The Dragon in LyonesseGordon R. Dickson
The Dragon in Lyonesse
Gordon R. Dickson
"My der frens," Sir John Chandos had written to the Lord and Lady of Castle Malencontri; in a small, crabbed hand, but at least also in plain English and without the flourishes of the scribes that usually made such letters hard to puzzle out for Malencontri's Lord, Baron Sir James Eckert. "I writ thys secretly yn mine own hand to tell ye that the crown warrants for arests for treson of ye and others ye knaw be now at last witout noise in law witdrwn. So ye might knaw tbys and so be mor at eese. May Goddes blesing be wit ye. Jon Chandos, knight."
"It's a little confused near the end, there," said Sir James. He had passed the message to his Lady, Angela Eckert, and was rereading it over her shoulder as she went through it. "But it seems plain enough. Even though the Earl of Cumberland got the warrants signed by the King somehow, originally, now they've been erased from whatever record might be kept—or something like that. Don't you think? Well, say something, Angie!"
Angie—the Lady Angela—moved a little closer to the window of the Solar, their Private apartment at the top of Malencontri's Tower, so that the light of the bright autumn morning could fall full on the unfolded piece of thick, grayish paper.
"It's very well written for someone of this fourteenth century, doing his own correspondence," she said. "Jim, do you recognize Chandos's handwriting?"
"Well, no," said Jim. "But then I've never had anything from him before that wasn't scribe-written. But if you stop and think what he does—being sort of unofficial head of whatever Intelligence Service the King has—he'd naturally have had some practice writing his own private letters. Besides, who else in the fourteenth century would send a letter just to stop us from worrying—or even stop to think we might be worrying? I don't think it'd even occur to Brian, good friend as he is. We'd better burn this letter, though, to protect Chandos."
"Not yet," said Angie, carefully folding the parchment; and tucking it into one of the thin wooden boxes attached to her accounts table, that was the closest the Castle's carpenter had been able to come up with, by way of a desk. "I'll keep it safe; and as far as Sir Brian Neville-Smythe goes, he's got worries enough of his own lately, over that father of Geronde."
Jim could hardly disagree. Brian—Lord of Smythe Castle, such as that run-down small holding was—knight and champion jouster, had been betrothed to the Lady Geronde Isabel de Chancy of the well-off hold of Malvern, since they had both been children. But Brian and Geronde had been unable to marry without the official consent of her father. So Jim and Brian, earlier this same year, had finally located him in the eastern lands, where he had gone adventuring some years before; and brought him home.
Their return should have been the beginning of a happy period. It had not been. As far back as when Geronde had been only eleven, it developed, she had never seen eye to eye with her father—or he with her.
"Oh, well," said Jim, "it's nice to get good news this early, that's the important thing. Makes the day; and I think this is going to be a good one. Why don't we forget everything here, for once, and go for a stroll in the woods? After all, they're our woods."
"You're always suggesting that, and then we never do it," said Angie. "Besides, this isn't a world where you want to tempt fate by announcing what the future is going to be."
"Now, don't you, of all people, start overrating the magic they have here—" said Jim.
"I'm just using common sense, that's all."
"Common sense or not. We could end up as superstitious as everybody else is here; and you and I know that's just ignorance. There's got to be a logical reason for everything, even magic. Besides, I only said—"
There was a scratching at the door to the spacious single room that was their Solar. That room had originally taken in all the top floor, just under the battlemented roof of the Tower of Malencontri Castle; until they had partitioned off part of it to make a separate room for the baby, Robert Falon, who was now their ward.
They looked at each other.
"Come in!" called Jim. John Steward, erect, somewhat overstuffed, and just this side of being pompous as usual—but oddly wide-eyed—entered.
"M'Lord, m'Lady," he said stiffly, "the Master Archer Dafydd ap Hywel is in the Great Hall, and wishes to speak with you."
"Hall? Which hall?" echoed Jim—but there was really only one, unless you counted the large room, hidden on the ground floor among the quarters where the servants and men-at-arms lived, where they ate their meals, spent their leisure hours, and generally socialized. "How long has he been there? When did he get here?"
John Steward's heavy, pale, but meticulously shaven face took on an expression fleetingly divided between fear and embarrassment.
"Nobody knows, m'Lord. He was just there at the High Table, working on a bowstave, when Mary Light-the-Fire went in to start the wood in the Hall fireplaces."
"Why didn't somebody ask him?"
"No one thought of it, m'Lord."
This was a lie, of course. Either Dafydd had been asked and the questioner wanted nothing to do with the answer; or for some reason they had been afraid to ask. There was no point in pinning John down—probably superstition again, thought Jim.
"Well, how long had be been there? Did they find that out?"
"Well, how did he get into the Castle, then?"
