The Angel and the Sword
Guided and guarded by an angel, a young Spanish knight saves Paris from the Vikings during one of the darkest eras of Christendom — and turns out to be a girl.
Guided and guarded by an angel, a young Spanish knight saves Paris from the Vikings during one of the darkest eras of Christendom — and turns out to be a girl.
“Cecelia Holland knows history. More impressive is the way she understands human motivations. A wonderful writer.”
– David Drake
“Cecelia Holland’s grasp of both character and action is superb, and her ability to make the people of the past both fully human and intensely of their—deeply alien—settings is matchless.”
– S.M. Stirling
Queen Ingunn had made a mistake, and paid for it all her life, but now, with her life gone, she saw a way to make amends.
“My daughter!” She gathered her failing strength to call out into the room. “Where is Ragny? Where is my daughter?”
The heavy wooden bed made a case around her, a frame for her dying. Out beyond its edge, the room stirred to her voice, the men turning. Markold, her husband, came forward a few steps, his boots heavy on the rushy floor.
“She’s wicked and uncaring, my Queen. She’s gone off somewhere, not caring.” His black eyes shone. Queen Ingunn saw how eagerly his gaze probed at her, summing up her weaknesses, her sighs, her pallor, and her trembling, seeing how close she was to death.
She knew he was lying about Ragny. He had no power of truth. Certainly he had sent the girl away, to keep her and her mother apart, at this arch-moment. Even now, as Markold pored over her for every sign of her dying, he hung back, unwilling to come close to her. Markold, gross clod of human earth that he was, knew nonetheless the powers that attended her now, with the door of Heaven opening, and the whirl of force drawing her toward it.
Afraid, the fool. She shut her eyes, hoarding the last of her strength. Markold was her sin. Young and wild, she had chosen him for his body, his courage, and his strength, married him and made him King, careless of his soul, and in his soul he had failed her. He was dross and worse, wicked, and heartless.
He ruled only through her, his wife, the last vessel left of Roderick’s sacred blood, the holiest blood in Christendom, now shunted off into this last little hill-fort, this last corner of the realm. Roderick’s kingdom died with her. Markold could not be King, and he knew that, yet somehow he thought to make a profit from her dying. She intended to confound his coarse ambitions. At the end, the very end, she would set right what she had put wrong, so long ago, a heedless, lusty, willful girl.
Dying, she opened the way for her daughter, for Ragny to find a better King. To make up for the old Queen’s sin, and set the House of Roderick on its true course again, the reconquest of the kingdom from the infidel, and the triumph of Christ. Ingunn had failed in her part in that great destiny, but now she would make it right, through Ragny.
She shut her eyes. She would not die yet. Markold could wait awhile longer. He had refused to send for a priest, at first, saying she was not so ill, and then of course could find no priest who would come anywhere near this tower, or Markold, even for the sake of the true Queen.
She cared nothing for the priest, but she had to see Ragny.
The eternal door stood open before her; she was face-to-face with death, and yet alive. While she held back, the tidal light grew stronger, insistent, almost audible now with its insistence, tingling in all her weary limbs. On its swelling strength, through that door, she meant to call forth a guardian for her daughter, a power that had been old before Jesus was born. The longer she held back, the stronger, the surer, that power.
Only, she could not hold back much more. “Ragny!” she cried out, again. “Where is my daughter?”
Markold came up again, keeping a little distance, peering at her with the cold lust of his endless appetite for death; he wrung his hands together. “I told you, my Queen, she has gone off somewhere, I cannot find her.”
She gritted her teeth. Death was dragging her away. Ragny had to come. She said, desperate, a lie. “Get her here, Markold, or I will take you with me. I will not die, before you die, Markold—”
He backed swiftly away from the bed. Gross and earthbound, clod of human dirt, he feared stupid, unreal things. He said, “I will send Seffrid, my Queen.”
She lay back; she had used too much of herself, threatening him. She could feel death taking hold of all her limbs, gathering her forward, inch by inch, toward the door. She had to have Ragny there, and she had to save her strength. She shut her eyes, patient.
Markold came away from the bed; by the door, Seffrid, who had heard his name spoken, straightened up, his arms falling to his sides. He could see that the Queen was not dead yet, however she looked, her eyes glazed and sunken, her skin grey; but not dead. He wondered, coldly, what Markold had given her. And why the King hadn’t simply strangled her in the bedclothes.
Markold was King; Seffrid, his sergeant, did the King’s will. That was all that mattered. Markold nodded to him.
“Go find the Princess Ragny, and bring her back here.” He said this in a loud ringing voice that even the corpse on the bed could hear. The King’s broad, pockmarked face glittered with sweat; they had been waiting for hours, and it looked like work to Markold.
He went with Seffrid to the chamber door, and there he murmured, “Don’t look for her very hard, Seffrid.” He clapped Seffrid on the shoulder, and winked at him.
Seffrid went out onto the landing. He had no liking for this, keeping the girl away from her dying mother. He had no say in it, either. It had occurred to Seffrid long before that he was prey to weak emotions, and so he had given everything like that over to Markold, who was strong, and who made Seffrid strong. It didn’t matter what he thought, he had to do as he was ordered. He went down the tower stairs and across the wooden bailie, which was Markold’s hall, and in the courtyard sent one of the loitering grooms off for his horse.
It had rained hard the night before, but now the squat grey tower loomed up against a hard blue sky, the sun glaring bright off the puddles in the courtyard. A chicken somewhere was cackling. The smell of burnt grease hung in the air. The groom brought the horse splashing up through the mud.
On the wall by the gate, the guard was sitting down, eating something, a jug in his lap. As Seffrid mounted up, the guard called, “Does she live still?”
Seffrid rode to the gate. “She lives.” He did not know how; she should be dead, the poor creature.
He throttled down that softness. Markold knew what he was doing.
The guard signed himself, surreptitiously, glancing over his shoulder. “God keep our lady Ingunn.” He pulled the gate open, and loosed Seffrid on the world.
Markold’s Tower stood on the height of a pass; to the north the road dropped off down into a mountain valley, and on the south curled away on down toward the Spanish plains. Seffrid reined in on the road, wondering where not to look for the Princess Ragny. The sun beat strongly on him, and the wind was light and warm, but westward the horizon was turning dark. Seffrid had not been born here—he was a Frank, had come down that northern road one day, to Markold’s Tower—but he had learned the smell of a storm coming, and he was catching a whiff of that now.
He knew Ragny, too, strange and wild, and guessed she might have gone on north, to hunt. So he turned south, along the road down to the little cluster of stone huts at the foot of the pass.
Once this had been a village—when he came, most of these huts still had people living in them, but Markold had driven them all out, not even bothering to kill them, but simply taking away everything they had. And so now only one or two families still lived here, shepherds, who held their flocks out in the hills, and gave Markold sheep whenever he asked for them. They had nothing, only their sheep, their huts made of round white stones off the hillside. They were gone now, the place empty as a graveyard, but as he rode in, suddenly Ragny galloped down the slope toward him, her red cloak billowing out behind her, and her long pale hair streaming. She rode up before him and reined her grey horse down.
“Seffrid,” she said, “how does my mother?” And Seffrid realized that she had been waiting, had known, somehow, that her mother would reach out for her, and had been watching the castle gate and waiting.
He bowed to her, deep, as befit the holiest blood in Spain. “Princess, she sends for you.”
“Then I will go,” she said. “Attend me.” She put her heels to her pony and galloped away up the road; Seffrid wheeled his horse to follow her.
