One Knight Only, Page 2Peter David
Still . . . he lived. And he knew things.
“I am an old man,” said the Aged One without even an attempt at a politic greeting. “I need my sleep.”
“You sleep all day and all night,” replied the High King.
“I fail to see your point.”
There was no purpose whatsoever in bandying words about. Instead he leaned forward, exuding power, as he interlaced his fingers and rested his chin atop them. “I had a Seeing Dream,” he said gravely.
The High King blinked in annoyance. “You have nothing of more moment to say than that? Have you any idea of the importance of what I’ve just told you?”
“No,” the Aged One replied pointedly. “I have no idea of anything. You have told me the means by which a message was conveyed, but not the message itself. It could be trivial.”
“Trivial?” The High King practically spat out the word. “The gods wouldn’t waste their time with trivialities.”
The Aged One did not seem the least bit impressed over the High King’s indignation on the gods’ behalf. Instead he rapped his cane on the floor several times, as if trying to snag the attention of a recalcitrant child. The High King slumped back, looking sullen. In a faintly scolding tone, the Aged One said, “You seem to be under the impression that because you are two-thirds a god, you know of what the gods will. Well, High King, I may not share your patrimony, but I am older than you by far, and I can tell you that no one can predict the gods. We are in their image, and they in ours, and if we can be petty, cruel, and foolish in our ways, then they can be more so if they’re so inclined. Do not ascribe great depth to everything the gods give you, for that way surely lies madness.”
“I would have thought the continuation of this conversation would lead to madness even more quickly,” grumbled the High King, shifting in his chair. “Must you always lecture me? Must you always try to make me feel as if I am less than I am?”
“Of course,” said the Aged One with a shrug. “If not I, then who?”
The High King took that in for a moment, and then a slow smile spread across his face. It made him look even more handsome, because it made him seem a bit more human, rather than the icon of perfection he ordinarily resembled. “Well spoken, Aged One,” he allowed. “Very well spoken. I would be the less for it, were I not accompanied by someone who existed to put me in my place.”
Snorting at that, the Aged One said, “And are we not full of ourselves. I exist at your sufferance, you say? Faw.” He made a dismissive, guttural noise. “I exist at the sufferance and pleasure of the gods, and will do so for as long as it amuses them to keep me about. And when they feel it is time to dispose of me—which cannot come soon enough for me, I assure you—then will I be gone, whether you have need of me or not. Gods, but if this insufferably dull conversation continues, it will seem that I have lived more than twice the span I’ve already consumed. Out with it, High King. What of this dream, then, for I’ve much to do and important naps to take that I’d prefer not to be kept from.”
“The dream, then,” said the High King. He suddenly felt most uneasy discussing it, for he was not one to let down his guard or speak of that which disconcerted him. It implied weakness, and was not appropriate for one who was, as the Aged One said, two-thirds god. But there was really no avoiding it. “I saw a sword . . . a sword like no other. A wide, black pommel, and a guard with runes upon it that looked as if they were ancient at a time when even you first walked the earth. And the blade, by the gods, it gleamed, Aged One, as if it was forged in the very cauldron of creation itself. It hung before me, suspended in the air, and I tried to reach for it. I touched it briefly, and heat seemed to explode from it, heat of such ferocity that it near to burned me alive.” His voice filled with dread, for recounting it now chilled him to his marrow. “Then the sword spiraled through the air, and lit in the hand of another man. He swept it through the air, back and around—”
“In a shape?” the Aged One said quickly. “A pattern?”
The High King frowned, trying to recall. “A . . . figure eight, I believe. Sideways. Is that significant?”
“Go on,” said the Aged One, not committing himself to any observations yet.
“There is not much more. In his other hand, the man was clutching a black rock. It was rather large. He did not attempt to throw it; he simply held it. He came toward me, swinging his sword in that same way, and then he said . . . the oddest thing.” Before the Aged One could ask, he continued, “He said . . . ‘I’m sorry.’ But he didn’t say what he was sorry for. And then . . .” He gave a small shrug. “I woke up.”
