The Last of the Maccabees
Captain Cartier stood on the gritty shore of the massive bay, eyes glued to the cluster of buildings that stood before a distant line of tall trees. Odd yellow flowers--of a species unknown in France and perhaps elsewhere in the world--starred the brush not far from the pebbly beach. He'd waited throughout this seemingly interminable voyage to meet at last some of the natives of this rich land; now, his ship's appearance, his boat's landing, would summon them, and perhaps he would forever secure for France the exclusive right to fish here. And for himself, he would secure wealth, and his own future.
"They have seen us," Navarch Duclot said, unnecessarily. This close, Duclot was mostly smell: sweat, spray-dampened leather, greasy hair and thick black beard. Duclot's eye wandered off to the side once more; Cartier always found it difficult to look at him squarely.
"They will come," Cartier said. "They must."
And indeed they did: a small cluster of them, emerging from the village to the spot Cartier had carefully chosen, close enough to encourage a meeting, far enough from the village to be non-threatening. In the late afternoon air, tinted silver by the rushing clouds, he saw puffs of alien pollen, and his nose tickled. Savages were about to accost him, and all he could think about right now was the pain behind his eyes!
The Savages were of human size, and almost human colour (darker, copper- or bronze-tinted). The men were half-naked, wearing trousers but nothing on their torsos except strings of some kind of decoration, and shoes the colour of their trousers. But, by Jupiter, their heads! He'd seen nothing like it in all his travels: they were bald, except for a thin strip of hair running down the centres. He hoped these people shaved them that way; it would be truly frightening to think the creatures were born like that, truly such monsters as no sane god would ever create. As for the women, what few he could see, they wore shockingly short tunics exposing their lower legs, and their hair hung down long and black.
The Savages stopped some paces from him, and took a long, hard look at him and his small entourage. If there was danger his men would fight, and fight well, as they had muskets as well as swords, but against an entire village they would stand no chance of survival. He must be very careful . . . his nose seized again, and he tightened his nostrils, afraid that even bringing a gauntleted finger to his nose might be misinterpreted as a hostile gesture.
One of the Savages--of about middle age, perhaps, and more highly decorated than the others with feathers and beads--stepped forward. His trousers, Cartier now saw, featured intricate beadwork as well. But even more astonishing was that as he walked a pair of black ringlets, the only other hair on his head, swung before his ears. Aegis of Jove shield me, he thought.
"Greet him," Duclot whispered, and the stench of his breath only antagonized Cartier's nose further. But Duclot was right: he had to move forward now, carefully, slowly, and the next few moments would decide the fate of his men and his mission.
With his elbow Cartier carefully maneuvered his sheathed sword to a more comfortable position, stepped toward the Savage chief (for such he must be), and extended a hand in a vague gesture, not knowing what the Savage would consider friendly, what hostile. Also, if beadwork was admired among these people, perhaps they would be impressed by the embroidery on his calfskin gauntlets, made by the finest craftsmen in Rouen.
He opened his mouth, hoping a few quiet words would soothe the Savage. But as soon as he did so the alien pollen did its worst; his sinuses clenched, and a violent sneeze exploded from both nose and mouth, doubling him over. The result was instantaneous: his own men and the Savages burst into hearty laughter. As he straightened himself up again, wiping his nose gently with the back of his finger, he saw the chief smiling reassuringly, his dark eyes narrowed with mirth and sympathy.
Then the chief spoke, and the words were so strange, and so slurred by what remained of his laughter, that Cartier automatically pushed an ear-flap forward, and with creased forehead invited a repeat of the message. The chief leaned slightly toward him, and enunciated more clearly, "Mazel tov."