BENARD CELEBRE was not looking for trouble, far from it. But a woman screamed.
Benard spun right around and headed back along the alley. Nils, who had been shambling unsteadily beside him, took a moment to realize that he was now alone. He hurried back to wrap both hands around his friend's thick arm and pull. "No!" he said. "Not at all. No trouble, Benard. Benard, they are warriors! There are three of them! They will shred you." As Nils was not only slighter, but even drunker, he found himself being towed along the alley willy-nilly. They and some friends had set out at sunset to celebrate Nils's betrothal to the palace's head cook's daughter and had done so most thoroughly. Benard was hoarse from singing and the world had been awash in beery good cheer--until that scream.
Despite predawn weariness and the somber shadow filling the alley, the air was still as muggy as a sweat house; birds darted after insects and crickets chirped in the thatch. Already a lurid red filled the eastern sky. Most people slept, true, but there was enough light for Benard to know that the raucous thugs he had passed a moment before at a tavern door were warriors. He had not realized that they had a woman with them. And she had not screamed until now.
"Benard!" Nils pleaded. "They are Werists. They are initiates. They are armed, Benard! They will smash you!"
There might be something in what the carpenter said. A gentle, peace-loving artist really ought not pick a quarrel with brass-collar Werists. Benard was not in the habit of getting into fights, although he had a notable flair for finding trouble. Three warriors? That seemed a lot, even in his present liquaceous condition, when he could barely find his fingers, let alone count on them.
Then the woman screamed again and the men laughed louder. Benard sped up.
Clinging like a vine to a tree, Nils bleated shrilly. "Benard! At this time of night there's only one sort of woman in the streets. She knows what she's doing. And you can't help anyway."
Reluctantly, Benard decided that his small friend was right. He really ought to head back to his shed and get some sleep. Unfortunately, he reached that decision just as he turned the corner and saw her. He could never refuse beauty, and this girl was lovely. Gorgeous, breathtaking, spectacular--young and lithe, struggling in the grip of a hulking lout twice her size. The brute was behind her, clutching her to his chest with one arm and reaching inside her wrap to play with her breasts. His equally large friends stood around laughing at the sport.
Their flaxen hair and beards were cropped short to deny handholds to enemies. They wore the brass collars of Weru and the absurd garments called palls, which were merely lengths of cloth wound around their torsos and over their shoulders, leaving their limbs bare. Werists' palls were striped in colors that proclaimed the wearers' ranks and allegiances. Benard recognized only the purple of Satrap Horold Hragson, who ruled both the city and its garrison--officially for his brother, Stralg, but in reality for his sister, Saltaja Hragsdor.
Had he been granted a little longer to think--say, a pot-boiling, in his present condition--Benard might have come up with some witty or original opening remark, but instead he bawled out the first cliché that came into his head.
"Take your filthy hands off her!"
Nils disappeared like a shooting star.
Drunk or not, the three warriors surrounded Benard instantly. He realized that the one tormenting the girl was Cutrath Horoldson, and things could get no worse after that. Last sixday all Kosord had celebrated the coming-of-age and initiation of the satrap's son, because Horold Hragson had made it known that he would look with disfavor on anyone who chose not to. Apparently Cutrath and his cronies were still celebrating. Drunk or sober, they were equally dangerous.
Ever since Benard's arrival in Kosord fifteen years ago, Cutrath had been his personal plague. Although several years Benard's junior, Cutrath had been protected by his high birth and supported by a pack of eager followers, whose mission it was to make the despised Florengian hostage's life eternal torment. Only when Benard had escaped into apprenticeship and Master Odok's house had he been relatively free of his persecutor. Even then, Cutrath and his mob had known that Benard must report to the palace at least once each day, and had often lain in wait for him.
Now the little shit had become an enormous shit, initiated into the Heroes of Weru at minimum age because his father was the satrap and his uncle was Bloodlord Stralg. Now he could be a lot worse than just obnoxious. His pall was of finer weave than his companions', the shoulder straps of his scabbard were decorated with faience plaques, and he wore tooled leather ankle boots instead of regulation sandals. He clutched the woman's arm with one hand, ignoring her struggles. He was not too drunk to recognize his longtime favorite victim.
"What did you say, Florengian scum?"
Benard was sobering rapidly, if too late. Only his goddess could save him now. Alas, what could the lady of art do against the god of battle? He stole another wondering glance at the girl and hastily began the major invocation--praying in silence, of course, for pleas to one's god were part of the mysteries. . . . great Her majesty and in infinity the realm of Her blessing . . . She is star of the horizon and fair path amid the storm . . .