The Aged One nodded slowly then, pausing to take it all in. Then he rocked back and forth slowly on his heels, humming softly to himself. The High King sat patiently, waiting. It had been a long time since he had sought the Aged One’s counsel on a Seeing Dream, and he was not about to rush him.
“The sword you saw,” the Aged One finally told him, “may or may not be known to me. If it is the sword I think it to be . . . it is the blade known, in its misted origins, as ‘Calad Bolg’ . . .”
“ ‘Hard Lightning,’ ” the High King translated.
The Aged One nodded once in what appeared to be approval. The High King took some pleasure in that; it seemed so rare that the Aged One acknowledged, in a positive manner, just about anything he ever said. That should not have mattered to the High King . . . and yet, annoyingly, it did. “Yes. The blade of hard lightning. There are many explanations as to its origins. The most likely, as I’ve heard the tale, is that an Elfin smithy, or perhaps a dwarf, fashioned it, with a forge stoked by the flaming breath of the first dragon of them all, the very reptile that the Norse claimed wrapped itself around the middle of the world. The blade was first wielded by an Irish hero named Cu Chulainn, and then it disappeared upon his death. Some said it returned on its own to the Elf folk that made it; others say that a human returned it to them.”
“And what happened to Calad Bolg after that?” asked the High King.
The Aged One once again lapsed into silence. The High King’s patience began to wane a bit, and it took a physical effort not to shout at the old man. When he spoke once more, it was as if he had not heard the High King’s question. Instead he said, “The eight is significant. It is a time. It could be eight days . . . eight weeks, or months, or years from now . . . but at the end of that span, Calad Bolg will confront you. What is also significant is that an eight, sideways, represents infinity. Endlessness.”
Regarding the High King with a stare that could only be considered pitying, the Aged One reminded him, “You, High King . . . are endless. As am I. The sword, and its wielder, represents a threat to that endlessness.”
He drew in a sharp breath. “Impossible,” he spat out. He felt angry, not so much at the old man, as he did at the very notion that the way of life that they had carved out for themselves was in any way endangered. He was up off his throne, pacing, fuming, virtually outraged at the concepts he was being forced to address. When he walked, each foot came down with such force that the room seemed to shake slightly with every step. “Impossible, I say. Nothing can threaten us. Nothing can defeat me,” and he thumped his fist on his chest. “I am the High King! None would dare! Even this sword, forged in a dragon’s breath, cannot stand against that which protects us! For the old magic guards us.”
“For now. Yes. The black stone—”
The High King stopped his pacing. He had completely forgotten about that other part of the dream. “The black stone, yes. And what will this wielder of Calad Bolg do? Pelt us with rocks in his frustration as he fails to lay us low?”
“It is not a rock. It is a symbol,” said the Aged One patiently. “It is in his hand, and so it represents a servant of his. A black servant. Hard as stone, patient as stone, unyielding as stone, eternal as stone. This servant will come first. When he departs, he will bring the master. He will bring the one who bears the sword . . .”
At that, the High King laughed, loudly and dismissively. “Is that all there is to it, then?” And, sounding quite jovial, he clapped a hand on the Aged One’s shoulder.
The Aged One was obviously puzzled at the abrupt change in the High King’s demeanor. “Is that . . . not enough?” he asked. “The warnings of the gods could not be more dire . . .”
“They could not be more helpful!” replied the High King. “This is simplicity itself. When this black servant of the stone appears . . . all we need do is detain him here forever. If he cannot go to summon his master, the master will not come, and the Land will be safe from this Calad Bolg. You have set my mind at ease, Aged One!”
“I was hoping,” the Aged One said pointedly, “that I would serve to alert you.”
“You have indeed. You have alerted me to the generosity of the gods.” He clapped his hands together briskly. “I know exactly what I should do. I should make a sacrifice to the gods.” His grin widened as he contemplated it. “Yes! Yes, I shall hunt down a magnificent beast, capture it, and sacrifice it to the gods in thanks for this vision of warning they have given me!”