He thought it was a pity she had been born a woman; in her, Markold would have met his match. He knew she slept on the stone floor of her bedchamber, leaving the soft silky bed for her maids. Ate only bread and meat, while Markold and his friends glutted on pastries and sweets brought in the back door from the Moors. Yet she was not meek and mild. She rode out to the hunt with the men, even in the snows of winter, tracking down the wolves and bears that preyed on the herds; Seffrid had seen her shoot her bow and would not have wanted it aimed at him. He spurred his horse, trying to keep up with her.
At the gate, he caught her at last, while the guard struggled to lift the bar. The wind was rising steadily and now dark boulders of cloud were rolling up across the western sky. The Princess lifted her face into the scouring wind; her cheeks were blazing.
“I fear this storm to come,” she said. “The sun will not shine on the death of my mother the Queen.”
Seffrid said, “It is the time of year for storms.” He thought uneasily there was no reason to see signs in everything. To see God’s work in everything. Yet she was of holy blood. Uneasily he shook off thinking of it. The gate opened. They crossed the muddy courtyard, leading their horses.
She said, “Where is my father the King?”
Seffrid handed his reins off to a groom. “He sits by the bedside of the Queen.”
The Princess Ragny drew her hand across her breast in the sign of the cross. “God keep my mother,” she said. She wrapped her long cloak around her.
Seffrid said nothing. On the walls above them, the banners were Markold the Grim’s. The men lounging around the courtyard in the warmth of the last sun were Markold’s men. Seffrid was Markold’s man. She was fair and she was true, this girl, but she was only a girl.
Nonetheless, she did not wait for him, she had reached the door into the tower before he could catch up with her, and the guard was opening it. Seffrid followed her into the wooden bailie and up the narrow stone staircase to the tower, up to the room where her mother lay.
The air here was thick with the reek of death. Seffrid, coming in, flattened himself against the wall by the door, loathe to breathe this air. He wondered again what Markold had done to his wife. The two waiting women were huddled by the window, saying prayers. There was a guard on either side of the door. The Princess went straight across the room, over the trampled rushes, to the bed with its swags of drapery embroidered with the arms of King Roderick, where Queen Ingunn lay like a rotting corpse.
“Mother, I am here.”
Seffrid, by the wall, heard only the murmur of the Queen’s voice, answering. His hair stood on end. The Queen spoke as if from the grave. He remembered all the whispering about her, that she was part water fairy, that she spoke with demons. How could she still be alive? Seffrid looked up, toward the foot of the bed, where Markold stood.
The King was frowning, his red mouth twisted in the thick black mat of his beard. His thick hands were fisted before him. His great burly shoulders were heaved forward, as if he were shoving at something mountainously heavy. Seffrid saw how his gaze shifted, from his wife, to his daughter, to his wife again, his eyes unblinking, fire-hot.
Then the girl was turning, her voice ringing clear. “Seffrid, come, you must be witness.”
“I,” Seffrid said, astonished.
Markold slouched forward. “What is it?” His voice was raw. “What would you have witnessed? She raves, the Queen. She says nothing to witness!”
“No,” Ragny said. “Seffrid, come here.”
Seffrid looked at Markold, whose face struggled. Finally he shrugged his great bear shoulders. “Do it,” he said. One eyelid fluttered, a conspiracy, a warning. The King drew back a little, his eyes glaring.
Seffrid went up beside the bed. The Queen had been beautiful, only days before. Now on the broad silken platform she lay ruined. Her face was hollow as a nutshell. Her eyes seemed huge. She lifted one hand like a twig from a dead tree.
“Hear me. Hear this.” She gasped for breath. Seffrid gave a little shake of his head. She would die with the thing unspoken. But the Queen gathered herself. “Before God,” she said, in a breathy whisper. “He must not be King. My daughter alone. She alone is of the line of Roderick.”
That name drew a cough from her, and the cough drew up a little rivulet of blood, that trickled down her chin. Ragny reached out and caught her mother’s hand.
“Mother, I am ready.”
“You alone are Queen,” Ingunn said. “But you will have one to help you. I have sent for him.” Her voice gasped away. Ragny gripped her hand and bowed her head; her lips moved. Seffrid thought, She is dead, and started up.
Then the Queen’s eyes opened again. Her voice rasped out again.
“Go to the cave of songs.”
“Do as I bid you. You will find someone at the cave of songs. Go—remember—”
Over the Princess’ shoulder, Seffrid saw the old woman’s eyes shine with a sudden desperation, as if she could not say enough, and her free hand rose off the bed toward her daughter. “You—” The blood dribbled from her lips. Her eyes glowed with a terrible revelation. No more words came from her; she died as they watched; her eyes dulled, and her hands sagged down toward her breast.
Seffrid heard a choked sob from the girl before him. He drew back, his head bowed. He knew not what he had witnessed. They lived in a dream, these people, the dream of their lost kingdom, of witchy powers and signs and portents and prayers. But Ingunn had been his Queen for ten years, and to his amazement, now, his chest clogged, his eyes burned, he wanted to go away by himself and mourn. Instead he was between them suddenly, the girl before him, tall and thin and hard, and the King behind.
Ragny said, “What did you do to her, Markold?” She was looking over Seffrid’s shoulder. Seffrid did not move; he felt the King behind him as if he gave off heat.
Markold said, “I did nothing.”
“You are nothing,” she said. “You are King no more here, Markold.”
Markold growled at her. “I am King until someone throws me down, girl. Do you think you can do that?”
“I need not throw you down,” she said, her voice hard and bright as a knife blade. Seffrid, amazed, saw that Markold did not frighten her. She said, “God throws you down. You were King because of my mother. Now my mother is dead, and you are King no more. I alone am the heir to Roderick. The kingdom is mine to rule, mine to bestow.”
Markold shouldered past Seffrid, knocking the sergeant back a few steps, and went up before his daughter; he stood so close they brushed together, and yet she yielded nothing. Seffrid moved gratefully back out of the way.
“You want to be Queen?” Markold said. He reached out and took a fistful of her hair. “I shall make you Queen, girl.”
“Let go of me,” she said between her teeth.
Instead he twisted her long hair around his hand, and pulled her head back. He said, “I shall marry you, blood of Roderick. That makes me King once more, does it not?”
Seffrid twitched. This he had not expected. He saw the girl’s eyes widen, dark with pain and sudden fear. She said, “You cannot. That is gravest sin.”
“I shall marry you,” Markold said again, “and breed on you a son. That’s all I need. What your bitch mother would not give me.” He bent over her, his lips open, to kiss her.
The girl twisted in his grip; her hand flashed between them. Markold let out a yowl. The girl leapt back, her dagger in her hand, and the King reeled away, his hand to his cheek, and the dark blood welling between his fingers.
Seffrid leapt forward; he got the girl by the wrist and swung her around and wrapped his free arm around her from behind. Markold swung toward her. His face bulged, dark, his eyes gleaming.
Ragny said, “Let go of me! I order it!” She wrenched at Seffrid’s grip on her wrist; her strength startled him; he needed all his muscle to hold on to her. Markold wheeled around and struck her down to the ground with a single blow of his fist.
Seffrid cried, “My lord, my lord—” He stooped to gather her up. To his amazement, she was not broken, nor even cowed, but was rising up again, the dagger still in her grasp, and her eyes like agates. He called, “Ho! To me!” and the guards broke out of their fascination and jumped to help him, and so doing got between the girl and Markold. Seffrid tore the dagger from her grasp.
“Take her to the high tower room!” Markold shouted. “Lock her in! I’ll marry her tomorrow! And then—” His ripped face broke into a smile. “Then we’ll see how you can please your father, daughter.”
In Seffrid’s grip the girl was suddenly still, cold, unresisting. She said, “God is my true Father.” Her voice rang, implacable, steely. Markold sneered at her. He stalked out, slamming the door behind him.
