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A C Fellows

Scene 1. Enter Teseo, prisoner.

Teseo: When the little bird sits on her nest through the long angry nights of winter, and waits for the dawn to bathe the mountains in an icy ray, she sees the fields: the straw of the pleasant fields changed to a rich crown of hyacinth and amethyst, as the sun’s rays change the sad night. I have a different destiny: in the cold dark night, in this prison which is my fate, I have no place for hope. Unhappy he who is in a prison so strong that he does not hope for the dawn of day, for it is the night of his death!

Enter Fineo.

Fineo: It would be good if you could give me some glad tidings in this evil time.

Teseo: I do not know, Fineo, of whom you speak in this style. The entrance of the murderous Minotaur draws near. Whoever in their life found glad tidings to give in going to their death!

Fineo: May this unjust sadness leave you, and in this prison you will see more than the sun; mark my words, more: two most beautiful sun. Your situation, or I should say your good fortune (since there is no situation you would wish to engage in that was so miserable), is that there are two beautiful Ladies who are obliged to to see if it possible for you to live or not. At the end of your night you will see two dawns: for coming to see you are the most beautiful Ariadna, daughter of this King Cumin-os, who with such crazy ideas smooths over the insult you have had; and Fedra, her beautiful sister.

Teseo: To see me?

Fineo: Yes.

Teseo: Who told you that my star favours me so?

Fineo: Tonight there are two, after the two there will even be three, and I know the third is love, which is blind and a God. It is true that I moved them with a most illustrious speech, as in the Spanish fashion of the province where I was born. Because serious authors write, they say, that there the greater part of the inhabitants trample over the truth. Ariadna was moved with pity for you, and this has caused her sister to feel the same affection. Now here come the two. They will tell you the rest.

Teseo: Notable news you give me.

Enter Fedra, Ariadna, and a Warden.

Ariadna: Is he here?

Warden: Yes, my Lady.

Ariadna: Why is he in such a dark place?

Warden: The king commanded it, as he is being given to death.

Ariadna: Get out.

Fineo: They are coming to talk to you.

Ariadna: Are you the Duke?

Theseus: Angel, I am the Duke Teseo. No longer a prisoner, because I see that I am in a different heaven. I am free, only captive of your rare beauty, my lady. Here in this night of sadness, that I should receive no lesser glory.

From where, beautiful Ariadna, have you come as the true sun, without any news of the morning reaching me first? It is no longer possible to come to a bothersome death, nor budge good fortune, now that you hold the wheel.

And you, heavenly Fedra, who accompany her beauty, into this dark cell you have made a window to the east. Can you understand how right it is for me to thank you, if only because you have thought to speak to me in my distress? The Gods, who would make you so adventurous, should reward your pity.

Fedro: One who suffers such a severe imprisonment without guilt, surely has hope that heaven will release him.

Teseo: Hope and consolation have reached me at the same time.

Ariadna: Duke, pity and piety, and seeing your illustrious person, most worthily crowned name of your city, has moved my affectionate heart to attempt your rescue, placed as you are in the middle of a well-known danger.

All tonight I have thought about how you could enter and leave that place of so many closed doors. And as always, love is the teacher, and it is usually more subtle in women, I found the best solution. I will give you a golden thread, which you must tie to the doors, for then you able to return following the same path. You cannot lose the door if you follow the thread, and you will end up at the horrific monster, and vanquish it. To do this you must carry three loaves, poisoned so that the beast will lose it senses in that place. Then, with a mace I will give you, long and strong, give that beast death, bathing that uncultivated field in blood.

But because my father will know who gave you the skill to do this thing, and in his angry raving will take vengeance on my love, you must give us your word to take us to your land. If he wishes revenge, and tries war, there it will be possible for you to defend us.

Teseo: I give my word to heaven that you will be, and you are today, my dear, my queen, and my wife. And it is a little prize to give to such as you, when you have given a man life, and yourself a name famous among women. Trust my commitment as a man of good birth, who has come here to face death for the good of his nation: I will not be ungrateful for the good I have received of your hands, my Lady, if I leave alive.

Ariadna: The heavens give you life.

Teseo: You will be Duchess of Athens if I come out of the dark maze alive, and I swear to serve your serene lights, which are like clear arrow-slits through which the Gods of heaven show themselves for mortals to see, as through a golden lattice: and may all heaven fail me if these words of mine should fail.

Ariadna: May heaven protect your life and return you to your native soil.

Theseus: The ship that brought me is only waiting to return with news of what has happened to me; the same ship must take us from here secretly.

Ariadna: I would not want the king to form an evil misconception. Let us go, Fedra, I will see to providing Teseo with the weapons.

Teseo: Already I desire to see the danger.

Fedra: Courage, valiant Duke!

Fedra: Just that voice, beautiful Fedra, is like the sound of the trumpet that gives the warhorse courage.

The two sisters leave.

Teseo: What are you waiting for, fierce tyrants? Come for me.

Fineo: Little by little.

Teseo: With so many crazy favours, I have the world in these hands.

Fineo: Well, do not let it fall. Hold it steadily because it is in a delicate state, and you might break it. Ladies break easily, all daintinesses and annoyances, and feminine things, like Phoenixes from their own flames. They will break with a thousand discretions, purely circumscribed, by exquisite words they go to look at ideas, they will break a thousand times when they are scheming to get the gold of foreign blood, a treasure they once paid for, and they will break… we must shut up, there is great danger in talking.

Teseo: We need to figure out how to get the ship away.

Fineo: Then you count on defeating this fierce Minotaur?

Teseo: I count on having the green laurel of victory girded on my forehead.

Fineo: They tell me that this animal does not stand on protocol, and much evil is to be feared from something that is both man and bull. This beast, which has contempt both for the sky and for the abyss, is like a knight in itself, as fools often are: because it is also a man above the neck, and a bull below, as in Spain the Tagus is very much like both grass and glass. I assure you that myself, I am trembling with fear.

Teseo: And I cannot fear after seeing Ariadna?

Fineo: And the two you have to take with you?

Teseo: Needs must.

Fineo: My god, the two of them make a wild cargo, and who can complain about the sea! But because you are able to lead and are not scared of the weight, they can go in the saddlebags, one in the back, and the other in front.

They go.

Ariadna giving Theseus the golden thread.

Ariadne giving Theseus the golden thread.

***

Scene 2. Outside the Labyrinth of Crete. Enter prince Oranteo and Lauro.

Oranteo: The king of Crete writes me, seeing that my army has sallied forth.

Lauro: He is troubled by fear.

Oranteo: That is because of my vengeance. Fame, which interprets all things, anticipated the day of my departure, so it was destined that even as he first saw my ships, she would persuade him to grave fears. No flag would flutter in the wind, no pennant would threaten the water, nor would the reeving set the topsail high, nor the pilot plot our path to when the echo of the bellicose instrument would sound on the Cretan beach: and fear would returns to the backs of the people who would lead there.

Seeing his letter, in which he offered to give me the beautiful Ariadna in marriage, I have joyfully returned to Crete to be married. Sometimes the soft peace, that does not attempt war, is the best policy. Love dismantles the strongest armour, because from its first birth it is as naked as a child, and blind. Laying down the club, we may cry: long live peace and quiet. It is true that before I surrender to Minos I want to know if the wily fellow, made ill-tempered by the royal bastard, has plotted tricks here in Crete; if it is deception, then the carved masts, and the canvas by the restless waves, will grasp the sea with a new armada, and with two grievances I will draw the sword.

Lauro: My Lord, you have done well to go secretly to know if he has cheated you, beaten by your sedulous fame and your threatening forethought.

Oranteo: There is the Labyrinth shining resplendently in the middle of the field, the work of Daedalus, which you can see surpasses the work of the celebrated Archimedes; in it the Minotaur is imprisoned, who is sustained by defeated Athens, ever since it surrendered the presumption of its battlements to Minos, crowned with laurels. No satyr, faun or centaur has been seen, no monster of the Libyan sands, so terrible and of such prodigious fame.

Lauro: Sad the Greeks who are named to such a fate!

Oranteo: See how, through grilles and from balconies, the people look at the well-formed man who has entered the Labyrinth.

Lauro: If you sit here, my Lord, you may look upon him with pity fair.

Oranteo: He enters armed.

Lauro: At such a time, how can bronze or even diamond arm a man?

Oranteo: I pity his person and his bravery. Let us leave, Lauro, to see to the challenge.

Teseo and Fineo, with a mace, enter alongside.

Teseo: Show the mace, Fineo, and favour me to Mars.

Fineo: I am trembling to see you in such danger, Teseo.

Teseo: What a strange destiny of war: but it little irks me, if I have vanquished my fortune, which is the greatest monster on the earth.

Fineo: I have not seen this beast except in pictures, my Lord, but with your heroic courage, what monster out of Libya could make you fear? Apollo, the God so skilled and valiant, killed the snake named Python with bow and arrows; Hercules, because Jupiter gave him strength, killed the fierce Hydra, which was honoured afterwards in the sphere of fixed stars. But if those two here saw this fierce monster, they would surrender arrows and steel to the courage I see in you.

Teseo: If from this challenge I emerge a man equal to Hercules, to Jason, to the Greek Telamon, how much should the homeland owe me thanks?

Fineo: What an animal that has put you in such a spot!

Teseo: Love sends me audiciously to face this.

Fineo: What is born of a woman like this beast! Moreover, of who could it be born but a being of the same kind? There is just as much to be surprised by in those born to anger, flattery, lies, and in a monster to cause trouble. By God! That is not more strange than the character of one who serves two, and will deceive them both. If you have seen the monster of jealousy, believe me, bellicose Duke, it makes the Minotaur look as beautiful as the heavens. If you saw ingratitude, you would say it was the greater monster, and it is not a small love that makes the eternal soul uneasy.

Teseo: I want to tie the golden thread here.

Fineo: Jupiter go with you: I cannot go on to witness your courage. I feel sorry and I cry.

Teseo: Holy deities, favour me; Mars, favour me; please, I ask, and to you I pray, my love, because you have overcome all the Gods of love. Favour me, beautiful Ariadna,you who gave me these weapons, because you say that you will conquer like a sovereign deity! If I get out of the snares here where I contemplate my death, I will make your neck a temple, and garland it with my arms.

Theseus goes.

Oranteo: Has the Athenian entered?

Lauro: He entered to the applause of the people.

Oranteo: And already my sun has left his balcony from the east. Come on, Lauro, let us see if we can see amyhting without being found out; for in our absence I fear the things we do not know.

Lauro: Love, my Lord, everything is fear.

Fineo: Already the people, hurting for the brave Teseo, leave their windows and grilles; all are assured of his death. But I think he has arrived at the square that is at the centre of the labyrinth, and is there with the other valiant Greeks.They will not go meekly through the corridors to be fodder for this half-man, half-bull, no matter how barbarous and fierce!

Oh heaven, to lose my good master to the hands of a bull! I am about to go in. Will I? I guess I am not afraid, so long as I don’t lose the golden thread. If I lose the gold, it is not possible, because a woman’s monster without gold is a thing out of fairy stories. Even in business here, we will never guess right, we will never be able to do anything right, if we lose the thread of gold that has gone with the women. No noise can be heard now.

Oh, Pasife of Hell, whyever did you make a bullman, and not a manstag! Because deer are cowards, and although armed, they will flee; but bulls are brave, more so than men who are a mixture of many things. The night is deep, and his lights ignite the moon in the sky, and now two shapes are coming here: If they are the shadows of fear! But now, what can I fear?

Fedra and Ariadna enter, dressed as men, with capes and swords.

Not dressed as men in this picture, though.

Not dressed as men in this picture, though.

 

Fedra: He went in good spirits.

Ariadna: I come in the spirit of hope, which sustains my body.

Fedra: With this costume, we will go to await safely at the door of the Labyrinth, until we see what heaven decides.

Ariadna: Is someone there?

Fedra: There is something – Ariadna, it moved.

Ariadna: It must be Fineo.

Fedra: We are nearly there.

Ariadna: Fineo!

Fineo: My name has been called.Woe! Good spirits: I am glad you have arrived! Who goes?

Ariadna: You don’t know?

Fineo: I know your voice, and I think if it were known that you were at the same door as Teseo, it would be part of causing a most glorious defeat.

Ariadne: I am sorry I was not here earlier.

Fineo: I sense a noise within the gates.

Ariadne: If there is noise in there, then the monster is dead.

Fedra: I think so.

Teseo emerges.

Teseo: Thanks be to the high gods that I have come out alive from the blind Labyrinth! Who goes there?

Fineo: Two angels and Fineo.

Teseo: Ariadna and Fedra?

Fineo: Yes.

Teseo: Beautiful lights of heaven!

Fineo: Softly, do not speak of lights: for this darkness is better.

Ariadna: Teseo, to see you alive has placed me in as much glory, as I was placed in sorrow and torment by my fear; I want to give my arms to you as my husband.

Teseo: I cannot yet answer you with joy.

Fedra: Though I am the least of those that have augmented your fortune, Teseo, instead of thanks I ask for your arms.

Teseo: In them, beautiful Fedra, you hold the heart of its owner.

Ariadne: How did your bliss come about?

Teseo: I tied the golden thread, and entering the Labyrinth, I went around a thousand streets by infinite detours; when I would think I would be in the centre of the labyrinth, I would be most far from it, and near when I was far. Finally, I arrived at a place where there was a little square, where the Minotaur was lying between various bones. There I saw a corpse, and I imagined that within a short time my own dead body would join it. But my soul cheered within me, and I approached the horrible monster, which put itself on all fours and looked at me, dreadful and fierce; then I threw those loaves to him, and he, given them, began to swallow his death in the enciphered venom. Spiritedly I raised my mace, and with the first blows, with two horrendous bellows, I knocked the monster to the ground. I left the grass bathed in foam and blood, and seizing the tip of the thread, followed it back to the door.

Ariadna: Thanks to the high Gods! But, gallant Teseo, there is great danger, and need for great audacity. We must go to the sea. My proud father will certainly sense that we are not at home, and there will be no apology or remedy that will let us get away with our lives.

Teseo: The ship stays in port with my friends and servants.

Fedra: Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s get going.

Teseo: Come, my Lady. And you, Fedra, take the hand of Fineo.

Fineo: I will be the Morning Star today, leading the sun with my hand!

They leave.

Theseus with Ariadne and Phaedra, obviously looking for trouble.

Theseus with Ariadne and Phaedra, obviously looking for trouble.

 

Minos, Oranteo, Lauro and Polineces enter.

Minos: A remarkable affront has been given.

Oranteo: My Lord, I did not think, that I would come here without anyone knowing, until in Crete I found it was known that my absence had cause t to be forgotten, but, as I am here already, sir, you know how I am yours; give me your hand to kiss.

Minos: By the sovereign Gods, I give infinite thanks for our peace, Oranteo.

Oranteo: I only wish to serve you.

Minos: Today Ariadna will be your wife; for that is a good use of my daughter. I will console Feniso by giving him Fedra.

Oranteo: And I will take your honest hand.

Feniso enters.

Feniso: Write of fame in stone, steel or in gilded bronze, a deed of great valour.

Minos: What are you talking about, Feniso my friend?

Pheniso: It is Teseo, my Lord. He has the victory that heaven wanted: he is Teseo, victor.

Minos: Well, how did he get in?

Feniso: I do not know how he entered. I know that Daedalus begged to come in, and came, and saw that his industry had been in vain, because in the middle of the square he found the dead Minotaur.

Minos: By Mars, who has plotted this deception!

Feniso: If it was a conspiracy, threaten his invidious life, and he will tell you the truth.

Minos: Call Teseo, too.

Soldiers: He has not reached the city; he thinks that this trophy is not likely to win your friendship.

Minos: The Greek has done well to flee and not to try my wrath.

Oranteo: To help you in your sorrow, I pray, that my love may be of merit.

Minos: Call to my daughters, for today Fedra will have in Feniso a noble husband, and Ariadna must be Oranteo’s.

Oranteo: May the powerful heaven increase your power!

Feniso: May your dominion spread from the south to the cold north!

Minos: With such sons-in-law, I hope to make war on the world.

Oranteo: Today I wish to tell you my intent: You have no son, king Minos, and for this reason your successor must be named from the husbands of your two daughters.

Minos: I wish you two to govern this realm together.

Oranteo: If I may ask, it would be better served whole, whether it is yours or mine. If divided, I despair of pleasure and peace, because love and lordship do not permit company.

Feniso: Neither would I like it: I have enough mettle to govern all of Crete.

Oranteo: And I for the government of the world, if it were subject to my valour.

Minos: Move on, sons-in-law! I am alive, so what is your trouble?

Polineces enters.

Polineces: There is no sign of your daughters in the palace.

Minos: What do you say?

Polineces: Things have gone very badly, if what they say about him coming was true.

Minos: Be warned well, Polineces, there is my death in what you say.

Polineces: I say, my Lord, that the weddings these two expect, are turned completely into unhappy tragedies, because it appears that Teseo has carried the girls away by sea.

Minos: How does it appear to you, Oranteo?

Oranteo: It is not possible to promise anything without the will of heaven.

Minos: Was there ever such great audacity? He came to avenge Athens; but I feel it is impossible he meant well regarding my daughters, considering his origin. Pasife, mother of a bull, how is it possible that you bred these girls who go with such dignity and royal decorum? I go to follow him, though the sea is heavy, by Mars who I worship! I am Minos; the ways of the sea I know well, though they are uncertain. Look out, Teseo thief!

He goes.

Feniso: I have lost the kingdom, but not the desire.

Oranteo: Aiee, Lauro, I have made blunders!

Lauro: That Ariadna has forgotten you, and goes with Teseo!

Oranteo: If Fedra is in love, which is the thing that I believe most likely – to ease my fear- and she takes Ariadna with her, then we do not blame Ariadna. But if she is moving with her… Oh, my vain hope! Oh, my contrary star! Love may not give him the things of love, but I will think that in his love they will accomodate great shortcomings, because to fear the worst is a sensible condition. Come with me, that we may make war on Athens for vengeance.

Lauro: You think there is something to fear from a woman?

Oranteo: Yes, Lauro, for at the centre of this whole thing is a woman.

They leave.

***

 Scene 3. The Isle of Lesbos.[1] Teseo and Fineo enter, disembarking.

Teseo: The sea has treated us badly.

Fineo: The sea, who does it ever treat well? I don’t know who in the world it has not given sorrow.

Teseo: I took harbour in these islands because they look toward the land.

Fineo: Well, , it was well advertised that they are not warlike here.

Teseo: I am fearful to enter Lesbos.

Fineo: It was right to land here; it appears the sea is the judge, of what is cast within it.

Teseo: Pretend that you are the judge, and make me confess.

Fineo: What are we afraid of?

Teseo: Having no peace.

Fineo: Why?

Teseo: Because there are two women.

Fineo: Two men and one woman are often seen; but it is astonishing to see two women and one man, because that is not usually seen.

Teseo: Enamoured married men, don’t they serve two women?

Fineo: Yes, but their pleasures are empty and taste of water.

Teseo: We have to leave one.

Fineo: Where?

Teseo: In these islands.

Fineo: Good!

Teseo: Good, or bad, I am full of love, and do not have time to argue.

Fineo: Why should it matter if you are full of love, seeing who you have become? To forsake women is not a decent thing for men of your worth; and Fedra does not deserve to be abandoned.

Teseo: You are a fool, not understanding how I am going to deal with the problem.

Fineo: Fedra?

Teseo: Fedra, well.

Fineo: What are you saying?

Teseo: That I adore Fedra. Fineo, and that it is not right to be scandalised of a righteous desire. On the road of the sea, I fell in love with Fedra.

Fineo: If righteous or unrighteous it was to fall in love, I do not want to dispute; but to leave Ariadna: this is a vile deed, my Lord, unworthy of your status, and a villainous ingratitude. Ariadna gave you your life on a remarkable occasion, and it is not right that you repay her so.

