87. The Patron Saint of Bastards

“Thank you, Father.” says Inglorion.

There’s an awkward pause. Inglorion is waiting for Father Nate to go, and wonders if it will be necessary to dismiss him explicitly.

Finally Father Nate says, “Look, Inglorion. Much of my ministry has been of a practical nature. You’re in a tough position, maybe worse than you know. I’ve held livings all up and down this mountain range. I know the area. The weather’s shifting. It will be shitty and cold in Liamelia. Here, halfway up the mountain, you’ll have snow and ice. This is Gypsy territory — none of these roads are maintained. The passes will freeze, and won’t be able to get so much as a carrier cart up here for love or money.”

“Believe me, I know.” He looks up at Father Nate. “The slaves don’t know it — they’re not from around here. The Gypsies do. It’s why they left. The mayor and the Council of Elders are aware of our situation. I think — I’m afraid — we’ve been hung out to dry. I don’t have enough cash to hire wagons and drivers, and I’m not sure we can spare a day for someone to ride to Liamelia and draw on their bank. No sane ostler would send carriages and post boys up here. It’s risky — basically a rescue effort — and there’s a real chance of infection. It would take a week to round up carts and drivers, and I don’t think we have that long.”

“So you do know.”

“It’s all I think of. If it snows, we’re soundly fucked. I’ll be lucky to get a handful of people out alive — anyone who came in healthy.”

“I may be able to help. I know the Gypsy tribes up here. They’re all smugglers. They move people and goods through here for a living. They’ll be reluctant to work with a foreigner, and they won’t like the lack of ready cash, but I might be able to talk them into it.”

“What would that entail?”

“There are two tribes I’d approach. Both camp at higher altitudes, near the main passes. You’ve have to come with me. For the Gypsies, business relationships are personal. They’d need to see you, shake your hand. It would take a full day, perhaps less.”

“How soon can we leave?”

“Anytime within the next few hours. I can claim hospitality with either tribe if it gets close to nightfall. If we can’t strike a bargain with either tribe, I’d go back to your original plan — send someone to Liamelia for cash, canvass the farms nearby to round up enough carts and drivers.”

Inglorion tells Aramil, Virginia and Sextus to start packing up and preparing people to leave. “Don’t disturb anyone who’s bedridden, but stow anything you can. If we return with caravans, we’ll leave no later than daybreak the following morning; either way, we’ll have to start evacuating in two days.”

Within the hour, Inglorion and Father Nate are trotting up the highway, Inglorion riding Paris, and the priest astride a handsome chestnut gelding. After following the curve of the mountain for an hour, they leave the highway for a switchback trail. As they gain altitude, the cold becomes steadily worse. Once they reach the ridge, they’re exposed to a vicious wind. The trail consists of rock and scree, and even sturdy, sure-footed little Paris seems uncertain — his ears twitch as he scrambles and slides along.

After two more hours of frankly nerve-wracking riding, they reach the foot of a sheer rock face. The path is so narrow and uneven, forcing them to dismount and lead the horses. Inglorion has long given up thinking in distances. The only measure of progress is time. By now, the sun is low in the sky, hidden behind a nearby peak. Father Nate looks at the horizon periodically, gauging the weather, the sunlight remaining. After another half-hour of mincing along between a sheer cliff wall and a drop-off, they turn into a gully that widens out gradually. There, in the narrow pass between a handful of stone spires, a dozen Gypsy caravans are drawn up in a circle. Smoke pours from the caravan chimneys, but the doors and shutters are closed. Instead of the familiar scattering of gardens and stray chickens, there’s a cluster of shaggy draft horses, blanketed and huddled together against the cold.

They hobble the horses, and approach the lead caravan. Father Nate bangs on the door. There are chinks here and there in the shutters where the slats are being held apart. Inglorion can see eyes, fingers, patches of fog on the window from the observers’ breath. The door opens a crack. Inglorion hears Father Nate bargaining with the occupants in low tones. Finally a gypsy man opens the door and steps back, allowing them to enter.

It’s cramped inside. There’s the man who let them in, whom Father Nate introduces as Karl, two younger men who look to be his sons, and two women crowded by the fire: An old woman, fragile, wooden-faced, apparently deaf, and a much younger one with a baby at her breast. A handful of children, all under 10, are lined up under the window. In the corner nearest Inglorion, just opposite the door, there’s an elaborate shrine equipped with rows of icons and a cluster of flickering votives.

