Cargo and Koh-Lum-Boh

“Jamaica,” by Frederic Edwin Church, 1855? – photoshopped to remove signs of European settlement

Caribbean Sea, AD 1502

Mazatl paddled madly for shore. The wind blowing astern toyed with him, for it gave greater aid to the vessel in pursuit– a great shell skimming the waves with white wings outspread to catch the tiniest breeze.

He saw no break in the wall of jungle ahead, no river mouth to give shelter. He veered his dugout to seek haven northwards.

The wind-blown ship cut across his path.

His dugout collided with its massive flank. Mazatl huddled amid- ships, trying to tame his fearful heart.

Faces peered down at him from the rail above, faces pale as the wings that now folded beyond them. A vessel of ghosts!

Ropes came whipping out. Ghosts slid down to land with solid thumps in the dugout. One held a silvery blade to Mazatl’s throat, though the paddler had no thought of fight. Every muscle clenched in terror.

The other figures– not ghosts after all, not the way they made the dugout wallow with their weight– they rummaged through Mazatl’s belongings. Food for the journey, waterskins, a cloak. They found his cargo.

They chattered at him then, like monkeys with deep voices, holding out the bags, demanding.

Mazatl could do nothing but shake in fear.

They went back up the ropes like spiders, taking his cargo. The last one lashed a rope around Mazatl’s chest, and the ones above hauled him aboard, banging against wooden planks all the way up.

No mistaking the chief of the ghosts, garbed in cloth of rich colors, glinting with silver. Mazatl bowed before the white-skinned personage, addressed by the others as Koh-Lum-Boh, a tall man with hair the color of maize and eyes as blue as the sea. The chief and his warriors showed no intent to devour Mazatl, as he had first feared. He dared to hope he might survive this encounter.

The chief ordered the cargo bags opened.

Mazatl’s terror subsided. Merely thieves, these ghosts were! Somehow they had known the valuable cargo he carried and meant to–

No, they looked puzzled. The chief took a handful from the bag, rolled in his fingers, sniffed, eyed the nuggets closely, then turned his gaze on his captive.

More chattering Mazatl couldn’t understand. He shrugged his bafflement.

One cacao bean dropped to the deck and rolled aside.

On impulse Mazatl grabbed for the kernel, worth a tomato or tamale in the market at Yucatan.

The chief narrowed his eyes at Mazatl’s clenched fist. He drizzled the remaining beans back into the bag and barked orders. His men hauled the bags away.

The chief regarded Mazatl a moment longer, then waved at the ship’s rail. His men hoisted the captive to his feet and dumped him overboard.

Mazatl surfaced, sputtering, and watched the vessel’s wings spread once more. The great ship surged ahead and plowed through the waves, shrinking in his sight as he hauled himself aboard his dugout.      

No use going to Yucatan. The treasure he had just lost would have bought him a flock of turkeys and set him on the path to wealth. He turned and headed home with his life, one cacao bean and a tale beyond belief.

(c) 2020 Joyce Holt

Champions on the Pampas

~ SPORTS SECTION ~

DATELINE AD 605: PATAGONIA, ARGENTINA–

It’s midsummer on the pampas, realm of the Tehuelche [“fierce people”]. Unending high winds drive waves across the grassy landscape. The bough-and-hide summer homes of the Heron Clan once more stand in their hereditary spots high up the banks of the Murky River [Rio Turbio], in the shadow of the snow-capped cordillera.

Midsummer calls for feast and festivities. High spirits attend the gathering as the clan, seventy-five strong, celebrate the end of their spring trek along the Murky River from the coast to the mountains.

Early this morning they held a solemn moment at the sacred cliff-side where long ago the ancestors of the Tehuelche carved glyphs into the rock face. Now every succeeding generation will be able to see their heritage preserved for all time in the pale figures of big-footed humans hunting wild sheep and llama-like guanaco.

