2. Shezael and Drezaem
At the time of the earth’s flatness, the soul did not enter the body of a child until some days before its birth. The embryo grew in the womb, a plant, without thought or motive, until the moment that the elected soul flooded invisibly into the sleepy chambers. Presently, the unborn child, inspired by the arrival of its soul, would begin to scent its life, and at length contrive to be birthed. Sometimes no soul was ready for the child, in which case the pangs of labor were merely the body’s rejection of inanimate matter, and the baby born was lifeless.
But a soul was ready for the child—a girl-child as the charm had discerned—in Bisuneh’s womb. One perfect amorphous soul bathed clean in the abstractions of the misty limbo that lay beyond the world, one soul half female and half male, as in those times all souls were.
The road of the soul was life. But on the threshold of smokes that lay at the entrance to that thoroughfare, a dark shape stood with a dark sword in its grasp, barring this soul’s way, while other souls flashed past like meteors.
The soul was afraid, as a child would be afraid since it was to a child it had been going. It did not know that one of the Eshva stood before it, nor what the sword portended, nor even why it should fear.
But then the sword swung, and the soul was cloven in two parts. There was no pain, but a sense of bewildered loss, also divided. Each portion of the soul was aware separately of its plight. Then the female half of the soul, dashed on by unreasoning forces, was swept and tossed into the portals of warm human flesh, and sinking there into red-darkness, assumed the posture of the embryo, while its desolation melted from it with the rest of its memories, the residue of its incorporeality. It slept.
The male portion of the soul, swirling with its anguish, was wrapped within the womb of a black flower. The Eshva, this prize in his hand, listened attentively at the gate of life. And somewhere he heard a woman’s lament begin, a woman wailing at the still-birth of her child.
The Eshva darted through the unworld on to the earth. He rushed through air, erupted out of it upon an empty plain where thin sheep were grazing, and there, in a stone shepherd’s hut, he found the woman sobbing on her bed, while the husband stared in the wicker cradle at his unliving son, born dead a few minutes before.
The Eshva smiled, standing in the doorway.
“I must bury him,” said the man. “He would have been a fine boy. Hush, my wife, there is nothing to be done.”
The Eshva laughed—soundlessly.
The man looked up in alarm, in rage.
“Who dares mock human sorrow?”
The Eshva came into the hut. He brushed the lids of the man’s angry eyes with his fingers so they fell shut. He breathed on the woman so she lay back, quite drugged with the deliciousness of his breath. Then the Eshva went to the cradle, opened the baby’s mouth and crushed the black flower within it. The male half of the soul was shot into the child’s body like juice squeezed from a fruit.
The Eshva scattered the bruised petals of the black flower upon the baby’s now breathing body. The baby began to bellow and cry.
As the shepherd and his wife opened their eyes in amazement, a black dove flew from the hut.
* * *
Bisuneh’s child was born. How beautiful it was. It grew each day more beautiful, each year more beautiful. A girl child, slender as a stem, white skinned, her mother’s hair of pale primroses yet paler still—the ghosts of primroses—eyes like grey pools between dark silver rushes.
How beautiful the child was. And yet, how strange. She did not speak, she did not hear what was said to her, at least, she would not speak, would not hear. Her tongue and throat were sound, her ears were sound, also her eyes, though often she would appear blind, staring at a void, walking silently past the hand of the mother or the grandparents or the friends. not from malice, but as if she truly did not see . . . Poor child, poor Shezael, Bisuneh’s daughter. Was she a half-wit or a cripple? Was she possessed?
“I know where the evil has come from,” said Bisuneh listlessly.
No one spoke of it. No one chided her or assured her it was not so. Once or twice a traveler had come from the rocky hill roads, and recounted tales of strange howlings and moanings and rumblings from a steep gully or a deep cavern.
“The child lives, but she does not know me,” said Bisuneh. “When she is older I will enter some sisterhood of priestesses. I have no use for this existence of mine.”