Karl and Father Nate plunge into a string of elaborate inquiries about mutual friends and acquaintances. The young men join in occasionally; the women remain silent, behaving as if the men aren’t present. The children occupy themselves by whispering, giggling and wrestling. The two oldest stare openly at Inglorion with expressions of open-mouthed wonder and disgust, much as you might regard a gravely injured unicorn. The Gypsies assume that Inglorion doesn’t speak Romany, and Father Nate hasn’t told them otherwise, so he’s entirely an observer. It seems safest to ignore the womenfolk and children, so he turns his attention to the shrine. He loves such things — the smell of wax, the outsized heat of the brightly burning votives.

The icons are painted on wood, ranging from an inch or two square to the size of a playing card. He feels it would be rude to move closer, but he studies them eagerly from a distance. Though the faces are idealized, they seem to represent individuals in stylized poses. There’s something very powerful about the deep pigment, touches of gilt, and unfamiliar — and therefore mysterious — semiotics. The blaze of candlelight forces him to squint, and to tilt his head this way and that. 

As he’s looking, the old woman snatches up an icon, examines it, nods briskly, threads her way over, and holds it up for him to look at. She’s tiny, so he has to bend over, tilt her hand so that he can pick out the image. It must be in shades of blue and purple, because to him it looks dim and muddy except for a curlicue of pale yellow. She keeps nodding and holding it up, and clearly expects a reaction. He grins in the silly, teeth-baring way that people use when deprived of a common language. When he glances back from her face to the tiny panel, it resolves into a face. It’s Tereus.

He grasps her hand again, tilts it back towards the flickering light, strains to confirm his impression. They bob their heads and grin for another moment or two, then Father Nate calls out to Inglorion in Elvish.

They’ve reached an agreement. He explains the terms, which are surprisingly moderate. Inglorion shakes the man’s hand. Their host claps his hands, and the old lady scampers to brew little cups of bitter, spiced tea, and to fetch a package of biscuits from a high shelf. As they’re snacking, Father Nate says in an undertone, “We’ll stay here tonight, and leave at first light. They’ll follow later that day, and will be in place to start the following morning.”

Inglorion is briefly flooded with optimism, almost giddy with it. It’s an anticlimax to be shown where they’ll sleep: A compartment in a trailer given over to storage, among bolts of cheap cotton and flimsy tea-sets. It’s bitterly cold — there’s no stove — though the presence of a numerous and lively family of mice suggests that it’s survivable, and preferable to the outdoors. Once they’ve set up their bedrolls, and Inglorion’s removed his boots and sword belt, and carefully arranged his cloak about him, Inglorion finds that  he’s reasonably snug. The Gypsies were able to replenish his supply of tobacco, so he smokes a cigarette, and is perfectly cheerful.

Once Father Nate has completed a series of evening prayers employing strings of beads and something he calls the Book of Common Prayer, Inglorion says, “I’d never seen an icon before. Are they like saints? How does one get to be one?”

“They’re analogous to saints,” says Father Nate. “I’ll admit I don’t fully understand either the artistic convention or the theology behind it. And I suspect that tribes in these parts play by house rules. The Orthodox don’t have parishes in these parts.”

“I ask because the old lady showed me one that looked exactly like my father.”

“Your father?”

Inglorion remembers that the priest isn’t a Liamelia native. “My father was General Field Marshal Tereus Shelawn.”

“No kidding,” says Father Nate. “I’ve heard of him, of course, but I wouldn’t know him to look at.”

“He was quite the celebrity until peace broke out. I’m his natural son. It seems odd a human tribe in the North Mountains would pray to him.”

The priest shrugs. “I’m sure they distinguish it from prayer, call him an object of meditation or contemplation. Perhaps he’s a Saint Michael-type figure to them, an avenger of the innocent. Are you sure it was him?”

“Pretty sure. He was wearing this cloak, for one thing. The old woman showed it to me — took me aside, kept staring at me and grinning.”

“How was he depicted?”

“No sword or baton. Just standing there with a halo, beckoning and smiling.” An expression of dismay crosses Inglorion’s face. “Oh, God — that fucker probably knocked up a score of Gypsies.”

The priest gives one of his rare smiles. “That explains the price. Family discount.”

Inglorion looks skyward and says, “Let it be noted: On November 2, 1826, I, Inglorion, Marquis Theates, received my Shelawn inheritance: Fifty percent off my first instance of human trafficking.”

“As usual, God’s timing is impeccable.”

“Why, yes! Nice to know my old man was a fellow saint in the Augustan tradition. Do you remember what became of Augustine’s son? I don’t.”

“Baptized, died young. Plague, I think.” 

“Discreet of him. They should have made the poor fellow the patron saint of bastards.” Inglorion winks. “Good thing I don’t aspire to sainthood.”

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