Maps in a mirror, p.53

Maps in a Mirror, page 53

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  “Well, Middle Woman, I will give you a choice. The first choice is to have me eat you here in the road. The second choice is to have me grant you three wishes.”

  Surprised, Ah-Cheu raised her head. “But of course I take the second choice. Why do you set me a problem with such an easy solution?”

  “It is more amusing,” said the dragon, “to watch human beings destroy themselves than to overpower them quickly.”

  “But how can three wishes destroy me?”

  “Make a wish, and see.”

  Ah-Cheu thought of many things she might wish for, but was soon ashamed of her greed. “I wish,” she finally said, having decided to ask for only what she truly needed, “for my husband’s farm to always produce plenty for all my family to eat.”

  “It shall be done,” said the dragon, and he vanished, only to reappear a moment later, smiling and licking his lips. “I have done,” he said, “exactly what you asked—I have eaten all your family, and so your husband’s farm, even if it produces nothing, will always produce plenty for them to eat.”

  Ah-Cheu wept and mourned and cursed herself for being a fool, for now she saw the dragon’s plan. Any wish, however innocent, would be turned against her.

  “Think all you like,” said the dragon, “but it will do you no good. I have had lawyers draw up legal documents eight feet long, but I have found the loopholes.”

  Then Ah-Cheu knew what she had to ask for. “I wish for all the world to be exactly as it was one minute before I left my home to come on this journey.”

  The dragon looked at her in surprise. “That’s all? That’s all you want to wish for?”

  “Yes,” said Ah-Cheu. “And you must do it now.”

  And suddenly she found herself in her husband’s house, putting on her pack and bidding good-bye to her family. Immediately she set down the pack.

  “I have changed my mind,” she said. “I am not going.”

  Everyone was shocked. Everyone was surprised. Her husband berated her for being a changeable woman. Her mother-in-law denounced her for having forgotten her duty to her sisters. Her children pouted because she had always brought them each a present from her journeys to the north and south. But Ah-Cheu was firm. She would not risk meeting the dragon again.

  And when the furor died down, Ah-Cheu was far more cheerful than she had ever been before, for she knew that she had one wish left, the third wish, the unused wish. And if there were ever a time of great need, she could use it to save herself and her family.

  One year there was a fire, and Ah-Cheu was outside the house, with her youngest child trapped within. Almost she used her wish, but then thought, Why use the wish, when I can use my arms? And she ducked low, and ran into the house, and saved the boy, though it singed off all her hair. And she still had her son, and she still had her wish.

  One year there was a famine, and it looked like all the world would starve. Ah-Cheu almost used her wish, but then thought, Why use the wish, when I can use my feet? And she wandered up into the hills, and came back with a basket of roots and leaves, and with such food she kept her family alive until the Emperor’s men came with wagons full of rice. And she still had her family, and she still had her wish.

  And in another year there was a great flood, and all the homes were swept away, and as Ah-Cheu and her son’s baby sat upon the roof, watching the water eat away the walls of the house, she almost used her wish to get a boat so she could escape. But then she thought, Why use the wish, when I can use my head? And she took up the boards from the roof and walls, and with her skirts she tied them into a raft large enough for the baby, and setting the child upon it she swam away, pushing the raft until they reached high ground and safety. And when her son found her alive, he wept with joy, and said, “Mother Ah-Cheu, never has a son loved his mother more!”

  And Ah-Cheu had her posterity, and yet still she had her wish.

  And then it was time for Ah-Cheu to die, and she lay sick and frail upon a bed of honor in her son’s house, and the women and children and old men of the village came to keen for her and honor her as she lay dying. “Never has there been a more fortunate woman than Ah-Cheu,” they said. “Never has there been a kinder, a more generous, a more god favored woman!” And she was content to leave the world, because she had been so happy in it.

  And on her last night, as she lay alone in darkness, she heard a voice call her name.

  “Middle Woman,” said the voice, and she opened her eyes, and there was the dragon.

