in real terms, but going along with it will keep them happy.  They believe that running water gets rid of malignant ghosts and they also wash newborn babies under waterfalls if they get the chance: I am not sure why since there are no Christians here.”

“Baptism is a very ancient habit: older than Christianity, older than John the Baptist, older maybe that the Celts with their sacred lakes and wells” said Sam.  “I wouldn’t call it meaningless just because we know the local faith was invented up at IronFort.  Faith springs eternal from deep roots that are not touched by the frost.”

Puzzled by his babbling but glad he wasn’t arguing, she led him off for purification.  The priestesses were already prepared for them in a ritual-bath-house featuring a 7-foot idol of Hoyle and walls painted with an enigmatic cloud that hid the light of the sun and had sprouted pale blue eyes.  Water came from above, tipped through a metal grill from buckets handled by two priestesses in a darkened chamber above.  She could see them eyeing Sam appreciatively as he undressed: it was lucky that he lacked infra-red vision and had no idea he was the subject of scrutiny.

* * *

Meanwhile the old priest was reading the neatly written report that his ranger nephew had been keeping, writings which were still readable despite a few stains from the poor lad’s spilt blood:

Honourable Uncle

Oneself writes this in advance, in case one cannot join yourself and must quickly send of this matter by some swift messenger.

Be it Known to yourself that oneself observed the High Place, and saw a sky-chariot arrive therein.  And soon afterwards, a ship-of-the-stars descended in its common stealthy way.  Oneself was able to discern upon it the bizarre name of Clown’s Smile, ask me not what this might mean.  This misnamed ship-of-the-stars did soon depart into the skies, as is the custom with the Sky-people.

A little later, one saw two warriors descend into our world.  One saw them pause to become intimate and had supposed themselves to be engaging in unnatural practices, but it turned out that one of them was a woman.  Herself may be known by the appearance of a Freeblade, and her device is yellow walrus rampant on a blue background.

This woman is well-armed and also carried a large mace or flagpole, which did not look fit for battle but may contain some great magic.  She also had a harp, a bow , an axe and a sword, as well as a comely body.  But perhaps she is no common woman.  Oneself saw her look hard in my direction after oneself made a small error in woodcraft.  after that one dared follow her no longer.

Concerning the man, his device is also new to me, a red rose set against a dark-blue sky full of white stars.  Himself looks to be a very noble man, and one cannot forget the prophecy of the Lord Of Light, who would come ‘as a rose among the stars’, a phrase that yourself taught me.  yourself also adviseth oneself about the many interpretations of those words, yet it would fit himself very well.  Ourselves will have to watch for the next signs, the Fallen Fool and then the Tree That Strikes A Blow For Justice

Oneself having a tube of the magic of eyes-throw-forward, One saw from a great distance that these two visitors passed through the grove of Malista-trees which Largeholder Harbold has misused under the protection of Baron Greywall.  Where the Foresters had torn down the invasive ladders and walkways at oneself’s slight urging: one knows not if this news has already come to yourself.  Oneself could see nothing of what they thought of the deed, but the woman did give the man a natural-fallen Malista-fruit, of which he did eat and drink for his own needs and then throw down the rest, which suggests that these may be folk of virtue.  But the woman herself did not eat, even after her man was well-fed.  Oneself wonders again what type of creature she truly is.

Oneself did not dare attempt to grow close again, and has now lost their trail.  But with luck they will come to thyself at the Temple Of the Black Cloud, for that was the direction of their venturing and one knows not what else might interest them upon such a path.  Regardless, one now go there, and pray that luck will be with oneself.

That particular prayer had not been well answered.  The old priest thought about the matter and then burned the letter.  His superiors would understand, if they every found out.  There was a clear debt to two Freeblades who were obviously the sky-folk his nephew had followed, not supposing that it was his fate to become the ‘fallen fool’ of prophecy.

If prophecy it was.  It could still all be coincidence, or else a trick of the daemon Nuffield, who loved to mock the pious with false hopes.  So he summoned ‘Sister Dogess’—he slightly regretted permitted her to be renamed in honour of this day when her prayers were answered, but the deed was done.

“Sister, we are all duly grateful to these visitors—but what manner of beings are they?”

“Oneself thinks that they are angels, father-priest.  Or perhaps heavenly warriors.”

“With certainty, that warrior-woman is no flesh-and-blood creature.  Oneself has seen few archers as swift and deadly.  No woman outside of legend has had such range and power.  And what is even stranger is what she did not do.”

“Oneself saw it also, father-priest.  Herself ran fast and yet was not sweaty or out of breath. She showed neither pallor nor wrath, yet she fought like a daemon.  Can daemons do good deeds?”

