Authors: Gary Jennings
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fantasy, #Thriller, #Adventure, #Epic, #Military
In the Ring of Balsam
At the Lake Brigantinus
The Place of Echoes
Among the Goths
The Gothic Kingdom
Nous revenons toujours
À nos premiers amours
A bird of prey, as the eagle or hawk, characterized by carnivorous appetite, great powers of flight and extreme keenness of vision.
Mortal, it was you yourself who cast your lot not with Security but with Fortune. Never rejoice overmuch when she leads you to great victories; never repine when she leads you into sad adversity. Remember, mortal, if Fortune ever should stand still, she is no longer Fortune.
—BOETHIUS, A.D. 524
Although Thorn’s narrative begins in the traditional style of the Goths—“Read these runes!”—it was in fact written almost entirely in a fluent and articulate Latin. Only here and there did Thorn put in a name, word or phrase in the “Old Language” of Gothic or in some other tongue. The Roman alphabet of that time being inadequate for transcribing such sounds as the Gothic “kh,” Thorn wrote those words in the Gothic script, which
in part derived from the ancient runes. I have rendered those words in today’s Roman alphabet, in a manner that I hope will convey to the reader of English some notion of their original pronunciation: for example, Balsan Hrinkhen, “Ring of Balsam,” the name of the valley where Thorn’s childhood was spent.
Thorn’s page after page of continuous, unbroken, unspaced narrative I have divided into sections and chapters as I thought appropriate. To further ease the reading of it, I have provided occasional italics for emphasis, and paragraphing and punctuation, devices which were only seldom or haphazardly employed in manuscripts of that time. And I have taken one major liberty. In many places where Thorn uses the Latin word
or the Gothic equivalent,
I have translated it as “outlander.” In Thorn’s day, practically every nation, tribe and clan referred to every other as “barbarian,” but the epithet—except when delivered as an outright insult—did not usually have the brute-savage connotation that it bears now. In most instances here, “outlander” says it better.
At the time of Thorn’s birth, in the fifth century A.D., the map of Europe was a confusion of borders being continually shifted by migrations of nations, wars between nations, the emergence or subsidence of one nation and then another. But the reader needs only to remember that the Goths—most powerful of the several Germanic peoples—were at that period divided into the Visigoths of western Europe and the Ostrogoths living in the east. The Roman Empire was likewise geographically divided into west and east, each half ruled by a separate emperor, the eastern emperor having as his capital the “New Rome” of Constantinople.
There is no knowing how many years Thorn may have taken in writing this chronicle, but it concludes in A.D. 526. Many of the cities, towns and other sites mentioned in the narrative still exist, and have modern names. But many others, of course, have vanished from the earth. So, for the sake of consistency, I have chosen to leave all the place names as Thorn knew them. For the reader’s convenience, this book’s maps show their locations and the names that the still-surviving sites wear today.
Out of curiosity, I went myself in search of the very first place mentioned in the text—that Balsan Hrinkhen—which, according to Thorn, was in the Burgund Kingdom, between Vesontio and Lugdunum (the cities now called Besançon and Lyon, in what is now France). And there I did indeed find the Ring of Balsam, in the Jura countryside not far from the Switzerland border. Amazingly, after fifteen centuries, the steep-walled valley and, down inside it, the cascades, the labyrinthine cave, the tiny village and the two abbeys are little changed from Thorn’s description of them. Even more amazingly, the place is still so named: in French, le Cirque de Baume.
It is also still the habitat of the raptorial bird that Thorn so much admired—the juika-bloth, the “I fight for blood” bird. This is the harrier eagle, known elsewhere in France as
but the inhabitants of the Cirque de Baume call it
—and that name I take to be only a folk-corruption of the Gothic
The bird is much valued because, as Thorn relates, it preys mainly on reptiles, including the venomous adder. Mindful of Thorn’s own extraordinary and paradoxical nature, I was interested to learn that the Cirque de Baume folk are of divided opinion: as to whether the male eagle or the female is the more relentless raptor.
Read these runes! They were inscribed by Thorn the Mannamavi, and at no master’s dictation, but in Thorn’s own words.
Hearken to me, you who live, you who have found these pages that I wrote when I, like you, was alive. This is the true history of a time that was. It may be that these pages have lain gathering dust for so long that, in your lifetime, the olden days are remembered only in your minstrels’ songs. But
every minstrel meddles with the history of which he sings, trimming it or elaborating it, the better to beguile his listeners or to flatter his patron, his ruler, his god—or to malign the enemies of his patron, his ruler, his god—until the truth is obscured by veils of falsehood and sanctimonious laudation and invented myth. So that the truth of the events of my time might be known, I here set them down without poetics or partiality or fear of reprisal.
However, I had best commence by telling you one thing about myself, a truth that was known to very few even of my own time. You who read these pages, whether you be man, woman or eunuch, must understand that I was totally unlike you, or much of what I have later to tell would be incomprehensible. Now, I have sought long and hard for some way to explain my peculiar nature—some way that would not make you recoil in loathing or laugh in contempt—but there can be no tiptoeing around the truth. So, to make you comprehend my difference from all other human beings, I can think of no better way than to tell you how I came to realize it myself.
