Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

PART ONE Chapter Five

My father greeted the Priest and wished him joy of his recovery and called for wine to be given him. But the Priest held up his hand and said, "No, King. I am under a strong vow, and neither food nor drink must pass my lips till I have given my message." He spoke well enough now, though weakly, and I noticed how much thinner he was since his sickness.

"As you please, servant of Ungit," said the King. "What's this of a message?"

"I am speaking to you, King, with the voice of Ungit and the voice of all the people and elders and nobles of Glome."

"Did all these, then, send you with a message?"

"Yes. We were all gathered - or those who could speak for all were gathered - last night, and even till this day's daybreak, in the house of Ungit."

"Were you, death and scabs?" said my father, frowning. "It's a new fashion to hold an assembly without the King's bidding; and newer still to hold it without bidding the King to it."

"There would have been no reason in bidding you to it, King, seeing that we came together not to hear what you would say to us but to determine what we would say to you."

My father's look grew very black.

"And being gathered together," said the Priest, "we reckoned up all the woes that have come upon us. First, the famine, which still increases. Second, the pestilence. Third, the drought.

Fourth, the certain expectation of war by next spring at the latest. Fifth, the lions. And lastly, King, your own barrenness of sons which is hateful to Ungit - "

"That's enough," shouted the King. "You old fool, do you think I need you or any of the other wiseacres to tell me where my own belly aches? Hateful to Ungit, is it? Why does Ungit not mend it then? She's had bulls and rams and goats from me in plenty; blood enough to sail a ship on if all were reckoned."

The Priest jerked up his head as if, though blind, he were looking at the King. And now I saw better how his thinness had changed him. He looked like a vulture. I was more afraid of him than I had been. The King dropped his eyes.

"Bulls and rams and goats will not win Ungit's favour while the land is impure," said the Priest. "I have served Ungit these fifty - no, sixty-three - years, and I have learned one thing for certain. Her anger never comes upon us without cause, and it never ceases without expiation. I have made offerings to her for your father and your father's father, and it has always been the same.

We were overthrown long before your day by the King of Essur; and that was because there was a man in your grandfather's army who had lain with his sister and killed the child. He was the Accursed. We found him out and expiated his sin, and then the men of Glome chased the men of Essur like sheep. Your father himself could have told you how one woman, little more than a child, cursed Ungit's son, the god of the Mountain, in secret. For her sake the floods came. She was the Accursed. We found her out and expiated her sin, and Shennit returned into her banks. And now, by all the signs I have reckoned over to you, we know that Ungit's anger is far greater than ever within my memory. Thus we all said in her house last night. We all said: 'We must find the Accursed.' Though every man knew that he himself might be the Accursed, no man spoke against it. I too - I had not a word to say against it, though I knew that the Accursed might be I - or you, King. For we all knew (and you may hold it for certain) that there will be no mending of all our ills till the land is purged. Ungit will be avenged. It's not a bull or a ram that will quiet her now."

"You mean she wants Man?" said the King.

"Yes," said the Priest. "Or Woman."

"If they think I can get them a captive in war at present, they must be mad. The next time I take a thief you can cut his throat over Ungit if you like."

"That is not enough, King. And you know it. We must find the Accursed. And she (or he) must die by the rite of the Great Offering. What is a thief more than a bull or a ram? This is not to be a common sacrifice. We must make the Great Offering. The Brute has been seen again. And when it comes, the Great Offering must be made. That is how the Accursed must be offered."

"The Brute? It's the first I've heard of it."

"It may be so. Kings seem to hear very little. They do not know even what goes on in their own palaces. But I hear. I lie awake in the nights, very long awake, and Ungit tells me things. I hear of terrible doings in this land, mortals aping the gods and stealing the worship due to the gods - "

I looked at the Fox and said, soundlessly, by the shaping of my lips, "Redival."

The King was walking up and down the room with his hands clasped behind his back and his fingers working.

"You're doting," he said. "The Brute's a tale of my grandmother's."

"It may well be," said the Priest, "for it was in her time that the Brute was last seen. And we made the Great Offering and it went away."

"Who has ever seen this Brute?" asked my father. "What is it like, eh?"

"Those who have seen it closest can least say what it is like, King. And many have seen it of late. Your own chief shepherd on the Grey Mountain saw it the night the first lion came. He fell upon the lion with a burning torch. And in the light of the torch he saw the Brute  - behind the lion - very black and big, a terrible shape."

As the Priest said this the King's walk had brought him close to the table where I and the Fox sat with our tablets and other tools for writing. The Fox slid along the bench and whispered something in my father's ear.

"Well said, Fox," muttered my father. "Speak up. Say it to the Priest."

"By the King's permission," said the Fox, "the shepherd's tale is very questionable. If the man had a torch, of necessity the lion would have a big black shadow behind it. The man was scared and new waked from sleep. He took a shadow for a monster."

