Lagniappe



 
This page is dedicated to "a little something extra" which will change from time to time according to the prevailing winds. It might be a humor piece or an essay or a poem, or a rant, or a fairy tale, or all of them mixed together. 

Two Brothers of Amalfi 


 IN THOSE DAYS, when the King of Naples wore a red beard and conversed with his birds in pure Arabic, there were born twin sons to a merchant of Amalfi. (Today we would say that they were born to the wife of the merchant, but the coarser details of life were glossed over in those days.) They were beautiful green-eyed, golden-haired boys, such as one rarely sees in the south. The merchant (or his wife) named them Marco and Ottuno. Marco was the elder of the two, having been born a full five minutes before Ottuno. He took his responsibilities as the elder seriously. Having guarded his brother's entrance into the world, he felt it his duty to guard Ottuno's footsteps wherever he went. Ottuno accepted his brother's protection with equanimity and even a certain amount of noblesse oblige. Thus Ottuno grew up laughing and carefree, while Marco's brow from early on was a knot of seriousness.

 Let's glissando past their childhood. The mother dies while they are young. The father, reduced by circumstances, dies as they are about to come of age, leaving his sons only two small casks of gold, and an admonition to go out in the world to make their fortunes. It was Marco's idea that they should travel together. It was Ottuno's idea that they should not. He sought livelier company than his brother had heretofore provided. They each took a cask of gold. Marco buried his in a secret place, keeping it against hard times ahead. Ottuno, recalling the parable of the talents, strapped his to his saddlebags and rode away cheerfully.

 Which of the two brothers should we follow first? If we trail after Ottuno, we'll find tales of good food, strong wine, wild companions, and amorous women. It's an appealing thought. But if you want amorous adventure and fine wine, you can stop reading and slip down to the nearest cafe. Whereas, if you want to get as quickly as possible to the troll's castle (by following Marco), you must continue reading. So it's Marco we'll follow, in the interest of keeping an audience. 

Ottuno had gone south. Marco headed north, into the teeth of the Apennine mountains. There he came upon an isolated kingdom, cut off from commerce with the outside world. He would never have found it had he been searching for it; he let his horse lead him there. It didn't look much of a kingdom when he first crossed its border: a hill path, a ramshackle old house perched on its shoulder. In front of the house was a well, and an old woman at the well, who bade him go no further. Her name, she told him, was Nonni Oscura. He could spend the night under her roof, then turn back the way he had come. Marco laughed at Nonni Oscura's dark intimations. He would be pleased to accept her hospitality, he said, but why should he not continue on up the mountain path in the morning? 


"See you where the road turns sharply east there, just ahead?" The old woman thrust a bony hand that way. "That's the boundary of the kingdom of Solinus, last of the troll-kings of Italy. He's gathered to himself all the great troll-clans of the peninsula. They rule the mountains, and their hatred for men is sharp as the north wind and bitter as the sea." 

Marco knew the history of the trolls, of course. They had come out of Germany centuries ago, looting and burning and killing anyone and anything in their paths. They had sacked the great city of Rome. They had taken knives and hacked the last Roman emperor to death on his own throne, and dragged his body through the streets. Then they had divided Italy up into a hundred warring troll-kingdoms. The Italians are a patient people with foreign interlopers, but after a few centuries of subjugation, they had risen up, village by village and city by city, to overthrow the trolls. They had driven them high into the mountains, where their numbers dwindled and they were forgotten. Marco had never met a troll himself, but he remembered two points of gossip about them from the old wives of Amalfi: that they were fabulously wealthy, and that their daughters were scandalously beautiful. He managed to work both points into his conversation with Nonni Oscura. 

It was true, admitted the old woman, and that, she said, was the devilry of the thing. If a man entered the realm of King Solinus, the troll-king himself would challenge that man to mortal combat. If he demurred, the man would go free. If the man slew King Solinus, then he would inherit his startling wealth, his astonishingly beautiful daughter, and his brutally fierce warriors. If he was defeated by the king, however, he was forced into slavery for the rest of his miserable life. No man had ever declined the challenge, and no man could ever defeat Solinus. 

