Maps in a mirror, p.54

Maps in a Mirror, page 54


Maps in a Mirror

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“My child is a daughter.”

  “Ah,” said the knights.

  “At first, I kept her hidden away because I could not bear to see her—after all, my most beloved wife had died in bearing her. But after a few years I overcame my grief, and went to see the child in the room where she was hidden, and lo! She was the most beautiful child I had ever seen. I named her Brunhilda, and from that moment on I loved her. I was the most devoted father you could imagine. But I did not let her leave the secret room. Why, you may ask?”

  “Yes, why!” demanded several of the knights.

  “Because she was so beautiful I was afraid she would be stolen from me. I was terrified that I would lose her. Yet I saw her every day, and talked to her, and the older she got, the more beautiful she became, and for the last several years I could no longer bear to see her in her mother’s cast-off clothing. Her beauty is such that only the finest cloths and gowns and jewels of Flanders, of Venice, of Florence would do for her. You’ll see! The money was not ill spent.”

  And the door opened again, and the old woman emerged, leading forth Brunhilda.

  In the doorway, Bork gasped. But no one heard him, for all the knights gasped, too.

  She was the most perfect woman in the world. Her hair was a dark red, flowing behind her like an auburn stream as she walked. Her face was white from being indoors all her life, and when she smiled it was like the sun breaking out on a stormy day. And none of the knights dared look at her body for very long, because the longer they looked the more they wanted to touch her, and the Count said, “I warn you. Any man who lays a hand on her will have to answer to me. She is a virgin, and when she marries she shall be a virgin, and a king will pay half his kingdom to have her, and still I’ll feel cheated to have to give her up.”

  “Good morning, my lords,” she said, smiling. Her voice was like the song of leaves dancing in the summer wind, and the knights fell to their knees before her.

  None of them was more moved by her beauty than Bork, however. When she entered the room he forgot himself; there was no room in his mind for anything but the great beauty he had seen for the first time in his life. Bork knew nothing of courtesy. He only knew that, for the first time in his life, he had seen something so perfect that he could not rest until it was his. Not his to own, but his to be owned by. He longed to serve her in the most degrading ways he could think of, if only she would smile upon him; longed to die for her, if only the last moment of his life were filled with her voice saying, “You may love me.”

  If he had been a knight, he might have thought of a poetic way to say such things. But he was not a knight, and so his words came out of his heart before his mind could find a way to make them clever. He strode blindly from the kitchen door, his huge body casting a shadow that seemed to the knights like the shadow of death passing over them. They watched with uneasiness that soon turned to outrage as he came to the girl, reached out, and took her small white hands in his.

  “I love you,” Bork said to her, and tears came unbidden to his eyes. “Let me marry you.”

  At that moment several of the knights found their courage. They seized Bork roughly by the arms, meaning to pull him away and punish him for his effrontery. But Bork effortlessly tossed them away. They fell to the ground yards from him. He never saw them fall; his gaze never left the lady’s face.

  She looked wonderingly into his eyes. Not because she thought him attractive, because he was ugly and she knew it. Not because of the words he had said, because she had been taught that many men would say those words, and she was to pay no attention to them. What startled her, what amazed her, was the deep truth in Bork’s face. That was something she had never seen, and though she did not recognize it for what it was, it fascinated her.

  The Count was furious. Seeing the clumsy giant holding his daughter’s small white hands in his was outrageous. He would not endure it. But the giant had such great strength that to tear him away would mean a full-scale battle, and in such a battle Brunhilda might be injured. No, the giant had to be handled delicately, for the moment.

  “My dear fellow,” said the Count, affecting a joviality he did not feel. “You’ve only just met.”

  Bork ignored him. “I will never let you come to harm,” he said to the girl.

  “What’s his name?” the Count whispered to a knight. “I can’t remember his name.”

  “Bork,” the knight answered.

  “My dear Bork,” said the Count. “All due respect and everything, but my daughter has noble blood, and you’re not even a knight.”