Seffrid backed up, letting her go. The two guards were fumbling and mumbling around her, and he sent them off with a word. The girl gave him a single, unreadable look, and went to the bed where her mother lay.
“Come,” Seffrid said. “You heard the King.”
“He is not the King.” The girl signed herself, and made the sign also over her mother. She reached out to stroke her mother’s face. “He must not do this, Seffrid. God has sworn that we shall have our kingdom back, we of the House of Roderick. But only Roderick’s House. If we fail, Spain is lost forever to the infidel.”
Her voice was steady as stone. Yet Seffrid, looking sharply at her, saw the tears on her cheeks.
He said, “God’s in Heaven, girl. Here, Markold is the King. Come along.”
“He is not the King!” She spun around toward him, her cheeks slimed with tears. “She made a mistake, my mother. She knew it, all her life—she gave the kingdom to the wrong man. But it is mine now.” She gripped her hands in front of her, twisting and twisting them, and wept. “You heard her say it.”
Seffrid smothered down a sudden leap of anger. What did she think he could do? “I am Markold’s man. I heard nothing.”
“You heard her!”
“I heard nothing,” he said, again, angry at her for this.
She turned her face away. Her voice sank. “I heard her. I know. God knows. But if he does this—this he says he will do to me—” Now suddenly she slumped down to the floor like a child, and sobbed.
Seffrid grunted, his anger gone at once. The two waiting women were watching from by the window. He pointed at the body on the bed. “Tend to your mistress.” Stooping, he gathered up the Princess from the floor, looping his arms under her long legs and around her shoulders, and carried her out of the room, and up the twisted narrow stairs to the little top room of the tower, and set her down there, in the middle of the room.
There was a narrow window, too narrow, he thought, for anyone to fit through, even her. Anyway, the window gave out on a drop of nearly thirty feet to the courtyard. He watched the girl grope her way blindly to the little cot and sit down and cry into her hands.
“Markold is the King,” he said to her. “Maybe you have the blood, but he is a man, and strong, and will have what he wants. You can’t escape this. My advice to you is to accept it. Then at least you can be Queen, as your mother was. It’s an evil thing, but it’s an evil world, girl.” He felt a little hollow, like a gourd, rattling these words around. He said, “I’m sorry about your mother.” Turning, he went out and shut the door, and locked it.
Ragny wept; she felt a great wound in her, something torn out of her body, out of her heart, and lay down on the little cot and called for her mother, over and over, without hope of an answer. Her mother was safe now, at last, from the blows of Markold’s fist, the burdens of Markold’s appetite. Her head pounded where he had hit her.
Tomorrow he would attack her again. She knew what he intended, he had tried to do it before. Then her mother had gone between them in a blazing rage, and he had recoiled from it, from some threat coiled secret in her voice. She laid her fingers against the bruise on her head. This time her mother would not be there; she would be alone.
She thought, I will die first. And knew that it was true: Roderick’s blood in her would not suffer such a defilement.
Not alone. Her mother had said someone would come to help her. Ragny had not understood her, could not exactly remember the words, just a promise, maybe the empty promise of a dying, despairing woman. Go to the cave of songs. The cave was a long way away, half a day’s journey, and she was locked up here.
Locked in her body, in the woman’s body that gave Markold power over her. That she could amend. She tasted metal in her mouth. But she would not let Markold touch her.
She would not merely sit and wait. God’s will was not always obvious. She crept off the bed and stood in the center of the room, spread her arms out, and said the name of God, of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Her arms trembled with the effort of holding them outright. She shut her eyes. Go to the cave of songs. What had her mother said? There will come one to help you. She went to the window, so narrow she could just fit her arm through, but no more. She stretched her arm out through it. The cold wind lashed at her hand, and raindrops struck her fingers like little stones. Go to the cave of songs. She set about looking for a way to do that.
Arkold’s eyes bulged, red-rimmed, furious. “She can’t have. You’re lying.”
“My King, I swear to you, she went out a hole in the roof.”
Markold’s stare grew hotter. “You brought her back here, too. It was you the Queen summoned to witness.” He showed his teeth, like a wolf, his face dark with suspicion. “She always favored you.”
“My lord, as I have always been faithful to you, I’ve done only what you ordered. She probably fell, Sire. We should go find her—”
Now suddenly Markold was moving, heaving himself out of his seat. Seffrid turned and led him across the hall to the door. This thought had come on him suddenly as he went down the stairs: the girl fallen, lying shattered in the mud of the courtyard with the rain beating on her. He went out the door still two strides ahead of Markold, into the blast of the wind, and the streaming rain.
Around behind the bailie, twenty feet above the ground, the rope made of Ragny’s cloak was curling and uncurling through the wild air, its end still fast inside the tower. The courtyard below it was a lake of mud. There was no sign of the girl. Markold splashed up to Seffrid’s side; one of the slaves hurried after, carrying a torch. There weren’t even any footprints. Markold swore, and kicking out with one foot, drove a squirt of mud up into the air.
“The bitch! I’ll make her weep for this—” He tramped off, staring up into the dark driving rain, where the rope snaked wildly. Seffrid calculated that the rope ended well above the ground. She had dropped a good way. The rain was dripping down his face and beard and he began to shiver with the cold; the wind tore at him.
Markold stamped back toward him. “Where has she gone?”
“My lord, I—”
“You know, don’t you? You’re in this, Seffrid, up to your goddamned teeth! The Queen always favored you—”
“I swear I—”
“Find her! Bring her back!”
“What?” Seffrid said, his teeth chattering.
“Find her, and bring her back, Seffrid!” Markold thrust his face down nose to nose with Seffrid’s, eye to eye, his breath horrible. “Or I will see to you even before I see to her, Seffrid.”
Seffrid took a step back. The slave stood nearby, and the torch light fell on Markold’s face like a wash of blood. The flame gleamed in Markold’s eyes. Seffrid said, “Yes, my lord.” He turned and went back toward the tower, for his sword and his cloak.
“Be back by midday, Seffrid!” Markold’s voice bellowed through the rain.
He took his sword, found a heavy cloak. When he went to the door Markold was sitting again in his high seat, a stoop of wine in his hand. His gaze fell on Seffrid like a blow. The fire roared high, crackling around the singed meat. Seffrid pulled his cloak around him and went out into the storm.
He knew, at least, where to go first; he had heard the Queen. The cave of songs was well over a league distant, by a narrow difficult path over the shoulder of the mountain, without so much as a shepherd’s hut on the way. But Seffrid was on horseback, and she could not have gotten too much of a start on him: he imagined he would come on the girl about half the way there, maybe sooner.
He hoped he need go no nearer than that to the cave of songs. A country all sideways, that was, tipped up and down, and uneasy, full of rumbles and echoes, where the ground shifted, rocks gave way underfoot, the wind raked off anything loose. Outside the gate, he forced his mount out across the treeless hillside, into the slanting icy rain; the wind rushed into his face, pressing him back. He hunched himself down into his cloak as much as he could, the hood close around his face. His toes were already numb with the cold.
He expected to come on her on the broad grassy hillside, the mountain’s steep flank, where the southern sky went down below the trail, and the wind poured off the heights like a torrent. Through the last hours of the night he crossed the mountain and did not find her. The storm bundled by, full of voices, and screams and laughter; there were lights on the mountaintop, dancing like fireflies, and he began to wish he kept more company with God, so that he would have someone to call out to. The rain slackened. Through the flying wrack of the clouds, stars shone. He was riding toward the east, and now he saw the first daylight blooming along the horizon, but he had not found Ragny, and he was coming to the cave of songs.