Bisuneh had become more withered and more plain as the years went by. As if in contrast, the child bloomed and shone. If the child had loved her, Bisuneh might have healed from her wounds, but beautiful Shezael, the half-souled, stared at a void and walked by silently. Fifteen years Bisuneh waited. On Shezael’s name day Bisuneh kissed her old weeping father farewell, and kissed the forehead of the beautiful child, and went away to a far desert. Here, in a fane of stone she ended her days, a shaved priestess of a grim unloving order.
Shezael perceived her departure without giving any sign.
She saw this only as she saw all else, like movement through a screen, something unrelated to herself. Hers was the female portion of the soul, the negative portion of passivity and stasis, of the obscure and inconclusive, which, unbalanced by the masculine counterweight all other souls possessed, produced this utter inertia.
The grandfathers were both old, two old scholars, unworldly, troubled. They would not live much longer. Maybe they should wed Shezael to some kind youth who would not mind her—she was unusually beautiful, and many would be glad of a silent wife.
* * *
Across three lands, mountains, quantities of water, the stone hut stood upon the hill and the thin sheep tugged at the unwilling grass.
The shepherd’s wife washed garments in a narrow stream. She kept one eye for the sheep and for the boy. He was supposed to be watching the sheep, this son of hers, but she could not trust him. Something might distract him, he would leap up with a sort of fury, fling a stone into the air for no reason. His temper was violent. He was brash. He would crush a butterfly, unthinking, beneath his fist; he had slain two of the precious flock one day, by beating their heads together with enormous force, and braining them. It was not from cruelty, it was a strange insensibility, a kind of blindness. The shepherd’s wife sighed. Who did not know her son was addled, and also violent? Mad Drezaem they called him in the village. Since his eleventh year, the men had been afraid of him, and the women ran when he came near. They would have liked to murder him for sure, the villagers, if they could get at his back, but he was too strong and too quick for them, his instincts sharper than a fox’s though his mind was dull. Yet they would slaughter him like a mad dog if ever they got the chance, and he only fifteen and, despite his wild ways, as handsome as a prince.
The shepherd’s wife sighed again, looking at her son. He was still now, but it would not last. And that hair of his, so fair that it was like the color of the silver-grey bark of particular trees, and the unnerving beautiful eyes of him like hot bronze, and the strong brown limbs of him lithe as a leopard’s—and he was as destructive and unpredictable as one. For the third time, the shepherd’s wife sighed. She did not think of the adage of that district that declared: When a woman sighs three times, it bodes ill for someone.
The boy was staring, animal like, alert for nothing in particular, tensed to spring at shadows. To Drezaem, the world was a jungle, he knew neither fear nor law. When he harmed a thing he would feel the brief surprise of regret, but it never lingered. His thoughts were always racing. He must leap this way and that to keep up with them. He loved to fight or to couple, straightforward, brutish deeds. Some nights he would rise with the moon and run till he dropped—a long while—over the burned barren countryside. He had learned to swim as a dog learns, by falling in water. He had learned nothing that did not come as easily and suddenly as that river.
His was the male portion of the cloven soul, the positive portion of action and volatility, of the flagrant and the unswerving which, unbalanced by the female counterweight all other souls possessed, produced this unmitigated ebullience.
Abruptly there came the alarming note of the big ram’s horn, sounded from the village only in times of urgency.
The shepherd’s wife started up, flustered, did not move, only called for her husband. Drezaem, however, roused by the clarion, vaguely aware of its significance, was already bounding towards the village.
There was a new sight in the street there, to be sure. One hundred men in armour of shining bronze, soldiers of the king of the land, and a plumed king’s messenger in silks and gold.
The messenger read from a scroll. He spoke of danger, loyalty, death and reward. He spoke of the king’s decree, that the ten bravest, most vigorous youths from every town, and the single bravest and most vigorous from every village be sent forthwith to a certain mountain beyond the king’s capital, there to offer themselves in combat with a dragon. Already five hundred youths had perished, but no matter. The king’s magicians foretold that a champion should finally come who would slay the frightful beast. Then should vast riches be heaped upon him. In any case—the messenger here gestured to his brazen escort—to refuse to provide the required young man would be to invite disaster.