If it were the old woman's intention to discourage Marco from continuing forward into the troll-kingdom, it were far better she had never mentioned Solinus's challenge, or his wealth, or especially his daughter. Marco was set upon half the night by strange dreams of avarice and lust. He woke in the dark before dawn to the sound of the old woman snoring loudly in a corner. He saddled his horse in silence and rode away into the kingdom of Solinus. 

At first his horse stepped nervously through a clinging fog, shoulder-high, but the first rays of sunshine tore at the white curtain till it was no more than tatters. On either side of the road stretched away the green bowl of a mountain meadow. There were men at work in the far fields, their shoulders bowed by heavy iron collars. Not one of them looked up as Marco rode by. In truth, they looked neither right nor left, up nor down, but straight ahead always. Marco thought disdainfully that they seemed hardly the kind of men to challenge the troll-king in single combat. He had already decided that he would make that challenge. In Amalfi he was considered something of a swordsman. The troll's proper weapon, he knew, wasn't a sword, but a stick. 

As he neared the castle of Solinus, a craggy imminence that seemed bludgeoned out of the rock rather than built by hand, Marco began to come across trolls. They seems all horn and hide and bad manners. They at least noticed his passage, but with a sidelong, grimacing kind of squint, as if he smelled bad. But not a one of them acknowledged his salute, nor yet attempted to hinder his progress. Soon he came to the castle walls. A hundred trollish heads peered down at him from the black battlements. An immense shield twice the size of a man hung before the gates, displaying the arms of Solinus, the lion and the sun. He dismounted and struck the shield three times with the butt of his sword. It was not a ringing challenge, but a dull knocking, answered by laughter from above. The castle gates opened just wide enough to admit a man on horseback, then groaned shut behind him. 


 Soldiers bid Marco dismount and led his horse away. He would never see that faithful beast again. He was handed over to two guards. Courtiers they were, by their embroidered tunics and silken hose, but their legs were knotty as old tree-trunks and their faces were twisting into leering grimaces. They led him through the dark keep and down long, musty corridors until he came stumbling into the light. The chamber he found himself in might have belonged to the Grand Turk, so luxurious it was with tapestries and carpets and pillows. A man would have a hard time stubbing his toe in there. Marco was hustled across the room and made to genuflect before the throne. A huge troll with red eyes and curving tusks leaned down from the throne and placed his hammer-like hands on Marco's shoulder. This was Solinus himself. 



"Welcome, stranger!" he boomed, and his fetid breath almost made Marco faint. "Is it true that you have come to challenge me here in my own kingdom?" Marco nodded weakly. "It is the tradition of the trolls that the strongest rules. I am the strongest!" Solinus bellowed. "Tonight, for your courage, you shall be my guest, and taste the delights of the trolls. Tomorrow, for your folly, you will become my slave. Sit here beside me!" Solinus clapped his hands, and a little velvet stool was brought and set beside the throne for Marco to sit on.

 Marco was now at his leisure, if it can be called that, to examine his surroundings. The throne room was vast, filled with hundreds of trolls, all lolling about on pillows or low couches, in a gross parody of the noble manner. A chamberlain smote a gong, and there floated into the room female servants, lithe and graceful as dancers, bringing trenchers of meat and cups of wine. The trolls helped themselves to the feast, jeering and poking at the girls. As they served Solinus and Marco, the latter could only gape with pleasure and amazement. 

"Who are these wondrous maidens?" He asked the air before him. 
`` 
Solinus gulped down a hunk of mutton and answered, "These are the daughters of the trolls. Not bad-looking, are they?" 

He shot out a hairy paw and dragged the closest girl onto his knee. She sat there giggling and cooing, her eyes full of mischief. Marco found her entirely adorable. "But these girls are mere geese compared to the beauty of my own daughter, Chiara. She should be here, but she thinks herself too fine to wait upon her father. You'll meet her if you kill me." Solinus let go with a huge belly-laugh, and slapped the girl on her shapely backside. She scampered away provocatively. Marco sipped his wine in a daze, watching the maidens flicker back and forth like flames in the fireplace. If these girls were plain compared to the daughter of Solinus, he thought, then she must be the pearl of the world! Solinus watched him shrewdly through the black slits of his eyes. 

