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The Dragon and the Fair M, Page 2

Gordon R. Dickson

  Already, however, several senior men-at-arms were gathered on the catwalk, looking over that part of the castle's curtain wall to observe and leisurely discuss the newcomers. They would most certainly not be let in now, after gate-close.

  Other men-at-arms were joining them as soon as they were off duty. Men-at-arms only, for the defensive catwalk below the battlements clear around the castle wall was territory of the men-at-arms alone—ordinary Castle servants were allowed up on it solely when their added numbers were needed to repel an attack on the curtain walls.

  Regardless of this—though they could hardly have failed to understand the situation—the two now walking their horses toward the gate came on.

  It was not merely Malencontri's orders that would bar entrance to them, of course. Cities, towns, castles, even private dwellings with anything that could be stolen inside them, barred all entrances, locked all shutters and put themselves in a defensive position every eve until daybreak. It was common sense against any night attack when most inside would be sleeping. More than that: it was the custom.

  Custom, of all holy things, rating just below Faith and Love, was not there to be treated lightly in this society and time. Faith simply was, of course, Love—here in its full sense, stretching all the way from duty to a superior or an ideal, to the child who could be gotten at only over your dead body—could not be questioned. But Custom endured because what had always been must always be. Custom, sworn to in court, could make even a lord back down to a demand by his tenants. So the men-at-arm discussed the two approaching with the distant interest given to something that would have to wait until the morning to be resolved.

  The taller of the two was clearly a knight. He wore the weapons, the swordbelt. Moreover, his spurs, which might even actually be gold, glinted occasionally in the light that remained. The other, smaller rider, also weaponed but without the swordbelt, was undoubtedly his squire. It was even possible that the smaller was a younger brother or otherwise related. The two wore visorless helms and looked more than a little alike.

  But what really interested the more experienced men-at-arms was not the pair themselves so much as the armor worn by the knight. Dulled as it was by the soil of travel, it was obviously beautifully made and fitted him like a set of court clothes. A suit of armor almost beyond cost for the person who had paid the original price for it. But since he was so poor or unimportant that he traveled with none but his squire—and probably a family member at that—that person could not have been him.

  So how had it come into his possession, fitting him as perfectly as it did?

  They all turned with expressions of interest as they were abruptly joined by Theoluf, a former chief man-at-arms himself, now elevated to the rank of being their lord's squire (and now therefore officially a gentleman), but one who would still unbend to the point of speaking more on a level with his men than most squires would.

  They pointed out the stranger knight's armor, even as he and his companion reached the gate and the knight began to hammer on it with the shaft of his lance.

  "Open!" his angry shout came up to them. "Open, I say, for Edward Le Captiv!"

  Theoluf's normally good-humored—if wound-marked—face flashed into an expression of fury, terrifying behind the scar that almost split his face from right chin-point to his left forehead. Instantly he leaned over the battlements and shouted back.

  "At once, Your Grace! At once!"

  He swung back to face his men-at-arms.

  "Bone-heads! Privy-wits!" he snarled at them. "Were none of you with me on our first visit to France when we rescued him from the Rogue Magickian, Malvinne?"

  Silence. White-faced, none of them answered. The wrath faded from his expression. None had been with him in France. There was always considerable turnover in the manning of the establishment's men-at-arms, for numerous reasons. His voice became a little less outraged—but still sharp enough.

  "What do you wait for? That is the young England who asks entrance, Edward, heir to the throne! Dolts! Run!"

  They ran.

  Chapter Two

  The Bishop of Bath and Wells was a burly, pugnacious man in his early middle age who could be very powerful and demanding in his speech, but at the moment he seemed on his warmest and most congenial behavior. This, in spite of what he announced as a mere slightly twisted ankle, but which required him to limp and use a walking stick.

  He had come, with a small gold crucifix to be a present of his own, to thank them for the white Chinese silk altar-cloth material Angie had been able to get through Carolinus's eastern Magickian connections. The cloth itself had been a thank-you gift from Angie for the Bishop's help in getting the English King to give Jim ward of the orphaned baby, Robert Falon.

  Today, the Bishop had brought part of the silk, already made into the frontal of one altar cloth, to show it off—so went the intricate business of gift-giving in the high Middle Ages.

  … I have just had word—" the good prelate had begun by saying, once he, Jim and Angie were safely private below Malencontri's tower top in the Solar apartment. He had reached for another small cake. "—that the plague has reached London."

  But it's too early!" Jim almost said aloud before he caught himself. In the history of his world and Angie's, the plague had only just reached Genoa in a rat-infested ship, sometime between the years of 1347 and 1349.

  The times of their world and this were out of whack. They were not just off by a set number of years, as the early Julian calendar and the later, modern one of Jim and Angie's future century had been found to be. Various important incidents, like the deaths of kings or the year of a decisive battle, seemed to be taking place here at unexpectedly different times.

  Meanwhile, having stunned his two listeners with his news, the good Bishop took up his wineglass and sipped from it.

  "Yes," he went on, "it moves swiftly. Already, there are villages in France where not a soul has survived."

  "I thought those were just stories!" said Jim.

