Maps in a mirror, p.57

Maps in a Mirror, page 57

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  When Bork got home, weary and sick at heart, he found the gate of the castle closed to him. There was no explanation—he needed none. He had failed the one time it mattered most. He was no longer worthy to be a knight.

  And now it was as it had been before. Bork was ignored, despised, feared, he was completely alone. But still, when it was time for great strength, there he was, doing the work of ten men, and not thanked for it. Who would thank a man for doing what he must to earn his bread.

  In the evenings he would sit in his hut, staring at the fire that pushed a column of smoke up through the hole in the roof. He remembered how it had been to have friends, but the memory was not happy, for it was always poisoned by the knowledge that the friendship did not outlast Bork’s first failure. Now the knights spat when they passed him on the road or in the fields.

  The flames did not let Bork blame his troubles on them, however. The flames constantly reminded him of the dragon’s eyes, and in their dance he saw himself, a buffoon who dared to dream of loving a princess, who believed that he was truly a knight. Not so, not so. I was never a knight, he thought. I was never worthy. Only now am I receiving what I deserve. And all his bitterness turned inward, and he hated himself far more than any of the knights could hate him.

  He had made the wrong choice. When the dragon chose to let him go, he should have refused. He should have stayed and fought to the death. He should have died.

  Stories kept filtering into the village, stories of the many heroic and famous knights who accepted the challenge of freeing Brunhilda from the dragon. All of them went as heroes. All of them died as heroes. Only Bork had returned alive from the dragon, and with every knight who died Bork’s shame grew. Until he decided that he would go back. Better to join the knights in death than to live his life staring into the flames and seeing the visions of the dragon’s eyes.

  Next time, however, he would have to be better prepared. So after the spring plowing and planting and lambing and calving, where Bork’s help was indispensable to the villagers, the giant went to the castle again. This time no one barred his way, but he was wise enough to stay as much out of sight as possible. He went to the one-armed swordmaster’s room. Bork hadn’t seen him since he accidentally cut off his arm in sword practice years before.

  “Come for the other arm, coward?” asked the swordmaster.

  “I’m sorry,” Bork said. “I was younger then.”

  “You weren’t any smaller. Go away.”

  But Bork stayed, and begged the swordmaster to help him. They worked out an arrangement. Bork would be the swordmaster’s personal servant all summer, and in exchange the swordmaster would try to teach Bork how to fight.

  They went out into the fields every day, and under the swordmaster’s watchful eye he practiced sword-fighting with bushes, trees, rocks—anything but the swordmaster, who refused to let Bork near him. Then they would return to the swordmaster’s rooms, and Bork would clean the floor and sharpen swords and burnish shields and repair broken practice equipment. And always the swordmaster said, “Bork, you’re too stupid to do anything right!” Bork agreed. In a summer of practice, he never got any better, and at the end of the summer, when it was time for Bork to go out in the fields and help with the harvest and the preparations for winter, the swordmaster said, “It’s hopeless, Bork. You’re too slow. Even the bushes are more agile than you. Don’t come back. I still hate you, you know.”

  “I know,” Bork said, and he went out into the fields, where the peasants waited impatiently for the giant to come carry sheaves of grain to the wagons.

  Another winter looking at the fire, and Bork began to realize that no matter how good he got with the sword, it would make no difference. The dragon was not to be defeated that way. If excellent swordplay could kill the dragon, the dragon would be dead by now—the finest knights in the kingdom had already died trying.

  He had to find another way. And the snow was still heavy on the ground when he again entered the castle and climbed the long and narrow stairway to the tower room where the wizard lived.

  “Go away,” said the wizard, when Bork knocked at his door. “I’m busy.”

  “I’ll wait,” Bork answered.

  “Suit yourself.”

  And Bork waited. It was late at night when the wizard finally opened the door. Bork had fallen asleep leaning on it—he nearly knocked the magician over when he fell inside.

  “What the devil are you—you waited!”