Aloud, he said, "I said you've got my girl. You all right, Hilde?" He had no idea if that was her name. It was just a sweet-sounding name for a beautiful girl. Everything looked red in the predawn glare, but he, of all people, should have realized sooner that her wrap was scarlet, which meant that Nils had been right--he was about to be massacred for trying to save a harlot from a rambunctious customer. But her loveliness ought to attract the pity of holy Anziel, even if his own merit did not. He hurried through the intercession . . . brandish the rainbow and shape the wind . . . She hears his appeal and bends Her sight as the hawk rides the morning . . .
"No," Cutrath said, "she is not all right. She will shortly be even less right. And you shall be much worse. She is not your girl and when I have done with you, you won't have any use for a girl anyway."
"He never did," said one of the others, and they all guffawed.
Now open the door that thy servant configures, by the eyes of a serpent, the plumage of kingfishers . . .
"On your knees, Celebrian slug." Cutrath was almost a head taller than Benard, although no wider. His hair and downy beard were the color of campfire flames; he had been a beautiful child before his nose and ears were smashed for the sixtieth time.
"Run away, man!" the girl shouted. "You can't help me."
Running away from Werists was not an option. Holy Anziel had always been generous with Her aid to Benard. Could She help him, now, though? Dare he appeal to Her in such a cause, and in such a state of drunkenness? If he didn't, he was about to be mashed or diced. Forcing himself to concentrate, he planned a rogation.
"I say she's my girl," he proclaimed aloud. "You want to fight me for her?"
"Do we what?"
The thugs exploded in helpless mirth. They leaned against the walls or clutched one another's shoulders while their laughter echoed raucously along the alley, momentarily silencing even the crickets; but their eyes never left the prisoner and Cutrath did not release the girl. It was understood, of course, that a Hero must die rather than lose a fight, so fairness was sacrilege. Benard had automatically challenged all three of them, one at a time or all together as they chose.
"Fight me for her." Having established a calm silence in one corner of his mind and furnished it with the images he needed, he silently sent the rogation to his goddess: thongs dangling, strips of leather rising, a dance of beauty, for this innermost prayer was written in pictures. He dared not look at the reality, but he did not need eyes to find figures in stone or see the face he would draw out from clay and glaze, and he did not need his eyes for this. Everything was shape, symmetry, pattern. Beauty.
Meanwhile he said, "Tell your friends to stay out and I'll beat all the crap out of you, you baby barbarian. It's time somebody did. There's mush too . . . I mean much. Much too mush of it in there."
Cutrath seemed truly unable to believe his ears. "You speak to me like that, you southern trash? Dauber! Muck-dabbling, muddy-fingered, cowardly follower of female gods--you think you can fight me?"
It was fortunate that the satrap's son always needed time to work up his fury before a fight, because Benard needed time to move and shape and pattern. He felt the blessing of his goddess fill him like a holy fire, but he must do his tampering without alerting his foe to what was happening. Nor must he provoke the warrior so far that he would battleform into some fearsome carnivore, an abuse of Weru's powers that Cutrath would not regard as in any way unfair. . . . justice is beauty . . . knot is beauty, curves and loops . . . double knot, triple knot . . . all beauty . . .
"Coward, you call me? I'm the one who's offering to fight. You're all big talk and bad breath. Put up your fists, stinkard!"
"What are you waiting for, Hero?" asked one of the others. "You don't need help, do you?"
"Hold this!" Cutrath yelled, hurling the woman at his friends, "while I murder the mudface." He spat on his hands.
The woman redoubled her screaming and struggling until the third man joined in and clapped a hand over her mouth.
"Prepare for maiming, scum!" Cutrath's eyes gleamed.
"Come and try!" Benard raised his fists with very little idea of how they were supposed to be used.
Veteran of innumerable brawls, Cutrath knew exactly what to do, and would undoubtedly have done it with style and murderous grace had he been fully cognizant of the situation. He chose a judicious opening by lashing out with a kick at his opponent's kneecap, no doubt planning to stamp him to mud as soon as he was on the ground. In fact, that one move would have settled the fight right away had the laces of Cutrath's fancy ankle boots not been tied together. He reeled off-balance, bewildered, wheeling his arms wildly. Benard slid into the gap and planted two punches so hard he thought he'd broken every knuckle. The kid's belly was as solid as a block of marble and his chin even harder, so Benard added two more hits, and the Werist fell. Given room, he would probably have just sat down very heavily and then come back up screaming mad without his boots; alas, his head struck the wall, solid adobe. He slithered down it and crumpled into a heap, feet together, knees apart, mouth open.