This afternoon, the mood turned merry. The menfolk vied for title of champion hunter of the clan. The chieftain’s brother-in-law Cangapol won the men’s moving-target bola throw, felling the prey on his first cast in spite of the gusting winds. He received the prize of a quanaco hide painted in the traditional handprint pattern.

In the boys’ contest, thirteen-year-old Limay won a quiver of cane arrows with bone tips. The runner-up received a stone-headed mallet and right off ran around pounding the house stakes even deeper. Everyone laughed, remembering last summer when one tent-house blew away in a gale.

Dice made from the bones of the huemul deer went to the winner of the children’s round.

The chieftain’s mother-in-law, matriarch of the clan, presided over the stew cook-off. She presented to the winner (her own grand-niece) a set of birk playing cards–squares of quanaco rawhide decorated with stylized red and black herons.

The true champions of the pampas, though, will show their colors tomorrow with the first hunt of the summer season. Put in a good word for young Limay. He’s still trying to persuade the elders he’s skilled enough to join the hunters.

Notice the bolas hanging upper left in this fun artwork of Tehuelches in camp,
  found at: http://galgosyotrasyerbas.blogspot.com/2013/01/gente-de-la-tierra.html

~ Sporting Insert ~

Overheard: a wise elder teaching the youngsters…

Bolas are high-tech hunting tools made of leather and stones used to capture small game. Remember this: they are much more effective than the primitive hand-thrown stone.

bolas

The bola is usually made up of three strips of leather; two of equal length and one longer than the other two.

Stones or other weighted objects are tied to the ends of the leather strips; two of equal weight on the equal lengths and a lighter one on the longer strap.

The bola must be thrown in such a way as to allow the stones to spread out in the air evenly. If thrown correctly, the bola’s straps will wrap around its target and ensnare it.

  • Hold the bola by the longer length with the lighter stone.
  • Swing the bola overhead until you have gathered enough momentum.
  • Throw the smaller stone at the target when the two larger stones are parallel to each other.
  • Follow through with your throw.

wise elder found at: http://www.ehow.com/how_8085475_throw-bola.html

Turquoise and cacao

Dateline AD 605: Teotihuacán, Mexico—

Last evening, sentries intercepted and escorted to the city a string of footsore travelers who state they left their northern homeland more than four score days ago. They certainly bore the dust of a long trek. The guard has taken into keeping their spears and atlatls for the duration of the visit.

This morning at the palace, the traders presented our nobility with lavish gifts of turquoise–gems of a brighter sky-blue than any seen in our wide lands.

To show their delight and appreciation, the nobility held a chokola’j ceremony, honoring the foreigners with cups of steaming, foaming chocol’ha.

The simple northern folk found our Mayan delicacy not much to their liking, according to one member of the palace staff who was not authorized to speak publicly on the topic and spoke on condition of anonymity. One visitor appeared to have burned his tongue and two grimaced at the bitter flavor, revealing their lack of taste for fine cuisine.

In the early afternoon, the rustic folk from the north offered more of their amazing skystone goods at the market. To the astonishment of all, they had no interest in the cacao bean exchange but asked instead for parrots.

Our local correspondent, a former fashion editor, took a dim view of their leader’s garb–a brown-tone turkey-feather cloak. “How drab!” she told another member of the press. “A splash of parrot-feather reds and blues would certainly liven up the color scheme.”

One enterprising merchant noted the copper ornaments worn by several of the foreigners, and smooth-talked his way into a trade of common seashells for the valuable metal. The northerner seemed pleased at the absurd exchange.

The traders say they farm beside the Yota’vayu river [San Juan River] which cuts through a massive, arid tableland. They call themselves Hopi, “the peaceful and civilized.” It is expected their stay at Teotihuacán will show our guests the true measure of civilization.

