Blood of Ambrose
The glories of our blood and state
are shadows, not substantial things.
There is no armour against fate;
death lays his icy hands on kings.
-James Shirley, Ajax and Ulysses
are shadows, not substantial things.
There is no armour against fate;
death lays his icy hands on kings.
-James Shirley, Ajax and Ulysses
Part One: Arms of the Ambrosii
Marshall, demand of yonder champion
the cause of his arrival here in arms.
Ask him his name and orderly proceed
to swear him in the justice of his cause.
--Shakespeare, Richard II
the cause of his arrival here in arms.
Ask him his name and orderly proceed
to swear him in the justice of his cause.
--Shakespeare, Richard II
The King was screaming in the throne room when the Protector’s Men arrived. He knew it was wrong; he knew he was being stupid. But he was frightened. When the booted feet of the soldiers sounded in the corridor outside, he belatedly came to his senses. Dropping to the floor, he crawled under the broad-seated throne where the Emperor sat in judgement, next to God Sustainer. (Only there was no Emperor now, and Lord Urdhven, the Protector, made his judgements in his own council chamber. Did the Sustainer dwell there now? Or still upon the empty throne? Was there really a Sustainer? Would the Protector’s soldiers kill him, like all the others?)
He pulled in his legs just as the soldiers entered the room, their footfalls like rolling thunder in the vast vaulted chamber. He’d hoped they couldn’t see him. (Would God Sustainer protect him? Was there really a Sustainer?) But the soldiers made straight for the throne.
If the Sustainer was not with him (and who could say?), the accumulated precautions of his assassination-minded ancestors were all around. As he pressed instinctively against the wall behind the throne, it gave way and he found himself tumbling down a slope in the darkness. Briefly he heard the shouting voices of the soldiers turn to screams, and then break off suddenly. Because the passageway had closed, or for another reason? His Grandmother would know; he wished she were here. But she was far away, in Sarkunden—that was why the Protector had moved now, killing the family’s old servants like pigs in the courtyard. . . .
He landed in a kind of closet. There were cloaked shapes and bits of armor lying around in the dust that was thick on the floor. Perhaps they were, or had been, things to help an endangered sovereign in flight or self-defense. He thought of that later. But just then he only wanted to get out; by flailing around in the dark he found the handle of a door and plunged out into the bright dimness of a little-used hallway.
Hadn’t he been here before? Hadn’t Grandmother told him to come here, or someplace like here, if something happened? He hadn’t been listening. Why listen? What could happen in the palace of Ambrose, with the Lord Protector guarding the walls . . . ? And they had cut his tutor’s throat, cut Master Jaric’s throat, and hung him upside down to drain, just like a pig. He had seen it once at a fair, and Grandmother had said he must never, never do that again.
The sudden memory renewed his terror; he found himself running down the corridor in the dim light, the open doors on either side of him yawning like disinterested courtiers. There was a statue of an armed man standing over a broad curving stairway at the end of the hall. The King was almost sure Grandmother had mentioned a place like this, but without the statue. If he went down the stairs, perhaps that would be the place, and he would remember what Grandmother had told him to do next—if she had told him.
But as he passed the statue it moved; he saw it was not a statue—no statue in this ancient palace would be emblazoned with the red lion of the Lord Protector. The Protector’s Man reached for him.
The King fell down and began to scuttle away on all fours, back down the corridor. The Protector’s Man dropped his sword and followed, crouching down as he came and reaching out with both hands.
“Now, Your Majesty,” the soldier’s ingratiating voice came, resonating slightly, through the bars of his helmet. “Come along with me. No one means to harm you. Just a purge of ugly traitors who’ve crept into your royal service. You can’t go against the Protector, can you? You found that out. And stop that damned screaming.”
The King was screaming again, weary hysterical screaming that made his body clench and unclench like a fist. Looking back, he saw that the soldier had caught hold of his cloak. There was nothing he could do about the screaming, just as there was nothing he could do about the soldier.
Then Grandmother was there, standing behind the Protector’s Man, fixing her long, terribly strong hands about his mailed throat. The soldier had time for one brief scream of his own before she lifted him from the floor and shook him like a rag doll. After an endless series of moments she negligently threw him down the hall and over the balustrade of the stairway. He made no sound as he fell, and the crash of his armor on the stairs below was like the applause that followed one of the Protector’s speeches—necessary, curt, and convincing.
Before the echoes of the armed man’s fall had passed away, Grandmother said, “Lathmar, come here.”
Trembling, the King climbed to his feet and went to her. Grandmother frightened him, but in a different way than most things frightened him. She expected so much of him. He was frightened of failing her, as he routinely did.
“Lathmar,” she said, resting one deadly hand on his shoulder, “you’ve done well. But now you must do more. Much more. Are you ready?”
“Yes.” It was a lie. He always lied to her. He was afraid not to.
“I must remain here, to keep them from following you. You must go alone, down the stairway. At the bottom there is a tunnel. Take it either way to the end. It will lead to an opening somewhere in the city. Go out and find my brother. Find him and bring him here. Can you do that?”
“How . . . ? How . . . ?” The King was tongue-tied by all the impossibilities she expected him to overleap. He was barely twelve years old, and looked younger than he was, and in some ways thought still younger than he looked. He was aware, all-too-aware, of these deficiencies.
“You know his name? My brother’s name?”
“His name?” the King cried in horror.
“Then you do know it. Say it aloud. Say it to many people. Say, ‘He must come to help Ambrosia. His sister is in danger.’ By then I will be, you know.”
The King simply stared at her, aghast.
“He has a way of knowing when people say his name,” the King’s grandmother, the Lady Ambrosia, continued calmly. “That much of the legend is true. But more is false. Do not be afraid. Say the name aloud. You are in no danger from him; he is your kinsman. He will protect you from your enemies, as I have done.”
From the far end of the corridor echoed the sound of axes on wood.
“I had hoped to go with you,” his Grandmother continued evenly, “but that will not be possible now. You will have to find someone else to help you; I wish you luck. But remember: if you do not find my brother, I will surely die. Your Lord Protector, Urdhven, will see to it. You don’t wish that, do you?”
“No!” the King said. And that, too, was a lie. It would be a relief to know he had failed Grandmother for the last time.
“Go, then. Save yourself, and me as well. Find—”
Knowing she was about to say the accursed name, her damned brother’s name, he covered his ears and ran past her, skittering down the broad stone steps beyond. He passed the corpse of the fallen soldier. He kept on running.
By the time the light filtering from the top of the stairway failed, he could see a faint yellowish light gleaming below him. When he reached the foot of the stair, he found a lit lamp set on the lowest step.
His feelings on reaching the lamp were strong, almost stronger than he was. He knew that his Grandmother had set it here to give him not only light, but hope. It was a sign she had been here, that she had made the place safe for him, that he need not be afraid. As he lifted the lamp, he felt an uprush of strength. He almost felt he could do the task his Grandmother had set him. He swore in his heart he would succeed, that he would not fail her this time.
Choosing a direction at random, he walked along the tunnel to its end. There he found a flight of shallow stairs leading upward. He climbed them tentatively, holding the lamp high. At the top of the stairs was a small bare room with one door. The King turned the handle and looked out.
Outside was a city street. It was long after dark, and wagon traffic was thick in the streets, in preparation for the next day’s market. (Cartage into the city was forbidden during the day, to prevent traffic jams.)
The King closed the door and sat down on the floor next to his guttering lamp. But presently it occurred to him that sooner or later the Protector’s Men would discover the tunnel and draw the obvious conclusion. No matter how dangerous the city was at night (he had heard it was; he had never set foot in the city unattended, day or night), he knew he should leave this place.
He stood impulsively and, leaving the lamp behind him, stepped out into the street.
Night to the King meant a dark room and the slow steps of sentries in the hallway outside. Night was an empty windowcase, a breath of cold air, the three moons, wrapped in a smattering of dim stars, peering through his windows, and the sullen smoky glow of Ontil—the Imperial city—to the east. Night was quiet, and the kind of fear that comes with quiet, the fear of stealth: the poisoned cup, the strangler’s rope, the assassin’s knife.
