Poul Anderson: Star of the Sea

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Poul Anderson

Star of the Sea

I

By day Niaerdh roamed among the seals and whales and fish she had made. From her fingertips she cast gulls and spindrift onto the wind. At the rim of the world her daughters danced to her song, which called rain from heaven or sent light ashiver across the waters. When darkness flowed out of the east, she sought her bed that it blanketed yonder. But often she rose early, long before the sun, to watch over her sea. Upon her brow shone the morning star.

Then once Frae rode to the strand. “Niaerdh, I call you!” he shouted. Only the surf gave answer. He put the horn Gatherer to his lips and blew. Cormorants flew shrieking from the skerries. Last he drew sword and with the flat of it smote the flanks of the bull Earthshaker whereon he sat. At the bellow that sounded forth, wells spouted and dead kings woke in their barrows.

Thereat Niaerdh sought him. Angered, she sailed on an iceberg, herself clad in the fog and bearing in one hand the net in which she takes ships. “Why have you dared trouble me?” she flung at him, words like hailstones.

“I would wed you,” he told her. “From afar, the light shining off your breasts blinded me. I have sent my sister away. Earth sickens and all growth withers in the heat of my longing.”

Niaerdh laughed. “What can you give me that my brother does not?”

“A high-roofed house,” he said, “rich offerings, warm flesh in your trencher and hot blood in your cup, sway over sowing and reaping, over begetting and birth and old age.”

“Those things are great,” she yielded him, “but what if I still turn from them?”

“Then life will die from the land and, dying, curse you,” he warned. “My arrows will fly to the horses of the Sun Car and slay them. When it falls aflame, the sea will boil; afterward it will freeze beneath a night that has no dawn.”

“No,” she said, “for first I will bring the waves in over your kingdom and drown it.”

They were silent a while.

“We are both strong,” she said at last. “Best that we not wreck the world between us. I will come to you in springtime with my dowry of rain, and together we will fare about the land to bless it. Your gift to me shall be the bull that you are riding.”

“That is too much,” said Frae. “In him is the might to fill earth’s womb. He scatters the foe, gores and tramples them, lays waste their fields. Rock shudders beneath his hoofs.”

“You may keep him ashore and use him as aforetime,” answered Niaerdh, “save when I have need for him. But mine he shall be, and in the end I will call him to me forever.” After another while she went on: “Each autumn I will leave you and go back to my sea. But in spring I will come again. This shall be the year and every year henceforward.”

“I had hoped for more,” said Frae, “and I think that if we sunder our doings, the gods of war will rove more free than erstwhile. Yet it is foredoomed that you will have it thus. I will await you when the sun turns north.”

“I will come to you on the rainbow,” Niaerdh plighted.

So it was. So it is.

1

Seen from the ramparts of Old Camp, nature was terrifying enough. Eastward, in this drought year, the Rhine gleamed shrunken. The Germans crossed it with ease, while supply vessels bound for the outposts along its left bank ran often aground and, before they could escape, might well fall into enemy hands. It was as if the very rivers, the ancient defenses of the Empire, were deserting Rome. Where forest on the farther side, woodlots on this, rose out of the plain, parched leaves were already browning and dropping. Farm plots had been sere until war made them not mud, but dust beneath a brazen sky, to gray the ash and charcoal of houses.

Now that soil bore a new crop, dragon’s teeth sprouted, a barbarian horde. Big blond men surged around emblems brought from sacred groves and bloody rites, poles or litters that held skulls or rude carvings of bear, boar, wisent, aurochs, elk, stag, wildcat, wolf. Sunset light flashed on spearheads, shield bosses, the occasional helmet, rarely a coat of ring mail or a cuirass taken off a slain legionary. Most went unarmored, in tunic and close-fitting trousers or stripped to the waist, perhaps with the skin of a beast shaggy above. They growled, barked, shouted, roared, stamped, a sound akin to ongoing distant thunder.

Distant indeed. Peering past the shadows stretched toward them, Munius Lupercus made out long hair knotted at the temple or atop the head. That was the style of the Suebian tribes in the heart of Germany. It wasn’t common, those must be small bands who had followed adventurer captains here, but it showed how far the word of Civilis had gone.

The majority braided their manes; some dyed them red or soaped them into spikes, in the manner of Gauls. They were Batavi, Canninefates, Tungri, Frisii, Bructeri, others native to these parts—and more to be feared, less because of their numbers than because they had knowledge of Roman ways. Hoo, there went a squadron of Tencteri, galloping on their ponies as flowingly as centaurs, lances and pennons aloft, axes at saddle bows, cavalry for the rebels!

“We’ll have a busy night,” Lupercus said.

“How can you tell, sir?” The orderly’s voice was not quite steady. He was just a boy, hastily picked for the job after experienced Rutilius fell. When five thousand soldiers had been driven off the field and into the nearest fort, with two or three times as many camp followers, you grabbed what you could.

Lupercus shrugged. “One gets a feeling for their moods.”

Not all the signs were subtle. Beyond the river and behind the male tumult on this side, smoke curled past kettles and spits. Women and children of the region had come along to egg their men on to battle. Now again the keening had begun among them. It spread and strengthened while he listened, saw—edged, with an underlying beat, ha-ba-da ha-ba, ha-ba-da-da. More and more ears turned toward it, more and more of the chaos eddied its way.

“I shouldn’t think Civilis would want action,” said Aletus. Lupercus had detached the veteran centurion from the fragments of his command that survived, to be staff officer and counselor. Aletus gestured down the palisade topping the earthworks. “The last couple of attacks cost him plenty.”

Corpses sprawled, bloated, discolored, amidst entrails and clotted blood, broken weapons, ruins of crude testudines under which the barbarians had tried to storm the gates. In places they filled the ditch. Mouths gaped around tongues that ants and beetles were eating. Crows had plucked out many of the eyes. Several birds still pecked away, tucking in a supper before nightfall. Noses had gotten used to the stench, except when a breeze bore it straight at them, and the eventide cooling had damped it.

“He has plenty to spare,” Lupercus said.

“Still, sir, he’s no fool, nor ignorant, is he?” the centurion persisted. “He marched with us twenty years or more, I’ve heard, clear down into Italy, and got as much rank as an auxiliary can get. He must know we’re short of food and everything. Starving us out makes better sense than charging at regulars and their machines.”

“True,” Lupercus agreed. “I daresay that’s been his intent since he failed to break in. But he hasn’t got Roman control over those wild men, you know.” Wryly: “Not that our legions haven’t been known to kick over the traces of late, eh?”

His gaze sought a center of steadiness around which the enemy weltered. Metal gleamed in arrays where men rested beneath the standards of their units; horses, tethered, fed quietly on oats brought them; newly built, its wood raw but solidly carpentered, a two-story siege tower waited on its wheels. Yonder lay Claudius Civilis, who formerly served Rome, and the tribesmen who had campaigned and learned beside him.

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