"Ah, my old friend," he said at last in a bitter voice, "and now I cannot even walk down to the marketplace on Main Row! I must lie in bed, or shuffle about his cold castle on the arms of younger men. My... my kingdom lies corrupting on the vine, while servants whisper and tiptoe outside my bedchamber door! All in sin!"
The king's words echoed back from the chamber's stone walls and slowly dissipated up among the swirling dust motes. Towser regained John's hand and squeezed it until the king was composed once more.
"Well," said Prester John after some time had passed, "my Elias will rule more firmly than I now can, at least. Seeing the decay of all this," he swept his hand around the throne room, "today I have decided to call him back from Meremund. He must prepare to take the crown." The king sighed. "I suppose I should leave off my womanish weeping, and be grateful I have what many kings have not: a strong son to hold my kingdom together after I am gone."
"Two strong sons. Lord."
"Fair." The king grimaced. "I should call Josua many things, but I do not believe 'strong' is one of them."
"You are too hard on him. Master."
"Nonsense. Do you think to instruct me, jester? Do you know the son better than the father does?" John's hand trembled, and for a moment it seemed he would struggle to his feet. Finally, the tension slackened.
"Josua is a cynic," the king began again in a quieter voice. "A cynic, a melancholic, cold to his inferiors—and a king's son has nothing but inferiors, each one a potential assassin. No, Towse, he is a queer one, my younger—most especially since... since he lost his hand. Ah, merciful Aedon, perhaps the fault is mine."
"What do you mean, Lord?"
"I should have taken another wife after Ebekah died. It has been a cold house without a queen... perhaps that caused the boy's odd humors. Elias is not that way, though."
"There is a certain crude directness to Prince Elias' nature," Towser muttered, but if the king heard he gave no sign.
"I thank beneficent God that Elias was first-born. He has a brave, martial character, that one—I think that if he were the younger, Josua would not be secure upon the throne." King John shook his head with cold fondness at the thought, then groped down and grasped his jester's ear, tweaking it as if that old worthy were a child of five or six years.
"Promise me one thing, Towse...?"
"When I die—doubtless soon, I do not think I shall last the winter—you must bring Elias to this room... do you suppose they will hold the crowning here? Never mind you, if they do then must wait until it has ended. Bring him here and give him Bright-Nail. Yes, take it now and hold it. I fear that I may die while he is away at Meremund or some other place, and I want it to come straight to his hand with my blessing. Do you understand, Towse?"
With shaking hands Prester John pushed the sword back into its tooled scabbard, and struggled for a moment to unbuckle the baldric on which it hung. The twining was caught, and Towser got up on his knees to work on the knot with his strong old fingers.
"What is the blessing, my Lord?" he asked, tongue between teeth as he picked at the tangle.
"Tell him what I have told you. Tell him that the sword is the point of his heart and hand, just as we are the instruments of the Heart and Hand of God the Father... and tell him that no prize, however noble, is worth... is worth..." John hesitated, and drew his trembling fingers to his eyes. "No, pay that no mind. Speak only what I told you about the sword. Tell him that."
"I shall, my King," said Towser. He frowned, although he had solved the knot. "I will gladly do your wish."
"Good." Prester John leaned back once more in his dragonbone chair and closed his gray eyes. "Sing for me again, Towse."
Towser did. Above, the dusty banners seemed to sway slightly, as if a whisper passed among the crowd of watchers, among the ancient herons and dull-eyed bears, and others stranger still.
A Two-Frog Story
AN IDLE MIND is the Devil's seedbed.
Simon reflected ruefully on this, one of Rachel's favorite expressions, as he stared down at the display of horse-armor which now lay scattered the length of the chaplain's walking-hall. A moment before he had been leaping happily down the long, tiled hallway which ran along the outer length of the chapel, on his way to sweep Doctor Morgenes' chambers. He had been waving the broom about a little, of course, pretending it was the Tree and Drake flag of Prester John's Erkynguard, and that he was leading them into battle. Perhaps he should have been paying better heed to where he was waggling it—but what sort of idiot would hang a suit of horse-armor in the chaplain's hallway, anyway? Needless to say, the clatter had been ferocious, and Simon expected skinny, vengeful Father Dreosan to descend at any minute.