Teseo: You talk to me in such a way?

Fineo: I am your servant, but I am a honourable Athenian.

Teseo: Villain, I would give you death.

Fineo: You will not kill me as a monster of ugly flattery, but as honest Fineo, who was born in your house; and if I flee your fury, it is only out of respect of the bread I ate with your father, and my Lord: otherwise I am glad to stay for such an occasion of honour.

Teseo: Watch out.

Fineo: You have passion, and you will regret killing me.

Fineo flees, and Ariadna and Fedra enter, with two or three servant Musicians.

Ariadna: What is it, my dear?

Teseo: Here I asked an islander what cities or what towns adorned this district; and for some reason or other, he said many arrogant things to me, about how he would take our lives and how we should not turn our backs.

Ariadna: Well how, being a foreigner, were you to know that travellers were supposed to be humble here?

Fedra: Teseo might not have remembered that we had left the sea.

Teseo: This green meadow is adorned with many flowers, inviting the eye and making the soul rejoice; sit down here, and listen to the sound of water falling, to give an instant tribute from these high rocks to the sea. They will sing something for Ariadna to sleep to, because the sea has treated her so poorly.

Ariadna: Jealousy has treated me worse.

Musicians: What songs should we play, my Lord?

Ariadna: You can sing of jealousy.

Fedra: Jealousy is not for singing, but for crying.

Ariadna: Some cry and others sing.

They sit and the Musicians sing.

Musicians: A bad night has given me jealousy; such as she has who I have made jealous.

What a bad night that has given me your jealousy! Filida mine!

Oh, God, if ever arrived the day when I see that you have decieved me!

All the night has passed with a thousand dreams and sleeplessnesses;

The jealousies woke me, and I commanded love,

Like the love she has who I gave love to.

Teseo: Is Ariadna asleep?

Fedra: She sleeps.

Teseo: Fedra, so adored of my soul and of my eyes, get up.

Fedra: What words are these?

Teseo: Soon you will see the love you owe me: get up. Ahoy, noble-hearted greeks! Hie, to the beach!

Fedra: What are you saying?

Teseo: That you will go from here in my arms.

Fedra: Sister, sister, Ariadna!

He takes her in arms, and Ariadna wakes.[2]

Ariadna: It seems that I hear my name, and I am glad, because otherwise I would be alone with a thousand heartaches from the dream that pierced my soul. I dreamed that a brown goshawk drew a dove from the nest where I was sleeping, and that it took her in its wings over the waters of the seato a distant shore. Oh, my dearest Teseo! Oh, my Lord, my hope, my husband! He does not respond? Where is he? No-one speaks to me? No-one is with me here? Aiee, it was not for nothing that my heart was fearful! He has taken my sister, he has left me sleeping, but has awakened my anxieties.

From this rock I will see if my suspicions have deceived me: there is the boat. Oh, heavens! Already it is far out over the sea, all the sails extended with the wind of my hope – though it should not be necessary, the wind of my sighs is enough! Oh, cruel Greek! Oh, betrayer! How well, ingrate, you have repaid me for the life you owe me! Oh, Fedra, also ingrate! Although I cannot believe that you are complicit in the cause of my death. If Teseo takes you by force, sister, I am going to throw curses, and they will stop you from going with him, because they would not catch you like they catch betrayers. More, may God grant that on the day he disembarks in his homeland, his greatest friend will kill him in your his own house! I do not know what I shall do. What I see makes me lose heart; what I leave destroys me; what I feel unmans me.

Fineo enters.

Ariadna: Someone comes.

Fineo: I hear voices. Have Fedra and Ariadna gone to the beach? Oh, heaven! Beautiful Lady Ariadna!

Ariadna: Who calls my name in my misery?

Fineo: You, my Lady, miserable?

Ariadna: Miserable, because Teseo has left me, and taken away my sister.

Fineo: I am furious to here that. I tried to stop him from doing such a vile deed, and he drew his sword on me. I turned my face to him, and with justice, because to turn your back to a traitor is to face him, in as much as they have a face. He carried out his wish: do not cry, beloved Lady. That, in short, is mother Earth, stepmother of the Sea. It is the island of Lesbos.

Ariadna: Of Lesbos?

Fineo: What scares you?

Ariadna: A man I was so unjustly ungrateful to, just as Teseo has been to my love and my hope.

Fineo: You will be in disguise, my Lady, and will have the power, disguised and with me at your side, to find a remedy, with confidence secure that you have the help of heaven.

Ariadna: There they see some houses of badly hewn pine logs, covered with dry straw.

Fineo: Without doubt they are fishermen, who laugh at fortune with their small boats. Blessed is he who fishes for little fishes with dark nets, and does not command the world full of sad cares!

Ariadne: In those poor huts we will think of a remedy – or at least, for those who can find no help for pain, a quick death. Decree no memorials, no requests, remove sorrows, cure without medicines, and without fondness give gifts.

Fineo: Teseo has been very Greek.

Ariadne: They are famed throughout the world as betrayers.

Fineo: By good luck, your misfortune was not greater… Thanks be to high heaven!

Ariadna: So many miseries I have given myself, that a body leaves with honour for where the soul rises.

Ariadne being abandoned on Naxos.

Ariadne being abandoned on Naxos.

 

Ariadne left behind on Naxos, painted a couple of hundred years later, included just because it has spotted cats in it.

Ariadne left behind on Naxos, painted a couple of hundred years later, included just because it has spotted cats in it.

***

[1] In all the traditional stories, the abandonment of Ariadne happens on Naxos, not Lesbos.

[2] This words were attributed to Fedra, but I think they have to be a stage directions.

 

Scene 1. Outside the city of Megara. Enter Minos, king of Crete; Feniso, a captain, and soldiers.

Minos: Of the glories reached by human pleasure, Feniso, the first is vengeance, and the second is victory. Today I have had both: victory over Niso and vengeance for Androgeo.

The Athenians killed my son, and now holy Jupiter wishes my sorrows to be consoled by this other thing. My child was given to death: but your child killed you, Niso; and with this act she has given me the strongest and noblest city of Greece.

Since we first encircled its walls, the sun ran three laps from Aries to Pisces: But if for a thousand centuries the sun ran from the Golden Fleece to the Silver Scales, spreading the rays of his treasure it, I would not be enjoying vengeance now, had treason not given us the gate.

The parricide Cila killed her father the king for me, and I gave her a promise it would be unworthy to fulfill. She promised to surrender me the city, and she kept her promise, but I did not think she would have done it so cruelly. No love can be right that would send such a woman to Crete. A cruelty so great is not the duty of love’s subjects.

We have entered the city, and although she has given me the gate, I owe her nothing. We kings love victory, the important thing – whether given by treason or loyalty – but it is only natural to hate the traitor.

Feniso: Undefeated king, had Cila misled by her love, not opened the door, it would not have been possible to conquer the city. Because gallant Teseo, and all the other full-blooded Greeks, guarded it, greedy to win honour and spoils.

Believing she would be your wife, Cila gave you in one day the city, victory, and vengeance.

Now, I do not know if it is good for you to leave her waiting like this.

Minos: Everything is the work of the Gods, including our happiness: Nemesis, angry goddess of vengeance, wished that Cila lose her senses in madness and love, and that I be avenged for the death of Androgeo.

Feniso: Then you have left her desire sufficiently mocked, because, without love, there is nothing good in human life.

Enter Cila, a lady

Cila: Is the king here?

Feniso: Here she is.

Minos: What will I do?

Feniso: Hear her out, my Lord.

Cila: King Minos, master of the high walls of Crete, now victorious over the intolerable men of Athens: well do you know– and I can testify the same – that you would not have been able to catch a sight of those famous gates for many years. Your armed camp would remain outside Megara, without power to attack it, like the sun remains from when the dawn begins to give life to all those things that are hidden in the shadows, until the time the stars come making a crown of stars for the dark night, putting diamonds for its head; in the freezing cold winter, in warm sleepy days of summer, like the sun your camp would remain.

Not until I saw from the wall – to my true misfortune – a gallant on a warhorse dashing back and forth, as they paint Mars in the Fifth Sphere, armoured in glossy gorget and golden shinguards. I would give the many-feathered white helmet to those brilliant aspects and to his swift wings. You were playing with my affections with such grace, that you only had to turn your face for you to carrry away with you half my soul, leaving the other part for your return, as obedient to your eyes as your horse to the spur. With this vision I passed a thousand whole nights, finding my soul in dangerous war, until love conquered my reason and my strength, and I offered to give you, Minos, the city and my open soul if you were to take me with you.

And you, as if there were no gods to punish vice and reward virtue, would speak false words to me, broken words that speak to me, words that you break and give to the winds .

But guard yourself, you go into dangerous storms: they are in my sighs and in the sea of my eyes. For you, while he slept – what bloody cruelty! – I cut my own father’s throat and poured out his blood, the same blood he gave to my veins. I gave you the keys, and you entered the city, from which you could plunder more gold than the dawn sees when she combs herself with ivory.

Now you repay me well for a love so great: you would leave me in the land I have sold you, land that is soaked in the blood of my father. You will not do it. You were not born in the Libyan forests, nor suckled by wild beasts in the mountains of Thessaly. But if you were to go, like these, one thing comforts me: there is no misery in life that will be in death.

Minos: Cila, this grieves me very much. In short, for me you have betrayed everything, I hear you.

I wanted revenge on Athens, but not such a harsh one; I would have had a better vengeance that was not bound up with infamy. The truth is I gave my word, and I would have kept it if you had done your part in a better way. I never wished for you to kill the king; in doing so, you have lost all that you hoped to accomplish. What tale would the world tell of me, Cila, if I took you to Crete, but that I was giving you new weapons and new murderous instructions? Is it just that I call you wife, and bring such infamy on such a glorious captain because of your whims? No, Cila, I am not going to make myself infamous for your sake, nor would it be fair to divorce Pasife, my wife. Beyond that, if I carried your treacherous heart in my ship, it would cause the sea to tremble. Better you endure the land that raised you, not the sea; for the sacred sea will not consent. I will take my Gods with me, and they will also be angry.

Cila: What justice they give me with this insane punishment! So at the end, you leave me?

Minos: I cannot take you with me. I want calm seas to sail to my homeland without fear, Cila.

Cila: May the heavens show their anger such that you will never see such a chance, nor your homeland, nor see the fierce sea calm. O winds, leave your dark cave, and disturb both the waters,[1] until the moon is not secure in her blue mantle. You go to your beautiful daughters in relation, not in person, or you would take off your crown to be their vile vassal. And although you have gained these walls and been given your glorious vengeance, this memory dishonours the glory of your past. And if absence is often the subtle thief of honour, you are the vilest man ever born of woman. You cannot count all your offenses; all men would be ashamed to have so many. As men who deserve women, they would not accompany you without coming to despise you.

She goes.

Minos: What fierce anger!

Feniso: An angry woman indeed. What does she hope to achieve?

Minos: Infamy and dishonour is a disgrace to women, and she thinks that it must be of men as well, captain; and though absences can breed love, they never have for me.

Call upon the leaders of Athens, so that we may treat with them and leave them in liberty, but with the same condition: that they have acknowledged me as Lord.

Feniso: Such tribute will be the fruit of this venture.

Minos: With this I think to return to the homeland that feels my absence so harshly.

Feniso: For three years, great Lord, it has missed your presence.

Scylla rejected by Minos after killing her father.

Scylla rejected by Minos after killing her father.

 

Enter Polineces.

Polineces: Where is Minos?

Minos: Here, O renowned Polineces! Did you have a good journey from Crete?

Polineces: Thanks be to the heaven that that puts my mouth at your feet.

Minos: Get up. What about Crete?

Polineces: It is in peace, on the shoulders of your fame.

Minos: My daughters?

Polineces: Apollo can see no more beautiful in all of Asia.

Minos: The queen? You turn your face away? Why have you shut up? What is this? Answer me.

Polineces: My lord, it is not possible for me to answer you.

Minos: Why do you say this?

Polineces: I’m afraid, my Lord.

Minos: Is she dead?

Polineces: Would it please heaven!

Minos: I have remarkable suspicions of some wild accident.

Polineces: From pole to pole, a greater misfortune has not been seen.

Minos: The queen! Worse than death? What? Speak.I give you license, even if her case is the most outrageous in all the world.

Polineces: Your anger gives you strength, and it is not possible for me to make more excuses. I will break the , though love would be mute, honor deaf, the world blind, the sun without light, so as not to go crazy.

Know that Pasife -heavens above! – went for a short time to a forest on a certain day. On this day your cowherds were leading down the cows to where the glassy waters of a courtly stream murmur about some elms, where with lazy steps they could put off their thirst amid the shoots of grass. Pasife set her eyes upon a white and red bull, less than three years old, more tame than sullen, painted with various marks on his backs, more beautiful than anything but the stars and the sun. Points like the waning-moon on his face, a short nose and neck, eyes of emerald; with a red swirl like a riotous skein of gold where he had not tested the yoke.

Pasife fell in love with this animal, giving amazement to Crete, and there are opinions that it is mighty Jupiter, coming again as he came to the beautiful Europa, who gave her heroic name to the third part of the world, having fallen in love but stealthily coming in the form of a white bull. For certain, only he could find in his desires to perform in such a way. Pasife, anyway, has given birth – if it is Jupiter’s – to a monster half bull and half man.

It is a public scandal, and from various parts men come to see this frightening prodigy of nature, but all are agreed that it is the son of Jupiter-being through some prodigious effect made himself known to Pasiphae in the form of a white bull. So it is well understood by the wise and by the learned philosophers. Such is the force that has the imagination of all. It has grown in two years so large, so fierce and so severe, like a bull in how it writes its jealousy on the green trees, striking blows that shake them and make the thicket echo.

Jupiter can insult anyone: that’s why I named Jupiter the owner of this feat; if it was not to be his, I would shortly lose sense and life. No one less than Jupiter could have, in the form of strong Anfitrión, defeated the chastity of Alcmene and begotten the son who has won such high spoils, the great Theban Hercules, who before the down had grown on his lip is said had done such valorous deeds greater than his father’s.

Minos: Say no more of my disgrace and misfortune, tragic ambassador. My country has been good to me, and I have never seen it ungrateful, and the owner of my evil is Jupiter. Eclipsing the sun’s pure fire, turning off the lamp of Phoebe,[2] because it is impossible to see a moral man staining my honour eternally with such a monster. That fantasy of a white bull, in which Jupiter came transformed to Pasife, a shock to royal propriety, and you say has begotten the monster on her, that fantasy is a treasure that removes offence and saves the divine honour. But the vulgar have never judged well, and chose to see everything in the most discreditable light. I have had my vengeance, I have defeated Athens, but I will have to cry for my shame.

Feniso: Here are their strongest defenders.

Enter Teseo, Albante, and Fineo servant of Teseo.

Teseo: Here you have us, great Minos, the vanquished.

Albante: Here you have us, Lord, your vassals.

Minos: Valourous Teseo, noble Albante, do not call me your vanquisher. For heaven has taken victory from my hands with an event full of portents. In my house a monster is born in my absence. In the absence of a husband, Athenians. And without one how can a monster be born? How many evils are born in the world, cruel children of absence. You are avenged because Pasife has born a child half-human and half-bull, an infamous feat attributed to lecherous Jupiter, scandalous deity of such high name, but it has the baseness of a work of man. If a king made such a mistake they would say he was unworthy of the sceptre. If I did not arrange to have the lascivious God of the heavens transformed into a bull, I would have quit the honourable life of sacred honour: because when adultery is secret, it cannot bring about such condemnation

But do not think that does not concern us here; for in tribute I wish you to give ten of your men each your, to be devoured and eaten by this monster of Pasife.

Teseo: You will be obeyed as you have commanded.

Minos: On returning from this prison to your own walls, deliver to your homeland the tale of my wretchedness, as hard as it is to comprehend such a hard life.

They leave, but Teseo, Albante, and Fineo stay.

Pasiphae and the Bull

Probably the most decorous picture I could find of Pasiphae and the bull.

Teseo: Well, that was strange.

Albante: Strange. And that he takes vengeance on us for something that was not our fault.

Fineo: Ten men for a wild beast, a beastly tribute for a year: ask that he resolve on one, as there is not much sense in a tribute so importunate.

Albante: He will not have it; he shows no feeling in setting out this way.

Fineo: So that lady, his wife, fell in love with a white bull without propriety; would it not be better to want tribute in gold? What fault is that of Athens? Oh, women! What won’t you do?

Teseo: Respect the good ladies, fool.

Fineo: Now bulls run about, full of strange cravings? Oh, my Lord, such are the harms done under the cape of religion! They say Gods pretend to be bulls. A cute invention! It’s the same as going to the temple. I go to the temple, I contemplate, I give offerings, and inside the temple it is all vice and error, as it is told in this example.

Teseo: We need to think how a man could give such a thing, when we reach that place, but I do not think we will find that we can buy a life for money.

Fineo: Why not? You will find thousands- like the deaf, say -who will prefer a short and fat life, like a pig’s, and you will be able to pay them. There are those who use their lives only in vice, who will not amount to anything whether they live a long time or a short time, who are only good for fullfilling what is wanted. I’ve seen a man so bad that for a month of pleasure he sells six years of life.

Teseo: Those who seek such lives, I call beasts.

Albante: It seems to me, Teseo, that to minimise[3] the deaths from this ugly tribute, lots should be cast so that all would face the same chance.

Teseo: Well said; in general, all men will have hope that way, and the law will be the same, for it is not law if it does not reach both commoners and nobles.

Fineo: By heaven, no man will stick around in Athens!

Teseo: I will, for the law is greater than everyone.

Fineo: Minos is a fool.

Albante: He will love taking vengeance.

Teseo: Taking vengeance is possible.

Fineo: Would it not be wiser for this Minos, or Cumin-os,[4] to kill this angry monster, for isn’t he concerned for his reputation if it hangs about? Is he crazy?

Teseo: Possibly he is.

Fineo: He will do well through his wife’s weakness; because of that bull he must have weapons on his head. And today it is known that through this white bull, the unfortunate husband who has been cuckolded, is turned into a bull.

They leave.

***

Scene 2. The Palace of Minos. Oranteo, Prince of Lesbos, and Ariadna ,daughter of Minos, enter.

Ariadna: I cannot express my pain more strongly.

Oranteo: I am not complaining of love, for love cannot injure; I am complaining, not of that high subject; but because I was not sensible in loving so confidently, a cause that has never stopped producing such effects.

Ariadna: If my father wants to give me as wife to Feniso, because of how he has served him, it would be better pay him with my death. The best I can hope for.now is to suffer the penalty that I have attained through my foolish confidence, but, in my excuse, love and hope have always been as good as blind men are as guides. Father writes that they will give me to this fierce captain for his services in the wars, banishing all my peace. If Minos, my father, makes this mistake, I know the effect it will have at once. As obedience is commanded, I’ll obey; but in your absence I promise my life will be short. It is not possible to resist, but I am not afraid; for if I can not resist, I know well that I can die instead. Without you I do not want to live, as well you can believe me, for when there is love, there is no strength greater than that of the thinnest woman.

Oranteo: My beautiful Ariadna, pure as the dawn, beautiful, centre of the happy soul that has you for its sky! Now my joy is over and my sadness has begun. Firmly I set myself to endure your grievances, for who will live without the sight of your rare beauty? I am so grateful to see that you feel this way, but my torment grows as even my duty grows. You would not feel so strongly, seeing me in this sad state, if you were going to forget me.

Ariadna: Then does it sorrow you, sir, that you owe me this love?

Oranteo: What can I owe you, but what I have paid? Your display has disconcerted my senses, my lady. Feeling these hurts so sure and certain, comes as news of what has been. Who has lost so much good in this unjust change, who will have confidence staying on this occasion, who believed they had possession of it with a bare hope? But if this is my destiny, that you and I are to be divided, then to withdraw from you my whole life will but prolong my death. All my troubles are arranged: it is not possible for their angers to triumph with such spoils, once I took the palm. There is more left in your soul than is set aside in your eyes.Contrary fortune intends to use me to show her power, which has no power to make what it does not want eternally for you: Always the absent owner who is absent, as you have always been to it, and for consolation I will have that you and are suffering the same, that nothing can be a greater woe after having lost you.

