"Come outside, everybody!" he shouted. "Come outside now! Come see!" He lurched back out the door. Those who could do it pulled themselves to their feet and followed him, elbowing and jesting, some singing drunkenly. Fengbald stood in the commons, head tilted backward, black hair hanging unbound down the back of his stained tunic as he stared up into the sky. He was pointing; one by one, the faces of the followers turned up to look. Across the sky a strange shape was painted, like a deep wound that spurted blood against the nightblack: a great, red comet, streaming across the sky from north to south. "A bearded star!" someone shouted. "An omen!" "The old king is dead, dead, dead!" cried Fengbald, waving his dagger in the air as if daring the stars to come down and fight. "Long live the new king!" he shouted. "A new age is begun!" Cheers rang out, and some of those present stamped their feet and howled. Others began a giddy, laughing dance, men and women holding hands as they whirled in a circle. Above them the red star gleamed like a smoldering coal. Simon, who had followed the merrymakers outside to see the cause of the ruckus, turned back to the hall; the shouts of the dancers floated up behind him. He was surprised to see Doctor Morgenes standing in the shadows of the bailey wall. The old man, wrapped in a heavy robe against the chill air, did not notice his apprentice—he, too, was staring up at the bearded star, the scarlet slash across the vault of Heaven. But unlike the others, there was no drunkenness or glee upon his face. He looked fearful and cold and small. He looked, Simon thought, like a man alone in the wilderness listening to the hungry song of wolves... .
7 The Conqueror Star THE SPRING and summer of Elias' first regnal year were magical, sun-bright with pomp and display. All Osten Ard seemed reborn. The young nobility came back to fill the Hayholfs long-quiet halls, and so marked was the difference that they might have brought color and daylight with them to what had been a dark place. As in John's young days the castle was full of laughter and drinking, and the swagger of shining battle-blades and armor. At night music was heard in the hedged gardens once more, and the splendid ladies of the court flitted to—or fled from—assignations in the warm darkness like graceful, flowing ghosts. The tourney field sprang back to life, sprouting multicolored tents like a bank of flowers. To the common people it seemed as though every day was holiday, and that the merrymaking would have no end. King Elias and his friends made furious sport, in the manner of children who must soon be put to bed, and know it. All of Erkynland seemed to roister and tumble like a summer-drunken dog. Some of the villagers muttered darkly—it was hard to get the spring crop sowed with such heedlessness in the air. Many of the older, sourer priests grumbled at the spread of licentiousness and gluttony. But most people laughed at these doomsayers. Elias' monarchy was but newly-coined, and Erkynland—all of Osten Ard, it seemed—had come out of a long winter of age into a season of headlong youth. How could that be unnatural? ^ Simon felt his fingers cramping as he laboriously traced the letters onto the gray parchment. Morgenes was at the window, holding a long, fluted piece of glass pipe up to the sunlight as he examined it for dirt. If he says one word about the thing not being properly cleaned, I'll walk out, Simon thought. The only sunshine I see anymore is what's reflected in the beakers I polish. Morgenes turned from the window and brought the piece of glass pipe over to the table where Simon slaved at his writing. As the old man approached, Simon prepared himself for the scolding, feeling a swelling of resentment that seemed to lodge between his shoulder blades. "A lovely job, Simon!" Morgenes said as he laid the pipette down beside the parchment. "You take much better care of things around here than I ever could by myself." The doctor gave him a pat on the arm and leaned over. "How are you coming there?" "Terribly," Simon heard himself say. Even though the resentful knot was still there, he was disgusted by the petty tone of his own voice. "I mean, I'll never be good at this. I can't make the letters cleanly without the ink blobbing up, and I can't read any of what I'm writing anyway!" He felt a little better for having said it, but he still felt stupid. "You're worrying about nothing, Simon," the doctor said, and straightened up. He seemed distracted: as he spoke his eyes darted about the room. "First