This night was different: a chorus of shouting voices, the roar of wooden wheels on the cobbled street, the startled cries of cart-horses. It was like a parody of a court procession, with the peasants in their high carts moving in stately progress—when they moved at all. The King, who had never been in a traffic jam (though he had caused many), wondered why they were moving so slowly, when they were all so obviously impatient. Then he saw that they all had to negotiate a sort of obstacle at the end of the street: a row of stone slabs stretching across the way, so that each cart had to slow to fit its wheels through the gaps in the stone causeway, and all the carts behind it perforce slowed as well. When the stones were higher than a cart’s axles, or when no gap in the stones corresponded to the width of a cart’s wheels, the delay was longer; the cart had to be pulled over, or unloaded and lifted over, or shunted aside.
Above the chaos of lamps the stars were almost invisible, but the King could see Trumpeter, the third moon, standing bright beneath the sky’s dim zenith. The major moons, Horseman and great Chariot, were down—this was the month of Remembering, the King remembered. (He didn’t have to bother much with days or months; he just did as he was told when someone told him to do it.)
Fascinated, the King crept along the narrow stone walkway toward this center of activity. Before reaching it he saw that, beyond the relatively narrow street, there was a great square or intersection into which several other streets emptied out. All of the traffic converged on one very large way that seemed to lead to the great marketplace or market district. (The King was hazy about the geography of the Imperial city, one of the two that he, in law, ruled.)
It was horrible, with the noise and the dust and the reek of the horses—sweat and manure—and the shouts of the peasants and the glare of the cart lamps (dazzling in the darkness of the otherwise lampless street). Horrible but fascinating. The King believed that the noise, the dirt, the confusion would drive anyone mad. But the peasants did not seem mad, only annoyed. The King had no idea where they were coming from, and only the vaguest as to where they were going, but did not doubt there was backbreaking drudgery at either end. The King was not exactly sure what “backbreaking drudgery” entailed, but it was something (he had been told many times) that was not expected of him. This relieved him greatly, as he considered his life hard enough as it was. Surely none of these peasants had a Grandmother like the Lady
Ambrosia, or an uncle like Lord Urdhven.
On the far side of the street he saw three figures, cloaked, masked, booted, gloved, all in red. They carried something between them . . . he saw an arm trailing on the ground and realized it was a dead body. So the red figures must be members of the Company of Mercy, the secret order that tended to the sick and buried the bodies of the city’s poor—no one knew where. There were strange stories about the red Companions; no one ever saw their faces, or knew where they came from. There were bound to be stories.
One of the red-masked faces turned toward him as he stood on the sidewalk, open-mouthed, watching the traffic pass, and it occurred to him again that the Protector’s Men would be coming for him soon. At the moment he was just another mousey-haired, underdeveloped, twelve-year-old boy in dark clothes wandering the city streets. But when the Protector’s Men started asking questions, some of the people passing by might remember that they had seen him. He had to get on his way, and immediately.
But where should he go in the dark city before him? What was he to do? To find Grandmother’s brother, of course. But he would have to ask someone. There were many people here, many of them from outside the city, some of them, perhaps, from very far away. This was the place to begin.
The King shrank from the thought of what he was about to do. But the memory of the lamp in the dark tunnel returned to him, renewing his hope and his strength. And there was a trembling exultation in the thought that if he succeeded, he would bring hope to his Grandmother as she had brought hope to him. He had never done anything like that before.
Not allowing himself to think, he leapt away from the wall and hopped from stone to stone across the intersection, as if they were the stepping-stones in his garden stream in the palace. A cart was slowly being pulled through the gap in the stones.
“The Strange Gods eat these roadblocks,” the driver was cursing. “They should make them all the same size. How’s a man supposed to bring his goods to market?”
“We could market at Twelve Stones,” the driver’s shadowy companion observed.
“They won’t pay city prices, my lad. When you—Hey! What do you want?”
This last was addressed to the King, who had leapt over to cling to the side of the cart.
“Help me!” the King said.
The driver turned to look at him. He was a heavy-shouldered peasant in a dark smock. His face was sun-darkened; it had flat features and flat black eyes like stones, and a flat gray beard. “Help you what?” he asked reasonably. Beyond him the King could see his companion, a gaping young man with straw-colored hair and the barest beginnings of a beard.
“Help me find . . .” the King began, then stopped. Who? Grandmother’s brother. But she wasn’t really his grandmother—he just called her that because it was shorter than “great-great-great-great-etc. grandmother.” And what did you call the brother of your great-great-who-knows-how-many-greats grandmother? He didn’t think there was a word for that.
“My . . . she . . . I’m . . . my . . . my . . . my—”
“Get your story straight,” advised the driver as the cart surged forward into the open; with dispassionate skill, he lifted his whip and cut the King across the face.
Too shocked even to scream, the King felt, as from a great distance, his nerveless fingers let the cart go; he fell to the filthy cobbles of the open square. Dazedly he watched the lamplit cart roll away in the dark toward the other lights clustering at the thoroughfare entrance.
Slowly the King rose to his feet. The whipcut was a red lightning-stroke of pain across his face, and other dark fires were burning on the side of his head, his right side and limbs where he had fallen. He did not fully understand why the driver had done what he did. But he guessed that the same thing would happen unless he did as the driver had advised, and got his story straight.
He would not tell them about his Grandmother. (That would only frighten them away, because she was the Protector’s enemy, and the Protector ruled everything now.) He would not tell them anything—except what she had told him to say. Say the name aloud . . .
He climbed back up on the stepping-stones and bided his time. Presently a cart came through and, while it was fully engaged in passing through the line of the stepping-stones, he jumped into the tarp-covered back of the wagon, landing on his feet, and prepared to dodge whip-strokes.
“Hey, thief!” shouted the driver, a heavyset elderly man raising his whip (as the King had feared).
“No, Rusk!” the passenger, a woman of the same age, cried. “It’s a little boy!”
The King did not think of himself as “a little boy.” He had seen little boys from far off, playing in the streets below the walls of the palace Ambrose, and he was not much like them. He usually thought of himself as “a child,” since that was how others referred to him when they thought he was not listening, often quoting the ancient Vraidish proverb “the land runs red when a child is king.”
“They’re the worst thieves of all!” Rusk grumbled, but lowered the whip. “Hey, boy! You’re spoiling our vegetables!”
“I’m sorry,” the King said. “I need help.” He shifted to the side of the cart, to avoid treading on their goods. The cart jerked as it pulled free of the stepping-stones, and the King almost fell into the square again. “I need to find somebody!” he cried, clutching at the wagon’s side.
“Who?” the woman asked.
The King paused. Now that he came to it, it was difficult to speak that awful name aloud. “The Crooked Man,” he said then; it was one of many euphemisms for Ambrosia’s brother.
Rusk, looking forward now to guide the cart-horses, gnashed his teeth in irritation. “Boy, you should know that beggars don’t come out at night. Besides, we’re not city people; we don’t know any beggars, crooked or straight.”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” the King said slowly. “I mean . . . I am looking for . . . Ambrosia’s brother. The Dark Man.”
The woman gave a sharp intake of breath, and Rusk shouted, “Lata, this is on your head. Throw that rat off our wagon before he says the name and brings a curse on us—”
“Morlock!” shouted the King in despair, as the woman reached back in a vague swatting motion. “Morlock! Morlock! Morlock! Your sister is in danger! Morlock!”
He had expected (well, half expected) the Crooked Man to appear in a gush of flame, as legends said he did when his name was spoken, to work dreadful wonders, or haul traitors off to hell. So he was half disappointed when nothing of the sort occurred. A cart with a lamp (Rusk and Lata’s had none) passed them; a wash of golden light passed over the old woman’s seamed face, catching a speculative wondering look on ’her features as she met the King’s eye.
Rusk had reined in and was turning around, shouting, whip in hand. As he raised his arm to strike, Lata snatched the whip away from him and said in a breathless voice, “Shut up, Rusk, you fool—and you, too, sir, if you please,” she added, glancing back at the King. “Sit down there, out of the passing lights, sir, and you’ll be quite comfortable.”
“Sir!” exploded Rusk.
“Don’t you understand?” Lata said insistently. “It’s the little king!”
Rusk drew himself up, then glanced back at the King, who had settled himself down obediently into the shadows. “It’s impossible,” Rusk said, but his voice was quiet and lacked all conviction.
