Maps in a mirror, p.58

Maps in a Mirror, page 58

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  The gate opened and Bork walked out, the knights on horseback behind him.

  And in the rebel camp, they knew that the rumors were a lie—the giant still fought with the King, and they were doomed. Most of the men slipped away into the woods. But the others, particularly the leaders who would die if they surrendered as surely as they would die if they fought, stayed. Better to die valiantly than as a coward, they each thought, and so as Bork approached he still faced an army—only a few hundred men, but still an army.

  They came out to meet Bork one by one, as the knights came to the dragon on his hill. And one by one, as they made their first cut or thrust, Bork’s ax struck, and their heads flew from their bodies, or their chests were cloven nearly in half, or the ax reamed them end to end, and Bork was bright red with blood and a dozen men were dead and not one had touched him.

  So they came by threes and fours, and fought like demons, but still Bork took them, and when even more than four tried to fight him at once they got in each other’s way and he killed them more easily.

  And at last those who still lived despaired. There was no honor in dying so pointlessly. And with fifty men dead, the battle ended, and the rebels laid down their arms in submission.

  Then the King emerged from the castle and rode to the battleground, and paraded triumphantly in front of the defeated men.

  “You are all sentenced to death at once,” the King declared.

  But suddenly he found himself pulled from his horse, and Bork’s great hands held him. The King gasped at the smell of gore; Bork rubbed his bloody hands on the King’s tunic, and took the King’s face between his sticky palms.

  “No one dies now. No one dies tomorrow. These men will all live, and you’ll send them home to their lands, and you’ll lower their tribute and let them dwell in peace forever.”

  The King imagined his own blood mingling with that which already covered Bork, and he nodded. Bork let him go. The King mounted his horse again, and spoke loudly, so all could hear. “I forgive you all. I pardon you all. You may return to your homes. I confirm you in your lands. And your tribute is cut in half from this day forward. Go in peace. If any man harms you, I’ll have his life.”

  The rebels stood in silence.

  Winkle shouted at them “Go! You heard the king! You’re free! Go home!”

  And they cheered, and long-lived-the-King, and then bellowed their praise to Bork.

  But Bork, if he heard them, gave no sign. He stripped off his armor and let it lie in the field. He carried his great ax to the stream, and let the water run over the metal until it was clean. Then he lay in the stream himself, and the water carried off the last of the blood, and when he came out he was clean.

  Then he walked away, to the north road, ignoring the calls of the King and his knights, ignoring everything except the dragon who waited for him on the mountain. For this was the last of the acts Bork wold perform in his life for which he would feel shame. He would not kill again. He would only die, bravely, in the dragon’s claws and teeth.

  The old woman waited for him on the road.

  “Off to kill the dragon, are you?” she asked in a voice that the years had tortured into gravel. “Didn’t learn enough the first time?” She giggled behind her hand.

  “Old woman, I learned everything before. Now I’m going to die.”

  “Why? So the fools in the castle will think better of you?”

  Bork shook his head.

  “The villagers already love you. For your deeds today, you’ll already be a legend. If it isn’t for love or fame, why are you going?”

  Bork shrugged. “I don’t know. I think he calls to me. I’m through with my life, and all I can see ahead of me are his eyes.”

  The old woman nodded. “Well, well, Bork. I think you’re the first knight that the dragon won’t be happy to see. We old wives know, Bork. Just tell him the truth, Bork.”

  “I’ve never known the truth to stop a sword,” he said.

  “But the dragon doesn’t carry a sword.”

  “He might as well.”

  “No, Bork, no,” she said, clucking impatiently. “You know better than that. Of all the dragon’s weapons, which cut you the deepest?”

  Bork tried to remember. The truth was, he realized, that the dragon had never cut him at all. Not with his teeth nor his claws. Only the armor had been pierced. Yet there had been a wound, a deep one that hadn’t healed, and it had been cut in him, not by teeth or talons, but by the bright fires in the dragon’s eyes.

