“Mistakes by Moonlight”

I had a fantasy series about medieval Spain (Hesperia, al-Andalus, Iberia, or Sepharad) in mind for a long time (which in my case is always redolent of years in the partially conscious cellar of ideas). A one-week trip to Morocco back in the mid-Eighties may have been the original trigger to these thoughts that surged and subsided over the next several decades.

Suddenly, one day in late February 2010, sitting at a teacherʼs desk, substituting, I pulled out my big red notebook and began actually writing (with pen in hand, literally). Since I wanted to focus on Sepharad, my hero had always been Jewish, a Kabbalist whom I originally named Nathan but have redubbed (it would have been just so wrong to have said “rechristened”) Judah (so far). For years that idea never went much beyond vague thoughts — no characters, no plots, and although I would like to write off a prolonged vacation to the Iberian peninsula, no focused research, and therefore no concrete results (although there was one poem…).

His companion, Søren, started life as one image, not quite a whole scene, in my mind, of a Northman/barbarian in a seaside tavern, log-walled, on a dark and stormy night. Søren was always his name, probably thanks to Kierkegaard, the name being the only thing this big barbarian would share with the philosopher, being otherwise probably too closely drawn from the standard Conan mold. He was going to be the star of his own series of never-quite-baked sword-and-sorcery tales. The itch to start writing in February 2010 resulted from my suddenly putting the two characters together. Now all I have to do is avoid Fafhrd-and-Gray-Mousering them…

I posted several essays on writing and revising this story. The ones that matter are here and here.

the infamous Sepharad story

I

britannica.com — an alley in Toledo, which is not the city in the story

As the big man turned the corner of the two dark alleyways, the noises that had drawn his interest resolved into definite sounds of a skirmish, as suddenly a voice cried in the native tongue the Northman was yet struggling to master, “Ajudame!” Help me. He couldn’t understand what followed; indeed with all the harsh gutterals it didn’t seem to be the same language.

Only starlight and a waxing lunar crescent illumined the blackness of this dead end, but the big man made out four or five dim figures closing on the solitary shadow that cried again for aid.

The giant Northerner had been in the city for eight days, gradually growing more desperate. He had sought out the Duke’s military immediately, offering his considerable services. But his thick accent and limited supply of the local tongue, Aragon, along with the Duke’s newfound preference for soldiers less imposing of stature and mostly Arabic by descent, left him rejected. He had little enough coin remaining and found his supply completely depleted before nightfall a day later. Since, he had wandered, seeking some kind of employment fruitlessly, gradually working his way into worse and worse sections of the city, surviving by stealing infrequently food from stalls in the markets, even from homes left illsecured by night — infrequently successful, as a seven-foot sneakthief is merely a contradiction in itself. He slept on the streets, catlike in his barbaric awareness of danger, confident his very size intimidated local hoodlums and muggers.

Without hesitation, the near giant tossed his long yellow hair behind his head and right shoulder as his right hand dragged the old three-foot sword from its scabbard on his back, and he rushed forward into the mêlée.

In an instant the blade crushed through the neck of one man and with some difficulty twisted off the spine to rebound against the skull of a shorter neighbor, spraying blood. Both went down without a sound. Immediately the big manʼs left fist rang on the ear and jaw of a third assailant turning to investigate why one of his fellows had fallen. Two others — there were five — continued their assault on the sole victim, who, however, perceiving instantly that the forces had somehow evened, rose brandishing a vicious poniard, which he thrust at the rightmost of the duo while dancing himself into the space not occupied by the three dropped by the blond giant. The former victim screamed some anguished words in the harsh language the barbarian did not know. Neatly the Northman pivoted to pierce the fifth man directly into his chest. Five were down.

The little screamer now turned savagely at his savior, eyes blazing in the darkness, bearded lips writhing with violent syllables. The blond man stepped back, aware something was wrong with the smaller fellow, who shouted now a raucous, coughing sentence — gibberish to the northern ears which had learned to accept and understand many new tongues in his long wandering. The poniard point danced in the vague illumination, and the Northerner began to fear he would have to put down the man he had arrived to rescue.

The victim glared up at the big man — his face distorted, eyes deranged — and leapt at him as at a foe. But in that instant the mad light in the dark eyes of this unexpected adversary wavered and dimmed. In midair his expression altered, a new look on his suddenly slackened face, puzzlement on his brow, and he dropped his aggressive arm and landed in a strangely defeated pose, breathing raggedly.

The man glanced uncertainly away, noticing the five bodies, and he stepped back again, his blade lowered, defenseless. He looked from corpse to corpse. One groaned softly.

