TWO AGAINST A WORLD

He woke with scaly tongue, head spinning in the fumes of the fired-wine
and body burning with unfulfilled desires, to the clink of silver on
porcelain, as the maid Damaris bore in his breakfast tray. She was
already in costume, a milkmaid and not badly done; her eyes and feet
were dancing. “Oh, where did you get the lovely Kjermanash mask?” she
asked as he propped himself up among the pillows, and giving him the
tray, went to run her fingers lovingly over the white silk where it hung
across the chair. “It’s just the most beautiful thing ever. I’ll be so
happy to be with you in it.”

“Count Cleudi lent it to me . . . Damaris.”

“What is it?”

“Sit down a minute. On the chair, no matter.”

“I’ll ruffle your beautiful costume. Was it made in Kjermanash?” She sat
facing him on the bed as he moved over to make room. The neck of her
milkmaid’s dress was cut low enough to show the upper round of her
breasts with a little in between (and the Blue Star told him that she
noticed, and wanted him to notice; that it was festival day, when all’s
forgotten in the new spring).

“Damaris—about this ball . . . I’m afraid I won’t be able to go with you
after all.”

Rather than angry, her face was woebegone to the edge of tears. (A world
was crashing in her thoughts.) “You don’t want to be with servant-class
people?”

He reached out and patted her hand conciliatingly. “Of course I do, with
you. But Damaris . . . you said it cost three spadas and I haven’t
hardly any coppers, even.”

“Oh.” She perched her head on one side and looked at him birdlike under
prettily arched brows. “I can let you have that much.” Then, seeing the
expression on his face; “You can give it back to me when you get it from
your master.”

(He did not really want to go at all, headache and the thought of his
position with Cleudi and the Duke of Aggermans gnawed at him, he could
not think clearly.) “I—I—”

“I don’t mind, really.”

“But I don’t want to take your money. I may—may not get any.”

She considered, looking at him sharply, with eyes narrowing. Then; “I
know. You don’t want to go with me because I’m not your friend.” She
tipped suddenly forward, one arm round his neck, and kissed him hard,
then drew her head back, and with a long breath, said; “Will you go with
me now?”

“I—”

She kissed him again, tonguewise, and as her lips clung, shifted her
body, and with her free hand, guided his to the V of her dress. Her eyes
said she did not want him to stop, and he did not. Near the end it came
to him that the Blue Star was dead, he could not fathom a single thought
in her mind.

Mathurin entered on his almost soundless feet and let the door close
behind him in the dark before saying, “Rodvard,” softly. Rodvard, who
had been letting his mind drift along endless alleys rather than
thinking, swung himself up. “I will make a light.”

“Do not. There is danger enough, and its point would so be sharpened. Do
not even speak aloud.”

“What is it?”

“The Duke of Aggermans. His bravoes are let loose. No time. I only just
now learned it from the Count.” Outside there was the soft sighing of
rain.

“I am to go?”

“At once. Make your way south, to the Center of Sedad Mir. The contact
is a wool-dealer named Stündert, in the second dock street. Can you
remember? Change clothes with me quickly. Do not even take the door,
which is watched, but go by the window, across the road, and south into
the country.”

The serving-man began to undress in the dark; Rodvard recognized the
sound. “Is there any money?” he asked.

The rustling stopped. “You to need money, who have the Blue Star?”

Even under the dark, Rodvard felt himself flush (did he dare tell what
had happened? No.). “Still, I will need some small amount. I have
nothing.”

Even under his breath Rodvard could catch the fury in the other’s tone;
“Ah, you deserve to have your bones broken.”

“I know; but is there any money?” Rodvard fumbled for the unfamiliar
lace-points.

The man snarled, but pressed a few coins into his grasp. “You are to
regard this as a loan. Cleudi sends it.”

“Oh. You did not tell me he was aiding this escape.”

“He wants you to go south to Tritulacca, and gave me a letter for you to
carry—which I will transmit to the High Center.”

It might be a girl’s light tap at the door. “Go,” whispered Mathurin,
fiercely.