  “The truth,” the old woman said. “Tell the dragon the truth. Tell him the truth, and you’ll live!”

  Bork shook his head. “I’m not going there to live,” he said. He pushed past her, and walked on up the road.

  But her words rang in his ears long after he stopped hearing her call after him. The truth, she had said. Well, then, why not? Let the dragon have the truth. Much good may it do him.

  This time Bork was in no hurry. He slept every night, and paused to hunt for berries and fruit to eat in the woods. It was four days before he reached the dragon’s hill, and he came in the morning, after a good night’s sleep. He was afraid, of course; but still there was a pleasant feeling about the morning, a tingling of excitement about the meeting with the dragon. He felt the end coming near, and he relished it.

  Nothing had changed. The dragon roared; Brunhilda screamed. And when he reached the top of the hill, he saw the dragon tickling her with his wing. He was not surprised to see that she hadn’t changed at all—the two years had not aged her, and though her gown still was open and her breasts were open to the sun and the wind, she wasn’t even freckled or tanned. It could have been yesterday that Bork fought with the dragon the first time. And Bork was smiling as he stepped into the flat space where the battle would take place.

  Brunhilda saw him first. “Help me! You’re the four hundred and thirtieth knight to try! Surely that’s a lucky number!” Then she recognized him. “Oh, no. You again. Oh well, at least while he’s fighting you I won’t have to put up with his tickling.”

  Bork ignored her. He had come for the dragon, not for Brunhilda.

  The dragon regarded him calmly. “You are disturbing my nap time.”

  “I’m glad,” Bork said. “You’ve disturbed me, sleeping and waking, since I left you. Do you remember me?”

  “Ah yes. You’re the only knight who was ever afraid of me.”

  “Do you really believe that?” Bork asked.

  “It hardly matters what I believe. Are you going to kill me today?”

  “I don’t think so,” said Bork. “You’re much stronger than I am, and I’m terrible at battle. I’ve never defeated anyone who was more than half my strength.”

  The lights in the dragon’s eyes suddenly grew brighter, and the dragon squinted to look at Bork. “Is that so?” asked the dragon.

  “And I’m not very clever. You’ll be able to figure out my next move before I know what it is myself.”

  The dragon squinted more, and the eyes grew even brighter.

  “Don’t you want to rescue this beautiful woman?” the dragon asked.

  “I don’t much care,” he said. “I loved her once. But I’m through with that. I came for you.”

  “You don’t love her anymore?” asked the dragon.

  Bork almost said, “Not a bit.” But then he stopped. The truth, the old woman had said. And he looked into himself and saw that no matter how much he hated himself for it, the old feelings died hard. “I love her, dragon. But it doesn’t do me any good. She doesn’t love me. And so even though I desire her, I don’t want her.”

  Brunhilda was a little miffed. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said. But Bork was watching the dragon, whose eyes were dazzlingly bright. The monster was squinting so badly that Bork began to wonder if he could see at all.

  “Are you having trouble with your eyes?” Bork asked.

  “Do you think you ask the questions here? I ask the questions.”
>
  “Then ask.”

  “What in the world do I want to know from you?”

  “I can’t think of anything,” Bork answered. “I know almost nothing. What little I do know, you taught me.”

  “Did I? What was it that you learned?”

  “You taught me that I was not loved by those I thought had loved me. I learned from you that deep within my large body is a very small soul.”

  The dragon blinked, and its eyes seemed to dim a little.

  “Ah,” said the dragon.

  “What do you mean, ‘Ah’?” asked Bork.

  “Just ‘Ah,’ ” the dragon answered. “Does every ah have to mean something?”

  Brunhilda sighed impatiently. “How long does this go on? Everybody else who comes up here is wonderful and brave. You just stand around talking about how miserable you are. Why don’t you fight?”

  “Like the others?” asked Bork.

  “They’re so brave,” she said.

  “They’re all dead.”

  “Only a coward would think of that,” she said scornfully.