Hurrying to gather up the dingy armor plates, some of which had torn loose from the leather straps that bound the suit together, Simon considered another of Rachel's maxims—"the Devil finds chores for empty hands." That was silly, of course, and made him angry. It was not the emptiness of his hands, or the idleness of his thoughts that got him into trouble. No, it was the doing and the thinking that tripped him up time and time again. If only they would leave him alone!
Father Dreosan had still not made an entrance by the time he at last worried the armor into a precarious stack, then hastily pushed it beneath the skin of a table rug. In doing so he nearly upset the golden reliquary seated on the table top, but at last—and with no further mishaps—the sundered armor was gone from view, with nothing but a slightly cleaner-looking patch on the wall to proclaim that the suit had ever existed at all. Simon picked up his broom and scuffed away at the sooty stone, trying to even up the edges so that the bright spot was not so noticeable, then hurried on down the hall and out past the winding choir-loft stairs.
Emerging once more into the Hedge Garden from which he had been so brutally abducted by the Dragon, Simon halted for a moment to inhale the pungent smell of greenery, to drive the last of the tallow-soap stench from his nostrils. His eye was caught by an unusual shape in the upper branches of the Festival Oak, an ancient tree at the far end of the garden, so gnarled and convoluted of branch that it looked as though it had grown for centuries beneath a giant bushel basket. He squinted, hand raised to block the slanting sunlight. A bird's nest! And so late in the year!
It was a very near thing. He had dropped the broom and taken several steps into the garden before he remembered his mission to Morgenes. If it had been any other errand he would have been up the tree in an instant, but getting to see the doctor was a treat, even when it entailed work. He promised himself that the nest would not remain long unexamined, and passed on through the hedges and into the courtyard before the Inner Bailey Gate.
Two figures had just entered the gate and were coming toward him; one slow and stumpy, the other stumpier and slower still. It was Jakob the chandler and his assistant Jeremias. The latter was carrying a large, heavy-looking bag over his shoulder, and walking—if such was possible—more sluggishly than usual. Simon called a greeting as they passed. Jakob smiled and waved.
"Rachel wants new candles for the dining room," the chandler shouted, "so candles she gets!" Jeremias made a sour face.
A short trot down the sloping greensward brought Simon to the massive gatehouse. A sliver of afternoon sun still smoldered above the battlements behind him, and the shadows of the pennants of the Western Wall flopped like dark fish on the grass. The red-and-white liveried guard—scarcely older than Simon—smiled and nodded as the master spy pounded past, deadly broom in hand, head held low in case the tyrant Rachel should happen to peep from one of the keep's high windows. Once through the barbican and hidden in the lee of the high gatewall he slowed to a walk. Green Angel Tower's attenuated shadow bridged the moat; the distorted silhouette of the Angel, triumphant on her spire, lay in a pool of fire at the water's farthest edge.
As long as he was here, Simon decided, he might as well catch some frogs. It shouldn't take too long, and the doctor frequently had use for such things. It wouldn't really be putting off the errand so much as expanding the nature of the service. He would have to hurry, though—evening was coming on swiftly. Already he could hear the crickets laboriously tuning up for what would be one of the waning year's last performances and the bullfrogs beginning their muffled, clunking counterpoint.
Wading out into the lily-crusted water, Simon paused for a moment to listen, and to watch the eastern sky darkening to a dull violet. Next to Doctor Morgenes' chambers, the moat was his favorite spot in all Creation... all of it that he had seen so far, anyway.
With an unconscious sigh he pulled off his shapeless cloth hat and sloshed along toward where the pond grass and hyacinths were thickest.
The sun had completely vanished and the wind was hissing through the cattails ringing the moat by the time Simon had reached the Middle Bailey to stand, clothes a-drip and a frog in each pocket, before the door of Morgenes' chambers. He knocked on the stout paneling, careful not to touch the unfamiliar symbol chalked on the wood. He had learned by hard experience not to carelessly lay hands on something of the doctor's without asking. Several moments passed before Morgenes' voice was heard.
"Go away," it said, in a tone of annoyance.
