“We’ll see,” Alphonse said, staring at Atahualpa.
Servants bustled in, to clear dishes and set another course. The normality after the confrontation was bewildering.
Slowly tensions eased.
Jenny impulsively grabbed Dreamer’s arm. They walked away from the rest.
She stared up at the sea of suns. “If we are all lost in this gulf, we ought to learn to get along.”
Dreamer grunted. “You convince the emperors. I will speak to the Inca.”
She imagined Earth swimming in light. “Dreamer, will we ever sail back to the sea of suns, back to where we came from?”
“Well, you never know,” he said. “But the sea is farther away than you imagine, I think. I don’t think you and I will live to see it.”
Jenny said impulsively, “Our children might.” “Yes. Our children might. Come on. Let’s get this wretched dinner over with.”
The stateroom roof slid closed, hiding the sea of suns from their sight.
orch steps. Wooden steps, with a dandelion growing through a hole in the wood. A dandelion covered with white tufts.
The breeze blew away a tuft, with its brown seed attached, and a frightened voice said, “She hasn’t talked since I met her at the airport.” A hand touched her arm. “What’s your name, child? Your real name?
Mi a ne’ve
?” The hand withdrew, and the frightened voice continued, “Did I pronounce that correctly?”
And the other woman, the one standing on the porch steps, with two dandelion tufts caught in the fabric of her dress, said, “How long has the child been traveling, Mrs. Martin?”
Mrs. Martin said, her frightened voice growing fainter, “A week, I think. The trip to Vienna should only have taken one day, but Helga was stopped at the border, and the guards kept telling her to wait another day and then another, although she’d given them all her money, until finally she gave them her wedding ring, and they let her through.” She added, her voice so faint that it seemed to float away on the breeze, “But in Vienna they had a passport ready and put her on the plane to New York . . .”
Another tuft detached itself from the dandelion. An inchworm stretched and hunched onto the bottom step.
“I tried to buy her something to eat on the train . . .”
“And the border guards never found her?” Now the woman on the porch steps had three dandelion tufts caught in her dress.
“Well, you see, the car had two bottoms, and she was lying between them.”
From the corner of her eye, a ghost. No, a handkerchief fluttering down to rest on the grass. It was wrinkled, and she remembered Miss Martin sitting in the train compartment, crumpling a handkerchief in her hands.
“You mean that for three days she lay between . . .” The woman on the porch steps moved, and the tufts caught in her dress floated away over the grass. “I’m surprised the child is alive.” Her voice was not frightened. There was another word for it, perhaps angry, or tired, or—the inchworm stretched and hunched up to the next step.
“I’m so terribly sorry, Mrs. Mad’r.”
But already she was climbing the porch steps, and Miss Martin was behind her, bending to pick up the handkerchief, and the hand on her shoulder belonged to the woman on the porch, who was wearing a turban on her head, like Imre when he hid in the Turkish camp, and whose voice was neither tired nor angry as she said, “Drink this.” And the pillow smelled like grass.
In one corner of the room was a spider. Her grandmother had kept a spider in one corner of the apartment, because spiderwebs caught good fortune. A house with a spider would always have good fortune in it.
“I’m glad you’re awake,” said Mrs. Mada’r. “Will you take some broth?”
It tasted like her grandmother’s mushroom soup. The mushrooms were gathered by moonlight . . .
“No, child. I want you to pay attention. Can you tell me your name?”
The spider let itself down from its web and dangled in the corner. A crack ran across the ceiling, from the spiderweb to the window.
“Do you remember the train ride? Being in the airplane? Leaving Budapest?”
Outside the window she could see a tree. One of its branches tapped against the glass.
“Listen, then. I’m going to tell you a story. This happened long ago, on the shores of the Volga, a great river. Along the shores of this river grew groves of oak and alder, birch and willow. And among those groves lived the Daughters of the Moon.”Hársfa’s Story
“I wish we were dead,” said Ha’rsfa. She sat on a rock covered with moss and shaded by an oak tree. The river was green under the tree’s shadow, and it flowed so slowly that she could see its branches and leaves reflected. In a hundred years, those reflections would not have changed. The oak tree would still be there.
