The Dragon on The BorderGordon R. Dickson
The Dragon on The Border
Gordon R. Dickson
"Ah, spring," said the good knight Sir Brian Neville-Smythe, "how could it be better, James?"
Sir James Eckert, Baron de Malencontri et Riveroak, riding beside Sir Brian, was caught slightly off guard by the question.
True, the sun was shining beautifully, but it was still a little chilly by his own personal, twentieth-century standards; and he was grateful for the padding underneath his armor. Brian, he was sure, was feeling if anything a little on the warm side—certainly he seemed to find the day balmy—and Dafydd ap Hywel, riding a little behind them, wearing nothing but ordinary archer's clothes, including a leather jerkin studded with metal plates, should by Jim's standards also be feeling chilly. But Jim was ready to bet that he was not, either.
There was, in fact, some reason for Brian's reaction.
Last year it had been good weather for them all, both in France and in England all through the summer. But the fall had made up for that. Autumn had been steady rain; and the winter had been steady snow. But now the winter and the snow had passed; and spring was upon the land even as far north as here in Northumberland, next to the Scottish border.
It was toward this border that Jim, along with Brian and Dafydd, was now riding.
Jim woke suddenly to the fact that he had not answered Brian. An answer would be needed. If he did not echo the other's cheerful sentiments about the weather, Brian would be sure that he was ailing. That was one of the problems that Jim had learned to accustom himself to in this parallel fourteenth-century world, in which he and his wife Angie had found themselves. To people like Sir Brian, either everything couldn't be better, or else you were ailing.
Ailing meant that you should dose yourself with all sorts of noxious concoctions, none of which could do any good at all. It was true that the fourteenth century knew a few things about medicine—though these were usually in the area of surgery. They could, and did, cut off a gangrenous limb—without the use of an anesthetic of course—and they were sensible enough to cauterize any wound that seemed to have infected. Jim lived in dread of getting wounded in some way when he was away from home and could not let Angie (the Lady Angela de Malencontri et Riveroak, his wife) take care of his doctoring.
About the only way he would have of fending off the mistaken help of people like Brian and Dafydd would be to claim that he could take care of the matter with magic. Jim, through no fault of his own, was a magician… a very low-rated magician, to be sure, but one who commanded respect for his title among non-magicians, nonetheless.
He still had not answered Brian, who was now looking at him curiously. The next thing Brian would be asking was if Jim had a flux or felt a fever.
"You're absolutely right!" Jim said, as heartily as he could, "marvelous weather. As you say, how could it be better?"
They were riding across a section of flat, treeless, heather moor, thick with cotton grass; and expected soon to be dropping down to sea level as they approached their destination, the Castle de Mer, home of their former friend Sir Giles de Mer, who had been slain in France the year before while heroically defending England's Crown Prince Edward from a number of armed and armored assailants; and who—being of selkie blood—turned into a live seal when his dead body was dropped in the English Channel waters.
Their trip was a usual duty undertaken by knights or other friends under such conditions, to advise the relatives of their former friend of the facts of his death; since news of such, in the fourteenth century, did not always get carried back to those relatives, otherwise. Any more than it had in the fourteenth century on Jim's world—not that this reason had justified making the trip to Jim's wife, Angie, any more than if he had chosen to do so from a whim.
Jim could really not blame her. She had not been happy being left alone most of last summer; with not only the castle and its inhabitants, which were normally her responsibility, but all of Jim's lands with their tenants, men-at-arms and others who lived on them to take care of as well.
As a result, she had been firmly against Jim's going; and it had taken him a solid two weeks to talk her around.
Jim had promised finally that their ride to Giles's family castle would take no more than ten days, they would spend no more than a week with the family, and then another ten-day ride back—so that the trip could take in all no more than a month. She had not even been ready to agree to this; but, happily, their close friend and Jim's tutor in magic—S. Carolinus—had happened to show up about that time; and his arguments in Jim's favor had won the day for him. Angie had finally agreed to let him go; but not with very good grace.
Their destination was on the seashore just below the town of Berwick, which anchored the eastern end of the Scottish/English border—the end of the old Roman wall. The de Mer Castle was supposedly only a few miles south of the town; and built right on the edge of the sea.
The description they had of it was that it was actually a peel tower with a certain amount of extra buildings attached to it, but not a great number. It was also about as far north as it was possible to get in this district of Northumberland, which had once been the old Scottish land of Northumbria, without entering Scotland itself.
"Better, it may hardly be," commented Dafydd ap Hywel, "but not well will it shortly be, as the sun goes down and the land cools for the night. If you'll look, now, the sun is almost on the horizon; and already skeins of mist are beginning to form ahead of us. Let us hope then that we reach de Mer Castle before the daylight is full gone; else we will find ourselves camping out overnight once more."