“You saved me,” he panted, speaking Aragon again, his head jerking from the blond man to the bodies to his bared blade and back to the Northerner. “Not one of them. —My …apologies.” He sounded breathless.

Carefully, the savior phrased a question. “Should they all… —sleep …forever?”

The victim, a little guy, although everyone seemed small next to the blonde giant, grunted, “What?”

“Uhh,” the Northman hesitated, the word for kill escaping his combat-fevered mind, and mimed plunging his sword at one of the groaning bodies, saying, “Muerte?”

“Dead,” the other echoed. “— Kill them? …Don’t bother. Let nature take its course.” The small guy bent low, wiped his blade on a stilled attacker’s tunic, so the Northerner cleaned his own weapon on a cloak beside the still-moaning figure. “And we’d better disappear quickly before anyone comes this way.” The little man started out of the cul-de-sac, changed from all three of his former attitudes — agonized victim, maddened fighter, bewildered stranger. “Come on, big fella, I owe you a drink after —”

Suddenly, they heard noises — a strange stomping shuffle heading down the street toward their position, as of huge men walking slowly and clumsily to find them hiding there. Søren looked around hastily, realizing again there was no exit from this verminous alley but the street entrance where any moment the approaching walkers would appear.

“Hear that?“ the small, dark fellow asked sharply.

“Of course. Don’t you?“ Søren grinned somewhat uneasily.

“Sometimes I hear what others don’t.”

“Trouble?”

“Probably.” The steps were very near. “And thereʼs no way out.”

The Northman’s smile widened. “No? Watch.” He stepped back against the farthest wall, then with three quick running steps leaped mightily overhead, hands high, at the wall beyond the other man. Fingers on both hands scrabbled for a hold on the edge of the parapet a storey above and by main strength he hauled himself upward and out of sight. Very fast.

Then he leaned far out, using his great height, holding one long arm downward to his new friend. “Jump. Grab.” The Jew imitated his rescuer’s running leap and grabbed the arm above the wrist. Søren gripped the otherʼs arm as well and pulled, raising his new companion, almost easily, right up to his own level. The smaller man slipped as silently as possible over the lip of the low wall onto the rooftop. Tensely, they waited in the deepest darkness, crouching behind the barrier of the parapet.

They listened. The steps arrived at the intersection with their cul-de-sac.

The marchers stopped at the alley’s mouth. Silence prolonged. Both men held their breaths, trying to provide no sign of their presence, hoping the bodies lay far enough into the dark to be invisible to these odd newcomers. Time held as still as they. Then the sounds of footsteps resumed, moving away in the same direction they had come. Were they safe? The barbarian risked a glimpse from their perch and briefly perceived, vanishing, two huge figures, which might even dwarf himself. White in the starlit night, like dirty chalk. And they were gone.

“Monsters?” Søren breathed in his native tongue after a few more moments had passed.

“What?” the other asked quietly in Aragon.

“Those… things…” Søren shifted into the local tongue, still with some difficulty.

“What about them?”

“They are like…” and the word eluded him. But he caught a glimmer of recollection, “… giants — made of stone.”

The dark, bearded man made a low scoffing sound, but not with complete conviction. The barbarian added, “I donʼt like them. They seem… unnatural.”

The small man did not want to believe what his new confederate had observed, not sure what such a manifestation of the supernatural might signify. He tried a brave front. “Well, they are gone now. Personally, Iʼm glad. — Shall we get down?”

“Yes. They seem to be safely gone.”

Both men clambered over the wall to dangle themselves and then drop. The big man behaved as if it were nothing, although the former victim fell to his rear from the force of the two-storey fall. Scrambling after a stunned moment upright, he saw Søren bent over one of the dark shapes they had put to the ground, pulling a large red cloak from one of the bodies.

Noticing the curious gaze on him, the Northman chuckled. “Nice stuff. Chilly at night in this hill country,” adding more darkly, “I should know.” He threw the cape over his shoulders, clasping it with the large golden pin attached at the collar. “Nice clasp, heavy. But surely it can’t be genuine gold. Not on alley brigands like these.”

“It, however, looks like it,” the other man said dryly, drawing close. “Congratulations. And you make me realize the slenderness of my own purse.” He rapidly went through the garments of the fallen attackers, acquiring some coins and jewelry, even a chain from the neck of the moaning one. Brusquely, he arose. “Weʼd better be gone from here.”

“I agree. This place has seen too much action for such a rathole at this time of night. Who knows who, or what, else may appear.”

“Too wise, my newfound friend. Better we werenʼt around if anything else shows up. Come with me. I still owe you a drink. For saving my life.”

