Chapter 16: A Little Too Auspicious
Thunder began to abate as rain slowed to a drizzle. Within Prester John’s yurt water dripped from their clothes as Galen stuffed scavenged wood to the central hearth. The machine-woman almost stood within the fire itself, her teeth chattering audibly. Everyone else stood shoulder to shoulder, for little room remained within an enclosure filled with chests. Women glanced to one another, and Galen caught his uncle’s eye; for no-one knew what to think upon this night. The Prester was dumbfounded! Again! Only hours before he had spoken with a mysterious man claiming to be a scribe, yet John believed he was none other than the Archangel Raphael. Was this another being from a Thirteenth Yurt arriving from the far side of the cosmos? Some folk considered them an illusion, like the Magyar sentry, but the Magus had seen otherwise. He knew the experience was real enough—crude naphtha clung to his boots.
Subdued light within the yurt could not hide the machine-woman’s features, her blue eyes—no less blue than a clear night’s sky—and likewise the metalic blued limbs. Vishpala believed they were a sign, the color of sacredness, affixed upon a woman not from this transitory earth but sent by good gods divine. She is from an unknown future, perhaps here to help us.
Galen studied the woman’s arms, the joints double-cogged. They are artificial, moved by machinamentum. Yet she is living flesh. At his side, Vishpala broke silence, her thoughts returning to the hard-nosed world, “She is freezing and needs a blanket.”
“Yes, of course!” returned the Magus, thinking of Raphael’s statement—“sent by the Master himself”—while Uther grabbed a bed-roll, handing it to her.
The woman nodded, wrapping the doubled blanket around her body. She surveyed the men, looked straight at Prester John, and asked, “You are their leader, the brother of Kriegor?”
“Yes I am,” he acknowledged, “My name is Prester John. And you are?”
“Valeriana, Librarian of Antioch,” and she corrected herself, “Former librarian.” She held her hands before the hearth as if flesh, and continued, “Now they call me the Blue Bitch. Appropriate, I think.” She raised her arms, “These are strengthened by a truss hinged over my shoulder blades,” and she patted an upper leg, “I have a metallic hip replacement.”
“Yet your body is flesh?” inquired Vishpala, “Let us move to the fire’s warmth.” She sat, inviting the woman to do likewise. Warriors dropped to sit cross-legged around the hearth, including Sun Tzu, while Prester John and Uther sat with legs tucked to one side.
Valeriana crouched to the warmth for a moment, leaned back, and unwrapped the blanket to tap her body, “This is armor, a shell hinged at the crotch,” and she fingered one of the latches at her shoulders, “They unsnap. I remove it while inactive and before sleeping.”
“Then you are human,” affirmed the Prester.
She gave a hard smile, “Yes, where it counts. My brain moves my limbs, just as it always did. They’re reconstructions by a team of scientific men,” eyeing Prester John, “You are a Magus, perhaps familiar with their work—Archimedes, Herophilus, Erasistratus, Democritus, and Galen the physician,” and she leaned to the fire again, “I’m not accustomed to dampness. You obviously know where I come from.”
“The men you mention went to Hades centuries ago,” surmised Galen.
“But you are alive, I can tell,” blurted Vishpala, still fascinated by the woman’s limbs, “And your arms and legs are perfect, like works of art.”
Valeriana’s half smile vanished, “Courtesy of Bishop Flavian and his henchmen. They are replacements sculpted by Praxiteles and move by solar and atomic energia.”
“Atomic?” quizzed Sun Tzu.
She tried to explain, not entirely sure herself, “Atoms are the smallest particles, objects that cannot be divided further. They are equidistant and surrounded by a void. But if disturbed by an outside source, they collide and produce energia. Everything is made of atoms compounded into different structures, from the hardest to the most fluid—close-locking as in rock and metal, or looser, such as flesh and water.”
The Serican remained puzzled, “But how are they disturbed?”
“From a power capsule with double chambers. Small amounts of energia are produced as negative pulses. These flow through wires—the most conductive being gold—and travel to the positive side of the capsule. As the pulses travel, they disrupt atoms and cause a response, because the atoms cannot realign themselves quick enough. They hit each other with ever greater force, producing larger amounts of energia through controlled reaction, and the speed of it is instantaneous.”
Prester John sat amazed, silent. Atomic energia? He was a Magus and alchemist, yet never had he known of such powers. This woman was incredibly intelligent, perhaps more so than himself, a person who descended to Hell and came back unique. She held secrets beyond those of any other person! Yet he could only wonder, “Why are you here?”
She acknowledged them all as she spoke, “I could use some decent food. Only those sitting here know what I am,” and she held out her hands, “The others believe they saw an apparition, a blue spirit. If I had decent clothes and a different helmet, I would like to live as normal a life as I might,” then pinning the Magus straight in the eye, “Why did I come? You know the prophecies of John the Divine? Then know I am the seventh star you have waited for.”