All that night went by in an insensate whirl. Marco ate and drank till he was like to burst, but he tasted nothing. He retained a vague memory of being led to bed by two shimmering nymphs, but what happened to them after his head hit the soft sheets, he never knew. He was wakened roughly in the dark. The niggardly flame of the taper showed him two troll-faces devoid of any expression but malice. They dragged him out to a long narrow courtyard behind the castle where Solinus waited with two masked attendants. Marco shivered with the chill, and then with the terror of the troll-king. Solinus stood like a black tower, wrapped in his cloak. His eyes were small and glittering yellow. His tusks looked newly sharpened. He raised his sword in salute, and the two attendants stepped back. Marco raised his own sword, and lowered it just in time to catch the troll's sudden lunging thrust. His arm burned from the wrist to the shoulder with the shock of it. He stepped back as the blade whistled in front of him, then tried to cut in under it, but the troll parried and pushed him back. Their swords clanged together in the grey morning. 

Solinus was easily the stronger fighter; he bore down on his opponent with the fury of the bull. But Marco was faster. He had already slashed two gaping holes in the black cloak; beneath was a shining that Marco hoped was blood. All at once the sun came up, bright and sharp. Solinus laughed wolfishly and tossed his greasy curls back from his face. 

"I grow warm!" he cried. "Permit me to remove my cloak!" Marco bowed. He watched the troll unpin the clasp of his cloak. Then he saw a glint of light. Armor! he thought. The troll is fighting foul! It was the last thing he would see. The sun caught the surface of the troll's armor and burned itself into Marco's eyes. He shut them tight, but it was too late. He had already lost his sight forever. Solinus growled from somewhere in front of him. 

"This is the armor brighter than the sun! All who look on it are blinded!" With one blow he sent the sword spinning from Marco's hand. With the flat of his blade he knocked him to the ground. He set his foot on Marco's neck. Marco lay writhing beneath him, blind as a worm. "Had I my choice," said the troll-king, "I would kill every man that came in my way. But the fields need tilling, the mines need delving, I need slaves. So live, slave." 

He wrapped the black cloak around him again. The two attendants removed the masks they had worn to protect their eyes from the brightness of the armor. They dragged Marco away into the darkness. 

We have little choice, then, but to return to Ottuno. Ottuno in turn had had little choice but to return to the house where he and Marco had grown up, and begin digging. Good food, strong wine and amorous women had drained his pockets all too swiftly, and he had begun to thin of the chest of gold he knew his brother had buried beneath the beech tree in the garden. What a waste that was! Ottuno aimed to right that wrong. So he dug. But the chest was not there. Ottuno raised an eyebrow in appreciation. His brother was cleverer than he took him for. He had obviously dug up the chest again and re-buried it where Ottuno wouldn't find it. After digging up the entire garden, Ottuno raised the other eyebrow in chagrin. Obviously Marco had found that he could not get on in the world without at least a little gold, so he had returned to take the chest away. 

It remained, then, for Ottuno to catch up to his brother, wherever he might be, and help him spend whatever gold remained. So our story gallops back into the mountains, and comes to a halt in front of Nonnie Oscuro's decrepit door. It had not been hard to follow his brother's trail; the two men looked so much alike that people thought he was the same man come round again. Even Nonnie Oscuro let out a little screech, thinking at first that he was Marco's ghost. Ottuno listened to the whole story of the troll's castle, the troll's gold, the troll's daughter and the troll's challenge. He was not enthused. He figured there were simpler ways to get gold and girls than by fighting some son-of-a-troll for them. But he was hard up for money. His brother had ridden into the troll-kingdom and had not returned. Possibly he had killed the head troll and was living in style. Probably not. Possibly a claim could be lodged for the horse and the chest of gold. Probably not. Ottuno considered the possibilities all night and into the better part of the next day until Nonnie Oscuro tired of his moping and drove him from her house. 

