The Dragon and the DjinnGordon R. Dickson
And The Djinn
Gordon R. Dickson
For six days and nights the wind blew steadily out of the northwest; so that the servants huddled in their quarters, wrapped in everything warm they owned, and thought they heard voices of dark prophesies in the wind. It blew until it blew steep drifts of snow against the great doors in the curtain wall of the castle; so that men had to be lowered by rope from the battlements to shovel it away to get the doors open.
Finally it ceased; and there was a day of perfect quietness, terrible coldness and blue sky. Then the wind began again, worse than before, this time from the southeast; and on the second day it blew Sir Brian Neville-Smythe in through the now-open doors of Malencontri.
The blacksmith and one of the men-at-arms from the gate led Brian, still on his horse, across the courtyard to the entrance to the Great Hall and helped him (stiffly) down from his horse, helped beat the ice off his outer garments, where it clung thickly to those parts of his over-robe that covered armor underneath; and the man-at-arms took the horse off to the warm stables. The blacksmith, since he clearly outranked an ordinary man-at-arms, went in with Sir Brian to announce him.
But the blacksmith never got the chance. Because once they were within the Hall they saw Lady Angela Eckert, wife to Sir James Eckert, Lord of Malencontri and all its lands, taking her mid-day meal there and she, in the same moment, recognized the visitor.
"Brian!" she called from the far end of the long hall. "Where did you come from?"
"Outside," said Brian, who was a literal-minded person.
He advanced on the high table, set on a platform raised above the hall floor and looking down the two long tables at right angles before it, and stretching away toward Brian, to accommodate diners of lesser rank—but empty at the moment. Angie was lunching alone, but in all proper state.
"I can see that," said Angie, lowering her voice as he came closer. "But where did you start from?"
"From Castle Smythe. My home," replied Brian, with a touch of impatience; for where else would he be coming from at this, the end of January after a heavy winter storm?
The impatience was only momentary, however, for he was already eyeing the food and drink before Angie on the high table. To Brian, what Angie—who, like her husband, Jim, had been an involuntary importee from the twentieth century to this fourteenth-century world, some three years before—thought of as lunch time, was dinner time. It was the main meal of his day; and he had had nothing since breakfast, shortly after dawn on this icy morning.
"Well, come sit down, and have something to eat and drink," said Angie. "You must be frozen to the bone."
"Hah!" said Brian, his eyes lighting up at the invitation—expected though it was.
The table servants were already readying a place for him at one end of the table, so he and Angie could half face each other; for she sat behind the length of the table, itself, close to that end. Even as he sat down, another servant ran in from the serving room with a steaming pitcher, from which he poured hot wine into a mazer—a large, square metal goblet placed before Brian.
"Mulled wine, by God!" said Brian happily.
He took several hearty swallows from the mazer, to check on what his nose had already told him. Putting the mazer back down, he beamed at Angie with affectionate goodwill. Another of the table servants put a meat pie in front of him and spooned a large serving from it on to his trencher, the large, thick slice of coarse bread which served as his plate. He nodded approvingly, neatly picked out the largest piece of meat and wiped his fingers afterwards neatly on his napkin by the trencher.
"I thought to find you dining in your solar when you were alone, Angela," he said, as soon as his mouth was empty.
"I have done that," said Angie. "But it's more convenient here."
Her eyes met Brian's and a look of complete understanding passed between them, twentieth century and fourteenth century for once in complete agreement.
Servants. Angie would by far have preferred to eat in the solar—which was the bed-sitting chamber at the top of Malencontri's tower and the private chamber of the Lord and Lady of the castle.
The solar was a warm, comfortable place, with its windows tightly glazed against the weather with actual glass, and the floor heated under foot by a reconstruction by her husband of the type of hypocaust that the earlier Roman conquerors of Britain had used to heat their homes, but which the Middle Ages had forgotten. It was simply a space between two stone floors where air could circulate that had been warmed by continuous fires burning in fireplaces outside the room.
There also was an actual large fireplace in the solar itself—ornamental as well as useful in weather like this.
The Great Hall, of course, had fireplaces of its own. Three, in fact, huge ones. One behind the high table where Angie sat right now, and two others; one each halfway down the long walls of the hall. At the moment all three were burning brightly with fires in them, because Angie was there; but the hall was still cold for all that.
Still, against their real preferences, Jim and Angie had taken to eating at least their mid-day meals here. No servant had come to them on bended knee and pleaded with them to eat in state in the Hall; though there had been veiled references made to the convenience of the serving room—so close to the high table—so that food could be brought in hot. But no one had officially protested.
But there were still invisible limits to what a Lord and Lady could do—even if the Lord was a famous knight and magician. Those who served the gentry would obey any order. Men-at-arms would go forth and die for their feudal superiors. But neither servants nor men-at-arms, nor tenants, nor serfs, nor anyone else on the estate, would go against custom. When custom spoke, everybody obeyed; right up to the throne of the King himself.