Lata, her voice equally quiet, drove the point home. “Who counts the coins on market-day, Rusk? I do. If I’ve seen his face once I’ve seen it a hundred times. And you remember what the gate guard said, about the disturbance at Ambrose. If the Protector and old Ambrosia are finally having it out, she might call on her brother (the Strange Gods save us from him; I name him not). What’d be more natural?”
“‘Natural’!’ Those ones . . .” Rusk’s voice was sardonic, but held no disbelief. Hope beat suddenly in the King’s heart.
“Then you’ll help me?” the King said. “You’ll help me find Morlock?”
“Shut that filthy-mouthed brat up.”
“Shut up yourself, Rusk. It’s different for him; the Crooked Man (I name him not!) is his kin, in a manner of speaking. Yes, little sir, we’ll help you as best we can. Bless you, it’s our duty now, isn’t it? Just pull some of these blankets over you and lie down on the side of the cart, there. There now. There now. That’s fine.”
Lata and Rusk did a good deal of low-voiced talking, but the King didn’t bother to listen to it. He had done his part; he had succeeded; it was up to the others, now. He hoped they would be in time to save Grandmother—how proud she’d be of him, for once! He wondered at the power of the Crooked Man’s name, which frightened others even more than it did him. Lata had said, it’s different for him, and he saw how true that was.
“Morlock,” the King muttered, and felt the ancient blood of Ambrosius glow in his veins. “Come help us, Morlock. Help Grandmother. Hurt the Protector. He killed my parents, Morlock, I’m almost sure of it. . . .” The King whispered to Morlock in the dark what he had never dared to say aloud to anyone, even Grandmother. But he didn’t have to be afraid anymore; it was a wonderful feeling.
He peered through the boards of the wagon side. Would Morlock appear magically out of the darkness, as he was supposed to do when someone said his name? Would he be hunched over and crooked, as the legends said? Would his fiery servants appear alongside him? Was his hand really bloodred, from all the killing it had done? But Morlock never appeared.
That was all right, though. The King knew it was because they were going to meet him. Lata and Rusk seemed to know more or less where to go. Rusk was expressing delight at how empty the streets were; the King guessed that people avoided the streets, because that was where Morlock lived.
After a while the King grew tired of muttering Morlock’s name in the dark. He risked peering out of the wagon past Lata and Rusk. He saw the high twisting towers of a palace, the windows glittering with light. He wondered dimly if Morlock had his own palace, his own court, a kind of secret Emperor. . . . But that was impossible. He knew those towers. He had seen them, looking up from the palace walls, as he walked with the sentries. . . . It was Ambrose. They were taking him back to Ambrose.
“You’re taking me back!” he shouted, throwing off the blankets. “You lied! You said you’d help!”
Rusk said nothing, flicking the reins to make his horses go faster. But Lata turned toward him, her etched face expressionless in the shadows, her voice troubled and concerned. “Now, now, young sir. We are helping. It’s best you not be mixed up in that nasty old witch’s plots. And you can’t be wandering the streets at night, no, no. Why, who knows what might happen? You’ll be safer at home in . . . in the palace, there. Let the grownups settle things between themselves. Now, don’t be afraid. Don’t cry. No matter what happens, they won’t hurt a boy like you.”
The King was crying, in fear and frustration. If the Protector had murdered the Empress, his own sister, why would he stop at killing anybody? They had killed Master Jaric and drained him like a pig, and who did Jaric ever hurt? The King wanted to call out Morlock’s name again—Morlock who was death to traitors—but the power to do so had left him.
He wondered, briefly, fearfully, what would happen if he jumped away from the wagon and ran away into the dark streets. He didn’t know. He didn’t know. He didn’t do anything. There was no point in doing anything. He had done something and it hadn’t worked. The King sat, weeping as the wagon pulled up in front of Ambrose’s City Gate. He did not even listen as Rusk and Lata began their marketplace chaffering with the guards on duty.
“Wait, wait, wait!” the guard captain said finally. “You two—go over there and claim that person these two are talking about. You see him there, in the back?” The King heard booted feet approaching, and felt himself lifted gently out of the wagon by his shoulders, then carried bodily to the gate. He opened his eyes to meet those of the guard captain, who swore furiously, “Death and Justice! It’s true. Thurn and Veck: take His Majesty back to his apartments and stay with him. Don’t be drawn off by anyone or I’ll feed the one ball you have between you to the goats. Carnon: notify the Protector’s Man napping upstairs in the inner guardhouse that we have recovered the King. I know; I know! Then you go with him while he reports to the Protector, and just you mention it to everyone you meet. Nobody’s falling down a stairway on my damn watch.”
“Wait, now!” Rusk said hoarsely. “Little sir, won’t you speak up for us? This soldier man is trying to cheat us of our reward! Didn’t we help you get home safe, all right? Won’t you mention us to your Protector?” And through this the King saw Lata tugging at Rusk’s arm, begging him to be quiet and come away. Then the soldiers carried the King through the gate, onto the open bridge over the river Tilion, towards the yawning gate of Ambrose on the far side of the river, and the darkness, and the fear.
The guard captain’s voice, now lazily threatening, echoed back through the City Gate. “Hold on. This isn’t some sack of beans you’ve brought to market. It’s the royal person, His Majesty Lathmar the Seventh, the King of the Two Cities and (the Strange Gods willing) your future Emperor. As to the Protector hearing your names, there’s little doubt of that. Now—what are your names? Where do you live? How did you become involved in the abduction of His Majesty? Which one of you slashed his face?” The gate of Ambrose shut behind the King.
Grandmother was condemned to death the next evening, along with all the people the Protector’s Men had killed the night before, in a special session of the Protector’s Council. The King never remembered much about the ceremony, just that Grandmother (in the plain brown robe of the accused, her empty hands hanging loose from the wrist as if they had been broken) looked at his face once and turned away.
They had given him a statement to read before the Council, but he burst into tears and couldn’t say anything. They took him away and put him to bed. After a while he stopped crying or moving so that they would think he was asleep and go away. When they did, he lay there in the dark room, thinking.
The last thing he thought, many hours later, when he really was falling asleep, was that the things they said about the Crooked Man were all lies. He would never believe a legend again, or his Grandmother either.
As for Lata and Rusk, they had been released that morning, after a bitter night of questioning. It soon proved that no one really believed they were involved in a plot to abduct the King. The guard captain, Lorn—not a Protector’s Man, one of the City Legion—who assumed charge of their interrogation was simply furious at them. He referred several times to their attempt to “sell the King like a sack of beans.” But he kept the Protector’s Men away, and finally dismissed them when it was too late to make it to the Great Market (which ceased to admit vendors at dawn), contemptuously declining to confiscate their goods. As they drove their wagon away from Ambrose, Lata felt obscurely ashamed, yet intensely angry—as if she had tried to cheat someone, only to find herself cheated instead.
Rusk’s feelings were less ambiguous, and he gave vent to them all the way back to their farm. He cursed everyone they had dealt with, from the Protector on down, not excluding the King (“that foul-mouthed fucking little brat”) or Ambrosia (“the evil venom-spewing bitch”). Frequently he exclaimed, “Morlock take them all!” because he considered himself to have been ill used, if not positively betrayed.
They sold most of their goods at Twelve Stones, for a fraction of what they would have gotten at the Great Market. Their ride home was another long litany of curses, this time including the day’s buyers and competing sellers, but concentrating as before on the Protector, the guard captain, the ungrateful King, and that inhuman crook-back witch Ambrosia. Rusk invited Morlock to show himself and cart off each one in several directions.
Lata, whose shame had grown as her anger faded, finally told him to shut up. But the grievance became something of an obsession with Rusk, and for years afterward he was liable to mutter, “Morlock take them! Morlock take them all!” particularly when he was doing some dirty or disagreeable task.
The pattern for all this was set on that first day, when they returned home to find the young nephew they had hired to watch their farm missing, their scarecrow stolen, and a murder of crows feeding in their wheat field. Before anything else, Rusk had to rush hither and thither through the field, waving his arms like a madman to scare away the crows. This he did while screaming out such treasonable abuse of the imperial family that even the crows were shocked. The repeated references to Morlock caught their attention, too, for they had a treaty with Morlock. It was the treaty, rather than Rusk’s ineffectual gesticulations, that caused the murder to rise up into the air, showering Rusk with seeds and croaks of abuse, and fly off into a neighboring wood for a parliament.
