Black Gate Online Fiction: “Falling Castles” by Jamie McEwan
By Jamie McEwan
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Jamie McEwan and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by New Epoch Press.
The night before battle, King Bertham of Luria waited up late, in his tent by the field of Falsea, expecting his son Tanek to join him at any moment.
Prince Tanek never came.
As the night worn on, King Bertham swore, and threw his silver cup onto the trampled grass, and told the servant who urged him to his bed to go lie in it himself.
It was just like Tanek, thought the King, on the night before what was likely to be the last battle of a proud, doomed kingdom, to be off, against his father’s orders, gallivanting about the mountains.
Early the next morning, still sans Tanek, King Bertham the Just girded on his sword, mounted his charger, and led his troops to the center of the high meadow to await King Luzak’s forces. It was a brave day, with a bright sun breaking just above the mountains, and Bertham felt almost cheerful. Let them come soon, he thought, while my mood holds.
Bertham had every reason to think that the battle would soon be joined. After all, Luzak’s vanguard, the evening before, had camped within a mere bowshot of the exit from the gorge of the River Skuse.
But several long hours passed before the first purple flags came into sight.
Bertham could hardly blame Luzak for the wait. First, an unexpected flood had coursed down from the mountains. A scout told Bertham that a dam had broken upstream, temporarily flooding the Skuse, which was almost dry now, in early autumn. The pass of Falsea was so narrow that the bulk of Luzak’s army had been making their way up the dry streambed, so the unexpected flood was, Bertham knew, a serious inconvenience.
Second, after the flood had subsided, the sounds of tumbling boulders, and even full landslides, had echoed up from the canyon.
None of this was by chance, King Bertham felt sure. He saw his son’s hand in each of these unknightly, these cowardly strategies. Bertham called on the Wizard Jon, and the white-haired wizard would not deny that he and Tanek had discussed just these possibilities. Add to that — a selection of the young blades who consorted with his son were absent from the Lurian ranks; no doubt it was they who had spent the night readying these traps. Rojek was gone, too. That irked King Bertham fully as much as Tanek’s absence. Bertham had trusted the seasoned Rojek; and Bertham had specifically assigned Rojek to keep Tanek in line.
The sun was high overhead when the forces of Malpass began to struggle out of the narrow pass onto the bright meadow. King Bertham waited for them to marshal themselves. Another hour went by before King Luzak and his guard appeared, with their long lances, their banners. This was not as fine a sight as Bertham might have hoped. Many among the enemy were wet, muddy, exhausted; already a goodly portion of men and horses limped or bled, before battle was even joined. King Bertham’s legs were tired from sitting so long on his steed, but it was almost another hour before the enemy, who proved to be only thrice Bertham’s own forces — there should have been four or five times — seemed fully ready.
Finally Bertham had a horn sounded, rode between the two lines to give a defiant speech that no one heard, and ordered his troops to charge.
Twenty minutes later, his legs quivering, his sword arm exhausted from brandishing the weapon he had yet to use, Bertham saw that something was going wrong with the battle. It had been frustrating, though hardly surprising, that King Luzak had spent those twenty minutes carefully avoiding Bertham; but now Luzak was actually riding back the way he had come!
In fact, the entire Malpassian force was retreating.
They withdrew in good order. The knights disappeared first, riding back into the bottom of the chasm that was the pass; then the armored foot soldiers; finally a cluster of well-trained peasants backed away, laying down an intimidating fire from their cursed horn bows as they went.
When the last of them had disappeared between the high enclosing walls, Bertham removed his helm and scratched his head.
“Did we win?” he asked his lieutenant, the massive Baron Greaves.
Greaves looked about him. There were bodies on the brown grass, yes, but not many. “I don’t think so, my lord. I don’t see why.”
“And where is that bloodless Tanek!” fumed the King. “I swear to you, Greaves, that boy is no son of mine. He is cut off, I tell you! He’ll never wear the crown! Send for the Wizard! Send for whatever priests are nearby. I’m assigning you as my heir, Greaves. Better you by far than my son the coward.”
“Your Majesty!” exclaimed Greaves. “I cannot. You cannot! I — Tanek is no coward. You know that.”
“What else do you call a man who chooses to flood the river, and roll a few rocks down, rather than meet his enemy face to face, sword in hand? Coward! I say. Send for them.”
Right there on the field of battle, using a shield for backing, overriding all protests, King Bertham put his mark on the document that disinherited his son.
Although it was true that the flood, and the rolled boulders, had played a part in Tanek’s plans, Tanek himself had nothing to do with their execution.
Instead, that same night before the battle, while King Bertham waited in his tent, Prince Tanek swam across the moat of King Luzak’s castle in Courbe.
Tanek trailed a rope as he swam, a rope that Rojek, standing on the bank behind him, carefully paid out, length by length. A cluster of silent men, and one woman, shivering in near nakedness, stood beside Rojek. They watched as Tanek climbed out on the far bank, tied his end of the rope to the iron gate of a narrow door in the castle wall, and signaled for them to cross.
Tanek could hear two voices coming from the watchtower above him as one by one his companions pulled themselves hand-over-hand through the chilly water, clambered out, and lined up against the wall beside him. Most clearly he could hear Romy’s high, giggling voice. As planned, Romy was distracting the single watchman on the northwest tower. King Luzak had left only a skeleton guard behind him, wishing to include all available force in his invasion of Luria.
Being careful not to look at the beautiful Elegwyn in her scanty, wet shift, Tanek used a second cord to pull across their bundles of clothing and gear. Rojek crossed last of all.
When they had all hurriedly dressed, Tanek, dagger in hand, slipped through the unlocked postern gate and led the others through the cramped stone passage beyond. He was relieved to find the gate on the far side of the thick wall unlocked as well.
“Rojek,” whispered Tanek, his hand on the gate.
“My lord,” Rojek answered from close behind.
“Just the two of us,” said Tanek. “Follow me out, to our left, and up the tower stairs. Elegwyn, wait for two minutes, then you will follow with the rest. Remember; we must stay below the parapet as much as possible, or we might be seen from the other towers.” Glancing down at the sword that Rojek had insisted on wearing — the only sword amongst them, for stealth was their primary weapon — Tanek added, “And remember, quiet!”
It had not seemed a very difficult part of the plan: creep up the stone stairs, surprise the watchman whom Romy had already distracted, gag and bind him without being seen or heard. But to actually do it…. What if the sentry were looking this way when he emerged from the doorway? One shout, at this stage, could ruin all. There were thirty armed men in the guardhouse on the far side of the courtyard below — a tiny force for a castle this size, but quite enough to scotch their plans.
