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Authors: Richard; Clive; Kennedy King

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BOOK: The 22 Letters
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“Who wants to steer north?” Nun scoffed. “It's a region of monsters and barbarians. But if I wish to steer west for Crete, I follow the Little Dog?”

“Ah, but only for the next hour. Then, you must look for the stars of the Hydra, the Virgin, and the Serpent as they come down to the horizon before you. And following them will be the Water-Bearer, the Fish, the Whale, and finally, the Giant Orion.”

“I must remember all that?” Nun mused. “Hydra, Virgin, Serpent, Water-Carrier, Fish, Whale, and Giant? Follow them, and they will always lead me westward from Gebal to Crete?”

“Aye, but only at this time of year, in the Dog Days. See, to the South, the greenish eye of the Great Dog Star. The sun is between the houses of the Bull and the Heavenly Twins, so the Dog is above the horizon.”

“What a busy life these heavenly creatures lead!” exclaimed Nun. “How shall I ever follow their comings and goings?”

“What I have so far told you is simple,” said the astrologer. “You must also learn the sequence of the sun's travel through the houses of the Zodiac, some of which I have mentioned, and others such as the Ram and the Crab, the Goat and the Lion, the Scales, the Scorpion, and the Archer. And you may wish to know the constellations of the North, the Lyre and the Swan, and of the South, such as the Ship which voyages over unknown seas well down on the southern horizon, as you can now see. These all contain the stars that are fixed.”

“I am glad to hear it. They are always there to see, then?” asked Nun.

“They may rise and set like the sun,” said the other. “And their position in summer is different from their position in winter. But the case of the wandering planets is more difficult, though we can tell their paths among the other stars with reasonable certainty.”

“That must be a great comfort to you,” said Nun, unable to restrain his mockery. “But the only path I wish to know with certainty is that of my ship.”

The Chaldean ignored the interruption, and continued: “But then there are the comets and meteors whose paths no man can foretell and whose significance puzzles our understanding. For the direction of a ship by night or of a line of march over the desert is nothing compared with advising a king in decisions of state, or reading the meanings of celestial conjunctions which may foretell events far distant in time and space. And it is for this that I have been sent with you to the most western point of the civilized world. Something is going to happen which concerns the House of the Bull, and as you must know, both Babylon and Crete are much concerned with the Bull. A little before dawn the constellation of the Bull will be in the heavens. That is one reason I wished to be at sea—there is often mist and cloud near land at that time.”

“An appointment with the Bull!” Nun exclaimed silently to himself. “So it is for that he wants to risk my ship!”

But the Chaldean seemed to read his thoughts. “Be not anxious,” he smiled. “If the stars can guide great empires, surely they can steer your little ship through the night.”

So the night passed, with the Chaldean patiently pointing out the constellations and Nun repeating their names, and the same with the greater individual stars, Altair and Deneb and Alphecca and Dubhe and Algol and Mirfak and Aldebaran and Betelgeuse. The watching sailors looked with awe and suspicion at their captain in deep confabulation with the mysterious stranger, and Nun had to detach himself from his studies now and then to see that the look-outs were awake or to give another star to the steersman to steer by; but he could feel already that this new knowledge was giving him power over his men. And he was so captivated by his lessons that he quite forgot he had not slept. But at last he noticed that it was his tutor who seemed to be losing interest, and was gazing fixedly over the stern of his ship.

“The lesson is finished for the night,” said the Chaldean. “The Bull is rising in the East, and I have my calculations to make.” And not until then was Nun overcome with a great weariness of body and mind, and having given the steersman a last star to steer by until dawn, he stretched himself out to sleep and dreamt of wandering among the Houses of the Virgin and the Twins, and encountering the Serpent and the Scorpion along the Milky Way.

