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Aftermath of the Debacle at Tergeste

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The escarpment above Tergeste was dense with myrtle and wild olive. The waning moon cast wavering shadows on the ground as the branches of the trees were stirred by the wind off the gulf and by the furtive passage of two men who wove their way in some haste among the scrub and thorns that strove to fill the gaps between the tree trunks. The pair were breathing hard, and they gave off an odor of sweat and blood. One was a tall and muscular African, the other a willowy Frank whose long, fair hair caught glints of moonlight.

Neither spoke until they had left all the lights of the city and the sight of the water behind them. The wind was rising, herding the clouds to hide the moon, and the air was growing chill and damp. The African stooped abruptly then, and the Frank blundered into him.

"Why have you stopped, you big ox!" hissed the Frank.

"There is no one behind us now," said the other.

"How can you be so certain! They are out for blood."

"And we had agreed, Zelikman, that in these matters, you would accede to my judgment. Were you not the genius you are with the needle, I would never have taken up with such a clumsy bundle of sticks as you. Now be still. I need to get our bearing. We will lose the moon for good any moment now."

"It's going to rain, isn't it?" said Zelikman. His tone was lugubrious, but he had lowered his voice. The African did not deign to answer. He turned slowly on his feet, squinting at the land beyond them and sniffing the air.

"This way," he said, and set off at a slight angle to their original path. Zelikman followed, making some effort to place his feet well and quietly. As he had suggested, it began to rain, and soon both were soaked to the skin. The African bore this stolidly, but Zelikman's teeth began to chatter as the cold wind pawed at his back. However, his guide had led them true, and soon they came upon the half-ruined villa that had sheltered them on their way to the city two mornings ago.

Their arrival was greeted with pleasure and interest by the two horses penned within the courtyard of the building. One was a tall, red-spotted Parthian, the other a shaggy creature of dubious ancestry, with a Roman nose and a wily eye. The African saw to them, checking the water in the trough improvised from a small fountain basin and pouring them some corn in the shelter of the portico. Zelikman withdrew to the kitchen and did his best to start a fire in the dilapidated brazier they had recovered earlier. He was still attempting to get the spark to catch when his companion came in and took flint and steel from his shaking hands.

"Amram," he said, after peering at the African as though he had forgotten him.

"Yes, Amram. You look like a feather would knock you over." Amram soon had the tinder burning. "I thought you said that gash was nothing much?"

"Oh. That."

"Get that wet gear off and take a look at it, fool." Amram fetched their baggage from the rubbish-strewn store room where he'd tucked it away, safe from prying eyes. When he came back, Zelikman was stripped down to his drawers, all long, awkward shanks and pale, damp flesh strewn with golden down, faint tawny freckles, and goose-pimples. And a long, oozing gash just above one knee, when a fended-off blade had caught him.

Zelikman reached for his bag of simples and medicines. He pulled from it strips of linen, one of which he used to sponge the wound. Then he took out a pottery jar and from it smeared a paste along the cut, and with increasingly trembling hands he bandaged himself. Amram held out dry clothing. "Dress yourself. You'll shake the teeth from your head at this rate."

By the time the younger man was dressed, Amram had pieced together a meal from their stores, but Zelikman was not hungry. "Eat, fool," said Amram. And then: "Why in the name of the Holy One did you turn back? I told you to meet me at the mouth of the alley."

"I thought I heard one of them get up," said Zelikman, crumbling the last of his bread into his broth.

"When I put down a man, he stays down," said Amram. "Get that down your skinny throat."

"With a broken head, no doubt," said Zelikman.

Amram glared at him over the pot. "Of course! Some gentleman of the road you'll make, if that gives you pause."

Zelikman shook his own head. "There must be a better way."

"Let me know when you find it," grunted Amram, busy with the crockery. "In the meantime, put your bony white ass to bed. I've had it with your nice ways. If you don't start showing a profit, we're through."

When he had dealt with the remains of their meal, Amram looked down at the young man with whom he had cast his lot. He seemed to be asleep, but the chattering of his teeth was loud, and even in the torchlight, he look blue about the gills. Cursing to himself, Amram dragged his own bedding over, cast it atop Zelikman, doused the torch, and crawled under the mass of rugs to hold his partner close.

Gradually, the convulsive shivering stilled and the clatter of teeth ceased. Zelikman's breathing smoothed and deepened. In the last moments before sleep took him as well, Amram decided to give the Frank one more season to prove himself.