In welcome to our grand city, queen of all the Mayan states, they are invited to attend a game of pitz in the eastern ballcourt this evening. One of our local pranksters showed them a rubber ball, and made as if to hand it over for closer inspection. He let it slip, and the poor Hopi dashed about in alarm as the ball bounced around their feet.

The northerners, of course, had never seen rubber before, since the rubber tree grows only in humid lowlands to the south where midday sunlight streams down from directly overhead. The cacao tree, slightly more hardy, also prefers a high sun.

Mayan art: cacao tree and parrot

We must excuse our guests for their ignorance of matters outside their realm where the sun never approaches the zenith, or so they say.

Let us raise our cups of chocol’ha to toast this new trade agreement, bartering our common Mayan shells and parrots for precious copper and turquoise from the lands of the Hopi!

Painted bowl showing woman grinding cacao; metate used in grinding

Culinary Insert: How to make chocol’ha

Crack open cacao pods and scoop out the seeds. Ferment the seeds, then dry them.

Toast cacao beans on your clay comal (griddle) over an open fire.

Crack cacao bean shells to get at the nibs inside.

Grind the nibs in your metate (stone grinder) until a stream of liquid trickles off its edge into a clay bowl. Mix that paste with water; add spices such as chili peppers, cornmeal, and dried flower petals.

Heat the chocol’ha to steaming, then pour it back and forth between two bowls until it brims with a pleasing foam. Sweeten with honey or flower nectar.

Third Knot

A folktale from Rolfstorp, Sweden, retold by Joyce Holt

Rask rowed into the chop of Kattegat, the shallow sea off Sweden’s coast. His sloop wallowed low, weighed down by twenty-four bushels of rye. Not a breath of wind stirred to aid him on his way.

Rask would gladly row all day, clear to the shores of Denmark, with such a sight to feast upon as the one perched in the stern.

The loveliest woman he’d ever seen sat daintily atop her cargo of rye. Skin pure as pearls, eyes the color of evening sky, a brow like seafoam. Silvery hair billowed, though no wind blew. Her gown shimmered with blue-green hues, bright as fish scales.

line art by author Joyce Holt

Rask’s heart beat giddy with delight. He grinned like an idiot, pulled at the oars, ignored one wise corner of his mind. She had promised a fine fare, but had never said how much.

“Here,” the woman said at last. “We’ve come to my home. Please unload.”

Rask glanced around at the smooth silky billows. No land in sight. “Unload?”

“Yes. Just toss them overboard.”

That wise corner of his mind shouted warning, but Rask heard none of it over the happy thrumming of his heart. One by one he hoisted the barrels over the sloop’s edge to plummet into the depths.

The woman stood amidships, smiling at Rask. “For your payment, come with me. Take my hand and jump.”

“Fool!” screamed the tiny voice of sense.

Rask jumped.

Without even a splash, he found himself, still at the woman’s side, in a great hall beneath the sea.

“Is that you, Daughter?” queried a huge old man sitting upon a whalebone chair. His eyes stared — blank, sightless.

“I’m home with the rye, Father,” she answered.

The blind man’s nostrils flared. “I smell the blood of a Christian,” he grumbled. “Come over here, man. Let me finger wrestle with you.”

The woman whispered to Rask, “Hand over an anchor hook instead of your finger.”

Rask did as told, and barely managed to hang onto the anchor with both hands as the fellow wrenched with a giant’s strength. The old man chuckled in defeat. “Not bad, not bad at all. Daughter, pay this fine skipper his due.”

The lovely woman gave Rask a handkerchief in which three knots had been tied. “When you get into a lull,” she told him, “you can open one knot. And if you want to go really fast, untie two knots, but never untie the third.”

Rask found himself back in his sloop, handkerchief in hand. A breeze tugged at the sails and soon swept him home where he told the tale to any and all.

Not long after, he found himself becalmed with a heavy load of wares and an urge to hasten home. Rask untied one knot in the handkerchief.

The sail filled with wind.

He opened the second, and the sloop sped so fast it made the water hiss.