They settled between them how much they actually knew of the story—this took some time, since crows are quarrelsome and apt to suppose they know more than they do—and they agreed on who was to carry the message. They then determined Morlock’s location by the secret means prescribed by the treaty and dispatched the messenger. Their duty discharged, the parliament adjourned and the murder flew back to pillage Rusk’s wheat field again.
But the messenger-crow flew east and north till night fell and day followed night. He flew on, pausing only to steal a few bites of food now and then, and catch an hour’s sleep in an abandoned nest. At last, after sunset on the second day, the messenger flew over a hillside where a dwarf and a man with crooked shoulders were sitting over the embers of a campfire; the man was juggling live coals with his bare fingers. The messenger-crow settled down on his left shoulder and spoke into his ear.
The judicial murder of a royal person is not something that can be done lightly, nor should it be done in secret. Rightly performed, it is a piece of theater, and the murderer—who is, as it were, the director and producer of the piece—must select the audience carefully. They must be numerous and they must be (collectively at least) powerful. But they must not be so numerous nor so individually powerful that they can intervene on behalf of the victim if they are so inclined. They must be forced to watch the murder without seeming to be forced; they must watch it without protest, so that they will forever after support the party of the murderer, having become his accomplices. The forms must be observed, so that they can accept their complicity with something like good conscience.
If both they and the murderer live to old age they may actually become proud of their complicity. “It had to be done,” they’ll say. “You can’t know what it was like. Bad times need strong men.”
And if the murderer comes to grief, his one-time accomplices will be sadly conscious of their own innocence. “We ourselves did nothing; we did what we had to do, and waited. But bad men come to bad ends. . . .”
Wyrtheorn, as a dwarf and a voluntary exile from the Wardlands, had a professional interest in such matters. At least that was how he put it in the rug shop of Genjandro, just off the Great Market in the Imperial city of Ontil. “At first it was just professional,” he confided to Genjandro himself, over a friendly mug of beer. “These men and women and their great thumping quarrels were affecting business. So I made it my business to know about them, but I ended up by becoming interested. They are a bloodthirsty lot, these Vraidish barbarians.”
Genjandro, a native Ontilian and no friend to the Second Empire, allowed himself a thin smile but no more. A smile might mean anything.
“Now, let me see,” Wyrtheorn continued, understanding fully Genjandro’s reticence. “The last time I was in the city must have been a hundred round years ago. Uthar the Fifth was Emperor then. A strong ruler, so they said. I thought he had banned these trials by combat.”
Genjandro grunted. “That is so, though I had forgotten it. I was not born then, of course”—a dig at the dwarf for having thoughtlessly referred to his racial longevity—”but my father mentioned the matter to me once. Uthar the Fifth was a great man, but he did not live forever unlike—well, you know who I mean. His grandson had a long minority, and the Regency Council of the time restored the combats. The nobility will always prefer combat; they have the longer swords, as the expression is.”
“I suppose Ambrosia sat on the council.”
“At its head. But when the nobles clamored, she let them have their combats. Some say her powers were slipping, even then, but I don’t see it. She’s a noble herself, of a sort.”
“Ye-es—she would have had a kind of inheritance in the Wardlands, but that she was born after old Merlin’s exile.”
“I meant because of her association with the Imperial family.”
“Eh? Oh, yes—them.”
Genjandro, heir to a culture nearly as old as that of the Wardlands, favored this remark with another thin smile. “Now if she is to live, it’s the combat that will save her,” he added.
“Will she live, then?”
“No. The young King’s Protector, Lord Urdhven, leaves nothing to chance. Sir Hlosian Bekh is the champion of the Crown.”
“A good fighter?”
“No. Not particularly. But he always wins.”
“I don’t understand,” the dwarf said patiently.
“I watched him win the Tournament of Zaakharien three years ago. He stood aside until all the members of his side had been struck down. Then he killed the members of the other side, one by one. The wounds he took that day! His surcoat was red all through, and his armor looked as if it were enameled; it was after that he came to be called the Red Knight. It was horrible and wonderful and a little boring, to tell the truth. You found yourself yawning as he struck off another knight’s helmet. Then you saw the blood seeping into the dust and you remembered: that was a man, that was a man’s head in there. But enough of that. . . .”
“Do you really think someone has arisen who will challenge the Red Knight?”
Genjandro ran his fingers through his beard and looked thoughtful. “Nobody believes it,” he admitted. “Although a token of challenge was given: they found a lance with black pennons thrust into the Lonegate of Ambrose.”
Wyrth expressed some surprise at this, though he felt none. (He had, in fact, placed the lance there himself.) “Then you think . . .”
“Witchcraft!” Genjandro said, nodding. “They say there’s no limit to what Ambrosia can do. Somehow she worked it, to put a snake in the Protector’s chamber pot.”
“And did it?”
“They say he pulled the lance from the gate with his own hands and broke it. Then he took the pieces to her and threw them at her feet. And they say the old bitch just sat there with her hands folded. And smiled, you know. She’s brave and bad, that one.”
“An age will end if she dies, sure.”
“It’s because it is ending that she will die,” Genjandro disputed.
“But if she’s as powerful as you say . . .”
“Her charms aren’t powerful enough to stop Hlosian. She can’t whistle up a champion from nowhere. I’m not saying she has no supporters, but none will dare to challenge the Red Knight.”
“Then why the trial at all?”
“She claimed the right; the token appeared. In law, he cannot deny her. And, frankly, I doubt he wishes to. It is a great show, as you say. And if no champion appears, it will hardly be less. They will burn her at the stake.”
“Hmph,” said the dwarf. “Yet they used to say, in my youth, that the Ambrosii could not be slain by fire. It was supposed to go with the unnaturally long life and the, er, uneven shoulders.”
The rug merchant smiled and stroked his beard. “Of course! The clearest proof of witchcraft. Then Urdhven will boldly have someone lop her head off, and the audience will go home with a sound moral lesson.”
“Ah. What is that, exactly?”
“No doubt we will be required to learn it by rote before we depart,” said Genjandro, no longer troubling to conceal his distaste.
“Well, it sounds most interesting to me. Politics in action, as it were. And you say your attendance has been, er, requested.”
“Required. I would gladly send you in my place.”
Wyrtheorn laughed and said, “If only it were possible! But let’s talk of other things.”
Genjandro the rug merchant duly made his appearance the next day at the tournament enclosure of Gravesend Field, three miles east of the city walls. He was greeted by a captain of the soldiers whom he happened to know, one Lorn, who was glumly marking an attendance roll.
“Genjandro, good day! I am glad I can strike you off the list of our Protector’s enemies.”
“That list will be much shorter after today,” Genjandro said, stroking his beard.
“It will be at least one name shorter, Genjandro—like the imperial family tree.”
Genjandro scented a political conversation in the offing, something he particularly wanted to avoid at the moment. He nodded vacantly and would have led his horse through into the enclosure.
Lorn stopped him. “Genjandro! Have you heard the prophecy that Ambrosia and the last descendant of Uthar the Great will die in the same year?”
“I had not heard that prophecy.”
“It is a very recent one.”
“Lorn, I am here from necessity, no other reason.”
“And I likewise. Nor do I really care what happens to an old witch who has already lived too long.”
“Of course not.”
“But Ambrosia was always the merchant’s friend. We . . . One would have hoped they would show more loyalty.”
“Ambrosia had her supporters among the army, did she not? She led them to victory many a time. Yet there is a prophecy, a very recent prophecy, that she is destined to die without a single armed champion.” The rug merchant glanced pointedly at the sword swinging from the other’s belt. “Had you heard that saying, Lorn?”
The soldier looked straight at him. “Yes. Now is not the time or the place. But the King, Genjandro. If the King were—”
The rug merchant turned on him in fury. “Your ‘times’ and your ‘places’! Go back to your lists, Lorn. The Protector’s Man will be along for them, presently.”
The soldier stood back, obscure emotions twisting his face. The rug merchant limped past, leading his horse off to the stables. He paid three silver coins for a separate stall without comment, though several occurred to him. He insisted on tending to his mount himself, saving himself a silver coin or two more, and the stable boy left him alone in the stall.
