Maps in a mirror, p.55

Maps in a Mirror, page 55


Maps in a Mirror

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  They stripped the armor off him, carefully, and began wrapping his chest with bandages.

  “If he were mine,” the Duke said, “I’d use him to conquer the whole land.”

  The Count watched, incredulous, as Bork crossed the field.

  “He’s still alive,” he said, and he began to wonder what Bork would have to say about the fact that none of the knights had joined his gallant charge.

  “My Lord Count!” cried Bork, when he was within range. He would have waved, but both his arms were exhausted now. “They surrender!”

  “What?” the Count asked the knights near him. “Did he say they surrender?”

  “Apparently,” a knight answered. “Apparently he won.”

  “Damn!” cried the Count. “I won’t have it!”

  The knights were puzzled. “If anybody’s going to defeat the Duke, I am! Not a damnable commoner! Not a giant with the brains of a cockroach! Charge!”

  “What? several of the knights asked.

  “I said charge!” And the Count moved forward, his warhorse plodding carefully through the field, building up momentum.

  Bork saw the knights start forward. He had watched enough mock battles to recognize a charge. He could only assume that the Count hadn’t heard him. But the charge had to be stopped—he had given his word, hadn’t he? So he planted himself in the path of the Count’s horse.

  “Out of the way, you damned fool!” cried the Count. But Bork stood his ground. The Count was determined not to be thwarted. He prepared to ride Bork down.

  “You can’t charge!” Bork yelled. “They surrendered!”

  The Count gritted his teeth and urged the horse forward, his lance prepared to cast Bork out of the way.

  A moment later the Count found himself in midair, hanging to the lance for his life. Bork held it over his head, and the knights laboriously halted their charge and wheeled to see what was going on with Bork and the Count.

  “My Lord Count,” Bork said respectfully. “I guess you didn’t hear me. They surrendered. I promised them they could go in peace if they stopped collecting tribute.”

  From his precarious hold on the lance, fifteen feet off the ground, the Count said, “I didn’t hear you.”

  “I didn’t think so. But you will let them go, won’t you?”

  “Of course. Could you give a thought to letting me down, old boy?”

  And so Bork let the Count down, and there was a peace treaty between the Duke and the Count, and the Duke’s men rode away in peace, talking about the generosity of the giant knight.

  “But he isn’t a knight,” said a servant to the Duke.

  “What? Not a knight?”

  “No. Just a villager. One of the peasants told me, when I was stealing his chickens.

  “Not a knight,” said the Duke, and for a moment his face began to turn the shade of red that made his knights want to ride a few feet further from him—they knew his rage too well already.

  “We were tricked, then,” said a knight, trying to fend off his lord’s anger by anticipating it.

  The Duke said nothing for a moment. Then he smiled. “Well, if he’s not a knight, he should be. He has the strength. He has the courtesy. Hasn’t he?”

  The knights agreed that he had.

  “He’s the moral equivalent of a knight,” said the Duke. Pride assuaged, for the moment, he led his men back to his castle. Underneath, however, even deeper than the pain in his ribs, was the image of the Count perched on the end of a lance held high in the air by the giant, Bork, and he pondered what it might have meant, and what, more to the point, it might mean in the future.

  Things were getting out of hand, the Count decided. First of all, the victory celebration had not been his idea, and yet here they were, riotously drunken in the great hall, and even villagers were making free with the ale, laughing and cheering among the knights. That was bad enough, but worse was the fact that the knights were making no pretense about it—the party was in honor of Bork.

  The Count drummed his fingers on the table. No one paid any attention. They were too busy—Sir Alwishard trying to keep two village wenches occupied near the fire, Sir Silwiss pissing in the wine and laughing so loud that the Count could hardly hear Sir Braig and Sir Umlaut as they sang and danced along the table, kicking plates off with their toes in time with the music. It was the best party the Count had ever seen. And it wasn’t for him, it was for that damnable giant who had made an ass of him in front of all his men and all the Duke’s men and, worst of all, the Duke. He heard a strange growling sound, like a savage wolf getting ready to spring. In a lull in the bedlam he suddenly realized that the sound was coming from his own throat.