of all, everybody's writing 'blobs up' at first; some folk spend their whole lives blobbing up—that doesn't mean they have nothing important to say. Secondly, of course you can't read the things you're writing—the book is written in Nabbanai. You can't read Nabbanai." "But why should I copy words that I don't understand?" Simon growled. "That's foolish." Morgenes turned sharp eyes back to Simon. "Since I told you to do it, I suppose I'm foolish, too?" "No, I didn't mean that... it's just that..." "Don't bother to explain." The doctor pulled up a stool and sat by Simon's side. His long, bent fingers scrabbled aimlessly in the rubbish of the tabletop. "I want you to copy these words because it's easier to concentrate on the form and shape of your letters if you're not distracted by the subject matter." "Hmmmph." Simon felt only partially satisfied. "Can't you tell me what book it is, anyway? I keep looking at the pictures, but I still can't figure it out." He flipped the page back to an illustration that he had stared at many times in the past three days, a grotesque woodcut of an antlered man with huge staring eyes and black hands. Cringing figures huddled at his feet; above the honied man's head a flaming sun hung against an ink-black sky. "Like this," Simon pointed at the strange picture, "here at the bottom it says, 'Sa Asdridan Condiquilles'—what does that mean?" "It means," Morgenes said as he closed the cover and picked the book up, " "The Conqueror's Star,' and it is not the kind of thing that you need to know about." He placed the book on a precariously balanced stack against the wall. "But I'm your apprentice!" Simon protested. "When are you going to teach me something?" "Idiot boy! What do you think I'm doing? I'm trying to teach you to read and to write. That's the most important thing. What do you want to learn?" "Magic!" Simon said immediately. Morgenes stared at him. "And what about reading...?" the doctor asked ominously. Simon was cross. As usual, people seemed determined to balk him at every turn. "I don't know," he said. "What's so important about reading and letters, anyway? Books are just stories about things. Why should I want to read books?" Morgenes grinned, an old stoat finding a hole in the henyard fence. "Ah, boy, how can I be mad at you... what a wonderful, charming, perfectly stupid thing to say!" The doctor chuckled appreciatively, deep in his throat. "What do you mean?" Simon's eyebrows moved together as he frowned. "Why is it wonderful and stupid?" "Wonderful because I have such a wonderful answer," Morgenes laughed. "Stupid because... because young people are made stupid, I suppose—as tortoises are made with shells, and wasps with stings—it is their protection against life's unkindnesses." "Begging your pardon?" Simon was totally flummoxed, now. "Books," Morgenes said grandly, leaning back on his precarious stool, "—books are magic. That is the simple answer. And books are traps as well." "Magic? Traps?" "Books are a form of magic—" the doctor lifted the volume he had just laid on the stack, "—because they span time and distance more surely than any spell or charm. What did so-and-so think about such-and-such two hundred years agone? Can you fly back through the ages and ask him? No—or at least, probably not. "But, ah! If he wrote down his thoughts, if somewhere there exists a scroll, or a book of his logical discourses... he speaks to you! Across centuries! And if you wish to visit far Nascadu, or lost Khandia, you have also but to open a book...." "Yes, yes, I suppose I understand all that." Simon did not try to hide his disappointment. This was not what he had meant by the word "magic." "What about traps, then? Why "traps'?" Morgenes leaned forward, waggling the leather-bound volume under Simon's nose. "A piece of writing is a trap," he said cheerily, "and the best kind. A book, you see, is the only kind of trap that keeps its captive—which is knowledge—alive forever. The more books you have," the doctor waved an all-encompassing hand about the room, "the more traps, then the better chance of capturing some particular, elusive, shining beast—one that might otherwise die unseen." Morgenes finished with a grand flourish, dropping the book back on the pile with a loud thump. A tiny cloud of dust leaped up, the flecks milling in the banded sunlight leaking past the window bars. Simon stared at the shimmering dust for a moment, collecting his thoughts. Following the doctor's words was like trying to catch mice while wearing mittens. "But what about real magic?" he said at last, a stubborn crease between his brows. "Magic like they say Pryrates does up in the tower?" For a brief instant a look of anger—or was it fear?