He reined in; dawn was near, and he cared not to try that passage in the dark. The rain had stopped, although the wind still whipped and whirled around him. Before him the mountainside reared up into a steep cliff, its foot buried in tumbled grey boulders. The spreading dawn light showed him nothing, no sign of the girl.
He had until midday, or Markold would hunt him down with her. He knew how Markold dealt with people who had failed him; Seffrid himself had helped prop a certain victim up before the hearth so that his dying eyes could watch his own guts frying in the fire.
He stepped off his horse; he picked his way up the stony talus below the cave, which opened just a little crack in the rocks halfway up the cliff. The rocks turned and slid under his feet and he stumbled and fell once. The wind gusted around him. It tore at him, as if trying to pull him off the cliff, and then abruptly hushed, and he heard, somewhere above him, a gust of a deep and thunderous music.
He froze. The ground under him seemed to tremble. It was the wind. High up there, keening on the rock, booming through the caves, just the wind. The long notes died. He could hear nothing now. He had imagined it. He thought of Markold, who might already be hunting him down, and on all fours scurried up the steep cliff to the seam in the rock that opened into the cave.
The crevice was so narrow he had to turn sideways to get in, scrape his chest and back against the walls. For a moment, wedged inside the wall of rock, he was afraid: he felt himself caught there, the rock slowly crushing inward against him, like the mountain closing its jaws. But then he slid through into the larger chamber beyond.
Another opening, high above, let in some fingers of the sun. The vast space spread jaggedly out before him, the high open chamber streaming with dusty sunlight, the walls riven and pleated like curtains. The sunlight did not reach down to the floor of the cave; Seffrid stood in deep twilight, cold and damp, a lake of night air. As he stood there blinking something fell from the ceiling, trailing its echoes.
The cave had no floor, only a layer of broken rubble, heaped up against spines and spires of limestone rising from below, and slippery with the droppings of bats and birds. He went in a few steps, wary, the cold dank air in his lungs, groping his way over shifting crunching rock. A thin high tower of stone loomed up through the gloom. The cave stank of dung and damp and rotten limestone. He straightened, peering through the dim space ahead of him, looking for Ragny.
Abruptly with a wash of terror he became aware of another presence, very close, a tremendous being, towering over him, huge and awful. He let out a shriek; then a blow struck him, and he fell, senseless.
He woke. He was still alive, he realized, to his surprise. The Princess Ragny was sitting on a rock nearby, watching him. There was no one else in the cave.
“Well, Seffrid,” she said, “what happened to you?”
He sat up, dazed, looking around. “Something hit me.” He put one hand to his head, feeling for a lump, but found nothing. “I swear, something hit me.” He wondered how long he had been out. Not long, maybe. Moments.
She was staring fixedly at him. She wore only a long dark gown, considerably bedraggled; her wild hair hung around her shoulders like tangled dandelion fluff. She said, “I have been waiting here half the night, Seffrid, praying and watching. There has been no one else here. Nothing has happened. My mother said someone would come, to help me, but nobody has come except you.”
He got to his feet, looking around. “There was no one else here? There was nothing here?” He peered off into the reaches of the cave. Maybe he had spooked at shadows. Something had fallen from the roof and hit him. That was all. He put his hand to his head again.
“No one but you and me. I can’t think you were what my mother intended.”
“Maybe,” he said, leaping at this. “After all, she asked me to witness. Maybe she knew I could fetch you back home again.”
“I’m not going home,” she said.
“Princess, you have no choice. Markold will track you down if you don’t go back. You must go back, and make the best of it—women have a way of managing—”
He stopped. She was not listening. She was walking off across the cave toward the little crack of the entrance, now blazing with sunlight like the passageway to Heaven. He followed her. He would have to carry her off by force, he saw; he began to calculate how to capture her without hurting her—he would have to surprise her.
She said, “My mother intended something. But I cannot wait for wishes, Seffrid. I have to get away, before my father does his will with me, and ruins everything forever.” She turned toward him, facing him just as he was about to jump on her. “You’re not what my mother meant to send me, but you’ll do. Did you bring me a horse?”
He could not surprise her with her facing him, with her level grey eyes on him. His back tingled. He swallowed. He should jump on her anyway, but he could not bring himself to it. Watching him, she grew amused; above her steady gaze her mouth kinked into the beginning of a smile. She said, “You don’t think you are still Markold’s man, do you, Seffrid?”
He said, hoarsely, “He’ll kill us both.”
“No, he won’t. We’ll get away. I’ll find a knight who will be true King, who will come back with me to take my birthright. You shall have your rewards.”
This seemed so simple. Seffrid rubbed his palms on his thighs. His mouth was dry. He thought of Markold’s eyes, bulging with rage and hate, and Markold’s fist, and Markold’s cruel devisings. He realized how he hated Markold, and how he liked this wild girl.
He had already made up his mind, somehow. Or she had.
He said, “Where do you think of going, my Princess?”
“To Spain, perhaps,” she said. “Or north, to Francia.”
That steadied him. He began to see a way through this, where he could profit from it, and not risk too much. “I am from Francia, you know. I can lead you there.” A sneaking thought nudged evilly at his mind: from Francia, perhaps, he could even deal with Markold for her, make himself rich at a safe distance. He bowed his head to her, lest she see the double-thinking in his face. “I am your man, Princess.”
“Good,” she said. “Go now, there is a village only a little away; you must find us horses unknown to him and his men. And bring me man’s clothes. I shall not escape like this.”
Seffrid bowed again, master of this now. “As you wish, Princess.” He went to the mouth of the cave, relieved to be outside, in the sun, and climbed quickly down to his horse.
She had no father now but God, and she had no mother at all.
She wept awhile, for her mother’s sake, although Ingunn was surely happy now in Heaven; she wept for herself, motherless and forlorn. Seffrid did not come back.
She supposed he could be going to Markold, to give her back to Markold. When she thought that, a sudden rush of memory swept over her, of an olden time, of Markold, not wicked and angry, but kind, and vastly strong, holding her on his knee, and feeding her bits of apple. She shut her eyes, aching. She could go back there, take up that work, to find that Markold again: maybe that was what God wanted of her.
Without willing it entirely, she was standing up, stretching out her arms in the attitude of prayer, facing the sun. The strong light warmed her and gave her heart. She was the rightful Queen of Spain. God would sustain her, if she served His cause. She would do what God willed of her.
She thought, as she often did, of Jesus, faced with His enormous task, going to His Father, and saying, “Please don’t make me do this.” And God saying, “My Son, there is no one else.”
She stretched herself into the cross that had been His task; she shut her eyes. She would not go back to Markold.
Presently, as she had known he would, Seffrid came back, with a big grey horse and a mule, some bread and cheese, and clothes for her. She devoured all the bread and cheese before she even thought that he might want some. He didn’t seem to care; he only said, “Princess, we must hurry.”
“Do not call me Princess,” she said. “I am Queen now, for one thing. But no one must ever hear you call me anything like that, anyway, so you must forego it. He will be looking for us all over the mountains. Wait here.” She took the bundle of clothes back into the cave, and put them on: coarse leggings, a hooded jerkin and a belt, boots, even a knife and a big floppy hat. The harsh cloth hid the shape of her body; she was skinny enough anyway. She left her gown lying where she had dropped it and went back out to the sunlight, where Seffrid stood, looking steadily west.
Watching for Markold. She said, “Now you must cut off my hair.”
“Princess,” he said.
“Do as I tell you,” she said, and knelt down with her back to him. “Cut it off as short as you can. I must seem a man—no one must even look twice to see.”
