Read Hounds of God Online

Authors: Judith Tarr

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Hounds of God (9 page)

Gwydion had surged forward, mad-enraged, poised to kill.
Gently Aidan eased the body from his brother’s arms and laid it in the
hands of the monks. Gwydion stood motionless, as if power and strength had
deserted him in that one wild rush. His eyes could not even follow the Brothers
as they bore their burden away. He was empty; broken.

The Prince touched his shoulder. His own hand came up in
turn. It was uncanny, like a vision of mirrors. But one image, the one in
well-worn hunting garb, had let the tears come. The other would not.

Still would not, as Alf would not sleep. The castle thrummed
with it, a tension that would not break, a grief beyond all bearing. Not for
friends or brother or Kin would Gwydion give way, not even for the Queen
herself.

He had shut them all away. Maura tossed in Aidan’s bed
while the Prince and his Saracen strove between them to comfort her. She was
not cruel enough to resist, but there was no easing that suffering, even by the
magic of the Flame-bearer’s voice.

Alf’s head drooped; he shivered. Half a day and half a
night of this had poisoned the whole castle. Worse yet, a storm had come up out
of the sea, fierce and bitter cold as the King’s own heart. The winds
wailed more heartrendingly than all the women in the city; the clouds were as
black as grief.

Not a few folk suspected that the storm was the King’s
own, called up out of his madness. Was he not the greatest mage in the world?

“It cannot go on.”

Alf started at the sound of his own voice. His fists had
clenched on his thighs. He regarded them as if they belonged to a stranger. “It
has to stop,” he said to them.

Granted; and everyone admitted it. But no one had been able
to do a thing about it.

“Someone has to.”

Aidan himself had tried and failed, and he could rule his
brother where even the Queen could not.

Alf shook his head. His hair swung, heavy, half blinding
him. It needed cutting. Thea had meant to do it—before—

His teeth set: He was as mad as the King, he knew it. But he
had learned a greater skill in concealing it.

Maybe that was what Gwydion needed. A skill. A mask. Enough
to hold his kingdom together before it shattered.

Alf was erect, walking. He let his feet lead him where they
would.

Like the Chancellor, the King had his own tower, set close
to the prow of the castle. Light glimmered in its lofty windows, all but lost
in the murk of the storm.

Alf climbed the long winding stair. It was black dark; he
walked by the shimmer of power about his feet. Solid though the stones were,
they trembled faintly in the wind’s fury; its shrieking filled his ears.

The door of the topmost chamber was shut but not bolted. For
a moment Alf hesitated. He was not afraid; but one did not pass this door
lightly. Common folk whispered that here was the heart of Gwydion’s
magic, that it was a place of great enchantment, full of marvels.

In truth it was plain enough. A circular room with tall
narrow windows all about it, and when the sun was high, a splendid prospect of
land and sea. It held a table, a chair or two, a worn carpet; a chest of books—but
not a grimoire among them—and a writing case, and a trinket or two. A
lamp of bronze, very old; a silver pitcher in the shape of a lion, its open
mouth the spout; and the only possible instrument of wizardry, a ball of
crystal on a stand of ebony.

The windows glistened blackly in the lamp’s light.
Gwydion stood framed in that which by day looked upon the sea. Tonight, even
for witch-eyes, there was nothing to see; yet he gazed into the darkness, erect
and very still.

Alf eased the door shut behind him. Gwydion spoke, soft and
even. “Not a good night for riding, this.”

“Would you try?” Alf asked with equal calm.

One shoulder lifted. “I did at least once, if you
remember.”

It was the first Alf had ever seen of Rhiyana’s King.
A storm out of Hell, a weary mare, a rider all blood and filth, beaten, broken,
and yet indomitable.

The wounds had healed long ago, the bones knit, even the
shattered sword hand learned again its skill, although to a keen eye it bore a
memory of maiming, a slight twisting, a stiffness when it flexed.

He had never let Alf heal it properly. Like Jehan, he needed
the reminder.

“And I heed it,” he said. He turned. His face
was still; his eyes burned. “I rule myself. I do not pull down these
walls about my head.”

“No. You merely pull down your whole kingdom.”

The King said nothing. Alf sat near the table and closed his
eyes. Now that he needed most to be alert—now, by nature’s irony,
he knew he could sleep.