On these fears that are killing me, swear that you hold me in your soul, and that when you are near to forgetting me, remember how much good you could give me, you who put me in this state, Today I remain unpromised, and my happiness is fretful. I was not as happy as I am unhappy.

He goes.

Ariadna: Where do you go with such threatening absence, owner of my venturesome soul? Forgetfulness is so obstinate, perhaps because memory has no patience. Your presence threatens insolently: but sight is turned aside, it returns to your strong love, which cold blood has no taste to resist. Love, when it has given spoils, does not change the passion moving the heavens: they see the souls if they do not see the eyes. Those who play at love are sleepless, but in absence there is nothing for anger, except for that which turns love to jealousy.

Enter Fedra , sister of Ariadna.

Spoiler: in this picture she is Queen of Athens

Here is a picture of Fedra.

 

Fedra: You care about such things? Did you not hear the salute given at the sea today at dawn?

Ariadna: Tell me in the evening. What can come to me to equal the good that I have lost on parting with Oranteo, or to satisfy the desire?

Phaedra: What if they say it’s the king?

Ariadna: A very great evil, if Feniso comes with him!

Phaedra: Love’s law never holds over his own blood.

Ariadna: Oh, Fedra, there is no consolation for such a grave pain, because Oranteo’s absence is to love like a burning bolt out of heaven to a tree! Just like a tree is changed from green hope to something bare of its leaves and branches, scorched with flames, in the same way when love is struck with absence, though there are icy fires, it turns the green of hope into the blue of jealousy.

Fedra: I am sorry to see you in such a state. But if this beastly absence can overcome the resistance of love, the same will happen to you: if he forgets you, you will forget him.

Ariadna: Love judges what is present, and I presume that in absence I will love more, grieving more. What voices are those?

Fedra: I believe the King approaches.

Ariadna: I hope and wish it were my death coming instead.

Enter Minos, Feniso, soldiers and commoners.[5]

Minos: Cast those flags on the ground, befitting a captain without honour.

Feniso: Do not give offence to heaven, in presuming Zeus means your dishonour.

Ariadna: I hope your daughters can give you comfort, father and lord, whose honourable neck and arms have conquered so many kingdoms.

Minos: I come victorious, my honour lost.Where is the cruel woman?

Fedra: Fleeing your fury.

Minos: Daughters, I come as you see me. It is right for love to forgive, as it right for honour to be offended.

Ariadna: She has nothing to relieve your disgust.

Minos: Leave me here while I undertake revenge; not on the All-Powerful, no, that is not my place, but on the cruel woman who has offended me…

Feniso: Beware of heaven.

Minos: I do not ask for life anymore. Hail! Call Daedalus to me!

Fedra: Here comes the engineer who is most respected in all Greece – nor has any greater been seen in Asia.

Daedalus: May the Gods give prosperity to your deeds.

Minos: Daedalus, friend, how can you expect prosperity for the deeds of an unhappy man, when to console his sorrows they blame All-Powerful Jupiter for them, while it was Mars, envious of my arms and victories, who took revenge to cast a shadow over my glories? Have you seen the monster that has dishonoured the beautiful Pasife, contrary to nature, and is now here so ugly, savage, and deformed?

Daedalus: Yes, great lord.

Minos: How do I make a building to enclose this beast, of such subtle ingenuity and artifice, that one who goes into it cannot come out again?

Daedalus: After you wrote me to say that was your intention, that you wanted to confine this ferocious monster, famed as the bull of Minos, or Minotaur, I made and studied various designs, and of such models and artifacts I have selected these to present to you, as you had forewarned, so if you find any of these designs depicted agreeable, you can have them executed in stone and wood.

A curtain is carried in on which is a canvas showing the plan of the labyrinth, with the Minotaur within.

Minos: By the Gods, this is something worthy of your ingenuity! Tell me, is this the fate of the fierce monster?

Daedalus: Yes, my Lord, the monster is portrayed here, in the middle of this square. This is the gate, but there is no way to find it again once it is entered.

Minos: Well! To execute this design, peerless Daedalus, is a thing that will give you fame the world over as the most supreme and ingenious artificer – and me fame as the most unhappy man.

Daedalus: Soon you will walk these corridors and see them.

Minos: I would kill the Minotaur – but I fear the wrath of great Jupiter, if the beast is his child. As far as I care it makes no difference: it is child of envy and misfortune.

They leave.

A Plan of the Labyrinth

The Labyrinth, a plan therof, by Daedalus Esq.

***

Scene 3. Athens. Teseo and Fineo enter.

Fineo: I don’t want to console you.

Teseo: There is no consolation for this evil.

Fineo: You are angry at heaven.

Teseo: Today they have commanded me to embark.

Fineo: That of more than six thousand different names, yours is picked!

Teseo: Strong evil! Strong misfortune!

Fineo: You may have the good luck to hide.

Teseo: It would not be fitting, nor would they thank me for it. Oh, for evil, for so much evil, has my name been picked.

Fineo: How can it be that a man so valiant and so noble goes to be fodder for a beast?

Teseo: Because the republic is just, just because I am more valuable it must not do an unjust thing simply. Here in Athens, with equal justice and sparing none, good and evil are dealt on rich and poor alike. These ways of government differ from others, unjust and odious, where the powerful get away with what they want. Woe to the kingdom where the poor must suffer force, and the rich have the power to twist the law!

Fineo: I do not understand what this thing called justice is: surely with those who are noble, there are just exceptions.

Teseo: You must be speaking mischief.

Fineo: It’s only natural. There is a wise saying, that only in death is there equal justice for all. Anyway, what do you think of setting out to die?

Teseo: If it suits his homeland, a nobleman has an obligation to die.

Fineo: It is inevitable that your lively courage will accompany you..

Teseo: You are a loyal servant, Phineus, noble and spirited. At least, if fate has fitted me to die, my kindness has been the cause of my death. Let us go, the ship awaits, and the sea promises a calm journey.

Fineo: Better it should be troubled with all known storms…

Teseo: I will not reach salvation, since there is such a wind.

Fineo: Travelling to evil, no one has ever lacked for a fair wind.

They leave.

***

 Scene 4. The palace at Lesbos. Enter Oranteo and Lauro.

Lauro: What did you ask me, what unjust thing are you complaining about?

Oranteo: I am complaining of having lost my dear wife! I am complaining of the stars, which do not care if they forget. Oh, Lauro! I lived in Crete, in love with Ariadna, waiting for the day when the cruel Minos grew weary of the military government, and my hope was he would give me all he possessed. The tyrant writes that he has given her to Feniso in marriage. Feniso, from whose hand he owes his glorious reputation, with the intent to make him king of Crete, exchanging the captain’s lance for a sceptre. Minos did wrong, to ignore my love, I who am Prince of Lesbos and descendant of the divine Gods.

Lauro: I understand that, if you want to play it safe, this is the end of your hopes of conquest.

Oranteo: Lauro, if she is married, what hope remains to me? I am dead. May it please the angry heaven, to suck down their ships at harbour, and pour the raging waves over their victorious flags!

Lauro: They are short curses, but the heavens have a greater, for if you look at what has come in the post you will see that a monster of dishonour has come to Crete.

Oranteo: I have seen that fierce and frightening Minotaur, Lauro. For it they have made a Labyrinth – for that is the name given to that site where its infamy lies, and also the eternal fame of that great master, distinguished Daedalus, skilled in all arts – and in its intricate circles men are lost, unable to find the exit, condemned to death, served up to the beast to provide it sustenance and life. I have had clear warning of the monster from a host of people.

Now to the Labyrinth tall ships will go to destroy it, in so many words. I will quit this life and rob Feniso of his jewel, as the Greeks came as thieves to Troy. Come, and we will give a voice to fame, canvas to the sea, a subject to Mars, and to the fire of love more fuel.

Lauro: And advice is all you have to help you.

Oranteo: Giving advice to one in love, is like giving life to a flame by blowing on it.

They leave.

***

Scene 5. Outside the Labyrinth of Crete. Enter Minos, Ariadna, Fedra, Feniso and Daedalus.

Minos: The construction is excellent.

Ariadna: It is impossible to find its equal in all of Greece.

Fedra: And as news of it spreads to various nations, the wings of its fame will be given new feathers.

Daedalus: I think, undefeated Lord, that the Labyrinth were not a less impressive thing than the Minotaur, that monster of nature.

Minos: I will have you given a proper award for the work you have done – and I think, also to Icarus, your son.

Fedra: Undefeated King, here comes an ambassador from Athens.

Enter Teseo and Fineo.

Teseo: I am not an ambassador, though I suppose my nobility might give occasion to my homeland to charge me with such an important office. I am Teseo, and though I was a rich Duke among my people, fate has fitted me to be the vilest of my country. I have come to die, and with that it can be said that I am nothing. If I am more, it is by the esteem of losing my life for my countrymen: those citizens who gave you sure and certain word that they would give you each year in tribute ten men for this beast. I am, King Minos, one of these, and I tell you that out of loyalty I make no defense. And it is my honour to present myself on foot to you, for my life weighs on me, and by risking this I am counting on heaven giving me something. What do you want of me?

Minos: Teseo, you could not show more clearly the strength of the heart that beats in your noble chest. I am sorry that it is you, who the past wars have made illustrious in my estimation; but Athens desires it, and you are loyal to her. Feniso, take the Duke to a tower, while the monster sustains his arrogance.

Teseo: I’m glad to know that you mean to conceal your dishonour in such a way.

Teseo goes, and Ariadna clutches at Fineo.

Ariadne: Tell, who is that?

Fineo: Who?

Ariadna: Who just passed by, what should I call him?

Fineo: Oh, my most beautiful queen! When has my mouth deserved to kiss the happy sand where you set your feet, although it is mixed up with pearls?

Ariadna: Is this Duke Teseo?

Fineo: This is he of whom they recounts such dreadful deeds; this is he who went with Jason on the proud sea to Colchis to rob Medea; this is he who entered Hell with Hercules, the Greek, and presented diverse things to the beautiful Proserpina: for the heat that one always has in the summer festivals, a splendid little fan, and because she was disposed to dress in the spanish fashion, six cuffs like little bucklers, for in Hell they also like to uncover their wrists; this is he who helped to kill the centaurs, at the wedding table of the wedding of Hipodamia, this…

Ariadna: Enough, this is Teseo, of whose fame there has been no little news in Greece. I pity to see his youth, his fairness and his gentleness.

Fineo: God have pity on your soul for this piety, for through it can be known, great Lady, your goodness and nobility.And certainly it is wrong to throw a man to a beast, or to a fool, which I think amounts to the same thing. There will be no easy remedy, because he is taking on his conscience by killing a young man to be a morsel, like he was setting a donkey loose in a field of melons.

Ariadna: Oh, sister, who could give life to this young man!

Fineo: Well, you might, if you try it.

Ariadna: I will try it without hesitation.

Fineo: Yes, by God! For this you have a loving slave to your loveliness and your beauty.

Ariadna: Is he married?

Fineo: No, he is not married. They say God does not wish that he should see such sickness. I say sickness, a sickness of patience.

Ariadne: Come talk to me tonight.

Fineo: Man has no good that does not come from the hands of woman. May you be blessed a thousand times! But when the tail of Mars is turned, and the devil is released, every man save his face, I mean to say, his head.

***

[1]tantos las aguas”. I think this may refer to the oceans above and below the world in the ancient Greek cosmology

[2] That is, the moon.

[3]excusar’. I can’t find any historical meaning that makes sense, but I think it has to be something like this.

[4]cominos’ ‘Cumin’ was the first translation I found; there is a word ‘comino’, meddler, but that would have to be ‘unos cominos’, some meddlers, to make sense, and it recurs later in a context that makes it obvious that it does mean cumin here. Lope de Vega has probably written it just to make sure we know Fineo is the wacky sidekick, and as an example of a running gag that isn’t funny.

[5]cajas’. I cannot find this word anywhere meaning anything but ‘boxes’, or, very recently, ‘fighter planes’, and would just leave it as ‘boxes’ here, except Minos uses it much later addressing some villagers.

 

Josie had finished her tale more curtly than she had intended, and afterwards had gone back to her rooms to wait for Tash to come out of his sulk. She was not sure where he had gone, but he had seemed very glum indeed at being rejected by Gerald. For his part, Gerald was tired and doing his best not to be, screaming and running around and striking out at Josie when she tried to get him to settle, and it was a long hour before she got him to calm down and drift off to a teary nap in the corner.

She flung herself down on her bedclothes, feeling the smooth silk against her face. Tears welled in her eyes, but she fought them down. All the things she had left out of her story – the things she would not tell Gerald either, if she were to tell it again – were roiling inside and making her feel horrible. There were so many things that it was so much easier just not to think of.

‘Lady Josie?’ It was the delicate musical voice of the gazelle Mirilitha, speaking from the curtained doorway. She had sat quietly listening at a respectful distance from the men while Josie had told the tale of how she had come to be Mistress of Telmar.

‘Yes?’ said Josie, sitting up. ‘Come in, if you like.’

‘Thank you, Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha. ‘I would like to speak with you, if it is not too bold of me.’

‘Of course it is not too bold of you,’ said Josie. ‘And please just call me Josie. I don’t want to be a Lady lording it over you, just because you are a talking animal and the Lion supposedly put us men in charge of you once upon a time.’

‘Thank you, Lady- thank you, Josie,’ said Mirilitha again, stepping into the room and pacing over to Josie. ‘I am so very glad that you are alive and safe. You have changed a great deal, Josie, but you are not dead, or – broken, into an evil sorceress – and this makes me happier than I can say.’

‘It must have been horrible for you when I was taken away,’ said Josie. ‘I hope you did not get into too much trouble on my account.’

‘We were very worried,’ said the gazelle. ‘It was awful. Murbitha wanted to turn back at once, but I said we should go on and tell his Lordship what had happened. So in the end I did that. When his Lordship had to return to Balan – when he had the news about his brother – I went back to Caladru’s people. And then I did not get into so much trouble: though Caladru was angry with all of us. Caladru blamed Radamatha the most, for sending you off with us, when it turned out that was the wrong thing to do. But I did not get into so much trouble, since I ran off with Kodoru before I could. Kodoru and I were not the last to leave. In the end more than half of Caladru’s people went away, and now we live in several little herds instead of one big one.’

‘I am sorry that my bad luck went on to cause so much trouble to your people,’ said Josie. ‘I was only with you a little while, but I do think about all of you often. What has happened since then? How are Murbitha and the others?’

‘It is not at all your fault, Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha. ‘The old women say that the troubles were stored up over many years, and many things would have brought them out.’

Josie could tell the truth in this, but she still did not like to think that she had been the straw that had broken the camel’s back.

Mirilitha went on in her lilting voice. ‘Murbitha stayed with Caladru, and she is the herbkeeper and lorekeeper for that herd now, since Radamatha died the winter before last.’

‘I am sorry to hear that she is dead,’ said Josie. ‘She was kind to me, and I do not think that it is her fault at all that I was taken by the ifrits.’

‘It is kind of you to say so,’ said Mirilitha.

‘What of Alabitha?’ asked Josie, remembering the first kindly voice she had heard when she was spilled into this new world, and thinking of the innocent girl she herself had been when she first walked alongside the Lion’s Pool. She felt sorry for that girl she had been, as if she were a stranger.

‘Alabitha went with her mother Falabitha to join Olodru, when the herd was broken,’ said Mirilitha. ‘His herd wanders mostly away to the south, near the edge of the hills of the Pugrahan. From what I hear, she is turning out beautiful and clever, but not overwise – probably the same as you were told of me, when I was not much older than she is – though perhaps they did not say I was clever.’

‘I am sure they told me you were clever,’ said Josie, with a little laugh, reaching out a hand to pat the gazelle girl’s neck. ‘So you dwell with Kodoru now?’

‘Yes, Josie,’ said Mirilitha. ‘I live in a little herd with Kodoru; we live mostly not far from where you were carried off. I have two foals – Ishmu and Zoratha.

‘Congratulations,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure they are beautiful and as quick-witted as you are.’

‘You are very kind to say so,’ said Mirilitha. ‘And congratulations to you, also: I can see for myself that your son is very clever and finely-formed.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. She remembered how when she had felt her body beginning to change she had felt nothing but fear and shame. She had asked Tash to seek out a certain plant with white hairs on its leaves that grew in shady places on stony ground. But Tash had picked the wrong leaves, or they worked differently on human women than on gazelles, or there had been some other mischance. Josie had been very ill for a night and a day, but her womb had not convulsed to push out the half-formed child. Soon after that Tash could smell and feel that she was different and she had to explain to him what was happening. Tash had been pleased to have a child from the beginning; she thought he understood that he could not possibly have made him, but she had never been able to bring herself to explain exactly what had happened.

Then Josie began to feel the stirring in her belly, at first something she thought she imagined, and then more and more, until it was obvious that there was a creature inside her, a demanding thing as willful as herself. She had been sick for months, and ached all over, and her body had been stretched like toffee and torn like cardboard, and she had been through an agony that seemed to last forever when she thought she would die and half hoped she would, and at the end of it she had a slimy mewling creature that did not seem human. She had called him after her sister, in hope that she would not think of him always as the son of the bandit chief; and sometimes days would pass now when she did not remember who he was. Whatever Tash knew or guessed, he had been devoted to the boy from the very beginning, when he was nothing more than a strange way Josie smelled and a story she told him; and now Gerald loved him in return, in as much as he could in his selfish infant way. ‘He is the son of Tash,’ Josie told herself, over and over again. ‘The son of Tash.’

‘It seemed when we were travelling that Kodoru was courting you,’ said Josie. ‘Murbitha said he was not serious.’

‘He was as serious as he could be,’ said Mirilitha. ‘He is like Arabitha also – cunning but not wise – but has been a good husband. And with Ruatha and me to temper him, he is well on his way to building a fine herd.’

‘Ruatha?’ asked Josie.

‘She is my sister-wife. You probably do not remember her.’

‘I cannot understand what it would be like, to be happy being one- one of many wives, like that.’

‘You are not a gazelle, Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha, shifting uncomfortably. ‘So you cannot really understand.’

‘Of course not, you are right.’

‘When Prince Margis came through our land, I knew that I had to find out the ending of your story,’ said Mirilitha. ‘So I left my family behind for a time; I could not have done so, if Ruatha were not there to look after Kodoru and the foals when I was gone.’

‘That is good.’ Josie felt her eyes welling up with tears again. ‘I wish I knew what it was.’

‘What it was, Lady Josie?’

‘The ending to my story,’ said Josie. She choked back a sob, and gushed out the words. ‘Oh, I do not know what to do, Mirilitha. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I have become here. I feel as if I am the most desperately wicked girl who ever lived. I did not do what Aslan wanted me to do, and I thought he had punished me, but would leave me alone. And it got more bitter all the time, being left alone, so I was not sure that I wanted to be left alone; but now you have all come here, and it seems as if Aslan is giving me another chance to do what he wants; but I don’t know if that is really what it is, or how he will punish me if I refuse, and what will happen if I do what he wills.’

‘I am sorry, Lady Josie. You are confusing me.’

Josie could see that she was upsetting the gazelle- as always when her kind were nervous, Mirilitha was acting as if she wished she could bolt for the door and fly far away. So Josietook a deep breath and tried to make herself speak more slowly and calmly.

‘Please, just Josie. I am sorry, Mirilitha, this is not your concern. I should not talk to you like this. So much has happened, and there are so many things I would like to talk about – with my sister, I would like to talk with my sister – but she is dead.’ It felt strange and cruel to say out loud that her sister was dead. ‘But you are as close to a sister as anyone I know in this world. And I do not know what I should do.’