Søren laughed. “And now, thanks to these,” he kicked at a corpse, “you can pay for it!” He didnʼt believe his new companion needed to know that he had taken care of the one survivor from their encounter just minutes earlier: good tactics dictated no witnesses to tell tales.

His compatriot shook his head and hastened off, out of the dark alley and around the corner, moving away from the direction the strange, large marchers had taken.

The Northerner hurried after him, catquiet for all his size. They passed through twists, turns, dips, stairs — all back ways, all as dark as sin, which led in about a quarter hour to a large wooden door, iron-bound. The small one pulled open the massive portal by a huge iron ring and motioned his towering companion within.

It was a vast multiple-arched room, separated and supported by massive columns, floored on many different levels. The cellar area of the building — reserved as a tavern. The little fellow steered them both across, down, up and up to an isolated table between two outer walls and a column.

“Wine?” he asked, and the Northerner agreed. “Wine!” the little fellow shouted toward the center, where large casks lay stacked in the bottommost spot and busy workers hurried. A large fireplace — low on the far end of the place — provided heat, smoke and food cooking in two large cauldrons. The tavern was mostly empty, with only about twenty drinkers huddled at various tables closer to the fire.

“I be Søren,” the tall one offered.

“Thank you, Søren.” The black-bearded other hesitated around the foreign vowel, but pronounced it successfully. “I figured it was the last darkness for me for certain until your sword — ”

A pitcher and two ceramic mugs clattered onto the table. “Your wine, Jew,” gargled the waiter.

“Add it to my tab, Jaime,” the small one waved him away airily and began pouring the ruby liquid into the vessels.

“Your tab,” snarled the fellow sarcastically, stalking away.

“Jew?” inquired Søren.

“Not my name. My people. You may call me Judah.” He raised his tankard. “To you, Søren. My gratitude. You’re a brave man, a stout companion in a fight with a good sword. I owe you much more than this.”

“I could not allow so many to attack a single man.”

“Most in this city would have joined those bravos.”

“I am not… of this city.”

“Clearly not, my friend. The city is not so large that I could have missed one of your heroic size. Besides you speak Aragon so vilely you must be a foreigner.”

“Aye. You make strange sounds hard for my tongue in these lands .”

“I am sure we would think the same trying your native language. Whence do you come?”

“The North,” Søren answered briefly, waving his hand accurately northward, and poured himself more wine.

Judah chuckled, “All Christendom lies more or less north of Sepharad.”

“My homeland lies north of Christian lands. Though missionaries come to the courts of our kings, we worship our old gods still. One-eyed Othynn guides my way,” he then upended the mug and quaffed the wine in one long draught, “when he bothers with humans at all.”

“A pagan? Truly?” Judah poured them both more wine. “I have heard of your kind, I think, but I never thought to meet one. If you would spare the time, I would learn of your religion from you.”

“You are not a Christian?”

“Precisely. Not.”

“Christians have no interest in our beliefs — except to exterminate them. If you are interested, I guessed you could not be a Christian.”

“Rather the Christians are a kind of Jew, loath as they would admit such.”

“How is this?”

“Their Christ, their god, one of their three-in-one gods, was a Jew, though some say his illicit father was a Roman centurion.” Judah waved the empty pitcher for more drink.

This is a famous medieval tavern (from Prague coincidentally), but it looks appropriate.

Søren was troubled by some of the dark fellowʼs flow of words but felt he understood the gist.

“Roman?” he wondered aloud.

“The folk who ruled these lands, all Christendom and Islam as well, in the ancient days of yore.”

“Long ago? One people ruled the whole world?”

“Not the whole world, Søren, never your lands, I believe, but this whole world around the Inland Sea.”

“How wonderful to learn. You must be very wise indeed, Judah.” Either the wine was working its way with his wits already, or he felt easier with this southern tongue than he had thought.

“Educated perhaps. Nearly all question my wisdom, Søren. But if any of the morsels I have filched from the banquet of learning interest you, my friend, I am glad. It is still too little repayment for my life.”

Another pitcher of wine arrived. “Still on the tab, Jew?”

“Naturally.” Judah poured for them both again. “And bring another, right away!” he called at the surly waiter’s back.

Søren was finishing his cup once again (fifth? like the number of assailants?) and asked, “What was their grievance against you, friend Judah — those five men in the alley?”

Raising a warning finger, the Jew hushed him. “Not so loud. Some things are best discussed not at all.” His dark eyes flashed all ways about, then his dark visage reconsidered. “However, as you are, oh, intimately and mortally involved, you deserve some explanation. Those men evidently wished to prevent me from completing a certain exploit I had undertaken for tonight, I feel sure. Otherwise, they just don’t like Jews,” he finished wryly.