  “What do you want with me?” she asked. “I’m not much of a morsel to eat now, I’m afraid.”

  But then she saw the dragon looked terrified, and she listened to what he had to say.

  “Middle Woman,” said the dragon, “you have not used your third wish.”

  “I never needed it.”

  “Oh, cruel woman! What a vengeance you take! In the long run, I never did you any harm! How can you do this to me?”

  “But what am I doing?” she asked.

  “If you die, with your third wish unused, then I, too, will die!” he cried. “Maybe that doesn’t seem so bad to you, but dragons are usually immortal, and so you can believe me when I say my death would cut me off with most of my life unlived.”

  “Poor dragon,” she said. “But what have I to wish for?”

  “Immortality,” he said. “No tricks. I’ll let you live forever.”

  “I don’t want to live forever,” she said. “It would make the neighbors envious.”

  “Great wealth, then, for your family.”

  “But they have all they need right now.”

  “Any wish!” he cried. “Any wish, or I will die!”

  And so she smiled, and reached out a frail old hand and touched his supplicating claw, and said, “Then I wish a wish, dragon. I wish that all the rest of your life should be nothing but happiness for you and everyone you meet.”

  The dragon looked at her in surprise, and then in relief, and then he smiled and wept for joy. He thanked her many times, and left her home rejoicing.

  And that night Ah-Cheu also left her home, more subtly than the dragon, and far less likely to return, but no less merrily for all that.

  THE BULLY AND THE BEAST

  The page entered the Count’s chamber at a dead run. He had long ago given up sauntering—when the Count called, he expected a page to appear immediately, and any delay at all made the Count irritable and likely to assign a page to stable duty.

  “My lord,” said the page.

  “My lord indeed,” said the Count. “What kept you?” The Count stood at the window, his back to the boy. In his arms he held a velvet gown, incredibly embroidered with gold and silver thread. “I think I need to call a council,” said the Count. “On the other hand, I haven’t the slightest desire to submit myself to a gaggle of jabbering knights. They’ll be quite angry. What do you think?”

  No one had ever asked the page for advice before, and he wasn’t quite sure what was expected of him. “Why should they be angry, my lord?”

  “Do you see this gown?” the Count asked, turning around and holding it up.

  “Yes, my lord.”

  “What do you think of it?”

  “Depends, doesn’t it, my lord, on who wears it.”

  “It cost eleven pounds of silver.”

  The page smiled sickly. Eleven pounds of silver would keep the average knight in arms, food, women, clothing, and shelter for a year with six pounds left over for spending money.

  “There are more,” said the Count. “Many more.”

  “But who are they for? Are you going to marry?”

  “None of your business!” roared the Count. “If there’s anything I hate, it’s a meddler!” The Count turned again to the window and looked out. He was shaded by a huge oak tree that grew forty feet from the castle walls. “What’s today?” asked the Count.

  “Thursday, my lord.”

  “The day, the day!”

  “Eleventh past Easter Feast.”
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  “The tribute’s due today,” said the Count. “Due on Easter, in fact, but today the Duke will be certain I’m not paying.”

  “Not paying the tribute, my lord?”

  “How? Turn me upside down and shake me, but I haven’t a farthing. The tribute money’s gone. The money for new arms is gone. The travel money is gone. The money for new horses is gone. Haven’t got any money at all. But gad, boy, what a wardrobe.” The Count sat on the sill of the window. “The Duke will be here very quickly, I’m afraid. And he has the latest in debt collection equipment.”

  “What’s that?”

  “An army.” The Count sighed. “Call a council, boy. My knights may jabber and scream, but they’ll fight. I know they will.”

  The page wasn’t sure. “They’ll be very angry, my lord. Are you sure they’ll fight?”

  “Oh, yes,” said the Count. “If they don’t, the Duke will kill them.”

  “Why?”

  “For not honoring their oath to me. Do go now, boy, and call a council.”

