Maps in a mirror, p.56

Maps in a Mirror, page 56

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  Winkle was horrified. It was so sudden, something he could not have foreseen or planned against. Yet still he cursed himself and bitterly realized that his plans might be ended forever. A dragon had taken Brunhilda who was to be his means of legitimately becoming king; now the plot of seduction, marriage, and inheritance was ruined.

  Ever practical, Winkle did not let himself lament for long. He dressed himself quickly and used a secret passage out of Brunhilda’s room, only to reappear in the corridor outside it a moment later. “Brunhilda!” he cried, beating on the door. “Are you all right?”

  The first of the knights reached him, and then the King, weeping and wailing and smashing anything that got in his way. Brunhilda’s door was down in a moment, and the King ran to the window and cried out after his daughter, now a pinpoint speck in the sky many miles away. “Brunhilda! Brunhilda! Come back!” She did not come back. “Now,” cried the King, as he turned back into the room and sank to the floor, his face twisted and wet with grief, “Now I have nothing, and all is in vain!”

  My thoughts precisely, Winkle thought, but I’m not weeping about it. To hide his contempt he walked to the window and looked out. He saw, not the dragon, but Bork, emerging from the forest carrying two huge logs.

  “Sir Bork,” said Winkle.

  The King heard a tone of decision in Winkle’s voice. He had learned to listen to whatever Winkle said in that tone of voice. “What about him?”

  “Sir Bork could defeat a dragon,” Winkle said, “if any man could.”

  “That’s true,” the King said, gathering back some of the hope he had lost. “Of course that’s true.”

  “But will he?” asked Winkle.

  “Of course he will. He loves Brunhilda, doesn’t he?”

  “He said he did. But Your Majesty, is he really loyal to you? After all, why wasn’t he here when the dragon came? Why didn’t he save Brunhilda in the first place?”

  “He was cutting wood for the winter.”

  “Cutting wood? When Brunhilda’s life was at stake?”

  The King was outraged. The illogic of it escaped him—he was not in a logical mood. So he was furious when he met Bork at the gate of the castle.

  “You’ve betrayed me!” the King cried.

  “I have?” Bork was smitten with guilt. And he hadn’t even meant to.

  “You weren’t here when we needed you. When Brunhilda needed you!”

  “I’m sorry,” Bork said.

  “Sorry, sorry, sorry. A lot of good it does to say you’re sorry. You swore to protect Brunhilda from any enemy, and when a really dangerous enemy comes along, how do you repay me for everything I’ve done for you? You hide out in the forest!”

  “What enemy?”

  “A dragon,” said the King, “as if you didn’t see it coming and run out into the woods.”

  “Cross my heart, Your Majesty, I didn’t know there was a dragon coming.” And then he made the connection in his mind. “The dragon—it took Brunhilda?”

  “It took her. Took her half-naked from her bedroom when she leaped to the window to call to you for help.”

  Bork felt the weight of guilt, and it was a terrible burden. His face grew hard and angry, and he walked into the castle, his harsh footfalls setting the earth to trembling. “My armor!” he cried. “My sword!”

  In minutes he was in the middle of the courtyard, holding out his arms as the heavy mail was draped over him and the breastplate and helmet were strapped and screwed into place. The sword was not enough—he also carried his huge ax and a shield so massive two ordinary men could have hidden behind it.

  “Which way did he go?” Bork asked.

  “North,” the King answered.

  “I’ll bring back your daughter, Your Majesty, or die in the attempt.”

  “Damn well better. It’s all your fault.”

  The words stung, but the sting only impelled Bork further. He took the huge sack of food the cook had prepared for him and fastened it to his belt, and without a backward glance strode from the castle and took the road north.

  “I almost feel sorry for the dragon,” said the King.

  But Winkle wondered. He had seen how large the claws were as they grasped Brunhilda—she had been like a tiny doll in a large man’s fingers. The claws were razor sharp. Even if she were still alive, could Bork really best the dragon? Bork the Bully, after all, had made his reputation picking on men smaller than he, as Winkle had ample reason to know. How would he do facing a dragon at least five times his size? Wouldn’t he turn coward? Wouldn’t he run as other men had run from him?