"That is the wisdom of the Greeks," said the Priest. "But Glome does not take counsel with slaves, not even if they are kings' favourites. And if the Brute was a shadow, King, what then? Many say it is a shadow. But if that shadow begins coming down into the city, look to yourself. You are of divine blood and doubtless fear nothing. But the people will fear. Their fear will be so great that not even I will be able to hold them. They will burn your palace about your ears. They will bar you in before they burn it. You would be wiser to make the Great Offering."

"How is it made?" said the King. "It has never happened in my time."

"It is not done in the house of Ungit," said the Priest. "The victim must be given to the Brute. For the Brute is, in a mystery, Ungit herself or Ungit's son, the god of the Mountain; or both. The victim is led up the mountain to the Holy Tree, and bound to the Tree and left.

Then the Brute comes. That is why you angered Ungit just now, King, when you spoke of offering a thief. In the Great Offering, the victim must be perfect. For, in holy language, a man so offered is said to be Ungit's husband, and a woman is said to be the bride of Ungit's son. And both are called the Brute's Supper. And when the Brute is Ungit it lies with the man, and when it is her son it lies with the woman. And either way there is a devouring . . .

many different things are said . . . many sacred stories . . . many great mysteries. Some say the loving and the devouring are all the same thing. For in sacred language we say that a woman who lies with a man devours the man. That is why you are so wide of the mark, King, when you think a thief, or an old worn-out slave, or a coward taken in battle, would do for the Great Offering. The best in the land is not too good for this office."

The King's forehead, I saw, was clammy now. The holiness and horror of divine things were continually thickening in that room. All at once the Fox burst out, "Master, Master, let me speak."

"Speak on," said the King.

"Do you not see, Master," said the Fox, "that the Priest is talking nonsense? A shadow is to be an animal which is also a goddess which is also a god, and loving is to be eating - a child of six would talk more sense. And a moment ago the victim of this abominable sacrifice was to be the Accursed, the wickedest person in the whole land, offered as a punishment. And now it is to be the best person in the whole land - the perfect victim - married to the god as a reward. Ask him which he means. It can't be both."

If any hope had put up its head within me when the Fox began, it was killed. This sort of talk could do no good. I knew what had happened to the Fox; he had forgotten all his wiles, even, in a way, his love and fears for Psyche, simply because things such as the Priest had been saying put him beyond all patience. (I have noticed that all men, not only Greek men, if they have clear wits and ready tongues, will do the same.)

"We are hearing much Greek wisdom this morning, King," said the Priest. "And I have heard most of it before. I did not need a slave to teach it to me. It is very subtle. But it brings no rain and grows no corn; sacrifice does both. It does not even give them boldness to die.

That Greek there is your slave because in some battle he threw down his arms and let them bind his hands and lead him away and sell him, rather than take a spear-thrust in his heart.

Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book. I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood. Why should the Accursed not be both the best and the worst?"

The Priest looked more and more like a gaunt bird as he was speaking; not unlike the bird-mask that lay on his knees. And his voice, though not loud, was no longer shaking like an old man's. The Fox sat hunched together with his eyes fixed on the table. The taunt about being taken in war, I guessed, had been hot iron to some old ulcer in his soul. Certainly, I would that moment have hanged the Priest and made the Fox a king if power had been given me; but it was easy to see on which side the strength lay.

"Well, well," said the King, quickening his stride, "this may be all very true. I'm neither priest nor Greekling, I. They used to tell me I was the King. What's next?"

"Being determined, therefore," said the Priest, "to seek out the Accursed, we cast the holy lots. First we asked whether the Accursed was to be found among the commons. And the lots said 'no.'"

"Go on, go on," said the King.

"I cannot speak quickly," said the Priest. "I have not breath for it now. Then we asked if it was among the Elders. And the lots said 'no.'"

There was a queer mottled colour on the King's face now; his fear and his anger were just on the balance, and neither he nor anyone else knew at all which would have the victory.

"Then we asked if it were among the nobles. And the lots said 'no.'"

"And then you asked?" says the King, stepping up close to him and speaking low.

And the Priest said, "Then we asked: 'Is it in the King's house?' And the lots said 'yes.'"

"Aye," said the King, rather breathless. "Aye. I thought as much. I smelled it from the beginning. Treason in a new cloak. Treason." Then louder, "Treason." Next moment he was at the door, roaring, "Treason! Treason! Guards! Bardia! Where are my guards? Where's Bardia? Send Bardia."

There was a rush and a jingle of iron and guards came running. Bardia, their captain, a very honest man, came in.

"Bardia," said the King, "there are too many people about my door today. Take what men you think you need and fall on those rebels who are standing with spears out yonder over against the gate. Don't scatter them but kill. Kill, do you see? Don't leave one of them alive."

"Kill the temple guards, King?" said Bardia, looking from the King to the Priest and back at the King again.