—contorted the doctor's face. "No, Simon," he said quietly. "Do not throw Pryrates up to me. He is a dangerous, foolish man." Despite his own horrid memories of the red priest, Simon found the intensity of the doctor's look strange and a little frightening. He nerved himself to ask another question. "You do magic, don't you? Why is Pryrates dangerous?" Morgenes stood suddenly, and for a wild moment Simon feared that the old man might strike him, or shout. Instead Morgenes walked stimy to the window and stared out for a moment. From where Simon sat, the doctor's thin hair was a bristly halo above his narrow shoulders. Morgenes turned and walked back. His face was grave, troubled by doubt. "Simon," he said, "it will probably do me no good at all to say this, but I want you to keep away from Pryrates—don't go near him, and don't talk about him... except to me, of course." "But why?" Contrary to what the doctor might think, Simon had already decided to stay far away from the alchemist. Morgenes was not usually so forthcoming, though, and Simon was not going to waste the opportunity. "What is so bad about him?" "Have you noticed that people are afraid of Pryrates? That when he comes down from his new chambers in Hjeldin's Tower people hurry to get out of his way? There is a reason. He is feared because he himself has none of the right kinds of fear. It shows in his eyes." Simon put the pen nib to his mouth and chewed, thoughtfully, then took it out again. "Right kinds of fear? What does that mean?" "There is no such thing as 'fearless,' Simon—not unless a man is mad. People who are called fearless are usually just good at hiding it, and that is quite a different thing. Old King John knew fear, and both his sons certainly have known it... I have, too. Pryrates... well, people see that he doesn't fear or respect the things that the rest of us do. That is often what we mean when we call someone mad." Simon found this fascinating. He wasn't sure that he could believe either Prester John or Elias had ever been afraid, but the subject of Pryrates was itself compelling. "Is he mad, doctor? How could that be? He is a priest, and one of the king's counselors." But Simon remembered the eyes and toothy smile, and knew Morgenes was right. "Let me put it another way." Morgenes twined a curl of snowy beard around his finger. "I spoke to you of traps, of searching for knowledge as though hunting an elusive creature. Well, where I and other knowledge-seekers go out to our traps to see what bright beast we may have been lucky enough to capture, Pryrates throws open his door at night and waits to see what comes in." Morgenes took the quill pen away from Simon, then lifted the sleeve of his robe and dabbed away some of the ink that had smeared on Simon's cheek. "The problem with Pryrates' approach," he continued, "is that if you do not like the beast that comes to call, it is hard—very, very hard—to get the door closed again." ^ "Hah!" Isgrimnur growled. "A touch, man, a touch! Admit it!" "The barest whisper across my vest," Josua said, raising an eyebrow in feigned surprise. "I'm sorry to see that infirmity has driven you to such desperate devices..." In mid-sentence, without altering tone, he lunged forward. Isgrimnur caught the wooden blade on his own hilt with a clack, and skewed the thrust aside. "Infirmity?" the older man hissed through bared teeth. "I'll give you an infirmity that will send you crying back to your wet nurse!" Still swift for all his years and bulk, the Duke of Elvritshalla pressed forward, his two-handed grip enabling him to keep good control as he swung the wooden sword in wide arcs. Josua leaped backward, parrying, thin hair hanging in sweat-dampened points across his forehead. At last he saw an opening. As Isgrimnur brought the practice sword around in another whistling sweep, the prince ducked down, using his own blade to help angle the duke's cut past his head, then hooked a foot behind Isgrimnur's heel and pulled. The duke crashed backward onto the ground like an old tree. A moment later Josua, too, had slumped to the grass at Isgrimnur's side. With his single hand he nimbly unlaced his thick, padded vest and rolled onto his back. Isgrimnur, puffing like a bellows, said nothing for several long moments. His eyes were closed; sweat-beads in his beard gleamed in the strong sunlight. Josua leaned over to stare. Then, a