Tanek stopped at the moment when, coming around a bend in the perfect darkness, he saw a crescent of gray sky, and knew he was looking through the arch of the doorway that let onto the roof of the tower. He crept up the last steps on all fours. Praise the Almighty — or perhaps the praise was due Romy — the watchman was facing away, his hands on Romy’s waist, when Tanek peeked from the bottom of the doorway. Moving quickly, now, he scuttled across the stone paving, and snaking one hand over the man’s mouth, pulled him sharply backwards. “Silence, or you die,” hissed Tanek, his other hand holding a dagger to the man’s throat. The watchman twisted his head and opened his mouth, trying to cry out; Tanek jammed his hand into the open mouth, with the natural consequence that the man bit down. Then Rojek was there, his big hand on the man’s jaw, forcing it open, stuffing a wad of cloth into the man’s mouth when Tanek pulled his hand free. They bound the cloth in place, tied the watchman’s hands behind him, and linked his feet to his hands.
“Your hand?” asked Rojek.
“Not bleeding,” said Tanek, flexing it. It surprised him how much it could hurt without bleeding. He could see the tooth marks, even in the dim light of a hazed half-moon.
The others joined them within moments. Romy bent to give the crouching Elegwyn a momentary embrace. Elegwyn had befriended Romy, a dressing-maid, back in the days when Elegwyn had been a lady-in-waiting in this very castle.
Tanek glanced nervously up at the Godman tower, relic of a mightier age, which rose to an unnatural height on the other side of the courtyard. They would be clearly visible from there. With any luck though, he reassured himself, the uppermost chamber, a place of ill omen since Tanek had slain Luzak’s brother there, stood empty. “Flin, stay with Romy, she’s safest here,” said Tanek briskly. “You can stand. Rojek, as we said. Keep low, all.”
Rojek, Elegwyn, and two men crept east along the curtain wall toward the next tower. Tanek and two others slinked south toward another. One tower taken; five to go. The others would be more difficult, without the helpful Romy.
It was an awkward business, dangerous and difficult. Their next man gave a stifled cry, as Tanek rushed him, and Tanek felt sure the sound was loud enough to raise the alarm — but no answering call came back. It would have been much simpler to kill the sentries, Tanek knew; Rojek had told him that, and he had been right, of course. But killing would not have served the greater plan.
Next was the western of the two gatehouse towers — their last, and the most risky, for the other gatehouse tower stood so close. But they had the luck to catch the watchman napping. There he was, wrapped in his cloak, seated on a stool, leaning against the wall, eyes closed. This time the Almighty could take all the credit.
When the man was secured, Tanek knelt beside him and, holding his dagger to the watchman’s throat, had a serious talk with him. “We may need to remove your gag,” whispered Tanek. “We may need you to speak. Any cry for help, or even the slightest word out of place, and we shall kill you immediately. If they become suspicious for any reason, we shall kill you. No one will be harmed, if you help us. All shall be killed, if you do not. Do you understand?” He had to repeat himself before he finally received a terrified nod from the man — really, a beardless boy.
Tanek and his companion, Veng, waited patiently for several long minutes. Rojek was to take the lookout across from them, and he had an extra tower on his way around. Tanek feared that the watchman across from them might break into casual conversation at any moment. But they could hear only the tinkling of water over stone from the shrunken river, the occasional stamp of a horse in the stable.
When the silence was finally broken, it was by the sounds of a scuffle, and a groan. Another minute, and Rojek’s face appeared in a crenel of the opposing wall. Catching Tanek’s eye, Rojek nodded.
Tanek returned his nod, patted Veng encouragingly on the back, and started down the stairs. The drawbridge had been left in place; all that Tanek needed to do was to raise the portcullis. A dozen Lurian horsemen, waiting in the woods on the far side of the field, would ride through — and with this show of force, the castle would be theirs.
The windlass was in a tiny room set in one side of the tower; a quick check of its rope showed Tanek that this one worked the inner portcullis, which was already raised; he needed to cross to the other tower to raise the outer one. Easy enough, though he felt exposed as, entirely visible from the main courtyard, he strode across the entryway. He slipped through the door at the bottom of the other tower, pulling it carefully shut behind him… and paused in the darkness, hearing unexpected sounds — movement, footsteps, sounds that seemed both muffled and very close by.
A door across from him was suddenly flung open, and Tanek blinked in a blaze of sudden torchlight.
His hand went to his side — but he had only a dagger — and there were three or four of them, too many. He thought of shouting for Rojek, in the tower above, but stopped himself; if there were a fight, surely the sleeping guards in the guardhouse would be roused, the gate secured.
As he hesitated, two of them were on him, grasping his wrists, pushing him against the wall. The man with the torch came near. “An intruder!” croaked the man. “How did you enter?”
“I scaled the wall,” said Tanek. His eyes had adjusted well enough to see, and recognize from Elegwyn’s description, the man with the torch: Kwer the torturer, a stooped man, mostly bald, with wispy hair on the sides of head. Despite his baldness, and his stoop, Kwer’s hands and forearms were thick with muscle, his face alive with menace.
“Ha!” said Kwer. “You lie. No one could scale the castle walls. And if you had a ladder, the watch would have seen.”
“One man has scaled the wall,” contradicted his companion. This young man wore a tunic of simple cut, but in a rich dark-blue fabric that proclaimed his nobility. “Prince Tanek,” he went on, “I little expected to meet you here, at midnight. You should be in your mountains, defending your threatened kingdom.”
“Prince Tanek!” exclaimed Kwer, his hand grasping the hilt at his side. “Tie his hands! Quick, tie his hands!” Eyes wide, Kwer panted in excitement while this was done. “Prince Tanek,” Kwer said once more, breathing a little easier now that Tanek’s hands were bound. “Who could have hoped for better? But what treachery do you here?” Kwer thrust the torch at Tanek’s face, and Tanek jerked his head away, banging it on the rock wall behind him.
“We have come to take your castle,” said Tanek. “Five hundred men await my signal. If I fail to signal, they will attack within half the hour. They will overwhelm the castle. Surrender to me now, help me raise the portcullis, or you will die soon.”
“Five hundred men?” asked Kwer. “You could not bring five hundred men within sight of the castle. There are scouts! There are border guards! You lie!” Kwer turned and, with surprising agility, ran up the steps until he was out of sight around the bend; as he held the only torch, they were left in sudden gloom. “Turnby!” they could hear him bawl. “What do you see? Are there troops in the field? Have you heard aught?”
The silence that followed was long enough that they could hear Kwer mount several more steps, and then his shout: “Turnby! Do you sleep, dolt?”
“No, sir, I am awake,” a voice echoed down the stairs. “All is quiet. No one in sight, sir.”
“Ask Bix!” shouted Kwer.
“He says all is well, sir.”
Quick thinking, Rojek, Tanek said to himself. He could picture the hapless Turnby, dagger to his throat, repeating Rojek’s words.