  Get control of yourself, he thought. The real gains, the solid gains were not Bork’s—they were mine. The Duke is gone, and instead of paying him tribute from now on, he’ll be paying me. Word would get around, too, that the Count had won a battle with the Duke. After all, that was the basis of power—who could beat whom in battle. A duke was just a man who could beat a count, a count someone who could beat a baron, a baron someone who could beat a knight.

  But what was a person who could beat a duke?

  “You should be king,” said a tall, slender young man standing near the throne.

  The Count looked at him, making a vague motion with his hidden hand. How had the boy read his thoughts?

  “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”

  “You heard it,” said the young man.

  “It’s treason.”

  “Only if the king beats you in battle. If you win, it’s treason not to say so.”

  The Count looked the boy over. Dark hair that looked a bit too carefully combed for a villager. A straight nose, a pleasant smile, a winning grace when he walked. But something about his eyes gave the lie to the smile. The boy was vicious somehow. The boy was dangerous.

  “I like you,” said the Count.

  “I’m glad.” He did not sound glad. He sounded bored.

  “If I’m smart, I’ll have you strangled immediately.”

  The boy only smiled more.

  “Who are you?”

  “My name is Winkle. And I’m Bork’s best friend.”

  Bork. There he was again, that giant sticking his immense shadow into everything tonight. “Didn’t know Bork the Bully had any friends.”

  “He has one. Me. Ask him.”

  “I wonder if a friend of Bork’s is really a friend of mine,” the Count said.

  “I said I was his best friend. I didn’t say I was a good friend.” And Winkle smiled.

  A thoroughgoing bastard, the Count decided, but he waved to Bork and beckoned for him to come. In a moment the giant knelt before the Count, who was irritated to discover that when Bork knelt and the Count sat, Bork still looked down on him.

  “This man,” said the Count, “claims to be your friend.”

  Bork looked up and recognized Winkle, who was beaming down at him, his eyes filled with love, mostly. A hungry kind of love, but Bork wasn’t discriminating. He had the admiration and grudging respect of the knights, but he hardly knew them. This was his childhood friend, and at the thought that Winkle claimed to be his friend Bork immediately forgave all the past slights and smiled back. “Winkle,” he said. “Of course we’re friends. He’s my best friend.”

  The Count made the mistake of looking in Bork’s eyes and seeing the complete sincerity of his love for Winkle. It embarrassed him, for he knew Winkle all too well already, from just the moments of conversation they had had. Winkle was nobody’s friend. But Bork was obviously blind to that. For a moment the Count almost pitied the giant, had a glimpse of what his life must be like, if the predatory young villager was his best friend.

  “Your majesty,” said Winkle.

  “Don’t call me that.”

  “I only anticipate what the world will know in a matter of months.”

  Winkle sounded so confident, so sure of it. A chill went up the Count’s spine. He shook it off. “I won one
battle, Winkle. I still have a huge budget deficit and a pretty small army of fairly lousy knights.”

  “Think of your daughter, even if you aren’t ambitious. Despite her beauty she’ll be lucky to marry a duke. But if she were the daughter of a king, she could marry anyone in all the world. And her own lovely self would be a dowry—no prince would think to ask for more.”

  The Count thought of his daughter, the beautiful Brunhilda, and smiled.

  Bork also smiled, for he was also thinking of the same thing.

  “Your majesty,” Winkle urged, “with Bork as your right-hand man and me as your counselor, there’s nothing to stop you from being king within a year or two. Who would be willing to stand against an army with the three of us marching at the head?”

  “Why three?” asked the Count.

  “You mean, why me. I thought you would already understand that—but then, that’s what you need me for. You see, your majesty, you’re a good man, a godly man, a paragon of virtue. You would never think of seeking power and conniving against your enemies and spying and doing repulsive things to people you don’t like. But kings have to do those things or they quickly cease to be kings.”