He must have opened the third knot too, for nobody ever saw him again.

Between the Waves, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1898: https://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-aivazovsky/between-the-waves-1898

“Third Knot” appears in Holt’s anthology Spun Again: Old Tales Retold available on Amazon.com

Learn more about anthologies and novels by Joyce Holt

copyright 2020 by author/artist Joyce Holt

Outwait

Flash fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England

    Alfgifu pointed through the underbrush. “I see a hazel tree.”

    “Not just one.” Rothmund ran ahead, lugging his bucket. “A whole grove! We’ll find plenty of nuts here.”

    “What story shall I tell while we gather?”

    “Beowulf!”

    Alfgifu launched into the tale while they scuffed through duff beneath the trees, hunting for hazelnuts. “News spread far and wide about the troubles of King Hrothgar of the Dane-Mark. Every night a horrid monster rose from the marshes, broke into the king’s hall, and carried off a warrior to devour. None could stand against Grendel the terrible.”

    “I bet I could have!” Rothmund tossed another handful of nuts into his bucket.

    “Perhaps when you’re full grown.” Alfgifu went on with the tale about the young hero from across the channel who came to the aid of his father’s friend. When Grendel next attacked, Beowulf fought the monster. By incredible strength the unarmed hero ripped Grendel’s arm from his body. Now who was unarmed?

The monster fled back to the swamps, gushing its lifeblood with every step. It plunged into the mire and never rose again.

    “Hrothgar’s hall rang with celebration for three days,” Alfgifu said. “The monster’s arm hung from the rafters, a gory trophy. Everyone thought their troubles were over. But the next night–” She broke off, turned, listened.

    “You can’t scare me, sister!” Rothmund said. “I know what comes next. Grendel’s mother!”

    Alfgifu cried out, “Danger! Up the tree, now!” She pushed him toward the sturdiest of the hazel trees.

    He giggled as he climbed. “She was a huge, big monster. How high must we climb to get out of her reach?”

    “This is high enough. Look!”

Horde de sangliers, 1921, by Georges Frédéric Rötig http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2015/08/rotigs-wild-boars.html

A mob of wild boars burst from the brush, jostled, snorted, rooted in the duff.

    “Hey! We weren’t done! They’re going to get our nuts.” Rothmund started down.

    Alfgifu grabbed his arm. “Remember the scar on Papa’s leg? These Grendels might be small as calves, but they’re vicious, and you don’t even have a boar-spear.”

    “I’ve got a knife!”

    “So do the boars. See their tusks? They’d rip you open, like Beowulf ripped Grendel’s mother!”

    “When will it be my turn to fight a monster? I want to be a hero, too!”

    “You don’t have your man’s strength yet, Rothmund! And when a young hero-to-be doesn’t have might, he must use wits instead. Now be wise. Sit down. Want to hear about Beowulf and the dragon?”

    “No.” He pouted.

    “Or about Hengist and Horsa with their sleek longships, bringing the first Angle-kin here to Englaland?”

    “No! Boring.”

Down below, two pigs scuffled, squealed, fought over a nut. Rothmund’s eyes widened at the sight of blood spilling.

    “How about this.” Alfgifu showed him how to carve his name. While he worked, she kept an eye on the boars below, teaching him more runes from time to time.

    The boars finally went on their way. Alfgifu stretched. “Now we can climb down and hurry home! Papa and Mama will be wondering where we are.”

    “Read this first.” Grinning, he pointed at the runes carved in the bark.

    “Here Rothmund outwaited seven Grendels and their mother.”

    “No, no,” the boy sputtered. “That’s not ‘outwaited’ — it’s ‘outwitted’!”

    “By outwaiting, you outwitted. Very good, my wise young hero!”


Life in an Anglo-Saxon settlement

Pronunciation of Alfgifu: Stress the first syllable; say the next two syllables lightly and quickly. The unstressed i and u are short vowels. The g is like y in yet. Each f is almost a v.