look of worry crossing his face, he reached over to undo Isgrimnur's vest. As he got his fingers under the knot the duke's great pink hand came up and buffeted him on the side of the head, rolling him again onto his back. The prince lifted a hand to his ear and winced. "Hah!" Isgrimnur wheezed. "That'll learn you... Young pup..." Another stretch of silence followed as the two men lay gasping, staring up into the cloudless sky. "You cheat, little man," Isgrimnur said at last, levering himself into a sitting position. "The next time you wander back here to the Hayholt I will have some revenge. Besides, had it not been so gods-cursed hot, and me so damnably fat, I would have staved in your ribs an hour ago." Josua sat up, shading his eyes. Two figures were approaching across the yellow grass of the tourney field. One was draped in a long robe. "It is hot," Josua said. "And in Novander!" Isgrimnur grunted, pulling off the dueling-vest. "The Days of the Hound are long behind us, and still this by-the-Mother heat! Where is the rain?" "Frightened away, perhaps." He squinted at the two figures as they drew nearer. "Ho, my young brother!" one of the two figures called. "And old Nuncle Isgrimnur! It looks like you have worn yourselves out at your play!" "Josua and the heat have damn near killed me, Your Majesty," Isgrimnur called out as the king approached. Elias was garbed in a rich tunic of sea green. Dark-eyed Pryrates walked at his side in flapping red robe, a comradely scarlet bat. Josua stood, extending his hand to Isgrimnur as the older man clambered to his feet. "Duke Isgrimnur, as usual, exaggerates," the prince said softly. "I was forced to knock him to the ground and sit on him to save my own life." "Yes, yes, we were watching your horseplaying from Hjeldin's Tower," Elias said, waving a careless hand back to where the tower's bulk loomed over the Hayholt's outwall, "—weren't we, Pryrates?" "Yes, Sire." Pryrates' smile was thin as thread, his voice a dry rasp. "Your brother and the duke are mighty men indeed." "By the way. Your Majesty," Isgrimnur said, "may I ask you about something? I hate to trouble you with state business at such a time." Elias, who had been staring out across the field, turned to the old duke with a look of mild annoyance. "I am, as it happens, discussing some important matters with Pryrates. Why do you not come to see me when I am holding court on such things?" He turned back again. Across the tourney field Guthwulf and Count Eolair of Nad Mullach—a kinsman of Hernystir's King Lluth—were chasing a fractious stallion that had broken its traces. Elias laughed at the sight and elbowed Pryrates, who favored him with another perfunctory smile. "Urn, your pardon. Majesty," Isgrimnur resumed, "but I have been trying to take this matter up with you for a fortnight. Your chancellor Helfcene keeps telling me that you're too busy—" "—At Hjeldin's Tower," Josua added curtly. For a moment the brothers locked eyes, then Elias turned to the duke. "Oh, very well, then. What is it?" "It's the royal garrison at Vestvennby. They have been gone for well over a month now, and remain unreplaced. The Frostmarch is still a wild place, and I do not have enough men to keep the northern Wealdhelm Road open without the Vestvennby garrison. Will you not send another troop?" Elias had returned his gaze to Guthwulf and Eolair, two small figures shimmering in the heat as they chased the diminishing stallion. He answered without turning. "Skali of Kaldskryke says that you have more than enough men, old Uncle. He says you are hoarding your soldiers at Elvritshalla and Naarved. Why is that?" His voice was deceptively light. Before the startled Isgrimnur could reply, Josua spoke up. "Skali Sharp-nose is a liar if he says that. You are a fool if you believe him." Elias whirled, his lip curling. "Is that right, brother Josua? Skali is a liar? And I should take your word for that, you who have never tried to hide your hatred of me?" "Now then, now then..." Isgrimnur interrupted, flustered and more than a little frightened. "Elias . . , Your Majesty, you know my loyalty—I was the firmest friend your father ever had!" "Oh, yes, my father!" Elias snorted. "... And please do not take your displeasure over these scandalous rumors—for that is all they are—out on Josua. He does not hate you! He is as loyal as I am!" "Of that," said the king, "I have no doubt. I shall garrison Vestvennby when I am ready to, and not before!" For a moment Elias stared at them both, eyes wide. Pryrates, long-silent, reached