"It's me... Simon!" called Simon, and knocked again. There was a longer pause this time, then the sound of rapid footfalls. The door swung open. Morgenes, whose head barely reached Simon's chin, stood framed in bright blue light, the expression on his face obscured. For a moment he seemed to stare.
"What?" he said finally. "Who?"
Simon laughed. "Me, of course. Do you want some frogs?" He pulled one of the captives from its prison and held it up by a slippery leg.
"Oh. Oh!" The doctor seemed to be coming awake as from a deep sleep. He shook his head. "Simon... but naturally! Come in, boy! My apologies... I am a little distracted." He opened the door wide enough for Simon to slip past him into the narrow inner hallway, then pulled it closed again.
"Frogs, is it? Hmmmm, frogs..." The doctor angled past and led him along the corridor. In the glow of the blue lamps that lined the hall the doctor's spindly form, monkeylike, seemed to bound instead of walk. Simon followed, his shoulders nearly touching the cold stone walls on either side. He could never understand how rooms that seemed as small as the doctor's did from outside—he had looked down on them from the bailey walls, and paced the distance in the courtyard—how they could have such long corridors.
Simon's musings were interrupted by a hideous eruption of noise echoing down the passageway—whistles, bangs, and something that sounded like the hungry baying of a hundred hounds.
Morgenes jumped in surprise and said: "Oh, Name of a Name, I forgot to snuff the candles. Wait here." The small man hurried down the hallway, wispy white hair fluttering, pulled the door at the end open just a crack—the howling and whistling doubled its intensity—and slipped quickly inside. Simon heard a muffled shout.
The horrendous noise abruptly ceased—as quickly and completely as... as...
As the snuffing of a candle, he thought.
The doctor poked his head out, smiled, and beckoned him in.
Simon, who had witnessed scenes of this type before, followed Morgenes cautiously into his workshop. A hasty entrance could, at the very least, cause one to step on something strange and unpleasant to contemplate.
There was now not a trace of whatever had set up that fearful yammering. Simon again marveled at the discrepancy between what Morgenes' rooms seemed to be—a converted guard-barracks perhaps twenty paces in length, nestled against the ivy-tangled wall of the Middle Bailey's northeastern corner—and the view inside, which was of a low-ceilinged but spacious chamber almost as long as a tournament field, although not nearly so wide. In the orange light that filtered down from the long row of small windows overlooking the courtyard Simon peered at the farthest end of the room and decided he would be hard-pressed to hit it with a stone from the doorway in which he stood.
This curious stretching effect, however, was quite familiar. In fact, despite the terrifying noises, the whole chamber seemed much as it usually did—as though a horde of crack-brained peddlers had set up shop and then made a hasty retreat during a wild windstorm. The long refectory table that spanned the length of the near wall was littered with fluted glass tubes, boxes, and cloth sacks of powders and pungent salts, as well as intricate structures of wood and metal from which depended retorts and phials and other unrecognizable containers. The centerpiece of the table was a great brazen ball with tiny angled spouts protruding from its shiny skin. It seemed to float in a dish of silvery liquid, the both of them balanced at the apex of a carved ivory tripod. The spouts chuffed steam, and the brass globe slowly revolved.
The floor and shelves were littered with even stranger articles. Polished stone blocks and brooms and leather wings were strewn across the flagstones, vying for space with animal cages—some empty, some not—metal armatures of unknown creatures covered with ragged pelts or mismatched feathers, sheets of seemingly clear crystal stacked haphazardly against the tapestried walls... and everywhere books, books, books, dropped halfway open or propped upright here and there about the chamber like huge, clumsy butterflies.
There were also glass balls of colored liquids that bubbled without heat, and a flat box of glittering black sand that rearranged itself endlessly, as if swept by unfelt desert breezes. Wooden cabinets on the wall from time to time disgorged painted wooden birds who cheeped impertinently and disappeared. Beside these hung maps of countries with totally unfamiliar geography—although geography, admittedly, was not something Simon felt too confident about. Taken altogether, the doctor's lair was a paradise for a curious young man... without doubt, the most wonderful place in Osten Ard.