  "Unfortunately, they are true, Sir James. The Fiend is among us, and it is our duty, not only within the Church but without, to do what we can to deny him at least some of his victims."

  These last words came out with a more steely edge than Jim had expected to hear, even from this prelate. The Bishop (Richard de Bisby) came from one of those families of the upper nobility called magnates. Families such as that of the Earl of Oxford, families in which, under the rule of primogeniture, the eldest son inherited everything, and the younger sons were either sent into the Church or pointed toward the military.

  In the Bishop's case, this had made him a prelate who might actually have been happier in life with a sword in his hand rather than a crosier. Certainly he was built to take on the duties of a medieval swordsman, from his ruddy, tough-featured face to his meaty, powerful-looking hands.

  But this was a new Bishop, a different, fully ecclesiastical Bishop, very much a leader who thought in the long terms of the Church, and the survival of his communicants.

  "It seemeth," he was saying now, "there is no medicine for it—no salves to ease the pain of the cruel buboes of those dying from it, so that they are already in Hell before they die. Carolinus tells me, Sir James, that you and the Lady Angela come from a far place. Could it be that either of you know more of this plague and what might be done to stop it than we do?"

  Information rushed from the back of Jim's mind. As a graduate student working toward a degree as a medievalist he had done a paper on the plague, and facts jumped forward, only to be pushed back before he could utter them.

  He could tell the tough-looking man sitting opposite him nothing that would stop the disease or cure those who had caught it. The medical terms that would explain the known later-day details would make no sense in this time.

  "We believed it was spread by the bites of fleas, who'd already fed on rats with the disease in them—but that's all," he said. 'The rats that brought the disease to Genoa—from which it's been spreading—mus
t have come on a ship from the Far East, where the plague has been known for some centuries, they've had no cure for it there, either."

  That much was an honest answer. The details about its pneumonal form, spread by the breath of those already infected, were not only unexplainable in fourteenth-century terms but could not help the situation. There was nothing else Jim could say which would give the Bishop any assistance.

  "—it might be wise," he added, however, "to clean your church property and people as much from fleas and rats as possible."

  "I will remember that," said the Bishop, and Jim, knowing the medieval memory, even in an educated literate man like the Bishop, knew the other would.

  "—And Your Lordship is undoubtedly aware of the pennyroyal? That small mintlike flower that fleas do not like and which therefore repels them? We'll be putting it all around the castle here generously, ourselves," said Angie.

  "Thank you, my daughter," said the Bishop. "I was aware of the plant, of course, but I had not thought of it in connection with this."

  Jim, meanwhile, had stolen a glance at Angie, who had returned it briefly after the Bishop answered. The one thing they had both feared for themselves, stuck in this early historic period, had been sickness—for either one of them. Magic could close and cure wounds. It could not do a thing for any kind of physical malady.

  "I have been in contact by fast rider with my Brother in Christ, the Bishop of London," announced the Bishop, who had intercepted the glance between husband and wife and was beginning to fear that the shock value of his news might be fading in his audience, making them less likely to fall in blindly with the request he had come to Malencontri to make. "I am aware, of course, that magick has no cure for sicknesses—except on the lips of charlatans. Nonetheless, Sir James, your Master-in-Magick and I, both feel that talking the problem over together might be of aid—but there is a difficulty in doing that."

  He took a sip of his wine.

  "Unfortunately—as two like you might understand more quickly than most—for a Lord of Holy Church like myself, appearing to consult with even perhaps the greatest Mage might be misunderstood if generally known. As a result I can hardly ask Carolinus to visit me for privy talk at Bath or Wells—much less risk having it known that I had made visit directly to him."

  He cleared his throat. He was not usually in the position of asking favors from others.

  "As a result," he went on strongly, "it occurs to me to ask you if you would be contemplating inviting Carolinus to Malencontri during the few days I can be here. If so, it would be a convenient time for me to speak him."

  "Of course!" said Jim. "You are now here, my Lord Bishop, and as for Carolinus, he needs no invitation, but I confidently expect him—possibly as early as tomorrow. I could just visit him, no problem if I fly to the Tinkling Water, as I so frequently do, and ask him to come."

  "No, no!" said the Bishop. "It must be known that he was invited separately—a day or so before I was—so that our meeting here was entirely by chance—"

  A scratching at the Solar's hall door interrupted him.

  "Come!" said Jim, and Theoluf stuck his scarred face into the Solar.

  "My lord, may I crave your kindness to leave for a moment, on a matter of greatest seriousness?"

  "Would you forgive me—" Jim looked questioningly at the Bishop.

  "Certainly, my son."

  "It's all right," said Jim to Theoluf, getting to his feet. "I'll come. But I'll be right back—won't I, Theoluf?"

  "Indeed, my lord! Indeed! A moment, only."

  Jim went out, carefully closing the three-inch door, built as a final barrier against any attackers who might have driven Malencontri's defenders to their last and stoutest defensive position.

  "What is all this, Theoluf?" he asked.

  "My lord, I am bade to tell you that the Count of Woodstock and the Countess of Kent are at the High Table in the Hall, being cared for and wishing to speak to you and Lady Angela as soon as possible."

