Authors: Jack Vance
Tags: #Fantasy, #Masterwork, #Fiction, #Fantasy Fiction, #General
“One moment.” Orlo found a twig, which he split with knife, then cleverly caught the pearl in the cleft. “In such matters, one cannot be too cautious. Already today we have seen the fate of two who have avidly seized the pearl.”
“I do not want it,” said Sir Tristano. “It is yours.”
“Impossible! Remember, if you will, that I am vowed poverty! Or, better to state, I am reconciled to the condition
Sir Tristano gingerly picked up the twig and the two of them returned to the Blue Ox where they once again sat down to their refreshment. “It is only just noon,” said Sir Tristano. Today I had planned to set out along the road to Avallon.”
“I am of the same inclination,” said Orlo. “Shall we ride together?”
“Your company is most welcome, but what of the pearl?” .. Orlo scratched his cheek. “Now that I think of it, nothing would be simpler. We will walk to the pier, and drop the pearl in the harbour, and that will be the end of it.”
“Sound thinking! Bring it along, then.” Orlo squinted down at the pearl in distaste. “Like yourself, am made queasy by the sultry gleam of the thing. Still, we in this affair together, and fairness must be observed.” He pointed to a fly which had settled on the table. “Put down your hand beside mine. I will move first, then you must move, as much or as little as you wish, but you must go always at least beyond my hand. When the fly at last departs in fright, whoever moved his hand last shall carry the pearl.”
The trial was made, and each man moved his hand according to his best reading of the fly’s emotion, but eventually, the fly took alarm at Sir Tristano’s sudden move and flew iaway.
Sir Tristano groaned. “Alas! I must carry the pearl!”
“But not for long, and only so far as the dock.” Sir Tristano gingerly lifted the end of the twig and the two crossed the square to a vacant place on the dock, with all the Skyre before them.
Orlo spoke: “Pearl, farewell! We hereby return you to that salt green element from which you originated. Sir Tristano, cast away, and with a will!”
Tristano tossed twig and pearl into the sea. The two watched as the gem sank from view, then returned to their table. Here, clean and wet, they discovered the pearl, directly in front of Tristano’s place, causing the hairs to rise at the back of his neck.
“Ha ha!” said Orlo. “So the thing has decided to play us tricks! Let it beware! We are not without resources! In any event, sir knight, time has not come to a halt and our way is long. Take up the pearl and let us be on our way. Perhaps we shall meet the archbishop, who will be grateful for a gift.”
Sir Tristano dubiously looked down at the pearl. “You then advise that I should carry this object upon my person?
Orlo held out his hands. “Would you leave it here for some poor wight of a serving boy?”
Sir Tristano grimly split another twig and took up the pearl in the cleft. “Let us be on our way.”
The two men procured their horses from the stables and departed Dun Cruighre. The road led first along the shore past sandy beaches pounded by surf and, at intervals, fisherman’s hut. As they rode they spoke of the pearl.
Orlo said: “When I reflect upon this strange object, I seem to detect a pattern. The pearl fell to the ground, where it belonged to no one. The pickpocket seized upon it and so it became his. You stamped on the pickpocket’s wrist, and in effect wrested away the pearl and took it into your own custody. But since you have not touched the pearl, it cannot work its magic upon you.”
“You feel, then, that it can cause me no harm unless I touch it?”
“That is my guess, inasmuch as such an act would represent your intent to partake of the pearl’s evil.”
“I expressly deny any such intent and I hereby state that any contact, should it occur, must be considered accidental by all parties to the incident.”
Sir Tristano looked at Orlo “What is your opinion of that?”
Orlo shrugged. “Who knows? Such a disclaimer may or may not dampen the evil ardor of the pearl.”
The road turned inland and presently Sir Tristano pointet ahead. “Mark the bell-tower which rises so high above the trees! It surely signifies the church of a village.”
“Undoubtedly so. They are great ones for churches, these Celts; nevertheless they are still more pagan than Christian. In every forest you will find a druid’s grove and when the moon shines full they leap through fires wth antlers tied to their heads. How does it go in Troicinet?”