To Drezaem most of the speech went unheard, the threat unrecognized. But he grasped the words ‘combat,’ ‘dragon,’ ‘vigor.’ He was about to rush forward when he found the men of the village had already seized him and were offering him frantically: “This is the bravest one, no doubt of it—slew a wolf in the spring, tore it apart with his bare hands—look at his eyes! Crazy to fight and to kill.”
Drezaem laughed. The captain of the soldiers beheld his fine white teeth, his hard body, his eyes like a lion’s. Usually there was reluctance and trouble, this made a pleasing change. Within a few minutes the soldiers had marched off, Drezaem with them, running freely behind the messenger’s horse. By the time the shepherd and his wife arrived in the street, the dust had settled, and their son was lost to them for good.
* * *
It had happened like this. The mountain that lowered seven miles beyond the capital of the king was old almost as earth itself, and a molten cauldron lay at its core, though snow crowned its peak. One night the mountain stirred in its millennial sleep, and stirring, woke another thing that dwelt there. The dragon also was old, old nearly as the mountain. It came of that menagerie of villainous perverse things left over from the beginnings of time. The color of the dragon was scarlet. the color of blood, but its mouth and tongue were black; even its teeth were back, though adamant as ossified wood. It had two short horns, and the bone at the tip of its tail was bare, as were the bone ridges along its spine. Yellowish, ugly, naked bones they were, too, sharp enough to split a man, which they had frequently done. It was the length of four stallions, snout to hindquarters, the tail an extra.
It emerged on the fertile mountain slopes, among the groves there, and the obnoxious breath of it destroyed the trees, and the animals which came in its way. Where it passed it left a trail of blackened, twisted, unrecognizable litter. It ate men. It needed a man for every day of its life, a strong tall man, juicy and young. It needed heroes, or, at least those forced to imitate heroes.
The king did not actually believe that any would ever come who could destroy the dragon. The conscripts he sent to the mountain were fodder, a bribe, to keep the dragon from his city. If a day arrived when all the available peasant youths had been devoured, then the soldiers of the king would have to pick marked chequers from a dish, and whoever the chequers elected would have to go to supply the dragon. Thus, the soldiers worked diligently to find heroes among the farflung hovels and cots of the land.
Some were dragged screaming or insensible to the city, shovelled on to the mountain clad in ill-fitting armour, died with only a squeak or a curse to mark their passage. Some went roaring, puffed up with bravado, believing the lying prophecy meant themselves, till the dragon’s teeth met in their vitals. Now a different kind of hero entered the city gates. He did not speak, he laughed, jumped to wrestle a dog, struck at a bird in the air. He did not stare at the splendor of the metropolis, did not narrow his eyes at promise of reward. He turned impatiently from the armour they showed him. He pointed at the mountain, grinned and raised his brows in query. They conducted him, and he raced all the way, galloping over stones and chasms, whooping, to meet the dragon. The soldiers stared, a couple wept. The dragon coughed on the slopes, and the soldiers hid themselves.
It was the heat of the day, and the dragon was drowsing among a wood of dead trees blasted by its breath. As things had turned out, it had found a man to eat already, a murderer who had been driven up on to the mountain by a vengeful crowd. So the dragon was not hungry or alert, not looking out for a meal, though still dangerous enough.
Suddenly the dragon heard an odd clamour. Not cries of terror or bellowings of challenge, but a clear merry yelling, quite out of keeping with the slopes as they had become.
The dragon yawned, and belched lively, and looked about.
Between a gap in the blasted trees a wild youth appeared. He was neither crawling nor swaggering, he was not armed or dressed in armour. The dragon was used to three reactions in men at the sight of itself. The first reaction was to run, the second to fall prone and senseless, the third was to advance cautiously, muttering threats, sword lifted.