“Exploit?” Søren hesitated over the word, not precisely familiar yet tantalizingly clear as the dark fellow used it. “Should you not be endeavoring to accomplish your project? Do you not waste time drinking with me?”

“Time drinking is never time wasted, my newfound friend,” Judah observed in mock sagacity, “as a by your accomplished guzzling you appear to understand.” They clinked cups sociably. “Besides, that unexpected obstruction you helped with may have changed my mind. I undertook this job more or less as a lark. I wasn’t expecting trouble — not that kind, not that determined.”

Søren examined his newfound companion appraisingly. “Could you use a partner in your caper?”

“If I should choose to complete it — ” Judah checked himself as Jaime delivered a third jug of wine.

“Ottocar says your tab grows uncomfortably large, Jew.”

“To be sure. But Ottocar also knows I am good for it.” The waiter huffed skeptically and stalked away. “Or I will be.” Judah considered a long moment as the Northman poured more wine in each mug. “Friend Søren, would you truly help me in my task?”

“I came to this city, Judah, with but a few coins in my purse. I spent those for meals and lodging, earned only a little more in your Dukeʼs employ before he sent me packing into these inhospitable streets.” The big man began to feel he might be exhausting his store of Aragon vocabulary, but he forged ahead. “For days and days I have searched for employment to secure food for my gut and a place to sleep indoors. I have found none. I last ate a day before I last slept.”

“You haven’t eaten since yesterday? No, the day before. Then we must dine as well as drink.” Judah rose from his seat and roared, “— Jaime! Let’s have two bowls of Ottocar’s fine stew. And bread.”

“And more wine,” Søren added. “—My thanks, indeed, Judah. Now you save my life, though I have endured days without food in my time. But again, what of your exploit?”

“My escapade was not to be, ah, exactly or even slightly within the confines of the law, Søren.” Lowering his voice and both their heads closer over the table, he added quietly, “Indeed I proposed to commit a burglary.”

“Truthfully, I surmised as much. You know your way too well through back streets and alleys. And no honest mission would have drawn a man into that vile turning where those foes had cornered you.”

“Cleverly reasoned, sir. And correct. I was en route to the scene of my robbery, when those five charged at me from the throughway where I was heading. I dodged into that space hoping to outrun them, only to find nowhere to run. Until your fortuitous arrival, I figured my greed and ambition had brought me to death.”

Jaime returned again, hoisting a great platter shoulder high, which he deposited skillfully onto their table, bearing large bowls of thick stew — mostly vegetables with some thin strips of meat — two large rounds of crusty flat bread and two more pitchers of wine. “I anticipate your further thirst, sir,” he addressed Søren, adding to Judah, “but Ottocar says you will pay on your tab before you eat or drink again, Jew.”

“An unfortunately reasonable restriction on his part,” Judah agreed, and as the burly waiter departed, the two fell to their food.

“Good,” Søren grunted after several mouthfuls of savory, spicy concoction. In his pleasure with food, he had accidentally slipped back into his native tongue.

“Pardon me?” Judah glanced up, not quite recognizing the word, and tried a Germanic language. “Did you mean itʼs good, warrior?”

Søren looked slightly apprehensive, then responded in a similar dialect. “Yeah, I spoke in my own tongue which resembles this in some ways. Do you speak German?”

“As well as I can, like you in Aragon. I traveled north and east once, several years ago, and learned over those years I was abroad in Christendom. Languages interest me. I also know Frankish, Romance and Italian — like enough to Aragon and other speeches of Sepharad — as well as some basics of the Slavic tongue.” They were still speaking German.

“Aye. I have traveled myself, obviously. My Frankish works as well as your native tongue here for me, and I gathered Romance as well and three versions of German in addition to most Scandinavian languages among the regions of my birth.”

“A clever man. But my native tongue would be Hebrew and Arabic, the language of my people and of al-Andalus — the southern and larger section of Sepharad.”

“Arabic I must learn yet, knowing only some words now.”

“Do you read or write?”

“I ken the runes of my native tongue, and learned some letters for Christian tongues, although not the rune characters of German, serving in armies for two Frankish princes and lately across the mountains in Provence. I can make out many words but lack skill making the letters myself. I have seen Arabic written, but know naught of such scratching.”

“An educated man of parts, then. Impressive with weapons and with your mind.”

“I assume you both read and write then.”

“I’d be a poor Kabbalist otherwise. I ken Arabic and Hebrew and the Christian letters, though beyond the Romance tongues I only speak German and Slavic.”

“Mayhap you could teach me more Arabic then, little man? Would it be helpful for me to know your language, what did you call it? — Jewbree?”