And at Malencontri, a general attitude, unspoken but very clearly felt, had finally had its way with Angie and Jim. A Lord and Lady of a castle like this were supposed to eat their mid-day meal in proper fashion, in the proper place. That was what the hall was there for. The table servants who had to bring food from the outside kitchen to the serving room might freeze in the process. That was beside the point. There was a way things should be done; and that was the way it should be done here.
"Where's James?" Brian asked after a few moments, having managed to take on at least enough meat pie and wine to begin satisfying his clamoring stomach.
"He'll be along shortly," said Angie. "Right now he's up there."
She pointed her finger vertically.
"Ah, yes," said Brian, meaning he understood. This gesture of Angie's, which might have either baffled a stranger or seemed to imply Angie's husband had left this earthly scene, was
something completely reasonable and understood between these two.
"He thought he should take a look at our people on the lands outside the castle," said Angie, "and make sure all of them came through the storm all right."
Brian nodded, his mouth full. He swallowed.
"Then, with your pardon, my Lady, I shall wait until he comes back," Brian said, "and tell you both at the same time what I came to say. I would like the two of you to hear it together. It is great news, indeed. You will grant me mercy if I do not speak of it now?"
"Certainly," said Angie. In spite of the courtly question at the end of Brian's little speech, Angie knew that Brian had no intention of speaking until her husband got back; and that was a red flag to her. If Brian wanted to talk to the two of them together, he wanted or needed something from Jim; and in that case experience had taught Angie to be ready to resist. Forewarned was forearmed.
"He should be back soon," she said.
At the moment Jim was on wing over the southeast corner of the lands he owned as Sir James Eckert, Baron of Malencontri. This part was mainly meadow and open farmland; and he was searching the white landscape below for those relatively few of his tenants and farmers who lived in isolated spots farther out from the castle, to see if any of them needed assistance after the storm.
He was feeling a keen delight in being airborne. It was strange, he thought now, how he forgot about the sheer joy of it when he was not translated into dragon form; and how strongly the feeling came back to him once he was aloft. It was a far more gratifying feeling than flying a small plane, which Jim had taken a few lessons at doing, back in his original twentieth-century world, or even like soaring in a man-made glider, which he had done as a passenger, twice. In this case it was his living, feeling self alone that was riding the air currents; and there was a triumphant sensation of both freedom and power.
In his large dragon body, with its much higher mass-to-surface ratio than that of his human one, he was not bothered by the cold. Heat would have been something else again. He had almost melted down trying to walk through the summer heat in the middle part of France as a dragon, a couple of years ago; and the rush of cold air about him now was only pleasant.
He was alive right out to the tips of his enormous wings, which reached out an awesome distance on each side of him, in order to make it possible for that body of his to plane through the air. He was soaring, not flying, as most of even the large birds preferred to do, because of the enormous expenditure of energy required to keep him aloft by flapping his wings alone; but once at sufficient altitude, he could ride the air currents and the updrafts with careful adjustments of his wings; the way a sailing ship might adjust both fore-and-aft and square sails to cause the wind to propel it across the surface of the water.
This adjustment was purely instinctive on the part of his body. Nonetheless, he appreciated it as much as if it had been a skill. It made him feel like a king in this airy realm.
However, he had now covered almost all of his estate and it was time to be heading back to the castle. He would be late for lunch. He started the long swing to his right that would send him homeward; but just then he spotted the widow Tebbits's little sapling-and-clay igloo.
"Igloo" was not really a proper name for it; but he could think of no other architectural name that fitted it. It had been built out of saplings and thin branches woven together and plastered airtight with clay. It either had no proper roof, or the roof had settled into the walls over the years, giving it roughly the shape of an igloo. In any case, in the middle of the roof was a hole that was right above the sand-filled firebox in which the widow lit the fire for her cooking and heating.
That hole was not showing any escaping smoke now. What was more, it was covered from the inside.
Jim circled down and landed with a thump before the door, which the new direction of the wind had cleared of snow. The sound of his coming to earth evidently alerted whoever was inside; for someone fought with the door for a few seconds, then it popped open. The widow herself stepped out, bundled up in clothing, blankets and assorted rags until she looked more like a teddy bear than a human being, and recognized him immediately.
She gave the small obligatory scream that the Malencontri people had decided was the proper way to acknowledge their Lord in his dragon form, and then tried to curtsy. It was a mistake with all the padding she had on, and she almost tumbled over. Jim stopped himself just in time from reaching out to catch her. She would never have forgiven herself if her Lord had had to do something like that. Happily, the frame of the door kept her from going all the way down and she recovered her footing.
"M'lord!" she said.