He did not sleep long, but when he woke the sun had risen astern, the easterly breeze still drove the ship through the blue waves, and all around was an empty horizon. Some of the crew were sleeping after having kept the night watches, but those who were awake turned their eyes toward him, with the unspoken question written on their faces: “Where are we?” They looked expectantly at him, as if awaiting new steering orders or adjustments to the sail—but Nun could think of nothing to do but keep driving westward. Indeed, he began to regret the absence of his newly made friends, the stars. The great blazing sun was comforting to see, but the higher he rose in the heavens the less helpful he was in keeping direction. Nun looked at the Chaldean, peacefully sleeping now that the stars were gone, but decided not to wake him. He took some breakfast, doing his best to look more confident than he felt, and told the boatswain to find the crew jobs such as splicing cordage and scrubbing planks to keep them occupied.

All day the ship drove on, and all day the Chaldean slept, but now Nun took comfort from his presence and told himself that all must be well if his learned passenger slept so peacefully. At noon the sun rose so high that the masthead seemed to strike at it as the ship rolled to the port side, and all Nun could do was to keep the wind astern and draw as straight a furrow as possible through the blue sea, trusting that the wind was not playing him tricks but was still coming directly from the East. And after noon, when most of the crew were lying around forward, resting in the heat, the boatswain came aft to Nun and spoke to him quietly.

“Captain, you're running into danger,” he said.

“Danger?” Nun repeated. “The sea's wide and clear of rocks, the sun shines and we've a fair wind. What's this talk of danger?”

“I daresay there's no danger in the sea,” said the boatswain. “Not for me to say you don't know where you're going, sir, you and the foreign gentleman. But it's the crew, sir. The men aren't happy, not seeing land for a night and a day. They say we're being driven west to barbarian lands, or worse still heading for the brink of the world, where the water goes over the edge. They want to know where they are.”

“Tell 'em they're at sea,” said Nun curtly. “That ought to be enough for them. If they don't like it they should have gone for soldiers or woodcutters.”

“Aye, sir,” said the boatswain, still troubled. “Trouble is, there's some of them
aren't
sailors, and never will be. I tell you, sir,” and the boatswain's voice lowered to a husky whisper, “it's the big fellow, Quoph, that's the troublemaker. He's no seaman, best of times. Been a soldier, but thinks sitting in a ship's an easier way of getting around than foot-slogging it through the desert. Now he's wishing he'd never left shore. Him and some of the others are saying they'll make you turn round and go back to land.”

“Do they think I can turn the wind round too, so they can sail back?” asked Nun scornfully.

“They say they'd rather row, than sail the devil knows where,” replied the boatswain.

“Tell 'em never mind what the devil knows, their captain knows where he's going,” said Nun angrily. “And I'll alter course when I see fit, not when they do.” The boatswain looked at him, as if still uncertain that the captain did know where he was going, but said no more and went forward again. Nun looked after him, saw him speaking to a knot of men, among whom he recognized Quoph, the monkey-faced ex-soldier, saw the boatswain leave the group and the rest of them continue to wave their arms in argument. Then he saw Quoph coming aft down the ship toward him. A few steps behind him was a small group of men, looking equally surly but not quite so bold.

“We're going back to land,” said Quoph roughly, halting at the beginning of the poop deck.

“Good-bye,” said Nun, just as curtly, leaning lightly on the steering oar and eyeing the waves. “Enjoy your swim!”

Quoph flushed angrily. “We're not joking,” he growled. “Turn the ship round!”

Nun noted Quoph's rising rage, and also that the rest of the group were hanging back. I can deal with this one alone, he thought. Aloud he said: “No ignorant soldier gives orders here. I'm in command.”

“If you won't turn, we'll make you,” Quoph snarled. He pulled out a copper seamen's knife from his dress.

If I provoke him, he'll rush me with the knife, thought Nun, judging the lift of the swell from astern. He turned to Quoph, and putting all the contempt he could into words, sneered, “Get forrard, you scabby ape!”

That did it. Red with rage and without looking to see if he was followed by his supporters, Quoph launched himself with a shambling run across the deck. At the same instant Nun put all his weight on the steering oar. The ship yawed, a swell from astern caught her on the quarter, the deck tilted, and Quoph's rush took him straight over the ship's side into the sea. Only then did Nun hesitate for a second, seeing a coil of rope lying handy by the bulwarks. But his second thoughts made him pick up the coil and fling it toward the man floundering in the water. Quoph grasped the bare end and hung on, Nun took a turn round a post with the other end and held it, then turned to the other members of the crew who were still holding back at the other end of the deck.