  “Yes,” said Bork, rubbing his head where it had hit the stone floor.

  “Well, I’ll be back in a moment.” The wizard made his way along a narrow ledge until he reached the place where the wall bulged and a hole opened onto the outside of the castle wall. In wartime, such holes were used to pour boiling oil on attackers. In peacetime, they were even more heavily used. “Go on inside and wait,” the wizard said.

  Bork looked around the room. It was spotlessly clean, the walls were lined with books, and here and there a fascinating artifact hinted at hidden knowledge and arcane powers—a sphere with the world on it, a skull, an abacus, beakers and tubes, a clay pot from which smoke rose, though there was no fire under it. Bork marvelled until the wizard returned.

  “Nice little place, isn’t it?” the wizard asked. “You’re Bork, the bully, aren’t you?”

  Bork nodded.

  “What can I do for you?”

  “I don’t know,” Bork asked. “I want to learn magic. I want to learn magic powerful enough that I can use it to fight the dragon.”

  The wizard coughed profusely.

  “What’s wrong?” Bork asked.

  “It’s the dust,” the wizard said.

  Bork looked around and saw no dust. But when he sniffed the air, it felt thick in his nose, and a tickling in his chest made him cough, too.

  “Dust?” asked Bork. “Can I have a drink?”

  “Drink,” said the wizard. “Downstairs—”

  “But there’s a pail of water right here. It looks perfectly clean—”

  “Please don’t—”

  But Bork put the dipper in the pail and drank. The water sloshed into his mouth, and he swallowed, but it felt dry going down, and his thirst was unslaked. “What’s wrong with the water?” Bork asked.

  The wizard sighed and sat down. “It’s the problem with magic, Bork old boy. Why do you think the King doesn’t call on me to help him in his wars? He knows it, and now you’ll know it, and the whole world probably will know it by Thursday.”

  “You don’t know any magic?”

  “Don’t be a fool! I know all the magic there is! I can conjure up monsters that would make your dragon look tame! I can snap my fingers and have a table set with food to make the cook die of envy. I can take an empty bucket and fill it with water, with wine, with gold—whatever you want. But try spending the gold, and they’ll hunt you down and kill you. Try drinking the water and you’ll die of thirst.”

  “It isn’t real.”

  “All illusion. Handy, sometimes. But that’s all. Can’t create anything except in your head. That pail, for instance—” And the wizard snapped his fingers. Bork looked, and the pail was filled, not with water, but with dust and spider webs. That wasn’t all. He looked around the room, and was startled to see that the bookshelves were gone, as were the other trappings of great wisdom. Just a few books on a table in a corner, some counters covered with dust and papers and half-decayed food, and the floor inches deep in garbage.

  “The place is horrible,” the wizard said. “I can’t bear to look at it.” He snapped his fingers, and the old illusion came back. “Much nicer, isn’t it?”

  “Yes.”

  “I have excellent taste, haven’t I? Now, you wanted me to help you fight the dragon, didn’t you? Well, I’m afraid it’s out of the question. You see, my illusions only work on human beings, and occasionally on horses. A dragon wouldn’t be fooled for a moment. You understand?”

  Bork understood, and despaired. He returned to his hut and
stared again at the flames. His resolution to return and fight the dragon again was undimmed. But now he knew that he would go as badly prepared as he had before, and his death and defeat would be certain. Well, he thought, better death than life as Bork the coward, Bork the bully who only has courage when he fights people smaller than himself.

  The winter was unusually cold, and the snow was remarkably deep. The firewood ran out in February, and there was no sign of an easing in the weather.

  The villagers went to the castle and asked for help, but the King was chilly himself, and the knights were all sleeping together in the great hall because there wasn’t enough firewood for their barracks and the castle, too. “Can’t help you,” the King said.