When his eyes opened, Gwydion stood over him. He let his
head rest against the chair’s high back. “You can’t go on
like this,” he said. “Mourn, yes; storm Heaven and Hell; swear
eternal vengeance. But not while Rhiyana needs you.”

Still no response.

He sighed. “Yes. Alun is dead. Your only son. As if he
were all you could ever beget in all the eons before you; as if he could have
been King after you and not the mortal cousin to whom the throne should rightly
pass. As if no other man in all the black and bloody world had ever looked upon
the murdered body of his child—as if God Himself had not known the pain
that you know now, that you thrust upon us all without a thought for our own
grief.”

“If it troubles you,” Gwydion said just above a
whisper, “get out of my mind.”

“I can’t. You won’t let me. You want me to
suffer as you suffer, drop by bitter drop, down to the very dregs.” Alf
spread his hands wide. “All Rhiyana must howl with your agony, though it
be destroyed. The Crusade will enter; the Church will rule in blood and fire;
all you built through your long kingship will vanish, burned or stolen or
slain. Was one child, however beloved, however brilliant his promise—was
one half-grown boy worth so much?”

“He was my son.”

“He would hate you for this.”

There was a silence full of ice and fire. Alf let his heavy
eyelids fall. “I loved him, too,” he said, “and not because
he was any prince of mine, or because he was the son of two whom I love,
friends who are more to me than blood kin. I loved him because he was himself.
And he is dead, foully murdered, my sister taken, my lady torn from me, my
children slain perhaps as yours was slain. Must I bear all your burdens
besides?”

“You do not know that they are dead.”

“I do not know that they live!” Alf drew himself
into a knot, trembling a little with exhaustion and with grief. “If you
do not school yourself to endurance,” he said carefully lest his voice
break, “then I give you fair warning, I will do all I can to compel you.”

“You would not dare—”

Alf looked at him. Simply looked. “You see, Gwydion.
Rhiyana, its people, even my kin—in the end, they matter less than this
plain truth. Your self-indulgence is driving me mad.”

Gwydion stood motionless. They were evenly matched in body
and in mind. But Alf huddled in the tall chair, and Gwydion poised above him,
tensed as if to spring.

The King’s hands rose. Alf did not flinch. They caught
his face between them; the grey eyes searched it, searing cold. Yet colder and
more burning was the voice in his mind.
You
were always the perfect cleric. All crawling humility, but beneath it the pride
of Lucifer.

Which,
said Alf,
I have always and freely admitted.

“Bastard.” It was a hiss. “Lowborn,
fatherless, whelped in a byre—I gave you honor. I gave you lordship. I
even gave you the teaching of my son. And for what? That he should lie dead in
defense of your ill-gotten offspring, and that you should threaten my majesty
with force.”

“No majesty now,” murmured Alf with banked heat.
He rose, eye to blazing eye. “Have you had enough? Or do you need to flog
me further? You’ve yet to castigate all my charlatan’s tricks.”
His power gathered, coiled. But he spoke as softly as ever in a tone of quiet
scorn, the master weary at last of his pupil’s insolence. “Control
yourself or be controlled. I care little which, so long as I have peace.”

It was the plain truth. Plain enough for a human to read,
even for the Elvenking in his shell of madness.

Gwydion drew a sharp and hurting breath. No one, not even
his brother, had ever faced him so, addressed him so, looked upon him with such
utter disregard for his royalty. “I curse the day I called you my
kinsman.”

Alf’s lips thinned, setting into open contempt.
Gwydion struck them.

They bruised and split and bled. The eyes above them raked
him with scorn. No king, he. Not even a man, who could not bear a grief any
mortal villein could overcome. He wallowed in it; he let it master him.

Weakling. Coward. Fool.

He whirled away. He was strong. He was King. He would
command—he would compel—

Alf touched his shoulder. A light touch, almost tentative,
almost like a woman’s. Aye; he was as beautiful as one, with that bruised
and beardless face.

Body and mind armed against him. Gently, persistently, he
drew Gwydion about. “Brother,” he said, close to tears. “Oh,
brother, I would give my imagined soul to have him alive again.”