‘It is not my place to tell a Daughter of Helen what she should do,’ said Mirilitha meekly. ‘But if the Lion wills that something should be done, we are taught that we should will it to be done too.’

‘Those are the rules of this world,’ said Josie, both resigning herself to them and resenting them as she kept up her efforts not to go to pieces. ‘I suppose I must do what must be done, and see what happens.’

‘I am sure you will do what is right, Josie,’ said Mirilitha. ‘The Lion would not bring us all safely through so much to this place if it were not so. If you are meant to do something, you will do it now, and not fail.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Josie. ‘I hope you are right.’

Mirilitha put her head down next to Josie, and after a moment Josie began to run her hand over her fur, as if she were a dog. Mirilitha did not seem to mind. ‘I do wish that you could stay here,’ she said.

‘I need to get back to my children – and my husband and sister-wife and sister-children,’ said Mirilitha. ‘It is good to see you, Josie, but this is a grim place for gazelles.’

After a minute she went on.

‘If you will forgive me speaking as if I were a Daughter of Helen, Josie, I do not understand why you would stay here, instead of going to the lands where men dwell. After we have done what Aslan wills – if it is to be – if we can free the dumb beasts of this place who should not be dumb beasts – you could return with us to Calormen. Then you could live among men, at no very great distance from the land where we live, and come speak with us whenever you wished.’

‘I must stay here with my husband,’ said Josie. ‘I cannot take him to the lands of men. The men would not understand. Tash is not a man. Neither is he a talking beast. He does not fit in this world.’

‘If you treat him as a Son of Frank, it might be in time that the other men will treat him the same way? In time?’

‘I can hear what they say when they think I cannot hear, Mirilitha. And when they speak of him even when they know I can hear, I hear the word ‘monster’ in their voices.’ I am the true monster, thought Josie. Tash cannot help but be what he is, but I have pretended the rules of my own world did not hold here, knowing in my heart that they did. I have done wrong to Tash, to make him my husband, and I have done wrong in the sight of God. It is obvious now that the men of Calormen are here; I hear their voices, and smell them, and know that they are my people, and I have done a monstrous thing.

‘They have only been here a very little time, Josie,’ said Mirilitha gently. ’After more time, it may be-‘

‘No,’ said Josie. ’No, he cannot live among men. So neither can I.’

‘Lady Josie-‘ began Mirilitha, but Josie interrupted her, determined to change the subject.

‘Dear Mirilitha, do you think you could sing me one of the songs of the gazelles? You sing so beautifully, and I have often remembered the sound of your people singing.’

‘What sort of a song do you wish me to sing, Josie?’

‘I do not care. Anything.’

‘A happy song, or a sad one?’

‘It does not matter. A sad song will fit my mood, and that will be good; but a happy one might lift it, and that would also be good.’

Mirilitha thought a little time, while Josie sat quietly by her side and waited, and then she began to sing.

***

Tash returned not long after sunset, and curled up around his wife. She was quiet and stiff at first, and through she relaxed after a time her face looked to Tash like she had been weeping.

‘Do not be sad, Josie,’ he told her, running the smooth backs of his claws over the smoother white skin of her forehead. How splendid she was, he thought: he had found nothing in any world to compare to the look and feel of her, his Josie, Mistress of Telmar.

‘And you should not get so angry,’ she told him. ‘Prince Margis does not mean any harm. He is only trying to be friendly.’

‘I am sorry I upset you,’ Tash apologised. ‘But I wish they would do what they came here to do, and then go away.’

‘So do I,’ said Josie, biting her lip in the way Tash knew meant she was not sure of what she was saying.

Tash tried not to be afraid. ‘The men have not said what the owl said, that they have come here to find the secrets of Telmar. I wonder what secrets they hope to find.’

‘We will not tell them about the apples,’ said Josie, patting Tash’s arm in a reassuring way. ‘They caused enough trouble when the sorceror had them.’

Tash went on. ‘If they are not looking for the sorceror’s magic for themselves, it seems strange that they would come all this way just to look upon Telmar, and see for themselves that the sorceror was dead and you are not an enemy.’

‘I expect it is Aslan’s doing,’ said Josie with a sigh. ‘You were there when Prince Margis said that he has always felt a desire to come here, just because nobody has, and he admitted himself that it did make sense. He said he meant to go here long before we came to this world – well, before I came here.’

‘I wonder still what he is not telling us,’ said Tash. ‘Maybe they have come seeking the apples, or something else the magician had.’

‘It could be,’ said Josie.

‘I can tell you are worried,’ said Tash. ‘I am sorry I upset you. I will do my best to be more polite.’

‘Dear Tash, you are forgiven. A thousand times.’ Josie turned her head to kiss Tash’s beak. ‘I cannot tell whether the men have any dark secrets, but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. They haven’t given us any reason to not trust them.’

‘I will try, my Josie.’

Josie softened further and pressed up against Tash in a way she had not done since the Calormenes had come to Telmar. ‘Do you want to hear the song Mirilitha sang me this afternoon? I cannot sing it anywhere as well as she could, of course, but I can try.’

‘I would like that,’ said Tash. So Josie put her lips close to Tash’s head and softly sang to the tune the gazelle had sung that afternoon.

Bring back to me the songs

The songs we sang long ago;

Bring back to me the sweet, sad music

That warmed the cold hearts of the people.

Too quiet are the streams and pools;

Too silent the cliffs and gorges;

Look my way with your dark eyes

And stir up a thousand echoes.

 

Fill me again with the fire

That first made my dust into flame:

We are young and thirsty with desire,

And we will drink at the pool of desire.

 

The song sets our feet-dancing

The song sets our hearts dancing,

The song make our spirits dance

And makes stone flow like blood.

 

Soft amid the rushes of the March Plain of Sha

The breeze of morning sings:

Bring me the song that is like fire

Brighter and clearer than the song of the breeze of morning.

Josie and Tash had spent a busy few days putting the castle into order to receive visitors. The hall where Blackbriar had once slept was swept out, bedding was arranged there, and wood made ready for the fireplace. Another hall that had seemed like it might once have been a banqueting hall, where the roof only leaked in the strongest rains, was readied with heavy chairs of polished wood and tapestries to be a fit place for holding conference in. Food and drink as suitable for entertaining a prince as could be managed was collected. Many of the nicer things that the ifrits had collected for Yustus were long gone; Turkish delight, for instance, was only a fond memory, and it was a long time since Josie had eaten yogurt or fresh apricots. But they had sugared fruits and pickled vegetables in plenty, a great quantity of roast venison, and enough flour remained for Josie to bake years’ worth of bread. Throughout the preparations for the visit Gerald contrived to be wherever he would be most in the way. He found the flurry of activity most exciting.

‘Daddy, is the owl coming back?’ he asked Tash. ‘Will it bring the gazelle?’

‘That is what he said, little one,’ Tash replied. ‘The owl will be back, and the gazelle too, and some men.’

‘Like you?’ asked Gerald.

‘More like you, but grown up,’ explained Tash. He lifted Gerald onto his shoulder. ‘Try imagining you are about this high, that is what they will be like.’

‘Ooh,’ said Gerald, and laughed.

Josie made sure that she had her finest silks and jewels picked out to wear while the Prince was visiting, and selected things for Tash and Gerald to wear as well.

‘You will have to wear something,’ she told Tash. ‘Even if it is really only a curtain pinned up, we can make it seem splendid. It would be too shameful if you were naked.’

‘As you wish,’ said Tash. ‘I will ornament myself with jewels too. And Gerald: there is that golden ring thing that will look nice on his head.’

‘So long as he does not take it off and lose it somewhere,’ said Josie. But then she laughed, a little nervously. ‘What an old woman I am becoming,’ she said. ‘As if it mattered. There is more jewellery here than we could ever wear.’

Tash said nothing. Of course, being immortal, in principle they would have plenty of time to wear all the jewellery, even if every room of the castle was crammed full of the stuff. But their days together were destined to be short – the Books of Tash had said so, and Aslan had confirmed it. He did not like to think of how short they might be.

During those days Tash played cheerfully with the boy, and was gentle with his wife, and worked hard getting the castle in order without complaint; but inside he felt every moment as if he was teetering on the edge of a black well of fear. All that he had here had been under threat since he had read the Books of Tash, like a village on the edge of a steep mountain that is sure one day to give way in a landslide. And now the earth was trembling, and soon a great wave of stone and earth would sweep the village away.

‘I will not give them up,’ he told himself. ‘I will not.’

***

The Mistress of Telmar and her retinue – that is, Tash and Gerald – met with Prince Margis and his company at the base of the hill, where the hidden path to the castle began. Tash and Gerald had watched eagerly at the window for the visitors’ approach, so they were in position in plenty of time.

‘Are those horses?’ asked Gerald.

‘I think so,’ answered Tash.

Certainly Gerald had never seen so many people and beasts coming purposefully up to him, and found it quite marvellous and exciting until they were a little too close, when his face crumbled into unhappiness and he hid against Tash’s chest.

‘There is a dog with them,’ Tash said to Josie in a low rumbling voice. ‘I think it might be Blackbriar.’

‘Indeed,’ said Josie, her voice shaking a little.

The riders stopped a good ten paces short of Josie and dismounted. ‘The peace of the Lion be with you, Lady Josie,’ said the first of them, a young man who could only have been Prince Margis. Tash noticed that the Prince and the other men who were with him kept their eyes politely fixed on Josie, but could not help watching him out of the corner of their eyes. They do not know what I am, thought Tash. And they are scared of me. Thinking this made him feel bolder and more cheerful. The men were not dressed all that differently from the brigands he had fought a few years before, though they were better groomed, and all of them except Prince Margis seemed to be concentrating mainly on controlling their horses. Tash knew the horses were frightened of him, too, and the men being frightened of him made the horses more frightened.

‘Greetings to you, Prince Margis,’ said Josie, sounding to Tash very grand and in control of everything. ‘Allow me to introduce my husband, Tash, and my son, Gerald.’

‘It is an honour, Lady Josie,’ said the Prince, inclining his head slightly in a royal bow. Josie responded in the same way. ‘These are my companions: my advisor, Arkalan Jardil; my men-at-arms, Jemin, Hurras, Karifar, and Eyit; Ofrak who is known to you, and Mirilitha.’ As each of the men or beasts were named, they made a sign of obeisance to the Mistress of Telmar.

It was all uncomfortably formal, but the dog chose that moment to come forward and nose about Josie’s feet. She crouched down to pat it. ‘Blackbriar! Is that you?’ The dog licked her hand.

Gerald had begun to peek out again, very cautiously. ‘Doggie,’ he observed.

‘I call her Onyx,’ said Prince Margis.

‘I am quite sure that she is the dog we knew as Blackbriar, though,’ said Josie. ‘Yes, Gerald, it is definitely a doggie. One I did not think I would meet here again.’ She straightened and brushed her hands on her skirts.

Tash watched the men. They did not know what to make of Josie, and they did not know what to make of him. In turn, they reminded him uncomfortably of the brigands. They are not at all the same, he told himself. They look the same, that is all. Gerald must have picked up Tash’s unease, since he began to wriggle and complain.

‘You are welcome in Castle Telmar, Prince Margis,’ said Josie. ‘You and yours, for as long as you wish. Please come in and we will show you to your rooms.’

‘You are a generous hostess, Lady Josie,’ replied Prince Margis. ‘I am most grateful.’

‘We do not have many servants – any servants, really – so all we have is simple, but I hope you will find it sufficient,’ said Josie.

‘We have been sleeping out of doors for months,’ said Prince Margis cheerfully. ‘Four walls and a roof will be luxury enough.’

Josie led the way on into the castle. Tash wanted to walk beside her, but he did not want to get too close to the horses and scare them, so he let the men and their horses go by with plenty of room and brought up the rear with Mirilitha.

‘This lady is a gazelle,’ said Tash to Gerald. ‘If you are quiet and good, maybe she will let you pat her.’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Mirilitha. The gazelle did not seem anywhere near as afraid of Tash as the men were. Maybe to her he was not all that different from a human, Tash thought.

‘I am Gerald,’ said Gerald to the gazelle. He held out a hand in her direction, and Tash held him so that he could run his hand over Mirilitha’s fur.

‘Gerald looks very like the Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha.

‘I look like me,’ said Gerald defensively.

‘Yes, you do, little one,’ admitted the gazelle. ‘No one could mistake you for anyone else.’

‘He is curious about gazelles,’ said Tash. ‘So am I. You are smaller than I thought you would be.’

‘That is fair, Lord Tash,’ said Mirilitha. ‘You are larger than I thought.’

They passed through the narrow doorway that had been closed in the time of the evil magician, and started up the broad winding stairway to the castle proper.

‘No one has called me Lord Tash before,’ said Tash, thinking how very odd it sounded.

‘Since you are the consort of Lady Josie, I thought it would be your proper title,’ said Mirilitha. ‘I am sorry if I have it wrong. I am still quite new at dealing with the Sons of Frank and Daughters of Helen, and here-‘ she looked for a moment like she was going to bolt off in a nervous gazelle manner. ‘Here it is different again.’

‘I do not mind at all being called Lord Tash,’ said Tash.

‘Am I Lord Gerald?’ asked Gerald.

‘I think you are the young Master,’ said Mirilitha. ‘Young Master Gerald.’

‘I like Lord Gerald better,’ said Gerald.

***

The travellers were shown to their rooms, and Prince Margis pronounced himself amazed by the splendours of the castle. ‘To think that it was made hundreds of years ago,’ he said. ‘Balan was scarcely a huddle of mud huts at that time.’

After the horses were seen to and the men tidied up it was time for lunch, so there was a feast of cold roast venison and pickled vegetables in the banqueting hall. As Josie was not fond of wine herself, she had plenty to share with the travellers, and she made sure that their cups were full.

The food may not have been splendid, but they ate off golden plates the Telmarines had left. The Telmarines had used spoons, but no forks, so Josie had gotten in the habit of eating with her fingers and figured she could do it quite tidily. She could not see what her human visitors were doing, but if her manners were terrible, they had the good sense not to complain.

There was an unspoken agreement not to speak of anything of great importance just yet. Prince Margis conversed with the natural politeness of nobility; Josie replied with what felt to her like ungainly awkwardness; and the others- Margis’ advisor Jardil, the men-at-arms, and still more the two talking beasts – kept the polite silence of underlings. Josie found this most unnerving. She was not at all used to being the centre of attention at a formal meal.

Eventually they had emptied their plates and refilled their cups. ‘With your pardon, Lady Josie,’ said Prince Margis. ‘There is one thing I should not delay any longer. I know we have much to discuss, and it would be best to put off discussing it until the morrow, but there is this one thing.’

‘Of course, Prince Margis,’ said Josie. Gerald had fallen asleep during lunch, and was comfortably tucked away on a pile of blankets in the corner.

‘I have something that I believe is yours,’ said Margis, removing something from a pouch.

‘What is it?’ asked Josie.

‘The ruby key,’ Tash replied in his profoundly unmusical voice, before Prince Margis could say anything. ‘They key to the secrets of Telmar.’

‘Yes, Lady Josie. I do not know whether it is in truth the key to the secrets of Telmar, but I was told it belonged to you.’

Josie realised she was gritting her teeth, and forced her face to relax into a smile with an effort. ‘Thank you, Prince Margis.’

He leant across the table to put the key in front of her, and she lifted her hands to take it from him. As their hands touched she felt all the hairs on her arm stand up on end. It was if he had passed her something invisible and dangerous and powerful, along with the key.

‘How did you come by this key?’ she asked, keeping her voice carefully controlled.

‘A thief was captured, stealing from goatherds at the edge of the great desert. He had this key on him. He was brought to Balan for punishment, and when he was questioned, he admitted that he been part of band that had taken it from a woman far to the northwest – near Telmar, near here. It was a pale young woman, he said, one who had no business being in such a wild country. He said then that their band had been set upon by a monster – begging your pardon, er, Lord Tash – that had taken the girl, and slain a dozen of the band, and that he had been one of the few who escaped with his life.’

‘That makes sense,’ said Josie slowly. ‘Thank you for bringing it back.’

‘It was no more than six,’ said Tash modestly. ‘I am quite sure.’

Josie turned the ruby key over and over in her fingers, reacquainting herself with it. ‘I should put it on a chain, instead of just a bit of ribbon,’ she said, more to herself than anyone else. She set the key back down on the table in front of her. ‘Tash?’ she reached out a hand to take one of his, feeling more ill at ease than before.

‘Well, I am happy to put off any discussion of weighty matters until the morrow,’ said Prince Margis cheerily. ‘But I could not rest with that burning in my pouch, knowing it to be yours.’

‘Thank you again,’ said Josie. She squeezed Tash’s hand.

‘May I fill your cup, Lady Josie?’ asked the Prince.

Josie flinched. ‘No, thank you.’ The return of the key had brought the circumstances in which it was taken from her vividly back to mind. She clutched on to Tash as though his hand was all that kept her from falling into an abyss.

‘As you wish, Lady Josie,’ replied the Prince.

‘I think the Lady Josie may be tired, my Prince,’ said Jardil smoothly. ‘I find I am also weary after our long journey. And there are some few tasks we must still accomplish this afternoon.’

‘Er -of course,’ said Prince Margis. ‘Perhaps you will be so kind as to excuse us, Lady Josie?’

‘Yes, certainly,’ said Josie. ‘Please make yourselves at home in the castle. You are quite right. I find I am quite tired after all the excitement.’ She picked up the key and stood. ‘Thank you.’

***

That evening Margis and Jardil walked together in the garden where Tash had once been a statue. Only the statue of the queen remained now, tumbled and broken into pieces on the ground, and the lawn that the ifrits had kept in good repair was a wilderness of weeds with a few well-worn trails running through it. Beyond the edge where the garden fell precipitously away, the sun was setting in a blaze of colour – for there were great fires or dust storms far away, and since midday the horizon had been hidden in haze.

‘Jardil, she is more beguiling than ever I imagined,’ said Prince Margis with earnest enthusiasm. ‘There is something about her. When our hands touched, it was as if I touched fire. Oh, she is strange, Jardil, very strange and perilous, but I feel I am half in love with her already.’

Jardil walked on for a moment before answering. He plucked a dead twig from the honeysuckle vine and rolled it between his fingers. ‘But there is Tash, the creature she calls her husband.’

‘In truth, I never dreamed to see such a thing,’ said Margis, ‘I still cannot believe it. She does not seem ensorcelled. It truly seems as if she commands the beast. And she- she-‘ Margis shook his head in honest bewilderment. ‘Jardil, can it really but that she- that they-‘

‘Would it make any difference to your designs, my Prince?’ asked Jardil. ‘We know she is not a virgin. She has a son.’

Margis regarded the sunset. It looked as if the edge of the world had caught fire. ‘No,’ he said, slowly and carefully. ‘No, I suppose it would not. As I said, I am already half in love with her. No, two-thirds.’

‘Well then, you must go on as you had planned,’ said Jardil.

‘Yes,’ said Margis. There was another long moment before he spoke again to his advisor.

‘Jardil, do you think she cannot be parted from him?’

‘I know the ways of a man with a woman, my Prince, and I know you well, and I judge there will be no great difficulty in parting her from the creature; but parting the creature from her, that will be another matter.’

‘Ah,’ said Margis, gazing at the sunset.

***

At the same time Tash and Josie were talking in the chambers where the evil magician had once lived. The curtains were drawn and no light was lit, but Tash was well used to the gloom.

‘I did not expect it,’ said Josie. ‘I suppose it is a sign. A sign that we have to open up the secret chamber and do something with the things there. And Blackbriar is here. It has to be a sign. Do you think it is a sign, Tash? A second chance, to set things right with the animals here and finish what Aslan wanted?’

‘He wanted you to go away,’ said Tash, smoothing the hair back from Josie’s forehead.

‘Maybe he has changed his mind. Since we made it clear we weren’t going, he made sure that these men came here – with the key, and with the dog.’ She sounded more frightened than she had allowed herself to sound in the presence of the Calormenes.