  The page nodded. Kind of felt sorry for the old boy. Not much of a Count, as things went, but he could have been worse, and it was pretty plain the castle would be sacked and the Count imprisoned and the women raped and the page sent off home to his parents. “A council!” he cried as he left the Count’s chamber. “A council!”

  In the cold cavern of the pantry under the kitchen, Bork pulled a huge keg of ale from its resting place and lifted it, not easily, but without much strain, and rested it on his shoulders. Head bowed, he walked slowly up the stairs. Before Bork worked in the kitchen, it used to take two men most of an afternoon to move the huge kegs. But Bork was a giant, or what passed for a giant in those days. The Count himself was of average height, barely past five feet. Bork was nearly seven feet tall, with muscles like an ox. People stepped aside for him.

  “Put it there,” said the cook, hardly looking up. “And don’t drop it.”

  Bork didn’t drop the keg. Nor did he resent the cook’s expecting him to be clumsy. He had been told he was clumsy all his life, ever since it became plain at the age of three that he was going to be immense. Everyone knew that big people were clumsy. And it was true enough. Bork was so strong he kept doing things he never meant to do, accidentally. Like the time the swordmaster, admiring his strength, had invited him to learn to use the heavy battleswords. Bork hefted them easily, of course, though at the time he was only twelve and hadn’t reached his full strength.

  “Hit me,” the swordmaster said.

  “But the blade’s sharp,” Bork told him.

  “Don’t worry. You won’t come near me.” The swordmaster had taught a hundred knights to fight. None of them had come near him. And, in fact, when Bork swung the heavy sword the swordmaster had his shield up in plenty of time. He just hadn’t counted on the terrible force of the blow. The shield was battered aside easily, and the blow threw the sword upward, so it cut off the swordmaster’s left arm just below the shoulder, and only narrowly missed slicing deeply into his chest.

  Clumsy, that was all Bork was. But it was the end of any hope of his becoming a knight. When the swordmaster finally recovered, he consigned Bork to the kitchen and the blacksmith’s shop, where they needed someone with enough strength to skewer a cow end to end and carry it to the fire, where it was convenient to have a man who, with a double-sized ax, could chop down a large tree in half an hour, cut it into logs, and carry a month’s supply of firewood into the castle in an afternoon.

  A page came into the kitchen. “There’s a council, cook. The Count wants ale, and plenty of it.”

  The cook swore profusely and threw a carrot at the page. “Always changing the schedule! Always making me do extra work.” As soon as the page had escaped, the cook turned on Bork. “All right, carry the ale out there, and be quick about it. Try not to drop it.”

  “I won’t,” Bork said.

  “He won’t,” the cook muttered. “Clever as an ox, he is.”

  Bork manhandled the cask into the great hall. It was cold, though outside the sun was shining. Little light and little warmth reached the inside of the castle. And since it was spring, the huge logpile in the pit in the middle of the room lay cold and damp.

  The knights were beginning to wander into the great hall and sit on the benches that lined the long, pock-marked slab of a table. They knew enough to carry their mugs—councils were always well-oiled with ale. Bork had spent years as a child watching the knights practice the arts of war, but the knights seemed more natural carrying their cups than holding their swords at the ready. They were more dedicated to their drinking than to war.

  “Ho, Bork the Bully,” one of the knights greeted him. Bork managed a half-smile. He had learned long since not to take offense.

  “How’s Sam the stableman?” asked another, tauntingly.

  Bork blushed and turned away, heading for the door to the kitchen.

  The knights were laughing at their cleverness. “Twice the body, half the brain,” one of them said to the others. “Probably hung like a horse,” another speculated, then quipped, “Which probably accounts for those mysterious deaths among the sheep this winter.” A roar of laughter, and cups beating on the table. Bork stood in the kitchen, trembling. He could not escape the sound—the stones carried it echoing to him wherever he went.

  The cook turned and looked at him. “Don’t be angry, boy,” he said. “It’s all in fun.”