“We do not lack for Druids,” said Sir Tristano. “They hide in the forests and are seldom seen. Most folk, however revere the Earthgoddess Gaea, but in an easy fashion, without blood, nor fire, nor guilt. We celebrate only four festivals: to Life in the spring; to the Sun and Sky in the summer; to the Earth and Sea in the Autumn; to the Moon and Stars in the winter. On our birthdays, we place gifts of bread and wine on the votive stone at the temple. There are neither priests nor creed, which makes for a simple and honest worship, and it seems to suit the nature of our people very well… . And there is the village with its grand church, where, unless my eyes deceive me, an important ceremony is in progress.”
“You are observing the panoplies of a Christian funeral,” said Orlo. He drew up his horse and slapped his leg. “A notable scheme has occurred to me. Let us look in on this funeral.”
Dismounting, the two men tied their horses to a tree and entered the church. Three priests chanted above an open coffin as mourners filed past to pay their last respects.
Sir Tristano asked in a somewhat anxious voice: “Exactly what do you have in mind?”
“I conceive that the holy rites of a Christian burial must effectively stifle the evil force of the pearl. The priests are uttering benedictions by the score and Christian virtue hangs thick in the air. The pearl must surely be confounded, absolutely and forever, when surrounded by such a power.”
“Possibly true,” said Tristano dubiously. “But practical difficulties stand in the way. We cannot possibly intrude upon this mournful rite.”
“No need whatever,” said Orlo in a jaunty fashion. “Let us join the mourners. When we reach the coffin I will distract the priests while you drop the pearl among the cerements.”
“It is at least worth a try,” said Sir Tristano and so the deed was done.
The two stood back to see the coffin lid closed down on corpse and pearl together. Pall-bearers carried the coffin to a grave dug deep into the mold of the churchyard; four sextons lowered the coffin into the grave and, amid the wailing of the bereaved, the coffin was covered with sod.
“A good funeral!” declared Orlo with satisfaction. “I also notice a sign yonder which betokens the presence of an inn, where perhaps you may wish to take lodging for the night.”
“What of yourself?” asked Sir Tristano. “Do you not intend to sleep under a roof?”
“I do indeed, but here, sadly enough, our paths diverge. At the crossroad you will bear to the right, along the road to Avallon. I, however, will turn to the left and an hour’s ride will bring me to the manor of a certain widowed lady whose lonely hours I hope to console or even enliven. So then, Sir Tristano, I bid you farewell!”
“Orlo, farewell, and I regret parting with so good a companion. Remember, at Castle Mythric you will always be welcome.”
“I will not forget!” Orlo rode off down the street. At the crossroad he turned, looked back, raised his arm in farewell and was gone.
Sir Tristano, now somewhat melancholy, rode into the village. At the Sign of the Four Owls he applied for lodging and was conducted up a flight of stairs to a loft under the thatch. His chamber was furnished with a straw pallet, a table, a chair, an old commode and a carpet of fresh reeds.
For his supper Sir Tristano ate boiled beef, served in its own broth with carrots and turnips, with bread and a relish of minced horseradish in cream. He drank two tall mugs of ale and, fatigued by the exertions of the day, went early to his chamber.
Quiet held the village, and a near-absolute darkness, with an overcast cloaking the sky, until close on midnight, when the clouds broke open to reveal a sad quartering moon.
Sir Tristano slept well until this time, when he was awakened by the sound of slow footsteps in the hall. The door to his chamber squeaked ajar, and footsteps told of a presence slowly entering the room, and approaching the pallet. Sir Tristano lay rigid. He felt the touch of cold fingers, and an object dropped upon the cloak which covered his chest.
The steps shuffled back across the room. The door eased shut. The steps moved away down the corridor and soon could be heard no more.
Sir Tristano gave a sudden hoarse outcry and jerked up his cloak. A luminous green object fell to the floor and came to rest among the reeds.
Sir Tristano at last fell into a troubled sleep. The cool red rays of dawn, entering the window, awakened him. He lay staring up at the thatch. The events of last night: were they a nightmare? What a boon, if so! Raising on an elbow, he scrutinized the floor, and almost at once discovered the green pearl.
Sir Tristano arose from his bed. He washed his face, dressed in his clothes and buckled his boots, at all times keeping the green pearl under close surveillance.
In the commode he found a torn old apron which he folded and used to pick up the pearl. With pad and pearl secure in his pouch he left the chamber. After a breakfast of porridge with fried cabbage, he paid his score and went his way.