Yesterday, a Dragon

A tale from the Mabinogion; from “The Lady of the Fountain,” found in the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400)

Retold by Joyce Holt

Owain spurred his horse up the steep trail. The dapple grey tossed its head as they made the last turn, and whinnied in alarm when they broke out of the forest into a gloomy clearing.

    At first the knight could see no threat, but he heeded his mount and reined to a halt. Nothing moved in the glade.

    Then the shadowy figure of a lion appeared from the depths of a cave. Owain ap Urien drew his sword.

    The beast paced side to side, limping. Owain could see its ribs, its pelt matted with blood, its ragged ears flicking as if in fear. The lion gazed at horse and rider but not with a hunter’s thirst for blood. Despair shone in that glance. Wariness. Perhaps even a plea for help.

    Owain shook his head at the foolish thought. He backed his horse, for he saw the lion gathering to spring into the open.

    At the same moment the beast made one bound forward, a massive shape spewed from a crevice near the cave mouth. A monstrous serpent rammed the lion, knocking it back into its prison.

    The wingless dragon pulled back into its lair, vanishing from sight.

    The dapple grey snorted and shimmied and shied, tensing for flight, nostrils flaring at the stench of the monster. Owain dismounted, tied the reins to a stout branch, then approached on foot, sword still drawn.

    The lion, he could see from nearby, raised itself on trembling limbs, licked at a bloody flank, panted in fear. Once again those golden eyes fixed upon Owain, begging, pleading.

    The knight edged up to the crevice. He raised his sword, then waited for the next rush to freedom.

    The beast came to the cave entrance, gathered itself, burst forth.

Lion and Python, by Antoine-Louis Barye, ca. 1863

    Once more the great serpent struck at its prisoner, but Owain struck all the harder. He sliced right through the monster’s sinuous neck.

    The dragon’s head rolled across the stony ground. Its neck crashed among the rocks.

    Tail lashing, the lion rose from a crouch, edged up to the carcass, sniffed at its tormentor.

    Owain wiped clean his sword blade. “My kill is all yours,” he told the lion. “I don’t fancy dragon for dinner.” He strode back to his fidgeting horse, keeping an eye on the great cat until he could mount and ride away.

    When twilight descended, Owain made camp further off in the forest. The knight was crouching by his fire when the undergrowth rustled. He rose, reaching for his sword hilt as the lion shouldered its way out of the brush, dragging a freshly killed deer. The beast dropped the carcass, stepped away a pace, sank to its haunches, and set to licking its wounded flank.

    “Ah. Well. Thank you most kindly,” Owain told the lion. “Did you eat your fill earlier, I wonder?”

    The great cat yawned, displaying an imposing set of fangs, then settled to its belly, curling its tail like an enormous housecat, a contented look in the golden eyes.

    The lion dozed while Owain butchered the deer and roasted a haunch. The dappled grey looked on in disapproval, but its ears soon stilled from their nervous flicking.

* * *

    When Owain mounted in the morning and continued on his quest, the gaunt and grateful lion trotted alongside like a well-trained greyhound.

    They sheltered one night at the castle of an earl. While Owain settled his horse in the stable and brushed it down, the lion took the manger for a bed. It woke and followed when Owain finished and headed for the hall, and no one dared shoo it away. The great cat settled under the table, at his feet, and feasted on every scrap he dropped while the earl’s hounds slunk into hiding.

    The castle servants had welcomed the wandering knight and spread out a feast in gloomy silence. The earl picked at his food. His lovely daughter sat still, her face white, her eyes downcast. When the first course was finished and etiquette allowed conversation to begin, Owain asked what troubled his host.

    “Ah, Chieftain,” the earl said. “My two sons went hunting in the mountains yesterday morning, but they became the prey. A giant seized them, and sent word that he will slay them before my eyes tomorrow if I do not deliver up to him my daughter.” His voice broke with sorrow. “Which do I sacrifice? The beloved youths or the beloved maiden?”

