Denniston found that, though the records of Logres included communications with other Orders, nothing had been heard from them or from the rest of the esoteric world since before the Colonel's time, except for a little contact with the Surya, Director of the Mahatomarishis, the Order of India, where Col. Fisher-King has spent most of his military career. Logres, evidently, had been placed in quarantine, or in Coventry. It was left to Denniston to plug Logres back into the community of Orders.
— Orders and Cabals
Jane looked out the bedroom window before retiring. Rome on a summer night was very pretty, even if the rooms were small and stifling and a bit shabby. And the day had been interesting and exciting, even if frustrating.
"We'll just try again tomorrow," Mark said, from bed. "Though I'm not sure what we can do, except smile and look attentive while the Dimbles do the talking."
Jane nodded and climbed into bed. Through the thin wall, they could hear both Mrs. and Dr. Dimble snoring. The couple, both in their sixties and sedentary, were exhausted. Perhaps just as well; it would keep them from fuming.
"We run errands for them," Jane said, nodding in the direction of the snores, "and prevent them from collapsing with fatigue. And we can practice our Italian," she added. "Especially listening. I'm still surprised that Mrs. Dimble is our best Italian speaker."
"All that stuff on Dante she did. Of course, it's rather old-fashioned Italian. Dr. Dimble gets along pretty well, too. He doesn't have as much Italian, but he can patch it up with Latin. The Order likes Latin."
Il Ordine di Santa Petronella, the Order of St. Petronella, stood to Italy as Logres stood to Great Britain – guardian against spiritual dangers. It was also strongly Catholic and monastic, and indeed fond of Latin.
It was not fond of Logres. They had spent the afternoon in a chilly, dusty ecclesiastical library, talking to a pale monk. He had been polite, but in a manner as chilly and dusty as the library, and totally noncommittal. He would not say he believed or disbelieved their claim to represent Logres and the new Pendragon. He would neither agree nor disagree to renew the old communications channels they had found in the records left by the previous Pendragon. Nor would he commit to (or refuse to) set up new channels. He would not even tell them what place he held in the Petronellans; he might be their Director or a go-between barely informed of the basics.
They barely extracted an agreement to meet again tomorrow, to try again. With the same fellow (whose name they never learned)? Possibly. Possibly not. The Logres delegation hoped not.
Was all this just because Logres was Anglican, not Catholic? Should they blame it all on Henry VIII?
Jane wondered what they would face tomorrow and promptly fell asleep.
She woke from fluttering, chaotic dreams to a drowsy knowledge of a cold nose nudging her hand. "Oh, Blackie!" she grumbled and tried to remember if the dog had had a chance to go out before bedtime. This made her wake enough to remember that Blackie was far away at St. Anne's, while she was in Rome. She opened her eyes.
A great gray or silver Alsatian stood at the side of the bed, looking at her expectantly. "How did you get in here?" she wondered aloud. The dog rose and trotted off, pausing in the doorway of the room to look over his shoulder at her. She rose and followed, expecting to find the door to the rented rooms hanging open.
What she found was a thin, leathery man with a gray mustache, in working clothes. She recognized him. "Senor Camminatore? What are you doing here?"
He smiled back at her, apologetically, a little crookedly. "I am sorry for waking you," he answered, "but it is needful if I am to show this to you."
Camminatore had met them at the docks, sent by the Petronellans. He had escorted them to the lodging house and on to the library, then back. He had been warm, friendly, and informative – though about Rome, not the Petronellans. The monk had been a nasty shock after him.
And he had almost no English. In fact, he had answered her in Italian. But then, how had he understood her? And how had she understood him? Her Italian was still rudimentary.
Confused and starting to be frightened, she turned back. "Mark?" she called. He did not stir, a dark lump in the bed. What was that other lump, beside him?
"He cannot hear you," Camminatore said. "You are all tired from a hard day. You all sleep well, including Dottore and Senora Dimble. And you."
"I?" She looked back to the bed again, regarded the second lump. "Am I asleep?"
Camminatore shrugged. "Your body sleeps. You are the Seer of Logres, yes?"
She looked hard at Camminatore. "Yes. And you are what? The Seer of the Petronellans?"
He snorted a laugh. "I am an old guide dog. Come with me and I will show you some things worth seeing, Seer. I swear by Almighty God that I will keep you safe, as best I can."
Was he truthful? Was this dangerous? But should the Seer refuse to see? "Very well."
He nodded, turned away, and melted into the gray dog that had awakened her. He padded out through the door, despite the fact that it was shut.