“Hebrew — a difficult tongue — but strangely like Arabic in many ways…” Judah spooned more stew into his mouth and drank another great gulp of wine. His bright, dark eyes studied the blond man for a few moments. Then he smiled, teeth white between his beard and mustache. “We seem to becoming fast friends, Søren. I hope you can instruct me in Norse and those runes you mentioned. And — sharing this tongue, almost completely unknown in Sepharad — we can speak without fear of others hearing. Would you truly aid me in my illegal quest this night?”

“I have lived outside the law most of my life, Judah. Indeed killing sent me outcast from home long years ago, but a mere stripling. I have survived by my wits and my sword — truly my only possession, although my folk believe such an heirloom belongs not to an outlaw.”

“Shall I tell you, then, of the plot for tonight?”

“Lead on. Explain,” the Norseman assented loftily, pouring yet more cups of wine from the remaining pitcher. “If cash lies at the end, excellent, for we will soon be without drink.”

“A great reward indeed if I can find, obtain and return a certain thaumaturgical charm from the trove of a sorceress who resides in an isolated tower within this crooked section of the city.”

The mention of magic chilled the Northerner’s spine, and he gulped nervously. “I like no magic, Judah, being but a simple warrior and thief.”

“And in that we differ, my new friend, for I practice secret arts myself, being a Kabbalist and a student of mystic sciences of all kinds.”

“Yes,” Søren half-muttered. Now it was his turn to study his new acquaintance. “I had hoped to see no wizards again in my life …though I’d be glad at least once to catch glimpse of a dragon…”

“A dragon, eh? I do not think they exist except in legend, although I have heard in the farthest East there may be such. But no man has traveled so far. Except wizards perhaps.”

“I have met few wizards before, and none have I liked… until you, Judah. But now I wonder…”

“Dark arts there are, Søren, and I know some of such black mysteries, but my training is the Kabbalah, a holy science of the soul and God’s mysteries. It is a skill of letters and numbers for the most part, a study of my native language, which we believe is the Holy Tongue.”

“Perhaps that is why I do not feel about you as I have other mages I have met. But if you go to do a wizardly theft, what good am I?”

“My friend, I have yet to hear of the necromancer that could not be cured by cold steel through the guts. And every wizard’s henchman recognizes the persuasion of a naked blade at his throat. Having seen you fight, I know that you’ll be the the most helpful associate I’ve encountered. Now let’s address ourselves to the rest of this meal and whatever dregs of wine you may have left us and then be off upon a hopefully very profitable business.”

II

Nachmanides — not Judah

Two days earlier, Judah’s most profound calculations were no more esoteric than Søren’s — the lack of wealth in his possession as opposed to the imminent need for cash to pay toward rent and his tabs at various establishments — including Ottocar’s Golden Bull — not to mention Duke Alessandro’s new tax on magicians. In the low quarter where he dwelled among thieves and whores, all his impending debts were payable on pain of death. If he wanted to avoid a premature demise, he needed to acquire some coins immediately. Decidedly not above taking what he needed in dire straits, Judah currently knew of no one not equally mired in poverty to rob, and he had always felt it wrong to reft the poor. The city was well supplied with wealthy aristocrats, but Judah dared not risk burgling estates or palaces as well guarded as theirs, not without assistance. And he had practiced alchemy enough to know the futility of making his own gold, or tempting others to pay him to make gold for them.

“Mad” Judah, they called him — him having been illuminated and in communion with God on his arrival — they also having heard of him by rumor and legend. The crazy Kabbalist, shunned by all true Jews for his insane belief that God spoke directly to him, rejected for his investigations into Islam and his correspondence with certain Christians as outcast as himself. God had mastered him here, overfilling his soul with light and enthusiasm so that he raved, lunatic, in his divine joy. But God had left him, as before, alone and confused in the dark stinks of back alleys, wandering dazed and unfed among thieves and whores.

Having come to himself, discovering he had been robbed, even beaten while out of his senses, he stole for himself some clothes and some fruit. Then he attempted to get work or payment for his knowledge, offering himself to the majordomo at the ducal palace for his skills in medicine, literature, politics and combat. And he’d found a place — a kind of military librarian — for almost two months, well fed and lushly housed, dwelling amidst parchments and paper — his true love — until rumors began to spread again, and the lord heard scandals of Mad Judah’s history. Then out into streets again, afraid God’s overwhelming presence would rise up, descend on his soul again.

He had come north seeking both advantage and knowledge — as he had years before gone out through this region, across Frankish lands and German duchies to distant Prague and back through Italy and the Romance territories, returning home terribly changed, touched by God — as he had once journeyed across the Inland Sea to the Holy Land and Egypt and across north Africa, visiting Tunis, Marrakech, Fez and Iblis before crossing back to Moorish Sepharad to be outcast by his own people for his dubious views and darksome deeds. Seeking knowledge. Wisdom.