“Three fingers of silver to keep a horse for half a day!” he complained to the animal.
“Someone has to pay for this kind of circus, Genjandro,” the horse replied. “Be glad it wasn’t three fingers off your hand. Money can be lost and gotten again.”
Genjandro grunted. He watched with horrified interest as the horse yawned wide, the jaws split, the whole front opened up, and the dwarf Wyrtheorn stepped out. Afterward the simulacrum of a horse re-formed itself and casually lumbered off to the far end of the stall, where there was a pile of hay.
“That’s not a very dwarvish philosophy,” Genjandro observed, to cover up his dread.
“How would you know?” the dwarf countered. He tossed Genjandro a leather bag that sang with coins. “For your trouble, my friend. We had better leave separately—and I advise you not to recognize me if we meet outside. However, I’ll remember your help. Good fortune.”
“What are you planning to do?” Genjandro asked, pausing at the door of the stall.
The dwarf grinned deep in his gray-flecked brown beard. “Something very like treason, if I were you, my friend.”
The Ontilian took the hint and left with a curt nod. The dwarf spent a few moments unweaving the “horse” and stowing it in his pockets, and then strolled out himself. The day’s light was already strong and hot, and the carnival air of the enclosure was thick with dust and the anticipation of death.
Hlosian Bekh, the Red Knight, lay on a table, his gray flesh cold and lifeless, as the Lord Protector and Steng, his chief poisoner, argued over him.
“Still: make the golem stronger,” the Protector was saying. “If he does appear—”
“It hardly matters, my lord,” the poisoner replied with deferential soothing contempt. “If the Crooked Man (assuming there is such a person) turns up, he will be subject to the same limitations as any other challenger. The law is clear. Magic is forbidden at the trial by combat; its use compels the user’s side to forfeit.”
“But we are using it,” the Protector pointed out.
The chief poisoner smiled as he wondered whether stupidity was an inevitable consequence of hereditary power. After all, had any of the descendants of Uthar the Great and Ambrosia really matched the ferocious supple intelligence of their forbears? And, though Urdhven was Protector merely by virtue of his late sister’s marriage with the late Emperor, his ancestors had been warlords on the northern plains before the Vraidish tribes broke through the Kirach Kund to conquer the lands of the south and found the Second Ontilian Empire on the ruins of the First. “We may safely break the law,” the poisoner explained, “since we enforce it. The Crooked Man must come, if he does, with ordinary sword and shield to kill our champion. And that he cannot do, since Hlosian cannot die.”
“Nevertheless,” said the Protector, returning to the point at issue, “make him stronger.”
Steng stood motionless for a moment or two. He realized that the question was no longer Hlosian’s strength, but the Protector’s. And the poisoner was forced to admit to himself that the Protector would have his way, no matter what the cost. Perhaps that was what made his power more than merely hereditary.
The poisoner turned away to his worktable, where the golem’s life-scroll lay. Taking up his pen, he dipped it in a jar of human blood and added a number of flourishes to the already-dried dark brown script.
“These are intensifiers,” he explained over his shoulder to Urdhven. “They focus the pseudo-talic impulses—”
The nobleman waved him silent with imperious distaste. “I don’t wish to know about it. Just do it properly.”
The poisoner finished his task in silence. When the new figures had dried, he rolled up the scroll and sealed it with wax (tinted with blood). He turned back to the prone form of Hlosian and placed the scroll in the gaping hole in its back. He drew to him several bowls of red mud and clay and began to trowel it into the breach between the Red Knight’s shoulders. He worked steadily, pausing only to inscribe certain secret signs in the drying clay with a peculiar pointed stylus. Finally he was done. He spoke a secret word, and the stench of cold blood grew hot and dense in the workroom.
“Hlosian arise!” Steng cried.
The golem rose from the table and stood before them.
“Hlosian Bekh,” the poisoner said, “seize yonder stone—yes, the one I have marked seize it from the wall and crush it.”
The golem roared and swept the table out of its way. In ten breaths the stone was smoking rubble at the Protector’s feet.
“Hlosian,” the poisoner asked, “what is your purpose?”‘
“I will kill the witch’s champion.”
“The witch Ambrosia must die.”
The poisoner glanced at the Protector, who had hardly moved as his monster performed for him.
“You’ve done well,” the Protector said.
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Arm him and bring him to the enclosure.”
“His squire will arm him, my Lord Protector. There will be less talk that way.”
The Protector nodded in agreement.
They walked together into the corridor and, by some peculiar mischance, they encountered Ambrosia as she was being escorted up from the dungeon in the green robe of an appellant.
“What’s this? What’s this?” cried Ambrosia, as genially as if she were still preeminent in the empire, as if the death-house watch were an honor guard. She carried the chains on her broken wrists like royal jewelry. “Protector, poisoner, and champion—celebrating your victory in advance, I take it. That’s always safest, isn’t it?”
“Take the prisoner out to the field,” the Protector said, his voice as flat and expressionless as his face had become.
But Ambrosia braced her feet and lifted her limp, swollen hands. “Urdhven, you don’t look as triumphant as you did a moment ago. Perhaps it’s come into your mind that if you hadn’t had my hands broken, I’d be riding as my own champion today—and yours would be nothing but a breathing dead man.
“Speaking of breathing,” she continued, “what’s that reek I smell? Is it mud or blood—or is it both? It is both, isn’t it, Steng, you dog? I see the clay under your fingernails.”
Ambrosia laughed engagingly, as if they were all parties to some slightly disreputable secret. She leaned confidingly towards the poisoner, who was blushing a deep unpleasant shade of maroon. “But surely,” she remarked, in a low but audible tone, “surely, Steng, you must know that when we were young, my brother’s and my favorite hobby was killing golems. We killed them with fire, we killed them with water. We killed them with words—an easy thing to do, Steng, for a golem’s life is simply words, magical words inscribed on a name-scroll, which other words can interrupt and make meaningless. Did you think you could defeat Morlock dragonkiller with a golem?”
“Take her away!” the Protector said, white-lipped with anger or fear.
“Better yet,” Ambrosia continued, as if Urdhven had not spoken, “suppose I simply pointed at this thing out on the field and cried: ‘Golem! The Protector’s champion is a golem!’ For it strikes me that the Protector is guilty of trying to harm my champion by magic—the legal definition of witchcraft. A capital offense, I believe. You might be burned at the stake, my Lord Protector.”
“A witch’s lies mean nothing,” the Protector said mechanically. “But she might utter spells to twist men’s minds. Therefore—gag her, soldiers. Do it now. See that her mouth is bound throughout the ceremony.”
“The trial, my Lord Protector,” Ambrosia said, as the guards tore away the hem of her robe.
“The execution, my Lady Ambrosia,” the Protector retorted as they knotted the gag tight across her mouth. She made no attempt to reply, but her eyes were bright with vengeful triumph as she was led away.
“If she had not spoken now, who knows what might have happened?” the Protector muttered to Steng. “Ambrosia’s temper was always quicker than her wit.”
Steng looked at him almost pityingly. “The chances that any would have heard her on the field were small, and who would have dared believe her?”
“She spoke for the guards,” Steng said gently.
“Ah. I see.”
“They will remember. They will talk. They saw you were afraid to have the story spread—”
“I said, ‘I see.’ Have your people take care of them, Steng. Make it look natural.”
“Yes, my Lord Protector.”
There was a brief silence. Then out of his own thoughts, the Protector said accusingly, “And you blushed.”
“Ambrosia is my better, my lord.”
“She is not mine,” Urdhven snarled. “I have beaten her, point by point, and today she dies.”
“Let the fire of death cleanse the world of this witch’s evil,” the King said, in a clear, firm voice.
“Excellent, Sire,” applauded Kedlidor, the Rite-Master of Ambrose. “That should be audible for quite a distance, even in the tournament enclosure. The Protector’s Men will conduct any further ceremonies attendant on the execution of the sentence. You may properly depart at any point after the inarguable death of the witch—there is no formal close of the ceremony, any more than there is an end to death itself.
“Now,” Kedlidor continued, “should Ambrosia’s champion vindicate her—”
“What chance is there of that?” cried the King despairingly.