“Your friend would rather swim home than stay with us,” Nun called to them. “Anyone else like to join him?” The men shook their heads.

“I'll let him go alone, then?” asked Nun, letting the rope run out a little round the post as he turned the steering oar again and put the ship back on course.

“Save me, save me! I can't swim!” came the plaintive voice of Quoph from the sea. The ship was moving so fast through the water that it was all he could do to keep hold of the end of the rope.

The men flinched as the line ran out, but one of them muttered, “Best let him go. He only makes trouble.”

“The rest of you are content to stay with me and obey orders?” Nun asked them.

“Aye,” said another man. “Reckon you care for your own skin too. We'll be better off with you than with that ape on the rope's end.”

“Right,” said Nun, making his end fast. “I'll get you there and back, never fear, if you do what I say. As for our shipmate here, he can follow us for a bit if he wishes.” So while the men went back to their stations and he settled the ship back on course, he left Quoph trailing astern, his cries getting more and more waterlogged. When at last he gave orders for him to be hauled aboard gasping and trembling, there was nothing left in him but seawater and the despairing resolution that had kept him grasping the end of the rope. Nun saw that Quoph would cause no more trouble.

Then Nun perceived that the Chaldean was awake and watching him.

“Congratulations, Captain,” said the passenger. “I see you are a man of courage and resource.”

But Nun felt a burst of anger toward this man who had got him into the present situation. “Thank you,” he said curtly. “But where are we?”

“I was about to ask you that,” the passenger said calmly.

Nun took him by the arm to the side of the ship, away from the seaman who had now taken over the steering, and spoke low but angrily. “You don't know where we are?” he expostulated. “After all your magic with the stars! Perhaps the men were right, and I should have thrown
you
overboard.”

“Be calm, Captain,” said the Chaldean mildly. “This is a matter of mathematics, not sorcery. If your ship were a camel I should know how far we had traveled in a day's march over the desert, but I must confess that this thing of wood and rope and canvas is strange to me. Let us reason calmly. This passage, coasting along the mainland and the Isle of Cyprus, takes you how long, usually?”

“Four days.”

“And that is going north a little, and south a little, and sleeping in haven every night?”

“Yes.”

“We have been at sea for a day and a half, with a good following wind,” mused the Chaldean. “Even so, we can hardly be nearing Crete yet, let alone the edge of the world.”

Nun was torn between feeling irritated at his passenger's air of superior intelligence, and being soothed by his calm approach to the crisis.

“Let us wait till sundown again,” said the Chaldean. “Maybe the stars, or perhaps the moon, will tell us a little more about where we are, and maybe we shall alter course to the North, and to the islands.”

Then darkness came again, the stars reappeared, and the Chaldean noted the height of some of them over the northern horizon. He observed the rising of the moon, and questioned Nun closely about the running of the ship. Then he was silent for a while, and Nun was aware of things going on inside this stranger's head that were quite new to him. Calculations, to Nun, were a matter of fingers and toes or pebbles, or beads on strings; but the stranger seemed to be able to perform them instantly.

A little before dawn, as they still forged ahead on the same course, the constellation of the Bull rose again astern, and the Chaldean gazed at it in rapt contemplation. At last he spoke, and his voice seemed troubled by uncertainty, but his instructions were clear.

“Captain,” he said. “If you were to alter course now toward the sign of the Lyre, by noon next day we should sight the islands.”

“Is this sure?” Nun asked. “You sound doubtful.”

“Finding the islands is a little thing,” said the sage. “The doubt arises as to what we shall find when we get there. I must confess that I am troubled. Some great disaster is what the stars foretell, but what its nature is I cannot make out.”

“My men will be happy enough to see land,” said Nun. “Disasters can take care of themselves. If what you say is the quickest way, we'll alter course.”

BOOK: The 22 Letters
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