  So it was Bork who led the villagers—the ten strongest men, dressed as warmly as they could, yet still cold to the bone in the wind—and they followed in the path his body cut in the snow. With his huge ax he cut down tree after tree; the villagers set the wedges and Bork split the huge logs; the men carried what they could but it was Bork who made seven trips and carried most of the wood home. The village had enough to last until spring—more than enough, for, as Bork had expected, as soon as the stacks of firewood were deep in the village, the King’s men came and took their tax of it.

  And Bork, exhausted and frozen from the expedition, was carefully nursed back to health by the villagers. As he lay coughing and they feared he might die, it occurred to them how much they owed to the giant. Not just the firewood, but the hard labor in the farming work, and the fact that Bork had kept the armies far from their village, and they felt what no one in the castle had let himself feel for more than a few moments—gratitude. And so it was that when he had mostly recovered, Bork began to find gifts outside his door from time to time. A rabbit, freshly killed and dressed; a few eggs; a vast pair of hose that fit him very comfortably; a knife specially made to fit his large grip and to ride with comfortable weight on his hip. The villagers did not converse with him much. But then, they were not talkative people. The gifts said it all.

  Throughout the spring, as Bork helped in the plowing and planting, with the villagers working alongside, he realized that this was where he belonged—with the villagers, not with the knights. They weren’t rollicking good company, but there was something about sharing a task that must be done that made for stronger bonds between them than any of the rough camaraderie of the castle. The loneliness was gone.

  Yet when Bork returned home and stared into the flames in the center of his hut, the call of the dragon’s eyes became even stronger, if that were possible. It was not loneliness that drove him to seek death with the dragon. It was something else, and Bork could not think what. Pride? He had none—he accepted the verdict of the castle people that he was a coward. The only guess he could make was that he loved Brunhilda and felt a need to rescue her. The more he tried to convince himself, however, the less he believed it.

  He had to return to the dragon because, in his own mind, he knew he should have died in the dragon’s teeth, back when he fought the dragon before. The common folk might love him for what he did for them, but he hated himself for what he was.

  He was nearly ready to head back for the dragon’s mountain when the army came.

  “How many are there?” the King asked Winkle.

  “I can’t get my spies to agree,” Winkle said. “But the lowest estimate was two thousand men.”

  “And we have a hundred and fifty here in the castle. Well, I’ll have to call on my dukes and counts for support.”

  “You don’t understand, Your Majesty. These are your dukes and counts. This isn’t an invasion. This is a rebellion.”

  The King paled. “How do they dare?”

  “They dare because they heard a rumor, which at first they didn’t believe was true. A rumor that your giant knight had quit, that he wasn’t in your army anymore. And when they found out for sure that the rumor was true, they came to cast you out and return the old King to his place.”

  “Treason!” the King shouted. “Is there no loyalty?”

  “I’m loyal,” Winkle said, though of course he had already made contact with the other side in case things didn’t go well. “But it seems to me that your only hope is to prove the rumors wrong. Show them that Bork is still fighting for you.”

  “But he isn’t. I threw him out two years ago. The coward was even rejected by the dragon.”

  “Then I suggest you find a way to get him back into the army. If you don’t, I doubt you’ll have much luck against that crowd out there. My spies tell me they’re placing wagers about how many pieces you can be cut into before you die.”

  The King turned slowly and stared at Winkle, glared at him, gazed intently in his eyes. “Winkle, after all we’ve done to Bork over the years, persuading him to help us now is a despicable thing to do.”

  “True.”

  “And so it’s your sort of work, Winkle. Not mine. You get him back in the army.”

  “I can’t do it. He hates me worse than anyone, I’m sure. After all, I’ve betrayed him more often.”

  “You get him back in the army within the next six hours, Winkle, or I’ll send pieces of you to each of the men in that traitorous group that you’ve made friends with in order to betray me.”

  Winkle managed not to looked startled. But he was surprised. The King had somehow known about it. The King was not quite the fool he had seemed to be.

  “I’m sending four knights with you to make sure you do it right.”

  “You misjudge me, Your Majesty,” Winkle said.

  “I hope so, Winkle. Persuade Bork for me, and you live to eat another breakfast.”