The window swung wide; Rodvard felt rain on his face, and the mud of the
flower-bed squished round Mathurin’s soft shoes as he took the leap
down. A light flamed up in the room behind him; he began to run,
stumbling up the terraces with branches snatching at his body,
zigzagging to avoid the pennon of light. A voice shouted across the rain
after him (and he thought Mathurin was a mighty bold fellow to face the
Duke of Aggermans’ assassins back there). He came against a hedge; there
was another shout and the sound of crashing footsteps from the left, in
which direction the hedge ran, no way to turn, and he stumbled over a
root, prone, to roll beneath the lip of the shrubbery, thinking
concealment might be a better resource than speed.

So it was; shout echoed shout with an accent of lost, footsteps went
past, but apparently no one had a light and before one could be brought,
Rodvard rolled out, and began to work cautiously toward the end of the
hedge, bending double. The bushes turned back to enclose a square of
garden, but there was a locked gate, low enough to be climbed. Over; the
gravel path beyond, for a wonder, did not run circular like most, from
which he deduced that it must be the one leading down from the main
road. It offered the only real clue to direction, for the lights had
winked out back there, the villa’s mass and the trees cut off the
night-shine from the bay, and the slope was no help at all with
everything so gardened. Rodvard pushed forward cautiously; presently the
feel of ruts under his feet told him his reasoning was sound, and he
paused to consider whether along the road or across it. The second
alternative won; if Aggermans were so in earnest, his people would not
give up easily, and they would likely spread along the road.

There was no hedge at the opposite side, but a narrow ditch, in which
Rodvard got one leg well wetted to the knee and almost fell. Beyond a
slope pitched upward into what, as nearly as he could make out by
feeling, would be a sapling grove with low underbrush. Having no cloak,
he was by this time so wet that it did not matter when he stumbled
against small trunks and the leaves just bursting above deluged him with
big drops, but the sensation was so unpleasant that it tipped him into a
despairing mood, where his fatigues of the night and day rolled in (and
he began to ask himself whether all pleasures must end in an escape of
some kind). So he followed the pent of the hill blindly, not thinking at
all of where he was going (but only of how he was trapped by
unfairnesses somewhere; and that it could not be altogether a matter of
man’s justice, which was the plainder of the Sons of the New Day, since
no justice of man’s would hold men from fiery passion).

Beyond an easy crest there was a dip, and Rodvard hurt his knee against
a wall of piled stone. In the field beyond, he could sense under his
feet the stumps of last year’s corn, he was sick with weariness and fear
and had begun to sneeze; there was no light or life in the world. What
direction? With no reason for any, he followed the line of the stone
wall for a little time, and it brought him ultimately to a sodden
straw-stack, whose hard surface yielded just enough to the persistence
of his fingers so that he could get the upper half of his body in and
slide down into unhappy sleep.

II

He woke with a headache at the top of his spine, which ran around inside
his head to the place over his eyes; nose feeling as though driven with
a wooden plug. Mathurin’s decent black clothes were horribly stained and
scratched. Down the way he had come—not at all far from where he had
crossed the wall, now that one could see by the light of morning—the
footprints lay, a fingerlength deep into the soft ground. At once he was
oppressed by the thought that only too easily could his path from the
villa be traced, there was Tuolén’s witch behind as well, and fear
mounting over the illness, he climbed to the wall itself and tried to
walk along its top to hide his marks. After the rain, sky and air had
become clear, and there were violets visible on the grove-side of the
wall, not that they did him any joy in his misery. The stones quickly
tore a hole in shoes made for indoor walking, so he had to jump down
again and consider.

Right across his direction, at a little distance, there jutted out from
the stone wall a hedge which lack of care had let grow into a screen of
low, sprawling trees. It slanted down leftward to where a gap would mark
a field entrance; beyond, a slow trickle of smoke ran up the blue to
signal breakfast. Rodvard, deciding what he would do if he were hunter
instead of hunted, found more than good the argument against harborage
so near the villa. He climbed over the wall again to wipe his streaming
nose with a burdock leaf, whose bitter juice stung his lips, and
perceiving that he left less marked traces in the ground on that side,
stayed. The overgrown hedge proved to line a deep-cut track that in one
direction wound down toward the main road past the villa. Beyond that
track was true forest of old trunks and heavy underbrush. It was surely
a good place to seek concealment, but Rodvard was ignorant of how far it
might run or what it led to, and with illness galloping through his
veins, felt he must have shelter early, so murmuring half aloud to
himself that he might as well die in hot blood as in cold rheum, he
turned up the track toward the cottage-smoke.