  “It hardly comes as a surprise to you,” Bork said. “Everyone knows I’m a coward. Why do you think I came? I’m of no use to anyone, except as a machine to kill people at the command of a King I despise.”

  “That’s my father you’re talking about!”

  “I’m nothing, and the world will be better without me in it.”

  “I can’t say I disagree,” Brunhilda said.

  But Bork did not hear her, for he felt the touch of the dragon’s tail on his back, and when he looked at the dragon’s eyes they had stopped glowing so brightly. They were almost back to normal, in fact, and the dragon was beginning to reach out its claws.

  So Bork swung his ax, and the dragon dodged, and the battle was on, just as before.

  And just as before, at sundown Bork stood pinned between tail and claws and teeth.

  “Are you afraid to die?” asked the dragon, as it had before.

  Bork almost answered yes again, because that would keep him alive. But then he remembered that he had come in order to die, and as he looked in his heart he still realized that however much he might fear death, he feared life more.

  “I came here to die,” he said. “I still want to.”

  And the dragon’s eyes leaped bright with light. Bork imagined that the pressure of the claws lessened.

  “Well, then, Sir Bork, I can hardly do you such a favor as to kill you.” And the dragon let him go.

  That was when Bork became angry.

  “You can’t do this to me!” he shouted.

  “Why not?” asked the dragon, who was now trying to ignore Bork and occupied itself by crushing boulders with its claws.

  “Because I insist on my right to die at your hands.”

  “It’s not a right, it’s a privilege,” said the dragon.

  “If you don’t kill me, then I’ll kill you!”

  The dragon sighed in boredom, but Bork would not be put off. He began swinging the ax, and the dragon dodged, and in the pink light of sunset the battle was on again. This time, though, the dragon only fell back and twisted and turned to avoid Bork’s blows. It made no effort to attack. Finally Bork was too tired and frustrated to go on.

  “Why don’t you fight!” he shouted. Then he wheezed from the exhaustion of the chase.

  The dragon was panting, too. “Come on now, little man, why don’t you give it up and go home. I’ll give you a signed certificate testifying that I asked you to go, so that no one thinks you’re a coward. Just leave me alone.”

  The dragon began crushing rocks and dribbling them over its head. It lay down and began to bury itself in gravel.

  “Dragon,” said Bork, “a moment ago you had me in your teeth. You were about to kill me. The old woman told me that truth was my only defense. So I must have lied before, I must have said something false. What was it? Tell me!”

  The dragon looked annoyed. “She had no business telling you that. It’s privileged information.”

  “All I ever said to you was the truth.”

  “Was it?”

  “Did I lie to you? Answer—yes or no!”

  The dragon only looked away, its eyes still bright. It lay on its back and poured gravel over its belly.

  “I did then. I lied. Just the kind of fool I am to tell the truth and still get caught in a lie.”

  Had the dragon’s eyes dimmed? Was there a lie in what he had just said?

  “Dragon,” Bork insisted, “if you don’t kill me or I don’t kill you, then I might as well throw myself from the cliff. There’s no meaning to my life, if I can’t die at your hands!”

  Yes, the dragon’s eyes were dimming, and the dragon rolled over onto its belly, and began to gaze thoughtfully at Bork.

  “Where is the lie in that?”

  “Lie? Who said anything about a lie?” But the dragon’s long tail was beginning to creep around so it could get behind Bork.

  And then it occurred to Bork that the dragon might not even know. That the dragon might be as much a prisoner of the fires of truth inside him as Bork was, and that the dragon wasn’t deliberately toying with him at all. Didn’t matter, of course. “Never mind what the lie is, then,” Bork said. “Kill me now, and the world will be a better place!”

  The dragon’s eyes dimmed, and a claw made a pass at him, raking the air by his face.

  It was maddening, to know there was a lie in what he was saying and not know what it was. “It’s the perfect ending for my meaningless life,” he said. “I’m so clumsy I even have to stumble into death.”