"Temple rats! Temple pimps!" shouted the King. "Are you deaf? Are you afraid? I - I - " and his rage choked him.

"This is foolishness, King," said the Priest. "All Glome is in arms. There is a party of armed men at every door of the palace by now. Your guards are outnumbered ten to one. And they won't fight. Would you fight against Ungit, Bardia?"

"Will you slink away from my side, Bardia?" said the King. "After eating my bread? You were glad of my shield to cover you one day at Varin's wood."

"You saved my head that day, King," said Bardia. "I'll never say otherwise. May Ungit send me to do as much for you (there may be chance enough next spring). I'm for the King of Glome and the gods of Glome while I live. But if the King and the gods fall out, you great ones must settle it between you. I'll not fight against powers and spirits."

"You - you girl!" squealed the King, his voice shrill as a pipe. Then, "Be off! I'll talk with you presently." Bardia saluted and went out; you could see from his face that he cared no more for the insult than a great dog cares for a puppy making believe to fight him.

The moment the door was shut, the King, all quiet and white again, whipped out his dagger (the same he killed the page with the night Psyche was born), stepped up to the Priest's chair in three long cat's strides, shouldered the two girls away, and had the point of the dagger through the Priest's robes and into his skin.

"You old fool," he said. "Where is your plot now? Eh? Can you feel my bodkin? Does it tickle you? As that? Or that? I can drive it into your heart as quickly or slowly as I please. The wasps may be outside but I've got the queen wasp here. And now, what'll you do?"

I have never (to speak of things merely mortal) seen anything more wonderful than the Priest's stillness. Hardly any man can be quite still when a finger, much less a dagger, is thrust into the place between two ribs. The Priest was. Even his hands did not tighten on the arms of the chair. Never moving his head or changing his voice, he said,

"Drive it in, King, swift or slow, if it pleases you. It will make no difference. Be sure the Great Offering will be made whether I am dead or living. I am here in the strength of Ungit.

While I have breath I am Ungit's voice. Perhaps longer. A priest does not wholly die. I may visit your palace more often, both by day and night, if you kill me. The others will not see me. I think you will."

This was the worst yet. The Fox had taught me to think - at any rate to speak - of the Priest as of a mere schemer and a politic man who put into the mouth of Ungit whatever might most increase his own power and lands or most harm his enemies. I saw it was not so. He was sure of Ungit. Looking at him as he sat with the dagger pricking him and his blind eyes unwinking, fixed on the King, and his face like an eagle's face, I was sure, too.

Our real enemy was not a mortal. The room was full of spirits, and the horror of holiness.

With a beastly noise, all groan and snarl, my father turned away from the Priest and flung himself into his own chair and leaned back and passed his hands over his face and ruffled his hair like a man who is tired.

"Go on. Finish it," he said.

"And then," said the Priest, "we asked whether it was the King who was the Accursed, and the lots said 'no.'"

"What?" said the King. (And this is the greatest shame I have to tell of in my whole life.) His face cleared. He was only a hair's breadth from smiling. I had thought that he had seen the arrow pointed at Psyche all along, had been afraid for her, fighting for her.

He had not thought of her at all, nor of any of us. Yet I am credibly told that he was a brave enough man in a fight.

"Go on," he said. But his voice was changed, freshened, as if ten years of his age had slipped off him.

"The lot fell on your youngest daughter, King. She is the Accursed. The Princess Istra must be the Great Offering."

"It's very hard," said the King, gravely and glum enough, but I saw he was acting. He was hiding the greatness of his own relief. I went mad. In a moment I was at his feet, clinging to his knees as suppliants cling, babbling out I didn't know what, weeping, begging, calling him Father - a name I never used before. I believe he was glad of the diversion. He tried to kick me away, and when I still clung to his feet, rolling over and over, bruised in face and breast, he rose, gathered me up by my shoulders, and flung me from him with all his power.

"You!" he shouted. "You! You to raise your voice among the counsels of men? You trull, you quean, you mandrake root! Have I not woes and miseries and horrors enough heaped upon me by the gods but you also must come scrabbling and clawing me? And it would have come to biting in a trice if I'd let you. There's vixen in your face this minute. For two straws I'd have you to the guardhouse to be flogged. Name of Ungit! Are gods and priests and lions and shadowbrutes and traitors and cowards not enough unless I'm plagued with girls as well?"

I think he felt better the longer he railed. The breath had been knocked out of me so that I could neither sob nor rise nor speak. Somewhere above my head I heard them talking on, making all the plans for Psyche's death. She was to be kept prisoner in her chamber - or no, better in the room with five sides, which was more secure. The temple guards would reinforce our own; the whole house must be guarded, for the people were weathercocks  - there might be a change of mood, even a rescue. They were talking soberly and prudently like men providing for a journey or a feast. Then I lost myself in darkness and a roaring noise.

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