But the youth with the greyish fair hair and the blazing eyes did none of these things. Just as the dragon was lazily bestirring itself, lumbering to its feet, the youth came running, took a huge flying leap, and landed square on the dragon’s forehead at the narrow point just between its two stubby horns and the area where its jagged backbone commenced. This was not stratagem on the leaper’s part, purely instinct, the bald spot being the only feasible place to land.
The impact jarred the dragon’s brains. It shook its head. Drezaem, again from instinct only, grabbed the dragon’s two horns to stop himself from falling off, and at once the fierce thrilling pleasure of violent action surged through him, and he began to pull and strain with all his considerable young might at what he held.
The dragon bawled. Its foul poisonous breath gushed out—missing Drezaem who was perched above and behind it—while its odor sent him giddy, thereby maddening him further. He was fifteen, but of unnatural strength, a strength reinforced and made positively supernatural by his lack of fear and finesse. He hauled upon the ugly bone protuberances and, in another moment, had snapped and uprooted them from their sockets.
Black blood gushed from the two ghastly wounds, blinding the dragon. It boomed with agony, a discomfort increased by the fact that Drezaem was now using the dislocated horns to beat it over the skull.
Roaring and blind, the dragon burst from the wood, and ran head-on into the side of the mountain, which broke its neck for it.
Drezaem was flung off but was soon on his feet again, rattling the horns together insanely and jumping back and forth over the dragon’s back.
Hearing these unusual noises replace the more usual ones of the dragon tearing its victim limb from limb, the king’s soldiers eventually stole timidly up to see.
When they discovered the outcome of the fight, they banged their shields together, and carried the dragon’s corpse and Drezaem shoulder high to the city. Indirectly, this wondrous half-wit had saved their skins too. They meant to make him a hero indeed.
The king was surprised but not displeased that someone had slain the dragon after all. As his soldiers had foreseen a day when all the peasants would be used up, so the king had foreseen a slightly more distant day, when everyone—soldiers, peasants, courtiers—would also be gone, and only he left to flee the monster’s hunger. At the prospect of fulfilling his decree, however, he was not pleased. To heap treasure upon an ignorant clod, and an imbecile to boot, was not to his liking. However, he noticed the steely glint in the eyes of his soldiers, how his captains’ hands rested on the hilts of their swords. There had always been another possibility in regard to feeding the dragon; that his loyal army might revolt. The king perceived he had best give in.
He showered gold and precious stones upon the young madman, who grunted, toyed with them, put a pearl between his teeth and laughingly cracked it. The soldiers scowled at the king. The king led Drezaem to a mansion in the grounds of his own palace. He showed him the scented fountains, the peacocks. At last the king opened a door of ivory, and revealed twenty-five lovely maidens clad in rainbow gauzes through which their limbs and breasts gleamed like silver.
“Ah,” said the king, “I see we have made some progress.”
The maidens gave faint shrieks as Drezaem burst among them, but they were well taught. At least he was beautiful, if rough and impetuous.
Drezaem became the king’s champion. He did not really know what he was. He was only aware that there was endless carnal delight to be had beyond the ivory door, mountains of food upon his table, and a continuous supply of men to fight.
Several champions from foreign parts were sent against Drezaem. Always some monarch thought he could do better. A saffron giant came from the north, tall as two men together. He swung Drezaem aloft, but Drezaem grasped the giant’s wrists in an impossible grasp, using both arms and legs for the work, and ground them till the giant screamed for mercy. A grey giant came from the west, but Drezaem ran round him in circles till he howled, at which Drezaem jumped for his throat and throttled him. When there was a battle to be fought, Drezaem would race before the captains, without horse or armor, and then throw himself upon the enemy with blood-curdling happy yells, wreaking destruction on every hand.
Sometimes he was wounded. He never noticed till he fell down from loss of blood. He was so vital, however, that none of these hurts incapacitated him for more than a few hours. As for his women—there were a hundred now—the ivory door swung open and shut all day long and all night when he was home, and when in the field, pretty girls were dragged from their parents’ care to satisfy the king’s champion.