  “Then I’ll become one,” Bork said.

  “It’s not that easy, Bork, old fellow. You must do something exceptionally brave, and then I can knight you and we can talk about this other matter. But in the meantime, it isn’t proper for you to be holding my daughter’s hands. Why don’t you go back to the kitchen like a good fellow?”

  Bork gave no sign that he heard. He only continued looking into the lady’s eyes. And finally it was she who was able to end the dilemma.

  “Bork,” she said, “I will count on you. But in the meantime, my father will be angry with you if you don’t return to the kitchen.

  Of course, Bork thought. Of course, she is truly concerned for me, doesn’t want me to come to harm on her account. “For your sake,” he said, the madness of love still on him. The he turned and left the room.

  The Count sat down, sighing audibly. “Should have got rid of him years ago. Gentle as a lamb, and then all of a sudden goes crazy. Get rid of him—somebody take care of that tonight, would you? Best to do it in his sleep. Don’t want any casualties when we’re likely to have a battle at any moment.”

  The reminder of the battle was enough to sober even those who were on their fifth mug of ale. The wizened old woman led Brunhilda away again. “But not to the secret room, now. To the chamber next to mine. And post a double guard outside her door, and keep the key yourself,” said the Count.

  When she was gone, the Count looked around at the knights. “The treasury has been emptied in a vain attempt to find clothing to do her justice. I had no other choice.”

  And there was not a knight who would say the money had been badly spent.

  The Duke came late that afternoon, much sooner than he was expected. He demanded the tribute. The Count refused, of course. There was the usual challenge to come out of the castle and fight, but the Count, outnumbered ten to one, merely replied, rather saucily, that the Duke should come in and get him. The messenger who delivered the sarcastic message came back with his tongue in a bag around his neck. The battle was thus begun grimly: and grimly it continued.

  The guard watching on the south side of the castle was slacking. He paid for it. The Duke’s archers managed to creep up to the huge oak tree and climb it without any alarm being given, and the first notice any of them had was when the guard fell from the battlements with an arrow in his throat.

  The archers—there must have been a dozen of them—kept up a deadly rain of arrows. They wasted no shots. The squires dropped dead in alarming numbers until the Count gave orders for them to come inside. And when the human targets were all under cover, the archers set to work on the cattle and sheep milling in the open pens. There was no way to protect the animals. By sunset, all of them were dead.

  “Dammit,” said the cook. “How can I cook all this before it spoils?”

  “Find a way,” said the Count. “That’s our food supply. I refuse to let them starve us out.”

  So all night Bork worked, carrying the cattle and sheep inside, one by one. At first the villagers who had taken refuge in the castle tried to help him, but he could carry three animals inside the kitchen in the time it took them to drag one, and they soon gave it up.

  The Count saw who was saving the meat. “Don’t get rid of him tonight,” he told the knights. “We’ll punish him for his effrontery in the morning.”

  Bork only rested twice in the night, taking naps for an hour before the cook woke him again. And when dawn c
ame, and the arrows began coming again, all the cattle were inside, and all but twenty sheep.

  “That’s all we can save,” the cook told the Count.

  “Save them all.”

  “But if Bork tries to go out there, he’ll be killed!”

  The Count looked the cook in the eyes. “Bring in the sheep or have him die trying.”

  The cook was not aware of the fact that Bork was under sentence of death. So he did his best to save Bork. A kettle lined with cloth and strapped onto the giant’s head; a huge kettle lid for a shield. “It’s the best we can do,” the cook said.

  “But I can’t carry sheep if I’m holding a shield,” Bork said.

  “What can I do? The Count commanded it. It’s worth your life to refuse.”

  Bork stood and thought for a few moments, trying to find a way out of his dilemma. He saw only one possibility. “If I can’t stop them from hitting me, I’ll have to stop them from shooting at all.”

  “How!” the cook demanded, and then followed Bork to the blacksmith’s shop, where Bork found his huge ax leaning against the wall.

