The Dragon and the Gnarly KingGordon R. Dickson
And The Gnarly King
Gordon R. Dickson
Heads down!" shouted Jim. "The next man who looks up at the arrows gets taken off the wall! Pass that along."
He could see heads turning along the catwalk below the embrasures in the curtain wall as the word was passed. Threatening to take them off the wall was probably the best way of making the men obey.
He saw a few heads tilt down quickly on this front part of the wall where he himself crouched; and a second later the wide-bladed war arrows rained down upon them, harmlessly for the most part on the stone of the embrasures, the catwalk itself, or the open courtyard of the Castle behind them.
Only one man, sitting crouched on his heels, fell over backward at the impact of an arrow falling from a considerable height and driving into, if not through, his shoulder.
"You there!" called Jim. "Get down to the Bake-House and have them take that arrow out. Don't try to do it yourself. Someone—Little Ned, there, I mean Ned Bake-House, help him down the steps! Give his helmet and spear to someone else and send them back up to the wall."
"Yes, m'Lord!" floated back the voice of Ned Bake-House, the somewhat roly-poly elder brother of Little Ned, both Castle servants. He ran along the catwalk, crouching, hurrying to obey—which was only proper, since the Baron, Sir James Eckert, the Lord not only of Malencontri Castle but of its fairly extensive lands (ninety-eight percent Somerset wilderness though they were) had given him a command.
It was one of the tenants, rather than one of Jim's handful of men at-arms or even one of the Castle servants, who had been hit, thankfully; though to be sure it was really not because he was looking up. It had just been blind bad luck. But everybody else on the catwalk around the walls would think he had, which would help the others to keep their heads down as Jim and the veteran men-at-arms had warned them to do.
But the urge to look was strong. Jim was not without sympathy for those who did lift their heads. The sight was almost hypnotic. He had needed to fight hard against looking, himself.
On long shots the arrows looked like a cloud of small black matchsticks, rising and rising, until they abruptly nosed down and began coming back to earth with unbelievable swiftness. Look up at them as they rose, and you risked an arrow in the face or throat when they fell. Keep your eyes down, and the three-foot shaft with its two-inch-wide triangular warhead might knock you down; but it would have to glance off your helmet or lodge in a shoulder. In the second case, at least, you had a chance of surviving.
The problem was more than getting the servants and tenants to keep their eyes down. The force threatening Malencontri right now would be a real danger only if allowed to develop into one—if, for instance, they noticed that the spears and helmets showing above the battlements were on tenant farmers rather than experienced fighting men.
Unlike the raiding party, led by Sir Peter Carley that had attacked the Castle last winter, these attackers could not be ignorant of the fact that this was the residence of a magician. Among the lower classes all was known, when peasants came together—and these hundred and fifty or two hundred men outside his walls were peasants, probably a remnant of a large peasant march.
Jim remembered, from the history he had known before he came here from the twentieth century, that there had been a number of such revolts during this fourteenth century, of which the best-known was that led by Wat Tyler. Tyler's group had broken up after he was pulled from his horse, during a confrontation near London, by the Lord Mayor, Sir William Walworth, and eventually killed.
After every such revolt, many of the peasants who hadn't been killed found themselves unable to go home. Some held together and began to move about, living off the land.
They were the ones who had nothing to go back to—either they had been put off their tenant land to begin with, or they were runaway serfs, or they knew they would not be accepted back by their particular lord, master, or superior. Some had been robbers or outlaws even before. Now homeless, hunted, and desperate, they no longer put much value on their lives anyway—that might explain why they were willing to attack the castle of a known magician—and the countryside generally believed that magicians, like dragons, had hoards—wealth beyond imagining.
For the outlaws and other human flotsam attracted to the group, taking Malencontri would be a long hope at best. That part of the group would only become a serious threat if a weakness were seen in the Castle's defenses. Unless the bitter, wild hatred of the homeless men reached the point where they stormed the walls simply because it was a castle with people in it like those who had starved, dispossessed, or even killed them and theirs. For some, death was unimportant if they could take some fat lordling to Hell with them.
They had no siege engines, but a number were certain to be unemployed men-at-arms, with some training, and able to build scaling ladders; with them they could put more men over the curtain wall at one time than Jim, with his dozen armsmen plus perhaps forty untrained servants, could throw back.
This was another reason to keep their heads down, so that only spearpoints and steel helmets should show above the stone. But the issue of a helmet and spear to the servants and tenants had aroused a misplaced enthusiasm for a fight in many who had seldom been close to a battle.
Jim stood up, backed from the battlements, and turned.
"Oh, it's you, John," he said, getting an unpleasant jolt at seeing the tall, stocky, middle-aged man who was his Steward, the head of all his servants. John's duty was not on the battlements. It was anywhere in the Castle, overseeing matters there. Alarm stirred. "Why are you here?"