Jane stared dumbly, she never knew how long. Then she took a deep breath, or seemed to, commended herself to God, and marched through the door. There was a flicker of darkness and she was out in the hall, with the dog, who was waiting patiently. He started trotting down the hall.
"What are you?" she asked, following.
"Remo Camminatore of the Benandanti," the dog answered, in the same voice as the man, in the same Italian she mysteriously understood. "And I will show you Rome tonight."
"Benandanti? 'Good walkers'? Is that some– some kind of Italian, uh, creature?"
He stopped at the top of the stairs and gave her a dog-grin. "Just a kind of Italian. We are human. Basically. But we have a gift. We can walk out of our bodies. And when we do, we can take the forms of wolves." Wolves. Gray Alsatian indeed. It was not really a surprise.
"Does– Does this mean the Petronellans have accepted us?" she asked as they descended the stairs. "Do the Benandanti work for them?"
The wolf snorted. "They would like to think we do." He passed through the solid door, into the street. She braced herself quickly and followed. "No," he continued as Jane looked around. "We do favors for the Order, but we remember also the Inquisition. They took us for witches and the Order did nothing to keep them away. So we do not take the Order as masters. They send us on errands and, if it seems good to us, we obey. After we decide.
"No, they do not accept you. Not yet. They try to make up their minds. You bring very strange news – the NICE overthrown by Merlin, angels of the planets, a woman Pendragon."
"They told you all this?" asked Jane.
"Again, no. But no one on the street notices if an old man dozes in the sun, and certainly no one, not even those in the Order, notices if the old man dreams of a wolf that sits in the Order's hall and listens to the debates. I myself have decided you are trustworthy." (Jane wondered what else he had overheard. Did he trust them after hearing them talking to one another?) "The Order is ungracious. I try to make it up to you, with a little education. You are an academic; you like education, do you not?"
Jane nodded, still looking around her. The narrow street was lightless, but she could see the wolf plainly. The buildings, too. The sky was dark, but things were visible as on an overcast day. Was this some sort of privilege of second sight, to see in the dark? She became conscious that she was walking about in her night dress. An astral night dress. Oh, well.
She looked around again. "The street looks different," she ventured. "Better." The wolf nodded. The brick paving of the street was flawless, no patches of war damage. There were no cracked windows. No litter. No cars parked on both sides, leaving a channel only wide enough for two pedestrians, down which the Romans somehow injected full-sized automobiles. All the street lamps were working. She looked at Camminatore, hoping for an explanation, but the wolf said nothing.
She looked around again. Now she noticed faces in four different windows. One was a woman, one was a man, and she could not be sure about the other two. They just gazed out the window. If they noticed a wolf and a young woman in a nightgown, they were not disturbed by the sight.
A couple came around the corner, arms linked. Their pace was very slow – an amble, a saunter. They were young, but their clothes were rather old-fashioned. They nodded to Jane and drifted on.
When they were out of earshot, she asked the wolf, "Who are these people?" and gestured to include both the watchers at the windows and the couple.
"War dead," Camminatore replied tersely. "Probably."
"Ghosts?!" The wolf nodded. "Where are we?"
"The spirit world. Spirit Rome. Here, you see it as before the War. As it should have been before the War, not as it really was then. Come."
Bewildered, she followed him down the street. As they reached the corner, Jane stumbled – not remarkable in the circumstances, but Camminatore stopped. "You felt that? Turn around and look back."
She obeyed. Gas lights. The light clop of a horse's hooves, followed by an old-fashioned cab drawn by the horse. With her mysterious dark sight, Jane saw a white shirt gleam on a male figure in evening dress, and an old-fashioned, long, white, ruffly dress on a female figure. The cabbie was in black, but the horse was pure white. "Ghost cab?" said Jane. "About 1900?"
The wolf nodded. "I wonder about the horse. Probably it is just a picture."
"The neighborhood from the 1920s ends just here, where you tripped. We have stepped into the previous page, for 1900 or something like that."
"That is how I think of it. Pages of an album, scattered over the world, one on top of another."
"Are we walking into the past?"
"No. Into memory. We walk in the spirit world. The ghosts furnish it with their imaginings. Much is ordinary, looking as it really did. Much of the rest is better, as the dead wish it had looked. Some is worse, imagined in fear or anger. And of course the pictures date to the times they are familiar with. Hold onto me."
Jane reached out for his neck. There was no collar. She grabbed a fold of his ruff and, stooping, tried to hang on as he trotted back toward her boarding house. Again she stumbled. She lost her grip as the scene flickered.
Noise. A crowd. She saw the square they had been walking into as they left her hotel. But now it was filled with people. Many carried torches. There were Italian flags hanging from windows on all sides of the square – war-flags, with the eagle and old Roman fasces on them.
