The Oracle (Fargo Adventure, #11)
DECEMBER 12, 533 A.D.
Kingdom of the Vandals, North Africa
The winter moon lit the paving stones as Gelimer, King of the Vandals, and his brother, Tzazon, galloped their horses through the old triumphal arch, past the theater, past the forum, past the still-elegant sleeping town houses. When they reached the center of the city, they veered left toward the old pagan tomb-lined highway leading out of Bulla Regia toward the hills. Once beyond the silent houses of the dead, they turned onto a long avenue filled with twisted shadows from the ancient olive trees. Their horses grew skittish as the silhouetted outlines of the neglected Temple of Saturn—the great god of the harvest—loomed up before them. A tangle of vines seemed to hold its crumbling, silver-tinged walls together, the entrance to the oracle’s temple hidden in the hill behind the ruins.
The two men reined to a stop, tying their horses to one of the trees.
“This way,” Gelimer said, leading Tzazon toward the temple, then up the stairs to the portico. They were met by a Moorish child, who seemed to appear out of nowhere.
She guided them over the porch of the temple, then beyond the ruins, deep into a cave in the hillside. Oil lamps hung from the ceiling at intervals, the shadows dancing across inscriptions carved into the walls. When they reached the heart of the cave, the girl stopped before an unlit chamber, Gelimer on one side of her, Tzazon on the other. Tzazon looked around. “Where is this oracle?”
The child raised her henna-traced hand in a gesture of silence. “Behold,” she said, “the Sign of Saturn.”
As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, they saw a tripod with glowing coals. Above this, a magic square seemed to materialize.
S A T O R
A R E P O
T E N E T
O P E R A
R O T A S
It glimmered for an instant, then vanished as the coals burst into flame. The flickering light revealed a girl not much older than the child who’d led them there. Sitting on a tall stool, she wore a turban, and was dressed in robes that shimmered like emeralds tinged with blood in the glow from the embers in the tripod. When she opened her dark eyes, she seemed to be looking straight at and through Gelimer at the same time.
The Priestess inhaled the fumes from the tripod. In a voice that seemed as thin as the wind whispering through the olive trees, she uttered her prophecy. “Saturn holds the wheels. The balance between Rhea, wealth and abundance, and Lua, destruction and dissolution . . . Hear, O King of the Vandals, the wheels have slipped. Lua reigns.”
A chill penetrated Gelimer’s heart. “Tell me, Sibyl, the meaning of your words.”
“It is as it was foretold. As Gamma pursued Beta, now Beta pursues Gamma.”
“Utter nonsense,” Tzazon said. “A children’s rhyme.”
The Priestess inhaled. “Two lost already, at the tenth milestone.”
The tenth milestone was where, in the attempt to rout the invading Byzantine Army outside of Carthage, their brother and nephew had met their deaths. Tzazon, unimpressed, spat. “She could have heard that from marketplace gossip. Or from one of Belisarius’s spies. Tell me of my death, Sibyl, so that I can prevent it.”
The Priestess turned his direction, her eyes as black as unlit coal. “Beware the third charge.”
“The witch is mad,” Tzazon muttered. “What does this even mean?”
The sibyl’s unseeing gaze turned back to Gelimer. “Know, O King, the Saturnalia is upon us. To break the curse, the sacred scroll must be returned by one who is of royal blood. Death will come to one who is not.”
“How?” Gelimer demanded. “How do I find this scroll?”
“The penultimate king sees it from the Underworld. The Usurper is blinded. He will lose that which he holds dear, until all that is left is shadow, and naught remains but vanity.” Then, as if the power of her oracles had drained the energy from her slim form, the Priestess slumped in her chair and seemed to disappear.
Gelimer and Tzazon were alone with the child in the darkness.
“She’s a Moor,” Tzazon said to Gelimer after the child led them out. The two men walked from the temple ruins toward their horses. “She worships the old gods. How can you deceive yourself by listening to anything she tells you?”
“Deceive myself? You will be the next to die unless I find this scroll and return it.”
“What is this curse you speak of?”
“It was cast as revenge from the very Priestess who helped Genseric win his conquest,” Gelimer said. “Genseric stole the scroll, hid it, ordered the Priestess’s death, then promised to destroy the scroll should anyone take up arms against the Vandals.”
Tzazon stopped in his tracks. “You expect me to believe that something that occurred well over a hundred years ago has any effect on the here and now? You forget, brother, that these so-called oracles are masters of the vague turn of phrase. You hear what you want to hear.”
“This oracle foretold Hilderic’s death if he failed to find the scroll before the festival of Saturnalia, then return it to Hippo Regius.”
“The only reason he is dead is because the Emperor Justinian would have tried to return him to the throne. It has nothing to do with prophecy and everything to do with protecting your kingdom.”
“And what of the penultimate king’s deathbed confession? How could she possibly have known that Hilderic’s last words were about the map?”
“There was no one there except Ammatas, who thrust the knife into his belly at my orders. And he told no one but me. If I can find this scroll, and break the curse before we go to battle, I may yet save your life.”
Tzazon freed the reins of his horse, then mounted. “Very well. Show me this map.”
The two men rode back into Bulla Regia to the royal house that Gelimer had occupied after he’d deposed his cousin Hilderic from the throne. It was the same home that belonged to Genseric, after he had stolen the scroll.
And now, a century later, it was up to Gelimer to see to its return.
When they reached the royal house, a dozing groom who guarded the doorway rose to attention, taking their horses as they dismounted. The two men strode up the steps, through the great entrance, passing into the atrium, where Gelimer seized a burning torch from its sconce. The torchlight caused the mosaics on the floor to glitter like jewels beneath their feet as the brothers crossed the central hall to a marble staircase. That led down to a long mazelike corridor in the story underground, which protected the Vandal rulers from the summer heat.
At last, the brothers reached what had been Genseric’s inner sanctum, then, years later, Hilderic’s. The flickering light revealed a desk and chair of ivory and ebony. On the floor beneath it, a detailed mosaic from the old pagan mythology—Echo, behind one of two olive trees flanking the temple, pining for Narcissus, who lay at the foot of the stairs, the handsome youth gazing downward, his finger almost touching the blue and white pattern of the pool in front of the temple.
“I have searched this room, this house, a thousand times,” Gelimer said. “There is no map.”
“Perhaps it was Hilderic’s final revenge. Sending you searching for something that doesn’t exist. What exactly did he tell Ammatas?”
“That unless I faced my vanity, I would fail to see that which is right in front of me.”
Tzazon grabbed the torch from him, pointing toward the floor. “Narcissus admiring his reflection. There’s the answer to your riddle.”
Gelimer stared at the shadows cast upon the mosaic by the dancing flame. Echo was looking at Narcissus, who seemed not to know she was there. Behind him was a building, which looked very much like the Temple of Saturn. “His reflection,” Gelimer said as he repeated the sibyl’s words in his head. All that is left is shadow, and naught remains but vanity. He looked up at his brother. “Vanity. That’s the map. Narcissus is pointing directly at it.”
“A map of what?” Tzazon said, scrutinizing the pattern in the blue and white mosaic beneath Narcissus.