The soldiers revered him.
“What matter if he never speaks, what matter if sometimes he flies into a sudden rage or fit, knocking over wine jars, flinging tables in the air? Look at his fine muscles and his clear eyes, look at that ivory door opening and shutting! My, he is a champion and no mistake.”
He was seventeen. He looked like a god, acted like an unpredictable animal. Yet, even in his rages, he seemed joyous, overbrimmed with life.
One day a minstrel came by the camp. The king’s army had fought a battle, and won. The king’s champion was in his gold embroidered tent with three squealing wenches.
The minstrel sang for coppers. He had seen a girl in a far City, a strange dumb girl with silver eyes and ghostly primrose hair; he sang of her, for she had struck his fancy. He was a dreamer and somehow had come to the truth without guessing it, for in his story he called her—as poetry merely, an invention—the half-souled.
The soldiers, sentimental after the battle, liked the song. Imagine their astonishment when the flap of the champion’s tent was flung wide, and the unmusical champion came forth, his face desolate and his eyes streaming tears.
Without a sound, he fell to his knees before the minstrel.
They were all afraid, as if at a portent. The champion wept, but did not seem to know why he wept. No one dared question him, in any case anticipated no reasonable reply, for he never spoke. Presently the champion raised his head and, seizing the minstrel’s little harp, he tore out its strings. And then, with an awful wordless crying, he ran away from the camp into the empty plains that lay beyond it.
* * *
Shezael had continued a virgin, unwed. Despite her beauty, her oblique wits deterred suitors. Somehow, they were afraid of her. Had she not been born of a cursed marriage? Few knew the facts of Bisuneh’s wedding night, yet rumor abounded—the bridegroom had mysteriously died, but of what, and for what reason, seeing he had been healthy and youthful? No, the taint, whatever it was, must have passed to the daughter. Best let her alone.
Sometimes she would sit in the window of her grandfather’s house. The old man was slow and tired. Alarmed at the cost, he paid a servant woman to be the escort of Shezael, to purchase and mend her garments, and take her to walk about the city by unfrequented byways. This servant was good natured, but a guardian watchful for the safety of her charge. Sometimes she would lead Shezael to the temple, and would pray there for the girl to be healed of her bizarre affliction, while Shezael would gaze expressionlessly at the blue tinted air.
Three months after Shezael had become seventeen, the servant woman took her for one of these unsatisfactory visits to the temple and in the holy place they came on the wandering minstrel they had met there half a year before. He appeared to be thanking the gods for his safe return to the city, but when he saw the servant and her charge he hurried up to them.
“Were I but a rich man, did I but lead a settled life,” said he, “I would wed this maiden gladly. Though she is bedimmed, she is more lovely than a lotus.”
“Be off,” said the servant, but she did not mean it. The minstrel, for all his roguish trade, was no rogue, but gentle and amiable. Presently they sat to talk in the temple porch, while Shezael stood gazing at the clouds, the flowering trees, the ocean.
The minstrel told his adventures. How he had sung in poor inns and busy markets. Of the robbers who had beset him but let him free in exchange for a song or two, seeing they were starved of culture and he mostly penniless, of the wonders of a town where the richer streets were paved with slabs of jade, and another town by a lake where trained birds could imitate all manner of noises, barking dogs and lowing cattle and tinkling bells—yet could not sing a note. Last, he told her of how he had made a song about the sad beauty of Shezael (the woman scolded him, looking pleased), and rendered it in the war camp of a king. “And then,” declared the minstrel, “a young madman strode from a tent and snatched my little harp and tore loose all the strings. What a thing, you may say,” said the minstrel. “But there is worse, for I have had to fashion a new harp. When I restrung the old, I found the seventh string was tangled with a single long hair from the madman’s head—a hair of fine greyish blond, near enough the color of the string itself. Try as I might, I could not get this single strong hair free from the seventh string of the harp. And now, listen.” And taking the instrument from his pack, the minstrel plucked all its strings, one after another. Six had a clear sweet tone, but the seventh, where the single hair was tangled, groaned.
