Maps in a Mirror, page 59
“I feared you, Bork,” the dragon whispered. “From the day you told me you were afraid, I feared you. I knew you would be back. And I knew this moment would come.”
“What moment?” Bork asked.
“The moment of my death.”
“Are you dying?”
“No,” said the dragon. “Not yet. You must kill me.”
As Bork looked at the dragon lying before him, he felt no desire for blood. “I don’t want you to die.”
“Don’t you know that a dragon cannot live when it has met a truly honest man? It’s the only way we ever die, and most dragons live forever.”
But Bork refused to kill him.
The dragon cried out in anguish. “I am filled with all the truth that was discarded by men when they chose their lies and died for them. I am in constant pain, and now that I have met a man who does not add to my treasury of falsehood, you are the cruelest of them all.”
And the dragon wept, and its eyes flashed and sparkled in every hot tear that fell, and finally Bork could not bear it. He took his ax and hacked off the dragon’s head, and the light in its eyes went out. The eyes shriveled in their sockets until they turned into small, bright diamonds with a thousand facets each. Bork took the diamonds and put them in his pocket.
“You killed him,” Brunhilda said wonderingly.
Bork did not answer. He just untied her, and looked away while she finally fastened her gown. Then he shouldered the dragon’s head and carried it back to the castle, Brunhilda running to keep up with him. He only stopped to rest at night because she begged him to. And when she tried to thank him for freeing her, he only turned away and refused to hear. He had killed the dragon because it wanted to die. Not for Brunhilda. Never for her.
At the castle they were received with rejoicing, but Bork would not go in. He only laid the dragon’s head beside the moat and went to his hut, fingering the diamonds in his pocket, holding them in front of him in the pitch blackness of his hut to see that they shone with their own light, and did not need the sun or any other fire but themselves.
The King and Winkle and Brunhilda and a dozen knights came to Bork’s hut. “I have come to thank you,” the King said, his cheeks wet with tears of joy.
“You’re welcome,” Bork said. He said it as if to dismiss them.
“Bork,” the King said. “Slaying the dragon was ten times as brave as the bravest thing any man has done before. You can have my daughter’s hand in marriage.”
Bork looked up in surprise.
“I thought you never meant to keep your promise, Your Majesty.”
The King looked down, then at Winkle, then back at Bork. “Occasionally,” he said, “I keep my word. So here she is, and thank you.”
But Bork only smiled, fingering the diamonds in his pocket. “It’s enough that you offered, Your Majesty. I don’t want her. Marry her to a man she loves.”
The King was puzzled. Brunhilda’s beauty had not waned in her years of captivity. She had the sort of beauty that started wars. “Don’t you want any reward?” asked the King.
Bork thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said. “I want to be given a plot of ground far away from here. I don’t want there to be any count, or any duke, or any king over me. And any man or woman or child who comes to me will be free, and no one can pursue them. And I will never see you again, and you will never see me again.”
“That’s all you want?”
“Then you shall have it,” the King said.
Bork lived all the rest of his life on his little plot of ground. People did come to him. Not many, but five or ten a year all his life, and a village grew up where no one came to take a king’s tithe or a duke’s fifth or a count’s fourth. Children grew up who knew nothing of the art of war and never saw a knight or a battle or the terrible fear on the face of a man who knows his wounds are too deep to heal. It was everything Bork could have wanted, and he was happy all his years there.
Winkle, too, achieved everything he wanted. He married Brunhilda, and soon enough the King’s sons had accidents and died, and the King died after dinner one night, and Winkle became King. He was at war all his life, and never went to sleep at night without fear of an assassin coming upon him in the darkness. He governed ruthlessly and thoroughly and was hated all his life; later generations, however, remembered him as a great King. But he was dead then, and didn’t know it.
Later generations never heard of Bork.
He had only been out on his little plot of ground for a few months when the old wife came to him. “Your hut is much bigger than you need,” she said. “Move over.”
So Bork moved over, and she moved in.
She did not magically turn into a beautiful princess. She was foul-mouthed and nagged Bork unmercifully. But he was devoted to her, and when she died a few years later he realized that she had given him more happiness than pain, and he missed her. But the grief at her dying did not taint any of the joys of his memory of her; he just fingered the diamonds, and remembered that grief and joy were not weighed in the same scale, one making the other seem less substantial.
And at last he realized that Death was near; that Death was reaping him like wheat, eating him like bread. He imagined Death to be a dragon, devouring him bit by bit, and one night in a dream he asked Death, “Is my flavor sweet?”
Death, the old dragon, looked at him with bright and understanding eyes, and said, “Salty and sour, bitter and sweet. You sting and you soothe.”
“Ah,” Bork said, and was satisfied.
Death poised itself to take the last bite. “Thank you,” it said.
“You’re welcome,” Bork answered, and he meant it.
THE PRINCESS AND THE BEAR
I know you’ve seen the lions. All over the place: beside the doors, flanking the throne, roaring out of the plates in the pantry, spouting water from under the eaves.