“Run over to the guardhouse, Turnby, and tell Wallak we have captured that cursed Lurian, the Prince Tanek. Have him rouse the guard. Tell Bix to keep double-sharp watch until you return.”
“Yes, sir!” Turnby replied.
As Kwer returned down the steps, Tanek wondered if there was a way Rojek could salvage their plan. But how? Turnby would have to pass through this room on his way to the guardhouse; as soon as Kwer realized that Turnby had not appeared, Kwer would suspect the truth, send one of his own men to the guardhouse, mount to the lookout above to see what kept Turnby, and there discover Rojek and Elegwyn.
But Tanek had pressing problems of his own. “You lie,” Kwer told him, and shifting the torch to his other hand the old torturer brought out a peculiar dagger without a blade, a rounded shaft sharpened only at its point — a misericord. Kwer placed the point to Tanek’s chest. “You have no troops,” said Kwer. “A poor bluff. A foolish bluff. I would have thought better, of the clever prince who killed poor King Erskine.”
Tanek became aware of the door, still open, through which the four Malpassians had emerged. A door to the dungeon, Tanek guessed. If they would go back down there, Rojek and Elegwyn might remain undiscovered.
“Poor King Erskine?” repeated Tanek. “I’ll wager that was the first time those words have ever been uttered. Though it’s true, it is a poor King, indeed, who enjoys torturing his own subjects. But not as poor a man as you, Kwer. The most hated man in all Malpass, I am told.”
Kwer’s face, so close that Tanek almost gagged at the man’s fetid breath, took on a ghastly, fierce grin as the point of Kwer’s dagger pierced Tanek’s chest. Tanek was ready for it, and responded only with a superior smile. “Do you think a prince could ever fear you and your toy dagger?” he asked.
“Wait!” said the man in the rich fabric, as Kwer pressed the point further. “You must not kill him,” the young man went on. “Something is afoot. We must know what it is.”
“Of course I shall not kill him,” said Kwer, frowning over his shoulder. “I never kill a man before his time.” Kwer turned back to Tanek. “You are a brave man, Prince Tanek,” he said, removing the dagger, wiping it on Tanek’s shirt, and placing it back it its sheath. “Brave men are a great pleasure to work with. What’s the joy in breaking a scullery maid who cries if you look at her cross-eyed?” Kwer turned to his companion. “He will tell us everything he knows before the night is over. I promise it. Will you join me in the fun, Sir Anathol?”
“Anathol,” said Tanek, even as the two guards forced him through the dungeon door. “I believe you have an older brother. Perelon, is it not? Has he assumed the Earldom, yet?”
“Yes, only a month ago, my father –” began Anathol, and then broke off. “He wishes to stall us,” said Anathol to Kwer, as he closed the dungeon door behind them. “You must be quick, this time. We cannot wait the night.”
“Quick is never as good fun,” grumbled Kwer as the five of them crowded down the stairs.
The dungeon was more an open hallway than a room, for it had no visible walls on two sides, only dark openings fading away into an undefined gloom. Across from the stairs, in an indentation in the outer wall’s mighty stones, lay a pool of water, fenced about with ironwork. Two bundles of hair and rags, once men, were chained to the inner wall; they did not stir as the group entered, and Tanek wondered if they lived. Another man, unfettered, lay unbound, but equally still, beside them. “On the table,” Kwer told his men. “No rack, tonight. We go straight in.”
“Best to show him the Slud at once,” said Anathol. “It will save time.”
“I think not, Sir Anathol,” said Kwer. “We might lose him altogether. It happens. Some are bereft of speech. Allow me to try him, first.”
“Very well. You are the expert.”
Tanek did not struggle. He hardly noticed the men forcing him across the floor, lifting him on the table, tying his feet, re-tying his hands. Tanek was looking for a place inside him. A place in his mind. He knew it was there.
“Thank you, in advance,” said Tanek as Kwer approached. “I may not be able to thank you later.”
“Jokes?” asked Kwer.
“No, not a joke. I thank you for the experience. I have often wondered. My questions will be answered.”
“You shall not thank me long. You shall be begging for your own death before the night is out.”
“That may be. Likely enough. And that, too, will be quite the experience, will it not? The wizard says, that if you fail in your goals, you always have experience.”
Kwer again drew his curious dagger. “You know why it is so thin?” he asked. “It reduces the bleeding. And do you know why? So I can find the deep nerves, without killing you.”
Tanek was only half-listening to the mad old torturer. He was searching, within, for the place Wizard Jon had shown him. Years ago, in the wizard’s strange little tower room, gazing out the marvelous window that was one large sheet of flawless glass, the ageless Wizard Jon had opened a secret place in his mind. A place that bore the same relationship to the rest of Tanek as that tower room bore to the rest of the castle: a place high up, distant, calm, removed. “At any time, no matter what is happening,” the young-old Wizard had told him, “you can be here. From here, you can see everything. You can understand everything. Even when your body is in pain, the inmost you will always be safe.”
It helped, in Tanek’s search, for him to pass through his memory of the physical room. He called up its rickety bookshelves. He saw the tiny painting, dwarfed in its large golden frame, of a distant mountain scene — a scene that, magically, changed with the seasons. He looked out the marvelous window and saw the courtyard, and the garden, and the castle walls, and the King’s apartments. He saw the slopes and rounded peak of Mount Pytel, and the sharper, more distant peaks behind it, their white-and-silver teeth sawing the clouds. And from that remote room he could look out and see, as if from a great distance, the dungeon around him, the guards who tied his wrists and ankles: one’s cowlicked hair, and the backs of the other’s thick hands. Kwer’s bulging bloodshot eyes, his graying stubble. And, still from that great remove, he felt he could see through to their souls: one guard unthinking, the other bloodthirsty, Anathol secretly reluctant. And Kwer — to Tanek’s surprise he saw in Kwer a great fear — a great, gnawing, slavering fear. Poor Kwer, he thought. It must be terrible, to be so afraid.
Tanek had succeeded; he was there, now, safe in his room. He need do nothing but remain there, leaving Rojek and the others free to take the castle.
It did not stop the pain. He had known it would not. When Kwer sank the misericord through flesh and sinew, probing skillfully, Tanek made no attempt to stifle his groans. Let the body complain; let it writhe, scream — beg, even, if it came to that. His task was simply to hold onto that place; he must keep one part of himself safe, there in the high room — one small, calm, all-seeing part. The rest of him, most of him, could succumb. If he could keep one small shred of himself apart, all would be well.
High on the platform of the gatehouse tower, Rojek gagged Turnby once more, then turned to stare at the beautiful Elegwyn.
Elegwyn stared back at the grizzled Rojek.
After a moment Elegwyn broke the silence: “Why would Kwer think to ask that?”