Little if any of that commodity to be found here. He had tried to discuss Talmud with the local rabbis, but his reputation had fared more widely than himself, and they had shunned him — reprobate, outcast, seeker after forbidden secrets. No true Kabbalist would even greet him in the streets. From a people, a religion, which treasured, which exemplified community came this lonely, tormented and isolated soul, Judah, the Mad Kabbalist. His own people apparently hated him. Christians were worse: a hardening of soul was evolving, a distrust, even hatred, for those not saved by the crucified miracle man, their so-called messiah — mirroring perfectly the Almohad frenzy of faith in the south. Even the esoteric community doubted him, and he them, sensing florid thinness, shallow ease in their bombastic theories and wellworn mysteries, sneering skepticism of in insights other than their own.

Only one figure tempted him, solitary and aloof herself, thaumaturge, born Muslim, dubiously Christian, clearly fallen from either grace. But fallen into what? She seemed to have found some secrets unavailable to the rest, for pure power like nocturnal lightning played about her isolate tower. And she lived well — consulted by the wealthy and the noble, feared by the common multitude, respected by lawless scoundrels who scavenged all others from their dens in the Blue Quarter, where Judah kept his own now-threatened quarters. But she remained beyond his ken, too, aloof and unapproachable: Larissa the Sorceress.

She intrigued Judah. Fruitlessly. He wondered about her, as he eked out a sad income tutoring a few children until further rumors of his dark reputation worried stodgy, upright parents so he lost that living, child by child. Finally he was spending the small stack of coins he had saved to pay his way homeward once again.

But two days ago, hope had appeared in the form of his least pupil — a dull, surly troll child, son of a medium-time gangster bullying and conniving his way up the informal echelon of power in the Blue Quarter. The illiterate brat came bearing a note scrawled on wellused antique parchment.

“What’s it say, Pedro?” he had asked, knowing the obnoxious dimwit had taken almost nothing from Judah’s instruction.

“You read it, Jew. Youʼre the smart one.” The kid tossed scrap at Judah. “It’s from Papa,” he added archly and fled.

Papa owed him money, not palimpsest, but one such as Judah did not attempt to extort what was legitimately due from one such as Pedro’s papa.

The note read: “Qabbalist — you need money. I have a task that will reward you richly, if you are as brave as you say you are learned. Come tonight to the Pomegranate after matins.” No signature, but the sour boy had identified the sender: Reynaldo the Persuader.

Judah did not list courage among his attributes (although others — even some who disliked him — did), but curiosity defined him. Curiosity dragged him to the tavern after dark, where Pedro’s father, at ease in this dive whose owner he owned, nodded the failed pedagogue to his table with a sneer.

“Jew, I have a client, an important — but anonymous — man, who wants something. He has asked me to get it for him, and I wish the deed done to put this nobleman in my debt.”

“A clever relationship. For you.”

“Yes. For me,” Reynaldo agreed. “I think from what I have heard about you that you may be the man to get this thing.”

“Why me?”

“The thing is in the possession of that witch in the Red Tower.”

certainly not our statuette, folks, but this one is jade

“Larissa,” Judah breathed the name lightly, as curiosity opened catlike eyes of interested surprise in his soul.

“Exactly, the godawful Red Witch…”

“Sorceress of the Green Tower. What’s she got that a nobleman wants?”

“A statuette of some kind. A green one, all of some Asian stone.”

“Jade.”

“Eh?”

“Jade. It’s the name of the stone.”

“You know of it then?”

“No, but I know what the Chinese call that stone. I learned in the East. Waterstone — Jade. And I still don’t understand what some petty lord wants with a witchʼs magic statuette.” For it had to be magic. If it were hers.

“What’s it matter, Jew? Youʼre to get the thing and bring it me. I’ll pay you. Well. And that’s the end of it so far as you’re concerned.”

“Sure. But… I am curious…” Always curious.

“Ah, well, the little lordling’s got a friend. You must have heard of him. Came to town months back. That wizard fella —”

“The Necromancer.” That explained much. This dark sorcerer had arrived in the city not long before Judah, so he and his reputation were still news for Judah’s ears to drink. A cruel wizard lately come from Christendom, exiled thence for his black magic. Reputedly avaricious and desirous of power and fame. He would desire anything to undermine the Green Witch. Indeed, some claimed he had come to the city intending to defeat her in supernatural conflict. Judah, a Kabbalist, however fallen from that true path, knew little of such things and thought sorcerous challenges silly, was curious about wizardry and its practitioners. Everything about this task intrigued him.

