'I am neither Guelf nor Ghibelline. I am a condottiere, serving the one who pays best.' It was not entirely true; towards the end the emperor had not paid me
enough to keep my company at full strength, but that was none of this man's concern.
'Then for what were you exiled, Macalaure?' he wanted to know.
'For murder, and rebellion,' I said bluntly. 'Desiring to avenge the murdered head of our House and the theft of our jewels, we slew those who declined to aid us and refused to seek the pardon of those who condemned us.' In the course of time, I had found to my chagrin that told like this, our tale was nothing out of the ordinary. And in truth, Dante did not look particularly shocked.
'I also refused to seek pardon,' he mused.
'But you say you did nothing wrong.'
'I only sought to serve my city.'
'That's the difference,' I said. If I were to tell him the full tale of the atrocities I had committed he would not be sitting at my side for long.
'Your city,' he began after a while. 'Valinóre. I do not believe I have ever heard the name before. Where on earth is it to be found?'
Nowhere on earth, of course. But how could I tell him that it had been removed from the circles of the world, and that even the straight road that had remained open to the Eldalië for a while was closed now? My new acquaintance had told me he would not crawl back to Florence on his bare knees, but I would gladly crawl back naked to the lands of my birth, if only it would be granted to me. Naked as a disembodied soul I would return - if only I had been able to die. But I never died: not by weapon, not by torment, not by grief. Even such deaths were taken from me, it seemed. I tend to laugh a little when mortals believe that death is the harshest of sentences. But the laughter soon dies. There is nothing to laugh when time and again, life - if it can be called that - proves an inescapable punishment. In my native tongue the word for world is Doom(3), but I may be the only speaker of Quenya who fully comprehends what this means.
I don't even fade, though I often think it would be more convenient than staying visible. But I fear the guilty cannot fade if their guilt is too substantial.
'It's far from here,' I replied to his question.
'It's not here in Italy.' A factual statement, delivered with such utter certainty that denying it would be useless. Apparently, Dante was as knowledgeable as he was curious. But I was loath to disclose more about myself, so I chose to remain silent.
It did not work. 'So, how far away is it?'
'Too far,' I replied curtly.
'Further away than Cathay(4)?' he asked, eying me intently.
He shook his head impatiently. 'Messere, the world happens to be round(5). If you travel beyond Cathay, you will eventually return to the place where you set out.' He snorted. 'If it is further away than Cathay one would almost think that your Valinóre is not on this earth at all.'
This would be the proper moment to rise and leave. By now, I had risen and left for years innumerable, always moving on before people could wonder in earnest why I did not age; why I never fell sick; why my injuries healed so swiftly; why I saw things they failed to see, or heard things they did not hear. In short, before they could wonder whether I was angel or demon and faced the choice between adoration and exorcism. Always an unpleasant choice, not only for me but for everyone involved: mortals seldom agree and yet are rarely able to cope with their mutual disagreements. As I was not worth fighting over, I usually left before it would come to that.
This night, I did not leave. After all this was but one man, who could only fall out with himself.
'If it's nowhere on earth, you tell me where it is, messer Dante,' I heard myself say. 'Maybe on the moon? Somewhere among the stars? Yes, I think that's where it must be.'
'The stars? You would claim it to be Paradise?'(6)
'I would.' What did it matter if we both meant different things? The original meaning was garden; fair enough..
'Paradise is lost,' Dante said caustically. 'Are you a blasphemer as well as a murderer and a rebel? No wonder that you can't go back, then.' He paused. 'Have you considered repenting of your evil deeds, messer Macalaure? For as it is written, he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword.(7)'
I could imagine why the man had managed to get himself exiled, what with that tongue in his mouth. 'Rest assured that I'm not alive for want of trying to get killed,' I told him. 'Though it's doubtful if the sword that will take my life will ever be forged.'
'Don't boast about your profession, which is but a necessary evil!' he growled. 'Knowing what it is to be an exile, I only wanted to counsel you. But if you keep mocking me...'
I had no more asked for his counsel than the emperor had for his letter - which would be the appropriate remark to make if I wanted to be rid of him. But I never reached a decision, for he continued, in that annoyingly pedantic way of his: 'A man needs to know that he is lost ere he can see the need of guidance.' He shifted position, his clothes rustling against the stone wall. When he raised his voice again, it was in a different tone, almost a chant.
'Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita -
[Halfway the path of life that we must tread
I found myself in dark woods straying;
I had gone wrong, the straight road lost ahead.]
I straightened in surprise: this was a poem I knew! Moreover it was a poem I admired like few other works of mortal beauty. And so, unable to help myself I took over, singing softly - the most natural thing to do if poetry is song, as poetry should be.
'- ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
Esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
Che nel pensier rinova la paura.'
Tant è amara che poco è piu morte -''
[Alas for me, I have a rough time saying
How wild and harsh it was, this wood of death.
Its dreadful memories defy allaying,
the bitterness still robs me of my breath - ](8)
And on I sang, until I reached the part where the poet encounters the leopard, and I could not resist the temptation to conjure up the feline on the lawn in front of us. The spotted predator crouched before us in all its bestial glory and fearsomeness, ready to pounce, its eyes glittering in the light of the moon that had risen above the baptistery now.
Dante's gasp put an end to my singing, and the leopard vanished. 'Something wrong, messere?' I asked innocently.
'Nothing,' Dante said, panting slightly, as if he had been holding his breath. 'I - I truly had no idea you knew my poem... or that you could sing so well...' He faltered; apparently he was not going to admit to seeing a leopard on the premises of the Duomo of Pisa. But I also sensed his embarrassment at having misjudged me, ascribing me barely enough civilisation to be civil.
Meanwhile, I was amazed as well. 'Your poem?' This pedantic, aggressive little fellow the creator of such beauty, the maker of this sculpted music of words?
'Mine indeed,' he said proudly. 'But these are just the first verses of a large work depicting my journey to the depths of the Inferno, and from there through Purgatory to Paradise.'
His journey? The man could hardly be more than fifty years of age; what devilry could he have committed, what remorse could he have felt, what vision of light and beauty could his eyes have beheld, to claim such a journey for his own? But of course - he was human, and they live so much faster.
'Where did you hear it?' he wanted to know.
Actually, I had never heard it recited, though the verses had sung through my head while I read it. 'At the court of Verona,' I replied. 'They have a copy of the Inferno there.'
'Ah, yes,' he said. 'I had it copied out for Can Grande della Scala(9). It is the only part that is finished so far. Do you remember more of it?' he added eagerly.
'Most of it.' Again I sang, in a voice deep as time. And singing I created another illusion: the great gate to the Inferno these verses depicted. I drew the image directly from the mind of their maker; if such a gate esixts anywhere in the universe, I haven't seen it. Majestic and terrible it loomed on the greensward, blotting out the sky and the stars. My voice can no longer summon up any images of light and joy, but I have no trouble conjuring up those of darkness and danger.
'Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l'etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e 'l primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.'
[Through me the road towards the dismal city
through me the road to everlasting pains
through me the road to souls that find no pity.
Justice did move my Maker, God who reigns:
I stand here by divine authority,
high wisdom, love that all sustains.
Ere I was made naught else was made to be
unless eternal - as I, too, shall last.
Lay down all hope, you that go in through me.](10)
Unable to continue, I fell silent. And on which side are we? On which side am I? The gate of Hell grew larger and larger, and I felt the mortal cringe at my side. But just as it seemed to be all about us I let it melt away, and the lights of heaven became visible again.
'I could almost believe... that you could sing the stars from the sky, if you tried,' Dante said, after long silence and in an odd voice. 'But - why these verses, out of several thousands?'
Perhaps there was one star I would sing from the sky if I could - except that it would burn my unclean flesh if I so much as touched it. But should I have chosen the verses in which Dante painted the infernal punishments of his enemies with brush strokes full of spite and malice(11)? I didn't think so, and therefore I didn't reply.
He made his own guess, then. 'It is a sin for a living man to despair, Macalaure,' he began, almost desperately, as if he tried to convince someone he feared would never be convinced - a feeling I knew well . 'You may find yourself on the wrong side of that gate yet, and -'
You may find yourself on the wrong side of that gate?! If I told him I was a traitor and the son of a traitor with a bunch of traitors for brothers, he'd immediately relegate me to the deepest pit of his inferno, where treacherous souls are frozen into the ice of Cocytus. He would think it a particularly fitting punishment if he knew web had left our own ice, the freezing fangs of the Helcaraxë, for our kin to die in. But there are things you don't tell, so as not to make someone else feel tainted by your presence - and I feared it would shatter our fragile rapport. I merely turned my head towards Dante, and with an effort I made the flames in my eyes leap.