“Hush,” said Ny’rfa, applying another wet leaf to H’rsfa’s forehead. “When you move, it begins bleeding again. And who would lead our sisters, if we were—” The words hovered in the air between them, like a dragonfly. Dead, like T̈lgy. Tölgy of the light foot, like foam floating on the water. T̈lgy of the wise words, as slow as the river and as filled with shining things: silver fish, stones with veins of crystal, laughter. Tölgy, the eldest and best. Lying at the center of the village with blood on her tunic, as though she were covered with leaves.
Awkwardly, because Ny’rfa was still holding the leaf, Ha’rsfa wiped her cheeks with one hand. “Where would we lead them? We’ve never known anywhere but here.” Her fingers were pale green with blood and tears. “Why can’t things be the way they were before?”
Ny’rfa sat down beside her. “Hold this now.”
Ha’rsfa held the leaf to her temple. “Do you remember the milk?” Left by the villagers in hollow stones. When their mother was shining in the sky like a silver egg, all of the sisters would leave the forest to drink and dance in the pastures, among the silent sheep. Sometimes the villagers left wool, which the sisters spun on wooden spindles and wove into winter coats. In return they left walnuts and baskets woven from willow branches.
Ny’rfa stared at the river. Was she also thinking of its permanence, its peace? “All I remember now is the village burning. The screams, Ha’rsfa. And the blood. And the swords of the Horsemen.” She sat so still that H’rsfa was afraid she had been injured and was bearing the pain in silence. But when H’rsfa touched her hand where it lay clenched on the moss, she said, “T̈lgy wasn’t the only one. I saw Boro’ka fallen, and Ibolya didn’t come back with us. There, I said if you moved, it would bleed again.”
“I wish we had stayed in the forest! If we hadn’t been picking flax in the meadow and smelled the burning—”
Ny’rfa put a hand on her shoulder. “I told you, you must stay still.”
“T̈lgy was wrong to lead us into the battle. The villagers could have fought the Horsemen alone. They would have lost just the same. They’re not warriors, any more than we are.”
“H’rsfa, you don’t mean that. How could we abandon them? Think of what they have given us, and some of them—are our children. Here, cry on my shoulder if you have to.”
“Sometimes,” said Mrs. Mada’r, putting a damp cloth on her forehead, “when the Daughters of the Moon danced in the pastures, one found a shepherd sleeping among his sheep. If he was handsome in the way of the village people, with black lashes fluttering against his cheeks like wings, she would wake him and lead him into the forest, where she would lie with him on a bed of ferns and mosses. If a child was born with skin that was paler than the brown skin of the villagers, with hair as green as leaves and eyes like the pools of the forest, which reflect the leaves above, it was left at the edge of the village. The villagers would care for it, because it was considered fortunate to have a grandchild of the Moon. There, it would grow to become a poet or perhaps a prophet, which were much the same thing in those days. But it could never sew, or fish, or hunt, because the touch of needle or hook or knife would burn it like fire.” She felt a hand on her cheek. “Are you more comfortable now?”
“Let me wash your face a little. Is that better? We have to go back to the cave. Our sisters need us to be strong for them, Ha’rsfa. As Tölgy would have been.”
Ha’rsfa dried her face with the edge of her tunic, leaving streaks like grass stains on the fabric, and stood. “I think I’m ready.”
Suddenly, Ny’rfa screamed. H’rsfa saw a flash, like a fish leaping from the water—no, a sword at her sister’s throat. Then H’rsfa felt her own throat burning like fire from the touch of a knife. They were surrounded by Horsemen.
The Horsemen wore leather boots to the knees and leather tunics. Their coarse black hair was tied back with strips of leather. They smelled of sweat and horses. One, whose hair was braided with red wool, tied strips of leather around her wrists. He touched the wound on her head and then her hair, with a look of wonder. Then he led her, stumbling after Ny’rfa, through the forest.
The village also smelled of horses and blood. Women in tunics of red wool were taking what remained from the burned houses: sacks of grain, carved bowls, beds stuffed with straw. They stared at Ny’rfa and Ha’rsfa, and one made a sign over her forehead. A child playing with a wooden spoon began to cry and hid his head in her skirts.