“Have you not just returned from a hunt?” asked the Aged One. “Are there not other matters you should be attending to?”
“They can wait!” said the High King cheerily. “Because thanks to the gods, we are once again assured of having all the time in the world. Will you join me in the hunt, little father?”
“Number one, I am not your father and would terminate my own immortal life were I so, provided I could find a way to do so,” the Aged One said with such acid in his voice that the words alone threatened to tear the High King’s skin off. “And number two . . .”
The High King wasn’t listening. As if he had totally forgotten the Aged One was still there, he strode past him and, cupping his hands to his mouth, called out, “Summon my hunting brother!” He spun and, almost as if it was an afterthought, bellowed, “Thank you, Aged One, for all your fine counsel! Here I had felt a certain despondency, but now . . . now I feel more alive than I have in ages! And I have you to thank for it! Thank you!” Newly invigorated, he turned and ran out of the room.
“You’re welcome,” said the Aged One. “And by the way . . . Calad Bolg is also known as Excalibur . . . and is now wielded by the Pendragon, who—last I heard—was president of the United States of America. A pity you didn’t stay around to hear that. It could have saved all of us a great deal of time and aggravation, not to mention quite a few lives.”
Unfortunately, the High King was not around to hear that.
And somewhere, the gods were laughing.
PARTE THE FIRST :
CHAPTRE THE FIRST
NELLIE PORTER LOOKED at her boss with guarded bemusement. “I’m sorry, ma’am, what did you say?”
“I just asked if it would be possible to make a slight detour over to Belvedere Castle.”
One could tell just by looking at Porter that she was an intelligent woman, with a strong chin, snapping blue eyes, and a straightforward, no-nonsense manner. But now she simply sat there slack-jawed, clearly befuddled, as if someone had just slapped her in the face with a large vaudevillian powder puff. She was in the rear of the limousine, her long legs tucked up and feeling a bit cramped as she tried to balance her notepad on her knees, facing her boss, who was seated opposite her. Her back was up against the closed privacy partition that separated them from the driver. Porter was old-fashioned and preferred to stay on top of things using traditional writing implements instead of computer pads and such. Now, however, she had stopped writing.
“Well, ma’am,” she said cautiously, “you’re running the show, of course, but we do have schedules to keep . . .”
“Five minutes, Nellie. That’s all it would take.”
“It would take fifteen,” Porter corrected her, calculating the additional travel time with the efficiency of a well-oiled piston engine. “The plane will be waiting . . .”
“It could wait another fifteen minutes, couldn’t it?” asked her boss, and even though it was framed as a question, it was actually more of a statement. Porter, smart woman that she was, naturally picked up on that, and realized that she was not being asked if it was possible, but instead was gently being informed that she should find a way to make it possible. She gave a world-weary sigh and then rapped on the privacy partition. It rolled down and the Secret Service man in the passenger seat turned and looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“We’re making a detour,” said Porter.
The Secret Service man, a heavyset black man named Cook who started out as a linebacker for the Lions and looked it, stared at her, and the thick eyebrows went even higher. Any higher, they’d have been skidding over the top of his shaved head. He had a headset wrapped around the top of his skull, with a microphone perched an inch from his mouth. “A detour?” he said, sounding unenthusiastic.
“And we’re doing that . . . why?”
“Because the First Lady asked us to.”
The First Lady, in the far seat, waggled her fingers and even managed to feign an apologetic look. “I hope that won’t be a problem,” she said.
“In point of fact, Mrs. Penn, it will be . . .”
She leaned forward, smoothing the skirt of her simple blue power dress. “Guys . . . tomorrow’s the State of the Union. That’s where all the media and attention is. Since I happen to be in the area, and the place holds nostalgic value for me, I’d like to swing by it. On a slow news day, the press makes hay of it. They make a big thing out of it even though it’s not a big thing. But today, they’re not going to give a damn. So indulge me, okay?” And once again, there was nothing about that “Okay?” that gave any indication that she was looking for permission so much as she was issuing instructions.