  He might. But Sir Bork the Bully was Winkle’s only hope of getting Brunhilda and the kingdom. If he could do anything to ensure that the giant at least tried to fight the dragon, he would do it. And so, taking only his rapier and a sack of food, Winkle left the castle by another way, and followed the giant along the road toward the north.

  And then he had a terrible thought.

  Fighting the dragon was surely ten times as brave as anything Bork had done before. If he won, wouldn’t he have a claim on Brunhilda’s hand himself?

  It was not something Winkle wished to think about. Something would come to him, some way around the problem when the time came. Plenty of opportunity to plan something—after Bork wins and rescues her.

  Bork had not rounded the second turn in the road when he came across the old woman, waiting by the side of the road. It was the same old woman who had cared for Brunhilda all those years that she was kept in a secret room in the castle. She looked wizened and weak, but there was a sharp look in her eyes that many had mistaken for great wisdom. It was not great wisdom. But she did know a few things about dragons.

  “Going after the dragon, are you?” she asked in a squeaky voice. “Going to get Brunhilda back, are you?” She giggled darkly behind her hand.

  “I am if anyone can,” Bork said.

  “Well, anyone can’t,” she answered.

  “I can.”

  “Not a prayer, you big bag of wind!”

  Bork ignored her and started to walk past.

  “Wait!” she said, her voice harsh as a dull file taking rust from armor. “Which way will you go?”

  “North,” he said. “That’s the way the dragon took her.”

  “A quarter of the world is north, Sir Bork the Bully, and a dragon is small compared to all the mountains of the earth. But I know a way you can find the dragon, if you’re really a knight.

  “Light a torch, man. Light a torch, and whenever you come to a fork in the way, the light of the torch will leap the way you ought to go. Wind or no wind, fire seeks fire, and there is a flame at the heart of every dragon.”

  “They do breathe fire, then?” he asked. He did not know how to fight fire.

  “Fire is light, not wind, and so it doesn’t come from the dragon’s mouth or the dragon’s nostrils. If he burns you, it won’t be with his breath.” The old woman cackled like a mad hen. “No one knows the truth about dragons anymore!”

  “Except you.”

  “I’m an old wife,” she said. “And I know. They don’t eat human beings, either. They’re strict vegetarians. But they kill. From time to time they kill.”

  “Why, if they aren’t hungry for meat?”

  “You’ll see,” she said. She started to walk away, back into the forest.

  “Wait!” Bork called. “How far will the dragon be?”

  “Not far,” she said. “Not far, Sir Bork. He’s waiting for you. He’s waiting for you and all the fools who come to try to free the virgin.” Then she melted away into the darkness.

  Bork lit a torch and followed it all night, turning when the flame turned, unwilling to waste time in sleep when Brunhilda might be suffering unspeakable degradation at the monster’s hands. And behind him, Winkle forced himself to stay awake, determined not to let Bork lose him in the darkness.

  All night, and all day, and all night again Bork followed the light of the torch, through crooked paths long unused
, until he came to the foot of a dry, tall hill, with rocks and crags along the top. He stopped, for here the flame leaped high, as if to say, “Upward from here.” And in the silence he heard a sound that chilled him to the bone. It was Brunhilda, screaming as if she were being tortured in the cruelest imaginable way. And the screams were followed by a terrible roar. Bork cast aside the remnant of his food and made his way to the top of the hill. On the way he called out, to stop the dragon from whatever it was doing.

  “Dragon! Are you there!”

  The voice rumbled back to him with a power that made the dirt shift under Bork’s feet. “Yes indeed.”

  “Do you have Brunhilda?”

  “You mean the little virgin with the heart of an adder and the brain of a gnat?”

  In the forest at the bottom of the hill, Winkle ground his teeth in fury, for despite his designs on the kingdom, he loved Brunhilda as much as he was capable of loving anyone.

  “Dragon!” Bork bellowed at the top of his voice. “Dragon! Prepare to die!”

  “Oh dear! Oh dear!” cried out the dragon. “Whatever shall I do?”

