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Authors: Judith Tarr

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Hounds of God

The Hounds of God

Volume III: The Hound and the Falcon

Judith Tarr

Book View Café Edition
July 3, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-61138-182-5
Copyright © 1986 Judith Tarr
www.bookviewcafe.com

Dedication

For Willie and Bonnie

For Brett

And for Jonika

Epigraph

He knew distinction in three abstractions of sound,
the women’s cry under the thong of Lupercal,
the Pope’s voice singing the Glory on Lateran,
the howl of a wolf in the coast of Broceliande.

Charles Williams
Taliessin Through Logres

1.

The fire had gone out some time since. For all its warmth of
carpets and hangings and its chest of books, the room was cold; icy.

Its occupant seemed not to notice. He sat in his plain dark
robe that could have been anything, lord’s cotte, scholar’s gown,
monk’s habit, intent upon a closely written page. His only light was a
stub of candle, the day having died somewhat before the fire, darkening one of
the greater treasures of the Royal Chancery: the tall glass window that looked
upon the sea.

A second treasure lay on the desk near his hand, the heavy
chain and the jeweled seal of the King’s Chancellor, silver and sapphire,
ashimmer in the unsteady light.

He shifted slightly on his tall scribe’s stool. The
candle, flaring, turned his hair to silver fire.

He heeded the changing light no more than he had the cold.
Or the one who watched him, silent in the doorway, almost smiling.

As he stirred, she stirred likewise. Her feet were soundless
on the eastern carpet, her movements fluid, graceful. Her eyes glinted golden
bronze. In a moment, perhaps, she would burst into laughter.

Directly behind the Chancellor, she paused. He did not move.
She slid her arms about him and set her chin upon his shoulder. He neither
started nor recoiled.

“Look at this,” he said, as if she had been
there reading with him for the past hour and more. “Every year for the
past fifty, the Lord of St. Dol has taken a half-tariff from every boatload of
fish brought into his demesne; taken it and sold it and turned a handsome
profit. But here you see—the fishermen are wise. They take care to pause
in certain havens and folds in the coast, and to dispose of goodly portions of
their catches before submitting the rest to the lord’s inspection, thus
turning handsome profits on their own. So extortion requites extortion, and
everyone knows and no one says a word, and each party grows gratifyingly rich.”

“Very gratifyingly,” she said, amused. It was
not easy, shaped as she was now, to stand for long as she stood; she moved to
his side. His arm settled itself around her swollen middle. She leaned
comfortably against him. “And what will my lord Chancellor do to right
this twofold wrong?”

Her mockery made him smile. “Wrong, Thea? The wrong is
only this, that the King has no share in it. I’ll give the lord His
Majesty’s justice: a half-tariff on his half-tariff. To increase
accordingly if he tries to extort more from his people in order to keep up his
profits.”

She laughed. “That’s royal justice! And the
fishermen?”

“What of the fishermen? They pay their lord duly and
properly. Their share is included in his.”

She shook her head. “You’ll spoil them, Alf.
They’ll begin to think they can wriggle out of their taxes elsewhere.”

“They won’t,” he said, “unless it
pleases them to have their less... public transactions recorded and taxed as
well.”

Her eyes went wide, mock-astounded. “Why, Alfred, my
saintly love, you’re
devious
!”

“It comes with the office.” His free hand
brushed the chain; paused; gathered it up. It was heavy. World-heavy. She knew;
she had set it on his shoulders often enough.

He let it fall again with a cold clashing of silver. “I
didn’t want it,” he said. “I didn’t want anything
except quiet and a book or two, and you. But Gwydion will never be denied.”

“Maddening, isn’t it? There’s one man in
the world who’s more obstinate than you are. And being King, he can do
proper battle against you.”

“I’m not sure if I’d call it proper. He
knighted me—that was bearable; I earned my spurs well enough, if not
entirely gladly. But the spurs had titles attached. Lands; lordship. I had it
all before I even knew it.”

“Baron of the High Council of the Kingdom of Rhiyana,”
she said, savoring it. Warden of the Wood of Broceliande. Kinsman of the King.”

“And what of your own titles, my lady of Careol?”

“They’re lovely. But not as lovely as your face
the day Gwydion gave you yonder chain.” Her eyes danced upon it. “What
a splendid spectacle that was! Here was old Bishop Ogyrfan, raised up to join
Saint Peter’s Chancery, alleluia—where no doubt his talents would
be in great demand. But who would take his place here below? Some elderly
prelate, surely, as dry as his own ledgers, with an abacus for a brain. There
were one or two very likely candidates. And Gwydion stood up in court and
handed the chain to his dear kinsman beside him and said, ‘Labor well for
me, my lord Chancellor.’”

“And his kinsman,” said Alfred, “stood
gawping like a villein at a fair.”

“Actually,” she said, “he looked like a
monk whose abbot has ordered him to embrace a woman. Shocked; indignant; and—buried
deep beneath the rest—delighted.”

“That last, I certainly was not. I was appalled.
Everyone knows what I am: a very reluctant nobleman, and in spite of all your
teaching, still one of the world’s innocents. Do you remember how shocked
I was in Constantinopolis to learn that men are paid to be healers?”

“I remember. I also remember how you took what Gwydion
gave you. Admit it now; you weren’t taken completely by surprise. You’d
wander into the Chancery, maybe to look up a record, maybe to argue law and
Scripture with old Ogrfan, and there’d be some small tangle somewhere.
You’d look, lift that famous eyebrow of yours, and with a word or two you’d
have it all unraveled.”