The withered old man, the only one of the family servants spared in the recent purge, focused his dim gray eyes on his king. “That is of no concern to me, Sire. I am not a gambler, but the Rite-Master of Ambrose. I am charged with knowing and teaching the proper ceremonies for every possible occasion. The Lady Ambrosia’s acquittal is a possible occasion; therefore I will teach you the proper ceremony.”
The King stared sullenly at the floor of the room. The Rite-Master dispassionately struck him across the face. “Attend, Sire. Say—”
“I know all that stuff,” muttered the King, and he did. He had spent the night reading the ritual book, wondering whether he would be more relieved by Grandmother’s acquittal or her death.
“Show me that you know, Sire. Take a breath, speak loudly and clearly . . .”
There was the thunder of booted feet in the hallway outside and the door flew open. The King’s uncle, Lord Urdhven, was there with a troop of men wearing his personal device, a red lion standing against a black field. Behind Urdhven was the poisoner Steng. He met the King’s eye and smiled gently.
“It’s nearly noon,” the Protector remarked. “Bring his Majesty, Kedlidor.” He turned to go.
“No, Lord Urdhven,” Kedlidor replied.
The Protector, resplendent in gold armor, enamelled with his own black-and-scarlet device on the breastplate, paused and smiled ominously down at the gray shadow of a man. “Why not?”
“It is not fit that I be seen with the King at this ceremony. My rank is too low. Further, your poisoner may not be there.”
“He won’t be. Is there anything else?”
“Yes. The King ought to precede you. He is of higher rank, you know.”
The Protector turned his red smile on his nephew. “I do know it. Naturally, Sire, you must go first. All the forms will be met for this ceremony.”
The King walked past the Protector and the poisoner into the hall of armed men. They fell in behind him, the sound of their feet in the hallway like a stone giant gnashing its teeth. He passed out into the golden light of the enclosure, and there was a unanimous shout from the crowd as the royal procession was recognized. There were soldiers before him, clearing a path, so he didn’t have to decide what was the right way to go. While seeming to protect him, they took him to the wooden stair that led to the royal box, above the Victor’s Square, at the midpoint of the lists.
Already the stands of benches on either side were crowded with spectators. The King had never been to a formal combat before, and he was amazed at the mixture of somberness and hilarity among the onlookers. He seated himself amid dutiful cheers, which sounded louder and more impassioned—even hysterical—as Lord Urdhven the Protector appeared and took his place at the King’s left hand.
Opposite the stands stood the prisoner, chained to a stake, her mouth bound with a green rag torn from her appellant’s robe. Beyond her was nothing but the dead lands between the two cities that bore the name Ontil. Somewhere beyond the gray hills was the Old City, capital of the First Empire. No one lived there now—it was under the curse of the Old Gods; even the river Tilion had been diverted when the New City was founded by Uthar the Great and Ambrosia centuries ago. But, in name, Lathmar was King of that city too. He had often daydreamed of escaping from the New City to the Old City, where he would find his true subjects, and make war on the people who had killed his mother and his father. . . .
At a curt gesture from the Protector, the heralds blew on their trumpets, shattering the King’s reverie. Vost, the High Marshal (since the recent execution of the one appointed by the King’s late father), stood forth in the Victor’s Square and cried the challenge.
“Lady Ambrosia Viviana, accused of witchcraft, has claimed her right of trial by combat. If her champion is present, let him come forth and enter the lists, or her life is forfeit to the King (the Strange Gods protect His Majesty).”
The heralds blew another blast on their trumpets, and the excitement of the crowd died down. They could see, as well as the King himself, that one end of the lists was vacant, and that at the other end stood the Red Knight. Perhaps this would only be an execution and not a combat after all.
Then the muttering of the crowd changed slightly. The King, leaning forward, saw that someone else had entered the lists—someone shorter than the King was himself, who bowed low before the prisoner.
The crowd was half-amused, half-thoughtful as the unarmed dwarf marched past them up the lists to Victor’s Square.
“Have you come,” the High Marshal said as the dwarf drew to a halt before him, “as champion for the Lady Ambrosia?”
“If need be,” said the dwarf, with unassumed confidence.
“If you are not a champion you must depart from the lists.”
“Heralds can be in the lists, before the combat and at intervals. So can squires.”
“Are you herald or squire?”
“Both! Herald, squire, apprentice, and factotum to my harven-kinsman, Morlock Ambrosius, also called syr Theorn. I am Wyrth syr Theorn.”
“I’m not a knight. Wyrth. Syr. Theorn. Wyrtheorn to my friends.”
“Not bad. Take a deep breath and try again.”
“—you must take up arms for the Lady Ambrosia or leave the field. The trial has begun.”
“You don’t have the authority to make that judgement, Sir Marshal. I appeal to the Judge of the Combat. My principal has been delayed, but he is coming. On his behalf, I ask that the combat be delayed for a time.”
Vost, the High Marshal, looked uncertainly up toward the royal box. The King realized abruptly that the decision was his. He was the Judge of the Combat, as the highest-ranking male present. He looked at Urdhven, who made a slight gesture of indifference, his golden face impassive.
“How much time?” he called down.
“As much as I can get,” the dwarf replied cheerfully. “Morlock is horrible old, you know, and doesn’t move as fast as he used to.”
The King put his hand to his head. There was nothing in the rites Kedlidor had taught him about this. But there should have been: it seemed a reasonable request. But he didn’t know what a reasonable answer would be.
“Let me come up and explain,” the dwarf proposed. “For I have messages from your kinsman Morlock, not meet for the common ear.”
“Uh . . .” The King gestured indeterminately. The dwarf took this as permission and hopped into the Victor’s Square. Shouldering the High Marshal aside, he swarmed up the wall beneath the royal box and threw himself over its rail to land on his feet before the King.
“Hail, King Lathmar the Seventh!” he cried. “(You are the seventh, aren’t you? Good, good, good. I was afraid I’d missed one.) Hail, King of the Two Cities, the Old Ontil and the New! Hail and, well, well-met. Good to see you. Eh?”
“Are these the private messages Morlock sends to his kinsman?” the Protector inquired, his face split by a leonine smile.
“Not at all. The Lord Protector Urdhven, I believe? No, Morlock sent me chiefly to inquire after the King’s health. But he said not to do it right out in front of the crowd. I suspect he thought you might be sensitive on the subject, what with your sister and brother-in-law and all their trusted servants dying so suddenly in recent days. Do you suppose they caught that fever that’s been spreading through the poorer parts of the city—or was it a disease that only strikes in palaces?”
The Protector’s smile was gone, but the predatory look remained. “The King’s health you may assess yourself,” he said flatly. “If there is nothing else—”
“Nothing from Morlock, but I believe that, speaking as the agent of the champion of Lady Ambrosia, the forms have not been met. Isn’t the champion entitled to a representative in the judge’s box, to argue points of honor, foul blows, that sort of thing?”
“None came forward—” Urdhven began, but stopped as the dwarf tapped his chest modestly. “Very well,” he conceded. “(Daen, bring another chair.) But it is a mere point of honor, Wyrtheorn, since there will be no combat here today. Your champion has forfeited.”
“The Lady Ambrosia’s champion,” the dwarf corrected him gently, as he sat down on the King’s right hand. “But, with respect, that word is not yours to say. The King is the judge of this combat, and he may grant my request if he chooses.”
The Protector turned his masklike golden face on the King, who found he could not speak. He knew what his uncle wanted him to say. He knew what the dwarf wanted him to say. He knew what his Grandmother would want him to say. But he didn’t know what to say. There was no rule to go by, no ceremony to tell him whose wishes he must obey.
The silence grew long. It spread from the royal box to the crowd on either side. A quiet fell on the dusty enclosure. In it, all heard the dim cry of a horn sounding to the east.
Chapter Three Trial by Combat
The horn sounded from the dead lands masking the broken city in the east. It grew louder as they listened. It ceased for a moment; when it returned it was louder yet. Soon, looking east, they could see the source of the call: an armed man on horseback appeared at the crest of a gray hill, the horn raised to his lips. The ululating call was unfamiliar to everyone in the enclosure. But it rang with defiance.