Someone was shouting above the crowd noise, exhorting the crowd from a balcony. (Was there a balcony there in the day-lit, mortal square?) She could not make out words, and she felt unsure that she would be able to, as she could with Camminatore. The man on the balcony was not talking to her. It sounded very familiar, though; it brought back the newsreels from before the War.
If this many-layered Rome of the spirit was furnished by the dreams of the dead, would not many of the recent dead be eager fascists? Did they know their side had lost the War? Would that matter to them? Were they still fighting?
She had been spotted. A figure at the edge of the crowd had turned toward her – a monk. He approached her boldly. There was no chilly smile – no smile at all – and no flash of pince nez hiding the eyes – the eyes were brown and perfectly visible. But he reminded her strongly of Frost.
"You live," he said, and his Italian was as understandable as Comminatore's. "What are you doing here? Come with me."
He strode up to her and reached for her hand. She recoiled, and suddenly the wolf was between them. He snapped, growling, at the hand. Jane clutched at him and the two of them tumbled back, out of reach, out of the square.
Wolf and woman sat on the pavement of dream, in some quiet vision, panting. The wolf stopped suddenly and Jane realized she did not really need to gasp either. Somewhere, her body breathed quietly in sleep, and now her soul was safe.
They stood. "Well," said the wolf. "We try again." Jane nodded and seized his ruff.
With each step, the image flickered. Figures appeared and disappeared. Flower pots and curtains altered. In a few steps, the street blossomed with lights again – this time paper lanterns and torches and blazing windows. A crowd, chattering and shouting and singing, eating and drinking, partying.
"1848," said Camminatore. "A party after the Revolution. The happiest night of many people's lives. So they have kept it going, after their lives, and others have joined them. This party straggles all through the streets of Rome. Spirit Rome."
"A hundred-year-long party?"
The wolf shrugged, looking momentarily very feline. "Why not? No one is getting tired or hung over or sick. The food and drink do not run out."
"They aren't in heaven, are they? Please tell me heaven is not an everlasting street gaudy."
He grinned, thoroughly lupine again. "No. They are, I think, just – ah – resting up for the trip. Come."
He turned away from the revelry. Following, Jane saw more of the endless block party. Holding onto the wolf's ruff again, though, she quickly passed out of it, into older, quieter streets. The architecture changed and was soon clearly medieval. The people's costumes changed in concert.
But there were very few of the people, fewer as they stepped back through the city's memory. "Have most of the people from these times, uh, passed on?" The wolf nodded. "You know, this is very awkward, hanging onto the skin of your neck like this."
Camminatore stopped. "Try to follow me, then. You have had a little experience, now, stepping across the album pages, and this is a safe area." She let go. He trotted on and instantly started to fade from view. She hurried after, gazing fixedly at him, and was glad to see him come back into solidity.
Watching the wolf this way, though, meant she could not spare much attention for the shifting city. She was sure the architecture has shifted from late medieval to early, but not much else. "Where are we going?" she asked. Surely the buildings looked classical, now? Surely those scattered people were in robes?
"Back. Out of the album totally. I said I would show you some things worth seeing. And we are heading to the Vatican. Or a place near it."
"Wait." She dared to stop and looked around. Rome was gone. They were in a meadow, under a starry sky, visible in the same clear but muted light of clairvoyance. Patches of trees showed in the distance. Camminatore had stopped too. "Whose part of the album is this?" she asked.
"We are back on the first page. This is the countryside remembered by wolves and other beasts. And by savage men. And by older things.
"See that river? That is the Tiber. Beyond it are the seven hills of Rome. But no Rome here, of course. And on this side of the river is Vatican Hill."
Jane followed her guide's nose and peered at the hill. "There's a fire at the top."
"Yes, there always is. It is one of the places our women go, to meet the nobles and bargain for good luck."
"You will see. There are always a few about."
After the flickering hike through Roman history, it seemed quite ordinary to follow a talking wolf through twilight countryside. At the top of the hill was a neat ring of stone blocks, about a fathom wide. The fire blazed up from it as from the mouth of a chimney. If there was any fuel in there, Jane could not see it.
But she didn't pay much attention to the fire. Standing in its light was a group of five people, three women and two men. They chatted quietly, and Jane did not think any handy trick of vision would help her understand them. They were tall, slender, and flawless – skin as smooth as milk, hair like skeins of silk. She had seen their like before, nine of them, crowning the new Pendragon, her friend Camilla Denniston. These five were dressed in orange robes the exact color of the fire and had blue-black hair. They gave Jane and Camminatore long, appraising glances, but did not interrupt their conversation.