He took the road into the troll-kingdom at last, for want of a better idea, and to see what might happen next. In this, Ottuno was something like the writer of this story, and something like the reader. For the reader, it has only been a few paragraphs, but for Marco, many weary months have passed. Every day he has gone out blind into the sun to work the fields or blind into the dark mines to dig. It makes no difference to him. He has learned to do his work without sight and without hope. His fellow slaves offer little in the way of companionship: all blinded by Solinus, embittered by slavery, silent and dreaming. 

His only friend in those days, if it can be called that, was the old troll-woman who brought him his supper in his lonely cell: hard bread, salt broth, sour wine. An old sow she was, surely, but Marco had found some warmth in her voice. He told her all his history, and all of his brother's. In return she told him stories of the cold Carpathian mountains where the trolls had their ancestral homes. She knew all about Solinus and his clan, how he had come from nowhere to seize the throne. She knew about the Armor Brighter Than The Sun. It had originally been forged by a god, she said, and had been worn by many heroes of old Rome. It made the wearer nearly invulnerable to attack, she said. And Marco sat alone in the dark night thinking to himself: Nearly? Nearly? 

"Welcome, stranger! Is it true that you have come to challenge me here in my own kingdom?" Ottuno looked up into the slitted eyes of Solinus. He was reminded of a snorting boar that had surprised him once in the woods. 
"By no means, sire!" he said quickly. "I had heard rumor of the glory of your realm, and the nobility of its prince. I had to see for myself, so I could admire you and spread your fame all over the world." Trolls hear little in the way of flattery, and so have not built up much immunity to it, even to this day. Solinus stared goggle-eyed at his "guest", his fat lips working soundlessly. He just barely remembered to clap his hands to start the feast. 

Ottuno sipped his wine judiciously, watching the troll-maidens pirouette across the chamber. Some of them were not bad, he thought, but none of them held a candle compared to Palermo girls. Solinus eyed him, thinking: I'll make him a slave tomorrow. No use upsetting precedent. But it would be nice to have an ambassador to noise one's glory about the other European courts. 
When the two troll-maidens led Ottuno away to bed, he stumbled drunkenly between them. He pinched their bottoms mercilessly. He landed on the bed with a thud. The maidens, laughing, left him up for dead. As soon as they were gone, he sat up, clear-headed, and began to consider the situation. His chances for survival were slim if he were still to be found in the castle the next morning, he knew. The hospitality of trolls was not a byword in Italia. If his brother were alive somewhere in the dungeons below, he would never have time to search for him. Hard luck to Marco. On the other hand, he had seen some very good gold candlesticks in the throne-room. And some nice fat purses opened to tip the serving-girls. If he searched under the cushions and the rugs in there, he might make out better than if Marco had handed over his whole chest of gold. A bit of burglary seemed in order. 

Ottuno stole to the door and cracked it open. Black silence yawned before him. He slipped soundlessly into the dark corridor -- and collided with someone. There were a few seconds of anxious grappling and hushing before he realized it was a troll-maiden he had in his arms, and an unresistant one at that. He took his hand from her mouth and put his lips there instead. After a time she broke away and said: 
"Signor Ottuno!" 

"Si, mi cuore?"

 "I know you've come to rescue your brother Marco! I can lead you to him." She couldn't see the surprise in Ottuno's eyes. Or the disappointment. "We must hurry. It is far." 

She took his hand and led him away in the dark. The dungeons were deep, deep, deep, deeper than the roots of the mountains. She led him down a thousand winding steps and more. At intervals they passed troll-guards, each lit by a single torch like a saint in his niche at church, and each of them so deeply asleep that only their own thunderous snorings might have wakened them. Ottuno tried to get a better look at his co-conspirator, but her face was hidden in a deep hood. At last they touched bottom. Ottuno sat winded on the last step. 

The girl pulled him to his feet impatiently. "Your brother's cell is at the end of this corridor, on the right", she told him. "You must be the one to free him." 

She pressed a large key into his palm and pushed him in the direction of the cells. In the dark he could barely make out the outlines of an archway and a low tunnel-like hall. 

"What about you?" he asked. 

"I have another errand which will not wait. I'll rejoin you again later." She touched her lips to his cheek, then disappeared into the night. 