The building was more prosperous than most in the country, with a barn
outside, and two complete windows under the thatch-edge. No one answered
his knock; as he pushed open the door, a child’s squall was sounding
with irritable monotony from a trundle-bed on the right, and a woman who
had been doing something at a table before the fireplace on the left
turned to face him. She was bent and dirty; her face was older than her
figure. “What do you want?” she demanded.

“A place to rest, if I can,” said Rodvard, “and perhaps something to
eat.” He crossed the room and came down weak-kneed on a stool by the
fireplace corner.

The lined face held no sympathy as her eyes swept down the detail of his
torn, mudstained clothes and lingered for a tick at the servant’s badge
on his breast. “This is not an inn,” she said sourly.

“Madame, I am unwell. I can pay.” He fumbled at the waist-pouch.

“This is not an inn,” she repeated, then spun on her heel, took rapid
steps to where the child in its bed still bawled, and administered it a
severe clout on the side of the head. “Will you be quiet?” The cries
sank to whimpers. She came to stand looking down at Rodvard.

“I know about your kind,” she said. “You’re too lazy to work, so you run
away from a good master down there at the villa and probably rob him,
too, on festival day when he’s drunk, and then expect honest
country-people like us, who have to labor for everything we get, to hide
you from the provosts. My husband and me, we have to get up at dawn and
work all day as hard as we can, and we’re never through till the sun
goes down, winter or summer, while you servant-people are drinking and
stealing behind your master’s back.” All this was delivered in a torrent
as though it were a single sentence, ending as she uplifted one arm to
brandish an imaginary weapon. “Now you leave here.”

Too weary and ill for a reply, a trickle he did not try to disguise
running from his nostril, Rodvard did so, out into the bright spring day
and along the track. Where it turned round a boss of hill that thrust in
from the westward, a sense of being watched made him look back. The
farm-wife had come out to the end of the house to look after him, and
the sound of the child’s petulant wail was on the air. (Rodvard felt a
surge of bitter anger; there was an unfairness in life, every
pennyweight of pleasure is paid with double its measure in pain, and
only those who grubbed at the ground were entitled to call themselves
honest. Why, if this be so, then joy must be wrong, and God himself must
be evil, in spite of what the priests say.) But his head was too muzzy
to follow any rabbit of reasoning to its hole, so he trudged along for a
while without thinking anything at all, until he heard the creak of a
cart, and here was a mule coming out from the Sedad Vix direction. The
driver somewhat surlily gave him the time of the day.

Rodvard asked to go with him, and when the man said he was bound for
Kazmerga, declared that was his destination, though he had never heard
of the place and possessed not the least idea in what direction it lay.
The fellow grunted and let him climb in; sat silent for a while as
Rodvard sneezed and drizzled, then was moved to remark that this was a
heavy case of the phlegm, but it could be cured by an infusion of
dandelion root with certain drugs, such as his old woman made, and so
well that they often accused her of being a witch. “—But the drugs are
costly now.” He evidently wanted conversation in payment for his favor,
and when this beginning failed on Rodvard’s merely remarking that he
would pay for any quantity of drugs to get rid of this rheum, fell
silent for a couple of minutes; then leaned over, touched the servant’s
badge, and struck out again with:

“Running away, ey? What happened, ey? Lying with wrong woman on festival
night, perhaps? Ah, there’s many and many a high family has daughters
born nine months from festival night that shouldn’t rightly inherit, but
lord, young man, don’t you run away because of that. I say to you that
ladies can forgive and be forgive for everything they do that night,
when all’s free, and I say to you, you ought to go back to your master.”