  Bork nodded and smiled at the cook. That’s what it was. All in fun. And besides, Bork deserved it, he knew. It was only fair that he be treated cruelly. For he had earned the title Bork the Bully, hadn’t he? When he was three, and already massive as a ram, his only friend, a beautiful young village boy named Winkle, had hit upon the idea of becoming a knight. Winkle had dressed himself in odds and ends of leather and tin, and made a makeshift lance from a hog prod.

  “You’re my destrier,” Winkle cried as he mounted Bork and rode him for hours. Bork thought it was a fine thing to be a knight’s horse. It became the height of his ambition, and he wondered how one got started in the trade. But one day Sam, the stableman’s son, had taunted Winkle for his make-believe armor, and it had turned into a fist fight, and Sam had thoroughly bloodied Winkle’s nose. Winkle screamed as if he were dying, and Bork sprang to his friend’s defense, walloping Sam, who was three years older, along the side of his head.

  Ever since then Sam spoke with a thickness in his voice, and often lost his balance; his jaw, broken in several places, never healed properly, and he had problems with his ear.

  It horrified Bork to have caused so much pain, but Winkle assured him that Sam deserved it. “After all, Bork, he was twice my size, and he was picking on me. He’s a bully. He had it coming.”

  For several years Winkle and Bork were the terror of the village. Winkle would constantly get into fights, and soon the village children learned not to resist him. If Winkle lost a fight, he would scream for Bork, and though Bork was never again so harsh as he was with Sam, his blows still hurt terribly. Winkle loved it. Then one day he tired of being a knight, dismissed his destrier, and became fast friends with the other children. It was only then that Bork began to hear himself called Bork the Bully; it was Winkle who convinced the other children that the only villain in the fighting had been Bork. “After all,” Bork overheard Winkle say one day, “he’s twice as strong as anyone else. Isn’t fair for him to fight. It’s a cowardly thing for him to do, and we mustn’t have anything to do with him. Bullies must be punished.”

  Bork knew Winkle was right, and ever after that he bore the burden of shame. He remembered the frightened looks in the other children’s eyes when he approached them, the way they pleaded for mercy. But Winkle was always screaming and writhing in agony, and Bork always hit the child despite his terror, and for that bullying Bork was still paying. He paid in the ridicule he accepted from the knights; he paid in the solitude of all his days and nights; he paid by working as hard as he could, using his strength to serve inst
ead of hurt.

  But just because he knew he deserved the punishment did not mean he enjoyed it. There were tears in his eyes as he went about his work in the kitchen. He tried to hide them from the cook, but to no avail. “Oh, no, you’re not going to cry, are you?” the cook said. “You’ll only make your nose run and then you’ll get snot in the soup. Get out of the kitchen for awhile!”

  Which is why Bork was standing in the doorway of the great hall watching the council that would completely change his life.

  “Well, where’s the tribute money gone to?” demanded one of the knights. “The harvest was large enough last year!”

  It was an ugly thing, to see the knights so angry. But the Count knew they had a right to be upset—it was they who would have to fight the Duke’s men, and they had a right to know why.

  “My friends,” the Count said. “My friends, some things are more important than money. I invested the money in something more important than tribute, more important than peace, more important than long life. I invested the money in beauty. Not to create beauty, but to perfect it.” The knights were listening now. For all their violent preoccupations, they all had a soft spot in their hearts for true beauty. It was one of the requirements for knighthood. “I have been entrusted with a jewel, more perfect than any diamond. It was my duty to place that jewel in the best setting money could buy. I can’t explain. I can only show you.” He rang a small bell, and behind him one of the better-known secret doors in the castle opened, and a wizened old woman emerged. The Count whispered in her ear, and the woman scurried back into the secret passage.

  “Who’s she?” asked one of the knights.

  “She is the woman who nursed my children after my wife died. My wife died in childbirth, you remember. But what you don’t know is that, the child lived. My two sons you know well. But I have a third child, my last child, whom you know not at all, and this one is not a son.”

  The Count was not surprised that several of the knights seemed to puzzle over this riddle. Too many jousts, too much practice in full armor in the heat of the afternoon.

 
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