  He didn’t understand why, but once again he stared into the dragon’s mouth, and the claws pressed gently but sharply against his flesh.

  The dragon asked the question of Bork for the third time. “Are you afraid, little man, to die?”

  This was the moment, Bork knew. If he was to die, he had to lie to the dragon now, for if he told the truth the dragon would set him free again. But to lie, he had to know what the truth was, and now he didn’t know at all. He tried to think of where he had gone astray from the truth, and could not. What had he said? It was true that he was clumsy; it was true that he was stumbling into death. What else then?

  He had said his life was meaningless. Was that the lie? He had said his death would make the world a better place. Was that the lie?

  And so he thought of what would happen when he died. What hole would his death make in the world? The only people who might miss him were the villagers. That was the meaning of his life, then—the villagers. So he lied.

  “The villagers won’t miss me if I die. They’ll get along just fine without me.”

  But the dragon’s eyes brightened, and the teeth withdrew, and Bork realized to his grief that his statement had been true after all. The villagers wouldn’t miss him if he died. The thought of it broke his heart, the last betrayal in a long line of betrayals.

  “Dragon, I can’t outguess you! I don’t know what’s true and what isn’t! All I learn from you is that everyone I thought loved me doesn’t. Don’t ask me questions! Just kill me and end my life. Every pleasure I’ve had turns to pain when you tell me the truth.”

  And now, when he had thought he was telling the truth, the claws broke his skin, and the teeth closed over his head, and he screamed. “Dragon! Don’t let me die like this! What is the pleasure that your truth won’t turn to pain? What do I have left?”

  The dragon pulled away, and regarded him carefully. “I told you, little man, that I don’t answer questions. I ask them.”

  “Why are you here?” Bork demanded. “This ground is littered with the bones of men who failed your tests. Why not mine? Why not mine? Why can’t I die? Why did you keep sparing my life? I’m just a man, I’m just alive, I’m just trying to do the best I can in a miserable world and I’m sick of trying to figure out what’s true and what isn’t. End the game, dragon. My life has never been happy, and I want to die.”

  The dragon’s eyes
went black, and the jaws opened again, and the teeth approached, and Bork knew he had told his last lie, that this lie would be enough. But with the teeth inches from him Bork finally realized what the lie was, and the realization was enough to change his mind. “No,” he said, and he reached out and seized the teeth, though they cut his fingers. “No,” he said, and he wept. “I have been happy. I have.” And, gripping the sharp teeth, the memories raced through his mind. The many nights of comradeship with the knights in the castle. The pleasures of weariness from working in the forest and the fields. The joy he felt when alone he won a victory from the Duke; the rush of warmth when the boy brought him the single fish he had caught; and the solitary pleasures, of waking and going to sleep, of walking and running, of feeling the wind on a hot day and standing near a fire in the deep of winter. They were all good, and they had all happened. What did it matter if later the knights despised him? What did it matter if the villagers’ love was only a fleeting thing, to be forgotten after he died? The reality of the pain did not destroy the reality of the pleasure; grief did not obliterate joy. They each happened in their time, and because some of them were dark it did not mean that none of them was light.

  “I have been happy,” Bork said. “And if you let me live, I’ll be happy again. That’s what my life means, doesn’t it? That’s the truth, isn’t it, dragon? My life matters because I’m alive, joy or pain, whatever comes, I’m alive and that’s meaning enough. It’s true, isn’t it, dragon! I’m not here to fight you. I’m not here for you to kill me. I’m here to make myself alive!”

  But the dragon did not answer. Bork was gently lowered to the ground. The dragon withdrew its talons and tail, pulled its head away, and curled up on the ground, covering its eyes with its claws.

  “Dragon, did you hear me?”

  The dragon said nothing.

  “Dragon, look at me!”

  The dragon sighed. “Man, I cannot look at you.”

  “Why not?”

  “I am blind,” the dragon answered. It pulled its claws away from its eyes. Bork covered his face with his hands. The dragon’s eyes were brighter than the sun.

 

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