And thus they talked into the night, as dragons stilled and the rain ceased. Valeriana told them all she knew of the impending attack. Sometime around midnight, they decided a few hours of sleep would be beneficial, if possible. Temporarily Valeriana would rest in the women’s yurt, but Prester John promised that upon the morrow he would split women’s quarters into pairs, claiming he would move to a command tent yet to be built. He just babbled on, all exited, describing the things he needed—buckets and spigots for collecting pine pitch, more buckets for raw naphtha, blacksmiths to create the spigots, mud-brick kilns to fire clay pots and amphorae, and basket weavers to create large saddlebags. All of these things he deemed incredibly important as the warriors eyed him with trepidation. What was he talking about? Naphtha? Pine Pitch? Amphorae?
Later that night in the women’s yurt, sleep eluded Vishpala and perhaps the other three. She had watched Valeriana remove her armored shell, stripped down to a tight-fitting cotton liner. Around its edges, she could see the scars. Ekhida had gasped, and Amanirena turned her back, perhaps repulsed. Steel appendages attached to a human body produced repugnance; for Valeriana appeared non-human, a dark product of a grisly experiment. Such a beautiful face and pristine hair that swept to mid-back. Yet never would a man touch or even look at her without revulsion. Valeriana was a virgin and would remain one.
Vishpala arose, stoking the hearth with three pieces of wood, to again crawl under her blanket. She listened to the machine-woman’s breathing, not the long breaths of sleep but quieter. How could this woman repose softly, innocently with eyes closed, and drift off to dreamland. No. Valeriana had countless ghosts tucked in her past; and at this very moment, now that the rain ceased, the supreme ghost—Daemon, her former master—would be screaming in anger. Valeriana lived a nightmare. And nothing would change for her until the demon was vanquished. Once again, Vishpala rolled upon her side, yet she could not close her eyes. She knew about iron appendages, ugly barriers between reality and happiness.
Galen’s yurt stood a few paces away, not far from the women or his uncle. Once again the hearth died to embers as he rolled to his side beneath the blankets. He was unsure of the machine woman’s intent. She might be sincere or planted within the Grail camp by Daemon as a spy. His uncle appeared not to suspect it; yet the Prester was too trusting, a man living in partial fantasy. The blunt fact hidden in a great title—Ruler of the Seven Hidden Kingdoms—was a lordship over nothing but dirt. The “kingdoms” were “hidden” within a huge swath of saw-grass and desert extending from the Great Wall to the Black Sea. They equaled an empire in size. Prester John “allowed” nomadic tribes to live within them, the Ughars, Avars, and Ephthalites, yet he gifted them with “subsidies,” monetary stipends to keep them under check and presumably “loyal.” What need had they for a Palace of Knowledge or a garden housing pear trees? The Seven Kingdoms were in equilibrium yet constantly changing with tribes moving here and there in search of pasture-land. Other than a comfy palace, an extensive library, and an overly-large mirror, the Kingdoms were theoretical, an old family tradition of assumed importance. Fortunate for his uncle, the tribes respected the historical position of the Magi.
Galen rolled to his other side, pulling the blanket higher. Only weeks before, he was known as The Horsebreaker. Life was simple then. He could ride in total freedom, not so much physical freedom as it was subjective. Now he had to live up to a standard set not by his uncle but as perceived by the Grail Warriors, a captive of war and his position in it. Absolutely no options. Upon the field of the morrow, he would have the task of avenging his father’s murder, to “kill” his uncle Kriegor, a man already dead.
He had no idea where Czaba was, yet hoping the Magyar would return in the morning. The man’s charge—leader of eight tribes—was his excuse for not becoming a Grail warrior. Strange that only days after Czaba’s refusal, this machine-woman strolls into camp through a thunderstorm and calls herself the seventh, an episode beyond bizarre, worse than a Greek comedy. Never in a million years could a drunken fabulist, even if doped-up on poppies and cannabis, imagine a real breathing machine woman. And atomic energia? You had to consume more mead than a bear could swallow to dream that one up. It even paled Uther!
Ah yes, Uther the famed Roman general and his family sword Tyrfing. Galen was no expert in foreign languages yet he knew the name was Germanic, for they had a god called Tyr. Uther Pendragon had an undisclosed past, just like Valeriana.
And what of his uncle? He wondered about the Prester’s sanity, the man wide-eyed and babbling about alchemic ingredients, claiming they were sitting on a mother-lode of raw oil. Something was amiss, a little too auspicious. He would keep a tight eye on a self-proclaimed Seventh Warrior. Tomorrow will determine which side she’s really on.