His hand shot up to make the sign of the cross, but then it fell back to his lap.
'Why don't you cross yourself?' I wanted to know.
'I am not sure,' he replied after a long silence, shaking his head, his voice unsteady. 'I wondered if you were a fallen angel, beautiful but doomed, come to tempt me with the images of my own devising. One who knows the desire hidden in the heart of all artists - the wish to see their art come alive as if they were the equals of the Creator. Not that I would be so tempted,' he went on, his voice growing in strength. 'I have been granted my own visions, and I know the truth of them. If I can't conjure them up with words and verses, the only magic I possess, I am not worthy of the name of poet. I would not be worth my salt. So as you see you could never tempt me into selling my soul, whatever you might offer to show me.'
Yes, I thought, the man was a true poet: he knew about the dangerous fires of creating. 'Even if I could fulfill your desire, you would not want to sell your soul to purchase what you may receive freely one day,' I heard myself say, and the intensity of my own words amazed me, as I had thought such passion lost. 'Art is a gift, meant to be bestowed on the giver, to assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. Though we may not be the Creator, we are made in the image of a maker.'(12) It hadn't done me much good, but he was not yet beyond hope.
When Dante looked at me again it was with the gaze of an equal, proud and free. 'Only another artist could say such a thing... Surely you are a fallen being like all of us, but though I don't think you are human, you can't be a demon either,' he said, and in a subdued voice he went on, surprising me deeply: 'Maybe your lost Valinóre does glitter among the stars, after all...' Then, abruptly, he threw the last lines of his infernal poem at me:
'...tanto ch'i' vidi de le cose belle
che porta 'l ciel, per un pertugio tondo
e quinci uscimmo a riveder le stelle.'(13)
[and, peering through a round hole, then my eyes
could see the heavens blaze in all their beauty
and we resurfaced gazing at the starry skies.]
I sagged where I sat, wondering whether any of my siblings, far away beyond the Straight Road, had ever left - would ever leave - the Houses of the Dead to see those same stars again.
The sound of boots ringing on the paved gangway around the cathedral cut off that trail of thought. 'Over there. Yes, you two!' a grating voice assailed our ears, while a lamp emerged from around a corner of the cathedral. The barghello(14) with his men, always on the lookout for suspect elements. 'No beggars here after sunset!'
We scrambled to our feet, while the flickering lamp was raised to shed an unmerciful light upon our dubious persons. 'We are no beggars, messere!' Dante said with dignity. I was less sure. What is a beggar but an exile from the society to which he wants to belong?
'Bugger off, and praise yourselves lucky to stay out of the dungeon!' the barghello barked.
I shrugged; what honour had I left to defend against this unmannered secondborn? 'We'll go,' I told the watch, tugging at Dante's sleeve .
For a moment it looked as if he was going to curse the barghello anyway; then he thought better of it and followed me, across the grass and past the leaning tower. While I looked up at its finely sculpted lacework of stone, shimmering in the pale moonlight, it suddenly struck me as a fitting image for the works of mortals, or even for the mortal race itself. It was as skewed as they were, yet they had not abandoned it, nor would - and who could tell if their handiwork would not survive the ages, forever suspended between standing and falling? The emperor had failed, yet his dreams of peace would live on. Dante was no step nearer his city, but he kept creating poetry that would bridge distances greater than that which separated him from it.
Suddenly, I wanted to cry.
Beside me, Dante cleared his throat. 'Where will you be going... son of the stars?'
He could not know that the Eldar are called the star-folk, but are poets not wont to grasp what they do not know? .
'I can't tell you,' I said, shaking my head.
He hesitated. 'Will I ever see you in Florence, if I return there?'
Though I am not particularly foresighted, in that very instant I Saw clearly that he would never enter the city of his birth again. Yet I would sooner cut out my tongue than rob him of his hope. I could only wish for him to find a better Florence, wherever it is mortals go when they die. And you? I asked myself. Nai hiruvalye Valinor? Nai elye hiruva?(15) Paradise. Mine, or his, or anyone's. Scant chance. And yet.
'Perhaps we shall meet again,' I found myself saying, before our ways parted.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.