Haven’t you ever wondered why the statue atop the city gates is a bear?
Many years ago in this very city, in the very palace that you can see rising granite and gray behind the old crumbly walls of the king’s garden, there lived a princess. It was so long ago that who can ever remember her name? She was just the princess. These days it isn’t in fashion to think that princesses are beautiful, and in fact they tend to be a bit horse-faced and gangling. But in those days it was an absolute requirement that a princess look fetching, at least when wearing the most expensive clothes available.
This princess, however, would have been beautiful dressed like a slum child or a shepherd girl. She was beautiful the moment she was born. She only got more beautiful as she grew up.
And there was also a prince. He was not her brother, though. He was the son of a king in a far-off land, and his father was the thirteenth cousin twice removed of the princess’ father. The boy had been sent here to our land to get an education—because the princess’ father, King Ethelred, was known far and wide as a wise man and a good king.
And if the princess was marvelously beautiful, so was the prince. He was the kind of boy that every mother wants to hug, the kind of boy who gets his hair tousled by every man that meets him.
He and the princess grew up together. They took lessons together from the teachers in the palace, and when the princess was slow, the prince would help her, and when the prince was slow, the princess would help him. They had no secrets from each other, but they had a million secrets that they two kept from the rest of the world. Secrets like where the bluebirds’ nest was this year, and what color underwear the cook wore, and that if you duck under the stairway to the armory there’s a little underground path that comes up in the wine cellar. They speculated endlessly about which of the princess’ ancestors had used that path for surreptitious imbibing.
After not too many years the princess stopped being just a little girl and the prince stopped being just a little boy, and then they fell in love. All at once all their million secrets became just one secret, and they told tha
The prince and the princess decided one day to get married.
But the very next morning, the prince got a letter from the far-off country where his father lived. The letter told him that his father no longer lived at all, and that the boy was now a man; and not just a man, but a king.
So the prince got up the next morning, and the servants put his favorite books in a parcel, and his favorite clothes were packed in a trunk, and the trunk, and the parcel, and the prince were all put on a coach with bright red wheels and gold tassels at the corner and the prince was taken away.
The princess did not cry until after he was out of sight. Then she went into her room and cried for a long time, and only her nurse could come in with food and chatter and cheerfulness. At last the chatter brought smiles to the princess, and she went into her father’s study where he sat by the fire at night and said, “He promised he would write, every day, and I must write every day as well.”
She did, and the prince did, and once a month a parcel of thirty letters would arrive for her, and the postrider would take away a parcel of thirty letters (heavily perfumed) from her.
And one day the Bear came to the palace. Now he wasn’t a bear, of course, he was the Bear, with a capital B. He was probably only thirty-five or so, because his hair was still golden brown and his face was only lined around the eyes. But he was massive and grizzly, with great thick arms that looked like he could lift a horse, and great thick legs that looked like he could carry that horse a hundred miles. His eyes were deep, and they looked brightly out from under his bushy eyebrows, and the first time the nurse saw him she squealed and said, “Oh, my, he looks like a bear.”
He came to the door of the palace and the doorman refused to let him in, because he didn’t have an appointment. But he scribbled a note on a piece of paper that looked like it had held a sandwich for a few days, and the doorman—with grave misgivings—carried the paper to the king.
The paper said, “If Boris and 5,000 stood on the highway from Rimperdell, would you like to know which way they were going?”
King Ethel red wanted to know.
The doorman let the stranger into the palace, and the king brought him into his study and they talked for many hours.
In the morning the king arose early and went to his captains of cavalry and captains of infantry, and he sent a lord to the knights and their squires, and by dawn all of Ethelred’s little army was gathered on the highway, the one that leads to Rimperdell. They marched for three hours that morning, and then they came to a place and the stranger with golden brown hair spoke to the king and King Ethelred commanded the army to stop. They stopped, and the infantry was sent into the forest on one side of the road, and the cavalry was sent into the tall cornfields on the other side of the road, where they dismounted. Then the king, and the stranger, and the knights waited in the road.
Soon they saw a dust cloud in the distance, and then the dust cloud grew near, and they saw that it was an army coming down the road. And at the head of the army was King Boris of Rimperdell. And behind him the army seemed to be five thousand men.
“Hail,” King Ethelred said, looking more than a little irritated, since King Boris’ army was well inside our country’s boundaries.
“Hail,” King Boris said, looking more than a little irritated, since no one was supposed to know that he was coming.
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked King Ethelred.
“You’re blocking the road,” said King Boris.
“It’s my road,” said King Ethelred.
“Not anymore,” said King Boris.
“I and my knights say that this road belongs to me,” said King Ethelred.
King Boris looked at Ethelred’s fifty knights, and then he looked back at his own five thousand men, and he said, “I say you and your knights are dead men unless you move aside.”
“Then you want to be at war with me?” asked King Ethelred.