  Vaguely the Count remembered behaving in just that way many times, but Winkle’s words were seductive—they should be true.

  “Your majesty, where you are pure, I am polluted. Where you are fresh, I am rotten. I’d sell my mother into slavery if I had a mother and I’d cheat the devil at poker and win hell from him before he caught on. And I’d stab any of your enemies in the back if I got the chance.”

  “But what if my enemies aren’t your enemies?” the Count asked.

  “Your enemies are always my enemies. I’ll be loyal to you through thick and thin.”

  “How can I trust you, if you’re so rotten?”

  “Because you’re going to pay me a lot of money.” Winkle bowed deeply.

  “Done,” said the Count.

  “Excellent,” said Winkle, and they shook hands. The Count noticed that Winkle’s hands were smooth—he had neither the hard horny palms of a village workingman nor the slick calluses of a man trained to warfare.

  “How have you made a living, up to now?” the Count asked.

  “I steal,” Winkle said, with a smile that said I’m joking and a glint in his eye that said I’m not.

  “What about me?” asked Bork.

  “Oh, you’re in it, too,” said Winkle. “You’re the king’s strong right arm.”

  “I’ve never met the king,” said Bork.

  “Yes you have,” Winkle retorted. “That is the king.”

  “No he’s not,” said the giant. “He’s only a count.”

  The words stabbed the Count deeply. Only a count. Well, that would end. “Today I’m only a count,” he said patiently. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring? But Bork—I shall knight you. As a knight you must swear absolute loyalty to me and do whatever I say. Will you do that?”

  “Of course I will,” said Bork. “Thank you, my Lord Count.” Bork arose and called to his new friends throughout the hall in a voice that could not be ignored. “My Lord Count has decided I will be made a knight!” There were cheers and applause and stamping of feet. “And the best thing is,” Bork said, “that now I can marry the Lady Brunhilda.”

  There was no applause. Just a murmur of alarm. Of course. If he became a knight, he was eligible for Brunhilda’s hand. It was unthinkable—but the Count himself had said so.

  The Count was having second thoughts, of course, but he knew no way to back out of it, not without looking like a word-breaker. He made a false start at speaking, but couldn’t finish. Bork waited expectantly. Clearly he believed the Count would confirm what Bork had said.

  It was Winkle, however, who took the situation in hand. “Oh, Bork,” he said sadly—but loudly, so that everyone could hear. “Don’t you understand? His majesty is making you a knight out of gratitude. But unless you’re a king or the son of a king, you have to do something exceptionally brave to earn Brunhilda’s hand.”

  “But, wasn’t I brave today?” Bork asked. After all, the arrow wound in his arm still hurt, and only the ale kept him from aching unmercifully all over from the exertion of the night and the day just past.

  “You were brave. But since you’re twice the size and ten times the strength of an ordinary man, it’s hardly fair for you to win Brunhilda’s hand with ordinary bravery. No, Bork—it’s just the way things work. It’s just the way things are done. Before you’re worthy of Brunhilda, you have to do something ten times as brave as what you did today.”

  Bork could not think of something ten times as brave. Hadn’t he gone almost unprotected to chop down the oak tree? Hadn’t he attacked a whole army all by himself, and won the surrender of the enemy? What could be ten times as brave?

  “Don’t despair,” the Count said. “Surely in all the battles ahead of us there’ll be something ten times as brave. And in the meantime, you’re a knight, my friend, a great knight, and you shall dine at my table every night! And when we march into battle, there you’ll be, right beside me—”

  “A few steps ahead,” Winkle whispered discreetly.

  “A few steps ahead of me, to defend the honor of my country—”

  “Don’t be shy,” whispered Winkle.

  “No, not my country. My kingdom. For from today, you men no longer serve a count! You serve a king!”