He laid uncertain hands on her hair; she felt the short sawings of the knife through it, and saw the first handful as he threw it down. She raised her eyes, looking east and south, the country spreading out before her in rolls of hillsides, and in the southern distance, a haze. “We should go to Spain,” she said. “There is my kingdom.”
The hands in her hair gave her a painful jerk. “Princess! I’m sorry—I meant not to hurt you—no, Princess, Spain has no friends for you—”
“Do not call me Princess,” she said.
“What should I call you, then?” He hacked away another clump.
“I shall be . . .” She looked into the vast hazy distance, so out of reach, where anything seemed possible. “I shall be Roderick. Call me Roderick.”
“Very well,” he said, hewing at her hair.
Presently he stepped back, done. She put her hand up, and felt the stubble of her hair above her ears. “Ah, Seffrid, I hope you are better with your knife at other work.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, humbly.
She said, “Never mind. You think we should go to Francia, then.” She suspected this wish of his, that some hidden purpose underlay it, but she thought he was right in his argument: in Spain she would find a thousand enemies. In Francia, at least, she would start even and unknown. As for Seffrid, she was going to trust him, and hope that made him trustworthy: she had no other choice, and so far, it was working. “Well, then,” she said, “let’s go.”
They went to their mounts. He had put his saddle on the mule for her, she saw, and for himself had only a blanket. As she was scrambling up onto the back of the mule, it pricked its ears suddenly, and the big grey horse jerked up its head from the grass; then, distantly, she and Seffrid both heard the low bray of a hunting horn.
“He’s after us,” Seffrid said. “Damn him, he said midday.” He bounded onto the grey horse’s back, and they rode at a hard trot up over the mountain.
There were many roads for Markold to watch, and anyway, they could avoid the roads, mostly, but there was only one pass over the mountains to the north, and there, Seffrid knew, Markold himself would come, as quickly as he could. Their only hope was to get there ahead of him.
They went along a crease in the hills, a higher, rougher, swifter way than the pale road they saw sometimes twining throughout the valley below them. They heard the hunting horn once more, from farther down the mountain. After the rain, the day was wild and clear. Ragny—Roderick, he remembered, Roderick—kept to a swift pace, following sheep paths on the slopes above the road, stopping now and then to let the mule blow and to look around them.
The second time she did this, he said, “Roderick, you must not stop so that someone looking up will see you against the sky; they’ll catch us right away.”
She faced him, her eyes wide, and nodded. “Oh. You’re right.” Swiftly she took them on, down over the ridge to its northern flank. She turned to him again.
“You must tell me how to be a man, Seffrid. It must be more than merely the clothes.”
Seffrid laughed. “You have been among men all your life . . . Roderick.”
“Yes, but never as one of them,” she said. “You must tell me what men speak of, when they are together—you must speak to me that way.” Without her hair, her face seemed thinner; the wind chafed her skin ruddy. He could not see her as anything but a girl. She was looking him over, he saw, and as she did, she drew herself into another shape; she squared up her shoulders and shifted her weight, held her head higher, chin out, looked him fiercely in the eyes.
He cast about for something to say, and blurted out, “A man serves his lord. That’s what a man is.” He turned again, remembering with a sudden tug the call of that hunting horn; a man without a master, he thought, was no better than an outlaw. Suddenly he felt naked to the blast of the wind, and hunched his shoulders.
She said, “Then serve me.” She was sitting her saddle with one hand fisted on her hip; he had never seen her do this before. The cant of her head also was different. Their gazes met, he looked into her pale eyes, and saw no woman-softness there. Then suddenly she was saying, “Let’s go,” and they were sweeping off across the mountainside again.
They came to a river, bounding down through the rocks, and followed it upstream, looking for a place to cross. Roderick drove the mule on steeply up, and Seffrid followed, across boulders where the moss grew like fairy beds, and trees no bigger than his arm sprouted from crevices above the foaming stream. They came out on a ridge, wind-blasted, covered with a low trembling mat of brush and vines, and followed that to the stream’s edge.
Here it seemed they might cross, the water bursting out of a narrow gorge above and then splaying wide across the meadow; the sun glinted on it. As they came down to the ford, Seffrid saw someone rise from the shelter of a little crooked tree, and come forward: a woman, he saw, startled, a young woman, wrapped in a long cloak.
“Nobles,” she cried, in a hoarse voice, “I crave your pardon, I ask you only a favor, and shall repay”—she looked up at Seffrid and her eyes were hot—“as even a poor woman might.”
Seffrid heated at what he heard in her voice. He reined in, keen, one hand on his thigh, and the other holding the grey horse short. Roderick on the mule drew up on his far side. His eyes eager on the girl, Seffrid began working out in his mind how to get rid of Roderick. “What can we favor you with, lady?”
“Only—” She lifted her arms, lifting the long cloak with them, her eyes burning. “Carry me over the stream on your horse.”
“That I’ll do,” Seffrid said, and reached down toward her, to lift her up behind him, thinking he could send Roderick off, and then, behind him, Roderick cried out.
“In Jesus’ name, who are you?”
The woman was reaching up toward Seffrid’s arms; their hands almost touching, he looked down into her blazing hot eyes, that suddenly went white as wrath. Her lips drew back from her teeth, and she roared at him. Seffrid screamed, recoiling, and his horse reared; the woman dropped down on all fours, and was a wolf, and wheeled and raced into the forest.
“Goddamn me!” Seffrid cried, shaking. “Goddamn me!”
The grey horse was scooting back and forth, its eyes rolling. Seffrid could barely keep his seat, and Roderick flung an arm around him, to steady him. Her face was pale, he saw, her eyes hollow.
“How did you know?” he screamed at her.
“She was a hag,” Roderick said. She faced him, eyes sharp, and said as if certain: “A wretched old crone. Such as a woman could not pass by without helping.”
“No,” Seffrid said, amazed. “A young woman, beautiful, in a long cloak.” He jerked his gaze around after the wolf.
Roderick gave a shake of her head. “So it seemed you saw her. Let’s get out of here.”
They went across the ford, and found there a path winding across the ledge toward the pass. Long after they had left the river behind them, Seffrid’s heart was still pounding hard. He could not free his mind from the image of her long teeth, her blazing white- hot eyes. He blurted, suddenly, “You saved me.”
Riding beside him, Roderick crossed herself, and said, “Jesus saved us.”
Seffrid licked his lips. “What do you make of her? A demon, a fairy—”
“Some haunt of the place, very like.” Roderick faced him; the wind and cold ruddied her cheeks. “You know how the peasants talk, here, that the high mountains are full of ghosts. Or, they say, there are those who can change their shape.”
Then suddenly she looked away. “There is the road,” she said, and hurried on a little ahead of him.
He went after her; it popped abruptly into his mind that she had also changed her shape.
His skin crawled. He saw again the long white teeth of the wolf-woman, her eyes like lamps from hell. Maybe Roderick also. How would he know? His mind scurried like a mouse over and over this, while he rode tamely along behind her toward the long brown highway roping over the barren slope. Where was she taking him? She had crossed herself. Called on Jesus. The Devil could quote Scripture, they said. How would he know? The impulse welled up in him to draw his sword, and slay her, to put it all to rest.
He shrank back from that thought; the wolf-woman had sickened his mind, somehow, shone evil through his eyes into his heart.
They reached the road, climbing up through the windy slope toward the saddle of the pass. Roderick said nothing to him. Above them now the black mountains blocked off the sky, their jagged tops crowned with snow. The wind blew harsh down off the mountaintops, raising the tears in his eyes, and he shivered inside his jerkin.