Out of her swaddling of coverings, her round, soft, aged face peered at him with two sharp dark eyes.
"How are you, Tebbits?" asked Jim. The widow had a first name, but nobody on the estate seemed to remember what it was. "I noticed there was no smoke coming up from your roof."
"Oh, no, m'lord," said the widow. "Thank you, m'lord. It's good of you to speak to me, m'lord. I'm ever so grateful to you, m'lord. There's no smoke because the fire's out."
"Is something wrong with the firebox?" asked Jim, remembering to use delicacy in approaching the subject
"No, m'lord. Thank you, m'lord."
"Why is the fire out, then?"
"It burned up the last ember and just went out, like fires do—with your grace and pardon for saying so, m'lord."
Jim sighed inwardly. He felt rather like a man in the dark with a ring-full of keys, trying to find the right one that would unlock the door in front of him. All of the tenants had a horror of openly complaining. They had ways of making their wants known to him—roundabout ways—and the pretense was always that they were perfectly in control of things and needed no help whatsoever… but if he happened to notice, just at this moment they could use…
"You wouldn't have gotten a little low on firewood, during the snowstorm?" asked Jim.
"Why, I believe I did," said the widow Tebbits. "I'm so dreadfully forgetful these days, m'lord."
"Not at all," said Jim heartily. How she had survived, in spite of all that padding inside, an unheated shelter for the last few days, particularly at her age, was beyond imagination. "You know, I think I saw a fallen branch off in that patch of woods over there. It might be useful to you. I believe I'll just go and get it for you."
"Oh, pray don't put yourself to the trouble, m'lord," said Tebbits.
"Tebbits," said Jim, in an autocratic, warning voice, "I choose to go get you that bough!"
"Oh, pray forgive me, m'lord. Very sorry, m'lord. Crave pardon!"
"Be right back," said Jim.
He turned around and with a thunder of wings leaped into the air, winged the short distance to the nearby stand of trees he had been thinking of and flew far enough over them so that when he came down he would be out of sight of the widow Tebbits. There were no fallen branches handy, nor had he any intention of going to the trouble of searching for them under the snow. He picked a fifteen-foot limb from an oak and simply tore it loose from the frozen trunk. On second thought, he found another limb of about the same thickness and length and tore it off. Holding the limbs by their ends so that they dragged beneath him between his feet and did not interfere with his wings, he sprang into the air once more, flapped back dragging them, and landed at the widow Tebbits's.
"Here!" he said gruffly—and then noticed that she was eyeing the thickness of the branches where they had been attached to the tree somewhat wistfully. "Oh, come to think of it," he said, "have you an ax where you can get at it conveniently?"
"Alas, m'lord," said Tebbits. "I'm afraid I lost it, like."
She had almost undoubtedly never had one, thought Jim. Iron was expensive. He must do something about getting her at least some sort of tool for cutting up thicker pieces of wood.
"Ah, yes, I see," said Jim. "Well, in that case—"
He picked up one of the two frozen tree limbs h
e had brought her and began breaking off—quite easily with the strength of his dragon forearms—the heavy ends of its main stem, as well as any extended limbs that would keep it from fitting neatly into her fire box. He reduced the branches to burnable lengths and, picking these up, put only as many as she could carry into the arms of Tebbits, who clutched them awkwardly, but obviously gratefully, in spite of the thickness of the cloth insulation in which she was wrapped.
"I'll have Dick Forester send someone down here with some of the castle wood sometime later today," Jim wound up. "Have you flint and steel? Can you get the fire started?"
"Oh yes, thank you, m'lord," said Tebbits. "You're always so kind to a useless old person."
"Not at all. Be old myself one day, no doubt!" he said bluffly. "Heaven bless you, Tebbits."
"May Heaven bless you, m'lord," said Tebbits.
Jim sprang into the air with a thunder of wings, feeling rather smug at having been able for once to bless one of these people of his before they could bless him. Once back to altitude he resumed his flight to the castle.
But, in the process, something new caught his eye. Something not on his land at all. On the small estate of Sir Hubert Whitby adjoining his, Sir Hubert was waving his arms, shouting something incomprehensible at this distance, and directing several of his own tenants or servants over some problem or other—Jim's telescopic dragon-sight informed him.
Sir Hubert was not the best of neighbors. In fact, he was probably not far from being the worst of neighbors, Jim thought. But then he checked himself, Sir Hubert was not really bad, dangerous, evil, dishonest or rapacious—or any of the many things that neighbors could be in this fourteenth-century England. But he was a never-satisfied annoyance; always angry about something, always insistent and complaining about it at great length.
For a moment Jim was tempted simply to complete his turn and forget that he had seen anything at all. But then his conscience, plus the strong social feeling of obligation to neighbors that existed in this time, turned him back and he soared in the direction of Sir Hubert and his problem.