Morgenes had been pacing about in the far corner of the room beneath a drooping star-chart that linked the bright celestial points together by painted line to make the shape of an odd, four-winged bird. With a little whistle of triumph the doctor suddenly leaned down and began to dig like a squirrel in spring. A flurry of scrolls, brightly painted flannels, and miniature flatware and goblets from some homunculate supper table rose in the air behind him. At last he straightened up, netting a large glass-sided box. He waded to the table, set the glass cube down, and picked a pair of flasks out of a rack, apparently at random. The liquid in one of them was the color of the sunset skies outside; it smoked like a censer. The other was full of something blue and viscous which flowed ever so slowly down into the box as Morgenes upended the two flasks. Mixing, the fluids turned as clear as mountain air. The doctor threw his hand out like a traveling performer, and there was a moment's pause.
"Frogs?" Morgenes asked, waggling his fingers. Simon rushed forward, pulling the two he had caught out of his coat pockets. The doctor took them and dropped them into the tank with a flourish. The pair of surprised amphibians plunked into the transparent liquid, sank slowly to the bottom, then began to swim vigorously about in their new home. Simon laughed with as much surprise as amusement.
"Is it water?"
The old man turned to look at him with bright eyes. "More or less, more or less... So!" Now Morgenes dragged long, bent fingers through his sparse fringe of beard. "So... thank you for the frogs. I think I know what to do with them already. Quite painless. They may even enjoy it, although I doubt they'll like wearing the boots."
"Boots?" wondered Simon, but the doctor was off and bustling again, this time pushing a stack of maps from a low stool. He beckoned Simon to sit.
"Well then, young man, what will you take as due coin for your day's work? A fithing piece? Or perhaps you would like Coccindrilis here for a pet?" Chuckling, the doctor brandished a mummified lizard.
Simon hesitated for a moment over the lizard—it would be a lovely thing to slip into the linen basket for the new girl Hepzibah to discover—but no. The thought of the chambermaids and cleaning stuck in his mind, irritating him. Something wanted to be remembered, but Simon pushed it back. "No," he said at last, "I'd like to hear some stories."
"Stories?" Morgenes bent forward quizzically. "Stories? You would be much better off going to old Shem Horsegroom in the stables if you want to hear such things."
"Not that kind," Simon said hastily. He hoped he hadn't offended the little man. Old people were so sensitive! "Stories about real things. How things used to be—battles, dragons—things that happened!"
"Aaahh." Morgenes sat up, and the smile returned to his pink face. "I see. You mean history." The doctor rubbed his hands. "That's better—much better!" He sprang to his feet and began pacing, stepping nimbly over the oddments scattered about the floor. "Well, what do you want to hear about, lad? The fall of Naarved?
The Battle of Ach Samrath?"
"Tell me about the castle," Simon said. "The Hayholt. Did the king build it? How old is it?"
"The castle..." The doctor stopped pacing, plucked up a corner of his worn-shiny gray robe, and began to rub absently at one of Simon's favorite curiosities: a suit of armor, exotically designed and colored in wildflower-bright blues and yellows, made entirely from polished wood.
"Hmmm... the castle..." Morgenes repeated. "Well, that's certainly a two-frog story, at the very least. Actually, if I were to tell you the whole story, you would have to drain the moat and bring your warty prisoners in by the cartload to pay for it. But it is the bare bones of the tale that I think you want today, and I can certainly give you that. Hold yourself still for a moment while I find something to wet my throat."
As Simon tried to sit quietly, Morgenes went to his long table and picked up a beaker of brown, frothy liquid. He sniffed it suspiciously, brought it to his lips, and downed a small gulp. After a moment of consideration he licked his bare upper lip and pulled his beard happily.
"Ah, the Stanshire Dark. No doubt on the subject, ale is the stuff! What were we talking about, then? Oh, yes, the castle." Morgenes cleared a place on the table and then—holding his flask carefully—vaulted up with surprising ease to sit, slippered feet dangling half a cubit above the floor. He sipped again.
"I'm afraid this story starts long before our King John. We shall begin with the first men and women to come to Osten Ard—simple folk, living on the banks of the Gleniwent. They were mostly herdsmen and fisherfolk, perhaps driven out from the lost West over some land-bridge that no longer exists. They caused little trouble for the masters of Osten Ard...."
"But I thought you said they were the first to come here?" Simon interrupted, secretly pleased he had caught Morgenes in a contradiction.