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash.

‘Maybe once we do what we are supposed to do, they will go again, and-‘ Josie fell silent.

‘And then it could stay like this,’ said Tash. ‘It would be good. I will hope.’ But it was hard to hope, since he had read the Books of Tash, and felt his destiny rumbling down upon him. ‘It could be you are right, and Aslan has changed his mind, and we are not doomed after all.’

‘Can you hear Gerald?’ asked Josie suddenly.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Tash.

‘I think I do,’ said Josie. ‘I will go get him.’ She rose hastily from their bed, threw a wrap around her shoulders, and went into the next room where the boy lay sleeping.

In Josie’s dream the wind had gotten hold of the loose edge of the tarpaulin, and it was flapping terribly. The rain lashed her face, and the wind swept her voice away, so the men whose job it was to fix the tarpaulin could not hear her instructions. It took a few moments after she awoke for her to realise that the sound of the tarpaulin had not stopped. It was coming from the shuttered window, and she prodded her husband.

‘Tash? Dear Tash?’

Tash mumbled something, and made a clumsy pacifying gesture with an arm at his wife as he slowly flickered into consciousness.

‘There’s something at the window, Tash,’ said Josie, and kissed the soft skin of his throat. ‘Dear Tash, can you see what it is?’ The sound that was not a tarpaulin flapping continued insistently.

Tash opened the shutters. A gust of wind and rain blew into the room – for that part of Josie’s dream had been quite accurate – and with it a very large bird. It was big enough to carry off a small child, and Tash turned instinctively to the corner where Gerald lay, curled up into a ball under his blankets.

‘Josie! It is an owl, I think.’ It was certainly the largest flying creature that had been in that chamber since the ifrits had been freed from their master, years before. Josie sat up in bed and listened to the bird as Tash closed the window and went to stand watch over the sleeping boy.

An owl can be very quiet when it choses, so it sounded disconcertingly as if no one was there at all to Josie. ‘A good evening to you, friend owl,’ she said.

‘Good evening,’ said the owl, hopping closer to Josie. ‘The Lion’s peace be with you. I am sorry to disturb you at this hour, but might I ask- are you Miss Josephine Furness?’

The owl’s voice sounded as exhausted as might be expected from a creature that has been flying through a stormy night. It had that aura of authority that comes not from any natural superiority, but from being the bearer of some important office – a borrowed authority.

‘Yes, I was Miss Furness,’ said Josie, speaking as regally as you can manage when you are sitting up in bed with a blanket held up under your chin. ‘You can call me Josie – er, Lady Josie. This is my husband Tash, and my son Gerald.’

‘My name is Ofrak. It pleases me to meet you more than I can say, Lady Josie.’

Josie could not remember – was that the name of the owl the gazelles had said had brought them news, long before, when she had first come to this world? The unease she had felt at the first entry of the talking bird grew.

‘You are welcome here in Telmar as long as you wish,’ said Josie.

‘You are very generous,’ replied the owl.

‘Oh, I suppose I should get out of bed,’ said Josie, more to herself than anyone else. ’Can you hand me my nightdress, dear Tash? Thank you.’

‘To what do we owe the honour of your visit?’ asked Josie, getting out of bed and into her nightdress.

‘I am a herald of Prince Margis,’ said Ofrak.

At the sound of this name Josie twitched as if she had just heard a human footstep in a room she had just left and knew to be empty. This was a name she was quite sure she remembered. ‘Prince Margis?’

‘Yes. He has sent me ahead to scout out the Vale of Telmar. He will be here in a few days. I think five; certainly no more than a week.’

‘This is unexpected,’ said Josie, swallowing hard.

‘As you may know, Prince Margis had planned to journey here several years ago,’ said the owl, its voice growing more pompous in the way Josie had always halfway imagined an owl might talk. ‘But his Lordship had to postpone this venture when word came to him of his brother’s death, when he had barely reached the edge of the marches. Some time later rumour came to Balan that the sorceror had died, and that a new sorceress had taken over Telmar. It was said even that this new sorceress, begging your pardon, was none other than a girl that had been spoken of by certain talking animals some time before – which was yourself, Miss Josephine – Lady Josie. Last spring Prince Margis had things sufficiently in hand in Balan to set out again on his quest, which he has wisely done so with the aid of certain of the talking animals of Calormen, among which number I am proud to be one.’

While Ofrak had spoken Josie had moved over to where Tash stood and taken his hand. ‘What does the Prince want here?’ she asked.

‘To find the secrets of Telmar. To rescue you, if you are in need of rescue. To do you honour, if you are not. Should you,’ the owl paused, and continued in an apologetic tone, ‘be an enemy, to defeat you.’

‘That is very well,’ said Josie, not feeling at all reassured. ‘You can let Prince Margis know that I am no enemy to him.’

‘Of course, Lady Josie,’ said the owl.

‘Are there many of his party?’ asked Josie.

‘Beside myself, his Lordship travels with his advisor Jardil, who was his father’s cup companion, five men-at-arms of Balan, and a talking gazelle, Mirilitha.’

The name Mirilitha swam up out of depths of Josie’s memory. Yes, she remembered a Mirilitha – she had been one of the gazelles who had accompanied her on the journey that was supposed to deliver her to this Prince Margis.

‘Mirilitha? Then the gazelles-‘ Josie paused.

‘Brought news of your arrival to Prince Margis, yes. And of your abduction. His Lordship regrets very much that he did not come earlier to your rescue. It was thought at first that you were surely dead – for no stories before speak of anyone who has returned from the grasp of the sorceror’s ifrits. Then the stories came that the sorceror had been slain, and later, that a sorceress ruled in Telmar.’

Josie murmured a meaningless polite reply to the owl. It had been nearly three years of peace, living in the Vale of Telmar in the crumbling castle of the magician Yustus; three years that had not always been easy, years that had sometimes felt to Josie more like being in a prison than being mistress of her own domain, but years that had been uncomplicated by any interruptions from outside the valley. There had been no more earthquakes, no more summons to embark on quests. In those three years Josie had felt smothered sometimes by Tash’s devotion, which had not faded a whit since the night they promised themselves to each other. It did not feel right to have a husband who was always so unquestioningly obedient. And the boy – well, she loved him now, but he had been selfish and demanding from the beginning, as children are when they are very young, and she was too young to be properly patient with him, and it was a rare day even now that she did not remember how cruelly he had been foisted on her, a punishment or a twisted consolation prize for refusing to carry out Aslan’s quest.

Those years were over now, for better or for worse.

There was a stirring from Gerald’s bed, and then an excited voice made it evident that two bright little eyes were staring in an intrigued way at the owl.

‘What is it, Daddy?’ asked the boy.

‘It’s an owl,’ said Tash. ‘A talking owl.’ He picked up the boy and held him up where he could see the bird better.

‘Why?’ asked Gerald.

‘It’s a visitor,’ said Tash. ‘We are going to have visitors.’ And he squeezed his wife’s hand reassuringly.

‘I remember Mirilitha,’ said Josie to Ofrak. ‘She is a fine gazelle.’

‘What’s a gazelle?’ asked Gerald.

‘They are like deer,’ said Tash in a small voice to Gerald. ‘I have never seen one either.’

‘As I said, you are welcome here, Ofrak,’ said Josie. ‘There are rats enough in the castle, God knows – I expect you eat rats? But is there anything else you require?’

‘Rats are fine, Lady Josie,’ said the owl. ‘All I need otherwise is a dry place to rest, thank you very much.’

‘It eats rats?’ said Gerald, his voice tinged with awe.

‘It seems so,’ said Tash. ‘We should not, though.’

‘What do they taste like?’ Gerald asked the visitor.

Josie ignored this exchange and spoke with the owl. ‘When you are rested enough, you may let Prince Margis know that he and his company are also very welcome here. Now, I will show you to a place you can rest. I wonder what hour it is?’

‘My apologies,’ said Ofrak. ‘There are still three hours until dawn.’

‘It is not unknown for us to wake at this hour,’ said Josie. For the first time, she showed that she was aware that Gerald was awake, running her fingers through his hair and smiling ever so slightly.

***

The last of the clouds that had brought the night’s rain were dissipating in ragged shreds, and the wind shook the leafless branches of the poplars, as Prince Margis and his band followed the path along the little river that Ofrak had said led to the Vale of Telmar. They rode in the steady way of men who have ridden a very long way already and expect to ride a great deal further still, and have no hope of a change of horses in the foreseeable future.

‘There must be some ensorcellment lying about the evil place yet,’ said Prince Margis, with an earnestness creasing the youthful brow of a man used to blithely confronting his enemies head on. ‘Why else would she call the creature her husband?’

‘From the tale the thief told it is the very beast that rescued her from their clutches,’ said his advisor, whose brow was permanently creased from long habit. ‘The gratitude of women is less swayed by incidentals than the corresponding emotion of men, and a deformity that would seem appalling to us, in a woman, would seem but a trifle to a woman, in a man.’

‘True,’ mused Prince Margis. ‘You only have to look at Captain Jorjis and his wives. But still, her husband?’

‘With respect, my Prince,’ said Jardil. ‘If she truly is from another world, who knows what may be expected or excused in a woman of power?’

‘Surely not, Jardil,’ said the Prince. ‘You must not entertain such thoughts. It must be some misunderstanding of speech.’

‘It may be,’ said Jardil.

‘But the child. How could she come by the child?’ mused Prince Margis, his brow still uncharacteristically troubled.

‘The way such things happen is well established,’ said Jardil drily.

‘But how could- who could- never mind.’ For they had reached a narrow stony place, and it was needful to ride in single file.

Jardil did not approve of speaking of such things in front of the common soldiers. The news the owl had brought had been alarming, true, but one could not expect a woman who had come from another world to be in any way ordinary. You could not demand a woman obey ordinary rules, when she had bested a sorceror who had been feared for hundreds of years. The best that one could hope for was that she was fundamentally honourable, and receptive to the proposal the Prince Margis brought. After all, one could not heave a stone in Balan without striking a demure virgin of good family: but there was only one Lady Josie of Telmar. If only the Prince would think more strategically, and less romantically, thought Jardil. The advisor would have sighed, if he was not so used to divorcing his interior life from his outward actions.

Prince Margis proceeded first up the narrow path, with the boldness proper to Princes of Calormen. His dog, a black bitch he had befriended in the Marches some years before, scampered up alongside him. Jardil followed, with Ofrak perched imperturbably asleep atop his saddlebags, and behind him the slim gazelle Mirilitha. The five men at arms brought up the rear, loyal men of Calormen who had served the household of the King from their earliest youth, hopeful that they were reaching a comfortable stopping place but alert to any mischance.

It had been a long journey with very little comfort in it, and a great deal of miserable weather, but Prince Margis had kept his beard neatly trimmed and his hair oiled, and expected his company to do the same. Prince Margis himself, while a very fit and well-proportioned man, was no more handsome than the ordinary run of his people (the average man of Calormen of that time was much fitter than an average Englishman of our time, for they had not yet acquired slaves or any of the other things that incline a people to lethargy). Most of Prince Margis’s loyal manservants would have been judged more handsome than he, if they were dressed in the same finery. The prince had a helpful harmless sort of face – a face that would have suited a waiter rather than a prince; and you would have never taken him for a headwaiter. When he was called upon to act as a prince he wore quite a different face over this first face, like a mask, but it did not fit him naturally.

Jardil had been handsome in his youth, but was one of those men who do not age into what is called distinguished, but become creased and gaunt through worry. He did not lament it. Life was complicated enough without the distractions of youth.

‘Lord Jardil?’

‘Mirilitha?’ Jardil replied coolly to the gazelle, who had come up to walk beside his horse as the path broadened again.

‘If you will forgive me speaking to you as if I too were a Son of Frank, what do you think of Ofrak’s news?’ The animal cast her head about in her nervous gazelle fashion.

‘I am not sure I follow you, Mirilitha.’ Jardil looked straight ahead. Overhead cypress trees, gnarled and ancient, blocked out the sun. He did not like this place.

‘Lady Josie,’ the gazelle paused. ‘You have lived a long time, Lord Jardil, and had many dealings with many Sons of Frank and Daughters of Helen in that time. Lady Josie was friendly when I met her, long before, but do you think she will still be friendly? Do you think she will agree to return with the Prince?’

Jardil did not wholly approve that Mirilitha and Ofrak had been brought along on this journey. He saw the usefulness of having them, and went along with Prince Margis’ designs without complaint, as he also saw the usefulness in many other things of which he did not wholly approve, and went along with them. He was a practical man. He was also a political man, and he hid his disapproval well, indeed so well that both the talking beasts were more likely to confide in him than in any of the others. It was still necessary for them to maintain a proper deference towards men, of course.

‘Nothing is ever certain,’ said Jardil. ‘But from Ofrak’s report, the Lady Josie has her wits about her, and I think she will see the wisdom in the Prince’s proposal.’

‘I did not mean any disrespect to the Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha humbly.

‘I am sure you did not, Mirilitha,’ replied Jardil. ‘But there is no profit in asking me these questions. All will be made clear soon enough.’

‘Yes, Lord Jardil,’ said Mirilitha.

The prince’s company walked forward silently through the forest, the shadows growing thicker as the sun descended behind the mountains.

Tash had felt the same sense of relief Josie had when they bid goodbye to Blackbriar and turned their faces back towards Telmar, a sense that he was turning back to a nest of safety in a dangerous and irritating world. The empty blue lands had called to him, and part of him would have liked to stride out across them, seeing new places each day and meeting peculiar new people; but the greater part of him wanted only to return to the place where he had a good idea of where everything was, and people were unlikely to bother him, and he could curl up with Josie whenever they liked.

This camp by the riverside was a good something-in-between, and he had quite enjoyed their brief holiday there. It was a pity that Josie was still so tired, and had stayed behind at their camp, he thought: but she was never patient with fishing anyway, and she would be pleased with what he had found for her when he came back.

Tash had spent longer than he had expected to, cheerfully tracking the big fish to their deep lurking pool and gathering two of them. By the time he returned to Josie the cloudless sky was a pink shading to grey, and the birds of evening were making their first tentative forays across it. He tarried a little to watch them from time to time, fascinated; they were such interesting creatures, like nothing he had known on his old world.

Josie had not yet lit the fire, Tash noticed as he drew nearer. Perhaps she had fallen asleep? He hurried on, feeling uneasy, and became very much more so when he found no sign of Josie at the camp.

‘Josie?’ he called out. ‘Josie!’

Tash cast about for any signs of his wife. In one place the bracken underfoot seemed to have been trampled by some large creature; in a soft patch of earth by the river, there was the booted footprint of a man. Strangers had been here. Josie had gone with them. No, she had been taken. She would not have gone willingly. She would not have left everything so scattered about. And he could smell that she had been afraid.

The light was failing, and it was not clear which way the strangers had gone. Tash crouched down at the edge of the camp, put his arms over his head and tried to think. He had come from upriver and had heard or seen nothing; perhaps they had come from downriver? If any of them were still near, they were sure to find him; he had shouted lfor Josie loud enough. He crouched for a few long minutes, forcing himself to breathe slowly, listening as hard as he could. He heard nothing but the birds and the river. When no one came, he got to his feet and struck off into the shadowy forest.

Tash saw the fire of the brigands’ camp about three hours into the night after he had walked a wide circle through the woods, frightening woodland creatures as he passed them by. While he walked he had forced himself to stay calm, to conserve his energy, making himself into an instrument for finding Josie, but when he saw the light he began to seethe with rage. Who were these men, to take his Josie? Tash quickened his stride and moved towards the flickering flames, dimly aware of the voices of men and the noises of beasts already alarmed at his approach.

‘Halt!’ called a voice. ‘Name yourself, if you are man or talking beast.’ It was the voice of a human man, but Tash could tell nothing more about it.

‘Where is Josie?’ Tash called in response.

‘Put down your weapons, and advance slowly,’ said the voice. Then it said, ‘By the Lion!’, for Tash had not slowed at all on being told to halt, but had continued to stride angrily on, and his bulk had just become visible on the edge of the firelight. Horses whinnied in alarm, and men scurried for their weapons. They were dark men like Yustus, Tash saw, but most were taller and more heavyset than he had been, and they wore unkempt beards.

‘Halt!’ called one of the men, pointing a complicated sort of bow at Tash.

‘Where is Josie?’ called Tash again, his voice rising to an inhuman roar.

‘What is that beast?’ called one of the men. ‘He is a monster from Telmar,’ said another, and raised his hands to his face in a sign to ward off evil. But the men who had more of their wits about them had swords in their hands, or arrows notched to bowstrings, so there were a good half-dozen weapons pointed at Tash by the time he was near enough to feel the heat of the fire.

‘I don’t know of any Josie,’ said a smooth voice that seemed to hold less fear than the others. The man who belonged to this voice had come striding up swiftly at the first sounds of alarm, and now stood closer to Tash than any of the men who had their weapons trained on him. This man had a beard that was more neatly trimmed than the others, and wore a polished leather breastplate with the image of some insect embossed on it. He spoke as if he met apparitions such as Tash as a matter of course, and held his curved sword in a way that somehow contrived to be neither defensive nor aggressive. A leader must never show fear before his followers, Tash remembered learning on the world of the Thalarka. This one is afraid of me, like the others, but he cannot show it.

‘Is Josie a creature like yourself? Or is it a man you seek?,’ asked the smooth-voiced man. ‘For it might be that we seek the same man. Tell me more, and it may be we can help one another.’

The man stepped took another step closer, keeping his eyes fixed on Tash and his voice calm and steady. ‘We are looking-‘ he began, but he did not finish.

Tash could smell Josie on the smooth-voiced man. With a cry of inarticulate rage, he lashed out. The man was quick with his sword, and brought his blade in position to block Tash’s blow, but the strength that would have stopped a strong human warrior’s swordarm was not enough to stop Tash. The sword cut deep into Tash’s arms, and in one of them stopped at bone; but the other arm carried through and struck the man’s throat, with force enough that things inside it splintered. The man staggered backward, dropping his weapon, gurgling and clutching at the air.

‘Kill it!’ called a man. Tash felt arrows tearing into his flesh, and heard the sickening sound they made as they stuck there. The bowmen had encircled him, so they could not fire high for fear of hitting one another, and most of their shots struck him in the legs.

One man was bolder than the others and came at Tash with his sword. The blade stabbed deep into Tash’s side a little above his waist. Without thinking, Tash brought his beak down into the man’s neck, cutting through artery and windpipe in a single swift bite. The intrepid swordsman’s momentum carried him forward and he fell behind Tash, fountaining blood.

Tash had never been in so much pain, but he did not care. He kicked at the fire, sending up a storm of dancing sparks. Another arrow sank deeply into his back. The taste of the brigand’s blood was sweet in his mouth.

‘Where is Josie?’ he shouted.

‘Keep your distance,’ said one of the men, waving the others back. ‘Keep shooting it. It is too strong.’

The horses were maddened by Tash’s violence and now one broke free of its bonds, kicking wildly and careening wildly off into the darkness. Curses, screams, and inarticulate conflicting orders filled the air. The tear in Tash’s side burned and bled.

Tash pounced to the nearest of the brigands, a bowman who was fumbling to notch another arrow to his bowstring, and broke both his arms in one motion, twisting them like saplings.

‘Where is Josie?’ he cried again. ‘Where is she?’ More arrows struck Tash, but no other swordsman dared to come near. He grabbed a tentpole and drove it through the chest of one of the bowmen who was not standing quite far enough away.

‘The monster will kill us all,’ called one of the men.

Inexorably, irresistibly, heedless of his wounds, Tash hacked his way through the camp, searching for his wife. The brigands fell away before him. The man whose arms Tash had broken wailed in agony. Red foam bubbled from the mouth of the one Tash had impaled with the tentpole.

‘In the commander’s tent,’ called a man with an angular face, one of those who had held back from the fight. ‘The wine-red tent. The girl is in there.’