She must have the eyes of a cat, Ottuno thought as he shuffled down the hallway, hands brushing the wall beside. He came to the end and found the door she had told him of. After a hundred tries he was able to fit the key in the lock, and swing the door open. Marco felt the cold air rush into his little cell. 

 "Who?" he whispered. 

"Ottuno." "Little brother! I knew you'd come for me." Marco stumbled forward to embrace his brother. Ottuno felt the cold iron of the slave-collar around his brother's neck. 

 "Let's get out of here," he said. 

"No, wait!" Marco protested. "Barzaletta promised to bring the weapons we'll need." Ottuno didn't know who Barzaletta was, and he didn't like the idea that weapons of any kind might be needed. His plan was to escape quietly, with no fighting involved. 

When Marco explained that Barzaletta was the old wardress, Ottuno became even more disenchanted. But his brother would not be budged. He told Ottuno the story of his fight with Solinus, and the Armor Brighter Than The Sun. He seemed to have some crazy idea of revenge, and no amount of coaxing could dissuade him. Then he heard footsteps. "Guards are coming!" Marco placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "I know her tread. It's Barzaletta at last." It was indeed the old woman. Her voice rasped like a rusty door: "Marco, I bring you the weapons I promised. They'll bring you success if you use them as I told you. This is your brother, eh? As like to you as an image in the glass." "How can you see anything in this murk, old woman?" Ottuno asked peevishly. "My eyes are better than yours, maybe." Her laugh was a deep gurgle. Ottuno had hoped his earlier guide would return as well, but when he tried to ask about her, the old woman forestalled him. "Listen. There is little time. You must race if you are to reach the bedchamber of Solinus by dawn. I'll give you direction, brother of Marco, for you must lead your brother there. Then he will know what to do." She gave Marco a sword, and what looked to Ottuno like a great oval shield wrapped in cloth. She pushed the brothers out of the cell and down the corridor, whispering instructions first to Ottuno and then to Marco. At the foot of the stair she gave Marco a quick, clumsy hug, then trundled off into the darkness. All these mysterious entrances and exits had begun to make Ottuno's head swim. He felt his brother tug on his arm, and they set out on their upwards journey, stumbling and staggering past the dreaming troll-guards till, long hours later, they reached the high towers of the castle, and found themselves in front of Solinus's door. There were no guards there. Solinus needed no guards, as Barzaletta had explained. He slept every night in the Armor Brighter Than The Sun. It made for an uncomfortable slumber, but a secure one. Marco pulled his sword. Solinus woke to the sound of heavy knocking on his door. He raised one eyelid experimentally. By thunder! It was barely dawn. He'd left specific instructions not to be wakened. Since this latest intruder had refused to fight, Solinus could skewer him at his leisure. The door shuddered again and again with knocking. Solinus cursed and reached for his cloak and his sword. Whoever had disturbed him deserved to be gored. In one leap he was at the door and flung it open. "Solinus! Meet your death!" cried the man at the door. My little guest has changed his mind about the challenge, thought Solinus. The foolish man stood there with sword pointed at him, a long shield draped in canvas at his side. No reason to give him the honor of combat. Solinus simply stepped back and dropped his cloak to the floor. Problem eliminated. But his challenger did not go down. He didn't even blink. He stared straight at Solinus and uncovered his shield. Marco heard Solinus gasp, then the great roar of pain, then a long hissing like the sound of frying bacon. Then a thud, and silence. And somewhere nearby, Ottuno whimpering in fear. It was not merely a shield Marco held before him, but a long silver mirror, the Mirror Brighter Than the Moon. It had quite done for Solinus, reflecting back the light of his armor a thousand times brighter. It had not simply blinded the troll-king, it had reduced him to a pile of ashes. His golden armor lay empty, smoldering on the floor. Marco began to wrestle with the armor's fittings, though it was still hot to the touch. "Help, me, Ottuno!" he said. "That death-rattle of his will soon bring a whole army of trolls. I must put on the armor. Ottuno appeared around the corner, still wearing the blindfold Barzaletta had provided for him. He put his hand on Marco's shoulder. An idea had come to him. "Brother, no!" he cried. "Put the armor on me. In your blindness, any enemy could simply throw a blanket over the armor and subdue