"No. I said they were the first men. The Sithi held this land long before any man walked on it."
"You mean there really were Little Folk?" Simon grinned. "Just like Shem Horsegroom tells of? Pookahs and niskies and all?" This was exciting.
Morgenes shook his head vigorously and took another swallow. "Not only were, are—although that jumps ahead of my narrative—and they are by no means 'little folk'... wait, lad, let me go on."
Simon hunched forward and tried to look patient. "Yes?"
"Well, as I mentioned, the men and Sithi were peaceful neighbors—true, there was an occasional dispute over grazing land or some such, but since mankind seemed no real threat the Fair Folk were generous. As time went on, men began to build cities, sometimes only a half a day's walk from Sithi lands. Later still a great kingdom arose on the rocky peninsula of Nabban, and the mortal men of Osten Ard began to look there for guidance. Are you still following my trail, boy?"
"Good." A long draught. "Well, the land seemed quite big enough for all to share, until black iron came over the water."
"What? Black iron?" Simon was immediately stilled by the doctor's sharp look.
"The shipmen out of the near-forgotten west, the Rimmersmen," Morgenes continued. "They landed in the north, armed men fierce as bears, riding in their long serpent-boats."
"The Rimmersmen?" Simon wondered. "Like Duke Isgrimnur at the court? On boats?"
"They were great seafarers before they settled here, the Duke's ancestors," Morgenes affirmed. "But when they first came they were not searching for grazing or farming land, but for plunder. Most importantly though, they brought iron—or at least the secret of shaping it. They made iron swords and spears, weapons that would not break like the bronze of Osten Ard; weapons that could beat down even the witchwood of the Sithi."
Morgenes rose and refilled his beaker from a covered bucket standing on a cathedral of books beside the wall. Instead of returning to the table he stopped to finger the shiny epaulets of the armor suit.
"None stood against them for long—the cold, hard spirit of the iron seemed in the shipmen themselves as much as in their blades. Many folk fled south, moving closer to the protection of Nabban's frontier outposts. The Nabbanai legions, well-organized garrison forces, resisted for a while. Finally they, too, were forced to abandon the Frostmarch to the Rimmersmen. There... was much slaughter."
Simon squirmed happily. "What about the Sithi? You said they had no iron?"
"It was deadly to them." The doctor licked his finger and rubbed away a spot on the polished wood of the breastplate. "Even they could not defeat the Rimmersmen in open battle, but," he pointed the dusty finger at Simon, as if this fact concerned him personally, "but the Sithi knew their land. They were close to it—a part of it, even—in a way that the invaders could never be. They held their own for a long time, falling slowly back on places of strength. The chiefest of these—and the reason for this whole discourse—was Asu'a. The Hayholt."
"This castle? The Sithi lived in the Hayholt?" Simon was unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice. "How long ago was it built?"
"Simon, Simon..." The doctor scratched his ear and returned to his perch on the table. The sunset was completely gone from the windows, and the torch light divided his face into a mummer's mask, half illumined, half dark. "There may, for all I or any mortal can know, have been a castle here when the Sithi first came... when Osten Ard was as new and unsullied as a snow-melt brook. Sithi-folk certainly dwelled here countless years before man arrived. This was the first place in Osten Ard to feel the work of Grafting hands. It is the stronghold of the country commanding the water ways, riding herd on the finest croplands. The Hayholt and its predecessors—the older citadels that lie buried beneath us—have stood here since before the memories of mankind. It was very, very old when the Rimmersmen came."
Simon's mind whirled as the enormity of Morgenes' statement seeped in. The old castle seemed suddenly oppressive, its rock walls a cage. He shuddered and looked quickly around, as though some ancient, jealous thing might even at this moment be reaching out for him with dusty hands.
Morgenes laughed merrily—a very young laugh from so old a man—and hopped down from the table. The torches seemed to glow a little brighter. "Fear not, Simon. I think—and I, of all people, should know—that there is not much for you to fear from Sithi magic. Not today. The castle has been much changed, stone laid over stone, and every ell has been rigorously blessed by a hundred priests. Oh, Judith and the cooking staff may turn around from time to time and find a plate of cakes missing, but I think that can be as logically ascribed to young men as to goblins..."