    “Neither,” said Owain. “I am a knight of Arthur’s court, and no man can stand against me in battle.”

    “This is no man! It’s a monster!”

    “Yesterday, a dragon. Tomorrow, a giant.”

    Next morning the whole castle woke to a thundering clamor outside the walls: trompings and thrashings and a howling voice calling the earl to come out and witness the death of his sons. The giant had arrived.

    Owain donned his armor and went out to meet the threat, the lion pacing at his side. Together they charged into battle.

    “Some hero you are,” the giant snarled at Owain. “Who’s doing the real fighting here, you or your beast?”

    The knight led the lion to the castle courtyard, shut him in, then leaped back into the fray.

    When the lion heard the clash of weapons, though, it roared in frustration. It leaped to the top of a shed, to the top of the stable, to the top of the hall, and from there to the ramparts. It sprang to freedom and raced back to Owain’s side.

    In a raging battle-fury, the lion slashed with wicked claws — and gashed the monster open from shoulder to hip, ripping through his bulging heart. The giant crashed to the ground, dead.

* * *

    Owain’s quest took many more twists before it ended back at Arthur’s court. Much to the chagrin of one dapple grey, a faithful lion loped ever at its side, in service to the greatest knight of Albion.

Lancelot and Guinevere, by Herbert James Draper
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, 1890’s

The Bard, by Thomas Jones

This fascinating painting dates from 1774. Some elements leap out. Some blend into the scenery.

By the title and by the standing stones, Jones is portraying the ancient Celts.

Some disaster has just happened. Only one bard walks away unharmed. Three other sprawl in the dirt — two plain to see, but another head appears beyond the one on the right. A small harp lies beside the rightmost of the fallen bards.

The surviving bard carries a small Celtic harp. Power was thought to flow from masterful music. Was there a battle he won by the power of song?

Overhead (and also in the abyss to the right) flies a swan. Is it a symbol of magical powers or presence?

Now I’m curious about the story behind the painting. Must go do some research!

Absens

Ukraine, AD 241 (flash fiction)

Two Roman soldiers dumped Gallus onto the floor before the centurion’s desk.

“Sine licentia absens,” said the taller of the two. Without leave, absent.

“Twenty lashes then the pit,” Quintus said, voice as flat as his beer, and turned back to his stack of wax tablets and the never-ending paperwork.

Never-ending waxwork, strictly speaking.

“I wasn’t absent without leave!” Gallus protested. “I was lost!”

Quintus raised one bristling brow and impaled the young man with a glance. “How convenient,” he drawled. “The legion marches to confront the savage, howling Carpi just east of the mountains, and you manage to lose yourself.”

One soldier yanked Gallus to his feet and a step away.

Quintus waved a hand. “Let him speak. I could use a short diversion. Two sentences, worm. If you make it good I might find the tenderness of heart to cut the sentence to ten lashes.”

Gallus gulped. The centurion was not known for a tender heart. “A fortnight ago my sergeant sent a hunting party into the Hercynian Forest, and I got separated while taking a piss. Wandered through the trackless heights, fleeing from monstrous elk and bull and aurochs and, and–” He gulped again. “–and bos cervi figura.”

bos cervi figura

The centurion’s lip curled. “Ox in the shape of a stag? Thirty lashes, if you think me such a fool.”

“Not a fable at all, sir! Unicornuus!” Gallus cried as the two soldiers hauled him toward the door. “If you don’t believe me, look in my bedroll. I brought a horn as proof!” He shrugged the roll from his back, a difficult feat when both elbows are gripped by armed men.

One of the guards kicked the blankets apart, and out fell a reindeer antler.

Quintus narrowed his eyes, then crooked a finger.

The other guard snatched up the antler and brought it to his superior.

Quintus turned the bony thing end over end.

