Maps in a Mirror, page 62
And the king kept beating and beating the queen until everyone was sure he would beat her to death.
And in her heart as she lay on the stone floor, numb to the pain of her body because of the pain of her heart, she wished that the bear would come again, stepping over her to kill the wolf that was running forward to devour her.
At that moment the door broke in pieces and a terrible roar filled the dining hall. The king stopped beating the queen, and the guards and the servants looked at the door, for there stood a huge brown bear on its hind legs, towering over them all, and roaring in fury.
The servants ran from the room.
“Kill him,” the king bellowed at the guards.
The guards drew their swords and advanced on the bear.
The bear disarmed them all, though there were so many that some drew blood before their swords were slapped out of their hands. Some of them might even have tried to fight the bear without weapons, because they were brave men, but the bear struck them on the head, and the rest fled away.
Yet the queen, dazed though she was, thought that for some reason the bear had not struck yet with all his force, that the huge animal was saving his strength for another battle.
And that battle was with King Edward, who stood with his sharp sword in his hand, eager for battle, hoping to die, with the desperation and self-hatred in him that would make him a terrible opponent, even for a bear.
A bear, thought the queen. I wished for a bear and he is here.
Then she lay, weak and helpless and bleeding on the stone floor as her husband, her prince, fought the bear. She did not know who she hoped would win. For even now, she did not hate her husband. And yet she knew that her life and the lives of her subjects would be unendurable as long as he lived.
They circled around the room, the bear moving clumsily yet quickly, King Edward moving faster still, his blade whipping steel circles through the air. Three times the blade landed hard and deep on the bear, before the animal seized the blade between his paws. King Edward tried to draw back the sword, and as he did it bit deeply into the animal’s paws. But it was a battle of strength, and the bear was sure to win it in the end. He pulled the sword out of Edward’s hand, and then grasped the king in a mighty embrace and carried him screaming from the room.
And at that last moment, as Edward tugged hopelessly at his sword and blood poured from the bear’s paws, the queen found herself hoping that the bear would hold on, would take away the sword, that the bear would win out and free the kingdom—her kingdom—and her family and even herself, from the man who had been devouring them all.
Yet when King Edward screamed in the bear’s grip, she heard only the voice of the boy in the garden in the eternal and too-quick summer of her childhood. She fainted with a dim memory of his smile dancing crazily before her eyes.
She awoke as she had awakened once before, thinking that it had been a dream, and then remembering the truth of it when the pain where her husband had beaten her nearly made her fall unconscious again. But she fought the faintness and stayed awake, and asked for water.
The nurse brought water, and then several lords of high rank and the captain of the army and the chief servants came in and asked her what they should do.
“Why do you ask me?” she said.
“Because,” the nurse answered her, “the king is dead.”
The queen waited.
“The bear left him at the gate,” the captain of the army said.
“His neck was broken,” the chief said.
“And now,” one of the lords said, “now we must know what to do. We haven’t even told the people, and no one has been allowed inside or outside the palace.”
The queen thought, and closed her eyes as she did so. But what she saw when she closed her eyes was the body of her beautiful prince with his head loose as the wolf’s had been that day in the forest. She did not want to see that, so she opened her eyes.
“You must proclaim that the king is dead throughout the land,” she said.
To the captain of the army she said, “There will be no more beheading for treason. Anyone who is in prison for treason is to be set free, now. And any other prisoners whose terms are soon to expire should be set free at once.”
The captain of the army bowed and left. He did not smile until he was out the door, but then he smiled until tears ran down his cheeks.
To the chief cook she said, “All the servants in the palace are free to leave now, if they want. But please ask them, in my name, to stay. I will restore them as they were, if they’ll stay.”
The cook started a heartfelt speech of thanks, but then thought better of it and left the room to tell the others.
To the lords she said, “Go to the kings whose armies guard our borders, and tell them that King Edward is dead and they can go home now. Tell them that if I need their help I will call on them, but that until I do I will govern my kingdom alone.”
And the lords came and kissed her hands tenderly, and left the room.
And she was alone with the nurse.
“I’m so sorry,” said the nurse, when enough silence had passed.
“For what?” asked the queen.
“For the death of your husband.”
“Ah, that,” said the queen. “Ah, yes, my husband.”
And then the queen wept with all her heart. Not for the cruel and greedy man who had warred and killed and savaged everywhere he could. But for the boy who had somehow turned into that man, the boy whose gentle hand had comforted her childhood hurts, the boy whose frightened voice had cried out to her at the end of his life, as if he wondered why he had gotten lost inside himself, as if he realized that it was too, too late to get out again.
When she had done weeping that day, she never cried for him again.
In three days she was up again, though she had to wear loose clothing because of the pain. She held court anyway, and it was then that the shepherds brought her the Bear. Not the bear, the animal, that had killed the king, but the Bear, the counselor, who had left the kingdom so many years before.