  “Now’s not the time to cut firewood,” said the blacksmith.

  “Yes it is,” Bork answered.

  Carrying the ax and holding the kettle lid between his body and the archers, Bork made his way across the courtyard. The arrows pinged harmlessly off the metal. Bork got to the drawbridge. “Open up!” he shouted, and the drawbridge fell away and dropped across the moat. Bork walked across, then made his way along the moat toward the oak tree.

  In the distance the Duke, standing in front of his dazzling white tent with his emblem of yellow on it, saw Bork emerge from the castle. “Is that a man or a bear?” he asked. No one was sure.

  The archers shot at Bork steadily, but the closer he got to the tree, the worse their angle of fire and the larger the shadow of safety the kettle lid cast over his body. Finally, holding the lid high over his head, Bork began hacking one-handed at the trunk. Chips of wood flew with each blow; with his right hand alone he could cut deeper and faster than a normal man with both hands free.

  But he was concentrating on cutting wood, and his left arm grew tired holding his makeshift shield, and an archer was able to get off a shot that slipped past the shield and plunged into his left arm, in the thick muscle at the back.

  He nearly dropped the shield. Instead, he had the presence of mind to let go of the ax and drop to his knees, quickly balancing the kettle lid between the tree trunk, his head, and the top of the ax handle. Gently he pulled at the arrow shaft. It would not come backward. So he broke the arrow and pushed the stub the rest of the way through his arm until it was out the other side. It was excruciatingly painful, but he knew he could not quit now. He took hold of the shield with his left arm again, and despite the pain held it high as he began to cut again, girdling the tree with a deep white gouge. The blood dripped steadily down his arm, but he ignored it, and soon enough the bleeding stopped and slowed.

  On the castle battlements, the Count’s men began to realize that there was a hope of Bork’s succeeding. To protect him, they began to shoot their arrows into the tree. The archers were well hidden, but the rain of arrows, however badly aimed, began to have its effect. A few of them dropped to the ground, where the castle archers could easily finish them off; the others were forced to concentrate on finding cover.

  The tree trembled more and more with each blow, until finally Bork stepped back and the tree creaked and swayed. He had learned from his lumbering work in the forest how to make the tree fall where he wanted it; the oak fell parallel to the castle walls, so it neither bridged the moat nor let the Duke’s archers scramble from the tree too far from the castle. So when the archers tried to flee to the safety of the Duke’s lines, the castle bowmen were able to kill them all.

  One of them, however, despaired of escape. Instead, though he already had an arrow in him, he drew a knife and charged at Bork, in a mad attempt to avenge his own death on the man who had caused it. Bork had no choice. He swung his ax through the air and discovered that men are nowhere near as sturdy as a tree.

  In the distance, the Duke watched with horror as the giant cut a man in half with a single blow. “What have they got!” he said. “What is this monster?”

  Covered with the blood that had spurted from the dying man, Bork walked back toward the drawbridge, which opened again as he approached. But he did not get to enter. Instead the Count and fifty mounted knights came from the gate on horseback, their armor shining in the sunlight.

  “I’ve decided to fight them in the open,” the Count said. “And you, Bork, must fight with us. If you live through this, I’ll make you a knight!”

  Bork knelt. “Thank you, my Lord Count,” he said.

  The Count glanced around in embarrassment. “Well, then. Let’s get to it. Charge!” he bellowed.

  Bork did not realize that the knights were not even formed in a line yet. He simply followed the command and charged, alone, toward the Duke’s lines. The Count watched him go, and smiled.

  “My Lord Count,” said the nearest knight. “Aren’t we going to attack with him?”

  “Let the Duke take care of him,” the Count said.

  “But he cut down the oak and saved the castle, my lord.”

  “Yes,” said the Count. “An exceptionally brave act. Do you want him to try to claim my daughter’s hand?”

  “But my lord,” said the knight, “if he fights beside us, we might have a chance of winning. But if he’s gone, the Duke will destroy us.”

