Read Hounds of God Online

Authors: Judith Tarr

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Hounds of God (5 page)

The Queen herself played on the pipe. The lutenist—O
rarity!—was the King’s own Chancellor. He was ridiculously shy of
playing and singing in company, but his skill was as precious-rare as his
displaying of it.

They clustered round him, the court, all the Kindred: Thea
banked in cushions at his feet, Alun drowsing against her; Nikki with lovely
Tao-Lin in his lap; Gwydion stretched out like a boy in a bed of hounds and
Fair Folk.

Alf’s voice grew out of the music, soft, achingly
pure.

“Chanson do·lh mot son plan e prim
farai pois que boton oill vim;
e l’auzor
son de color
de manta flor....

“‘A song I’ll make of words both plain and
fine, for the buds are on the bough, and the trees bear the colors of a mantle
of flowers....’”

They gave him their accolade, a full ten breaths of silence.
Thea broke it with laughter both tender and teasing. “My lord, my lord,
you torment us—such yearning for spring, here in the very heart of
winter.”

His eyes met hers and sparked. “There is fitness,”
he said, “and there is fitness. Take this to heart and mind, milady”—sudden
and swift and fierce, all passion, all mockery:

“No vuoill de Roma l’emperi
ni c’om m’en fassa apostoli,
q’en lieis non aia revert
per cui m’art lo cars e·m rima;
e si·l maltraich no·m restaura
ab un baisar anz d’annou
mi auci e si enferna!

“‘I would not wish to be the Emperor of Rome,
nor make me its Pope, that I could not return to her for whom my heart both
burns and breaks; if she will not restore me from this torment with a kiss
before the new year—then me she slays, herself she sends to Hell!’”

“Bravo!” they all cried as the lute thundered to
a halt.

“You heard him, Thea,” Alun said. “And
here it is, almost Twelfth Night. You’d better do it quickly before his
prophecies come true.”

But before she could struggle up, Alf had her, drawing her
bulk easily into his lap. She glowered at him. “Coercion, this,”
she said darkly. “Compulsion by poetry. Cruel, unusual—”

He sighed, languishing. “Then I am slain, alas. Or shall
I take refuge on Saint Peter’s throne?”

“I yield, I yield!” And after a goodly while: “You
wouldn’t.” His eyes were glinting. “Dear God! I believe you
would.”

oOo

“Imagine it,” said Jehan. “Pope—what?
Innocent? Boniface, with that bonny face of his? He wouldn’t be the first
enchanter in the Holy See, and he’s closer to a saint than most who’ve
sat there.”

Anna’s brows went up. “Some would say there’s
no ‘close’ about it. Thea for one. Though to my mind, the distance
is just exactly the breadth of her body.”

That, coming from a woman and one of breeding besides,
disconcerted the Bishop not at all. In fact it delighted him. “Anna my
love, we should loose you on the schools.”

“Don’t,” she said. “They’d
never survive it.”

“Oh, but what a wonder to watch them fall, laid low by
one woman’s wit.”

“Poor proud creatures.” She took the ivory
bishop from his hand, returning it to its home on the board. “I rather
pity them. Masters and scholars, clerics all, professing a celibacy few care to
observe—and they fulminate at length on the frailty of the female. Should
I be the one to disabuse them?”

“It might do them good.”

She shook her head. “No. Let them play. I’ve
enough to do here with all these wild witch-children.”

“Children!” He laughed. “Some of them are
ancient.”

“Do years matter to them?”

He looked hard at her. He had a sharp eye, and a mind
sharper still behind the battered soldier’s face. “Anna. Is
everything well with you?”

“Of course.” She said it clearly, without
wavering, even with a smile and a glint of mischief. “Let me guess. You
worry. Little Anna’s not so little any more. And here she is where she’s
been for the past dozen years, living in Caer Gwent, studying what and when it
suits her, traveling when the urge strikes her, lacking for nothing. Except that
any self-respecting woman of her age ought to be safely married, whether to a
suitable man or to God.”

“Do you want that?” he asked.

“I never have. I’d like to go on and on as I am.
Except...”

“Except?”

