Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series) (6 page)

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
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But the Soldier of God barely noticed them.

He went on through the corridor and out by the little door where he had to stoop.

The garden was not large, but high-walled. Peaches and vines stretched on frames. In the beds were herbs, and salads and vegetables, with his
sister moving slowly among them.

A servant girl, one of the inn slovens, carried the basket and a knife for weeding.

Luchita looked no better, he thought. Her body had lost its shape with the last birth. Until this one, that had not happened. Besides, she had borne healthily three sons and a daughter. The dead baby was a shock to her. She had caught Cristiano’s hand on his first visit. “You’ll say it’s my punishment.” Cristiano said, “If you feel it to be so, then perhaps it is.” At which she had railed against him so violently, he was afraid for her, took her in his arms and said, “No, Luchita. Your sin wasn’t such a powerful one. And you repented, you told me so. Be glad for the child, He spared it the agony of this world.” But Cristiano did not believe anything he said. She had committed adultery, which only Christ could forgive. And the world was the Militarium of the soul, where it learned to fight and fine itself for Heaven. To be spared was to be cheated, and God cheated no one, only gave what was earned.

Now Cristiano’s sister walked to him along the path, and even her walk had changed, less graceful. She kneeled down suddenly, as the boatman had.

“Give me your blessing.”

So he stretched out his hand and blessed her, and she became real for him. And the garden, warming, and a bird singing in a small twisted fruit tree.

“How are you doing, Luchita?”

“Oh, well enough.”

They sat on a bench by the house wall, and the servant moved alone about the plants, now cutting something, now tying something up.

“This is a thriving garden.”

“Yes. I’m the Good Housewife. I do
my best. It’s never easy. But I like these things. The way they answer care. I sometimes think,” she paused, then said, “kindness and love might improve humankind. Better than struggle and suffering.”

“God tells us this very thing, Luchita.”

He expected her to say sullenly, in her unlessoned woman’s manner, “Then why does He never show it us?”

But she only sighed.

The servant cut off a large head of salad stuff with a crisp snap. It was forward, he thought, but then the garden caught the sun at this time of the year. He was going to congratulate his sister again, and realized that she bored him, and this was another fault.

“Tell me what you’ve been doing, Lucha.”

“What do I ever do?”

(He had taught her to read when they were children. But she had, here, no chance for or use for books.)

“My poor girl. Remember, care also for yourself. You’ve received a blow, a wound. It must have space to heal.”

“That child? Oh. It means nothing now. If it had lived a few hours, if I’d held it—but there wasn’t anything to hold. I blamed old Maria, it’s true, the mid-wife. Said it was her fault. Foolish. I always lose my children.”

Perhaps she saw him frown. She said, “Then Maria said it was a girl under the window who was to blame, a witch, who set a spell on me so Maria’s wonderful cleverness was to no avail—”

Cristiano’s thought wandered. It was the image of a window … The Virgin in her mantle, the delicacy of her face, beyond beauty. And the light which filled him—He brought his mind back sharply.

Luchita was looking up at him. “You’re so handsome, Cristiano.
So splendid in your armor. And your golden hair, so thick it breaks a comb—oh, I remember. What a waste. What a
waste
to be a priest—”

Anger moved in him, the dark beast he must resist.

“You know, Lucha, I don’t like you to say these things. I belong to God.”

“You belong to the
world
. Look at you! Any woman could love you. Or a man—”

“Luchita.”

“Hold my tongue. Yes. But you might have had sons, Cristiano. Think of that. God knows I mourn the loss of them more than that dead thing Maria pulled out of me.”

Cristiano got up. Alerted by his closed fury, which seethed invisibly yet white-hot about him, even the servant cowered, and the bird left off its song.

And at that moment a raucous shouting broke out over the wall.

Luchita jumped up too, wincing and flushed.

“It’s mad Berbo, I know his voice. The girl must be there, and he’s seen her. The numskull. There are Eyes and Ears all through the quarter today—”

And leaving Cristiano, as if abruptly he had lost his value, she ran heavily back into the inn. The servant girl ran after her, clutching the salad.