“Devils may cast out devils of a different allegiance, just as wicked men stab often each other in the back.  Daemons may also do good deeds at a whim, or to win the trust of the virtuous for some greater evil.  But the name Rosamski encourages one, for the Books of the Wise know it as a noble name.”

“That is good.  But Father-priest, in the purification-bath, the woman Aslizette did speak a strange verse, saying:

Burbidge, Burbidge, Fowler, Hoyle

Took the stars and made them toil:

Carbon, copper, gold, and lead

Formed in stars, is what they said

“The names are strange, apart from Wise Hoyle.  It might have been a jest, but it sounded serious when it came from the mouth of herself.”

“It is serious, daughter-priestess.  An old lore-poem, not taught to many men, nor to any women of any degree of piety.  Part of a heritage that the wise no longer have a full understanding of.  Not unless we should embrace the silly views of Karls and old wives, who hold that the very world on which we stand is part of the cast-off outer garments of the sun, with all stars as suns and yet seen at such a vast distance that a firefly outshines them.”

“Our visitors may know the truth of such matters.”

“They are our saviours—and even were it no so, oneself has no right to press any guest for more of their business than they might wish to speak.”  He sighed.  “That verse comes from one of many legends we have, connected with the demi-god Hoyle.  The other persons are unknown to us, though some say that one Burbidge was a female sage.  It is withheld because it might be valuable, even though no one has yet profited by it.  Attempts to transmute base metals using starlight achieves nothing.  Those who claim knowledge of the Sky-People’s doing say that the verse has been misunderstood—the process occurs only in the domain of stars, and that in such places gold is commonly transmuted into lead, which seems perverse.  Yet now we find it spoken by our unexpected rescuers.”

“Father-priest, could it be this that was the true meaning?  The true gold is the heroic man, led to us in the hour of our need?”

“Perhaps, though it is far too easy to fit happenings to prophecy after the event.  Legends of a Lord Of Light are known even to the unlearned—but not all of the prophecy.  Not many knew of the Sign of the Tree That Strikes A Blow For Justice, which we perhaps have now witnessed.  None below my rank or outside of our Order know that it is written that Himself would be a true friend to a dark cloud.”  He took down and opened an old book, and they both looked at the ancient text.  “Such were the things that oneself dreamt of as acolyte and hoped to see it in one’s own time, though hardly like this.  It was the reason that oneself sought out this poor place, though now oneself regrets one’s vanity in trying to weave oneself into such vast events.  One has paid a dreadful price for such presumption.”

“We all weep for your poor nephew.  Still, if himself has caused the Great Deeds to begin, he has not lived in vain.  For there are prophecies of a Lord Of Evil, and Baron BloodHook is evil enough.  Now that he has entered our lands, it is time for the Lord Of Light who shall cast down his foes and destroy them with a terrible fire.  The next sign to be looked for is a blind hawk who sees the light—that must be an allegory.  And then…”  She suddenly went pale, “It says also that an ogre of doomed name shall first slay a dog who is not a dog.  Could it be that oneself has now become that Sign?”

“Perhaps.  One could give you your old name back.”

“Please do not, Sacred Master.  If it is one’s proper part in these great matters, then one must accept it and be faithful unto death.  For surely our deliverance has now begun.”

“Who knows?  When oneself was young, one thought oneself was gathering wisdom.  Now one is old and disappointed, and one fears that oneself has just collected foolishness.”  After which he sadly went out to oversee his nephew’s funeral, the final acts of respect for a life that had achieved much less than it had promised.  Or perhaps much more, if this Sam Rosamski should really be the Lord of Light.

* * *

Sam and Aslizette being purified, they buried the dead ranger in a simple and dignified ceremony at mid-day, the most propitious time.  After which they set off with the wagon, the prisoners and Sister Dogess and the bandit’s horses.  Aslizette decided to keep the lively sky-blue horse she had selected for catching the prisoners.  (Blue had become a horse-colour here, there had been some genetic tinkering and none of the Malisti now saw anything odd in it.)  She liked the animal, and with an impish impulse she decided to call it Jane.  This was Mrs Domain’s name, not that anybody used it much and Sam did not know it.

For Sam, she selected an utterly dull blue-black horse which she called Plod.  “This is the horse for you, until you get a bit more skill.  If you’ve in a hurry, get off and run.  But you can’t have an accident with this beast.”

They set off.  And despite the noon-day glare, Aslizette could see the stars quite clearly with her astronomical eyes.  Including an artificial star than the Malisti knew well, sometimes blessing it and more often cursing and resenting.  Aslizette herself neither blessed nor cursed as she looked wistfully up at IronFort.  Her family were probably still there, but must soon to return to Rossum and she could not be with them.

Copyright Gwydion M. Williams

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