She shook her head. “Nothing. This is an odd place to
live in, don’t you know? All the magic. All the Folk—the wonders;
the strangenesses. You’d think after more than half my life here I’d
be used to it. But I’m not. I can remember when I was little, living in
the City. Mother, Father, Irene; Corinna—do you remember her? Franks
killed her. They killed my whole City. But Alf and Thea took me away, took me
in and brought me up, taught me and tended me and loved me. They gave me so
much; still give it, unstinting. I don’t think anyone has been as
fortunate as I am.

“But you see, it can’t last. Sooner or later
they’ll go away. Probably sooner. Then where will I be?”

“Where people have always been when they grow up.”

“Alone.”

“Alone, maybe. But luckier than most. You have wealth,
you have learning; you can live as you please.”

“I can, can’t I?” She took his large hand
in her own very small one. “In that case, I know whom I want for my
knight.”

“What! Not one of the handsome fellows here?”

“None of them is also a bishop.”

“You are clever, taking in heaven and earth in one
fell swoop.”

“Why not, when it’s so convenient?”

He laughed and bowed extravagantly and kissed her hand. “At
your service, then, fair lady, and gladly too.” He rose. “Shall we
abandon the chessboard for a turn of the dance?”

oOo

They were dancing indeed, steps and music new from Paris,
with variations that were all Rhiyana. Even the humans here had an air, a grace
that was not quite of their kind, a hint of magic. It made their court the
fairest in the world; it made their dancing wonderful.

Nikki whirled out of a wild
estampie
, dropping to the floor beside Thea, lying for a moment in
a simple ecstasy of stillness. He grinned at her; she smiled back and patted
his cheek. “Handsome boy,” she said. “When I finish atoning
for my last sin, will you help me commit another?”

He laughed. His breath was coming back. He sat up,
appropriating a share of her cushions, settling with the ease and completeness
of a cat. The dance spun on; would spin the night away with hardly a pause,
beating down the old year, pressing out the new.

Thea, bound to earth by the weight of her body, could only
watch. She played with Nikki’s hair, smoothing it, trying to tame it. It
curled, which was fashionable; it curled riotously, which was not.

Women always yearned to stroke it. But only Thea could do
that when and as she pleased.

He looked at her and stifled a sigh. She was so very
beautiful. They worried a little, Alf, the King; she was not well made for
childbearing, too slight, too narrow. But she was strong; she had carried well,
with both grace and pride. She had been riding and dancing right up to
Yuletide.

His teeth clicked together. He examined her more closely.
She was unwontedly sedentary tonight, content to recline like an eastern queen,
gravid, serene. But Thea was never, ever serene.

Was she a little paler than she should be?

Her mind seemed to hold nothing but pleasure in his presence
and intentness on the dance. The swift drumming of the
estampie
had given way to a subtler rhythm. Strange, complex: a
clatter of nakers, a beating of drums, a high thin wailing of pipes. Gwydion
had left throne and crown to tread the new measure; his image whirled beyond
him, gold and scarlet to his white and silver, dizzying to watch: man and
mirror, twin and twin, king and royal prince caught up in the rhythm of the
dance.

“They dance for the life of the kingdom,” said
Thea.

Nikki nodded slowly. He could feel the swift pulse of it,
strong as the beating of the drums, frail as the wailing of the pipes. They
were all in it now save only she. Even Alf, tall sword-slim youth with hair
flying silver-fair, reticence and scholarship forgotten, unleashing for this
moment his lithe panther’s grace.

With each movement he drew closer to the center, to the
King. The pattern shaped and firmed about him. Wheels wove within wheels. Human
bodies, human wills, human minds babbled oblivious; but at the heart of them
swelled a mighty magic.

Here in the White Keep at the turning of the year, under the
rule of the Elvenking, his Kindred had raised their power. Power beyond each
single flame of witchery, power to shake the earth or to hold it on its course;
power to sustain their kingdom against all the forces of the dark.

Thea tapped Nikki between the shoulders, a slight,
imperative push. “Go on. Help them.”

He hesitated. He—he was not—

“For me,” she said, fierce-eyed.

There was a space, a gap, a weakness in the pattern. He let
it take him.

oOo

A much larger presence took Nikki’s place at Thea’s
side. Jehan had left Anna with a crowd of young scholars, all wild and some
brilliant, concealing their awe of the royal court behind an air of great
ennui. The presence of a bishop, a friend of the Pope himself, had been rather
too much for them.