"Are we here to see them?" Jane whispered.
"No," said Camminatore, his voice normally loud and, perhaps, just faintly defiant. His gaze on the nobles was definitely defiant. "We are here to see what can be seen. To give you an education in geography. This is the first page of the album. But there are other albums, older ones. Hold onto me."
Jane obediently grabbed the wolf's ruff. They took a step toward the fire, which vanished.
Jane looked around. They were still on Vatican Hill, but the fire and the nobles were gone. So was the darkling sky. The stars had been invisible in the lighted city, a pretty spangling in the country sky. Now, they blazed like fragments of a shattered sun. The wolf's eyes returned their lights in irridescence, and even his coat shimmered. Jane suspected the change was not in the light, but in her eyes. Or rather, in her vision, for her eyes were closed, where somewhere she lay in bed next to Mark.
"You have stayed close to me all the way," said Camminatore. "Do not stray now." She followed his gaze to the Tiber. It took her a moment to understand what she was seeing. Four waterspouts were rushing down the Tiber, impossibly thin and sinuous, their tops fading out into the cloudless sky, rainbows sparkling at their feet in the starlight.
They left the river and swept up the hill. At its foot, they snapped down, out of the sky, and contracted to four egg-shapes of whirling mist. These slid up the hill, quickly but not nearly so fast as they had done as whirlwinds. They approached Jane and Camminatore, circled them silently twice, then moved away and became, in a flicker of shifting shape and color, four flawlessly beautiful people, perhaps male, but with flowing golden hair and blue robes. They did not look at Jane again, but faced the top of the hill and stepped into invisibility.
Jane found that, with a little care, she could follow their path. She saw them meeting with the flame-clad folk, exchanging ceremonious greetings by the look of it. The fire blazed behind them. She withdrew her vision and could not decide if she had seen it as a sort of double exposure or as purely mental images.
"Good," said the wolf. "The Seer learns to see. Look back. And down. And back on our path." She looked down the hill, mentally probing as she had when she looked after the – what? sylphs? fay lords? – and saw, at first, a confusion of images. Focusing her attention more narrowly, she could see any "page" of Rome's "album" she chose. A few times, she even saw the edges of pages; not all of them covered the whole city. And ghosts roamed them, in the costumes of their various periods. Among the ghosts were others, even more rarely scattered: shining beams or patches of bright mist, people with aureoles of light and color around them. Angels? Eldila? Were any of them fallen? Would the "dark" eldila be visibly dark to her clairvoyance? That seemed too easy. Were there any of the "nobles" walking those streets? If so, she could not pick them out.
At her elbow came the hollow creak of a canine yawn. She came back to the here and now. Or to the wherever and whenever. "I'm sorry," she said to Camminatore. "I was distracted."
"No, no, it is good," said the wolf, but he did not look sleepy at all, and Jane suspected the yawn had been calculated to get her moving again. "But now we read an older album. One not written by men."
He had been sitting. He rose and started walking around the crown of the hill. Clockwise, Jane noticed. Would she have noticed such a detail two years ago?
It was several paces before there was any change. Without sound, the pillar of fire sprang up again, swelled, darkened, and shattered. She looked up at it. It had been replaced by–
An egg? An egg-shape, as tall as a cathedral, pierced all over with circular and elliptical openings. Colored lights gleamed out of it, showing it to be yellow, metallically glinting. A giant, golden filigree egg. A Faberge egg for a Titan empress. Inside it was a second egg, rotating ponderously. In that, a third, rotating faster. If there were more, she could not see them. And she could not see the sources of the gleams of colored light. But the whole assembly hung over the top of the hill, not touching it, and ringed with smaller fires in golden braziers.
"What is this?" she asked in a whisper. She remembered the nobles in their misty egg shapes. "Is it alive?"
"No. It is a Vatican," answered Camminatore. "For the nobles."
She looked more closely and saw the struts of the giant fretwork were adorned with carvings – jeweled and enameled. They were, in a way, Christian. There were lots of crosses and chrismons. There were doves and flames and lambs; there were lions, eagles, and bulls; wheat and grapes. There were some human figures, but not as many as one would expect. There was no writing, unless the abstract, swirling filigree was it.
"These nobles are Christian?"
"Around here, yes, mostly."
"But they're not human."
The wolf shrugged. "Must Christians be human? We do not argue with them about it. Come."
A few more steps and the egg-cathedral vanished. The hilltop seemed bare now, under the bright rainbow stars. Then the wolf looked up.
Jane followed his gaze and blinked, trying to make sense of what she saw. Colored dots, hundreds of them, in many sizes. Some moved slowly. Some had patterns on them. They were far up in the air, cloud high. The dots must be globes, larger than houses. Here and there, sparks of light flitted among them.