  The knights came, and Winkle walked with them to Bork’s hut. They waited outside.

  “Bork, old friend,” Winkle said. Bork was sitting by the fire, staring in the flames. “Bork, you aren’t the sort who holds grudges, are you?”

  Bork spat into the flames.

  “Can’t say I blame you,” Winkle said. “We’ve treated you ungratefully. We’ve been downright cruel. But you rather brought it on yourself, you know. It isn’t our fault you turned coward in your fight with the dragon. Is it?”

  Bork shook his head. “My fault, Winkle. But it isn’t my fault the army has come, either. I’ve lost my battle. You lose yours.”

  “Bork, we’ve been friends since we were three—”

  Bork looked up so suddenly, his face so sharp and lit with the glow of the fire, that Winkle could not go on.

  “I’ve looked in the dragon’s eyes,” Bork said, “and I know who you are.”

  Winkle wondered if it was true, and was afraid. But he had courage of a kind, a selfish courage that allowed him to dare anything if he thought he would gain by it.

  “Who I am? No one knows anything as it is, because as soon as it’s known it changes. You looked in the dragon’s eyes years ago, Bork. Today I am not who I was then. Today you are not who you were then. And today the King needs you.”

  “The King is a petty count who rode to greatness on my shoulders. He can rot in hell.”

  “The other knights need you, then. Do you want them to die?”

  “I’ve fought enough battles for them. Let them fight their own.”

  And Winkle stood helplessly, wondering how he could possibly persuade this man, who would not be persuaded.

  It was then that a village child came. The knights caught him lurking near Bork’s hut; they roughly shoved him inside. “He might be a spy,” a knight said.

  For the first time since Winkle came, Bork laughed. “A spy? Don’t you know your own village, here? Come to me, Laggy.” And the boy came to him, and stood near him as if seeking the giant’s protection. “Laggy’s a friend of mine,” Bork said. “Why did you come, Laggy?”

  The boy wordlessly held out a fish. It wasn’t large, but it was still wet from the river.

  “Did you catch this?” Bork said.

  The boy nodded.

  “How many did you catch today?”

/>   The boy pointed at the fish.

  “Just the one? Oh, then I can’t take this, if it’s all you caught.”

  But as Bork handed the fish back, the boy retreated, refused to take it. He finally opened his mouth and spoke. “For you,” he said, and then he scurried out of the hut and into the bright morning sunlight.

  And Winkle knew he had his way to get Bork into the battle.

  “The villagers,” Winkle said.

  Bork looked at him quizzically.

  And Winkle almost said, “If you don’t join the army, we’ll come out here and burn the village and kill all the children and sell the adults into slavery in Germany.” But something stopped him; a memory, perhaps, of the fact that he was once a village child himself. No, not that. Winkle was honest enough with himself to know that what stopped him from making the threat was a mental picture of Sir Bork striding into battle, not in front of the King’s army, but at the head of the rebels. A mental picture of Bork’s ax biting deep into the gate of the castle, his huge crow prying the portcullis free. This was not the time to threaten Bork.

  So Winkle took the other tack. “Bork, if they win this battle, which they surely will if you aren’t with us, do you think they’ll be kind to this village? They’ll burn and rape and kill and capture these people for slaves. They hate us, and to them these villagers are part of us, part of their hatred. If you don’t help us, you’re killing them.”

  “I’ll protect them,” Bork said.

  “No, my friend. No, if you don’t fight with us, as a knight, they won’t treat you chivalrously. They’ll fill you full of arrows before you get within twenty feet of their lines. You fight with us, or you might as well not fight at all.”

  Winkle knew he had won. Bork thought for several minutes, but it was inevitable. He got up and returned to the castle, strapped on his old armor, took his huge ax and his shield, and, with his sword belted at his waist, walked into the courtyard of the castle. The other knights cheered, and called out to him as if he were their dearest friend. But the words were hollow and they knew it, and when Bork didn’t answer they soon fell silent.

 

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