“He must have seen Tanek,” said Rojek. “And now he will wonder that Turnby does not pass to wake Wallak.”
They both looked at Turnby, hands and feet bound, propped against the outer wall.
“Not if Kwer goes into the dungeon,” said Elegwyn.
“The dungeon? What would Kwer in the dungeon at this hour?”
Elegwyn grimaced in reply.
“And where is Tanek?” asked Rojek.
“Lead the way,” said Elegwyn, nodding at the dark opening to the stairway. “Quietly.”
They descended into darkness. In the ground-floor chamber they halted. Someone, somewhere, was moaning. There came a sharp cry of pain. Another.
“There,” said Rojek, pointing at a faint yellow line at ground level. “That must be the door that leads to the dungeon.”
“It does,” said Elegwyn. She swayed, dizzy at the thought of the horrors she had seen through that door, down that staircase. Seen, and… more than seen.
There came another cry. “That’s Tanek!” said Rojek, and he fumbled for the door latch. “They have Tanek down there!”
“Stay!” said Elegwyn, grasping for his arm. “Rojek, no! We have not the time for that. First we must take the castle. We must raise the portcullis, now, and give the signal.”
Another cry came from below. “We cannot leave him,” said Rojek. “I cannot.”
“You must.” Elegwyn pulled at his arm, but Rojek jerked himself free.
“You hate him!” seethed Rojek through clenched teeth. “He spurned you, and so you hate him. You want him to die, in pain, screaming, all the better, you demon, you witch!”
Shocked, for a moment Elegwyn could not reply. There was just enough truth in his words to strike her deeply. At great risk, Tanek had rescued her, taking her away from Malpass that same night he had assassinated King Erskine. For that one night they had seemed so close, closer than close. But then, safe in his father’s castle in Epine, Tanek had avoided her. In all that past year, he had refused to be alone in a room with her, even for a moment. He had hardly spoken to her. True, he had his reasons. As Prince of a small, precarious kingdom, he was destined for the princess of some strategically important neighboring realm. It could even be considered chivalrous of him, to so carefully keep her reputation untainted. But she did, it was true, she did resent it.
“No, Rojek,” she said finally, her voice very low. “I do not hate him. Think. If we save him now, and gain not the castle, we lose all. We lose Tanek, as well. It must be now. We must act, while there is still a chance.”
A deep groan from below, and Rojek groaned in sympathy. Again Elegwyn pulled at his arm. “Now,” she said. “Raise the portcullis. As Tanek told you — I must command. You must obey. I will be Queen.”
“Witch,” whispered Rojek. Yet he allowed her to lead him back up the stairs to the windlass.
At Rojek’s insistence, they signaled the Lurians before they raised the portcullis; and this was wise, for it took long minutes before the waiting men were horsed and ready. Only then did Rojek and Elegwyn put their weight on the spokes; the creaking machinery raised the iron grate; and finally the meager Lurian force — only a dozen horse, though half carried a double burden — burst into the main courtyard. Rojek had run across the courtyard and barred the doors of the guardhouse, but this only slowed the guards slightly, for within moments they broke through the guardhouse windows. They were without armor, however, and faced a half-dozen bowmen, arrows notched, kneeling between the mounted knights. Though the crescent moon now leaned toward the castle’s western wall, it still gave enough light to shoot by.
“Do not fire!” shouted Elegwyn from behind the Lurians. “Not one arrow! Not one blow!” She came forward, passing between the Lurians to stand before the enemy. “Rojek! Stand by me!” she commanded. Rojek had already engaged a man by the guardhouse, but he heard and quickly obeyed. “Allow them all to come out, unharmed. Wallak, tell your men to join you, instantly, and hear me. They will not be touched. I am Elegwyn. You know me. Lady Elegwyn, that was. But today, a new Elegwyn.”
Wallak, head of the guards, wearing only a dirty nightshirt and armed only with a spear, stared at her, slack-jawed. One of his men unbarred the door, and the rest came cautiously out, most with swords in hand. Not one had taken the time to string a bow, Elegwyn noted with some relief.
There were thirty guardsmen, well outnumbering the Lurians. They could fight, if they chose. But they were surrounded, poorly armed, unhorsed, and exposed there in the open yard.
Confused voices called out from the royal chambers on one side. Ignoring them, Elegwyn turned instead toward the open gate. “Veng!” she shouted.
“Here, my lady,” Veng shouted back from the top of one of the towers.
Elegwyn swiveled. “Raster!”
“Yes, my lady.”
She continued, shouting the name of the Lurian who had been left on each tower. “You see,” she said, turning back to the guardsmen, “the castle has been taken. And by whose command? By my command. I, Elegwyn, have taken the castle. And I shall rule.”
Her voice was cracking. How she wished for a draft of water. She swallowed, and went on in a lower voice, pitched only for the men before her: “By what right, shall I rule? By my right of inheritance. You know that Erskine seized the throne from the rightful heir, the young Prince Whitlyn, and had him, and his family, even to his cousins, put to death. The royal family was extinguished. The throne by right belongs to their closest surviving heirs — the Pillays, by direct descent from Moss Isner, sister to King Dallequin of yore. And the surviving Pillay, in direct descent, is I. Elegwyn Pillay. Once lady-in-waiting to Erskine’s Queen Malinda. I have returned to claim my inheritance. I have returned to rule, as Queen. Queen Elegwyn.”
Elegwyn knew that at least a half-dozen others could make a claim as valid. But none here would know that.
Her voice must have carried well beyond the clump of men before her, for this last statement brought a screech from a royal apartment window. “I am the Queen here! Take her! Seize her!” In response there came a confused murmur from the guardsmen.
Elegwyn did not look up, though she did permit herself a smile. “I offer you a choice,” she said to the men before her. “You may kneel, and swear fealty to your new, your rightful Queen, the ruler of Malpass. If you do — you are my guard, and you may keep your weapons. If you choose to remain faithful to the usurper Luzak, you will be disarmed, and allowed to leave by the front gate. You can then make your way to Luzak, and explain to him just how it was, that you lost the Castle at Courbe.” She could see this last sentence register with the guards. Now, she thought, all Luzak’s careless cruelties, his groundless punishments, might well count against him. “Wallak,” she went on, “you, in particular, might enjoy that conversation. I am sure that Luzak will be most understanding. Perhaps he will grant you a promotion.” Wallak took on a look of almost laughable fright. “Kneel, Wallak, kneel to me, and you keep your post here. Head of the guard. You may soon return to bed. You may sleep until morning. Either that — or we put you out the gate, in your nightshirt.” Wallak looked back and forth at the men around him, as if for guidance. “Choose!” she commanded. Still he dithered. “Rojek, put him out,” said Elegwyn.