you. I have my sight! Let me vanquish our enemies." It seemed a strong argument. Marco had no time think about it. They could hear the sound of heavy feet tramping down the corridor already. Fumbling together, they fit the armor on Ottuno. They covered the Mirror Brighter Than the Moon. And Ottuno removed his blindfold. They were barely in time. Two guards came rushing down the hall, swords drawn. They screeched in pain, blinded by the armor. Ottuno kicked them where they lay while Marco relieved them of their weapons. But more guards were on the way. "Come no further!" Ottuno yelled down the hall. I have slain Solinus and taken his armor!" He walloped one of the blinded guards across the rump with his sword. The guard let out a convincing wail of pain. There was a babble of voices from the other end of the corridor, and a few blustering challenges. But no one came forth to face them. Ottuno stood sweating in the hot armor. Marco crouched in the doorway, listening. Then a voice, high and clear. A female voice: "Signor Outlander! Is it true you have destroyed my father King Solinus?" "Solinus is a pile of dust! Who are you?" "I am Princess Chiara! Cover yourself with your cloak, that you may receive your subjects. By our law, you are now king of the trolls, and my affianced husband!" This was better than Ottuno could have hoped for. He whispered a few words to Marco. Marco nodded an assent. Ottuno picked up the cloak and covered his armor. "Come on, then, all of you! But the princess first." As soon as he laid eyes on the Princess Chiara, Ottuno was struck dumb. If the troll-maidens were the loveliest children of the earth, Chiara's beauty was something altogether otherworldly, like a shower of stars on an August night. So beautiful was she that she was almost frightening, her face perfection beyond pity, beauty beyond hope. Like the Mirror Brighter Than the Moon, her face took the morning light and forged it into a terrible sword. In that moment, Ottuno's soul was burned away to ashes. She gazed steadily at him, then at the blind man standing in his shadow. "You conquered Solinus?" she asked. Ottuno nodded. "Then who is he?" Ottuno turned to look at his brother. Marco was hardly a prepossessing sight. Long months of slavery had reduced him to a dirty hank of bone and hair. "Some runaway slave, by the look of him," said Ottuno. "I know him not." Chiara motioned to the guards. Marco had stood there all the time listening, so enchanted by the sound of Chiara's voice that he hardly noticed what she was saying. Now the enormity of his brother's betrayal hit him so hard that for a moment he couldn't speak. In that moment heavy hands were laid on him and he was dragged away, screaming and gibbering, back down to his dark cell. I can hardly describe to you the wild orgy that was Ottuno's wedding feast. Modesty forbids me from following him to his marriage bed. The sounds that issued therefrom sounded more like wild boars being shoed than the cooing of turtledoves. They lay together the next morning, Ottuno and his troll-bride. Chiara poured honey in his ear, praising his bravery in destroying her father. She had waited so long, she said, for a husband who could release her from her father's tyranny. For all his power, her father had been a coward. She hated nothing so much as a coward. There he was, holed up in his mountain fastness with the strongest army in all Europe, yet he had refused to budge forth. It had been hundreds of years since Rome could claim an emperor of its own. Why not the King of the Trolls? Many a military campaign has begun in the bedroom. It wasn't long before troll-smiths were polishing armor and sharpening swords, and troll-warriors were beating their shields in anticipation of conquest. It wasn't long before battle-cries rang from the mountains, and troll-armies poured like lava down into the valleys of Latium. The new king of the trolls was going to war, goaded on by the stinging kisses and barbed endearments of his beautiful bride. As always, the farmers in the fields were the first to catch it in the neck. The swift fled in fear while the slow were trampled beneath troll boots. Wives and daughters were raped, crops and cottages burned. The refugees poured into Rome and threw themselves upon the mercy of Pope Sixtus VI. The pope sent forth his condotierres to war, handsomely mounted and fashionably armed. Those who did not escape the trolls' murderous onslaught died beautifully young. The pope locked himself into Castel Santangelo and Ottuno laid siege to him -- out of courtesy more than anything else, since he had already conquered all of Rome besides. The denizens of Rome suffered for six months until the pope exhausted his supply of good wines and capitulated. He came down from his tower and handed