“So. How ʻwellʼ will you pay me?”

The gangster named a sum so princely Judah could remain at his ease here for a year or more — or travel in elegance and comfort. How could he resist?

IV

“medieval thoroughfare” image search result

Thus, fortified with a powerful dosage of wine, and moderately fed, the small and the tall set out in the middle of the night to renew the interrupted escapade. As Judah had taken the route specified by Reynaldo’s plan when beset the day before, they both concluded the wisdom of trying an alternate path to their goal, the Green Tower.

As the planned route had wound through back ways and had been assaulted so easily, Søren suggested that they try the most public way possible, and the Street of Dreams led directly across town, just a few rambling blocks from the large, empty square where stood the witch’s tower. The synagogue lay only three streets off that thoroughfare.

Even at this hour merry crowds filled Calle de Sueños, one of the three principal avenues across the city, and the two melted into the flow of folk, although Søren’s height placed him conspicuously overlooking the streams of heads.

On the other hand, no one was looking for him. Or so the two hoped as they strode along and dodged among the mixed classes and religions thronging the Street of Dreams.

Once, in a dark place between wavering cones of light from civic torches, a man rushed from an obscure doorway directly at Judah. But when Søren stepped in his way, the fellow appeared simply overstimulated with drink. A few minutes later, in another dark stretch where the crowds had evaporated into amusements within the buildings alongside, a pair of horsemen appeared ahead and charged down at the duo, who both dodged aside, as the mounted bullies laughed and clattered on. More sinister, both men felt a nervous pressure at every intersection and separately kept turning ahead to check behind. Søren plowing people aside, Judah weaving and ducking between folks and around groups. Every time all seemed secure… unless that group which quickly turned aside into that tavern on the left was the same group that had slipped off briefly to cheer a gypsy dancer in a side street earlier. It became all too easy to lapse into witless suspicion of everyone everywhere.

In the better part of town, public buildings, palaces and places of worship — mosques, churches, synagogues — stood stately and widespread along the margins of the street. On this side of the city, businesses of all reputes with rooms above, taverns, inns and gambling dens massed thickly on each side. The street remained wide, providing passage to pedestrians, carriages and carts, horsemen as well as burdened donkeys and stevedores balancing pallets of goods on shoulders and heads. Upper stories on side streets might nearly or truly touch over the passageway, but here heaven remained clearly visible above.

As they advanced, the number of people gradually dwindled along with the streetlights and the noise until they found themselves alone on the now black street, just a block from the turning to the narrow way debouching into the bleak and vacant square outside the Green Tower.

A cat yowled suddenly when they stepped into the square a few minutes later and fled, a white streak, across an open area and to one side.

“I hope that wasn’t some demonic guardian warning of our approach,“ Søren opined.

“If she cares, if she’s away, she probably knows all that transpires around her tower. But our boss says she’s grown comfortable and careless. Thus her supernatural slumber twixt midnight and dawn. Come, let’s hurry. Our way lies where the cat went, a coincidence not at all reassuring to me.“

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“Maybe he was sent by the wizard we indirectly serve, Judah.“

“A thought even less comforting. I almost think I’d rather have her attention on me than that blackhearted Necromancer’s. Here’s our alley. Follow.“

Halfway down this side passage, Judah drew a key from his purse, using the device to open very small and narrow door in the building they had been passing. Quickly he rushed Søren, ducking and twisting, within, and although the plan had not called for the action, relocked the portal from inside.

“That will make it difficult to leave again, should the need arise,” objected the Northerner.

“Our plan is to exit her tower another way. You know that.” Nathan repocketed the key. “Besides, safely locked, I hope no one can follow us from here. Go. Grope ahead: a stairway should open on the left.”

It did, and the two climbed in darkness, up and up, turning on landing after landing, until suddenly Søren’s head thumped against a rough ceiling, unseen in the utter black. He swore under his breath.

“Perhaps I should have gone first. Sorry. Feel for the ring,” Judah urged. “It’s a trap door onto the roof.”

Søren made no sound locating the ring his head had barely missed in the collision, turned it as instructed, and heaved upwards slightly, just a few inches, peering out on the vaulted surface of the rooftop. All looked silent and deserted in the single direction he could barely see.

The thin slit of starlight illuminated the top steps to Judah’s dark-accustomed eyes, and he quickly located the gear Reynaldo had promised hanging on the wall. Gathering this stuff into his arms, he asked, “All clear?”

In reply, Søren pushed the door up right and leaped out, his left hand still on the ring as his right swept his sword up and out to challenge… nothing. All clear. He stepped aside as Judah swarmed up and out with his new burdens, and then he lowered the door again, dropping the ring and grasping the portal’s edge.