“No,” said Wallak. “No, I, I –”
Brave Rojek stepped towards the crowd of his enemies. Again Wallak looked about him, beseechingly, but his men did not raise their weapons as Rojek approached. Almost crying in his fear and indecision, Wallak knelt.
Rojek turned briskly and returned to her side.
“Lik,” said Elegwyn, singling out a familiar face. “Will you swear fealty to me as your Queen? Yes or no, Lik. Now.” Lik knelt. “And you, Parse?”
Once these three were down, the rest knelt, to the man. Elegwyn stepped forward and put her hand on Wallak’s bowed head. “I, Elegwyn Pillay, do pledge myself a true and upright ruler, to discharge my royal duties as to please the Almighty and the commands of righteousness, to the benefit of my subjects and the glory of Malpass. Do you, Wallak, and his guard, swear homage and fealty to Elegwyn, as your Queen to rule over you, to be obeyed and not questioned? Say, ‘I do so swear.'”
They swore. “Back to the guardhouse, all of you,” she told them. “Wallak, dress you, pick two trusted men, and come out for further orders. Lik, Parse, come you out as well. The others may sleep. Rojek, take what men you need, go to the dungeon. Harm no one, if you can help it.”
“Kwer?” he asked, even as he caught one friend’s eye, and tapped another on the shoulder, jerking his head to indicate they should follow.
“Not even Kwer,” she said. “He may be useful.”
As they jogged away, it was Elegwyn who, for a moment, stood indecisive. She must act the Queen, she told herself; she must think of the next order to give. But her mind could think of nothing except of what Rojek would find. “Devlin,” she said to a horseman in particularly fine armor, “you are in command here. Keep order. Have Wallak confine the former Queen to her chambers. I –”
She did not finish this sentence, but ran to follow Rojek.
“We are wasting time,” said Anathol after the first quarter-hour. Tanek was bleeding from a half-dozen carefully chosen holes. The pain was great; still, a part of him looked down from the tower room, and saw Kwer’s frown, and Anathol’s expression of distaste. Tanek had stuck to his tale of the five hundred men in the woods. He did not want to change stories too soon. He had also told them, quite truthfully, that his father King Bertham planned to meet King Luzak and his forces on the morrow, on the field of Falsea.
“We must know what he is doing here,” Anathol went on. “And he may know something of Bertham’s plans. If we wish to get word to the King before the battle, we must send a messenger before morning. Summon the Slud.”
“But Sir, I have only begun!” protested Kwer.
“I command it.”
So Tanek was taken from the table, his arms bound behind him, his legs freed. They led him to the iron cage through which torchlight doubles could be seen shining in the dark pool below — shining just as steadily as the torches themselves.
One of the guards opened a small gate in the grillwork; a rope was passed around Tanek’s waist, and he was slid through the opening, feet first, facing forward, until the water reached his knees. Then the other guard picked up an iron bar and banged repeatedly on the grill.
He ceased, and they waited. “What is this thing?” Tanek asked. In response Kwer reached through the opening and cuffed him sharply on the ear.
Suddenly the reflected torchlight broke into fragments. The water roiled and bubbled. A mass of writhing snakes broke the surface — no, not snakes, but snake-like hair, or — it was impossible to make sense of what he saw. A creature, or creatures, with snake-like parts, and quill-like parts, and finger-like parts, and what seemed the stumps of amputated limbs, and inner organs floating free — a great mess that moved, it seemed, with one will, that swam forward, that reached tendrils up, that touched his feet lightly, delicately, probingly….
It was impossible to describe just what was so terrifying about the caress of that anomalous creature. Pain, torture, death, seemed in comparison as innocuous as a stroll in a spring meadow. The monster’s touch was cold, soft, clinging. Some of the snakelike appendages had risen from the water to point their blunt ends in the direction of Tanek’s face, and though there were no eyes at their ends, only blank holes, Tanek felt sure that the thing was looking at him.
There came a burning, stinging pain, as the tendrils attached themselves to his skin. And then the thing began to pull at him.
Overwhelmed with horror, Tanek screamed uncontrollably, struggling to pull his legs up and away. Twisting, he looked up, beseechingly, at the men above. Even Kwer seemed to him a haven, a savior, from the dreaded thing below.
They did pull him back, upward. Clinging to his legs, the thing was raised into the air, exposing a cluster of translucent, glistening, purple and green sacs that seemed to make up its main body. Tanek continued to scream, to writhe and kick, until the thing finally released him, falling back into the water with a great splash.
They pulled Tanek out, closed and latched the gate behind him. “Please, please,” Tanek was crying. “Please, I’ll tell you anything, I’ll do anything, just please, please. Kill me here. Kill me on the table. Not there. Please. Please.” Tanek sobbed, and screamed, and begged. In the grip of the monster, Tanek had quite forgotten his secret place; there was nothing in his mind now, nothing at all, save horror, and loathing, and fear.
Back on the table he once more remembered that high room. But he felt he would never again dwell there, felt that he had lost it forever… and yet… and yet, there remained a thread that ran up those uneven stairs… a ghost of himself… and even as he screamed, and begged, and sobbed, this ghost Tanek gazed tenderly down….
Elegwyn was not far behind as Rojek and his friends pelted down the dungeon steps. The four below heard them coming and snatched at their weapons.
“Halt, Rojek! Stop them!” Elegwyn called from behind. Scant yards from the Malpassians, sword in hand, Rojek halted, holding out his other hand to keep his fellows back. “Sir Anathol,” called Elegwyn, “you know me. We have taken the castle. There are many more Lurians above. Wallak, and all his men, have sworn fealty to me. Put down your arms. There is nothing to be gained from fighting.”
“Sworn fealty to you?” repeated Anathol.
He was the only one who held a sword; the others had only daggers. “Put down your weapons,” said Elegwyn. “You are no match for us, in any case.”
“Kill them!” said Kwer.
“No!” Anathol instantly contradicted, gazing into Rojek’s set face. Anathol sheathed his sword. The two guards put away their daggers; Rojek strode forward, and Kwer was quickly disarmed. “What do you mean, sworn fealty to you?” asked Anathol. But Elegwyn ignored him. She went to kneel beside the bound and bleeding Tanek. Joining her, Rojek cut Tanek’s hands free.
Tanek did not seem to notice. His eyes closed, Tanek lay on his side, sobbing and moaning. Blood oozed from holes in his hands, his feet, his jaw. “Tanek!” said Rojek, and taking Tanek roughly by the shoulders he turned him to his back. Tanek’s eyes were open, but looked at nothing. He began now to pant, a quick desperate pant, voicing each exhalation: “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!” on and on. “Tanek!” said Rojek again. “You are safe. Here we are. You are safe.” Tanek did not seem to hear. Rojek looked up wildly. “You broke him!” said Rojek, his eyes wet. “You broke him!”