the keys of St. Peter's to Ottuno. So Ottuno took unto himself the ancient title of Caesar Augustus. He sent emissaries to the crowned heads of Europe and Asia, demanding their allegiance to Rome. He had a triumphal arch built at the end of the Trastavere. And his queen insisted on a triumphal procession, in the manner of the ancient Roman imperators. He would wear the Armor Brighter Than the Sun. Ottuno was not familiar with the rituals of the Roman empire. He stood in the back of his gold-plated chariot in the chilly morning, complaining to his charioteer. "Why am I last in all this parade? As emperor, shouldn't I be the first?" "It's an old Roman custom, Imperator," answered the charioteer. "The conqueror drives all his enemies before him. Look up there where the pope and his cardinals are walking barefoot." "But I'm not driving at all! You are. Why can't I simply ride a horse?" "Another Roman tradition, Pontifex Maximus. The chariot with two horses, harnessed separately. It's a symbol that even the emperor is led by Chance and the will of the gods, Jesus Christ forgive me. That's why I wear the armor of a Roman tribune." Trumpets blared and the procession began. The charioteer flicked the reins and the horses lumbered forward. "Don't look back here, charioteer. I'm taking my cloak off now." "As you say, Caesar." It had already been announced to the populace that their new ruler would be wearing his Armor Brighter Than the Sun. Anyone foolish enough to not avert his sight would certainly lose it. So while the people did not actually see their Caesar go by, they were suitably awed by his brilliant invisibility. Ottuno heard a clap like thunder, and looked up to see a thousand white birds fill the sky. "What's that for?" "Another Roman tradition, Augustus." "Of course." "Even as the mighty are laid low, the meek are raised up. On your triumphal day, all prisons are opened and the prisoners released." "Is that so?" Ottuno didn't feel comfortable with the idea. The chariot rumbled on over the rutted Roman road. Suddenly Ottuno's eyes were caught by a wonder. "Charioteer! Who are those men waving over there? Why don't they avert their eyes?" "There's no need, troll-king. They're already blind." "Rome has so many blind men?" "No, those are the slaves that Solinus blinded. They, too, were released from prison for your triumph. "All of them?" The charioteer nodded. "Well, they seem enthusiastic. They're all cheering me." "Not exactly," answered the other. "What's that you say?" The charioteer turned to look back at Ottuno. His eyes were wide and unblinking. "I rather think they're cheering me, brother. They're my friends, after all." The charioteer removed his helmet. It was Marco. Ottuno was astonished and dismayed, but ready to nerve it out. "Marco! Thank God you're safe! I've been trying to find you, ever since that misunderstanding --" "Put a sock in it, brother." And Marco did, jamming a gag into his brother's mouth. Blind hands reached for Ottuno from all around the chariot, overpowering him, stripping him of his armor. They carried him off struggling among the clouds of birds and clouds of dust, and he was never seen again above ground. Long before the procession ended, Marco had donned the troll armor and the black cloak. No one had witnessed the switch; the armor had assured that. And few people marked how heavily the emperor leaned on his wife's arm when he dismounted alone from the chariot at the end of the parade. Rome is a city in which one new wonder replaces the last in quick succession. In six weeks time, ordinary Italians had forgotten they had an emperor. In six months time, even historians wondered what had become of him. I can tell you. Marco had retired to a nice little villa near Firenze. He had disbanded and disarmed his army of trolls. He became a financier and a patron of the arts. His wife, the Lady Chiara Barzaletta, was reckoned the loveliest woman in all Tuscany. Chiara, of course, had immediately recognized that it was not Ottuno who had returned to her after the procession. She had arranged the entire affair after Marco had been betrayed by his brother. She had loved Marco since she first spied him in her father's throne room, and had visited him often in his prison, pretending to be the old wardress Barzaletta. The sight of his dear blind eyes had softened her into something altogether unlike steel. There are still plenty of trolls in Italy. They may wear Armani suits and ride in limousines, but beneath the veneer of civilization they are still wild and uncouth and sinfully ugly. One should avoid them at all costs. And it would be easy for men to avoid them, if not for the temptation of their lovely daughters.







(all art by John Bauer)

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