“Let it close all the way,” Judah instructed. “There’s little enough we could do were we able to retreat this way again.”

But Søren cautiously kicked a pebble to lodge in the gap as he released his grasp. Now they could return through the trap door, if necessary. An unlikely need, perhaps, but he also noticed no ring topside to lift the door again to permit ingress. The Green Tower loomed to their left across about twenty yards of open space. They crossed to the edge of their roof, standing behind a low parapet just higher than Judah’s knees. From up here they could see that the open square actually surrounded the tower on all sides, isolating it with at least the distance before them between it and any other building. Indeed, their rooftop came closer than any other structure to the Green Tower.

And it was green. Even in the nocturnal darkness which made the tower appear black, hints of reflection winked greenly. Color by starlight was almost impossible to perceive, but Søren realized again he had seen the towerʼs top as a memorable element of the cityscape when he rode down out of the mountains to the plain. And in his quiet preparations for this deed, Judah naturally had several times circumambulated the building in the square, providing a sop and a stimulant to his everthirsting curiosity. Looking upward, Søren could see the rows of periodic windows which would be their primary interest. Far higher yet that crenelated tower top — far too high for any strength to launch a climber’s grapple.

Judah unbound a complex and strange device, which he had tried to explain to the Northman, from heavy loops of rope. It looked an awkward thing, though Søren’s experience distinguished the climber’s hook protruding on an iron bar from one end of it. Casually his partner began turning a screw on one side.

“This little machine will send the hook all that distance?” the big man wondered.

“And more. You’ve never before seen one of these?” Judah huffed a bit with exertion as he wound the screw.

“No. A Moorish invention?”

“Aye. Based, some say, on old Greek and Roman throwing machines, but I’ve seen drawings of these old catapults and read about them in Vitruvius. They worked on entirely different principles,” Judah grunted out between turns on the screw, effort which grew visibly more difficult even for his lean strength. “It’s called a crossbow. And I think I’ve wound it tight enough.”

Judah raised the wooden device and held it shoulder high, aiming the hook end at the rooftop some twenty yards distant. Now it was evident that at least some of the rope was attached to the climber’s hook. Sighting steadily, the Kabbalist drew a breath and held it, steady at the parapet, and fingered a catch on the wooden machine. With a clear thrum the bar and hook sailed away at the rooftop of the Green Tower, trailing rope behind. In an instant the hook clattered on the other roof. Judah pulled carefully on the rope tugging the hook toward one particular angle on a cornice where he hoped it securely lodged.

Several stout pulls the rope indicated his aim and effort had been true.

“So now one can swing across?”

“It should work.”

“So which of us goes?”

“The trick was designed for just one, but as I suggested, I think we’ll try it together, Søren. Aiming for that window there. See? Can you gauge the right length of rope?”

“It’s a long swing to a tiny target, Judah.”

“That window’s six feet high and three across. All we have to do is hit it and not the wall to either side. Or swing too high or too low. This was the hitch in the plan for me: I’m not sure I could get myself across accurately. But you, can you do it?”

Søren, who had much experience with ropes and swinging on such, both in the fjords and mountains of his distant homeland, but also at sea, a-Viking, examined the tower, the hook’s evident location and the rope — certainly stout enough to hold two, considered the trigonometric problem with the eye of practical knowledge, and finally nodded. “Aye.” They were still speaking German, partly from convenience, partly yet from a sense of secrecy.

Søren squared himself to that distant tower and pulled strongly on the rope, observing both the pivot of the hook and the window. Judah had aligned where the bolt landed and struck well, whether from luck or skill. And with a brush of luck and application of skill, Søren should be able to swing to the window — the challenge being the double load, taking the smaller man along.

Hesitating would not resolve or improve the situation. “Climb on,” he ordered, nearly kneeling on their parapet. Judah clambered piggyback onto the huge man’s shoulders, which Søren flexed in a couple of shrugs, adjusting to the burden, then grasping the rope firmly in both hands, judiciously dangling what he had determined was the correct length out into space ahead, twirled the last few feet around his chest and Nathan’s rear. He stepped back a few feet and then sprinted to the parapet, saving one last long step to the top of that low wall, and leaped outward into the night.

The rope snapped taught around both their bodies after a few seconds of free fall, rushing their descending forward momentum. Nathan felt his heart thundering in his arms wrapped around the big Northman’s shoulders. Three heartbeats, four: Søren swung his boots foremost, and they smashed into the glazing of the window, true on center, as Søren released the rope and let it snake away raspingly from his body.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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