He chuckled and waved his mule-goad. “I do recall, I do, when I was a
sprout no older than yourself how one night I went all the way to Masjon
for spring festival and at the dancing in the square there, I found a
little cat as hot as ever could be, so we slipped away for some
conversation, ey? And when I got back to where I was staying with a
friend, what do you think I found? Why, in my bed there was his
sister—Phidera, that was her name—and she was saying she had thought the
bed her own, and no more clothes on her than a fish. So there were two
of them in one night, all I could do, he, he, he, and that’s the way it
always is at spring festival, and maybe it would be with you.”

He looked at Rodvard, and the latter was glad for once that the Blue
Star had gone dumb over his heart, for there was a drop of moisture on
the lip above the ill-shaven chin, which the gaffer did not bother to
suck in or to wipe away.

“It was nothing like that,” said he (and to keep from being drawn deeper
into the morass of the old fellow’s thinking); “Have you heard that
Baron Brunivar is like to be decreed in accusation?”

“Ey, ey. Those westerners, half Mayerns they are. It will be a sad day
when the snow melts from Her Majesty’s head, with only the regents
between that crazy Pavinius and the throne, and no female heirs. Ey, ey.
Here we are in the Marquis of Deschera’s seignory. For you servant-class
it is no matter; you lay out the plates on the table and you have a
scuderius in your hand, but for us farm-people with all the taxes . . .”

(“I am not a servant,” Rodvard wanted to cry, “but a clerk who makes his
gain as hard as you; and it is you we most wish to help.” But he
forebore), saying only; “Is there an inn at Kazmerga? I need something
to eat, being without breakfast, and a place to lie down for the cure of
my fluxions.”

“No tavern—” the man stopped, and the expression above the uncut whisker
became crafty (so that now Rodvard longed for the Blue Star); “Would you
pay an innkeeper?”

“Why, yes. I have a little money.”

“You be letting me take you to my home. The old woman will arrange your
fluxions in less than a minute with her specific if you pay for it, and
give all else you need for less than half what an innkeeper would ask,
and no questions if the provosts come nosing, ey. Go, Mironelle.” He
leaned forward and rammed the goad into the mule’s rump, which shook its
ears, danced a little with the hind feet, and began to trot, so that
Rodvard’s aching head jounced agonizingly. There was a turn, the track
was broadening, fields showed, pigs rooted contentedly in a ditch, and
the trees gave back to show a church with its half-moon symbol at the
peak, and around it, like the spoke of a wheel, houses.

“Kazmerga,” said the mule-man. “I live on the other side.”

III

She was fat and one eye looked off at the wrong angle, but Rodvard was
in a state not to care if she had worn on her brow the mark of evil. He
flopped on the straw-bed. There was only one window, at the other end;
the couple whispered under it, after which the housewife set a pot on
the fire. Rodvard saw a big striped cat that marched back and forth,
back and forth, beside the straw-bed, and it gave him a sense of
nameless unease. The woman paid no attention, only stirring the pot as
she cast in an herb or two, and muttering to herself.

Curtains came down his eyes, though not that precisely, neither; he lay
in a kind of suspension of life, while the steam of the pot seemed to
spread toward filling the room. Time hung; then the potion must be
ready, for through half-closed lids Rodvard could see her lurch toward
him in a manner somewhat odd. Yet it was not till she reached the very
side of the bed and lifted his head in the crook of one arm, while
pressing toward his lips the small earthen bowl, that a tired mind
realized he should not from his position have been able to see her at
all. A mystery; the pendulous face opened on gapped teeth; “Take it now
my prettyboy, take it.”

The liquid was hot and very bitter on the lips, but as the first drops
touched Rodvard’s tongue, the cat in the background emitted a scream
that cut like a rusty saw. The woman jerked violently, spilling the
stuff so it scalded him all down chin and chest as she let go. She swung
round, squawking something that sounded like “Pozekshus!” at the animal.
Rodvard struggled desperately as in a nightmare, unable to move a muscle
no more than if he had been carved out of stone, realizing horribly that
he had been bewitched. He wanted to vomit and could not; the
cottage-wife turned back toward him with an expression little beautiful.