The armed rider disappeared, plunging down the slope of the hill to be hidden by another. Presently he topped that one and could be seen more clearly. The horse was a powerful black stallion; the rider’s armor was black chain mail; a long black lance with pennons was slung beside him. A black cloth covered his shield, but as he rode onto the plain where the enclosure stood, he threw the horn away and shook the cloth loose from the shield. Blazing out from a black field, the device was a white hawk in flight over a branch of flowering thorn—the arms of Ambrosius.
“I withdraw my request, Your Majesty,” Wyrtheorn said with relief he did not even attempt to hide. “Ambrosia’s champion is here.”
Urdhven turned to him, his face a golden mask of fury. “If he uses sorcery he will die. It was not for nothing I brought my army here! He will die and she will die and you, too, will die, little man.”
“I am not a man,” the dwarf replied. “Further, what is your army to Morlock or to me? Had we chosen to steal Ambrosia by night, or in the open day, you could have done nothing to stop us. But we desire that Ambrosia again be able to walk the streets of her city—”
“It is not her city.”
“It is her city. It exists because she created it. She has spent her life defending it. Her children have gone on to conquer half a world. The palace she designed and built justly wears her great ancestor’s name. If Ambrosia is to enter it again, the lies about her must be crushed; she must be acquitted in law. Therefore, Morlock will use no magic. I tell you, he needs none to best any living man with the sword.”
The Protector laughed derisively.
The armed rider was now approaching the enclosure fence. He did not slacken his speed but bent forward, as if he were talking to his charger. It cried out and cleared the fence in a magnificent leap, landing in the center of the field.
A shout of admiration went up from the watching crowd, quickly stifled as they remembered the soldiers watching them. The armed rider, neglecting the traditional salute to the sovereign, lifted his left hand in greeting toward the prisoner. She did not move or change her expression in any way, but her eyes were on him.
Now the Red Knight moved forward in the lists and, setting his spear to rest, spurred his horse to charge. The black knight was hardly able to unsheathe his lance before the other was upon him, so he lashed out with the spear in a hasty but powerful parry, knocking aside the Red Knight’s lance. The Red Knight thundered past, and the black knight roused his steed to a canter, riding to the opposite end of the lists.
“Your champion does not stand on ceremony,” Wyrth remarked to the Urdhven.
“Sir Hlosian Bekh is the champion of the Crown,” the Protector replied stiffly.
“Ah. Well, at least you stand on ceremony.”
The Protector smiled his leonine smile. “Ceremony is very well,” he conceded, “but they”—he gestured at the crowd—”will not be won by ceremonies, or kept by laws. They are only impressed by victory, by power.”
“You know,” the dwarf replied, “I disagree with you. When Morlock wins—”
“That is not possible.”
“Then this is simply a ceremony, not a trial. Or is that what you’ve been telling me?”
The Protector’s silent smile was ominous.
Now both knights had repositioned themselves at opposing ends of the lists. The heralds’ trumpets sounded three times, the call to attack. Then both champions charged into the narrow field, their spears at rest. As they drove toward each other the Red Knight’s lance swung back and its point struck full on the white device of the black shield. But the Red Knight’s spear shattered like glass and the black knight rode past unshaken.
No one dared cheer. But the silence grew as dense as the clouds of dust rising to obscure the noon-bright air.
“A good shield is worth its weight in spears,” Wyrth remarked cheerfully to the King, who smiled doubtfully.
The delay between passes was greater this time, as the Red Knight needed a new spear. Finally the trumpets sounded again; the combatants thundered again into the lists, their armor gleaming dimly through the descending mist of dust.
Spear-points wavered in the air, then one struck home. The Red Knight’s spear hit the black knight just under the helmet, a killing blow, throwing Ambrosia’s champion from the saddle. He struck the dusty ground, his armor singing like the cymbals of Winterfeast, and he lay there.
The tension in the crowd perceptibly relaxed. There were mutters of relief, and sighs that were unmistakably disappointed. Ambrosia’s champion had fallen as so many of theirs had fallen, so many of their kinsmen, sacrifices to the prowess of the Red Knight.
Ambrosia’s iron-gray gaze was as impassive as ever, and still fixed on the fallen knight.
Wyrth’s gaze followed Ambrosia’s, and he laughed aloud. The black knight was moving. “The old fool was right!” he muttered.
Meeting the King’s astonished eye, he explained, “You see, Your Majesty, Morlock insisted on making his own armor for the combat. That’s why he was late for the trial. I said it was a waste of time, and they’d be stringing his sister’s guts across the gateposts of the city before he got here. He got this look on his face—you’ve probably seen Ambrosia wear it—and we did things his way. It probably saved his neck just now.”
“Dead or defeated, it does not matter,” the Protector said, rising. “The combat is over.”
“Your champion doesn’t think so,” the dwarf retorted. “Look!”
The Red Knight had turned to contemplate his dead opponent. Seeing the black knight alive seemed to drive him to fury, and he turned his horse about to charge down on the dismounted knight. Only by rolling to the side of the lists did the black knight avoid being trod under the hooves of the Red Knight’s horse.
A rumble of discontent, even contempt, arose from the crowd.
“This is not the game, as it was handed down from days of yore,” the dwarf remarked, “is it? Why, if a combatant tried a trick like that back in the Vraidish homelands, north of the Blackthorns, the Judge of the Combat would have his head on the spot.”
“We are not in the Vraidish homelands,” replied the Protector, sitting down again.
“Evidently not. Here he comes again.”
The Red Knight indeed had turned his horse and was charging down the lists again, intent on trampling his opponent. The crowd watched in stony silence; even the Protector seemed ill at ease.
But the black knight had not remained lying in the dust. He had recovered his spear, at least (his horse was down at the far end of the lists), and stood with it in hand, awaiting the Red Knight’s onset. When the Red Knight’s horse was almost upon him he dodged across its path with an agility that was astounding in a fully armored man and, lifting his lance like a club, struck the Red Knight from the saddle.
A roar of spontaneous applause drowned the crash of the Red Knight’s fall. Wyrtheorn crowed with delight, then shouted, “Ambrose! Ambrose! Merlin’s children!”
A sudden silence followed this shocking slogan, which reminded the crowd of the political realities behind this combat. Since that was what Wyrtheorn intended to do, he continued to shout into the silence, “Ambrose and the Ambrosii! The Royal House!”
“The King,” suggested someone near at hand. Wyrth thought he recognized his friend Genjandro’s voice.
“The King!” Wyrtheorn agreed vociferously. “Justice for the King! The King!”
There were a few faint echoes in the enclosure, but no answering roar. Still, there was a frozen thoughtfulness on many faces in the crowd. Wyrth had hoped for no more and sat back satisfied. The glittering stare of hatred the Protector had fixed on the squirming King did not escape him. But he doubted anything he could do would intensify the Protector’s already lambent hatred for the last descendant of Uthar the Great.
The Red Knight had risen from the ground, meanwhile, dust like wreaths of smoke in the air about him. He said nothing, but drew the heavy sword swung from his belt.
The black knight, waiting at one side, lightly tossed away his spear and drew his own blade, narrow and long, with a deadly point.
The King looked curiously at Wyrth.
“No, Your Majesty,” the dwarf said, answering the unspoken question. “That is not the accursed sword Tyrfing. Tyrfing is not merely a weapon but a focus of power; to kill with it is an act with grim consequences. Morlock would not carry it into a combat such as this. Besides, the ban on magic forbids it.”
“Tyrfing is a fable,” the Protector remarked, “and Morlock is a ghost story. I wonder who is really wearing that armor—some pawn of Ambrosia afraid to use his own name, I suppose.”
The King looked fearfully at his Protector, as if he had thought the same thing. Wyrth laughed, but did not argue.
The knights on the field awaited no formal preliminaries to the second part of the combat. Before the heralds had raised the trumpets to their lips, the Red Knight’s broadsword had crashed onto the black-and-white Ambrosian shield. The black knight thrust forward simultaneously with his bright deadly blade and the Red Knight was forced to retreat. The blade of the black knight gleamed red as he leapt forward in pursuit.
“First blood to Ambrosius!” Wyrth said grimly. “You see, Lord Urdhven, the ghost story that is sweating down on yonder dusty field learned his fencing from Naevros syr Tol, the greatest swordsman of the old time. He is not like anyone your champion has met before.”
The Protector was still smiling. “They have all been different,” he remarked. “They all came from different places, wearing different colors, skilled in different skills. They have one thing in common, dwarf: Hlosian killed them all.”