Thea could remember him as a novice with a pocketful of
stolen figs, reading the
Almagest
in
a hayloft. She grinned at him; he grinned back.

“There’s magic in the air tonight,” he
said.

“Ah, shame! You’ve been here a scarce week and
already you’re corrupted. You’ll be singing spells next.”

“The Mass is quite sufficient for me.”

“And what is that but the very greatest of enchantments?”
She shifted a little, carefully. With no apparent haste he was there,
supporting her, easing her awkward weight. His eyes were very, very keen.

Irritably she pushed him away. “I am
not
delicate!” she snapped.

He was not at all perturbed, although she could blast him
with a thought. Calmly, boldly, he laid his hands upon her belly. “Not
delicate,” he said cheerfully, “but none too comfortable, either.
When did it start?”

A hot denial flared, died. He was human; he had no power;
but he had never been a fool.

She lowered her eyes. “It’s nothing yet. Just a
pang here and there.”

“How long?”

“Since before dinner.”

His fingers probed gently, unobtrusively, and with alarming
skill. He did not say what she knew as well as he: that one small body was as
it should be, but the other was not, the daughter as willful-contrary as her
mother.

“You’ve been shielding,” he said.

“For my own peace of mind. The longer it takes Alf to
start shaking, the better we’ll all be.”

He shook his head. The humans had fallen one by one out of
the dance. It was all of the Kindred, and Nikephoros among them, small and dark
and solid but utterly a part of them. The King had left their center; one spun
there alone, all the pattern in his long white fingers, all the power singing
through him, about him, out of him. If he let go—if he even slipped—all
would shatter, pattern and power and the minds of those who shaped both.

Jehan loosed his breath in a long hiss. “But it’s
Gwydion who should be—”

“The King is King of Rhiyana, mortal and otherwise.
That,” said Thea, “is the Master of Broceliande.”

Jehan understood. “God’s strong right arm!”
he muttered. “Our Brother Alf, the master sorcerer of them all.”

“Exactly. And tonight of all nights, he needs his full
power. No troubles; no distractions.”

“But—” Wisely Jehan set his lips together
and began again. “He’s arming the last of your defenses. But I
thought they were all in the Wood.”

“Gwydion won’t neglect the whole of his kingdom.
Nor,” she added, “will Alfred. Those two are a perfect pair.”

He did not smile at her mockery. He was still absorbing what
she had told him. “I always knew he was strong. But as strong as that...
How did you ever get him to admit it?”

“We didn’t. He hasn’t. He’s simply
doing what he has to do.”

In fire, in splendor; leaping, whirling, soaring like a
falcon, swooping down to strike the earth itself, strike it and hold it and
guard it, and drive back all who dared to ride against it.

Thea’s teeth set. Jehan saw. There was no shielding
from those eyes or those hands. She gripped him with strength enough to make
him wince. “Don’t—
don’t
—”

It was a gasp, but it was loud, startling. The music had
stopped. The dancers stood poised, their pattern complete.

It frayed and shredded. Its center flashed through a rent,
like light, like white fire. Jehan fell back before him.

Thea regarded him without fear, even with amusement. “Dearest
fool,” she said, “it’s only childbirth. It happens every day.”

“Not to you.” He lifted her. He was breathless,
his hair wild, his face both flushed and pale; he looked hardly old enough to
have fathered a child, let alone to be the prop and center of all Rhiyana’s
magic. But his eyes were still too bright to meet. “What I should do to
you for your deceit—”

“It served its purpose, didn’t it?” She
let her head rest on his shoulder. “Well, my love, are we going to make a
spectacle of ourselves here, or would you prefer a little privacy?”

For a moment the flush conquered the pallor. He held her
close, kissed the smooth parting of her hair, and strode swiftly toward the
door.

5.

“It’s taking a very long time,” Alun said.

They had converged on Jehan’s small chamber: Alun,
Nikki, Anna. That it was very close to Thea’s childbed, being the
chaplain’s cell of the Chancellor’s Tower, had something to do with
their presence there, but they seemed to take comfort in the occupant himself.

None of them had slept much. Alun was owl-eyed but almost
fiercely alert, perched at the end of the hard narrow bed. “All night it’s
been,” he said. “I don’t like it.”

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