Cristiano followed them, irritated, and keeping himself in check.

The inn had erupted into the alley beyond. From upper windows and from doors too, people pressed to see and jeer.

A man in decent garments stood shouting, frothing somewhat at the lips. Pointing.

And from somewhere, probably off the canal, two other men came, in black robes, and took hold of him.

Cristiano disliked the Eyes and Ears of
God. But, impartially, he accepted their necessity—in certain areas.

Not here, surely? This fellow was crazed, as Luchita said.

But the madman was turning now, clinging to the two black priests.

“Praise God that sent you! Brothers—see—that witch—that Making of Satanus—”

Cristiano turned his head a little. Who was it that this shouting imbecile had singled out for his obsession? It must be the waif there, barely more than a child, skinny and filthy, with matted brownish hair tied up in a cloth. She looked harmless, and unimportant. And yet, thin as a pin, white as sullied snow, she drew his eyes back, and back again.

Her own were downcast. She seemed not to know the outcry concerned her. Containment—guilt—also madness?

“Quiet,” said one of the Eyes and Ears to the madman. “What are you saying?”

“I say she’s a minion of Hell.”

“Be aware of your accusation.
Who
is?”

“That one, there.”

“What has she done?”

To his disgust, Cristiano detected a spice of interest in the priest’s nasal voice.

The Soldier of God moved forward, and became the center of the scene.

At once the deranged man attempted to kneel to him (the third one this morning) and hung from the priests’ grip, They glared, not liking to be, conceivably, usurped.

And Luchita spoke up hurriedly.

“Holy brothers—she’s only a beggar. She wanders about. I feed her crusts and the scrapings of the rice kettle, from charity. I gave her
a cloth to cover her hair. She does no one hurt. She’s addled. And Berbo, too.”

Berbo was kneeling, despite the priests, who unwillingly let him go, only looming over him, like black shadows cast up from his turmoil.

“Bellatoro—warrior of God—
you’ll
listen. Let me speak.”

“Very well.”

Cristiano pulled his eyes away from the girl. He was almost glad to, and did not know why.

The kneeling Berbo, no longer shouting, now apparently in control, offered his words with the skill of an actor.

The crowd which had gathered, attended breathlessly. But Cristiano, resistant to such fantasies, set himself on guard.

“It was the night—over a month back—when there was a fire on the Canal of the Keys. Oh, protect me, blessed brothers. A fiend comes and torments me when I speak of it. I shout and stammer and no one believes—”

None uttered a sentence.

Mad Berbo, if he was, glanced round, then, averting his gaze from the beggar girl, continued without a break.

He lived over by the next canal, but came through the alleys to watch the fire. Men were drawing up buckets of water, but he saw no need to assist; as he put it, he did not wish to impede their work. Instead he went through another alley to the back of the houses, only one of which was then alight. It was the Red House of Ghaio Wood-Seller, who was said to have a hoard of money.

The purpose of Berbo was plain to most of those who heard. He had hoped to be able to locate some outer stash of coins and make off with them.

Reaching the back yard, where the
smoke was less, he found all neighbors had seemingly fled in fear of the fire’s spreading. Some refuse by the yard wall enabled him to climb it, and look over.

In the yard, the timber, in stacks and bundles, shone with the red light of the fire, and sparks spun everywhere, but had not yet caught anything but a tree by the cistern.

Berbo thought time was short for investigation, and besides it would be chancy. As he hesitated, he beheld a very frightening thing. In the upper story of the house was one narrow window, and this was filled by the fire.

Until all at once the fire came out of the window, not in flames or sparks or smoke, but in an upright leaping shape.

This, flying into the air, dropped straight down again to the yard, and landed there.

Berbo, who had let out a yelp, discerned next instant that this apparition was only the figure of some hapless person, caught alight in the burning room, and jumping frenziedly forth. He expected it to roll shrieking on the ground. It did not.

Rather, it stood up.

At this very moment, a gust of flame shot through the house top, and rained spangles in the yard. (Sounds of alarm rose from the front of the house.)

Just then too, Berbo was aware of a golden liquid ribbon which ran out from the window. Was this Ghaio’s gold, melting?