Tash tore into the big wine-red tent, which was still too small for him to stand upright in. On a bed of blankets at the rear of it Josie lay insensible, her legs showing white in the darkness. She smelled of the smooth-voicced man.

‘Josie?’ Tash gathered her up. She lay limply in his arms, but she groaned at the sound of his voice, and he could not see any wound on her. She was alive.

A wild exultant happiness welled up in Tash. ‘Sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Mistress of Telmar,’ he intoned in a soft voice, wrapping his arms around Josie to protect her. He did not leave the tent the way he entered – he could hear the men coming cautiously closer to the front – but instead tore his way through the cloth at the back, bringing the tent down behind him as he fled. A few steps further they were in darkness, and Tash loped off towards the river.

At first Tash did not think of the pain at all in his joy at having Josie back. After a very little while, though, he found he could only carry her with three arms. The fourth, the one the leader of the brigands had struck with his sword, hung stiff and useless. The cries of the men carried a long way in the still night, but it did not seem that they were following, and they grew fainter and fainter as Tash crashed through the darkness. At the river side he paused. He needed to set Josie down to do two things: to gather up their things, and to remove the arrows sticking into him. The one in his back was the worst, for he wrenched it sideways as he pulled it out, and afterwards it hurt him even more than the wound in his side. It was hard to gather up Josie and start again, harder than he had thought it would be; his arms and legs felt too heavy, and he felt dizzy. And he hurt, worse and worse.

After he forded the river Tash could no longer run, only walk. With Josie clutched unconscious to his chest he walked on until dawn, then for two hours after, while the birds sang and the sun shone down on meadows carpeted with blue and white flowers. The world occasionally spun giddily around him or bucked unexpectedly, but he ignored this and walked on.

Tash had never been in so much pain for so long, and he had rarely been so tired, but he was not miserable. It was true that he had failed in allowing Josie to be captured, but he had not been at all useless in rescuing her. He had not failed Josie as he had failed Nera. He had cut through the brigands who had captured Josie: inexorably, irresistibly, and he had saved his wife. Now he would go home with her and be safe. He clung to this thought as he walked on, and it kept him happy despite all his pain.

Tash did not feel sorry for the brigands, and think that any of them might have been poor farmers’ sons impressed against their will, with doting sisters at home who would cry when they heard they were dead. Chances are that none of them were, at any rate; and if humans are not often brought up to think of their enemies in such a way, thalarka were brought up even less so when Tash was growing up.

The pain from the wound in Tash’s side had somehow spread to that whole side of his body, and from time to time he had to stop entirely as a spasm of pain went through him.

‘Tash?’ said Josie muzzily.

‘Josie?’ Tash clutched her a bit more tightly to him, and turned to look at her. Her face was paler than usual and she looked thoroughly miserable.

‘I am so glad you are here, dear Tash,’ she said, in a small weak voice. ‘I love you. Can you put me down? I feel sick.’

‘I love you,’ said Tash tenderly, carefully setting Josie down on the grass. She did not stand, or even sit properly at first, but slumped forward, holding her face just off the ground with her hands. She threw up, and then very slowly and carefully stood up, with Tash helping as much as he could manage.

‘Bleh,’ said Josie. ‘Oh, I am so glad you are here.’ She sounded a little better, Tash thought. It was so very very good to hear her voice again, even if it seemed further away then usual.

‘How are you?’ Tash asked her. ‘Did they hurt you?’

‘My head hurts, I feel ill, and – your arm is all over blood, Tash. Poor Tash. Oh, I am so sorry.’ Josie sounded very alarmed.

‘I am alright,’ said Tash. This was not true. The wound in his side had hurt him more and more as he walked, and the flow of blood from it had not stopped, trickling all the way to his feet.

‘No, you are hurt,’ said Josie. She felt him over gently, finding many of his wounds. ‘You are all over blood. Poor Tash. This one is very deep.’ He twitched and hissed at her gentlest touch, the pain making it hard for him to keep standing. ‘Oh, poor Tash, you have been hurt terribly. You must sit down.’

‘I can keep going,’ said Tash. ‘I want to get home.’

‘You are shaking,’ said Josie. ‘And over warm. Sit. Put the packs down.’

Tash obeyed. It was very easy to sit down when he began. The soft grass seemed to drag him to it. The ground rocked gently beneath him, and above him clouds made lazy circles in the painfully blue sky. In the end he found himself more lying down than sitting.

‘What happened to you?’ Tash asked Josie. He lay with his eyes closed, happy that Josie was there, waiting to hear her voice again.

Josie did not answer Tash’s question. ‘There is no water in the canteen,’ she said after a moment. ‘Is there any water near?’

‘There was a stream not long ago,’ said Tash. ‘I will take you there.’

‘No,’ said Josie firmly. ‘I think I can hear it. I will be very careful; you don’t have to worry about me. I feel much better now.’

‘I wish you could stay,’ he said mournfully.

‘I am not going far,’ she said. ‘I will be right back. Just rest for a while, dear Tash, I will be back before you know it.’ She kissed the soft downy bit of his neck and left, and he was very sorry that she was leaving, but he did not complain.

Tash listened to Josie moving slowly off across the meadow, breaking a switch from a willow, and then moving more slowly into the forest. He felt very heavy. The world, which had not rocked or spun for a while after he lay down, started to move again. He found if he stayed very still and tried to breathe very shallowly it seemed to hurt a little bit less. He tried hard to concentrate on doing this, at the same time listening hard for the sounds of Josie in the distance.

It had rained steadily for the rest of the week, and when it was done the stream below the castle was high and the land was terribly muddy, so it had not seemed the wisest time to travel; and it was some weeks after that Josie finally made up her mind that she had to see the dog Blackbriar safely to the other side of the great river.

Then Josie had to figure out what to take on the journey, which is the sort of business that can be done in great hurry if necessary, but can expand to take up a great deal of time otherwise, especially if the journey is one that does not have a date set for departure, and is one that one is nervous about going on at all. The part of this figuring out that took the greatest amount of time was something that Josie did not speak with Tash about at all: deciding whether or not to take one of the magic apples. She did not want them in case they suddenly decided on the journey to seek to become immortal, but in case of some grievous accident. She knew from what Yustus had said that the apples could heal any hurt or sickness short of death, and there were any number of horrible things that could possibly happen to them on a journey through the unknown wilds. She thought of at least a dozen of them, imagining them all too clearly. At the end Josie decided that she would bring one of the apples, and fetched it up from the secret chamber while Tash was out hunting. She wrapped it up very carefully in a bit of silk and put it in the bag with her clothes.

So one day when spring was well advanced Josie, Tash, and Blackbriar left the castle of Telmar, leaving the parts of it they lived in shut up against the weather as well as they could. Josie had ended up bringing rather a lot of things for the journey, but Tash could easily carry enough for half a dozen travellers.

‘We don’t really now how long we will be,’ said Josie, picking up the bag with the apples. She gave Tash’s legs a hug. ‘It will be alright,’ she said – to Tash, or to herself, she was not sure. Then she patted Blackbriar’s head, as if she were an ordinary dog, and took Tash’s hand for the walk down the hidden path to the stream.

The three travellers followed the stream out of the valley as best they could, skirting the edge of the gorge and picking their way downhill through the rumpled country to the south where Josie and Tash had not been before. Below the gorge Josie realised how grim and dreary the vale of Telmar had been, and how much she had gotten used to living there since the Ifrits had brought her there. It was immediately a more fragrant sort of country beyond the valley, more alive with birds and beasts, and had a less closed-in feel. Besides the cypresses there were other sorts of trees – a good many willows along the streambanks, for example, and poplars in the hollows – and instead of an endless roof of forest and an endless floor of dry needles underfoot there were a good many meadows, where sweet-smelling flowers were growing thickly. There were bulbous things that Josie thought to be a sort of crocus, and drooping bell-shaped flowers that smelled a very little like strawberries, and wild roses whose few flowers had a desperate and intoxicating perfume.

It was difficult at first, but day by day Josie grew stronger. Tash still carried her a good deal of the time, though she walked beside him on the flatter ground, hand in hand. Blackbriar mostly ran off ahead to scout the way, running back to rejoin them every five or ten minutes.

‘I do wish you had stayed a woman a while longer,’ Josie said to Blackbriar as they walked along, in one of the moments while the two of them were walking alongside. ‘It would be so much easier to talk. But I suppose it must have been very horrid for you.’

Blackbriar agreed with a lick: that it would have been easier, or that it had been very horrid, Josie was not sure, and she scampered away again into the undergrowth before Josie could ask.

In the damp spring weather Josie found it a good deal more unpleasant sleeping out of doors than it had been in the desert with the gazelles; at least, she would have found it more unpleasant if it had not been for Tash. He was large enough and feathery enough to fold himself around her in a way that kept her comfortable enough in all but the nastiest weather. It is fair to say that all through this journey Tash and Josie thought mostly about each other. They were travelling through a pleasant country, filled with the sounds and smells of life, and each day brought something new, and their future was an uncertain and frightening thing; but they had both already been through so many uncertain and frightening things, and come through to find each other – so they clung to one another, and did not want to stop touching one another, and drank in the presence of the other like a thirsty man drinks water. If I were to write down what they said to each other it would be very dull. They were in love, and so they were impatient of everything else, and selfish in the selfless way of people in love, and they would have been very irritating to travel with. Perhaps Blackbriar was irritated, but if she was, she never showed it. Dogs are very forgiving.

Each day the travellers heard many dumb beasts, and every morning they woke to a cacophony of birdsong, but they did not meet any men or talking beasts in five days of travelling. They could rarely go in a straight line, for although there were no terribly steep mountains or gorges in the country below the Vale of Telmar the whole of it was rumpled like a blanket, with thick woods on the high parts and streams with boggy edges on the low parts. The river that had stopped Blackbriar on her last journey was still swollen, and the broken boles of trees cast up on its banks showed where it had been higher still, but Tash was large enough and strong enough that they crossed it without difficulty.

Tash and Josie did not discuss what they would do when they were camped on the other side, although this was far as they had agreed to go before they left Telmar. Instead they sat around the fire – they had stopped early and gathered deadwood along the banks – and talked about trivial things while they ate fish that Tash had caught in the river, and did their best to be as cheerful as possible as if their life together would never end.

‘We’ve been very lucky so far,’ said Josie, tempting fate, as she threw the last bony bit of her fish into the bushes. ‘It hasn’t rained, and we haven’t seen any sign of fierce beasts. And certainly not giants,’ These were creatures that Yustus had described to her with great relish, in telling her what might happen to her if she ran away, and Zardeenah had confirmed most of the evil magician’s stories. ‘They are probably only a long way away from here.’

‘I will keep you safe,’ said Tash. They reached out to take each other’s hands.

‘I wish Blackbriar could talk,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure she could tell us all sorts of stories.’

Tash curled up around Josie to keep her warm, and Blackbriar slept at their feet, and the cheerful little fire they had made slowly burned down until it was a tiny ruby of light in the middle of the forest.

The next morning they kept on southward, leaving their camp behind before the sun had cleared the horizon. Beyond the big river was flatter country, and a more open woodland, with a great many deer who took off at their approach. They made good progress through this country for a morning and an afternoon, and were about to make camp in a meadow that smelled of rosemary when Blackbriar became very excited and led them off to a low hill nearby.

‘There is a hole in it, and a little field of torn earth,’ said Tash.

‘Someone’s garden,’ said Josie. She knelt down and crumbled a bit of soil between her fingers, feeling very nervous. Could they have already come to a land of men? She had not thought they could be so close.

‘There’s a bit of curtain hanging down inside the hole. It is too small for me to get through, though you probably could, Josie. Someone is coming out.’

‘Someone certainly is coming out,’ said a surly, prickly kind of voice, and Josie could tell at once that it was the voice of some kind of talking animal. ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ the newcomer asked suspiciously.

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, stepping back a few steps as the stranger emerged from his home.

‘I am Josie,’ said Josie. ‘And this is Blackbriar. We were just travelling through, and we thought we would stop and ask if you had any news.’

‘Well, I’ll be,’ said the hedgehog – for that is what he was, a talking hedgehog who stood a bit higher than Josie’s waist walking on his hind legs – ‘Twenty years, whelp and boar, I’ve lived in this place, and you’re the first folk I’ve ever met who said they were ‘just travelling through’.’ After a rather long pause, as of someone who was not at all used to making introductions, he told them who he was. ‘My name is Shoab, son of Amidanab.’

Josie thought the hedgehog smelled rather like pipe tobacco. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said.

‘I also am pleased to meet you,’ said Tash.

‘Likewise,’ said Shoab shortly. He sniffed the air dubiously. ‘I know a dog when I see one, and a Daughter of Helen, but what sort of creature are you?’ he asked Tash.

‘I am a thalarka,’ said Tash. This answer seemed to satisfy the hedgehog hermit, for he just said ‘hrm,’ and made no further comment.

‘Has anyone at all been through here?’ asked Josie. ‘A month or so ago?’

‘Funny you should ask that,’ said Shoab, in a slow suspicious kind of voice. ‘Or maybe not so funny. That’s the news you’re asking after, I suppose. Yes, a month or so ago there were some peculiar travellers through here. I was out digging of an evening, and I heard a crashing and a running through the country, of a big creature, no two, no three big creatures who were heedless of who might hear them. I kept quiet and I kept downwind until they were long gone, but when I looked in the morning there were footprints near the water hole where I planted the apricot tree: big pawprints of great cats, and big hoofprints of a deer a good deal larger than the ones who live around here. I’ve never seen cats like those in these parts – at least not for years, since that pair of leopards came up this way during the drought. And travelling together with a deer like that, stands to reason they would be talking animals, and not dumb ones. Would you be on the trail of them?’

‘After a fashion,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’

‘Then you are on the right path,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. He stood there regarding them, chewing something that had been packed in his cheek before. ‘Three strange travellers then, and then three more this morning,’ he said, talking more to himself than to them, and then belatedly remembering his manners. ‘You look to have enough common sense that you won’t complain at me calling you strange, Miss. We don’t get many – any – of your kind in these parts.’

‘I don’t mind,’ said Josie. ‘Why do you live out here all alone? Isn’t it dangerous?’

‘Not so dangerous if you keep quiet and keep downwind and don’t meddle in other folk’s business,’ said the hedgehog, answering the first question. ‘They’re simple rules, but a lot of folk can’t seem to get the hang of them.’

‘I’ll try to remember them,’ said Josie. ‘Is it far to the lands where men live?’

‘I don’t rightly know,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. ‘It’s like I said already. I’ve heard the rumour of Sons of Frank around here a few times, but you’re the first Daughter of Helen I’ve seen or heard of in these parts. So if you’ve come far from where you live, you’re probably a long way from any of those lands.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘I guess there is still a long way to go.’ She gave Blackbriar a pat. ‘Can you tell us how to get to this water hole?’

The hedgehog nodded. ‘That I can, Miss. Just over that rise there, and then over the next one, and you’ll find the water hole where I planted the apricot tree. You can stay there, if you like.’ He chewed whatever he was keeping in his mouth thoughtfully. Strangest thing is, I thought that apricot tree had upped and died on me over the winter; but that morning when I went down and saw the footprints, there were new buds on it.’

‘Thank you very much,’ said Josie. ‘You’ve been a lot of help.’

‘Good day,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab, with an air of finality.

***

The hedgehog hermit had given them a last suspicious look and vanished back behind his front door curtain. When they had gone a little distance Tash looked back, and saw him peering after them from around the edge of the curtain. It was like how he probably would have looked, thought Tash, at some strange procession passing through his village, when he was a child on Ua.

‘I expect he has quite an interesting story, to have come out here all by himself and lived alone for so long,’ Josie said, when they were well underway again.

‘He did not seem like he would tell it,’ said Tash.

‘That’s true,’ said Josie. She shook her head. ‘Imagine living all alone like that for twenty years.’

‘I would not like it,’ said Tash.

This was true; but Tash had also been favourably impressed by Shoab son of Amidanab the hedgehog. He could not have said exactly what it was, but there was something in the hedgehog’s manner, in his audacity in living all alone, that appealed to Tash. He would hate to be without Josie, of course – it was only when he was with her that he could forget what he was, and the fate that had been foretold for him – but the thought of not being told what to do by anyone, of being able to stop and look at whatever he liked for as long as he liked, to never be sent off by people stronger than him to pick grith in the fields, or be sacrificed to the Overlord, or to do some quest no one would ever thank him for, was an awfully appealing one. To be unimportant and unnoticed and able to do what he liked: that would be splendid. To do it with Josie there as well, that would be the greatest joy he could imagine.

***

They found the waterhole that the hedgehog had spoken of, and touched for themselves the flowers on the little apricot tree. It was probably a coincidence how it had sprung back into life, Josie told herself, just as Aslan had gone by. But she did not believe herself. The waterhole was only a muddy little pool, but it had an air of peace and goodness about it. Probably, the way this world worked, the apricot tree really was a miracle, and Josie could not but help thinking of Bible stories, of Aaron’s staff sprouting almond flowers and Jesus cursing the fig tree.

Blackbriar hung well back at first, as if nervous of this place where Aslan had been, but after a little while she came up to wander around Josie like a tame dog.

Tash waded out into the pool and splashed water over his head, churning up the bottom.

‘We should get some water, first,’ chided Josie. ‘You will make it all muddy.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Tash, and stopped his splashing. ‘It is good here. It is warmer than the river was. You should come in.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Josie, and busied herself pulling out the bedclothes and setting them up next to the apricot tree, where the smell of the flowers was strongest. They smelled sweeter than almost any flowers Josie had smelled before, and had a faint feeling of the same frightening good magic that she always felt in the hidden room of the castle. Or maybe that was her imagination. It was strange to think of the statues that had stood for so long in the hidden garden, like Tash, coming to life and running to this very pool. She wondered what would have happened if she had tried to bring them to life herself, as Tash had once suggested. Maybe she would have been swept out on this journey long ago.

Blackbriar nosed down to the pool’s edge, and Josie heard quieter splashing than Tash had made.

‘It is very nice, Josie,’ said Tash, a little plaintively.

‘All right,’ said Josie at last. She did feel dreadfully sticky with dried sweat after the day’s walking. ‘I guess there is no hope for it not being muddy now.’ She stripped off her clothes and joined her husband and the dog in the pool. Her feet squelched deeply into the mud

‘It is warmer than the river,’ admitted Josie. ‘I don’t think I am likely to be any cleaner when I come out than before I went in, though.’ She washed the sweat from her face, and did her best to do something with her hair, which had grown very disorderly on the journey.

‘I wonder about the leopard and the deer,’ said Josie. ‘What they are like. What their story was. They must have been more or less nice, or the lion wouldn’t have bothered to turn them back from stone. I wonder how they came to Telmar, and what they did to get turned to stone, and what they are doing going off with the lion – Aslan – now.’

‘That is a lot of wondering,’ said Tash. ‘I know what it is like. There are so many things to wonder about.’

‘I guess there are things we just have to accept we will never know,’ said Josie. ‘God knows there seem to have been a tremendous number of them since I came here.’ She sighed, and ducked her head under the water again.

Josie’s thoughts shied away from the quest that had been described to her. The quest still hung in midair, neither abandoned nor accepted. They had travelled further than they had meant to travel with Blackbriar; maybe they would just keep travelling, without ever making a decision, and would end up doing what the Lion wanted, travelling with Blackbriar all the way to the lands of men. Or maybe they would decide to turn back: now, or tomorrow, or the day after, or at the border of the land of men, however many weeks from now that might be. Josie really did not know what she would do. She thought of the apricot tree, and she thought of the fig tree that had been cursed in her own world, and she thought about what might happen to Tash in the lands of men – the men whose ways were not so unlike those of the gazelles, the men who bought ifrit girls as wives.

Josie felt one of Tash’s hands on her leg, underneath the water, and a current of exaltation that was by now familiar ran through her body.