The servant clutched his arm. “Ah! Throw it away! The harp is possessed.”
“Wait!” whispered the minstrel, “look at the girl.”
Shezael had turned. Her face was changed. Intent and serious, she stared at the harp, her eyes focused, her lips parted. And suddenly she laughed. Not a fool’s laughter, the laughter of sheer joy, which there is no mistaking. Then, coming straight to the minstrel, she lifted the harp from his unresisting hands. Turning about once more, Shezael began to walk away, as if at last she had learned the road home.
The woman was alarmed. The minstrel was curious, moved, yet not amazed. He had half expected something of the sort, had come every day to the temple for a month, meaning to meet Shezael and her guardian for the purpose of proving some weird magic he had sensed in the air.
That night, Shezael placed the harp beside her bed. It was the narrow bed her mother, black-fated Bisuneh, had slept in. Shezael did not disturb the strings of the harp, but she looked at it till her eyelids fell shut.
Her existence had been like a dream, her dreams sometimes more acute than her existence. Now she dreamt with a vivid clarity. She became another.
She was a shepherd boy, she had killed a wolf, no, it was a dragon. She was a king’s champion, she slew giants. She was called Drezaem. She was a youth, tall, sun-burned, handsome, with eyes of bronze. She was a warrior, yet she fled into the empty plains. She lay near dead in the cruel heat of the day. Sometimes she roared and moaned and wept from an intolerable, inconsolable sense of loss she did not understand.
Shezael woke as the sun woke, her cheeks wet with tears, without sorrow.
She rose and dressed herself. She smiled upon the garden from the window. She plucked a rose and left it on her grandfather’s knee where he slept in his chair, a chrysanthemum and left it on the pillow of the sleeping servant woman.
Shezael knew her path as if she had read it from a map.
She took the path unhesitatingly, without a second thought. Hers was the female portion of the soul, obscure, sensitive to occult things.
The path led her through the morning city, through the tall gate, along the highway, into the wide world.
* * *
She knew her way by instinct, yet blindly. She had not foreseen or reasoned that it lay across three lands, a range of mountains, many wide rivers, a great lake. Neither was she conscious of dangers or necessities. She set forth without provisions of any kind. She set forth as the metal pin flies to the magnet, the tide to the beach, for she had never possessed human logic or caution, obscure Shezael. Only the tug of her lost half-soul drew her.
She left the city and the sea behind, and quickly came on a deserted track. Night fell and Shezael did not heed it. When she grew very weary, she lay down and slept on the bare earth, and started up at the first ray of dawn and went on. Several days she walked, without food, only once or twice pausing to drink when a stream ran beside her path. A growing weakness barely impinged on her thought, but at length she could go no farther.
It had happened that a slave-dealer had chosen this track to reach the nearest town. His men found Shezael lying by the roadside, and set up a clamour. The slave-dealer called them off. He liked the look of the girl, who would make an excellent pleasure-slave. He forced broth between her teeth and lifted her into one of the carts.
It was a journey of four days, and took the route Shezael must in any case have traveled. Perhaps because she sensed this, Shezael neither cried out nor attempted to evade them. If she was aware of her captors, it was only as a helpful agency, bearing her towards her goal.
They reached the town. The market ran up into rich streets lined with white mansions, and every fourth paving stone was made of green jade. The slave-dealer set Shezael on a rostrum. The bidding began quickly, but tapered off as the buyers noticed the girl’s peculiar emotionless staring. At length a young nobleman stepped forward.
“This girl is witless and dumb. Anyone can see.” The slave-dealer remonstrated. “Then tell her to speak,” said the nobleman.
This the slave-dealer did, loudly, and to no avail. The crowd of potential buyers began to mutter and turn away. The dealer raised his whip, but the young nobleman caught his arm. “No matter. I have too many chattering women in my house as it is. I will buy her.”