“We found him on the hillside, with our sheep nosing him and lapping his face,” the oldest of the shepherds told her. “Looks like he’s been set on by robbers, he’s cut and battered so. Miracle he’s alive,” he said.
“What is that he’s wearing?” asked the queen, standing by the bed where she had had the servants lay him.
“Oh,” said one of the other shepherds. “That’s me cloak. They left him nekkid, but we didn’t think it right to bring him before you in such a state.”
She thanked the shepherds and offered to pay them a reward, but they said no thanks, explaining, “We remember him, we do, and it wouldn’t be right to take money for helping him, don’t you see, because he was a good man back in your father’s day.”
The queen had the servants—who had all stayed on, by the way—clean his wounds and bind them and tend to his wants. And because he was a strong man, he lived, though the wounds might have killed a smaller, weaker man. Even so, he never got back the use of his right hand, and had to learn to write with his left; and he limped ever after. But he often said he was lucky to be alive and wasn’t ashamed of his infirmities, though he sometimes said that something ought to be done about the robbers who run loose in the hills.
As soon as he was able, the queen had him attend court, where he listened to the ambassadors from other lands and to the cases she heard and judged.
Then at night she had him come to King Ethelred’s study, and there she asked him about the questions of that day and what he would have done differently, and he told her what he thought she did well, too. And so she learned from him as her father had learned.
One day she even said to him, “I have never asked forgiveness of any many in my life. But I ask for yours.”
“For what?” he said, surprised.
“For hating you, and thinking you served me and my father badly, and driving you from this kingdom. If we had listened to you,”
“Oh,” he said, “all that’s past. You were young, and in love, and that’s as inevitable as fate itself.”
“I know,” she said, “and for love I’d probably do it again, but now that I’m wiser I can still ask for forgiveness for my youth.”
The Bear smiled at her. “You were forgiven before you asked. But since you ask I gladly forgive you again.”
“Is there any reward I can give you for your service so many years ago, when you left unthanked?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered. “If you could let me stay and serve you as I served your father, that would be reward enough.”
“How can that be a reward?” she asked. “I was going to ask you to do that for me. And now you ask it for yourself.”
“Let us say,” said the Bear, “that I loved your father like my brother, and you like my niece, and I long to stay with the only family that I have.”
Then the queen took the pitcher and poured him a mug of ale, and they sat by the fire and talked far into the night.
Because the queen was a widow, because despite the problems of the past the kingdom was large and rich, many suitors came asking for her hand. Some were dukes, some were earls, and some were kings or sons of kings. And she was as beautiful as ever, only in her thirties, a prize herself even if there had been no kingdom to covet.
But though she considered long and hard over some of them, and even liked several men who came, she turned them all down and sent them all away.
And she reigned alone, as queen, with the Bear to advise her.
And she also did what her husband had told her a queen should do—she raised her son to be king and her daughters to be worthy to be queens. And the Bear helped her with that, too, teaching her son to hunt, and teaching him how to see beyond men’s words into their hearts, and teaching him to love peace and serve the people.
And the boy grew up as beautiful as his father and as wise as the Bear, and the people knew he would be a great king, perhaps even greater than King Ethelred had been.
The queen grew old, and turned much of the matter of the kingdom over to her son, who was now a man. The prince married the daughter of a neighboring king. She was a good woman, and the queen saw her grandchildren growing up.
She knew perfectly well that she was old, because she was sagging and no longer beautiful as she had been in her youth—though there were many who said that she was far more lovely as an old lady than any mere girl could hope to be.
But somehow it never occurred to her that the Bear, too, was growing old. Didn’t he still stride through the garden with one of her grandchildren on each shoulder? Didn’t he still come into the study with her and her son and teach them statecraft and tell them, yes, that’s good, yes, that’s right, yes, you’ll make a great queen yet, yes, you’ll be a fine king, worthy of your grandfather’s kingdom—didn’t he?
Yet one day he didn’t get up from his bed, and a servant came to her with a whispered message, “Please come.”
She went to him and found him gray-faced and shaking in his bed.
“Thirty years ago,” he said, “I would have said it’s nothing but a fever and I would have ignored it and gone riding. But now, my lady, I know I’m going to die.”
“Nonsense,” she said, “you’ll never die,” knowing as well as he did that he was dying, and knowing that he knew that she knew it.
“I have a confession to make,” he said to her.
“I know it already,” she said.
“Yes,” she said softly, “and much to my surprise, I find that I love you too. Even an old lady like me,” she said, laughing.
“Oh,” he said, “that was not my confession. I already knew that you knew I loved you. Why else would I have come back when you called?”
And then she felt a chill in the room and remembered the only time she had ever called for help.
“Yes,” he said, “you remember. How I laughed when they named me. If they only knew, I thought at the time.”
She shook her head. “How could it be?”