"M'Lord!" said John, in a deep, portentous voice. "Boomps!"
"Oh, those!" said Jim. They had been having mysterious noises in the Castle starting about the time the first of the peasants at the gate began to drift into this part of Somerset. He himself had been the one to name the noise, vastly underestimating the superstition of those who worked for him and regretting it later. The name came from an old Scottish prayer he had found while writing a research paper for graduate school, hundreds of years in the future:
"From Ghoulits and Ghostits and lang-leggetty Betsties,
and Things that go boomp in the Night,
Good Lord deliver us!"
word had fitted too exactly the sound of the noise, and the Castle's people had seized upon it immediately. Naturally, a Lord and knight who was also a magickian would know the safe name for such a thing—"Naming calls," went the popular lore. The people were happy to have a name to call the noises by that would not somehow conjure up the things causing them.
A faint paleness showed on John's large, clean-shaven face. As he saw it, he had come with terrible news. News that deserved some alarm in the hearer.
Unlike Jim and Angie (the Lady Angela), he and the other servants were terrified by the boomps in the walls. The Castle people outdid each other in trying to imagine the horribleness of whatever was causing the noise, and most were certain that something was coming to eat them alive, one by one. Now John had come, bringing desperate news that, as he saw it, deserved a reaction, even under siege conditions. But, it was plain that after Jim's response he felt both helpless and hopeless.
—And Jim could not afford to have his chief servant losing all heart. The whole servant cadre would see that he had, and disintegrate.
"John, there's no need to worry, now. We'll take care of the boomps, and they won't hurt anyone in the meantime."
He had reassured all the servants repeatedly; but reassurances did not help. He was supposed to act, not talk. That was what lords, knights, magicians, and other strong people were for. Only those who could not act, talked.
"Who heard it this time?" he asked.
"Meg and Beth both heard it," said John, faintly, "just now. They were in the Still-Room, and they heard it in the wall right beside them; and others just outside the Still-Room heard. They two screamed, and then fainted—dead away. They were carried to the Serving Room, where they are being fanned and given sommat to drink."
Jim reflected for a moment.
The walls of Malencontri, like those of most large stone castles, were everywhere from three to twenty feet through, thickening as they went down toward the base, to carry the weight above them—and the Still-Room where the beer was brewed was on the ground floor. Plenty of thickness there for Something to be tunneling through; provided, of course, It could tunnel noiselessly, except for an occasional boomp.
"Never mind, now," Jim said, suddenly weary. "The boomps have been only in the walls so far. They won't be coming out; and I'll take care of them as soon as I have time. I give you my word as a magician on it."
A faint smile, an equally faint gleam of hope lit up John's face. A knight's word could be counted on—a magickian's must be twice as unbreakable.
"Yes, m'Lord." John started to turn toward the nearest steps down to the courtyard.
"Oh, and you can tell Beth and Meg I'm sorry they had to be right next to the boomp, but we can be pretty sure now no one'll hear it in the Still-Room, since it's never sounded twice in the same place."
"Yes, my Lord." It was the ultimate submission. When no stranger of rank was present it was the habit, and privilege, of the Malencontri people to slur the two words of Jim's formal address together in familiar fashion. Only when visiting gentry were present—or in moments of great stress—did they answer as John had just done. But Jim looked at the Steward sharply. The pale cast was gone from John's face, and there was a touch in his voice of an almost consoling tone.
But John turned and went; and Jim put him out of mind, having other things to concern him. The fuss about the latest boomp had given him an idea for dealing with the besiegers.
If there were left in them any of the superstition the servants were now showing, a magickian could still seem to be a fearsome opponent. Many among them might no longer care what happened to them; but the fear of something other than human, instilled in them from birth, might override even their desperation and hatred. If, for instance, something equal to the boomps sounded from the woods around them…
"Theoluf!" he shouted.
"Yes, m'Lord?" came the prompt answer of his squire from behind him—everybody was coming up behind him today, for some reason.
"Take over—I'm going out. Keep a runner beside you at all times to send with any necessary message to the Lady Angela."
"I'm going to fly out of the Castle." Jim's emphasis on the word "fly" meant that he would be changing shape. "Watch and tell me what those outside do. If any run off into the woods"—Malencontri, like all castles, was surrounded by an area cleared of trees and shrubs, so attackers would have to come out into the open—"looking as if they're deserting, be ready to tell me how many and where. Stand away from me."
Theoluf and the nearest men backed off to give him room for a much larger body, and Jim changed into his alternate shape as a very large, very fierce-looking dragon. He dived over the battlements and down upon the men below.
The desperation and hatred of those men might have made them immune to the paralyzing fear of the supernatural and magical that had been fed them as children; but it had done nothing to dull their survival instincts. They scattered out of the line of Jim's apparent attack like chickens under the dive of a hawk on their yard.