“You would think so,” said Anathol. “Kwer thought so. Kwer was quite sure we had the truth of him. But do you know what Tanek has just told us? That he was here alone. That he had come to hide in the castle, and wait for Luzak to return, and so slay him. This is what he told us, this the truth extracted by the hitherto infallible Kwer….”
“He fooled us,” said one of the guards.
“It’s your fault!” Kwer screeched at Anathol. “You rushed me!”
Anathol shook his head. “You said that no man in such fear could lie. You were quite certain.”
“But — it is you who rushed me! It is you who ordered me to use the Slud. You rushed me. It is not my fault. If you had given me the time, then with my own hands –”
Rojek turned. “Don’t kill him,” said Elegwyn without looking up. She closed her eyes, but the tears welled out nevertheless. “Don’t kill him,” she repeated. “We need him. Kwer is our messenger.”
At the sound of her voice just above him, Tanek stopped his panting. He looked at her, tried to speak, winced, tried again. “Anathol.” His voice was slurred. It was evident that speaking caused him great pain. “His brother,” Tanek forced out. “Is with Luzak. Earl. Anathol must stay, but… Anathol. Speak. Letter. Anathol. Brother Perelon. Earl. Earl of Limbe. Send. Key.” Tanek closed his eyes, groaned. Elegwyn waited, but he said no more.
“If you want him to live,” said Rojek to her, jerking his head to indicate Kwer, “take him away from me. Go. Leave us. I will bring Tanek.”
Elegwyn turned away. For a moment she swayed, so that she was forced to put a hand on Rojek’s arm for support. Hurriedly she composed herself. “Sir Anathol,” she said, “stand guard on Kwer. Sims, come with me. Yoos, help Rojek. You guards, go up before us. Then Kwer, then Anathol. Go slowly. Believe me, the castle is ours. You will see.”
As she climbed the stairs behind the others, Elegwyn tried to think. Yes, she remembered that Anathol had an older brother, in line for the earldom of Limbe; and it was probable that this brother was with Luzak. And so?
When they emerged into the courtyard, where the mounted Lurians still sat their horses, Kwer made a run for the open gate. Two swordsmen stepped in his path, one from each side of the gateway, and Kwer doubled back toward them. “Lik, Parse, seize him,” said Elegwyn, and the two startled men obeyed.
“She is no one!” shouted Kwer, as startled as they. “Who are you? A lady in waiting! Nothing!”
“We will provide you with a horse, and two companions,” said Elegwyn. “Then you may go to Luzak.”
“My lady,” said Anathol, “please take no offense, but I too ask, who are you? Are you not the former lady-in-waiting whom I have seen in this castle?”
“I was,” said Elegwyn. “I am now Queen Elegwyn of Malpass.” And she repeated her claim to the throne. “And you, Sir Anathol?” she asked. “What do you at the castle, while your brother, and your former King, have taken to the field?”
“I am left behind, as seneschal of the castle, and interim ruler of Courbe.”
In that moment she saw it, saw what Tanek had been trying to tell her: Anathol was in the same position as Wallak. And his brother….
“Sir Anathol, is it true, that your brother has come into his inheritance?”
“Yes, my lady.”
That meant that Perelon, now Earl of Limbe, had received the sworn fealty of all the men of Limbe.
“My condolences on the death of your father,” she said. Anathol nodded his acknowledgment. “Walk with me to a quieter spot, Sir Anathol,” Elegwyn went on, “and let us reason together.” Anathol looked surprised, but followed as she led him away from the others. “As seneschal,” she began “you will be held responsible for the loss of the castle, even more than Wallak, will you not?” He nodded dolefully. Elegwyn smiled. “Perhaps it would be better to consider the castle gained.”
It was not until the afternoon of the next day, a cloudy afternoon threatening a rain that never came, that Luzak rode into the field before his castle at Courbe, at the head of a force of three hundred knights. His foot soldiers, the bulk of his army, still lagged behind; they would not join Luzak until the next day. But with three hundred knights Luzak felt certain he could cow whatever meager force held the castle. If perchance he could not, he would initiate the siege that the rest could easily complete.
Queen Elegwyn, forewarned, rode out to meet him.
Behind her there issued all of her military might: fewer than a hundred fighting men — or, in many cases, boys — the two dozen well-armed Lurians, and Anathol’s guard, all mixed with whatever left-behinds they had been able to enlist from the town and surrounding countryside. On her right, separately, stood the dual bishops of Courbe, along with a motley unarmed group of another hundred townspeople: shopkeepers, craftsmen, traders, servants.
Clearly, it was a tactical blunder to deploy her meager force outside the protection of the castle. Luzak must be puzzled. Most of her force was puzzled, as well. Puzzled, and nervous. But they had obeyed. It surprised, and it frightened her, how readily they had obeyed.
A dozen paces behind and off to her left, the armored though helmless Anathol sat, seemingly at ease, on a stolid warhorse. Rojek, lightly armed, controlled a small, restive horse behind and off to her right.
It was her strict instruction that Rojek would not approach unless she raised her right hand above her head. She wished he were not there at all. She wished to ignore all possibility of the failure that would have need of rescue. But Rojek had insisted on being close at hand. Rojek was not happy with her brazen plan. If Tanek had not seemed to approve, Rojek might well have refused to allow the Lurians to participate. Elegwyn could only think, “seemed to approve,” because it was impossible for her to tell what Tanek really thought of anything. He lay in bed, and listened, and nodded, and hardly spoke at all. But Rojek seemed to know what those nods signified.
Now Luzak urged his horse to step forward, then reined it sharply in, a mere few feet ahead of his picked guard. “Clear the way to my gate!” he shouted at her.
This could not have been better: his caution before a woman armed only with a light ceremonial sword, his foolish words. Elegwyn gave him her most regal look. For one intoxicating moment she felt herself as beautiful, and as commanding, as any Queen. The three hundred knights before her stared, waiting for her response. Let them stare; let them stare at her purple dress — a dress she had once coveted, never dreaming she would ever don it — and at her calm young face, and at her long brown hair, and at the thin circlet of silver that crossed her brow. Let them look at her, and then at Luzak — Luzak, in full armor topped with the crown of Malpass, a towering concoction of gold and glassy green gems that fit him ill, and emphasized the paleness and the weakness of the face below.
She waited until the proper moment came, and then she spoke. “I see, Luzak, that your good friend Kwer rides close beside you. You two have come to bring fresh tortures to the people of Courbe. But I am here to tell you that you no longer rule Courbe. Nor Malpass. The rightful ruler has been revealed. The twin bishops of Courbe, both Truemen and Godman, have confirmed my claim. I rule Malpass. And by the power and authority of the crown of Malpass, I hereby banish you from all this my kingdom. You, and Kwer, must depart by nightfall. All others are welcome here, though anyone who wishes — your former Queen, perhaps — may go with you. Kneel, knights of Malpass, and swear fealty to your new Queen.”