Wyrtheorn shrugged and turned back to the fight. Urdhven’s wholly unassumed confidence disturbed him more than he was willing to admit. It also disturbed him that there was no doubt in the faces of the crowd. They watched in fascination, but there was no suspense. They clearly expected the Red Knight’s victory, though he was wounded in three places now.
The clash of steel against steel continued as the sun sank from its zenith and the heat of the day grew worse. When the black knight had wounded the Red Knight at least once in each limb, and twice in the neck, he began a furious offense clearly aimed at bringing final victory. Sword strokes fell like silver sheets of rain, varying with sudden lightning-bright thrusts.
The Red Knight backed slowly away two more steps under this onslaught and was wounded several times—it was hard to say how many, because blood did not stand out on his red-enamelled plate armor. But his manner hardly changed throughout the fight, despite his wounds. It occurred to Wyrtheorn that he was waiting for something.
The dwarf glanced over at the prisoner’s stake and saw that Ambrosia’s gray eyes were fixed on him. He shrugged uneasily, but her expression did not change. She looked back at the combat.
She knows something, Wyrth thought. What puzzles me does not puzzle her. He drummed his fingers on his knees and looked meditatively back to the field.
The black knight’s assault slowed visibly. He had actually hacked holes in the Red Knight’s plate armor over his right arm and left leg. But Sir Hlosian Bekh still defended himself with the same lumbering vigor and the same mediocre skill.
Then it happened. The black knight’s sword—no longer bright and keen, but notched along its edge and stained dark with drying blood—lashed out in an attack on the Red Knight’s sword arm. The black knight’s sword caught in the gap between the forearm plate and the upper arm plate, where the Red Knight’s chain mail was visible. Instead of retreating, the Red Knight trapped the black shield with his own and struck a thunderous blow with his heavy sword on the black knight’s helm.
Ambrosia’s champion staggered like a drunk. The Red Knight braced himself and struck out with his shield. The black knight was forced back a step. Hlosian struck again with sword and shield, and again the black knight was forced back.
“It is always the same,” the Protector’s voice said. Wyrth turned to him: the golden lord seemed almost sad as he returned the dwarf’s glance. “Your friend, whoever he is, fought well. Better than any I have ever seen, perhaps, and I have been coming to the combats for thirty years. Hlosian, as you have seen, does not fight well. But he always wins.”
“He has magical protection,” the dwarf guessed.
The Protector replied, with a shrug, “He is strong enough to outlast any opponent, and he is not afraid of death. That is all the magic he needs. Look at the crowd, dwarf. This is nothing new to them. They have seen it all before.”
Stonily, Wyrth turned his gaze back to the field. But he could not help noticing, with the corner of his eye, the patient, unsurprised faces of the crowd. They were fascinated, but they were not really in suspense. To them this was not a combat but a ritual death. They had seen it before.
Wyrtheorn was seeing what he had never seen before: the black knight being driven back, step by step, toward defeat. The Red Knight now had his back toward the Victor’s Square, and he was forcing his opponent toward the far border of the lists. If forced across, the black knight would be defeated.
“It will be over soon,” the Protector said thoughtfully. “I hope he does not try to flee under the rail. It is unpleasant to see a friend killed while groveling on the ground—”
“Morlock Ambrosius will never flee,” the dwarf said flatly.
“He, or whoever is pretending to be him, has never faced Sir Hlosian Bekh. There is something frightening about Hlosian, something different.”
“Will he not allow his opponent to yield?” the little king asked suddenly. Wyrth, glancing at him, saw his eyes were wide with concern—he had probably never seen a man killed in combat before.
The Protector shook his head, smiling. “Sir Hlosian never offers mercy. Like defeat, it is foreign to his nature.”
It seemed to Wyrth, as he looked back at the combat, that the black knight was giving way to panic. To the dwarf’s way of thinking, the only chance the black knight had was to disable the Red Knight’s sword arm or one of his legs. But the black knight had ceased attacking these entirely. From the looks of things (the Red Knight was partially eclipsing Wyrth’s view), the black knight was hacking and stabbing repeatedly at his opponent’s breastplate. The likelihood of breaking through this (and the chain mail that surely lay beneath) for a fatal blow was so slight that Wyrth had to believe the black knight was no longer rational.
The black knight ceased retreating, his heels at the border of the lists. The Red Knight let his shield fall to his shoulder and began to deal his blows two-handed. Very unwisely, in Wyrth’s opinion, the black knight did likewise. This gave Sir Hlosian the opportunity to land a crashing blow on the black knight’s right shoulder that drove him to one knee.
Snatching up his shield, the black knight leapt back to his feet. The Red Knight had recovered and struck again, a terrible two-handed stoke on the upraised shield of Ambrosius.
Visibly, the black knight’s knees began to give way, then stood straight. But Wyrth saw with horror that he was holding his shield with both hands; he had lost his sword somewhere. (It didn’t seem to be on the ground, but perhaps the dust was covering it.)
The same thing was noticed by others; an anticipatory mutter ran through the crowd, a whisper of approaching death. The Red Knight landed another blow on the Ambrosian shield, which the black knight held over his head, as if to protect himself from a downpour. The blow drove him to his knees.
Wyrth watched in disbelief as the Red Knight raised his sword over his head for what would surely be the deathblow. He shuddered to think with what force that blow would fall. The Red Knight threw his head back; the flat beak of his helmet could be seen, outlined against the far sky. Wyrth wondered if the victorious knight was about to give a barbaric scream of triumph.
Then he bent back further, from the waist, and Wyrtheorn realized he was not bending, but falling backward. The black knight’s sword protruded from the shattered red breastplate. In complete silence, the Red Knight fell back to the earth and lay still.
The crash of his bloody armor on the field was the signal for a thunderous outburst from the watching crowd. They rose, like the clouds of dust rising from the fallen knight, crying out at the top of their voices, heedless of the Protector and his soldiers—seized at last by surprise, by triumph, by their own secret anger. The invincible Red Knight who had killed so many of their own champions, defeated so many of their causes, was dead at last. They could not help but triumph; they could finally afford to hate.
But all such thoughts were driven from Wyrth’s mind as he looked at the black knight. The victor remained on his knees, his helmet slumped back against the rail of the lists as if he were staring speculatively at the sky. His fingers had gone slack, and the battered black-and-white Ambrosian shield lay flat on the ground, its device shrouded with dust.
“With your leave, Majesty!” Wyrth shouted at the frightened child beside him and leaped down into the Victor’s Square. He jumped from there down into the field and ran as fast as his short legs would carry him to where the knights were.
Wyrth paused by the Red Knight. He glanced at the cruelly notched blade buried in the dead knight’s chest, marvelling that anyone could land one blow and begin another with such a wound. Then the smell hit him—not the blood (he had expected that) but mud—the unmistakable reek of mud and wet clay. . . .
Wyrth whistled thoughtfully. Now he saw it all! Hlosian was a golem—somehow the black knight had realized it (probably from the smell of its blood, as Wyrth had), and that accounted for his attack on the Red Knight’s breastplate. Only by severing or somehow destroying the name-scroll in the golem’s chest cavity could the golem be beaten. The black knight had planted his sword in the golem’s chest, and had lost his grip on it. The golem had severed its own name-scroll when lifting its arms to dispatch the black knight.
The dwarf turned toward Ambrosia’s champion, fearing the worst as he approached. The victor was hardly moving, issuing knife-edged wheezing sobs in the dusty air, like a horse that has been ridden nearly to death.
“Morlock!” said Wyrth. “Morlock Ambrosius!”
There was no answer, but the sobbing sounds continued.
Dreading what he would see, Wyrth pulled back the visor of the black helmet.
Eyes closed, head resting comfortably against the rail, Morlock Ambrosius was snoring. Wyrth could smell the stale wine on his breath.
“You pig!” shouted Wyrth, really furious. “Wake up! There’s work to do!”
Blood of Ambrose © James Enge
Cover Illustration © Dominic Harman
Interior Illustrations © Chuck Lukacs
Cover Illustration © Dominic Harman
Interior Illustrations © Chuck Lukacs
James Enge is an instructor of classical languages at a Midwestern university. His fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Flashing Swords, and everydayfiction.com.