  It was a shocking declaration, and might have caused sober reflection if there had been a sober man in the room. But through the haze of alcohol and torchlight and fatigue, the knights looked at the Count and he did indeed seem kingly. And they thought of the battles ahead and were not afraid, for they had won a glorious victory today and not one of them had shed a drop of blood. Except, of course, Bork. But in some corner of their collected opinions was a viewpoint they would not have admitted to holding, if anyone brought the subject out in the open. The opinion so well hidden from themselves and each other was simple: Bork is not like me. Bork is not one of us. Therefore, Bork is expendable.

  The blood that still stained his sleeve was cheap. Plenty more where that came from.

  And so they plied him with more ale until he fell asleep, snoring hugely on the table, forgetting that he had been cheated out of the woman he loved; it was easy to forget, for the moment, because he was a knight, and a hero, and at last he had friends.

  It took two years for the Count to become King. He began close to home, with other counts, but soon progressed to the great dukes and earls of the kingdom. Wherever he went, the pattern was the same. The Count and his fifty knights would ride their horses, only lightly armored so they could travel with reasonable speed. Bork would walk, but his long legs easily kept up with the rest of them. They would arrive at their victim’s castle, and three squires would hand Bork his new steel-handled ax. Bork, covered with impenetrable armor, would wade the moat, if there was one, or simply walk up to the gates, swing the ax, and begin chopping through the wood. When the gates collapsed, Bork would take a huge steel rod and use it as a crow, prying at the portcullis, bending the heavy iron like pretzels until there was a gap wide enough for a mounted knight to ride through.

  Then he would go back to the Count and Winkle.

  Throughout this operation, not a word would have been said; the only activity from the Count’s other men would be enough archery that no one would be able to pour boiling oil or hot tar on Bork while he was working. It was a precaution, and nothing more—even if they set the oil on the fire the moment the Count’s little army approached, it would scarcely be hot enough to make water steam by the time Bork was through.

  “Do you surrender to his Majesty the King?” Winkle would cry.

  And the defenders of the castle, their gate hopelessly breached and terrified of the giant who had so easily made a joke of their defenses, would usually surrender. Occasionally there was some token resistance—when that happened, at Winkle’s insistence, the town was brutally sacked and the noble’s famil
y was held in prison until a huge ransom was paid.

  At the end of two years, the Count and Bork and Winkle and their army marched on Winchester. The King—the real king—fled before them and took up his exile in Anjou, where it was warmer anyway. The Count had himself crowned king, accepted the fealty of every noble in the country, and introduced his daughter Brunhilda all around. Then, finding Winchester not to his liking, he returned to his castle and ruled from there. Suitors for his daughter’s hand made a constant traffic on the roads leading into the country; would-be courtiers and nobles vying for positions filled the new hostelries that sprang up on the other side of the village. All left much poorer than they had arrived. And while much of that money found its way into the King’s coffers, much more of it went to Winkle, who believed that skimming off the cream meant leaving at least a quarter of it for the King.

  And now that the wars were done, Bork hung up his armor and went back to normal life. Not quite normal life, actually. He slept in a good room in the castle, better than most of the knights. Some of the knights had even come to enjoy his company, and sought him out for ale in the evenings or hunting in the daytime—Bork could always be counted on to carry home two deer himself, and was much more convenient than a packhorse. All in all, Bork was happier than he had ever thought he would be.

  Which is how things were going when the dragon came and changed it all forever.

  Winkle was in Brunhilda’s room, a place he had learned many routes to get to, so that he went unobserved every time. Brunhilda, after many gifts and more flattery, was on the verge of giving in to the handsome young advisor to the King when strange screams and cries began coming from the fields below. Brunhilda pulled away from Winkle’s exploring hands and, clutching her half-open gown around her, rushed to the window to see what was the matter.

  She looked down, to where the screams were coming from, and it wasn’t until the dragon’s shadow fell across her that she looked up. Winkle, waiting on the bed, only saw the claws reach in and, gently but firmly, take hold of Brunhilda and pull her from the room. Brunhilda fainted immediately, and by the time Winkle got to where he could see her, the dragon had backed away from the window and on great flapping wings was carrying her limp body off toward the north whence he had come.

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