“It was never that simple.”

“Wasn’t it?” Thea asked. His hand,
forsaking the chain, had come to rest upon the generous swell of her belly. Her
own settled over it. “You have a talent for ordering kingdoms. As for so
much else.”

Beneath their hands life woke, rolling and kicking, a
prominence that might have been a heel, a tight coil of body. The sudden light
in Alf’s face made Thea’s breath catch. Her laughter showed it,
light, not entirely steady. “He wears armor, that son of yours. And
spurs.”

Alf’s arms linked behind her; he smiled his swift
brilliant smile. “You don’t mind.”

“Not much, I don’t. Once he’s born, I’ll
give as good as I get.”

He laughed softly and laid his cheek where his hand had
been. She looked down upon the top of his head with its thick, fine, white-fair
hair; the pale lashes on the pale cheeks, and the lingering curve of his smile.
If she looked very closely in the candle’s flicker, she could discern the
thickening of down that might, in time, become a beard.

She shook her head wryly. She had never met a man less vain,
or with more reason to be; but sometimes she caught him in front of her mirror,
frowning at his reflection.

It was always the same. Piercing-fair, luminous-pale, and
very young. But the eyes as he stared into the polished silver, those were not
a boy’s at all.

Nor was his voice, that had the purity of a tenor bell. “Marry
me, Thea,” he said.

That ritual was years old. She completed it as she always
had. “What! and ruin my reputation?”

“I’m thinking of our children.” Which was
the new litany, nearly ten months old.

“So am I,” she said. “They’ll be
beautiful little bastards.”

He stiffened a little at the word, relaxing with an effort. “They
should not have to be—”

“It’s somewhat too late for that. And what
priest would marry us? I’m a Greek, a schismatic. I won’t convert
to Rome even for you, my love.”

“Jehan wouldn’t care. He should be here tomorrow—even
today. He’d be more than glad to make us respectable.”

“Jehan would go to Hell for you if you asked him. But
you won’t, nor will you ask him this. I won’t agree to it.”

He raised his head. He was neither hurt nor angry, only
puzzled. “Why?”

“I love to be a scandal.”

“In this place,” he said, “that’s
not easy.”

“Of course not. There’s Prince Aidan—he
wanted a full court wedding. And his bride a wild Saracen, an honest-to- Heaven
Assassin. It took ten years and five Popes and all his mighty powers of
persuasion, but he had his way. Then the Archbishop wouldn’t say the
words, and began a new battle royal. I have to work to keep up with that.”

He sighed; rose and stretched. He was tall; he could seem
frail, with his long limbs and his moonflower skin. Now and then a stranger
would think him fair prey, a lovely boy as meek as a girl; would prick him and
find the hunting leopard.

It was not for his scholarship, or even for his feats in
Chancery, that the King had dubbed him knight. “I wish you would see
reason,” he said.

She smiled her most wicked smile “I see it now. You want
to keep me to yourself. Fie for shame, sir! I’m a free woman; I can do as
I please.”

His gaze rested upon her, clear as sunlit water and utterly
undismayed. “There are two edges to that sword, my lady. Fidelity I
gladly meet with fidelity. But if you, being free, decide to stray...”

“You wouldn’t.”

He smiled sweetly. “Gwydion’s court is the
fairest in the world. No lady in it surpasses you, but one or two could be your
equal.”

Her teeth bared; her eyes went narrow and vicious, cat-wild.
“I’ll claw her eyes out!”

Even in his amusement he reached for her, afraid, for she
shifted and blurred. For an instant the woman’s form wavered behind that
of a golden lioness tensed to spring. But the vision faded. Thea stood in her
own form, glowing in amber silk, crackling with temper.

His hand retreated. He remembered to breathe again.

Her glare seared him. “And well you might tremble for
provoking me so! Or do you
want
your
son to be born a lion cub?”

He met her fierce witch-eyes. His own were milder but no
more human; he smiled. “I want that for my son no more than you want it
for your daughter.”

“She might profit from it.”

“Then so might he.” Alt took her hands and
kissed them. “My sweet lady, you have no rival and you know it. And it’s
only a little longer that you need suffer confinement to this single shape.
When our children are born, when you’re strong again, we’ll run
away for a while. An hour; a day. We’ll run wolf-grey through
Broceliande; we’ll fly on falcon-wings. We’ll be like young lovers
again.”

Her temper was cooling, but it smoldered still. “
We
, Alf? Are you going to forget your
fears at last and venture the change?”

Slowly he nodded. “I’m ready,” he said. “At
long last. I think, with you to share it, I could let go.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Alfred.”

His smile neither wavered nor weakened, although his fingers
were cold. “I mean you to.”

“Good, because you’ve left yourself no choice at
all.” She tilted her head slightly, looking up at him, making no secret
of the pleasure she took in it.

His hands were warming again to their wonted fire-heat, that
made him impervious to winter’s cold. He had willed his tension away, the
old fear, the deep dread that struck in the midst of the change, when no part
of his body was solid or stable and all his being threatened to scatter into
the wind. But for all of that fear, he was a very great enchanter, equal to any
of their people; save only, perhaps, the King.

“And you,” he said softly, caught in her mind as
she was caught in his.

“In some of the arts,” she admitted, “maybe.
In others you pass us all.” Her laughter had come back all at once to
ripple over him. “Then, sir prophet, how is it that you cannot see? Jehan
is here. Has been here this past hour and more.”

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