Her grubby hands were shaking a little. She grumbled under her breath as
he felt her detach the belt-pouch with all his money and then slip off
his shoes. The jacket came next; but as she undid the laces at the top,
grunting and puffing, her hand touched the chain that held the Blue
Star, and she jerked out the jewel. In all his immobility Rodvard’s
every perception had become as painfully sharp as an edge of broken ice.
He thought she was going to have a fit, her features seemed to twist and
melt into each other, her hand came away from the stone as though it had
been a red coal. “Oh, nonononono,” she squealed, backing away. “No. No.
No. Ah, you were right, Tigrette; you were right to stop me.”

The cat arched against her. As though the small act had released some
spring in herself, the woman bustled to the invisible end of the room,
where Rodvard could hear wood click on earthenware, then some kind of a
dumb low-toned chant she raised, then became aware of a different and
aromatic odor. He was wide awake now and hardly sick at all any more;
could see how the mist in the room was clearing a little, then heard the
door creak open and the mule-driver’s voice, saying:

“Did you get it done, ey?”

“Not I, you old fool, you rat-pudding, you dog-bait.”

“Old fool yourself.” Rodvard heard the sound of a slap. “Call me old
fool. You weren’t so dainty with the last one. Taken with the pretty
lad, are you? Now go do it, or I’ll slice his throat myself and never
mind mess. What’s one runaway servant more or less, ey? This is real
money, hard money, more nor you ever seen.”

Now she was whimpering. “I tell you you’re a fool. He has a Blue Star, a
Blue Star, and his witch will know what’s put on him and recoil it back
to us, double, triple. Worms that never die crawling under your skin
till you perish of it. All the hard money there is is not worth it.”

A sound of steps. The scratchy face looked down at Rodvard, he felt the
man palm the jewel. “Blue Star, ey? Ah, fritzess, this is some piece of
glass.” But the tone was little sure.

“It is a Blue Star and nothing else, the second one I see. They are
wedded with the great wedding.”

The man turned, and though his own head did not, Rodvard could see how
the expression of craftiness had come on back to him. “Blue Star? Now
you witch it for him, wife, witch it for him, so it will be no longer
good. You can witch anything. Then I’ll take him away from here.”

The whimper became a sniffle. “I’ll witch, ah, I’ll witch, mumble,
mumble, mumble.” Rodvard heard her tottering shuffle go and come, the
fat face was over his again, all filled now with oily kinks that held
little beads of sweat. She looked at him closely and then flung over her
shoulder; “Go out, old man, and leave us. There’s something not healthy
for you to see,” and began plucking at her garments to undo them, at the
last moment pausing to throw an edge of stinking blanket over Rodvard’s
face. His heightened senses caught the stiff rustle of clothes sinking
to the floor; the aromatic smell declared itself over all others, her
fingers sought his burned chin beneath the blanket and applied a
relieving unguent.

“Mumble, mumble,” came her voice, and he understanding not a word.
“Meowrrr-row!” shouted the cat, as it raced through the narrow cot from
end to end. He could have melted with relief as the fingers soothed his
chest, but then his mind went off on a picture of Lalette become old in
the manner of this one and he would have shuddered if he could have
stirred. The crooning mumble ended, the witch-wife’s ministrations at
the same time. There was a silence set with small sounds, over which the
continued mewling of the cat. He heard the woman at the door summon her
husband, then the two of them speaking in voiceless sibilants, a
contention going on, which terminated with the man’s strong arms around
Rodvard, heaving him up like a sack of meal.

Exterior air came through the edge of the blanket; step, step, he was
borne, and with a grunt, dumped in what must be the mule-cart. A pause;
the blanket was twitched from his face and he was looking up into the
disparate eyes of the woman.

“Nice boy, nice boy,” said her voice. “You tell your witch now how I do
good. You tell her I respect the great wedding. Not him; he keeps your
hard money.”

She patted his still unmoving cheek, a touch that made his senses creep;
and the Blue Star was suddenly, shockingly cold over his heart, (he
could see beyond any question that there was in the woman’s mind a great
fear, but also the great longing kindness of two joined against an armèd
world).

From where he was leading the mule to hitching, the man’s voice came;
“Wife, get that badge we took from the last one, the mechanician. I say
to you, you hurry now.” Norfloxacin