At the crossroads he turned right along the road toward the Kingdom of Dahaut. which at last would take him to Avallon.
As he rode, he cogitated. The pearl had not been content with a Christian burial, and it was his until it was taken from him, by force or subterfuge.
During the early afternoon he came into the village Timbaugh. A pack of cur dogs, barking and snapping, raced out to warn him off, and only desisted when he alighted from his horse and pelted them with stones. At the inn he paused for a meal of bread and sausages, and as he drank ale an idea entered his mind.
With great care he inserted the pearl into one of the sausages, which he took out into the street. The dogs came out again to chide him, snarling and snapping and ordering him out of town. Sir Tristano cast down the sausage. “There it is: my good sausage which belongs to me and no other! I seem to have misplaced it. Whoever takes that sausage and its contents is a thief!”
A gaunt yellow cur darted close and devoured the sausage at a gulp. “So be it,” said Sir Tristano. “The act was yours and none of my own.”
Returning to the inn, he drank more ale, while turning over the logic of his act. All seemed sound. And yet… . Nonsense. The dog had exercised a thieving volition. To the dog must now fall the problem of disposing of the pearl. And yet …
The longer Sir Tristano pondered, the weaker seemed the rationale which had guided his act. A persuasive point could be made that the dog had thought of the sausage as a gift. In this case, the transfer of the pearl must be considered Tristano’s rather crude subterfuge, and not in any way a bonafide theft.
Recalling his previous attempts to be rid of the pearl, Sir Tristano became ever more uneasy, and he began to wonder in what style the pearl might be returned to him.
A tumult in the street attracted his attention: a horrid howling, wavering between shrill and hoarse, which caused his stomach to knot. From along the road came the cry: “Mad dog! Mad dog!”
Sir Tristano hastily threw coins on the table and ran out to his horse, that he might depart the village Timbaugh in haste. He took note of the yellow dog, at a distance of a hundred yards, where it bounded back and forth, foaming at the mouth, meanwhile roaring its opinion of the world. It launched itself at a peasant lad who trudged beside a hay-cart; the boy leapt up on the hay and, seizing a pitch-fork, thrust down to pierce the dog through the neck. The dog fell over backward, and shaking furiously as if it were wet, bounded away, still trailing the pitch-fork.
An old man trimming the thatch of his cottage, ran inside and emerged with a long-bow; he nocked, drew and let fly an arrow; it drove through the dog’s chest, so that the point protruded from one side and feathers from the other; the dog paid no heed.
Glaring up the road, the dog took note of Sir Tristano, and fixed on him as the source of its travail. Moving at first with sinister deliberation, head low, one leg carefully placed before the other, it approached, then, halting and moaning, it lunged to the attack.
Sir Tristano jumped on his horse and galloped away down the road with the dog, baying and groaning deep hoarse tones, coming in hot pursuit. The pitch-fork fell from its neck; it closed in on the horse, and began to leap at its flanks. With sword on high. Sir Tristano leaned low, and slashed down, to split the dog’s skull. The dog turned a somersault into the ditch, quivered and lay watching Sir Tristano through glazing yellow eyes. Slowly it crawled up from the ditch, sliding on its belly, inch after inch. Sir Tristano watched fascinated, sword at the ready. Ten feet from Sir Tristano the dog went into a convulsion, vomited into the road, then lay back and became still. In the puddle it had brought from its belly the green pearl gleamed. Sir Tristano considered the situation with vast distaste. At last he dismounted, and going to a thicket, cut a twig and split the end. Using the same technique as before, he clamped on the pearl and lifted it from the road.
In the near distance a bridge of a single arch spanned a small river. Leading his horse and carrying the pearl as far from his body as the length of the twig allowed. Sir Tristano marched to the bridge, where he tied his horse to a bush. Clambering down to the stream, he washed the pearl with care, then washed his sword and wiped it dry on a clump of coarse sedge.
A sound attracted his attention. Looking up, he discovered on the bridge a tall thin man with a narrow face, long bony jaw, high broken nose, and long sharp chin. The tall crown of his hat, wound with red and white ribbons, advertised the profession of barber and bloodletter.
Sir Tristano, ignoring the keen scrutiny from above, rolled the pearl in a pad of cloth and tucked it into his pouch, then climbed back to the road.