Benard applied more blessing, untying the knots without a glance at them. His heart was pounding faster than the crickets chirped, his hands trembled with reaction. He could not hope to work such a trick on the other two brutes, so he must bluff.
"Mine!" he said firmly, pulling the girl away from them. "I won. My prize. Come, darling, ish bedtime. You boys get your buddy home before anyone else sheesh him."
To his astonishment they not only released her, they let him walk away with her. That was unheard-of leniency from Werists. It was a reasonable assumption that Hero Cutrath, when he awoke, would not be so forgiving.
The only real street in Kosord was the riverbank. All other paths were merely gaps between houses--dust baths in summer, mud wallows in winter. They widened and narrowed, bent and divided, went up and down at random, and ended unexpectedly. In some places a man had to turn sideways to get through. With rare exceptions, buildings were made of sun-dried mud brick, cool in summer and relatively draft-free in winter. Outer walls showed no windows, because even the humblest homes enclosed a court for vines, bean shrubs, vegetables, a few pigs and ducks, and the privy. Roofs were thatched with reeds.
Benard paid no heed to where his new friend was taking him. Never before had he registered his upper arm as an erogenous zone, but it was rapidly becoming one as she stroked and fondled it. In the summer heat he wore only sandals of plaited reeds and a work smock--a sheath of clay-smeared canvas hung on shoulder straps, well furnished with pockets of various useful shapes.
She wore a red wrap that reached from her armpits down to her thighs, just, but so flimsy that her breasts were clearly visible through it. Even in the dim light, he could see that her beauty was stunning, her proportions classical. He needed models--would it be blasphemous to use a harlot as a model for a goddess?
"Call me Hiddi."
"Benard Celebre," he said.
"You are so brave!"
So drunk, lady . . . He had been crazy! "Any man would want to rescue a woman as beautiful as you."
"To challenge Werists!" She squeezed his biceps admiringly. "So strong! A potter?"
"An artist. Sculptor, mostly."
"A stonemason." Near enough.
"You don't talk like a stonemason." She was probably trying to calculate what sort of fee she could extract from him. "You talk like palace folk."
"I was brought up in the palace."
She laughed excitedly. "That explains it, then. Oh! You're not a slave?" Her busy hands had found the seal tied to his wrist, the mark of a reputable freeman.
"You look like a Florengian!" Meaning he had black hair and skin browner than any Vigaelian would achieve in the height of summer.
"Not all Florengians are slaves. I'm a hostage."
"What's a hostage?" Obviously Hiddi's education had been limited. Her lovely mouth produced an ugly peasant growl, fresh from the irrigation ditch.
"Well, when I was eight years old . . . Oh, pig litter!" What was he wasting time on that for? "Ask me when I'm sober." He kissed her. Her lips tipped fire into him, a thrill of passion pouring downward to explode in his loins. He felt sweat break out all over his skin. He almost walked her into a wall.
"Not far now, lover," she whispered. "Oh, I can't wait . . ."
"Did Horoldson hurt you much?"
"Him? Naw, he's one of those men who like to think they're hard and cruel. If I cry and squirm that excites them."
"You know him well?" Benard asked glumly.
"A few times. He thinks he's good, but he's very clumsy and obvious. Here we are!"
They had arrived at a flight of steps, the entrance to a large building clad in painted tiles. Wall lamps cast a flickering light on a welcoming image, one Benard both knew and detested, a life-size nude combining female breasts and vulva with male beard and phallus. That was Eriander, androgynous divinity of coitus and madness, and the ugliest image Benard could imagine, an offense against all laws of beauty.
He stopped dead. "No! I can't go in there, Hiddi!" An initiate of the Hands of Anziel could not worship Eriander in Her temple.
Hiddi laughed as if she'd met such scruples before and knew exactly what to do about them. "Darling, you're sweating like a stallion. What's that bulge, Benard, mm?" Her wrap dropped around her ankles, leaving her wearing sandals and a quizzical expression.