Gwydion’s power reared like a startled colt. Braced
for the whip, it had fallen prey to the silken halter: that gentle hand, that
breaking voice, that flood of sorrow.

His body stood rooted. Light hands on his shoulders; tears
streaming down pale cheeks; great grieving eyes.

They blurred. A spear stabbed; a dam broke. Somewhere very
far away, a voice cried aloud.

oOo

Gwydion looked once more into Alf’s face. It was as
quiet as his own, emptied, serene. “Bastard,” he said to it calmly.

Alf smiled, not easily, for it hurt. Gwydion ran a finger
along his lip, granting ease of the small pain. “Behold, your beauty
saved. It’s a great deal more than you deserve.”

“You’re sane enough,” Alf said, “though
you’re talking like your brother.”

“And why not? I feel like my brother. Angry.”

“Glad.” Alf’s knees gave way; he sank down
surprised. “Did you fight as hard as that?”

Gwydion dropped beside the other. As abruptly as he had
wept, he began to laugh. It was laughter full of pain, but genuine for all
that. “Someday, my friend, you’ll meet a man you can’t witch
to your will.”

“There is one woman—” Alf bit his mended
lip and struggled up. “My lord—”


Now
it is ‘my
lord.’” Gwydion caught him and held him. He resisted; the King
tightened his grip. “No, Alfred. Here, one does not heal with love and
hot iron, and walk away with one’s own wounds still bleeding.”

“They are cauterized,” Alf said. “Maura’s
are not.”

“You are always armed, my knight of Broceliande.”
Gwydion let him go and

paused. A gust of grief struck him, shook him, passed.

He swallowed bruising-hard. His voice when it came seemed
hardly his own. “Yes. She needs me more. At this moment. Later...”

“Later will come when it comes.”

“And then we will speak,” said the King, still with
that edge of iron, but with eyes cleansed of all his madness.

oOo

Nikki had cried himself to sleep and cried himself awake
again. His eyes burned; his throat ached. He felt bruised, mind and body.

He drew into a knot in the center of the bed. His companion
stirred and edged closer, curling warmly against him. She recked nothing of
loss or of sorrow; she knew only that he had need of her presence. In a little
while, when he lay still, empty, she began to purr.

He stroked the sleek fur. He got on well with cats; people
liked to call this one his familiar, because she never seemed to be far from
him. Sometimes Thea, playing her witch-tricks, had taken on that sleek black
form with its emerald eyes, and nestled in the curve of his belly as the true
cat did now, and waited till he wavered on the brink of sleep; then flowed
laughing into her own, bare, supple shape.

It was only a cat tonight. Thea was gone, Anna was gone,
Cynan and Liahan were lost, Alun was dead. The world had broken in a single
stroke of power, nor could it ever wholly be mended.

A light weight settled on his bed’s edge. He opened
his eyes to Alf’s face. It was the same as always, though tired and
drawn, shadow-eyed. It even smiled a little, in greeting, in comfort.

Nikki sat up, suddenly ashamed. It was not as if he had
never known his world to break. It had shattered utterly when he was very
young, sweeping away his house and his family and all his city; beside that,
this was a small thing.

“But this is now, and that was long ago.” Alf
lay down as if he could not help himself, resting his head in the crook of his
arm. The cat, enchanted, found a new resting place against his side. Her body
shook with the force of her purring.

He stroked her idly, his face quiet. Nikki watched him. He
would sleep soon. It was his own bed he could not bear.

“No,” he said though he did not move to rise. “I
don’t mean to—”

I don’t mind,
said Nikki.

Alf flushed faintly. “It’s true I’d rather
not—I haven’t slept alone since—”

Since he came to Thea’s bed. Nikki schooled his face
to stillness.

“It becomes a habit,” Alf said after a little. “A
necessity of sorts. Even—especially—to one like me. I was a priest
so long… Do you know, I never knew what it was to desire a woman until I
saw her? She was the first woman of my own kind that I had ever seen. The only
one who—ever—”

Nikki held him while he wept. It was not hard weeping. Most
of it was exhaustion, and power stretched to its limit.

Yet it seemed a long while before he quieted. When Nikki let
him go, he lay back open-eyed.

You’ll sleep
now,
Nikki said.

He stiffened. “I can’t. I mustn’t. If anything—if
Thea—”

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