“I wondered myself,” he said. “But it is. I met a wise old man in the woods when I was but a lad. An orphan, too, so that there was no one to ask about me when I stayed with him. I stayed until he died five years later, and I learned all his magic.”
“There’s no magic,” she said as if by rote, and he laughed.
“If you mean brews and spells and curses, then you’re right,” he said. “But there is magic of another sort. The magic of becoming what most you are. My old man in the woods, his magic was to be an owl, and to fly by night seeing the world and coming to understand it. The owlness was in him, and the magic was letting that part of himself that was most himself come forward. And he taught me.”
The Bear had stopped shaking because his body had given up trying to overcome the illness.
“So I looked inside me and wondered who I was. And then I found it out. Your nurse found it, too. One glance and she knew I was a bear.”
“You killed my husband,” she said to him.
“No,” he said. “I fought your husband and carried him from the palace, but as he stared death in the face he discovered, too, what he was and who he was, and his real self came out.”
The Bear shook his head.
“I killed a wolf at the palace gate, and left a wolf with a broken neck behind when I went away into the hills.”
“A wolf both times,” she said. “But he was such a beautiful boy.”
“A puppy is cute enough whatever he plans to grow up to be,” said the Bear.
“And what am I?” asked the queen.
“You?” asked the Bear. “Don’t you know?”
“No,” she answered. “Am I a swan? A porcupine? These days I walk like a crippled, old biddy hen. Who am I, after all these years? What animal should I turn into by night?”
“You’re laughing,” said the Bear, “and I would laugh too, but I have to be stingy with my breath. I don’t know what animal you are, if you don’t know yourself, but I think—”
And he stopped talking and his body shook in a great heave.
“No!” cried the queen.
“All right,” said the Bear. “I’m not dead yet. I think that deep down inside you, you are a woman, and so you have been wearing your real self out in the open all your life. And you are beautiful.”
“What an old fool you are after all,” said the queen. “Why didn’t I ever marry you?”
“Your judgment was too good,” said the Bear.
But the queen called the priest and her children and married the Bear on his deathbed, and her son who had learned kingship from him called him father, and then they remembered the bear who had come to play with them in their childhood and the queen’s daughters called him father; and the queen called him husband, and the Bear laughed and allowed as how he wasn’t an orphan any more. Then he died.
And that’s why there’s a statue of a bear over the gate of the city.
The great domes of the city of Gyree dazzled blue and red when the sun shone through a break in the clouds, and for a moment Cer Cemreet thought he saw some of the glory the uncles talked about in the late night tales of the old days of Greet. But the capital did not look dazzling up close, Cer remembered bitterly. Now dogs ran in the streets and rats lived in the wreckage of the palace, and the King of Greet lived in New Gyree in the hills far to the north, where the armies of the enemy could not go. Yet.
The sun went back behind a cloud and the city looked dark again. A Nefyr patrol was riding briskly on the Hetterwee Road far to the north. Cer turned his gaze to the lush grass on the hill where he sat. The clouds meant rain, but probably not here, he thought. He always thought of something else when he saw a Nefyr patrol. Yes, it was too early in Hrickan for rains to fall here. This rain would fall in the north, perhaps in the land of the King of the High Mountains, or on the vast plain of W
In the old days, they said, all during Doonse the great wagons from Westwold would come and carry off the hay to last them through the snow season. But not now, Cer remembered. This year and last year and the year before the wagons had come from the south and east, two-wheeled wagons with drivers who spoke, not High Westil, but the barbarian Fyrd language. Fyrd or firt, thought Cer, and laughed, for firt was a word he could not say in front of his parents. They spoke firt.
Cer looked out over the plain again. The Nefyr patrol had turned from the highway and were on the road to the hills.
The road to the hills. Cer leaped to his feet and raced down the track leading home. A patrol heading for the hills could only mean trouble.
He stopped to rest only once, when the pain in his side was too bad to bear. But the patrol had horses, and he arrived home only to see the horses of the Nefyrre gathered at his father’s gate.
Where are the uncles? Cer thought. The uncles must come.
But the uncles were not there, and Cer heard a terrible scream from inside the garden walls. He had never heard his mother scream before, but somehow he knew it was his mother, and he ran to the gate. A Nefyr soldier seized him and called out, “Here’s the boy!” in a thick accent of High Westil, so that Cer’s parents could understand. Cer’s mother screamed again, and now Cer saw why.
His father had been stripped naked, his arms and legs held by two tall Nefyrre. The Nefyr captain held his viciously curved short-sword, point up, pressing against Cer’s father’s hard-muscled stomach. As Cer and his mother watched, the sword drew blood, and the captain pushed it in to the hilt, then pulled it up to the ribs. Blood gushed. The captain had been careful not to touch the heart, and now they thrust a spear into the huge wound, and lifted it high, Cer’s father dangling from the end. They lashed the spear to the gatepost, and the blood and bowels stained the gates and the walls.
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