“High in the Carpathians,” Gallus said. “Troops of the creatures, galloping along in file as if racing to battle. Even the cows among them bore horns! Branched like tree limbs, as you can see.”

“Unicorn?” the centurion asked, voice ripe with scorn.

“The first I saw had only one horn. That put the fear in me, I tell you. Perhaps others had two. I didn’t want a closer look!” He shuddered.

Quintus scowled at the disheveled young man. “You’re not familiar with woods or wild, are you, worm?”

Gallus shook his head in jerks. “Just a farm boy, sir.”

“Easily spooked.”

“Well yes, at night, under the towering trees as dense as any labyrinth and the wind screaming like tortured souls. I’m so glad to be back to civilization, sir, whatever punishment that entails!”

Quintus caught a guard’s eye. “Five lashes and three days mucking stables.”

Five. Only five. Gallus blew out a breath of relief– a brief respite before renewed terror.

Quintus glared again. “Then, worm, you will lead me back to the Hercynian Forest where we will pursue the fabulous unicorn. Begone.”

engraving of the Hercynian forest

Milia XVI

Cumbria, Great Britain: AD 197 (flash fiction

Ancient path of the Stanegate, paralleling Hadrian's Wall
~ ~ ~ Ancient path of the Stanegate, paralleling Hadrian’s Wall ~ ~ ~

Keelin ran back to the hazel thicket where Maccus still crouched. She wriggled through the saplings, settled at his side.

“Don’t take such risks,” Maccus said. “If you’re caught, there’s nothing I can do to save you.”

“I wasn’t caught then, was I?” Keelin said with a toss of her hair. She tucked her drab hunting skirts out of the way and smoothed a patch of dirt between them. “Too many letters to remember them all, but Granny says the top part is all bragging anyway. The last ones are what count.” She sketched in the dirt, “M-P-XVI.”

Maccus snorted. “I don’t read those Roman scratches. Means nothing to me.”

“Granny showed me another milestone once. She said the humpback ‘M’ stands for ‘miles.’ I don’t remember what the ‘P’ means, but the ‘XVI’ tells how many miles to Coria. We just have to add them together.”

Roman milestone along the Stanegate (photo by author)
~ ~ ~ Roman milestone along the Stanegate ~ ~ ~

“Numbers and adding I can do,” Maccus said. “X plus V plus I sums up to–“

“Hush!” Keelin hissed. She pointed west along the stone road.

The tramp of feet sounded. Soon there appeared a gold-trimmed, beribboned, red silk standard lurching up and down with the stride of the carrier who now came into sight. A Roman soldier. One of many.

Keelin and Maccus drew lots to see who would make first report. Maccus got the short stick. “Now you get to do the adding,” he told her. “Don’t lose count!”

“Who, me? I’ve kept track of the flocks since my seventh summer. Hurry now. I’ll be right on your heels if you dawdle.”

Maccus crept away from their vantage point, keeping low and silent in the wildwoods, carrying word to the leaders of the rebellion.

Keelin counted beneath her breath. “Yan, tyan, tethera, methera, bimp.” Each time she reached giggot, a score, she dropped a pebble to her lap and started over the count.

A commander and other officers rode past, mounted on stallions. More foot soldiers followed. Several wagons came along in the rear.

Keelin’s eyes widened as the pile of pebbles grew. Soon she had more than a score cradled in her lap. That many soldiers, they must have emptied Vindolanda fort! When the last Roman had vanished into the east and the dust had settled, she poured the pebbles into her belt pouch, rose, and set off to carry her report.

In lands far to the south, power-hungry men strove for an emperor’s throne. And now the governor of Britannia, Clodius Albinus, meant to join the fray– backed by all the legions stationed here in the Empire’s far north. He thought it safe to leave the land of the Brits under a skeleton crew. He thought he had these barbarians cowed, subdued, thoroughly bound to the yoke of Rome.

