Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fantastic Fiction, #Wizards, #Fantasy - Series
does not truly run-though she has folk stationed in pretense of goy
ernance. if these hills are held by anyone, they are held by the mountaineers who call themselves Switzers."
Suddenly the geography clicked into place, and I frowned. "But aren't you kind of going the long way around? To go through Switzerland to get into Allustria?"
The commander nodded. " 'Tis even so. Yet there is no other way to come upon the minions of Queen Suettay unawares. Even coming down from the mountains, we may be espied."
"I think not," I said slowly. "If you go down through the pass I came from, you may find that the functionary who's supposed to watch that crossing point may not have been replaced yet." He glanced at me keenly. "Have you slain him, then?"
"Her," I corrected, "and no, I didn't do any killing. Persuaded her to see the error of her ways, you might say." I didn't like the way he looked at me then, and I added quickly, "Don't get any ideas. I'm not a missionary."
"You must have a silvered tongue, then, to have so swayed one of Queen Suettay's liege men!"
I noticed my correction about gender hadn't taken, and I wasn't surprised. People tend to see what they want to see, and the Middle Ages kind of locked people into certain expectations, blinding them to anything they hadn't been taught. I recognized this whole business about needing to take arms against evil as just another excuse for doing what Christianity forbade, which amounted to hypocrisy. I wasn't about to say that out loud, though. Standing for truth is one thing, but saying it when you haven't been asked is another. I had no desire to get pummeled, or to become the subject of an impromptu beheading.
But I was still kind of dazed by the notion of an order of military monks. I wondered what their monastery looked like. Did it have a gate, or a portcullis?
"Strange that you know so little of your own land," the commander sighed, "from sojourning so long among the paynim. Yet you are a scholar, and therefore also a gentleman-though you know not the weapons of honor."
Again, I nodded. I knew something of late medieval society. A gentleman was below the aristocracy, but above the peasantry-upper middle class, in my own day's terms. Knights qualified, but by the eighteenth century, so did squires, even if they never became knights. They owned enough land to have several tenant farmers, and generally had more education than most. At this point in historyassuming it to be about 1350; I didn't dare ask, for fear of betraying ignorance that might make me suspect-that meant being able to read and write, and knowing table manners and strict rules of protocol. Not that these boys seemed all that big on class distinctions, though-I saw knights in their gambesons, fetching buckets of water and lighting campfires, right along with their squires. "Uh," I said. And, "I notice that your men are fetching and carrying, right along with their squires."
"Aye," he said. " 'Tis a lesson in humility."
"But," I said, "when I came up, you said all I was good for was fetching and carrying."
"Aye, and I regret the haste of my words-yet by your appearance, who was to know your quality? Still, friend, though peasants may be fit only for hewing wood and drawing water, a knight is fit for any task, short of those fit only for royal blood, or appropriate to a monk."
"But knights can draw water and gather wood, too, eh?" I nodded; it made sense, within their worldview. You can always do less than you're able-and to them, it was a gesture of humility-but you can't do more. The idea raised my hackles, especially since I knew damn well that any man could learn to ride or swing a broadsword-though I would have been the first to admit that some can learn it better than others. It was just that my enlightened age believes that every task is as honorable as any other-or tries to, anyway. "But you're monks, too."
"Aye, and like other monks, we labor at menial tasks as well as great, to make us mindful that we, too, are only mortal, and must strive lifelong if we would become saints in Heaven." Something about that struck a faint resonance of rightness within me. I tried to ignore it. "Meaning that all people are equal in God's eyes? " He stared at me as if I had spoken treason. "Nay, nay! Only that all may become saints, after death!"
But some saints were greater than others, no doubt. I had a vision of Heaven with everyone walking around with different sizes of halos, and smaller houses for the peasant-saints but bigger houses for the gentry-saints, and of course palaces for the aristocratsaints. My mouth quirked, and I had to bite my lip to keep from
laughing, then speak quickly to cover up. "In that case, do you mind if I help? " The commander smiled slowly. "Why, how is this?
Will you now freely offer to do what you refused, when commanded?" I looked up at him, amused. "Kind of answered your own question, haven't you? "
The commander laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. "Aye, you are indeed a gentleman! We will be glad of your aid.', "And I'm glad of your hospitality," I rejoined, "for which, my thanks. Even with the opening wrestling match, you're a lot more friendly than the last bunch I ran into."
The tension was back, suddenly; he was alert all over again. "Who were they, and where?"
"A knight and his men-at-arms," I answered slowly. "Don't know their names, but his shield had a torch turned upside down and mashed flat. "Sir Hohle of the Tarn," he said, his face grim. "I know him by repute, and all of it is evil. Where did you meet him?"
"On the other side of the pass, and a long way down, before the climbing became really steep."
" 'Tis well; his horses could not follow. What manner of welcome did they give you?"
"None at all; they used me for a punching bag, until I got mad and started hitting back."
"Mad? You are a berserker, then?"
"No, no!" I closed my eyes, then looked up at him with a forced smile. "I meant 'angry.' I knocked down a couple of them, and the knight decided to flatten me-but his horse crumpled underneath him, and the fall knocked him out' "Sheer happenstance?" The commander frowned. "I trust it not.
What spirit wards you?"