That happened during my childhood in the great round valley called the Balsan Hrinkhen. I was perhaps twelve years old, and I was at my scullion labors in the abbey’s cookhouse, and a certain Brother Peter was then the kitchener. He was a Burgund, who had been named Willaume Robei in the outside world. He was middle-aged, stout, wheezy of breath and so red of face that his dead-white tonsure could have been mistaken for a cloth cap set upon his graying red hair. Since this monk had but recently joined us, he was the lowest on the roster of the Abbey of St. Damian Martyr, and therefore was assigned to be kitchener, because that was the duty that the other monks liked least to have. He knew that his brothers would not even venture into the cookhouse while he was at his cooking, lest they be seized upon to do some odious kitchen chore. So Peter felt safe from being surprised or interrupted in the act when he lifted the back of my smock and caressed my bare buttocks and said, in his harsh Burgund way of speaking the Old Language:
“Akh, you have a fetching bottom, my lad. To be honest, you have also quite a comely face when it is clean.”
I was somewhat bewildered at his so familiarly touching me, but I was more offended by his words. At my scullion tasks I was of course dirtied by the soot and smuts and ashes of the cookhouse. However, as a general thing—because I went frequently to disport myself in the nearby cascades, meaning that I was the only person in the valley ever to take all his clothes off at once—I was far cleaner than Peter or any other brother except perhaps the abbot.
“Anyway, this part of you is clean,” Peter went on, still fondling my bare bottom. “Come. I will show you something. My last boy, Terentius, learned much from me. Here, lad, look at this.”
I turned and saw that he had lifted the front of his heavy burlap robe. He was showing me nothing that I had not seen before. Because six-month-old human urine is the best manure for vines and fruit trees, the twice-yearly dredging of the rere-dorter’s liquid contents into buckets was another of my duties, so I had seen the brothers make water in the rere-dorter while I worked. But truly I had never seen a man’s urinary tube stand up, large and stiff and ruddy-knobbed, as Peter’s was at this moment. It would be some while yet before I learned that the male member in this condition is called in Latin a fascinum, whence comes the word “fascinate.”
Now Peter reached into the kitchen’s crock of goose grease—muttering, “First, the holy chrism”—and slathered an amount of that on himself, making the rigid thing shiny red, as if it were fired within. Awed and wondering, I let Peter tug me over to the massive section of oak trunk that the kitcheners used for a chopping block, and there he bent me so that I was lying across it on my stomach.
“What are you doing, Brother?” I asked, as he flipped the back of my smock up over my head, and began fumbling with his hands to part my buttocks.
“Hush, boy. I am showing you a new way to make your devotions. Pretend you are kneeling at a prayer-stool.”
His hands were hurriedly fluttering, so one of them slipped farther between my legs, and Peter was plainly startled by what he encountered there.
“Well! I will be damned!”
And I trust that he has been. The man is long dead, and, if the God he pretended to serve is a just god, Peter has been all these years in hell.
“You cunning little fraud,” he said, with a coarse laugh, bending his mouth close to my ear. “But what a fortunate surprise for me! I am saved from having to commit the sin of Sodom.” Down below, with a trembling hand, he guided his fascinum into the place he had found. “Can it be that no other brother has ever suspected the presence in the cloister of a little sister? Am I the first to discover this? Ja, I am indeed! By God, it still has its membrane! No one else has yet taken the kernel from the fruit!”
Even though the goose grease lubricated his entry, I felt a piercing pain and gave a screech of protest.
“Hush… hush…” he panted. He was lying atop me now, while his lower body thumped repeatedly against the back of my thighs and that thing of his slid thickly back and forth inside me. “You are learning… a new manner of… of partaking of the Host…”
I thought to myself that I vastly preferred the old accustomed manner.
“Hoc est enim corpus meum…” Peter chanted, between his pantings. “Caro corpore Christi…
Take! Eee-ee-eat!” He shuddered all along his length. I felt the warm gush upon my inner tissues, and thought he had nastily made water inside me. But no water drizzled out when he withdrew himself. Not until I was upright again did I feel the wetness begin to ooze down the inside of my thighs. Cleaning myself with a rag, I saw that the leakage—besides a small trace of blood, which was my own—was a viscous, pearly-white substance, as if Brother Peter really had deposited a bit of Eucharist bread inside me and it had dissolved there. So I had no reason to disbelieve his assertion that I had been introduced to a new method of making Holy Communion, and I was a bit puzzled when he enjoined me to secrecy about it.
“Take heed,” he said sternly, when he had recovered his breath and had wiped clean his again normally limp tube and decently rearranged his robe. “Boy—I shall continue to call you boy—you have by fraudulent means somehow contrived a cozy situation for yourself here among the brothers of St. Damian. I daresay you wish to keep that situation—not to be exposed and expelled.”