It was unusual for a mere bowman to speak up so freely in the presence of a couple of knights. But Dafydd, with Jim and Brian, had been Companions in a couple of tussles with the creatures of the Dark Powers, who were always at work in this medieval world to upset the balance between Chance and History.
Because of Jim's being originally from a technological civilization six hundred years in advance, and because he had picked up a certain amount of magical energy in being transported along with Angie back to this world, he seemed to have attracted the particular animosity of the Dark Powers, at work here.
Carolinus, who was one of this world's three AAA+ rated magicians and lived by The Tinkling Water, near Jim's own castle of Malencontri, had warned Jim that the Dark Powers were out to get him, particularly and simply, because he was more difficult to handle than someone native-born to this world and time.
However, all that was beside the point now. The fact was that, almo
st as soon as Dafydd had spoken up, Jim had begun to feel the bite of the air even more sharply through his armor and padding than he had before. Also, for some reason—emotional, no doubt—the sun seemed closer to the horizon than it had been even a couple of minutes earlier.
Moreover, the wisps of mists over the moorland were indeed thickening, lying like thick threads of smoke here and there some two to six feet above the grass; and now beginning to join up with each other, so that soon all the moor would be cloaked in mist; and it might well be perilous to try to continue riding under those conditions—
"Hah!" said Brian suddenly, "here is something that comes with the night, that we had not counted on!"
Jim and Dafydd followed the line of his pointing finger. Some little distance ahead of them, the mist had thinned to reveal movement beyond it. Movement which now emerged into full view to reveal itself as five horsemen. As they got closer, for they were riding directly toward Jim and his two Companions, something strange about them struck all three men.
"All Saints preserve us!" ejaculated Brian, crossing himself, "They ride either upon air or on invisible horses!"
What he said was beyond dispute.
The five indeed appeared to be riding thin air. From the movement of their bodies and their height above the ground, it was easy to see that they were on horseback and that their phantom steeds were moving; but there was nothing visible between their legs and the ground.
"What unholy thing is this?" demanded Brian. Beneath the up-turned visor of his helmet his face had paled. It was a square-boned, rather lean face with burning blue eyes above a hooked nose; and his chin was square and pugnacious with a slight dent in the middle of it. "James, is it magic of some kind?"
The fact that it might be magic, rather than something unholy, plainly offered to take a great deal of the superstitious awe out of the situation for Brian. But from Jim's point of view it did nothing to render less perilous the physical aspect of it. The three of them; he, Brian and Dafydd, with only two of them in armor, were facing what appeared to be five full-armored knights, their visors down and all holding heavy lances. It was a prospect that made his blood run cold; much more so than anything supernatural would have done. Not so with Brian.
"I think it's magic," answered Jim, more to reassure the other than for any other reason.
There remained the faint hope in Jim that the approach of the five might not be unfriendly. But this was firmly and forbiddingly enough dissipated. As those approaching got closer, a movement by each of them clearly announced their intent.
"They set their lances," commented Brian, the natural color in his face quite back and the tone of his voice almost cheerful, "best we do likewise, James."
This was exactly the kind of situation that Angie had feared for him, when she had objected to his going. In the fourteenth century, as it had been once on their original world, life was uncertain. The wife of a man who had left her with a cartful of produce for a nearby market town, never knew whether she would see him alive again or not.
There were innumerable perils on the way. Not merely robbers and outlaws along the road to the town. But the danger of fights; or even a reasonless arrest and execution of her husband once he was at the town, for his violation of some local edict, or other. Both Angie and Jim had known this of medieval conditions. They had known it intellectually as college instructors in their own twentieth century; and they had known of it as a reality, during their first months here. But it had taken them a little while to know it in their guts, as they did now. Now, Angie worried—and it was no weak worry at that.
But the fact of it was no help to the situation at the moment.
Jim reached for the heavy lance resting butt down and upright in the saddle socket in which it was normally carried; and laid it horizontal, pointing forward across the pommel, or raised forepart, of his saddle, ready to meet the charge. He was also about to lower the visor of his helmet when Dafydd trotted his horse a little ahead of them, stopped it, and swung down from its saddle.
"I would advise the two of you to stand clear," said Dafydd, reaching for his longbow, uncasing it and taking down his capped quiver, "to see first what a clothyard shaft can do to these, whoever they may be. There is no point in closing with them, look you, unless you have to."
Jim did not share Dafydd's coolness. Armored men on invisible horses could well be invulnerable to arrows even from Dafydd's tall bow. But Dafydd showed no sign of fearing this.