Something made him forget the gold.

The figure which had sprung down in the yard, and which he had expected by now to be dead, was still standing. Indeed, it had
righted
itself.

There was no doubt that it was on fire. It
blazed
. A woman,
as he could just make out. Her hair was a vivid red, and redder from the fire in it. He saw her
through
and
in
the fire.

“She was young, and wearing only a white shift. And it all was burning—the shift, her hair, her body—she was furled in flames that never went out—that never ate her up.”

One of the black priests said, “He’s mad.”

Cristiano, to his own surprise, answered, “Hear him out before you judge.”

Berbo exclaimed, “She burned—but she didn’t burn, Signore Bellatoro. She burned but never was
burned
.”

“So you have said. What then?”

Irked at the brusqueness of this blond untonsured priest, standing there in maculum and sword, Berbo rasped, “Doesn’t the Bible speak of wonders, eh? And terrible uncanny things that attend the Evil One, Lucefero?”

“I’m more concerned with what
you
are speaking of.”

Berbo pulled a face. He said he had been transfixed by fear, and as he clung on the wall, the woman walked—
walked
, neither ran nor stumbled—about the yard, and everything—she touched it. And where she touched, that thing took fire.

“Hadn’t sparks already set the wood alight?”


No
, signore. It smoldered here and there. But where she put her hands—I could see them in the fire—flames burst up. She was a walking
fire-brand
.”

There had been a darkened kitchen in the yard, and until then it had seemed unoccupied, but now it’s roof was smoking, and the uprights of the door. All at once the door opened and an old man came out.

“I thought he’d been asleep perhaps, and I was sorry for the poor soul—but then I saw he wasn’t in a fix, only standing there looking
about at it all on fire, and he was grinning, and praising God.”

One of the black priests said, “Too many madmen in this tale.”

“I can’t help it, brother. It’s the truth.”

The burning girl was by this time at the tree, which had been all but consumed by then. Still she was circling round and round it, like a sort of dance. “That’s when I knew for sure she was a witch. The country witches do it. They dance about the trees. So then I knew the fire was her spell, and that was why she didn’t burn up in it.” But, said Berbo, the old man, a slave, probably, now hurried across, and he stretched out his hands to the fire witch.

“Excuse me, signore, but I wet my drawers when I saw that. I went cold in my belly. Do you know what he said to her? No, I’ll tell you. I heard him say, ‘
You are the torch of God
.’”

The crowd which had laughed at Berbo’s admission of incontinence, now produced a silence as dense as iron. Some of them crossed themselves.

Cristiano spoke very clearly. “And could you have misheard?”

“No.
Never
. But then, don’t witches call
him
‘God’ sometimes—him, the
other
one.”

“You’re well versed in the manners of witches.”

“Who isn’t? You have to be cautious.”

Berbo said that the fire-witch left the tree and went to the old man and touched him. And of course, he too went up like a piece of fat thrown on the hearth.

“He never cried out once. He seemed dancing, too.

Round and round, till he fell down and curled up like an insect. And then the wasps came out.”

“Wasps.”

“From the burning wood.
Must have been three or four nests there in the timber. Hatched ’em. I’ve seen a man die of wasp stings. I got my legs under me and I ran.” Berbo stood up from his kneeling. He dusted the knees of his leggings, the action of a prudent, fussy man, not a mad one.

“And what has this to do with the girl there?” asked one of the Eyes and Ears.

Berbo said, mumbling now, as if embarrassed suddenly, “It was her, her in the wood-seller’s yard.”

“The witch you saw was covered by fire, you said.”

“I saw her
through
the fire. It’s her.”

Cristiano did not want to look at the girl again. She was a shred of human life, pathetic, of no consequence.

And for Berbo’s story, how many cups of ale had he taken, despite the new taxes, before he climbed the wall? The warrior-priest turned his head once more.

At that second, the beggar girl raised her own.

At the movement, the rag slipped back from her hair a little. Not brown hair, but a dull and dirty red. The face a white triangle with pale yellow eyes. A
fox’s
face.

BOOK: Saint Fire (Secret Books of Venus Series)
5.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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