Elegwyn held her breath. For a moment no one stirred; then Perelon, the Earl of Limbe, rode forward. Elegwyn caught a movement from the corner of her eye, and, keeping her right hand below her waist, she spread her fingers to signal the overprotective Rojek to remain well behind her. She must take the risk.
The Earl rode into the space between Elegwyn and Luzak, closer and closer, his horse shying slightly as its nose approached that of Elegwyn’s motionless roan. Perelon was far too close, now, for any rescue. Elegwyn gave him a slight nod, in greeting. She must believe. She must appear confident — confident of the effects of the letter Anathol had dispatched, in the care of his two most trusted men, to the Earl. So far, the plan had worked. Luzak had turned back, mid-battle, ceding the field to the puzzled King Bertham. Luzak had returned to Courbe as fast as his army could comfortably ride. But now all hung by the thread of the Earl of Limbe’s affection, or possible lack of affection, for his endangered younger brother.
Perelon reined his horse to a full stop. And then — with relative ease, considering the weight of his clattering armor — he dismounted. He knelt. In the instant, so quickly that it was clearly by prearrangement, his followers, the men of Limbe, also dismounted and knelt. And then the Duke of Stark and his men. Luzak looked about him, his mouth fairly hanging open. Although more than half of his army had kept to their horses — the men of Bisna, of Markam, and the knights of Courbe itself — they looked about uncertainly. The men of Courbe could not help but see their friends, even their wives and sons in some cases, amongst the groups behind her. And how popular could Luzak be, his costly losses in the pass of Falsea having gained him nothing? The Earl of Markam had taken his right foot from his stirrup, as if he too intended to dismount, but now he hesitated. The Duke of Bisna sat stolidly, only a slight frown acknowledging that there could be any problem afoot, and quite ignoring the fact that, here and there among his own men, a few others also dismounted and knelt.
Elegwyn turned her head toward the onlooking townspeople, and as instructed they responded with a ragged cheer. “Elegwyn is Queen!” they shouted. “Elegwyn is Queen!” And then they fell into unison, and the chant gained force: “Elegwyn is Queen! Elegwyn is Queen!”
“Stop them!” screeched Luzak. “Shut them up! Shut up!” He wheeled, shouted incomprehensible orders, wheeled again — and spurred his horse. Desperation gave him courage. He drew his sword as he came on. Now Elegwyn’s right hand shot up to signal Rojek — but she was too late; though she could hear the thud from the hooves of Rojek’s horse, they came from too far behind. She made no attempt to draw her own sword, knowing that would be useless; she had never had the chance to wield a sword in her life.
Elegwyn had not seen the Earl of Limbe get to his feet, but she saw the flashing swing of his heavy sword, a swing that caught Luzak on the plates covering Luzak’s right arm. Crying out, Luzak dropped his weapon; Luzak’s well-trained horse wheeled and attempted to ride over the Earl, but Perelon’s horse had closed in as well, to protect him; Perelon side-stepped and grasped Luzak’s armor by one of its leather back straps.
It was possible that Elegwyn could have stopped the Earl. She did not attempt it. Along with Rojek, now close beside her, she watched Luzak try to turn his horse back, toward his remaining loyal troops; she watched as the Earl dragged Luzak from his saddle and, with one skillful thrust, killed him.
The Duke of Markam scrambled from his horse so quickly that he caught his foot and fell with a clash. Now the knights, too, took up the chant: “Elegwyn is Queen! Elegwyn is Queen! Elegwyn is Queen!” The Earl of Bisna, shrugging, dismounted and knelt, and his men followed suit. Once more Elegwyn spoke the words of the ritual, accepting their fealty, and pledging her own dedication to her subjects and to Malpass.
Only then, as more disorganized cheering broke out, and the opposing forces began to mingle, did she allow herself to smile. The relief was tremendous. She would live; they would all live. She looked about her, and at her glance men threw their helms or caps in the air, and waved, and shouted. Even Rojek, beside her, was grinning. She waved back at them, she smiled her gracious acknowledgment. But even amidst her relief, even amidst her joy at the crowds’ enthusiasm, she could not forget the body that lay, face-up, staring at nothingness, within a few yards of her. Nor could she forget Tanek, wounded and half-mad, in the castle behind. Beneath her relief lurked these dark images, like the Sluds who lurked in the dark waters beneath the castle walls.
She wondered if Tanek could hear the cheers.
A fortnight later, Queen Elegwyn sat on her throne, wearing her purple robe and the circlet she had adopted in place of Luzak’s ridiculous crown, and watched Tanek limp slowly across the throne-room floor. She noted that the wounds at the hinges of his jaws still bore dark scabs. He stared down at the floor as he came, the act of walking seeming to require his full attention.
Eleqwyn felt guilt at his injuries, and at her neglect. She had visited him only twice since the day of her confrontation with Luzak. It had been a full week since her last visit. In her defense, he had not been very welcoming. Each time, he had begun with careful politeness, and soon lapsed into silence. She felt sure that Rojek had told him the tale, of how she had insisted on taking the castle first, before coming to his aid. It seemed probable that this explained Tanek’s coolness.
Or perhaps he felt ashamed, humiliated that she had heard his desperate screams. How he had screamed. She remembered, from a year ago, on the night he had killed Erskine, Tanek’s stoic silence when she had removed the steel from his chest, and from his leg. How much more awful it must have been, to make him scream like that. And awful, too, afterward, to know that they had heard him — she, and Rojek, and Anathol, and the others, had heard him scream, and beg, and babble.
He had screamed. But he had not broken.
Tanek had asked for this audience. And he had specifically asked that Rojek and Sir Anathol be present. This reminded Elegwyn of how scrupulous Tanek had been, during her months in Luria, to never be alone with her — not in any room, not even in the garden. Afraid of the slightest rumor linking them, she had assumed. But why now? Was he still somehow afraid of her? Afraid she would cast some sort of spell on him? She thought again of that night. He had rescued her from her home in Courbe, carried her away. In the farmer’s hut she had taken the two shards of steel from his flesh, and then tried to compensate him for the pain she had caused. Had that been so terrible, that night?
No, she could not convince herself he had found that night so very terrible. He had avoided her, during those months in the castle in Epine — months during which King Bertham had tried and tried to find the proper princess for Tanek, to forge the alliance that would save his kingdom — simply because he wished no scandal, no entanglement with a woman so far beneath him.
But now she was hardly beneath him. Now she was Queen.
Queen — thanks to Tanek.
Tanek stopped and knelt on the first of the three steps that led up to the spacious dais on which sat the royal throne.