He saw the burning white eyes, the hands reaching for him. He heard, again, Roderick’s voice ringing out. At the memory his heart leapt. She had saved him from the clutch of those hands; he owed his life and more to her. That was enough to know, he thought. He owed his life to her; he could go along beside her, at least for a while. Until she was safely away from Markold.
When she was safe, he could take his own path again. He drew in a deep breath as if he had not breathed for moments, and went easily after her up the rising slope.
The road angled across the raw ledgy rock face and rose steeply into the pass. Where the last hard climb began, Roderick drew rein again beside him, pulled up the hood of her jerkin around her face, and set the broad-brimmed hat over it and pulled the brim down. “Are you ready?” She turned toward him, her voice taut. “Are you with me?”
Their eyes met; he saw the faint frown between her brows, and knew she wondered at him. He looked up at the pass, ashamed. He realized that she meant they might have to force their way through, and he put his hand to his sword.
“You have no weapon,” he said, suddenly.
“No: I must find one,” she said. “But there’s no time now. We have to hurry, Seffrid.”
He pulled off his sword belt, and handed it and the scabbard and sword across to her. “Take this. I’ll find something.”
She gripped the scabbard; her eyes blazed. “Seffrid,” she said, “you are a true knight.” She slung the belt over her shoulder, and they hastened on. Seffrid rode a stride behind her.
Suddenly he felt that he was not last of them. Someone else rode along with them. His back tingled. For a moment he dared not look over his shoulder, but when he did, he saw no one. He hunched up his shoulders. And now he had only his belt knife, in case anything happened. Grimly he pushed on after Roderick, up into the steep of the pass.
Roderick stirred before dawn, and rose, and went out of the little rock hut of the shrine into the dark belly of the night. The cold bit. There was no more food, she knew, and only water to drink. She prayed awhile, sitting on a rock, facing east, and watching for the first light of the sun.
She made a prayer to her mother, and the memory and longing overwhelmed her, so that she had to get up and walk around and kick at stones and weep. When she turned, with the grief blunted, she saw the pale shining of light along the horizon, and took that for a sign that her mother heard her, or God heard her, or someone heard her, somewhere. Her spirits rose. She went back to the rock and sat down and prayed again, happier.
In the forest around them, birds began to call out and flutter around and shrill long streamers of song into the brightening air, as if they too were glad that after the long night, morning had come.
Seffrid came blinking and stamping out of the shrine. He gave off a stink of bad temper. She looked him over, her man, proven now. He was not big, but knit together tight and strong, with bandy legs and a deep chest. His clothes were rumpled around him and his curly black beard was sprinkled with bits of dead leaves. He stretched himself out like a cat, arms and legs and back, scrubbed at his face with one hand, and went down the slope to fetch his horse.
The grey horse and the mule had wandered far down the hillside, looking for grass. When Seffrid led the grey back up toward the shrine, the mule came trailing after, and Roderick got the bridle and looped that around its neck to hold it while she tended to it.
“God’s death, I’m hungry,” Seffrid said.
“I wish we had a bow. Do you know where we are? Are there people living anywhere near?”
“I don’t know.” He flung the blanket onto the grey horse’s back. “I don’t think even God comes here. What a miserable place.”
She mounted the mule. A pang of guilt pierced her; she was his lord, after all, she should provide for him. She crossed herself. Maybe God would send them something, Who was Lord of them both. Her belly growled.
“Well, let’s go, then, and find something to eat,” she said, and started off down the road. She turned to him with a sudden urgency. “And you must teach me the use of the sword—I will give myself away, I cannot even draw it properly.”
That pleased him. He rode the grey purposefully over beside her. As they went on down the road into the forest, he showed her how to draw the sword without getting hung up in the scabbard, and how to hew with the edge and beat with the flat. She saw he was proud of his skill with this work. He talked reverently about fighting, how you watched the other man’s hands as well as his eyes, to see where he was going, and always parried with the edge of the sword, which could bite the other blade, or club, or spear, whatever you were attacking.
“Attack the weapon,” he said. “Not the man. If you have a shield—which is a good idea, by the way, a good lord always makes sure you have good equipment. And a helmet. If you have a shield, keep it close up on your off hand. Fighting, you move forward behind your sword, but you move backward behind the shield.”
“Was Markold a good lord?”
“Markold took care of his men. He always kept us well armed, there was lots to eat, wine, good horses for us. Sometimes women.”
He bit off, at that, his gaze wavering, looking embarrassed. They rode on in a little silence. Around them the great oaks grew far apart, the ground under them thick with dead leaves and fallen branches and acorn shells. She opened her ears to the sounds of the forest, the wind in the leaves, and the creaking of the branches, the calls of birds and the squirrels. If she had had her bow, she could have shot something to eat. Seffrid, beside her, twisted around to look behind them.
“What’s the matter?” she said; she had seen that he did this often now. “What are you looking for?”
“I keep thinking someone is following us,” he said, and straightened forward again, a little red around the ears.
She studied him a moment, seeing not Seffrid, but a man. Trying to be a man made her think about him differently. His dark eyes turned down a little at the corners. The skin of his cheeks was pocky.
She said, “Is that all, then? To being a good lord?”
“A good lord doesn’t get you killed,” Seffrid said. She could see he was struggling against the urge to turn and look around again. She wondered if the wolf-woman haunted him. “He only picks fights you can win.”
“There must be more,” she said. “This seems so mean and low.”
Seffrid said, “Right now, nothing seems low about having something to eat.”
She gave a sort of growl of assent, and faced forward. They were traveling through the deep forest; the sunlight came down where the road cut through, but on either side the trees closed in, gloomy with shadows, their massive warty boles like squatting monsters. Her spine prickled up. She felt the trees’ attention on her, a grave and gigantic awareness. She shut her eyes. The air itself felt like fingers twitching at her.
She wished herself away from here. She wished she could slip her skin, expand outward, turning into forest, into wind, stretching toward God. For a moment, drawn from herself like a thread, she seemed all but gone.
She opened her eyes again. Came back into herself. She had to watch out now, not only for herself but for Seffrid, her man. She glanced at him again, pleased at his company. But her stomach hurt with earthly hunger. She clicked to the mule, hurrying on, looking for something to eat.
They crossed a river, and stopped to drink, and went on down through the oak wood. The forest grew more open, the trees bigger, their twisted squat trunks, bulging with galls, solid above the knobbed toes of their roots, and their vast crowns spread over all, so Roderick and Seffrid went along through a deep dappled shade even on the road. The air was thick with the dank smell of the earth. By a small stream mushrooms grew, and Seffrid, his belly grumbling, looked at them longingly, but Roderick said, “No—they could kill you,” and he knew she was right. He looked for crawfish in the stream but found none, nor frogs nor fish nor snakes. It was the bad season of the year; in March all creatures starved.
Near midafternoon they came out of the wood onto a meadow, and their path ran into a bigger road. In the drying mud were the crumbling ridges of fresh new wagon tracks, and Seffrid swore a long delighted oath.
“These folk are just ahead. Maybe they have something to eat.”
He reined the grey horse around, and with Roderick at his heels went at a gallop on down the road. The wagon that had made these tracks could not be too far on. If these people refused him food, by God’s death, he thought, spurring his horse on, he would take it by force. The trees thinned out quickly and they came out onto a meadowland, sloping away down toward the northern horizon. The road crossed it like a brown ribbon through the new green grass, running down to meet the river in the middle distance.
There, where the road crossed the river, people were fighting.
Seffrid reined in, hard, throwing out one arm to stop Roderick. At the ford, a crowd of men, some on foot and some mounted, were swarming around a big open wagon; he could hear shouts and screaming, and saw arms rising and falling, clubbing downward. “Bandits,” he said. “Somebody else got to them first.”