  And then Bork reached the top of the hill, just as the sun topped the distant mountains and it became morning. In the light Bork immediately saw Brunhilda tied to a tree, her auburn hair glistening. All around her was the immense pile of gold that the dragon, according to custom, kept. And all around the gold was the dragon’s tail.

  Bork looked at the tail and followed it until finally he came to the dragon, who was leaning on a rock chewing on a tree trunk and smirking. The dragon’s wings were clad with feathers, but the rest of him was covered with tough gray hide the color of weathered granite. His teeth, when he smiled, were ragged, long, and pointed. His claws were three feet long and sharp as a rapier from tip to base. But in spite of all this armament, the most dangerous thing about him was his eyes. They were large and soft and brown, with long lashes and gently arching brows. But at the center each eye held a sharp point of light, and when Bork looked at the eyes that light stabbed deep into him, seeing his heart and laughing at what it found there.

  For a moment, looking at the dragon’s eyes, Bork stood transfixed. Then the dragon reached over one wing toward Brunhilda, and with a great growling noise he began to tickle her ear.

  Brunhilda was unbearably ticklish, and she let off a bloodcurdling scream.

  “Touch her not!” Bork cried.

  “Touch her what?” asked the dragon, with a chuckle. “I will not.”

  “Beast!” bellowed Bork. “I am Sir Bork the Big! I have never been defeated in battle! No man dares stand before me, and the beasts of the forest step aside when I pass!”

  “You must be awfully clumsy,” said the dragon.

  Bork resolutely went on. He had seen the challenges and jousts—it was obligatory to recite and embellish your achievements in order to strike terror into the heart of the enemy. “I can cut down trees with one blow of my ax! I can cleave an ox from head to tail, I can skewer a running deer, I can break down walls of stone and doors of wood!”

  “Why can’t I ever get a handy servant like that?” murmured the dragon. “Ah well, you probably expect too large a salary.”

  The dragon’s sardonic tone might have infuriated other knights; Bork was only confused, wondering if this matter was less serious than he had thought. “I’ve come to free Brunhilda, dragon. Will you give her up to me, or must I slay you?”

  At that the dragon laughed long and loud. Then it cocked its head and looked at Bork. In that moment Bork knew that he had lost the battle. For deep in the dragon’s eyes he saw the truth.

  Bork saw himself knocking down gates and cutting down trees, but the deeds no longer looked heroic. Instead he realized that the knights who always rode behind him in these battles were laughing at him, that the King was a weak and vicious man, that Winkle’s ambition was the only emotion he had room for; he saw that all of them were using him for their own ends, and cared nothing for him at all.

  Bork saw himself asking for Brunhilda’s hand in marriage, and he was ridiculous, an ugly, unkempt, and awkward giant in contrast to the slight and graceful girl. He saw that the King’s hints of the possibility of their marriage were merely a trick, to blind him. More, he saw what no one else had been able to see—that Brunhilda loved Winkle, and Winkle wanted her.

  And at last Bork saw himself as a warrior, and realized that in all the years of his great reputation and in all his many victories, he had fought only one man—an archer who ran at him with a knife. He had terrorized the weak and the small, but never until now had he faced a creature larger than himself. Bork looked in the dragon’s eyes and saw his own death.

  “Your eyes are deep,” said Bork softly.

  “Deep as a well, and you are drowning.”

  “Your sight is clear.” Bork’s palms were cold with sweat.

  “Clear as ice, and you will freeze.”

  “Your eyes,” Bork began. Then his mouth was suddenly so dry that he could barely speak. He swallowed. “Your eyes are filled with light.”

  “Bright and tiny as a star,” the dragon whispered. “And see; your heart is afire.”

  Slowly the dragon stepped away from the rock, even as the tip of his tail reached behind Bork to push him into the dragon’s waiting jaws. But Bork was not in so deep a trance that he could not see.

  “I see that you mean to kill me,” Bork said. “But you won’t have me as easily as that.” Bork whirled around to hack at the tip of the dragon’s tail with his ax. But he was too large and slow, and the tail flicked away before the ax was fairly swung.