‘Blackbriar, why don’t you scout about?’ she said. ‘There may be interesting things around here.’

Obediently, Blackbriar paddled out of the pool and shook herself dry, then darted away into the undergrowth.

 

A morning’s walk beyond the pool brought the three travellers by way of a long gentle slope to the top of a hill where Tash set Josie down. The wind blew strong in their faces as they stood side by side, bringing the scent of distant places, fine dust and leaves that reminded Josie of the gum trees of home.

‘It is all empty and blue beyond,’ said Tash.

‘Empty and blue?’ asked Josie. She could not smell anything like the sea, and the air was dry.

‘There are no more trees, and it is very flat, and goes on and on until it is all blurry and fades into the clouds. There are beasts moving out there, very small and far away.’ Tash sounded impressed.

Josie thought of Moses looking out from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land. This was different, though; this was not the place they had longed to go all their lives and were now forbidden to enter, but somewhere quite different.

‘It sounds like it will be an easy enough country to travel on in,’ said Josie.

The dog was already eagerly pressing to move on, running forward and then back to make hopeful sounds back at Josie.

‘There is something that could be a tower, a long way off in the direction the sun rises,’ said Tash.

‘This is as far as we go,’ said Josie, not knowing until she had said the words that she would say them.

‘I’m not sure,’ admitted Tash. ‘It might not be a tower.’

‘Dear Blackbriar,’ Josie called to the dog, who came up and nuzzled at her ankles. ‘We will leave you to seek Aslan from here. It looks like a nice flat country to travel in, without any rivers.’

Blackbriar wagged her tail as if she were a tame dog, but only for a moment, and then stood there panting uncertainly at Josie.

‘We must part here,’ said Josie sadly. ‘I am not ready to go to the lands of men.’

Blackbriar bowed her head, and but did not leave. She nosed about Josie’s legs hopefully.

‘No, this is far enough,’ said Josie, squatting down to pet the dog. ‘Good luck on your journey, dear Blackbriar. I hope you will find what you seek, and restore your people. I hope we will meet again. I expect everything will work out, and we will meet again as well.’

Blackbriar licked Josie’s hand, then padded over to Tash with a pretended carelessness. He put down a hand, and she licked it as well.

‘I hope everything will be good,’ said Tash awkwardly. ‘Goodbye.’

‘Maybe one day we will meet again,’ said Josie.’Goodbye, Blackbriar.’

‘Arf,’ said Blackbriar. She did not leave at once, but after a few more moments of hopeful waiting trotted off down the stony hillside to the south. Josie listened to the clicks of her claws on the stones until she could hear her no more. She felt an enormous sense of relief.

‘Goodbye’ said Josie softly. She took one of Tash’s handa.

‘What are you thinking of, Tash?’

‘Those places. All the other places,’ said Tash. ‘The worlds are so very large and interesting.’

‘The smell of the new country makes me want to go there, too,’ said Josie.

‘There must be a way,’ said Tash.

‘We will visit many places,’ said Josie, kissing Tash’s hand. ‘Together.’ She kissed it again. ‘One day.’ They stood there for a long moment feeling the dusty gum tree wind on their faces.

‘Home?’ suggested Josie.

‘Yes,’ said Tash warmly. ‘Let us go home.’

***

As Tash turned his back on the blue vastness, he saw in a small patch of sandy ground nearby great footprints, like the ones he had seen in the walled garden after the earthquake. The footprints of a lion, leading south. And a fear and a sadness and a horror hid all his happiness from him, like a cloud passing over the sun.

Blackbriar sniffed. ‘I can’t smell anything,’ she said mournfully.

‘I’m pleased to meet you, Blackbriar’ said Josie. ‘Well, I have met you, but I’m pleased to meet you in this shape and learn your name. You will catch your death of cold sitting on the floor like that – can you come with us to the rooms we were in before?’

Blackbriar sniffed again. ‘I don’t like this,’ she said.

Tash stepped towards Blackbriar to help her off the floor, and she shuffled away from him in alarm. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Josie. ‘Tash can help you.’

‘I can,’ said Tash, helpfully.

‘Do you think you can you get up and walk?’ asked Josie.

‘I will try,’ said Blackbriar, and before Josie could get close enough to be of any help Blackbriar had thrust herself up to her feet and was teetering precariously.

‘Hard,’ she said, in what was almost a bark, keeping her balance with a great deal of effort.

‘Here, let me help,’ said Josie, taking the woman’s arm. Tash in turn hovered at her side, anxious to catch Josie if Blackbriar fell and pulled her down.

‘Tricky,’ said Blackbriar, taking her first tentative steps. By the time they had covered the short distance to the magician’s old rooms she was walking about as well as a newly-weaned thalarka. They sat her down on some cushions in a more or less human manner, where she sat with her mouth open staring at everything curiously with her new human eyes. Josie fetched her a dress, which she managed to put on with considerable difficulty.

‘This is very strange,’ said Blackbriar.

‘We are starting to get used to things that are very strange,’ said Josie. ‘Tash is trying to hand you a cup of water; you should take it.’

Blackbriar took the cup warily and awkwardly, not used to having hands, and Tash backed away to crouch by where Josie was sitting.

‘We have done this magic so I can tell you my story,’ said Blackbriar. ‘So I should do that.’ She shook her head like she was trying to get something out of her ear. ‘I sound so very strange.’

‘Please,’ said Josie.

‘Well,’ said Blackbriar, rearranging herself on the cushion so she was curled-up on top of it in a more doglike fashion. ‘My ancestors were wicked, so they were cursed by the Lion and turned into dogs and pigs. This was in my mother’s mother’s mother’s time. They deserved their punishment, because they were wicked, but now we are not wicked, I don’t think. We dogs don’t have much to do with the pigs. We have always lived in this valley where we were first made, both us dogs and the pigs. The wicked magician and his ifrits have always been cruel to us, for as long as we can remember. Maybe he hated our ancestors who were like him. Most of us are stupid because our ancestors bred with dumb animals, but enough of us are clever enough that we still remember where we came from. I always knew I was cleverer than the others – I could think more clearly and connect things that the others could not connect. But I did not know how different I was until you came here. You human girl and you creature were things that were different from anything I had smelled before. Even as we ate the flesh of the wicked magician who had been our enemy for so many years, I was thinking of you. For I remembered a story that everyone else has forgotten, a story told by one of the oldest who is dead now, an oldest who was clever like me. This one told me that we stay in this valley, even though there is little food and the wicked magician is cruel to us- was cruel to us- because one day the Lion will have pity on us and make us talking beasts, if we stay in this place where he can find us. And this one told me that even as when we were turned into beasts, there were two humans from far away who came with the Lion, there will be two humans from far away who will come here when the Lion comes, or maybe before, and their coming will be the sign that we will be delivered. So I went to the leader of the pack, and said to him, even though one of these ones who has come is a creature, it seems like he might be a kind of human, so might it be that these two are the ones who are foretold? But he said no, we are not meant to be talking beasts, that is just a tale for pups. And I would not have quarrelled with my pack, but accepted all that the leader of the pack said, except that I met a wild cat in the forest. It was in a tree when I came by it in the easternmost part of the valley, and it spoke to me, not like a talking beast, but in the way of speaking without words that we dogs have with each other, as if it were a dog rather than a cat. It said, you are right, Blackbriar, the Lion is coming to deliver your people and make new what he made before, and these two are the ones who were foretold, and they can help you to speak and walk among the talking animals of the world and not slink in the shadows. And I said, how do you know these things? But it would not tell me. And I said, how do you know my name, and what is your name? And it said, I know everyone’s name, and you already know my name, and then I was sure that it was the Lion in the guise of a cat. But it went away before I could ask any more questions. Then I did quarrel with the others of my pack, because then it was not just my thinking that you two were the ones foretold, but the words of the cat who was actually the Lion saying you were the ones foretold. So I drew nearer to you when I could, Josie, and tried to tell you of my trouble.’

Blackbriar’s story did not come across in quite the same way as it is written here as it was told by Blackbriar, for she had an itchy spot, and having been a dog very recently she tried from time to time to chew at it, but she could not reach, so instead would twist about so as to rub it against the cushion.

Blackbriar went on. ‘Now I have listened to all that you have said near me, and I do not understand. Is the Lion coming back to make us into talking animals? What am I meant to do, and what are you human girl – Josie – and you creature – Tash – meant to do?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Josie. Truthfully, but not entirely so. ‘His plans are hidden from us.’

‘I know he has been here again,’ said Blackbriar, in her mournful doggy way. ‘But he did not stay. After the earth shook I followed him and the beasts who were with him across the land for four days, but he did not stop. I gave up when I came to a river that I could not cross. With your help, I could cross it.’

‘We thought this food would help you,’ said Tash. ‘We could feed the magic food to the rest of your people, and then they would be changed into men, too.’

‘I do not mean to sound ungrateful,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But I would much rather be a talking dog. This is a very awkward shape. I am sure my people would not like to be men. The story I was told was that we were to be talking animals.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie. ‘I do not think it such a bad shape; but then I guess I wouldn’t. You will quite like it when you have figured out how to use your hands properly, and walk properly.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, lowering her head as a dog would do to show Josie was the boss.

‘Which way is this river?’ asked Josie.

‘It is to the south,’ said Blackbriar. ‘The stream that flows through this valley joins a greater water, then a greater, then reaches it. I went back and forth it for a day but it was big with snowmelt and I could find no place to cross. But the Lion and the great creatures who were with him crossed it easily. Why did he not stop to talk with me again? Why did he not make my people new, like he said he would? Do you think we should be punished longer?’

‘I don’t think you should be punished at all for what your ancestors did,’ said Josie. ‘I know- I know Aslan wants us to go to the lands of the men that lie to the south, and take you with us. I expect there is something that we are supposed to do there, before your people can be changed into talking animals.’

‘That is what I thought,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But that is what I do not understand from listening to your talk. Why did you not take me and go after the Lion?’

This is the question that is the problem at the heart of Josie’s story, and is one form of a question that is as old as God and created beings. I will explain as well as I can here what Josie could have said, even though she did not say it. Why did she set out so readily at the say so of the gazelles on a quest to meet Prince Margis, and not return to this same quest once she was free of the magician Yustus? The first reason was just that it was much more difficult to do so. She would be travelling no longer with four companions through a friendly country that they knew well, following their directions, but would have to find her own way through a wild and unknown land with companions little less ignorant than herself. The second was that she had become more fearful of what the men of this world might be like, both on her own account and on that of Tash, since she had spoken with Yustus and Zardeenah, and lived so long at the whims of the evil magician. The third, and a very great reason, was that she had fallen into a strange love with Tash, and that she knew very well without having to have it prophesied that if she left this place and went to the human lands this love would be impossible and they would be separated. And the fourth was what Miss Miles had muttered as she closed the door at the very beginning of this story, which was that she was a wilful girl, and having found her feet in this new world was overproud and no longer content to be ordered about. But Josie could not very well say any of these things to Blackbriar.

‘We need to keep the secrets of this place out of the hands of wicked men,’ said Josie. To her own ears she did not sound as if she really believed it.

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, bowing her head.

‘We will still do what we can to help you,’ Josie promised.

They showed Blackbriar how to pick up food with her hands and eat it, and she admitted that hands would be very useful once she got the hang of them. ‘These are a very poor sort of teeth, though,’ she said. Josie helped Blackbriar to bathe, and to comb her hair after a fashion. ‘It is a mess, I am afraid,’ said Josie. ‘You may have to cut it short and start again.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar.

Blackbriar did not want to sleep in the magician’s rooms, so they made her a bed in the empty chamber where she had slept the night before as a dog.

***

‘I don’t see how we can keep eating the pigs here anymore, if they used to be people,’ said Josie to Tash, when they were curled up together that night. ‘Ugh’.

‘If you say so,’ said Tash mournfully.

‘You sound like Blackbriar,’ said Josie. ‘Of course we can’t eat them, if they are descended from people. We will just have to find something else to eat.’

‘There are not so many deer, and they are harder to catch,’ said Tash.

‘We will just have to get by,’ said Josie firmly. ‘It makes me feel sick, thinking I have been eating pigs whose great-great-grandmothers were people.’

Tash said something like ‘if you say so’ in a small muttering voice.

Josie decided to change the subject. ‘I never imagined that the magic food would turn Blackbriar into a woman like that. I have never known such magic – well, not since you were turned back from stone.’

‘I am so glad that you turned me back from stone, and I did not stay stone another thousand years, and miss you,’ said Tash.

Josie snuggled up against him and kissed the soft skin at his throat. ‘Me too, dear Tash, me too.’

‘What are we to do with Blackbriar?’ she mused, after a moment. She shifted, rearranging herself against Tash’s chest. ‘I don’t see how we can’t help her. But we don’t have to go all the way to the human lands; we can see that she is kitted out properly, and help her across the river, and stop before we get to the places where men are.’

‘She can go herself now that she is a woman,’ said Tash. He sounded nervous to Josie. She was nervous herself. It was not just a matter of deciding one way or another, once and for all: there would be one decision, and then another, and then another, and maybe they would all be like they seemed to be in recent days, complicated decisions with no easy or comfortable answers.

‘But she doesn’t know anything about being a human,’ said Josie. ‘She will need help. At least at the beginning. And maybe, maybe that will be enough.’

‘Maybe,’ said Tash. But Josie did not think he believed it. She thought he did not believe there was anything he could do to escape the words of Aslan, telling him that they were destined to be separated.

‘We don’t know that there is really destiny,’ said Josie. ‘It seems to me it is just the Lion deciding one way or another, and if you do something different, he can always decide a different way again.’

‘That’s not what he said,’ Tash said gruffly.

Josie decided to change the subject again. She ran her hand over Tash’s chest. ‘You feel dry,’ she said. ‘Does it itch?’

‘Not as much as it used to,’ he said. ‘It is better now that the weather is warmer and I do not spend so much time by the fire. But I did not have a bath today.’

‘We could go and have a bath now,’ said Josie, turning so that her body was pressed against Tash’s side and throwing one leg over him.

‘That would be good,’ said Tash.

‘Or, in a few minutes,’ said Josie, kissing his neck again. She slid her foot back and forth, and Tash began to hiss softly and hold her tightly to his chest, and she gave herself up to being a female creature.

***

When they awoke Blackbriar had turned back into a dog, and when Josie put another piece of pickled turnip in front of her she only turned her head aside.

‘I suppose she said all she wanted to say,’ said Josie. ‘And she really did not like being a woman.’ She petted Blackbriar. ‘And I suppose too, this means it is more complicated to turn them back than we thought.’ She found that she was crying.

‘Don’t cry, Josie,’ said Tash, picking up the unresisting girl. ‘You will figure out what to do.’ He held his hand against her tears, and once again felt that strange tingle through the whole of his body.

‘We will figure out what to do,’ said Josie, and kissed him. ‘Together.’

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Together.’

In the morning Tash and Josie went out to survey the damage from the earthquake. In some places they walked hand in hand, and in others Tash carried Josie. Anyone watching would have seen what they would not have seen the day before, that they were two people entangled beyond any hope of disentanglement. Josie reached out to touch Tash more often than she had before, without any hesitation, and her touches lingered longer, while Tash kept one of his hands always on Josie’s arm or leg.

There were new cracks and fallen masonry everywhere they went, but the place that had been struck the worst seemed to be the hidden garden where they had first met.

‘The whole of the outside wall is down,’ Tash said excitedly. He edged close and described to Josie how its foundations had given way. The cliff that they had climbed down had fallen to the base of the hill, leaving a new precipice that was crumbling and impassable.

‘There are still rocks and earth falling down, and the roots of one of the big trees are hanging out over nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it fell over.’ Josie could hear the insidious unsettling sounds of the cliff edge crumbling away as they stood near it.

Tash turned to the middle of the garden. ‘The statue of the woman in the middle of the garden has fallen over and she has broken in half- here, you should feel the jewels she has around her neck, Josie, and – the other statues-‘ Tash fell silent.

‘They are broken too?’ ventured Josie. She had been sure that they were not true statues, but beasts turned to stone even as Tash had been turned to stone. It would be a tragedy if they were broken now, beyond any hope of magical rescue. And she had not even tried to turn them back, she felt, with a pang of guilt.

‘No – they are gone,’ said Tash. ‘There is nothing left.’

As her momentary worry about neglecting the statues lifted, it seemed suddenly to Josie as it had the night before that anything was possible. She felt like she had it in her power to do great and wonderful and audacious things. She was afraid, but exultant at the same time.

‘Could it be that the enchantment wore off? Or the earthquake broke it somehow?’

‘It could be,’ Tash agreed without any great conviction.

Josie knelt down and felt at the hoofprints of polished earth that the stag statue had left behind. There seemed to be other hoofprints, newly pressed into the living grass, heading away across the garden to the fallen outer wall. ‘Or maybe-‘ she forced herself to say the name, using her newfelt sense of power. ‘The lion – Aslan- is here.’

‘It could be,’ said Tash, turning away from Josie.

‘Did you see anything unusual last night, before the earthquake?’ Josie asked Tash.

Through the hand she held she felt Tash stiffen, like someone who has just noticed that they are about to step on a poisonous snake. ‘Tash?’ she asked, with a hint of sharpness in her voice.

‘I saw him,’ Tash admitted in a gravelly mumble that made his voice sound even more unmusical than usual. ‘Over there, in a part of the ruins that fell down when the earthquake started.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ asked Josie.

‘I was distracted by other things,’ Tash mumbled.

At this Josie could not help laughing. She folded herself around one of Tash’s legs and kissed his thigh. ‘Of course you were, dear Tash. Husband Tash. Did he- Aslan – say anything to you?’

‘A little,’ Tash admitted. ‘He said- he said- that you were meant to go away from here, back to the place the ifrits took you from, and do something with the humans there. He said you had to take someone – the dog, I think -and then all the animals here who used to be men would be changed back ’

‘He didn’t want to tell me this himself?’ Josie asked.

‘He said that you wouldn’t listen to him, so I had to persuade you. I didn’t want- don’t want- to persuade you. I am sure there is another way.’

‘Another way?’

‘He said that we could not be together,’ Tash said. ‘He said that we were only going to be in each other’s stories a short time, and then go in different directions. He said you had to do this thing, and then go back to your own world. He said that I couldn’t come with you.’

A disorienting rush of feelings had swept over Josie. She felt guilty again, and she felt indignant at the same time that she was being made to feel guilty. She felt she was being herded, told what to do, as she had been (for her own good, always for her own good) all her life. She was not nobody, not anymore, poor little blind Josie Furness: she was Josie, Mistress of Telmar. She felt that she ought to obey, and she felt she should take a furious pride in not obeying.

‘Just because the lion says so doesn’t mean that’s the way things have to be,’ said Josie hotly.

‘I said that there had to be another way,’ said Tash.

‘We will find another way,’ said Josie, and squeezed Tash’s leg again. Then she said again ‘We will find another way,’ because it sounded more true the more times she said it. ‘It is convenient, isn’t it, an earthquake coming just as the Lion’ – she forced herself to say the name, she would not be frightened or bossed around, not anymore- ‘just as Aslan comes here?’

‘It is not very convenient,’ said Tash, puzzled.

‘I mean, he comes along and tells us we have to go, and at the same time he makes an earthquake to make us think the whole place is going to fall down on our heads. Obviously he is powerful enough to do whatever he likes – kill us or drag us off quick as spit if he wanted to – but he wants us to obey him. I don’t see why we should.’

Josie had not intended to get quite so angry. She had raised her voice and balled her hands into fists. Only a little bit of her anger was truly anger at Aslan, the lion whom she had never met, and who the beasts of this world credited with godlike powers, such as snatching girls out of the ocean and into other worlds. No, she was angry at the God of her own world, the one who had made her blind, who had taken her mother from her, taken her sister from her, taken her out of her home and sent her to the other side of the world to live with a man who had deserted and betrayed her family. She knew in her heart that Aslan was good, but she knew too that he was good in that terrible bloodless way that she had felt in the secret chamber, a good that she did not want pushing her around like she was a piece on a chessboard, part of some grand plan in which her feelings did not matter. Then there was the guilt she felt for what she and Tash had done, guilt stirred up by this talk of duty; for the rules that she had rejected with her conscious mind held her subconscious in an iron prison.