How wrong he was. Here in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, the fire of freedom still burned hot in British hearts. Liberty!

Eight Days

Fu Shai and Lu Yundi argued all the way back to the coast.  “Why did you have to insult our guide?” Shai asked when they found their path cut off by a steep ravine.

“Don’t need a guide,” Yundi said, backtracking.  “Have a lodestone.  North is all that matters.”

“It’s taking too long this way.  The native would have taken us–”

“We’ll get there eventually,” Yundi interrupted.

“Eventually will do us no good if we arrive too late.”

“I’ve kept track of the days.  We have plenty of time.”

“Kept track, have you?  As accurate with the days as with that map you drew?”

“It was accurate until that over-sized grub ate a pathway through the paper.  Hardly my fault.”

“Admiral Zheng He will not be pleased.  What good is a rich copper deposit if the Emperor’s miners cannot find it?”

“It wasn’t all that rich.  The Emperor won’t want to waste time on a middling mine so far from Mother China, wait and see.”

“So what good our trek across the blazing hot savanna, tracking that ore?  We could have stayed in comfort on the coast.”

“The crocodile-infested coast?  Not for me!  No inland pests but cute little wallabies.  I’ve slept easy this whole journey.”

Shai snorted.

“Look, a seabird!  We can’t be far now.”  Yundi grinned.  “By my reckoning we still have eight days until sailing.”

The scouts picked up their pace, winding ever north between eucalyptus stands and vine-thickets.  The land took a lazy time slumping down to sea level.  The shore at last came into sight, an unfamiliar stretch of beach.

Shai pointed west.  “Let’s try that direction.”

“No, I think we should go east.”

They bickered until Shai spotted a dugout heading their way.  He ran out into the surf, waving, calling to the wiry nut-brown man at the paddle.  Pidgin trading language brought an answer.  “Go west to big ship village.”

The sun sailed low and bright ahead as they slogged along, but in the east rose banks of clouds as dark as mud.

“I hope the astronomers have finished their star-charts,” Yundi said as they hurried.  “It will not be a clear night.”

“Star-charting, the least of our worries,” Shai said, glancing over his shoulder.  “Monsoon coming.”

“Nonsense.  Too early in the season.”

“If you counted right.”

When the harbor came into view, Shai stumbled to a halt.  Sixty-two massive ocean-going junks in Admiral Zheng’s fleet — and not one at anchor.  Not a single ship in sight.

“No, no, no!” Shai howled.  He burst into a run, hurtled along the beach and up the shore to the colony huts.

Abandoned, all abandoned — except for the shrine to Tianfei.  One old monk sat there beside the statue of the Celestial Spouse, the guardian of mariners.  The hermit cackled.  “Company!  Lucky me.  Won’t have to sit vigil all alone.  It’s two years until they return, you know.”

In the east, like a great violet and indigo dragon, the monsoon crawled up the sky, spitting lightning, spreading wide its wings of unending rain.

In 1405 the Yongle Emperor sent Admiral Zheng He on a series of voyages to the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean) to visit countries near and far, flexing the muscles of the Chinese Empire, tamping down the plague of pirates. Accounts say that Zheng, with his huge fleet of massive, nine-masted, ocean-going junks, established colonies on the southern land of Chui Hiao (Australia) for mining gold, silver, copper and tin. Astronomers accompanied the Admiral and studied the southern skies.
      Detailed records remain of Zheng’s first five voyages, but the accounts and maps made during the sixth and seventh voyages were destroyed by the Ming dynasty. Old tales, though, say that in 1432 his fleet sailed all around the coast of Australia. Reasonably accurate maps of Australia, laid out in porcelain, date from 1477.
      At one site on Australia’s north coast, the “Top End,” sand dunes swallowed a statue of the Taoist goddess Tianfei — to emerge centuries later, a tantalizing enigma from the past.

      In his homeland, Admiral Zheng He erected a tablet that told of his travels:

“We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…”