  The battle lasted all day. Bork fought exhaustion as much as he fought the dragon, and it seemed the dragon only toyed with him. Bork would lurch toward the tail or a wing or the dragon’s belly, but when his ax or sword fell where the dragon had been, it only sang in the air and touched nothing.

  Finally Bork fell to his knees and wept. He wanted to go on with the fight, but his body could not do it. And the dragon looked as fresh as it had in the morning.

  “What?” asked the dragon, “Finished already?”

  Then Bork felt the tip of the dragon’s tail touch his back, and the sharp points of the claws pressed gently on either side. He could not bear to look up at what he knew he would see. Yet neither could he bear to wait, not knowing when the blow would come. So he opened his eyes, and lifted his head, and saw.

  The dragon’s teeth were nearly touching him, poised to tear his head from his shoulders.

  Bork screamed. And screamed again when the teeth touched him, when they pushed into his armor, when the dragon lifted him with teeth and tail and talons until he was twenty feet above the ground. He screamed again when he looked into the dragon’s eyes and saw, not hunger, not hatred, but merely amusement.

  And then he found his silence again, and listened as the dragon spoke through clenched teeth, watching the tongue move massively in the mouth only inches from his head.

  “Well, little man. Are you afraid?”

  Bork tried to think of some heroic message of defiance to hurl at the dragon, some poetic words that might be remembered forever so that his death would be sung in a thousand songs. But Bork’s mind was not quick at such things; he was not that accustomed to speech, and had no ear for gallantry. Instead he began to think it would be somehow cheap and silly to die with a lie on his lips.

  “Dragon,” Bork whispered, “I’m frightened.”

  To Bork’s surprise, the teeth did not pierce him then. Instead, he felt himself being lowered to the ground, heard a grating sound as the teeth and claws let go of his armor. He raised his visor, and saw that the dragon was now lying on the ground, laughing, rolling back and forth, slapping its tail against the rocks, and clapping its claws together. “Oh, my dear tiny friend,” said the dragon. “I thought the day would never dawn.”

  “What day?”

  “Today,” answered the dragon. It had stopped laughing, and it once again drew near to Bork and looked him
in the eye. “I’m going to let you live.”

  “Thank you,” Bork said, trying to be polite.

  “Thank me? Oh no, my midget warrior. You won’t thank me. Did you think my teeth were sharp? Not half so pointed as the barbs of your jealous, disappointed friends.”

  “I can go?”

  “You can go, you can fly, you can dwell in your castle for all I care. Do you want to know why?”

  “Yes.”

  “Because you were afraid. In all my life, I have only killed brave knights who knew no fear. You’re the first, the very first, who was afraid in that final moment. Now go.” And the dragon gave Bork a push and sent him down the hill.

  Brunhilda, who had watched the whole battle in curious silence, now called after him. “Some kind of knight you are! Coward! I hate you! Don’t leave me!” The shouts went on until Bork was out of earshot.

  Bork was ashamed.

  Bork went down the hill and, as soon as he entered the cool of the forest, he lay down and fell asleep.

  Hidden in the rocks, Winkle watched him go, watched as the dragon again began to tickle Brunhilda, whose gown was still open as it had been when she was taken by the dragon. Winkle could not stop thinking of how close he had come to having her. But now, if even Bork could not save her, her cause was hopeless, and Winkle immediately began planning other ways to profit from the situation.

  All the plans depended on his reaching the castle before Bork. Since Winkle had dozed off and on during the day’s battle, he was able to go farther—to a village, where he stole an ass and rode clumsily, half-asleep, all night and half the next day and reached the castle before Bork awoke.

  The King raged. The King swore. The King vowed that Bork would die.

  “But Your Majesty,” said Winkle, “you can’t forget that it is Bork who inspires fear in the hearts of your loyal subjects. You can’t kill him—if he were dead, how long would you be king?”

  That calmed the old man down. “Then I’ll let him live. But he won’t have a place in this castle, that’s certain. I won’t have him around here, the coward. Afraid! Told the dragon he was afraid! Pathetic. The man has no gratitude.” And the King stalked from the court.

 
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