But John was looking helpless.
There was nothing to be done with a Steward who looked helpless. With a less important servant, you could turn to his or her superior and say, "See if you can get an answer that makes sense," and walk off. Jim never did that, however, except in an emergency—the questioning of the less important one that followed tended to be a rough process.
"Magic," said Angie. "I'll bet you."
"Certainly not!" said Jim. "Dafydd's not a magician; and anyway, why would he need magic to get in when all he's ever needed to do was hail whoever was on night guard at the main gate? They all know him here."
"In this world magic probably had something to do with it," said Angie darkly. "If you hadn't got yourself mixed up in it—"
"The only reason I did
it was because I had to rescue you from the Loathly Tower—remember?"
"True," said Angie. "I'm sorry, Jim. Forgive me—I'm vicious before I've had breakfast. Let's go down and get some; and find out for ourselves about Dafydd."
She linked her arm in his, and they headed toward the door. John Steward nipped through it ahead of them and stood aside.
"Anyway, I thought he was at an archery meet right now, in the North Country somewhere," Jim said as they started down the hall—John decorously following, five paces behind them.
At the High Table, raised on its dais at the inward end of the Hall, the cloth had been laid and foods set out. No longer working on a bowstave, Dafydd himself was eating; but he stopped politely and got to his feet as a mere archer should when Jim and Angie came toward him.
"Dafydd!" said Jim. "How did things go at that meet in the north?" Angie kissed the archer in the customary polite greeting of the age, in defiance of the fact that, officially, she was a lady and here he was only an archer, in spite of his great skills. Gentlemen, in obedience to the custom, could kiss women innkeepers and female servants—in fact, they often did—but ladies were not ordinarily obliged to lower themselves in that fashion.
For his part, Jim held back. Dafydd was an old friend, almost as much so as Sir Brian, who was the closest thing to a blood brother that Jim had in this fourteenth-century world, after their battle at the Loathly Tower. Dafydd, of course, had been there, too. Moreover, he was a guest, and, in principle, was owed a kiss of welcome. But Brian had never seemed to think that Dafydd would expect the courtesy from him—any more than any other archer might—and Jim was uncomfortable with the practice, anyway. He cleared his throat and seated himself at the table.
Angie and Dafydd also sat down.
"There were many good archers there, James," said Dafydd. "I saw much to admire."
Which meant, of course, that Dafydd had won everything in sight, as usual. He always avoided saying anything against a fellow archer; and in the rare case where he had been outdone (never more than once) by one of them, the information would be choking him until he could get it told. For all his casual, almost lazy habit of speaking, he could not bear the thought anyone might think he was afraid of admitting his failures.
"My servants—" began Jim, to change the subject; but was interrupted by the one of these nearest him starting to pour wine from a pitcher into his wine cup, temporarily blocking Dafydd from his sight. "—were surprised to find you here, already in the Hall."
"Indeed, they were so," said Dafydd. "But I had come in quietly of purpose, it being my aim to find out how well a watch was kept for you."
"But the main gate's doors in the curtain wall were closed and barred."
"It was so," said Dafydd. "Till dawn. But with the sunrise they were opened by sleepy guards who all drew open first one, then the other. So it was no labor for a man of woods and mountains like myself to slip past them unseen. Once in, there was only a short walk into the Hall, past others half-asleep still, to this table. It would not be hard for another like myself to do the same. I am not a man who tells another how he should live; but when you are away from here, yourself, it might be wisest to make sure a stricter watch is kept."
"Now you mention it, it probably would be," said Jim. "But what made you concerned after this much time with the guarding of our main gate?"
"You have not heard, then?" said Dafydd. "It is talked about all over England that Cumberland raises his own hired army, taking every hedge-knight, outlaw, and common wastrel that will go with him for hope of gain. Already it is said he has two or three hundred of such. With such force to his hand, it would not be surprising if he decided to pay off old scores. He is no friend of yours."
"You can say that, all right," Jim said. "He hates our—that is, you're right. He has little love for me, or Angie; and Agatha Falon, his leman, has even less—little love for any of us, including you and Brian and any belonging to either of you. But his coming against Malencontri with an army that large—"
"It does not require so much, look you. One man slipping inside the walls as I did can arrange to knife a sentry and let in a dozen more up a rope or through a small postern gate. That dozen can hold the gate, open it, and admit no more than thirty more to a sleeping castle, then kill most of those who could oppose them before they are half-awake. Then they who came are all gone again, like smoke; and no man knows who was responsible for the death or capture of you or Lady Angela."
"Hah!" said Jim, thoughtlessly out loud, and woke to the fact that both Dafydd and Angie were staring at his unusual use of the handy, all-purpose medieval exclamation. He looked directly at Angie.