Calmly, completely indifferent to the thunder of the invisible, pounding hooves coming rapidly nearer and nearer to them at a canter about to break into a gallop, and to the five brilliant steel points of the spears, each with half a ton in weight of striking power behind it, Dafydd draped the leather strap of his quiver over his right shoulder so that the quiver itself hung comfortably at his left hip, upper-end forward. Tall, athletically slim and handsome, as usual every move of his body could have been a demonstration of how such action should be performed.
Now, he flipped back the weather cover from the quiver, chose an arrow from among those within it, examined its three-foot length and broad metal tip critically, then put it to the bow and pulled the string of the weapon back.
The longbow stave bent, the feathered end of the arrow continued to come back until it was level with Dafydd's ear—and then suddenly the arrow was away, leaping up as it left the bow. Jim was barely able to follow its flight with his eye, before it struck the foremost mounted figure squarely on the breastplate and buried itself in him right to the feathers.
The knight—if that was what he was—fell from the horse; but the rest came on. Almost immediately, there were arrows sprouting from three more of them. All but the one who had fallen turned to run, the three with the arrows in them somehow clinging to their invisible steeds so that they were carried away into the mist and out of sight.
Dafydd recased his bow. Calmly, he put it with his recapped quiver back in their places on his saddle, then remounted his own horse. Together they approached the place where the armored figure first hit had fallen.
He was strangely hard to see; and when they came up to where he should be, they saw why. Brian crossed himself again.
"Would you care to be the one to look more closely at it?" Brian asked Jim hesitantly. "—Seeing it may be magic?"
Jim nodded. Now that his first fear was over, unlike the two with him he was more intrigued than awed by what he had just seen. He swung down from his horse and approached what lay upon the ground, to squat down beside it. It was a combination of chain and steel plate, with padding beneath.
Dafydd's arrow was buried in the chest plate, up to the feathers, and the point stuck out through the back armor. It was much like the armor Jim wore himself; but somewhat old-fashioned. His eye for armor was developing, and he was able to notice that not all of the armor parts matched with each other the way they should. Dafydd pulled his arrow on through the backplate to recover it, and shook his head over the damage this had done to the shaft's feathers. Jim stood up.
"Two things are certain," he said. "One is that the arrow stopped him—it looks, permanently. Secondly, whoever or whatever was in the armor isn't there now."
"Could it be some damned souls from hell," asked Brian, crossing himself again, "sent against us?"
"I doubt it," answered Jim. He came to a sudden decision. "We'll take the armor with us."
He had got into the habit of carrying a coil of light rope, along with the other gear on his horse. It had turned out to be useful a number of times. He used it now to tie together the loose pieces of armor and clothing; and made a bundle which he fastened behind his saddle with the other goods his horse carried there.
Dafydd said nothing.
"Now the mists have thickened," said Brian, looking around them. "Soon it will be thick fog and we'll not see which way to go. What do we now?"
"Let's go on a little farther," said Jim.
They remounted and went on a little way, while the fog—f
or it was really fog now—thickened. But after a bit, they could feel a damp breeze, cold on the right side of their faces; and they noticed that the ground was beginning to slope in that direction, rather steeply.
They turned their horses to the slope and rode down. After about five minutes they rode out from under the fog, which now became a low-lying cloud bank above their heads, and found themselves on the shingle of a pebble and rock-strewn seashore. The cloud had lifted. Perhaps five hundred yards to their left, up the bank, was a dark peel tower—a common form of fortress to be found on the Scottish border. It rose from the shingle like a single black finger, upright, with some outbuildings attached to its base.
It sat right above the edge of a cliff face falling vertically to the creamy surf that beat on the shore, but some fifty to eighty feet above it; by virtue of being built on a little promontory that grew higher toward the end where the tower was built.
"Castle de Mer, do you think, Brian?" asked Jim.
"I have no doubt of it!" answered Sir Brian merrily, setting his horse into a canter.
The rest did the same; and a few moments later they were riding over the wooden drawbridge that lay down over a deep but dry ditch, to a large, open doorway with two cresset lamps, made of baskets of iron bars forged together to hold fuel, burning on either side of the doorway some ten feet off the ground, to hold back the darkness of the night and the mist.
"James! Brian—and Dafydd!"
With that shout, a short, luxuriantly mustached figure was running across the hard-packed damp earth surface of the courtyard toward them; a squarely built young man, with a very large hooked nose. He wore only a mail shirt above his hose and his hair, flaxen in color like his mustache, was tousled.
"In God's name!" said Brian, reining up abruptly. "First horses of air; and now dead friends rise again!"
But in a fraction of a second his attitude had changed. He was down off his horse and—fourteenth-century style—kissing and embracing the smaller man in a crushing hug of his metal-clad arms.