There should have been smoke rising from Benard's smock, but his thumping animal lust suddenly lost out to another form of excitement. In the soft lamplight she was as close to feminine perfection as he could recall ever seeing, a typical Vigaelian with cream-pale skin and almost invisible golden fuzz at groin and armpits; her limbs were straight and slender, belly barely curved, hips wide but well shaped, breasts high and firm. Her hair was a foam of golden curls. How much of that was real and how much illusion, a gift granted by her goddess?
"You come along with me, Benard!" She held out a hand to lead him, and the whole world seemed to tilt toward her.
The beer fog had lifted. He hardly heard her. "No!" he muttered. "I cannot. Not in there."
"Is chastity your corban?" She smiled in disbelief.
"No, but I can't . . . can't go in there."
"Married? Most men can pee across that ditch."
"But you want me very much. Very much! And I want you! Don't you ever hammer on something softer than nasty old rock sometimes?"
Amused, Hiddi undulated in a slow turn. There was not a mole or freckle on her anywhere. She was very young and quite beautiful enough to have suitors by the score. The Nymphs of Eriander claimed to be a holy mystery and were often spoken of as dangerous. Benard suspected they were merely a prostitutes' guild, with no more ability to turn men into slobbering idiots than all women had. He had never availed himself of their services--not because he feared their supposed god-given powers to enslave, but because he found other women quite alluring enough and frequently available.
"Stand up there," he said, and Hiddi obediently went up two steps. "Don't wiggle. Put that hand on your hip, hold the other one like this. Tip your head." He gazed in rapture at the miraculous breasts, the pink softness around the nipples.
"Benard! Most men do more than look. Much more. You're not going to kiss me again?" She fluttered kohl-darkened lashes at him.
"No," he said hoarsely. "I must not. But listen. I am carving statues of the Bright Ones for the Pantheon. It is my first big hire, a very big one . . . I needed a model for holy Anziel Herself, my lady of beauty. She sent me to you. I will use you as the model and carve a statue that looks just like you."
Hiddi frowned, suspecting mockery. "Doing what?" She must meet many strange men in her trade, but perhaps none stranger than this.
"Just standing. I will preserve your beauty in marble forever. Your great-grandchildren will see your likeness and marvel at how beautiful you were."
With a sudden switch to laughter, she ran down the steps and tried to embrace him. "Do that tomorrow! Tonight is for fun!" She struggled to kiss him. "You talk pretty, Benard! Show me what you can do! I want you! I want you to enjoy me."
He pushed her away and held her at arm's length. "Your goddess will not mind you being a model, will She?"
Hiddi pouted. Unable to reach anything else, she began stroking his arms again, and even that sent tremors of excitement through him. "Why should He mind? He gives joy to everyone."
"Then come and see me in daylight. I live . . . work . . . in a shed in the yard behind the Pantheon. I will make a few models. In clay. I need to see you in daylight, but mostly I work from memory." He was never going to forget her as she was now.
"But I owe you--"
"Nothing. Thank you, Hiddi. Now I have seen the perfect woman, which is reward enough. Twelve blessings on you."
"You spurn me? You treat me like trash!"
She sounded close to tears. To a careful eye, though, she did not quite look it. His resolution wavered. Then the careful eye came to his rescue.
"No bruises! None anywhere? You're not hurt!" No red fingermarks where Cutrath had gripped her arm; no signs where she had been squeezed or pinched or slapped. "So it's true what they say? You did use a blessing on him! And on me!" He pushed her away so hard that she staggered.
"True what who say?" She came for him again and he struck down her hands in sudden anger.
According to the wilder legends, a Nymph could enslave a man with a single touch. Pigballs! No wonder he had been reduced to a slobbering idiot! She had used her powers on Cutrath's friends to stop them joining in the fight, so she had saved Benard more than he had saved her. She had never needed saving.
"Goodbye, Hiddi!" He turned and ran away toward the dawn.
Copyright © 2006 by Dave Duncan Originally from Scotland, Dave Duncan has lived all his adult life in Western Canada, having enjoyed a long career as a petroleum geologist before taking up writing. Since discovering that inventing imaginary worlds is more satisfying than poking holes in the real one, he has published three dozen novels, mostly in the fantasy genre, but also in young adult, science fiction, and historical. He has at times been Sarah B. Franklin (but only for literary purposes) and Ken Hood (which is short for "D'ye Ken Whodunit?").
He has been married (to the same lady, Janet) since 1959. They have one son and two daughters, who in turn are responsible for a spinoff series of four grandchildren. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.