Roderick said, “We have to help them.”
“Roderick! There are too many—” He reached out and grabbed her arm.
She gave him a swift, unfocused look. “They need help.” Throwing off his hand, she dragged the sword out of the scabbard.
“No!” Seffrid shouted. “Roderick, no!” Like an arrow from a bow, Roderick launched herself forward, down the slope, into the fight.
“Roderick!” The grey horse half reared. Seffrid reined down hard; that was death, down there, a score of bandits at least, and he had no sword, not even a club. He took breath to scream at her again, and then, suddenly, from behind him, something passed him, going after her, brushing against Seffrid so hard it knocked him almost to the ground.
All his hair on end, he scrambled back into his saddle, looking down the slope. Roderick was charging headlong into the battle, but she was not alone. After her, only half-visible, like a crumpling of the air too fast and too dazzling bright for the eye, something else charged with her, stooping like a great hawk across the plain.
Seffrid let out a yell and plunged after them. He needed no weapon. Down by the ford, the bandits were screeching in terror, wheeling to flee, throwing down their clubs and swords and scattering in all directions. Only two were left to meet Roderick as she plowed into their midst, but Roderick, with blows of her sword, laid one flat and sent the other reeling away. Seffrid, ten strides behind, saw the rest of them splashing and bounding through the river, scrambling up the far side, racing off across the plain.
There was no one left to fight. Seffrid drew rein, panting, next to one of the wagons; a wild exhilaration filled him; he felt that light around him like a magic cloak. Roderick swung toward him, the sword in her hand.
“I tried to do it properly,” she said. Her face was white as candle wax. “But I missed with the edge.”
Seffrid burst out laughing. The blaze of light was gone. Everything seemed to shrink down to ordinary. Before him, on foot, stood a tall fair man with a sword in his hand and blood all over his face, who was saying, in a dazed voice, “God sent you, God be thanked, they were too many for me.” Three bodies lay twisted and broken in the grass around them. A tonsured man in a long dirty grey robe bent over the farthest of them, rose at once and went to kneel by the next.
“Where did the rest of you go?” The dazed man pulled off his helmet, looking around, wide-eyed. His leather hauberk, sewn with links of chain, proved him a nobleman, or at least a noble’s knight.
“We are only two,” said Roderick, who had managed clumsily to get the sword back into the scabbard; Seffrid saw he needed to teach her more of the weapon. “God be thanked we came in time.”
“Only two,” the knight repeated. He put his hand to his head, which was still bleeding. “I saw a score of you, I thought.”
Out from under the wagon crawled another monk, peering cautiously all around. “God have mercy on us.” He stood up, signing himself.
“You are hurt, Leovild.” The first monk, tall and brawny like a ploughman, came over toward them, putting his hand on the wounded knight. “I beg you, sit down and let me see if I can do anything for your wound. Brother Deodatus, get over here and help.”
The knight Leovild said, “Wulfran.” He twisted, looking toward the bodies on the grass. “Pepin!”
The monk slid his arm around the knight’s shoulders. “They are God’s men now.”
“Pepin!” Leovild staggered off toward the dead men in the grass.
The monk crossed himself. Somber, he faced Seffrid and Roderick, a big, keen-eyed man of middle years in a heavy grey robe; his dark hair grew all around the shiny dome of his head like a fringe. “Thank you for what you did, most heartily. I am John the Irishman, master of the King’s chapel school, and, by your happy agency, still in the active voice.” He held out a big bony hand. There were dark splotches all over his fingers.
“I am Roderick de Pelajo,” Roderick said, “a knight of Spain.” She clasped the monk’s leprous hand, and then waved at Seffrid. “This is my man Seffrid.”
John looked from one to the other. “God’s peace on you both. And now I must ask you, who have already saved us once, to save us again—please, stay with us, and camp with us tonight. We are so few now, the thieves will fall on us at once if you leave us.” He gestured toward the wagon. “We have food and wine aplenty.”
“Well, Devil take me,” Seffrid said.
Roderick said, “You do us a rescue, also, Brother John—we are starving men, we lost all our goods coming over the mountains, as you see. We shall make our camp with you gladly.”
“Thank you,” John said. “Now, with your pardon, I go, and tend to these other men.” He swung around, which brought him almost nose to nose with his fellow monk, who was standing there staring in horror at the bodies on the ground.
“Deodatus,” John said, between his teeth. “I need your help.”
“Ah,” said the monk Deodatus, shorter by a head, and thin. “I can do nothing. I shall pray.” He crossed himself.
“No,” John said, harsh-voiced. “You will take these knights, who saved your hide also, and see that they eat. Mind me!” He shoved the monk hard and went by him, toward the wounded knight now kneeling in the grass beside a dead man.
The monk Deodatus staggered back, almost falling. He glared darkly after John. “Irish pig.” He said it under his breath. Turning, he swept a look over Roderick and Seffrid. “The food is in the wagon. Mind you do not disturb the books.” With one hand he sent them off, grand as any lord, and Seffrid led Roderick toward the wagon.
Leovild sat slumped on a rock, his arms on his knees; his head throbbed all over, not just where John was pressing on it. Leovild said, “You were right, I should not have hired those men.”
John scrubbed a little harder at the side of his head. “Traveling is always dangerous.” He wrung out the wet rag in a bucket of the river water. “Leovild, make no penance for it. You fought like a tiger. If it hadn’t been for you, they’d have overrun us right away, and no interesting young Spanish lordling could have saved us.”
Leovild looked up to meet the monk’s eyes. “What do you make of them?”
John shrugged. “Interesting.” He touched his fingertips to the sore place on Leovild’s skull. “That looks worse than it is.”
“Good that I’m behind it, then, because it feels pretty bad.” Leovild turned his gaze away. “Pretty bad for Wulfran. And poor Pepin, he was only a boy.”
Off by the wagons, the interesting young Spanish lordling was sitting stuffing bread and cheese into his mouth. His rough-looking man-at-arms sat next to him like a brother. Leovild struggled to remember what he had seen, when the bandits hacking at him suddenly wheeled around and began to scream and scatter. He had thought there were more than just two.
His head began to pound again. Bitterly he wished he had done better, or been better, and prevented this. He felt a dull despair tugging at him. Pepin. He had liked Pepin, maybe overmuch, a skinny, cheery boy, with a thought about everything. Leovild felt the world closing over him like the lid of a coffin.
John said, “We will have to bury these dead men, and make camp now as well.” He washed his mottled hands off in the bucket.
Leovild nodded. “We’ll stay here. Night is coming anyway.” He brushed his hair back, stood, pulled his jerkin sleeves down, and looked around, trying to get himself in order. “We have extra horses now. I shall offer new mounts and weapons to these Spanish men, for their service to Paris.”
“Good,” John said. “Go get a good sup of the wine.” He clapped Leovild on the shoulder. John had thoughts, too, most of them incomprehensible even in Frankish. Leovild got up and went across the camp to the newcomers.
Of the two men Roderick had struck down, one had escaped; she helped them bury the other one, with Pepin and Wulfran, the Frankish dead. They dug the holes and rolled the bodies in, and the big Irish monk said some holy words. Her arms ached from the shoveling; she was tired.
She thought of that other work, and what it had led to, this dead body in the hole at her feet: man’s work. It was not so hard, to be a man, after all. The monks, the Frankish knight, were all taking her as one without question. She only had to stand as Markold had, with her head back and her chin out, and walk as Markold had, that slow and heavy step, as if the world could move before he had to move. Look on evil and death, as he had, with a stony eye, and kill when necessary. Even the Frankish tongue was not so different from her mother language, some strange words, an accent like a frill on the words.
