Chapter 1

After leaving the poker game, Azzie flew north. He had decided to look in on the great convention of demons being held at Aachen, Charlemagne’s old capital, as part of the opening ceremonies for the Millennial contest. But strong head winds held him up, since being invisible and slightly tenuous does not reduce all air pressure and drag. By evening, he had gotten no farther than Ravenna. He decided to pass up the convention and found a nice graveyard to rest in outside the city walls.

It was a pleasant place, with plenty of big old trees, oaks and willows, a pretty combination, and, of course, cypress, the stately death tree of the Mediterranean. There were nicely de­caying tombs and mausoleums. In the distance, he could see the sagging graystone outline of the city wall.

He made himself comfortable near a weathered headstone. What he needed now was a cozy fire. He raided a nearby mausoleum and found several exceedingly dry cadavers. These, together with some dead cats, who had been poisoned by some busybody from the town, fed the flames.

As night wore on, Azzie found that he was getting hungry. He’d had a fine feed last night at the poker game, and demons can go a long time between meals, but flying into head winds all day had given him an appetite. He emptied his sack to see what provisions he had left.

Ah, there were a couple of candied jackal’s heads he had taken from the party, wrapped in a bit of moldy winding-sheet. They were delicious morsels, but they left him unfilled. He looked to see what else was in the sack and discovered the pair of legs he’d won.

They looked delicious but he didn’t really want to eat them. He remembered some stirring of an idea when he’d first seen them, though now it was forgotten. He was sure there was something he could do with them other than eat them, so he propped them against a tombstone. They brought on an almost irresistible desire to soliloquize. Demons at this time thought nothing of traveling hundreds of miles to find a really good object to soliloquize over. It was an especially pleasant exercise on a desolate Italian upland “with a thrusting wind and the distant bark of jackals.

“O legs,” Azzie said, “I warrant you trooped nicely to your lady’s favor, and bowed well, too, since you are a pair of mus­cular and nimble legs, of the sort the ladies look upon with favor. O legs, I imagine you now, widespread in antic mirth, and then coiled tight together in that final paroxysm of love. When you were young, O legs, you climbed many a stately oak, and ran near running streams, and across the green friendly fields of your homeland. I daresay you dove over thicket and hedge as you careened your way. No path was too long for you, and you were never tired.”

“Think you so?” a voice said from above and behind him. Azzie turned and beheld the mournful cloaked figure of Hermes Trismegistus. He was not surprised that the mage had followed him here. Hermes and the other old gods seemed to follow a different destiny from demons or ghosts, a destiny unaffected by questions of good and evil.

“Good to see you again, Hermes,” Azzie said. “I was just philosophizing over this pair of legs.”

“I’m not going to stop you,” Hermes said.

He had been floating in the air about five feet above Azzie’s head. Now he drifted gracefully to the ground, bent, and ex­amined the legs.

“What sort of man do you suppose these belonged to?” Hermes asked.

Azzie turned and considered the legs. “A merry sort, ob­viously, for look you, they are still wrapped around with gaily colored woolen strips, of the sort that dandies and fellows who think well of themselves affect.”

“A dandy, do you think?”

“Most certainly, for look how exquisitely the calves are turned. And notice how perfectly formed and finely muscled the thighs are. You might also notice the small foot, with high, aristocratic arch, well-shaped toes, and evenly clipped nails. Nor is there much in the way of callusing on the heel and along the sides. This fellow did not have to do much to get his living, certainly not with his feet! How do you suppose he met his fate?”

“I know not,” Hermes said. “But we can soon find out.”

“Have you some trick?” Azzie asked. “Some feat of con­juration unknown to the common lot of demons?”

“Not for nothing,” Hermes said, “am I the patron saint of the alchemists, who invoke me when they concoct their mix­tures. They seek to turn base metal into gold, but I can turn dead flesh into living memory.”

“That seems a useful trick,” Azzie said. “Can you show me?”

“With pleasure,” Hermes said. “Let’s see how these legs spent their last day.”

As is customary in conjurations, there was a puff of smoke and a sound as of a brazen gong. As Azzie watched, the smoke parted and he saw…

A young prince marching off in defense of his father’s castle. A fair young man he was, and well set up for the warrior trade. He marched at the head of his troop of men, and they were a brave sight, their banners of scarlet and yellow fluttering finely in the summer breeze. Then, ahead, they saw another body of men, and the prince pulled his mount to a halt and called up his seneschal.

“There they are,” the prince said. “We have them fairly now, between a rock and a hard lump of ice, as they say in Lapland.”

This much Azzie saw. And then the vision faded.

“Can you read what fate befell him?” Azzie asked.

Hermes sighed, closed his eyes, lifted his head.

“Ah,” he said, “I have tuned in on the battle, and what a fine engagement of armed men it is! See how furiously they come together, and hear the well-tempered swords singing! Yes, they clash, they are all brave, all deft. But what is this… One of the men has left the circle. Not even wounded, but giving retreat already! It is the former owner of these legs.”

“Poltroon!” cried Azzie, for it was as though he could see the engagement.

“Ah, but he gets not off unscathed. A man is following, his eyes red with the blood fury, a huge man, a berserker, one of those whom the Franks have been fighting for hundreds of years, whom they call the madmen from the north!”

“I don’t like the northern demons much, either,” Azzie said.

“The berserker is running down the cowardly prince. His sword flashes – a sidewise blow struck with an uncanny com­bination of skill and fury.”

“Difficult to strike such a blow,” Azzie commented.

“The blow is well struck-the poltroon prince is cloven in twain. His upper half rolls in the dust. But his cowardly legs are still running, they are running now from death. Relieved of the weight of his upper body, they find it easy to run, though it is true they are running out of energy. But how much energy does it take for a pair of legs to drive themselves, when no one else is attached? Demons are pursuing these running legs, be­cause they have already passed the boundaries of the normal, already they run in the limitless land of possibilities that is the preternatural. And now, at last, they totter a last few steps, turn, sway, and then crash lifeless to the ground.”

“In short, we have here the legs of a coward,” Azzie said.

“A coward, to be sure. But a sort of divine coward who would run from death even in death, so afraid was he that what had in fact happened would happen.”


Обращение к пользователям