Porter sighed, and reasoned that she should have been used to such things by now. “Consider yourself indulged, Mrs. Penn. Should we inform your husband?”
Her boss smiled in that way she had when speaking of the President. It seemed to Porter that the First Lady had a dazzling variety of smiles, each carefully practiced and developed for different occasions. But when mention was made of her husband, then and only then did she sport a smile that seemed . . . almost shy. Girlish.
Porter thought about all the times when she had seen series of photographs of men who had been the president, and marveled at the physical toll that the job apparently took on people. The year-by-year aging was just an amazing thing to see (except for Nixon, she recalled, who didn’t appear to grow older at all while in office, as if he somehow fed off the power like some sort of vampire.) But no one ever did such studies of first ladies . . . and yet the position could be just as stressful. After all, one shared in all the grief and aggravation that one’s husband had to endure, without the personal authority to do anything about it.
Mrs. Penn had not been immune from those effects. Her strawberry blonde hair now had a few streaks of premature gray in it, which she resolutely refused to dye. She actually seemed pleased about them, once confiding to Porter that she’d always been very self-conscious about her looks.
“But . . . there’s nothing wrong with you!” Porter had exclaimed.
Mrs. Penn had grunted acknowledgment of the assessment. “Yes, exactly. If there were, my face would be more memorable. As it is, it has nothing interesting about it at all.”
Porter had thought that Mrs. Penn was being entirely too hard on herself, but had not pushed the issue, other than chalking it up to people’s amazing ability to have skewed self-perceptions. In any event, when Mrs. Penn had noticed the gray hairs coming in, she had practically burst into cries of rejoicing, and had firmly countered even the slightest suggestion that she do anything about it.
Now Mrs. Penn smiled as she considered Porter’s question. “Inform my husband that I’ll be a half hour later than previously anticipated? I wouldn’t even insult him by thinking that such a thing would be o
f the remotest importance.”
At that moment, the car phone rang. Porter picked it up promptly and said, “Yes.” She blinked once, said, “Yes, Mr. President,” and handed the phone to her boss.
Mrs. Penn took the phone and said, “Yes, Arthur?” She paused and then let out an annoyed sigh. “Yes, I’m going to be about half an hour late. Cook”—she turned her voice away from the phone—“you ratted me out, didn’t you?”
In the front seat, the Secret Service man looked resolutely ahead, obviously not wanting to own up to it.
Turning her attention back to the phone, Mrs. Penn said, “I’m just visiting an old site. . . Yes. . . Yes. That old site. Call it nostalgia. I just feel, considering that tomorrow you’re going to be focusing on where we’re going, I wanted to remind myself about where we’ve been. It won’t take long.” There was a firmness in her tone that indicated that, as far as she was concerned, the discussion was over. She paused and then obviously got the answer she wanted, because she said, “Thank you, love. See you in a few hours.”
She ended the connection and flipped the phone casually through the air to Porter, who caught it easily. “Men,” she said lightly. “No matter what office they hold, they’re still men.”
“I’ve noticed that about them,” Porter replied. Since they were having some additional time as a result of their unexpected detour, Nellie began scanning through her notes to see what other matters needed attending to. “Ah. Fred Baumann from the New York Daily News has been rather insistent,” she said, “about a one-on-one for a State-of-the-State-of-the-Union interview.”
Gwen moaned and tilted her head back, thumping it softly on the back of the seat. Porter tried not to smile: Mrs. Penn was never exactly subtle when something was irritating her. “Baumann a problem?” asked Nellie.
“Ohhhh, we go way back.” Gwen sighed. “Baumann has been covering my husband since the mayoral days. I think he feels his coverage helped Arthur get his start in politics . . . and who knows, maybe it did a little. And Baumann has been getting up there in years, so we try to help out, give him exclusives whenever we can, but still . . .” She shook her head. “Sometimes he just . . . he just acts as if he feels we owe him. As if he’s somehow entitled to our time whenever it’ll benefit his deadlines or get him in good with his boss. Maybe I should just cut him off at the knees and be done with it . . .”