"What is it?" she asked.
"A city. Rome, for the nobles. Now watch." He walked a few more paces around the hilltop. Jane followed until things changed in the corner of her vision, then she and Camminatore looked up together.
The city of balloons (though Jane did not think they were really balloons) was much larger now. It covered the sky like weather, and seemed to be centered over some point beyond the river. Here and there in it, she saw huge filigree eggs. Churches? And it all seemed very much higher. Few of the dots were bigger than specks.
The wolf waited a couple of minutes, then continued. Again, the sky changed. The swarm of specks could barely be distinguished; it was almost mist. And it no longer covered the sky, but rose up in a column, from high above the hills of Rome into the zenith.
"This– This is all one city? On different ... levels? It's– It's huge!" Jane stuttered. She remembered the Director's description of interplanetary space as crammed with life. Had it been urban life?
Camminatore nodded. "Long ago, a noble told us it went all the way up to the Sphere of Fire. But now see this."
Another few steps. Another change. Of subtraction. No fires. No lights. No prodigies. No surreal shapes. They stood on a wilderness hill, under supernaturally bright and colorful stars. "Am I missing something?" Jane asked.
"No. This page of the nobles' album is empty. It is, I think, a buffer zone. But they have never spoken of it. Now, one last little walk."
And he led the way up to the crown of the hill. She stumbled. A change, again.
A light beat down from the sky. Not glaring or hot, but Jane did not dare to look up into it. Not yet. Either the wilderness around them was changed in that last step or the light showed her new things in it. The trees and grass seemed impossibly green, as if encrusted with crushed emerald. Wildflowers seemed to glow with their colors. She had been outside on a hilltop before, but now all seemed even bigger, more open. She had the dizzy feeling that, if she looked carefully, she would see new compass points opening out around her. Steeling herself, she looked up.
A brilliant star shone at the zenith. She remembered glimpsing unutterable colors flashing around Merlin in her final vision him. She remembered the Director's talk of such things on Perelandra. This star was like that. It shone steadily, and was basically white, but shifted hues in gentle rhythms, in chromatic directions that were new to her. No wonder its light made the land look different.
She remembered what creatures showed such colors. No wonder the "nobles" wanted a buffer zone between them and it.
She looked down at the wolf. He sat with one forepaw up, his head bowed. Under her gaze, he shifted into his human form, an old man, kneeling. He crossed himself. Jane looked back at the zenith star, then bowed her head again and, with an unpracticed hand, crossed herself likewise.
She dared not speak, but Camminatore answered her curiosity: "This is Vaticanus. That is what we call him. A human name. Pagan, even. But it is useful to have a name. He is our Principality, guardian angel of Italy. The Petronellans and the Benandanti are both his servants. He has many, and not all human. Look up again and do not fear. He, too, is a servant."
Jane looked up, she could not say how long.
"Servant of God, I bring you greetings from your peer, the guardian of Britain. We seek alliance with your servants and the servants of all your peers."
The voice woke Jane out of some species of trance, and only when she was awake did she realize it was her own voice. She looked uneasily at the beautiful light. How would her message be taken? Why had she said it? Was this what had happened to Merlin when prophecies had popped unbidden out of his mouth?
"Ha!" exclaimed Camminatore, rising. "Look!" He pointed to one side of the angel-star, where a much smaller light was moving off. (Decades hence, Jane would see a satellite move across the sky in such a manner and go weak at the knees.) The little light picked up speed and flew toward the Tiber.
"Come!" shouted Camminatore. He dashed down the hill, flung himself on the ground, starting as man and ending as wolf. Jane ran after. It was wonderfully easy, doing it astrally, but she was in an agony of worry over getting lost. If she lost the wolf, could she follow that light?
In a few strides, the sky of rainbow stars was gone. She raced the wolf through human streets and changing architecture. Ghosts turned curiously to watch them pass.
It ended at a bridge. She remembered crossing it twice by daylight. The Petronellan's meeting place lay on the other side. The wolf sat there, watching. She stood beside it. Neither was at all out of breath. They watched a little star sink toward the city.
"Yes," said the wolf, a canine grin on his muzzle, "that was very good walking. Come, I will lead you back to your lodging."
Some time later that night, Mark woke. Jane was not in bed. Looking about, he saw her face in a little pool of light over the rented room's desk. She was writing. "What are you doing, sweetheart?" he asked.
"A dream?" He was getting used to this sort of thing. A bit.
"Yes. You know, I think we'll have better luck with the Petronellans tomorrow."
The Seer of Britain
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010