  "Countess of Kent?" The Countess of Kent was the high-born woman otherwise known as "the Fair Maid of Kent," reputedly the most beautiful woman in England. She had her title by right of birth, but she was also the Countess of Salisbury by marriage with her present husband.

  "The Countess of Kent, m'Lord," repeated Theoluf with particular emphasis—and, "—the Count of Woodstock, le captiv!"

  "Oh!" said Jim. The Count of Woodstock, eldest son of King Edward and heir-apparent to the English throne, had sometime since been given a higher title, that of the Prince of Wales—the title for the King's eldest son, heir to the throne. But he had been just "the Prince" when Jim, Brian, and Giles de Mer, with Dafydd and Aargh, the English Wolf, had rescued him from captivity at the hands of Malvinne, a rogue Magickian. Clearly the Prince did not want knowledge of his presence spread around the neighborhood.

  Jarred back to a more general appraisal of the situation by realization that England's Crown Prince was suddenly a guest here, along with someone else's wife—at the same time as the Bishop was in residence—Jim found his usually nimble wits had no quick decisions to offer.

  "Tell them I'll come to them as soon as I can—my apologies, of course. Don't stint on the apologies. Is Mistress Cinders preparing a couple of rooms?"

  "All is in hand, m'Lord."

  "Good!" Jim went back into the Solar with a troubled mind.

  "Forgive me for this interruption, my lord," he said to the Bishop.

  "Of course, my son," said the Bishop. "I am familiar with such in my own establishment. So, I take it you are not adverse to my guesting here for the next few days. It would be a kindness to find out for me if Carolinus plans to visit in that time—I understand he lives not far from here."

  Jim knew that the Bishop knew full well how close Carolinus lived—but he was being polite.

  "No distance at all," said Jim, getting up again, "and no trouble. Also it is a pleasure to us always to have you under our roof. If you'll forgive me for leaving, I'll go right now."

  He was only too aware of how Carolinus suited time to himself. This world's leading Mage could easily interpret "a day or two" as meaning "whenever you feel like it." Jim closed the door to the corridor behind him before the Bishop could offer any more polite protests, and headed toward the stairs to the tower roof.

  "Stand back, William," he ordered the man-at-arms on watch, once he was up there—this being the standard warning to one of his retainers that he was about to change into his dragon form. William was already a good twenty feet away. Nonetheless, he backed clear to the battlements on the opposite side of the tower top.

  It was prompt obedience to orders, but it was also prudence. The full spread of Jim's dragon wings was a good deal more than the width of the tower top.

  Then Jim had changed and was gone, almost straight upward on the thunder of those enormous wings. In moments he was high above the ground. He found a current of air in the ocean of the day's atmosphere, one heading roughly toward Castle Smythe, Brian's residence, and ceased climbing, spreading his wings and holding them outstretched, to coast gently downward in the direction he wished to go, without effort.

  The pleasure of that effortless flight took him over again, as it always did, and soothed him. Dragons were not given to wrestling with mental problems, and for the movement he was as much dragon as human. But gradually the tangle of the present situation at Malencontri crept back into his mind.

  Getting the invitation to Carolinus was no real problem at all, the only possible sticking point would be to get Carolinus to openly promise he would be there tomorrow. If he actually said out loud he would be there, they could count on him.

  It was ridiculous, when Jim thought about it. Carolinus was always preaching to Jim about being as thrifty as possible with his available magickal energy—and admittedly there had been incidents that seemed to justify those warnings.

  But the Mage himself could appear at Malencontri without even winking, and seemed to think nothing of hopping from
wherever he was to as far as World's End (than which there was no farther) and back, even taking people like Jim and Angie along with him, and never counting the magickal cost.

  At the same time, his home at the Tinkling Water resembled nothing so much as a pleasant little fairy-tale cottage. But it could somehow make its ordinary-sized door admit, and its inner space accommodate, a dragon Jim's size—which was large, even among that species. Meanwhile, ever-blooming flowers bordered each side of the evidently self-raking gravel walk to that door, and at the walk's outer end were shining pools of water on each side, from which what looked like tiny golden mermaids leaped into the air periodically… but they did this so fast that it was impossible to be sure if they really were mermaids or just golden fish.

  The whole establishment, circled by greensward with tall trees beyond, was an isle of peace that Jim's troubled mind looked forward to right now.

  Even as he thought this, he spotted the clearing that held Carolinus's home, and altered his flight pattern to bring him down with a heavy thump on the gravel walk to its front door.

  As he did so, the door opened, and the small, green, fairy-beautiful figure of a sibyl slipped out—and she was crying.

  The sight of something as small and vulnerable as a sibyl—most people mistook them for butterflies from a distance—in tears, was so moving that it was hard to imagine anything that lived being untouched by it. A heart of stone would instantly offer to throw itself into a ten-thousand-degree melting pot, if only she would give over being sad and smile again. Jim, despite his other lacks, had a heart considerably softer than stone.

  "Why, Ecce!" he said. "What's wrong?"

  But she was already gone, with a skill at disappearing that would have put to shame even that of Aargh, the English Wolf, who, with no magic at all, made a practice of seeming to disappear while right before human eyes.