Money changed hands and documents were signed. The nobleman led Shezael to his chariot. When they reached his mansion, he conducted her inside, and showed her a marble room hung with rose velvet, and had slaves bring her food and wine.
“This chamber shall be yours. These slaves shall be yours. I set you free, you shall be my beloved, but I will not own you.” The nobleman took Shezael’s hand. “I heard of you in a song, a maiden with such hair and eyes. But can you be as the minstrel said, ‘half-souled’?” As it transpired, it was not only in the king’s war camp that the minstrel had sung his song of Shezael.
Shezael had been gazing about her, gradually becoming more agitated with the need to away. Yet, when the nobleman spoke those words, she looked at him with a terrible profundity. The nobleman realized he was in the presence of another’s destiny, and so forceful was this aura of fate that he could not withstand it.
When she walked from the room, he did not stop her, but he accompanied her. “You must not leave here as you came,” he said. “Clearly you are making a journey of great need, but to travel alone will put you in the way of danger again. Come, I will give you my chariot and the three white geldings that draw it and a groom to drive them, and bread and drink so you shall not starve.”
All this was done. The nobleman, as if in the grip of a spell, did not regret the loss of his coins, only of Shezael, and her he did not hinder. He swore the groom to protect her also. The three white horses tossed their heads.
“Which way must I go, mistress?” asked the groom.
But the nobleman said: “She looks towards the mountains—go that way. And do not return to me till she is safe.”
The chariot journeyed swiftly. It raced along ancient tracks, and crossed the mountains in two days by the wide pass. But in the valley below robbers beheld it.
A bow twanged. The groom pitched over the rail, dead from an arrow in his breast; a robber jumped into the chariot, seized the reins and checked the horses. Another seized Shezael: “Here is a fine treasure!”
Next the chief of the robbers came. He cuffed them aside, and lifted Shezael in his arms and examined her. Eventually he said: “This is the witch-girl the minstrel sang of,” and he set her down gingerly. Instantly she turned and began to walk away, leaving the chariot, the dead groom, the dumbfounded robbers. Superstitious, they did not go after her. They had a robber-god which they worshipped in a cave. His creed declared: “For every fifty travelers robbed and slain, let one go free. The gods care for excess in nothing.”
Shezael came to a broad rushing river. The ferryman caught her back from the brink.
“By my life, you cannot walk on the water, lady. I must ferry you across, and you must pay me.” But, looking in her eyes, the ferryman said: “Why, you are the maiden the minstrel sang of. You shall be ferried for nothing.”
The next river had a bridge. Fruit trees grew along the track now, and berries, which sustained the wandering girl, for she plucked them absently, as she had been taught to pluck the figs from the tree in the garden of her grandfather’s house.
Shezael passed, unseeing, through five villages. In the fifth, a woman ran and brought her a loaf: “You are the maid in the song. Good fortune go with you in whatever you are seeking, for surely you are magic.”
She had crossed into the third land, over mountains and waters. She passed along a road, and would have seen, if she had looked, the king’s capital shining in the distance and, seven miles beyond it, the snow-capped mountain where the dragon had eaten men, and perished at the hands of Drezaem.
Finally Shezael entered a town on the shores of a vast lake. Here on the quay, beside the silken water, an old lady was slowly walking up and down with her servants, and on a golden leash she led a green bird, which now and then would bark vigorously.
“I see a child with beautiful hair,” said the old lady. “In a moment she will fall in the lake. Go, one of you, and bring her to me.”
Shezael was brought to the old lady with the barking bird.
“Yes, as I thought,” said the old lady. “She is the maiden of the minstrel’s song. And truly, I believe she is half-souled, as he said. Can it be she is searching for the other half? Well, she shall have a boat to aid her over the lake. Go under the auspices of the gods, my child. And beware the snares of night.”
Thus Shezael came over the lake and reached the empty plains where Drezaem wandered in his melancholy anger.
* * *