"I thought it was a little too good to be true—someone like Chandos going to all the trouble of writing us a private letter just to tell us we were free of the warrants issued on us."
Angie nodded slowly.
"You're right," she said. "He had to know we'd hear what Dafydd just told us and put it together with the news in his letter."
Dafydd was looking at them both now with the appearance of only a mild interest in what they were saying—but both knew his look disguised a burning curiosity.
"You see, Dafydd," Jim said, "this morning we got this letter—"
"Let me tell it," said Angie. "I'm faster."
"You see, Dafydd," Jim said—after Angie, true to her promise, had filled their guest in with half the words Jim himself would have used—"how clever Chandos is? There's nothing in that letter, nothing at all that could compromise him; but he'd have known that we'd hear this news too, sooner or later, and then all he had to tell us would be clear."
"Forgive my weakness of wit, James," said Dafydd, "but what is this 'all' you talk about?"
"Why, it has to be obvious to anyone that the only man in England who could raise a force of fighting men that size, and get away with it, would be the half brother of the King; which Cumberland is. Also, the King would not only have to know about it, but be in agreement with Cumberland's doing it; and there could be only one reason he'd agree. That'd be if he was actually planning an invasion of France; and what Cumberland would be doing would be just the first quiet step toward drawing together an army for it."
"Your King Edward is well past the age of taking the field in war," said Dafydd.
"Exactly! And that's why Cumberland's being the front man. But there's more than invasion news in that message in Chandos's letter for us. It's a warning for us—me, you, Brian—to promise ourselves to fight with the part of the army Chandos will command."
"Me, he cannot have," said Dafydd. "I have a duty that goes before any other at this time. A duty of responsibility to those I love and danger to their land—the Drowned Land of my ancestors; and that is what brings me to you at this time, for it concerns magick."
"Magic?" said Jim. He looked suddenly and suspiciously at Angie. She raised her eyebrows questioningly.
"Magic?" she inquired.
"I say to you it is magick that threatens them," said Dafydd, "and of magick, as you know, I have none."
They looked at him.
"Magick?" Jim echoed once more, in as close to the way everybody pronounced it here as he could manage. "Whose magick?"
"That of what held the Loathly Tower and owned the creatures we encountered there."
"The Dark Powers?"
"It does no harm to say the name aloud? Very well, then, I speak of the Dark Powers. I venture you will tell me to consult Carolinus on this; but as we all know, he has been frail since his imprisonment by the former Gnarly King. It was in my mind that I speak you first, my Lord."
"None of this 'my Lord' business, Dafydd," said Jim. "We're privy and friends together, friends who know you would be a prince if you moved down to those same ancestral lands under the ocean."
"You know that, Dafydd," said Angie.
The archer smiled a little sadly at both of them.
"I have not forgotten so," he said. "But archer though I h
ave chosen to be and am, you must remember I was raised to a certain touch of manners, James and Angela."
"Good enough," said Jim. "But why the excitement about the Dark Powers mixing in human affairs again? Carolinus says they do it all the time, trying to upset either Chance or History; so as to plunge us all either into Chaos or Stasis."
"Whatever it is those names import," said Dafydd. "But never like this since that matter at the Loathly Tower; and nothing so great as they now attempt, as long as the memory of man runneth, time out of mind. As I say, perhaps this should have been a matter for Carolinus."
"You won't find Carolinus," said Jim. "Kineteté's keeping him with her; and that's probably all for the best. He needs the attention of a magician as strong as himself, to recover after what he went through—and all he put himself through."
"Then long may he stay until he is full well again," replied Dafydd, "and if strength is needed Mage Kineteté has it, as well as magickal wisdom."
"Very true," said Angie.
"But help I still need."
"I know," Jim said. "I can't very well just take you to her without asking her first. But I can go to her and talk to her about it. It might be a little hard for you to get in touch with her. But what did you mean exactly about the Dark Powers' not trying anything and sayings like… 'time out of mind,' and 'as the memory of man runneth backward'?"
Jim was a little sensitive where those two phrases were concerned. They had been quoted at him a little too often by his tenants and Castle people, whenever those people opposed something he had ordered. Either phrase was universally accepted as the single, final, crushing argument to prove what he wanted done had never been done. It therefore could not be done, could never be done, and so there was no point even in talking any more about it.
"On second thought," he added hastily, since his own words had sounded more than a little harsh in his own ears, "never mind that. I was just wondering why it concerns us."
"Indeed, it does not concern you," said Dafydd, with a slight emphasis on the last word. "It concerns me and my people only, James. I am come as a petitioner to beg the grace of your aid and help."
"Well, you don't even need to ask for that! Anything I can do…" Angie was sending up signals, but Jim ignored them. "Look, why don't you just tell us all about it before I make any more bad guesses?"