Jim, of course, had no intention of attacking even one of them—lingering to fight here, once they had recovered their wits, would be sure death even for the strongest of dragons. So he pulled out of his dive at the last minute—making a fine noise as his wings caught the air like a parachute—and he began to explode skyward on their full climbing power.
That power was considerable. He went almost straight up, like a fighter plane of his own later century; but it was necessarily limited by the energy stored in him. He was like an opera singer who could hold a high note for an amazing length of time, but when his physical limit was reached, no more was possible.
Still, that much took him up until he was a small airborne shape in the sky over their heads. Breathless, he extended his massive wings, tilted them to the flow of the air current he had just passed through, and, like a latter-period sailplane, began his effortless soaring.
He had ended up soaring westward, toward Castle Smythe, home of his closest friend—and literal life-saver on occasion in this bloodstained fourteenth century—Sir Brian Neville-Smythe. He had been worried abut Brian lately: Brian had been preoccupied with the recent growth in Royal taxes. He was hardly alone in his feelings. But while such as the Earl of Oxford were powerful enough to talk so about them in public, and get away with it, Brian and those he spoke to were not.
Jim put it out of his mind. One worry at a time.
He glanced down and saw that, although the attackers had not been scared off, they had withdrawn from the walls and clustered in a tight group that seemed to be arguing among themselves, faces occasionally flashing upward, like table plates being dried in bright sunlight.
Good. They could watch him apparently heading off to the west and wonder. Where was he going and why? What might he bring back?
Actually, his line of travel was not straight west, but the beginning of a circle that would swing him around Malencontri at a distance of a mile or so. Dragons, like most large birds of prey, had near-telescopic distance vision. He could keep the Castle and its attackers in sight without being suspected, while he tried to figure out some way to handle the situation.
It was too bad he couldn't think of a way for boomps to sound in the earth around where the peasants stood. At the very least that should scare off half of them—
"M'Lord!" roared a distant voice, completely ruining his train of thought. "M'Lord! Oh, m'Lord!"
Jim gritted his teeth, refusing to look toward the voice. It was far too low-pitched—about that of a good operatic basso hitting a baritone note—and far too high off the ground, to be any but the one possible source of interruption he had completely forgotten could reach him here in mid-air.
"M'Lord, m'Lord!" This time, the voice rose half an octave, to an anxious pitch.
Jim sighed, and looked back over his shoulder. Sure enough, there, less than two hundred yards distant and soaring along on a river of air coming to meet his, was another dragon
. A young, half-grown dragon. Past any doubt, one of the younger generation of the Cliffside Dragons, his imagination pumped full of lurid renditions of Jim's adventures. The pumper being Secoh, the feisty little mere-dragon who had been with Jim, Brian, Dafydd ap Hywel, Aargh, and Smrgol—granduncle of Gorbash, whose dragon body Jim had been in—when they had all won their famous battle with the Dark Powers at the Loathly Tower.
Possibly, this young Cliffsider had a message for him. If he did not, he was an unusually brave immature dragon to approach Jim now, on his own initiative.
He was about two-thirds the size he would become as an adult, certainly no more than sixty or seventy years old; and his voice had not yet broken—otherwise Jim would have heard it booming at him from twice the distance.
"It's me—Garnacka, m'Lord!" said the young dragon. He had already transferred to Jim's air current and been sidling closer, with little pumps of his wings, until he was no more than fifty feet away. He sailed along side-by-side with Jim for a few minutes of silence, evidently feeling his name ought to explain everything about his being here.
When Jim said nothing, Garnacka lowered the volume of his voice self-deprecatingly. "Actually, I'm Garnacka, because I was named after my grandfather. But everybody calls me Acka."
"What do you want, Acka?" asked Jim.
"Well, m'Lord," said Acka, and paused again. He was looking as winning as possible, like a young dragon about to ask one of his parents for something which he was almost sure would be answered by a thunderous roar of "Certainly not!" Dragons did not use the same facial expressions as human beings. Acka's four protruding young fangs were pressed tight back against the otherwise-closed crocodile-like lips, his eyes were very bright, and his ears were erect, wiggling slightly at the tips, ingratiatingly. "Pray forgive me for intruding upon you, m'Lord."
Language like that was absolutely unnatural for a dragon. Acka had to have learned it from Secoh, who in his turn had learned it from the servants, when he came visiting Jim at Malencontri.
"That's all right," said Jim, as pleasantly as he could, but very distinctly. "What… do… you… want?"
"I just wanted to tell your Lordship," said Acka, "that you can call on me at any time. You don't need to wait to have Secoh go and find me or any of the other dragons. If you just call or send a message directly to me, I'll be there right away, before anyone else!"