up a white hand to tug at Elias' tunic sleeve. "Please, my lord," he said, "this is not the time or place for such things..." he flicked an impudent, heavy-lidded glance at Josua, "... or so I humbly submit." The king stared at his minion, and then nodded once. "You are right. I have allowed myself to become angered over nothing. Forgive me, Uncle," he said to Isgrimnur, "for as you said, it is a hot day. Forgive my temper." He smiled. Isgrimnur bobbed his head. "Of course. Sire. It is easy to let ill-humors get the best of us in such stifling weather. It is strange, this late in the year, is it not?" "That it is." Elias turned and grinned broadly at the red-cloaked priest. "Pryrates, here, for all his holy standing in the Church, cannot seem to convince God to give us the rain we are praying for—can you, counselor?" Pryrates looked at the king strangely, ducking his head back into the collar of his robe like an albino tortoise. "Please, my Lord..." he said, "let us resume our talk and leave these gentlemen to their swordplay." "Yes." The king nodded. "I suppose so." As the pair began to move off, Elias stopped. He wheeled slowly around to face Josua, who was picking the wooden practice swords up from the dry grass. "You know, brother," the king said, "it has been a long time since the two of us crossed staves. Watching you has put me in mind of those old times. What do you say we make a few passes, as long as we are all here upon the field?" A quiet moment passed. "As you wish, Elias," Josua replied at last, and tossed one of the wooden blades to the king, who caught the hilt deftly in his right hand. "... As a matter of fact," Elias said, a half-smile playing across his lips, "I don't believe we have engaged since your... accident." He put on a look of greater solemnity. "Lucky for you it was not your sword-wielding hand that was lost." "Lucky, indeed." Josua measured himself a pace and a half, then turned to face Elias. "On the other hand," Elias began, "—ah, that was a poor choice of words, wasn't it? My apologies. Alternately, it is unlucky that we must fence with these poor wooden oars." He waggled the practice sword. "I do so enjoy watching you use—what do you call that thin blade of yours?—ah, Naidel. It is a pity you do not have it here." Without warning Elias leaped forward, swinging a hard backhand toward Josua's head. The prince caught the blow, allowing it to slide by, then thrust forward. Elias trapped the oncoming lunge and deftly turned it aside. The two brothers backed apart, circling. "Yes." Josua leveled his sword before him, his thin face slick with sweat. "It is too bad that Naidel is not with me. It is also too bad that you do not have Bright-Nail." The prince made a swift downward cut, and slid into another looping thrust. The king backpedaled swiftly, then counter-attacked. "Bright-Nail?" said Elias, breathing a little heavily. "What do you mean by that? You know that it is buried with our father." He ducked an arching backhand and pushed Josua back. "Oh, I know," said Josua, parrying, "but a king's sword—just like his kingdom—should be wisely,"—a thrust—"and proudly,"—a counter-thrust—"... should be wisely and carefully used... by his heir." The two wooden blades slid together with a noise like an axe cleaving timber. The pressure moved down until the hilts locked together, and Elias' and Josua's faces were merely inches apart. Muscles bunched beneath the brothers' shirts; for a moment they were nearly still, the only movement a slight trembling as they strained against each other. Finally Josua, who could not grip his hilt with two hands as the king could, felt his blade begin to slide. With a supple shrug he disengaged and sprang backward, lowering the blade before him again. As they faced each other across the expanse of grass, chests heaving, a loud, deep tolling rang out across the tourney field: the bells of Green Angel Tower marking the noontide. "There you are, gentlemen!" cried Isgrimnur, a sickly smile on his face. There had been no mistaking the naked hatred that flowed between the two. "There're the bells, and that means dinnertime. Shall we call it a draw? If I don't get out of the sun and find a flagon of wine, I'm afraid I won't make it to Aedonmansa this year. These old northern bones weren't meant to stand such cruel heat." "The duke is right, my lord," Pryrates rasped, laying his hand on Elias' wrist, which still held the upraised sword. A reptilian smile tightened the priest's lips. "You and I can finish our business as we walk back."