‘So we will not leave for the land of humans?’ said Tash.

‘Maybe one day,’ Josie said with determination. ‘Not now. Not on the say so of Aslan.’ She quashed her misgivings as best she could. ‘There was a time when I would have given a great deal to have Aslan show up and tell me what to do. But I don’t feel that way anymore.’

***

‘Good,’ said Tash. ‘I was supposed to persuade you. But I am happy not to.’ He ran his hands through her hair, relieved.

From the night of the earthquake onwards Tash could never again be as happy as he had been before, even though he was now betrothed to Josie. Hanging over him were the words of the Books of Tash and the words of the Lion, the prophecies that condemned him to be separate from Josie. He had said he would find another way, and Josie had promised that she would find another way, but the two of them were very small compared to all the worlds.

As spring came on with reckless haste, Josie and Tash turned the whole of the castle upside down, looking for anything that could help them. There was precious little that they could be sure would be of use. There were rings and amulets of the evil magician’s that were clearly magical, but they were not sure exactly what they were meant to do, and reluctant to experiment. Tash had tried to read the books the magician had left behind, but the strange symbols in them stubbornly refused to rearrange themselves into comprehensible ones. The whole of his time beneath Telmar had taken on a dreamlike quality, so that it blurred in his memory. Sometimes it could almost be forgotten, and was only there as a looming grey uneasiness: then the memory of a phrase read, or the face of the Lion, or a cruel image made of hundreds of pieces of stones, would come back to Tash with the force of a blow.

Then there was the dog. It had not returned for almost two weeks after the earthquake, and Josie had begun to worry that something had happened to it. Then one sunny day Tash went out hunting, and Josie came with him as far as the flat stone overlooking the fishing pool, and when he returned with a rabbit he had caught the dog was with her.

‘You were right, Tash,’ she said in a melancholy way. ’I have been getting her story out of her by this game of twenty questions, and it is filled with Aslan.’

The dog lay with her- head in Josie’s lap, looking soulfully up at Tash. It was a scruffy sort of animal, and had gotten a fair bit of mud on it with the change in the weather, but Josie did not seem to mind.

‘I am not sure what her name is. She is the only one who is like her; the others are not as smart. They have stories about how Aslan made them the way they are, and the pack leader says they should be content with their lot. But Aslan – I think – told her that we could help her. I am not sure if it was a dream she had or not. She finds you very frightening. It is very slow working it out,’ she sighed. ‘I don’t know, Tash, can helping her really mean that we have to be parted? What did Aslan say, exactly?’

Tash had been admiring the way the sun shone on Josie’s face as she spoke, and had to admit that he had not quite followed what he was saying.

‘Dear Tash, you are sometimes useless at listening,’ she chided him, and repeated herself. He looked so miserable after this that she had to shoo the dog off her lap and reach over to give him a hug.

Tash explained what the Lion said again. ‘He said I had to choose one of two paths, and neither of them had you in it, and that I had to persuade you to go back to the human lands, to a place called Balan, to make things right between the humans and the talking animals, and the sooner we went the better. And that the men of Telmar had been bad so he had punished them, but it was time for their descendants to be unpunished, and he had picked someone – maybe it is this dog – to be the one to help with them being able to talk again.’

Josie held on to Tash’s ankle in a proprietary way. ‘I don’t see how it can be true that we have to be parted, and that our only choice is to do exactly what Aslan says. It seems to me that we should be able to do the best we can to help on our own, without Aslan. There must be things we can do to help her without going off on a long quest to the human lands. I don’t know – Tash – that it would be easy for you in the human lands of this world, from what I have heard of them. Will you come into the castle with us, dog?’

The talking dog that could not talk swished her tail to-and-fro, three times. Josie reached out to scratch her behind her ears but did not let go of Tash’s ankle.

‘You will think of something, Josie,’ said Tash. Josie had a concentrated look on her face: she had remembered the gazelle Alabitha saying much the same thing, and thinking of that meeting reminded her again of Alice in Wonderland, and then she thought of the cake labelled ‘Eat Me’.

‘Maybe the food in the secret room would help the dog to talk?’ she suggested.

‘We know it is magic,’ said Tash. ‘You said not to eat it before.’

‘I know,’ said Josie. ‘It does seem rash. But I very much doubt the food is deadly poison. It might be worth trying. What do you think, friend dog?’

The dog had drawn back out of reach of Josie, and her claws skittered on the stone as she danced back and forth uncertainly.

‘I guess we should go,’ said Josie, holding up her arms so Tash could help her up. He scooped her up in three of his arms, holding on the rabbit with the other, and started off.

‘Come along, then,’ Josie called to the dog.

Tash carried Josie over the uneven ground along the edge of the stream back toward the castle, the dog following behind.

***

Tash peered at the almost-round balls of sweet-smelling pinkish fruit in the box, nestled in a bed of straw. ‘So those are apples,’ he thought. It was curious that something so simple and natural looking could be so dreadfully magical. There were only three of them, though it looked as if there had once been many more. Josie had shown him the box and then gone poking about the other things on the dais. She looked very much like the Mistress of Telmar, Tash thought , as she moved about in the reddish light of his lamp –she had tied her hair back with a bit of cloth of gold, and had put on when she awoke that morning a necklace of gold with dozens of red stones that he had found for her. She drew his attention irresistibly, inexorably. He would give everything to stay with her forever, to protect her and help her and feel her skin against his own.

‘I think this armour would fit me,’ she said. ‘It seems like there is one for a man and one for a woman, and it seems to be exactly the right size.’

‘It would look very nice on you,’ said Tash.

‘I still don’t know what to do,’ said Josie. She traced the embossed pattern of the lion on the chestpiece of the armour. ‘I remember being here before, saying that in these stories Aslan shows up to tell people what they have to do, so we should just wait until then, and now he has, and I don’t want to do what he said. I can’t do what he said.’

The dog had been reluctant to come any closer than the top of the stairs, and Josie had made no effort to encourage her to come closer. ‘She will come in her own time,’ she had said, and quoted. ‘Patience is a virtue.’ The dog had been very timid about accompanying them into the castle at all, and in the end what made her mind up more than anything else was it starting to pour with rain.

Josie set the armour back down and went to examine the table where the food was laid out as if for a banquet, gently sniffing and prodding at each dish. ‘This pie seems like something dogs would like,’ said Josie, selecting a meat-filled pastry about the size of her hand. Tash agreed. Dogs did not seem like very particular animals, from what he had seen of their habits; they had certainly been eager enough to devour the corpse of the magician.

“Maybe it would be better to have something dogs don’t like,’ he suggested. ‘Then, if the dog eats it, we will know it is because she understands us saying it is magic that could make her talk, and not just because she is hungry.’

‘That’s not a bad idea,’ said Josie. She put the pie back down and picked up a bowl of pickled turnips, getting purple stains on her hands. ‘I don’t suppose dogs are very fond of these.’

‘They are like grith, but nicer,’ said Tash. He was rather fond of them, and had eaten almost all of the magician’s stores of non-magical pickled turnip.

‘I know Tashes are fond of these, already,’ said Josie cheerfully.

The dog was wary of the rooms where Tash and Josie lived – they had the smell of Tash to them, who the dog was afraid of, and doubtless the smell of the magician, who generations of the dogs ancestors had probably been afraid of- so they had brought the food back upstairs to one of the unused rooms of the castle, a hall lined with empty bookcases with a big new crack running down one wall from floor to ceiling.

Josie addressed the dog, looking to Tash very much like a great queen or sorceress in her silks and jewels. ‘As you know, we don’t know if this will work; but there is magic food preserved for some reason in the hidden chamber of this castle, left there – we think- by Aslan when he turned your ancestors into beasts. One reason this might be so would be to turn your people back from being beasts. It might be dangerous, but if you want to try, here it is.’ She set a piece of pickled turnip in front of the dog.

Without hesitation, the dog snapped it up. She came forward and nuzzled Josie’s foot, and Josie gave her a pat. ‘Good girl,’ she said. ‘I hope that will do some good. Or, at least doesn’t do any harm.’

The dog let Josie pat her for a while, then gave an enormous yawn, walked over to a pool of sunlight in the doorway, and curled up on the tiles.

‘She is going to sleep,’ said Tash. ‘She seems to be quite asleep already.’

‘Well, maybe it wasn’t quite as magic pickled turnip as we hoped,’ said Josie. And then she said ‘what?’ For Tash had made a sudden startled movement.

‘She- she-‘ said Tash. It was not any less surprising than a statue turning into a living thing; but he had not seen that, just lived it. ‘She has changed into a human.’ She was darker-skinned than Josie, like the men and women of Telmar had been, and had a wild mane of black hair that came halfway down her back. The hair on her legs was much thicker than Josie’s, and she was curled up asleep in the same position she had been as a dog, which looked uncomfortable to Tash.

‘Hello? Miss?’ Josie stepped forward, bent down, and gently shook the shoulder of the sleeping woman who had been a dog. She woke with a yelp of surprise and scrambled to all fours, then fell into a heap; it appeared she had not expected her hind legs to be so long. She lay where she had fallen, gazing around the room with rapt attention.

‘Are you alright? Can you understand me?’ asked Josie.

‘Yes,’ said the woman, and her eyes widened as she heard the sound of her own voice for the first time. It was a voice that sounded human enough, but much deeper than Josie’s, and had the woody quality of notes struck on a xylophone.

‘What is your name?’ asked Josie.

‘Blackbriar,’ said the woman who had been a dog.

Dark street. Wet cobbles. The rain stings where it hits my face – there’s a touch of ice in it – so I keep my hat pulled low and my face angled towards the street. Even with my eyes turned down I can see Father’s feet trudging ahead of me, splashing through the puddles. I wonder if his feet ache as much as mine. You wouldn’t think it from his swinging step. I’m so tired and cold I can barely manage to trudge, but he swings his arms and whistles softly to himself, an incongruous tune that sounds like springtime.

“Nearly there, Nipper,” says Father, and he looks back at me and smiles. I’m glad he’s smiling because it means he’s pleased with the work we’ve done tonight. Pleased with the coins jangling in his pocket, and pleased with me for climbing in that high narrow shop window and letting him in the back. I don’t smile back, because I’m wet and miserable. The scraps I stuffed in my worn-out shoes are no proof against the water washing in through the holes. My arms ache from climbing and my hands are scraped and icy. The rags they’re wrapped in don’t seem to make much difference.

The other reason I don’t smile is because I don’t like him very much. Not anymore.

His name is Neddie Binks. I know he’s not my father, although he has me call him that for the sake of what he calls pathos. In one way he really is my parent, because he’s the only one who looks out for me. He’s all I’ve got, even if he’s sometimes a surly cur, too ready to fly into a temper. I still remember the day I first saw him. I was trying to steal bread off a baker’s cart, thinking the baker was looking the other way, when a big hand came out and grabbed my arm. The baker swung me up and shook me until my eyes rattled. “Thief!” he yelled, looking around for a constable, “Dirty thief!” and he kept shouting, shaking me in between for good measure.

I thought I was a goner, but then Ned was there. He strode up saying: “Tommy, you wicked little bleeder,” looking as angry as a rich man with well-fed morals. I looked around, bewildered, thinking he’d mistaken me for someone – thinking crazily that maybe there really was some other kid there – and while I was looking away he belted me around the side of the head, hard enough to send everything blurry and reeling. I was crying and trying not to cry, trying to stand up straight, while he apologised to the baker and gave him some money, cuffing me every now and then for effect. And, the strange thing was, even though I thought I’d given up caring about stealing, when Neddie Binks started talking to me like that the guilt stabbed through me, a sharp pain in my chest, and I saw a sad lady’s face in my mind, a pretty lady with golden curls and dimples. “How could you, Darian?” she said, and then Neddie took my arm and hauled me off and she was gone.

It took me a while to realise I had exchanged one captor for another.

“If you’re going to steal something, scrapper,” he hissed as he hauled me off, “you have to learn to do it right. I was watching you, and you were hopeless. Your eyes were on the damned bread nearly the whole time. A whole cavalcade of angels could have pranced by in the altogether, blowing on their curly horns, an’ you wouldn’t have noticed.”

So he offered to teach me, not that I had a choice, because, as he was ready to point out, I owed him big.

When Neddie Binks is cheerful, the world is a wonderful place. Everything is painted in luxuriant colours, like a fair or a parade or a bonfire. It’s embroidered with fantastical figures, like rich people’s clothes or the furniture you can see through their windows. Doesn’t matter if it’s snowing or sleeting, his crooked smile is as good as a roaring fireplace when he turns it on you, and you’d do anything, nearly anything at all, for a word of his praise. But when Neddie Binks is miserable, when things don’t go his way, everything is bleached and grey like swollen dead rats frozen in the gutter. The same wit that makes him say things about angels and ancient gods and long dead heroes becomes his dark and twisted master, and if you say the wrong thing, or worse still, are the cause of his displeasure, you’re liable to find yourself stripped naked, tied to a statue and flogged, left out on a snowy window ledge with no way to get back in, or forced to dress in girl’s clothes and used to bait wicked old gentleman into dark alleys. Neddie Binks likes humiliating people when the gloom takes him.

Lately, he’s been in shadow more than sunshine and I’m beginning to think of running away.

But not today – today we’ve scored big, and Neddie Binks is high as a hawk, despite the wind and the icy rain. I follow him to the place where we’ve been squatting – a half ruined house, partly burned down. It’s leaky and draughty, but after outside it feels like paradise. There’s a fireplace we can use, if we have money for coals. Tonight there’s money, and there will not just be a fire, Neddie promises, but sausages and cheese, toasted bread and beer.   I try to smile, but I can’t manage. I’m too cold, too tired, too exhausted with living on the knife-edge of Neddie Binks’ moods.

“What’s up with you, Darian?” asks Neddie Binks, looking up from where he’s lit the fire, and I blink at him. He never calls me Darian. It’s always scrapper or nipper, Jimmy ,Tommy, Johnny or spinner. He’s regarding me with seriousness, something that’s foreign to both his usual kinds of mood. “You’re not getting sick, are you?” He face crinkles with concern, making me feel guilty for thinking of running away.

“I dunno,” I say. “I’m just tired. Tired and cold.” I huddle close to the tiny scrap of flickering fire, watching it struggle against the damp of the desolate fireplace. My hands are shaking and they look very blue in the unsteady light.

Something he sees in my face seems to make him worried. “Don’t worry, Darian,” he says. “You’ll feel better once you’re warm and dry with a bit of hot stodge in you.   Tell you what,” he continues, “you did a good job tonight – the lion’s share of the work, even – so why don’t you wait here and look after the fire, and I’ll go get us some things and bring ‘em back.”

Neddie Binks might be a sadistic bastard with a twisted sense of humour, and he might be a thief and a scoundrel, but he always, always keeps his word. Unlike some blokes I know he would never say a thing like that and then wander off down the pub for a few drinks and not come back.

“Alright, then,” I say.

“Sit tight,” he says cheerfully, and he hangs his blanket over my shoulders and goes back out into the rain, leaving me wondering how I could possibly think of leaving.

But he’s not gone long before the trouble starts.

It begins with a shout and then the sound of running footsteps. I freeze motionless by the fire, suddenly icy both inside and out. More shouting. “Stop! Hold it!” More footsteps, slipping and slapping on the slick cobbles.

I know what to do. Neddie Binks has taught me well. “Don’t wait around for them to catch you,” I hear his voice echo in my mind, like he was right next to me. “If there’s trouble, go and hide. Pick one of our holes and burrow into it, like you were a snake or a rat or a rabbit, and don’t you move until the next day, no matter how quiet it seems.”

So I leave the fire, and I’m halfway out the back door into the lashing night when an anguished cry rings out, followed a long age later by something softer, a fading inhuman gurgle. The pursuing voices reach a crescendo and then fall into a concerned lull through which one carries clearly, snatched through the wind and rain. “…stolen goods…he had a confederate…search the house…”

Out in the yard it’s tangled and sodden. The ruin of a more badly burnt house looms next door. When it’s daylight you can see how the fire nearly took out the whole row. Someone’s been clearing the collapsed cellar, and tonight it’s become a great sucking hole in the mud, surrounded by steep piles of earth and ash with brown water pooling at the bottom.

The searchers seem close behind me and I scramble down behind the pile of earth.   They’re fast and lively, and I’m weary and slow as lingering death. My legs aren’t working. My feet slide haphazardly. I’m too cold to climb the leaning fence, too tired to dart off like a sparrow into the streets, so I look for a place to hide, but there’s nowhere that will do. Then, struck by desperate inspiration and Neddie Binks’ words, I kneel down and dig a burrow in the side of the largest earth pile. The outside is caked into a hardening shell, but inside the mingled ash and dirt is dry and loose, easy to shift. I throw myself into the tunnel I’ve made for myself, drawing Neddie Binks’ blanket in with me. I reach up and claw at the ash and mud above the entrance, pulling it down to gently cover me, hoping that it will be soaked quickly by the rain to blend with the rest. I pull down one armful, then another, and then suddenly it all comes down heavily in great thumping clumps, and I come down with it, slammed hard into my blanket by an unforgiving hand.

The sounds of the world recede. The rain is gone. The cries of my pursuers are left behind, abandoned in the world far above, lost and meaningless. I struggle, but there is no struggle. My limbs are pinned where they were thrown, held fast in the earth’s grip. The blanket thankfully covers my face, but there is no air, none at all. There is no chance. As I fight my impossible battle, a rhyme runs cruelly through my head, a song Neddie Binks sang when his mood was blackest.

Sally, gonna buy you a brand new bow,
      (Today O, today O)
Ribbon so red for your hair of snow,
      (Coming down today, O)
Sin’s long arm will drag me down,
      (Today O, today O)
Lawmen circling all around.
      (I’m coming down today, O)

My feet are slow but my mind is clear,
      (Away O, away O)
There’s just one road away from here,
      (Going far away, O)
Sally don’t know so she won’t cry,
      (Away O, away O)
And I’ve got no wings to help me fly.
      (Going far away, O)

Lay me down on an earthen bed,
      (Below O, below O)
Cold wet clod beneath my head,
      (Way down far below, O)
In close-drawn darkness I shall lie,
      (Below O, below O)
Sod and stone shall make my sky.
      (Way down far below, O)

Poor man’s clothes shall be my shroud,
      (Below O, below O)
No fine-spun shirt to keep me proud,
      (Way down far below, O)
No copper coin to cap my eye,
      (Below O, below O)
No holding hand to help me die.
      (Way down far below, O)

No preacher man to tell sweet lies,
      (Below O, below O)
No hypocrites extemporise,
      (Way down far below, O)
No steady shoulders bear my bier,
     (Below O, below O)
No mourning maiden sheds a tear.
      (Way down far below, O)

Take my burden, take my woe,
      (Away O, away O)
Sally, dream of me while I go,
      (Going far away, O)
Bones of silver cleanse my crime,
      (Away O, away O)
Sally, don’t wake me ‘fore my time.
      (I’m going so far away, O)

 

It’s not raining any more.

The walls of the ruin soar above me, rising crisp and clear in the cold night air, a silhouetted stairway of broken brick. The sky beyond is dark and gleaming, pierced by a million pitiless stars. A tree hunches by the jagged wall, skeletal winter branches reaching down in a gesture of summoning.

An impossible figure, a tiny gentleman death, skeletal face shining beneath its top hat, mounts the wall. It is absurd and yet completely solemn. It pauses to beckon to me, its macabre figure mirroring the outline of the tree.

It waits with inexorable patience.

I know I must climb, I must climb out of here, up the jagged wall. I must swim away into the pool of the sky’s reflection and then I will be free.