“War?” said King Boris. “Can we really call it a war? It will be like stepping on a nasty cockroach.”
“I wouldn’t know,” said King Ethelred, “because we haven’t ever had cockroaches in our kingdom.”
Then he added, “Until now, of course.”
Then King Ethelred lifted his arm, and the infantry shot arrows and threw lances from the wood, and many of Boris’ men were slain. And the moment all of his troops were ready to fight the army in the forest, the cavalry came from the field and attacked from the rear, and soon Boris’ army, what was left of it, surrendered, and Boris himself lay mortally wounded in the road.
“If you had won this battle,” King Ethelred said, “what would you have done to me?”
King Boris gasped for breath and said, “I would have had you beheaded.”
“Ah,” said King Ethelred. “We are very different men. For I will let you live.”
But the stranger stood beside King Ethelred, and he said, “No, King Ethelred, that is not in your power, for Boris is about to die. And if he were not, I would have killed him myself, for as long as a man like him is alive, no one is safe in all the world.”
Then Boris died, and he was buried in the road with no marker, and his men were sent home without their swords.
And King Ethelred came back home to crowds of people cheering the great victory, and shouting, “Long live King Ethelred the conqueror.”
King Ethelred only smiled at them. Then he took the stranger into the palace, and gave him a room where he could sleep, and made him the chief counselor to the king, because the stranger had proved that he was wise, and that he was loyal, and that he loved the king better than the king loved himself, for the king would have let Boris live.
No one knew what to call the man, because when a few brave souls asked him his name, he only frowned and said, “I will wear the name you pick for me.”
Many names were tried, like George, and Fred, and even Rocky and Todd. But none of the names seemed right. For a long time, everyone called him Sir, because when somebody is that big and that strong and that wise and that quiet, you feel like calling him sir and offering him your chair when he comes in the room.
And then after a while everyone called him the name the nurse had chosen for him just by accident: they called him the Bear. At first they only called him that behind his back, but eventually someone slipped and called him that at the dinner table, and he smiled, and answered to the name, and so everyone called him that.
Except the princess. She didn’t call him anything, because she didn’t speak to him if she could help it, and when she talked about him, she stuck out her lower lip and called him That Man.
This is because the princess hated the Bear.
She didn’t hate him because he had done anything bad to her. In fact, she was pretty sure that he didn’t even notice she was living in the palace. He never turned and stared when she walked into the room, like all the other men did. But that isn’t why she hated him, either.
She hated him because she thought he was making her father weak.
King Ethelred was a great king, and his people loved him. He always stood very tall at ceremonies, and he sat for hours making judgments with great wisdom. He always spoke softly when softness was needed, and shouted at the times when only shouting would be heard.
In all he was a stately man, and so the princess was shocked with the way he was around the Bear.
King Ethelred and the Bear would sit for hours in the king’s study, every night when there wasn’t a great banquet or an ambassador. They would both drink from huge mugs of ale—but instead of having a servant refill the mugs, the princess was shocked that her own father stood up and poured from the pitcher! A king, doing the work of a servant, and then giving the mug to a commone
The princess saw this because she sat in the king’s study with them, listening and watching without saying a word as they talked. Sometimes she would spend the whole time combing her father’s long white hair. Sometimes she would knit long woolen stockings for her father for the winter. Sometimes she would read—for her father believed that even women should learn to read. But all the time she listened, and became angry, and hated the Bear more and more.
King Ethelred and the Bear didn’t talk much about affairs of state. They talked about hunting rabbits in the forest. They told jokes about lords and ladies in the kingdom—and some of the jokes weren’t even nice, the princess told herself bitterly. They talked about what they should do about the ugly carpet in the courtroom—as if the Bear had a perfect right to have an opinion about what the new carpet should be.
And when they did talk about affairs of state, the Bear treated King Ethelred like an equal. When he disagreed with the king, he would leap to his feet saying, “No, no, no, no, you just don’t see at all.” When he thought the king had said something right, he clapped him on the shoulder and said, “You’ll make a great king yet, Ethelred.”
And sometimes King Ethelred would sigh and stare into the fire, and whisper a few words, and a dark and tired look would steal across his face. Then the Bear would put his arm around the king’s shoulder, and stare into the fire with him, until finally the king would sigh again, and then lift himself, groaning, out of his chair, and say, “It’s time that this old man put his corpse between the sheets.”
The next day the princess would talk furiously to her nurse, who never told a soul what the princess said. The princess would say, “That Man is out to make my father a weakling! He’s out to make my father look stupid. That Man is making my father forget that he is a king.” Then she would wrinkle her forehead and say, “That Man is a traitor.”
She never said a word about this to her father, however. If she had, he would have patted her head and said, “Oh, yes, he does indeed make me forget that I am a king.” But he would also have said, “He makes me remember what a king should be.” And Ethelred would not have called him a traitor. He would have called the Bear his friend.
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