  “Some things,” said the Count, with finality, “are more important than victory. Would you want to go on living in a world where perfection like Brunhilda’s was possessed by such a man as that?”

  The knights were silent, then, as they watched Bork approach the Duke’s army, alone.

  Bork did not realize he was alone until he stood a few feet away from the Duke’s lines. He had felt strange as he walked across the fields, believing he was marching into battle with the knights he had long admired in their bright armor and deft instruments of war. Now the exhilaration was gone. Where were the others? Bork was afraid.

  He could not understand why the Duke’s men had not shot any arrows at him. Actually, it was a misunderstanding. If the Duke had known Bork was a commoner and not a knight at all, Bork would have had a hundred arrows bristling from his corpse. As it was, however, one of the Duke’s men called out, “You, sir! Do you challenge us to single combat?”

  Of course. That was it—the Count did not intend Bork to face an army, he intended him to face a single warrior. The whole outcome of the battle would depend on him alone! It was a tremendous honor, and Bork wondered if he could carry it off.

  “Yes! Single combat!” he answered. “Your strongest, bravest man!”

  “But you’re a giant!” cried the Duke’s man.

  “But I’m wearing no armor.” And to prove his sincerity, Bork took off his helmet, which was uncomfortable anyway, and stepped forward. The Duke’s knights backed away, making an opening for him, with men in armor watching him pass from both sides. Bork walked steadily on, until he came to a cleared circle where he faced the Duke himself.

  “Are you the champion?” asked Bork.

  “I’m the Duke,” he answered. “But I don’t see any of my knights stepping forward to fight you.”

  “Do you refuse the challenge, then?” Bork asked, trying to sound as brave and scornful as he imagined a true knight would sound.

  The Duke looked around at his men, who, if the armor had allowed, would have been shuffling uncomfortably in the morning sunlight. As it was, none of them looked at him.

  “No,” said the Duke. “I accept your challenge myself.” The thought of fighting the giant terrified him. But he was a knight, and known to be a brave man; he had become Duke in the prime of his youth, and if he backed down before a giant now, his duchy would be taken from him in only a few years; his honor would be lost long before. So he drew his sword and ad
vanced upon the giant.

  Bork saw the determination in the Duke’s eyes, and marvelled at a man who would go himself into a most dangerous battle instead of sending his men. Briefly Bork wondered why the Count had not shown such courage; he determined at that moment that if he could help it the Duke would not die. The blood of the archer was more than he had ever wanted to shed. Nobility was in every movement of the Duke, and Bork wondered at the ill chance that had made them enemies.

  The Duke lunged at Bork with his sword flashing. Bork hit him with the flat of the ax, knocking him to the ground. The Duke cried out in pain. His armor was dented deeply; there had to be ribs broken under the dent.

  “Why don’t you surrender?” asked Bork.

  “Kill me now!”

  “If you surrender, I won’t kill you at all.”

  The Duke was surprised. There was a murmur from his men.

  “I have your word?”

  “Of course. I swear it.”

  It was too startling an idea.

  “What do you plan to do, hold me for ransom?”

  Bork thought about it. “I don’t think so.”

  “Well, what then? Why not kill me and have done with it?” The pain in his chest now dominated the Duke’s voice, but he did not spit blood, and so he began to have some hope.

  “All the Count wants you to do is go away and stop collecting tribute. If you promise to do that, I’ll promise that not one of you will be harmed.”

  The Duke and his men considered in silence. It was too good to believe. So good it was almost dishonorable even to consider it. Still—there was Bork, who had broken the Duke’s body with one blow, right through the armor. If he chose to let them walk away from the battle, why argue?

  “I give my word that I’ll cease collecting tribute from the Count, and my men and I will go in peace.”

  “Well, then, that’s good news,” Bork said. “I’ve got to tell the Count.” And Bork turned away and walked into the fields, heading for where the Count’s tiny army waited.

  “I can’t believe it,” said the Duke. “A knight like that, and he turns out to be generous. The Count could have his way with the King, with a knight like that.”

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