She wiped her face on her sleeve. They were covering up her dead man now. She looked on him. She was not a whole man yet. Against her will, she thought he had been a child once, some mother’s darling, now dead, dead, dead, and she turned away before they saw her cry, and went down toward the river.
A moment later, the knight Leovild was calling her. “My lord Roderick.”
She manned herself again; she faced him, as he walked across the muddy grass toward her. He was tall, with fair hair down over his forehead and his ears, younger than Seffrid. When he smiled he seemed younger still. He said, “Once again, sir, my thanks. We owe you more than our lives.”
“What else could we have done?” she said; all this gratitude seemed excessive. “I have my honor. What more than your lives?”
“That in the wagon, what we are taking to the King, in Paris. There we must still go, myself and these two men of God—”
She laughed. The knight suddenly smiled at her, his blue eyes glinting. “Well. One man of God and one monk.” His voice eased, as if they had passed together over some boundary, and were friends now. “I want to ask another favor of you and your man there, that you will accompany us to Paris. I can offer you horses and arms, food and lodging, and in the end, words of thanks from the mouth of King Charles himself.”
She had been expecting this. Having saved them once, she had to keep on saving them. She liked them, and she had to go somewhere; perhaps at the court of this great King she would find her knight. “The King of Francia,” she said. “I shall not refuse the chance to meet him. You may count on me and Seffrid.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Now if you will help me, we can go herd in the horses, and you can choose of them.”
“We’ve had nothing but trouble since we left Barcelona,” the knight Leovild said. “The roads are very bad, to begin with, and one of the drovers got sick, and then two other men ran away.” He poked at the fire; they were all sitting around it in a ring, passing a wooden cup of wine from hand to hand. “Just yesterday I hired new ones, although John mistrusted them—wisely, I should have heeded him. When we got to the ford, the bandits were hidden among the rocks. The new men turned on us, they were all over us in a moment.” He held the wine out to Seffrid.
“Coward,” Seffrid said. “They ran like rabbits when we came at them from behind like that.” He drank of the strong dark wine. Everything had somehow turned out very well. His belly was full of meat and bread and now he would have a blanket to sleep under, and tomorrow a better horse, with a good saddle, and better arms. “My young lord is a great knight, for all his green years.”
From the three around him came a little chorus of agreement. The Irish monk John said, “He should be careful, nonetheless—where has he gone?”
“Probably off to pray. He is very godly.” Seffrid gave the wine on to the rat-faced monk Deodatus, who seemed to enjoy it more than anybody.
“Praise him for that,” John said.
“He comes,” Leovild said, and moved over, to give Roderick a space by the fire.
Roderick came up among them. She had taken on a way of carrying herself, high-headed, with a sort of loose, arrogant swagger, that Seffrid knew he had seen before but could not place. Slender as a river reed, she sank down on Seffrid’s right hand, between him and Leovild.
“God be with all here,” she said, and from the others came a murmur of reply.
“The roads are dangerous,” Seffrid said. “You said something of being on the King’s business? I’m surprised he gave you no more escort than this, especially for treasure.”
“We have nothing thieves would want,” Leovild said. He jabbed hard at the fire. “We have nothing to steal, it was folly to attack us.”
“John brought them down on us,” Deodatus said suddenly. His eyes gleamed with sudden brimming malice. “At that inn, the other night, saying what a trove we carried.” He sneered at the Irish monk. “They thought you meant real wealth, and not just some rotten dusty books.”
The big monk growled at him. But his face sagged. He turned toward Leovild and said, “Probably he is right. Something brought them down on us.”
“Bah,” said Leovild. “It’s done now. I made a mistake, definitely, you maybe. Who cares? God will sort it all out soon enough.”
Roderick was listening to this; now she said, “What’s this of weights?”
Deodatus gave a great jeer of a laugh. John rubbed his hands on his heavy filthy robe. “Not weights—the word is much the same—but books.” His face looked sad in the firefight. “You don’t know of books?” he said.
“Fortunate innocence!” Deodatus said. “Filthy, pagan books, already they have nearly got us killed, or worse.”
“The Greeks are Christian men like you and me,” John said, in a rising temper. “These books came to us through the care and sacrifice of a lot of devout and learned people, including the Emperor himself in Constantinople. They are not—”
“Full of heresy and falsity and sin!” Deodatus was drunk; his red face redder for the firelight, he shook his finger at John. “If you loved God as you love those filthy books—”
John surged up onto his feet, roaring at him, first in Frankish and then suddenly in a volley of Latin; his bony black-spotted hands fisted. Deodatus, shouting retorts, scrambled backwards, trying to get out of the big monk’s way. At something he said, John screeched, and sprang at him, grabbed him up like a rag, and shook him.
“Silence, you mouther of idiocies—until you can tell your cujus from your quibus—” He flung Deodatus down by the fire. “Get you out of my sight.” He stamped away, out of the firelight, and Seffrid heard him around behind the wagon.
Leovild said, “He’s wild for his books, is John.”
Deodatus settled himself by the fire again. “I hate him,” he said, quietly. Seffrid handed him the wine cup.
Roderick said, “The King of France wants these Greek books? What use are books to a King?” She had pushed off her hat, and her close-cropped head rose out of the collar of her jerkin like a dandelion. She lifted the cup to drink.
Leovild said, “The King loves books.” Clearly Leovild’s opinion of the books was closer to Deodatus’ than John’s. Seffrid yawned. The cup came to him, and he drank and passed it on; he was sleepy, and began to think of finding somewhere soft to roll out his new blanket. But it was good to sit in company, and share a cup. John had come back, looking ashamed; he had something in his hand.
“Young Roderick,” he said. “This is a book.”
“Ah, throw it in the fire,” Deodatus muttered, slurring the words; he was halfway lying down, his eyes bleary.
John ignored him. Leovild moved, so that the big monk could sit next to Roderick and show her the object in his hand. Seffrid got the wine cup back from Deodatus; it was empty, and he went around the fire to the cask.
Out beyond the little circle of the fire the night lay dark and breathy with the wind. The river chuckled and moaned over its bed of stones. Seffrid drank half a cup of the wine, standing there; he wondered if the robbers were out in the dark somewhere watching. He would talk to Leovild about standing guard.
He looked back at the fire. The big monk had opened the scroll in his hands. Seffrid had seen books before, sheets of thin stuff rolled around sticks until they took the rolled shape and could not be easily flattened out, and on them marks. Words were only shadows of things, it seemed to Seffrid; marks intended to be taken for words seemed to him shadows of shadows. But the monk there spread the scroll open on his knees, pointing to it as if it were a map to Heaven. Roderick looked up, from the book to the face of the monk, her eyes wide, intent, reading, not the book, but the man.
Seffrid set his teeth together; he felt the stir of jealousy, like bile rising in his throat. What did she, courting this monk? The feeling shocked him, and he turned his back on them. He did not care about her, or should not; no good would come of it.
He felt suddenly that he had come to a crimp in this, an opening through which he could slip away utterly. He could leave her for this monk to deal with. She was going to get him into trouble; she already had. He should escape, get back to his real business, find a master to fight for, to feed and keep him. He stood there, drinking, not moving, knowing he was going nowhere.
The memory of the robbers slipped into his mind, and he gave a half-drunk weary satisfied laugh, remembering his and Roderick’s charge down the hill. That had been a great work. Out there in the dark, he knew, the robbers were still running. He would not be one of them, running away. He would follow Roderick. To see again what he had seen, stooping down onto robbers like a blast of sacred fire, to wrap himself in that light again, he would follow Roderick forever. He dipped the cup into the cask, filled it to the brim, and took it back to her, like an offering.