There was blood on the earth, churned by the hooves of the horses. Ha’rsfa felt her stomach turn. Would she be sick, right here before the Horsemen? The man with red wool braided into his hair touched her arm. He tapped himself on the chest and said, “Magyar.” How could Ny’rfa walk before her so calmly, like the river, so straight, like a fir in the Northern Mountains? Then she noticed that Ny’rfa’s hands were clenched so tightly that the nails must be leaving new moons on her palms. What had he said, that his name was Magyar? Afraid, she pulled away from him.
At the center of the village, horses tied to what had once been doorposts stamped and snorted. Horsemen cleaned their swords, or ate bread and dried meat, or played with bones that were marked with red lines. They shook the bones in their hands, then let them fall to the earth. Each fall of the bones was followed by laughter and exchange: knives, horsehair bridles, a ring. By a burned wall sat the villagers, their wrists and ankles bound with leather strips. They looked at Ny’rfa and H’rsfa with frightened eyes. How many of them were left? she wondered. Here and there, she saw a face that was paler than the others, hair that was tinged with green. She and her sisters had never known the villagers well. Perhaps, she thought, we should have known them better.
On a carved stool sat a man with a ragged scar across his face, from his left eye to the right corner of his mouth, like lightning. Magyar gestured toward Ny’rfa and H’rsfa, then spoke in the Horsemen’s language. The bones stopped clicking and the Horsemen stared at them.
“They are brothers, Hunyor and Magyar.” Ha’rsfa turned. The man who had spoken was shorter than she was, balding and dressed in a frayed yellow tunic. “Do not be surprised. I speak many languages: Attic, Phrygian, barbaroi.”
“You are not one of these Horsemen,” said Ny’rfa.
The man chuckled and thumped his chest. “I am Demas. Father was merchant, captured by barbaroi. I was small boy.” He held out his hand at his waist, to show how small.
Hunyor rose and spoke in a voice as rough as bark. So close to him, she could see that he resembled Magyar; they both had broad foreheads and noses that curved like the beaks of hawks.
Demas replied, gesturing toward the clouds above, the forest around them. “Hunyor asks, are women with hair like leaves ghosts? I say, they are spirits of trees, daughters of Forest Goddess. My father taught me: dryads, hamadryads.”
“Can you ask them what will happen to the villagers?”
Demas’ face wrinkled in an anxious smile. He shook his head, as though unsure what Ny’rfa had asked him. She pointed to the villagers. “Those people.”
Demas spread his hands, as though the answer were evident. “Slaves.”
“What about our sisters?” asked H’rsfa. It was the first time she had spoken, and the sound of her voice frightened her. So many Horsemen staring, and Magyar staring at her with an intensity she did not understand. “Women like us, with hair like leaves.”
“Ha’rsfa, you’re bleeding again,” said Ny’rfa. She raised her bound hands, but Magyar was there already. He tore a strip from the edge of his tunic, wet it from the waterskin at his waist, and cleaned Ha’rsfa’s wound, holding her chin to keep her face steady. His eyes, she noticed, were brown, and ringed with black lashes. She swayed for a moment, but when he reached out to steady her, she held on to Ny’rfa.
“Hunyor says two are dead. He says, if you are daughters of Forest Goddess, then show him.” Demas looked up at Ny’rfa, anxiously. “You can show him?”
What was the penalty, Ha’rsfa wondered, for failing to prove that one was a spirit of the trees? She looked at Hunyor’s face, as expressionless as a rock. Then she looked at Magyar and saw the answer in his eyes. There was only one penalty among the Horsemen.
“If only our brother were here,” she whispered to Ny’rfa before she swayed and fell.
“Try to sit up,” said Mrs. Mad’r. “Let me move the pillow. There.” She felt the blankets being arranged around her. “Would you like me to open the window?” She heard the sash being raised, but she did not turn her head to look. A breeze blew through the open window. It smelled of rain.
“Once, the Moon looked down upon the hills of Anatolia and saw a shepherd lying in a meadow. She loved him, but the love of the Moon is dangerous to mortals, so she poured a potion made of the meadow poppies into his eyes so he would sleep for thirty years. Each of those years, she bore him a daughter, and when that daughter was weaned she placed her in a willow basket, which she set floating on the river Volga. The first of those baskets was found by women washing clothes on the riverbank, who took the child and raised her in their village. She was called T̈lgy, which in English means Oak. Did you learn English in school? Did you understand Anne Martin, when she spoke to you?”