“Please rise and approach the throne, Prince Tanek,” said Elegwyn.
“Your Highness, I beg your leave to remain. First, I am Prince no more; I have received word that my father has disinherited me.”
“Yes, I too have heard this news,” said the Queen. “Nonetheless,” she added, and gestured for him to approach.
“Again, I beg your leave, for there is a second reason. I assume the posture of a poor suppliant for the purpose of asking a great boon. A favor from a most gracious Queen.”
“I can hardly refuse the man who has placed me on this throne.”
“I am most fully compensated for my efforts, by seeing you upon it. And by having preserved my kingdom, my people. There is no further recompense needed, or asked for. I ask only for a free gift.”
“Ask, then,” she said, with a touch of royal hauteur, for his punctilio had begun to annoy her.
“I most humbly ask for your hand in marriage.”
It took Elegwyn several long moments before she could even begin to understand this astonishing request. She looked over at Rojek, but Rojek was staring at Tanek, evidently as nonplussed as she.
“Would you be King?” asked Anathol — breaching all court etiquette by addressing another in the presence of the Queen.
“I can never be King in Malpass,” answered Tanek, addressing himself solely to Elegwyn. “That would be a violation of royal tradition. And it would be made to seem that I came here to conquer. Which I did not. The position I seek is called, I believe, ‘Prince consort.’ A title of which I would attempt to be worthy.”
“Was this your plan?” Elegwyn asked sharply. For the first time Tanek had no ready answer. “Did you plan this, back in Epine?” pursued Elegwyn. “To save Luria, to take Courbe, to make me Queen, so that you would be free to… to wed me? Was that your plan, from the beginning? Or did you dream this up, lying there in your room this past fortnight?”
“It was my plan,” said Tanek. “It was always my plan.”
“It was always your plan. But of course, you would not condescend to share this plan with me. You leave me to wonder, for these long months. You leave me to –” She was about to say, ‘to hate you,’ but stopped herself.
“No,” he said calmly, almost tenderly. “I could not say, ‘if this happens, and that happens, then I will ask for your hand.’ I could not say that. There could be no ‘ifs.'”
Elegwyn sighed, closed her eyes, and allowed the plausibility of what he said to permeate her. Cracks appeared in the foundations of her assumptions; whole fortresses of thought shook; their towers toppled, their walls tumbled in on themselves. Her mind filled with the bitter smoke of their ruin.
“I am unworthy,” she said.
“You are most worthy. You faced down an army of men. You played the bravest role of all. It is I who must ask to be raised up to your level.”
“I could have — we could have gone to you, first, instead of raising the portcullis.” She fought back tears. “I could have saved you –”
“You could have saved me nothing. You would have lost all. You — me — everything. You did the hardest thing. The right thing.”
Without forethought, Elegwyn rose from her carved throne, crossed the dais, stepped down, knelt beside him. “You made me Queen,” she said. “But you will not allow me to make you King. You will reign nowhere.” She put a hand to her breast. “Except here.” Elegwyn said this lightly, with a half-smile. But her face sobered as she took his hands in hers. They leaned toward each other. Their foreheads touched.
Looking over their heads, Rojek frowned at Anathol. Sir Anathol raised his eyebrows, gave a crooked smile, and shrugged. Rojek looked down, pursed his lips, looked back up, and shrugged as well. Anathol jerked his head toward the entrance. Rojek nodded.
Together they pushed open the heavy doors and strode out to announce the news.
King Bertham the Just, sitting in his council room before an oaken table strewn with documents and maps, frowned a mighty frown as Wizard Jon put down the roll of parchment from which he had been reading aloud. The words, “Your humble but admittedly disobedient son, Tanek,” still hung in the air between them.
“Well,” said Bertham at last, “I suppose you expect me to forgive the boy.”
The wizard looked up with false surprise.
“Were you the one,” the King intoned, “who concocted this cunning plot to rob our house of all dignity?”
“No, my liege. I would never have suggested anything so daring.”
“No. No, it is true; you were always the cautious one. But I can see that you admire it. You find my son’s tricks very clever. Clever to be thrown into the dungeon and tortured! Clever to throw away your inheritance! Yes, throw it away; he says, that he knows, I ‘may well consider him unfit to rule, being the betrothed of,’ whatever it was he said, you’re the clever one, who can read such hen scratch. And no doubt he too considers himself very clever. Clever to take that serving maid, or whatever she was, and make a Queen of her, so he could then marry her. Clever to take a kingdom with only twenty-five men, and two women. And very clever, to be able to write all this down on a scroll of parchment and send it to a man who cannot read. And you think that I, like you, should be impressed. You think I should forgive him everything, and welcome him back with open arms, or perhaps better to travel down to our accursed neighbor and pay a visit of state to its new Queen.”
“I make no recommendations, my liege.”
“‘Recommendations.’ Where do you hear such words? Or perhaps you read them.” The King sighed. “I know what I should do. I should banish the miscreant, and have Rojek whipped. That is what I should do.”
“The matter of inheritance is always a thorny one.”
“I know your subtlety, wizard. You wish to remind me of that thorny question: Having disowned Tanek, whom should I name as heir? I can hardly stick with Greaves — the good Baron begs me daily to remove the honor. Or you? Yes, though you were already a grown man when my father was a child, I have little doubt you will outlive me, too. The ageless wizard. But you are too cautious to rule.”
“You’re right, my lord; wizards cannot rule. Only the true children of men can rule. And their children.”
“Children,” repeated the King. “Don’t remind me of children. I have never liked children, you know that.” The King rose, walked around the long table, approached the fire, threw on another great log. Bertham had always enjoyed demonstrating his unusual strength of body. The King stared into the fire for long moments. In the magical painting on the far wall, a rustic soundlessly herded his sheep down a cobbled lane.
“Their son could hold both kingdoms,” said the King, musingly.
“I hear that Rojek has a position in the new court. No doubt Queen Elegwyn would object if I called that varlet back here to be scourged.”
The wizard did not reply.
The King pawed over the maps and papers. “Where is that parchment I signed, on the field of Falsea?”
“Here, my lord.”
The King tossed the sheet on the fire, watched it brown, blacken, burn. “There,” said Bertham. “As you wished, I feel certain. Now, take your clever pen, and write to the boy. Tell him he is still my son. But tell him I am yet angry. Tell him I will not visit until his first child is born. Tell him he is a disobedient son. Tell him he is a fool. Tell him… tell him he is a brave fool.”
Jamie McEwan is a fanatical devotee of whitewater sport, his four children, and his ever-loving wife.
He is a dilettante at everything else, though over the years he has published six children’s books, as well as a number of articles in magazines ranging from Parade to Liberty to Canoe and Kayak.
Author photo by Devin McEwan.
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