That brought a chill trickle of familiarity through my vitals, but I shrugged and said, "Just the usual guardian angel, as far as I know.
" "Then it must have been something you said," the commander mused.
"Are you a wizard?"
Again, that cold trickle-I couldn't think why. "Not as far as I know." I didn't bother mentioning what had happened to Sobaka; surely that must have been my guardian angel at work. Or my hallucination ... Hallucinations that happen to somebody else?
"It may be that you have an inborn talent for magic," the commander said, brooding. "If so, walk very carefully! The merest misstep might cast you into the power of the Evil One-for folk who have such gifts draw either on the power of Satan, or the power of God, though they know it not. Beware, lest you evoke a power you wish not to worship."
That got my back up. I wasn't about to worship any source of power, no matter where it came from. After all, who'd worship Niagara Falls, just because it produced electricity? "Thanks for the advice," I said, though. I've always tried to be polite, but at the moment, I had extra reasons.
" 'Tis scarcely a matter for astonishment, that you had so ill a greeting," he said, "since you were coming out of Allustria. In truth, I am amazed you could walk through that benighted land with no i-nore unpleasantness than such as they gave." He stopped by a stack of leather buckets and handed me a couple. I braced for another scene, but he picked up two himself and started walking toward the stream that was gurgling nearby.
Mollified, I followed. "I wasn't in Allustria very long." That much, at least, was true.
He nodded. "You came through the Balkans, then?" I didn't want to tell a real lie, so I said, "I wasn't about to ask for hospitality there." I looked up sharply at a sudden thought.
"Wait a minute! That's why you insisted on that wrestling match, wasn't it?
To see if I'd pull any tricks!"
"We did test you," he admitted. "Think not harshly of us, I prithee. You were coming from Allustria-we marked you as soon as you came forth from the pass-and you wear outlandish garments . Who knew but you might be a sorcerer come amongst us?" I stopped, frowning. "How do you know I'm not?"
"Why, a sorcerer would have used foul magics to best his opponent, before ever the man had struck him-or, at least, would have used foul blows and no slightest mercy. You accorded your opponent first strike and did what you could to lessen the impact of his
So he had noticed why I'd held on to the kid's arm. I nodded slowly; for the first time in my life, starting with a fight made sense.
Suddenly, I felt bad about deceiving him, especially if I was going to accept his hospitality. What had happened to my obsession with truth? "Actually," I said, "I didn't go into Allustria by my own
choice. I was in my homeland, thousands of miles away, and a very large spider bit me. I blacked out, and when I came to, I was on the other side of that mountain." I gestured behind us. The commander stopped in his tracks, staring at me. "Were you truly? Then you have been transported hither by some great magical power! "
"One that works through spider bites?"
He glanced to either side and lowered his voice. "I have heard of such-of a Spider King, whom no one knows to be either good or evil. " Instinctively, I liked this arachnid autocrat. "Where can I find him?
Maybe he can send me home!" Could I dispel the hallucination by working through its own terms?
"None knows, nor do I think he would send you hence, for he must have brought you here for a purpose of his own." He frowned down at me for a few seconds, then forced a smile. "Still, be of good cheer! It may be you were transported here by a saint!"
I shuddered, deciding that, saint or Spider King, I was dealing with superstition.
That was what this whole scene was, of course. Was that what was really underneath my rationalist mind-a superstitious subconscious?
The commander turned away and started walking again. "Still, if you waked in Allustria, whatsoever it was that brought you must have work for you there. Mayhap you should not be fleeing that benighted land."
"Or maybe I should," I gritted. "After all, I didn't apply for the job.
I wasn't even consulted."
We do not always choose our paths." He knelt by the river and filled each leather bucket with a single swing of his arm, then stood again.
/, Have you?" I asked. "Chosen your path, I mean." He nodded slowly. "We have chosen to go into Allustria, no matter the risk. There do be yet a few good folk there, who strive to maintain their virtue in a sink of absolute corruption. The sponsor of our order, Saint Moncaire, came to our abbot in a dream a fortnight agone, to reveal the plight of one such poor family, who hold by God and goodness, though they dare not do so openly ... I1
I felt the anger of outrage ring through me. Superstition or not, people have a right to worship as they please, without having to hide it. "But they've been careful, so they haven't been bothered?"
"oh, nay! They were gentry, but over the span of generations, they suffered again and again, because their rulers sought to rob them of their faith by driving them into despair-first by taxes, then by spells."
"But how'd these rulers know about them?"
"Because the good souls of this household never left off doing good for their neighbors and aiding those who were poor or beset. Thereby did the witches and warlocks who were given jurisdiction over their parish know them for what they were and seek ways to bedevil them."
"Sounds like some petty bureaucrats I know." I nodded, with a bad taste in my mouth.
"Now," the knight said, "they live without land and are tenants on the acres their ancestors owned-for they were squires, and their holdings held a whole parish within their boundaries. All its people, following the example of this family's goodness, forsook their dog-eat-dog ways and persevered in the face of all the harassments and abuse their masters did heap on them. Those harassments have grown more and more frantic as the decades have passed, for such fortitude and perseverance in virtue is bound to attract the attention of the queen, who will no doubt punish her henchmen for failing to drive these virtuous folk into sin. Therefore they will harry this family out, root and branch-for they persevere in their faith and charity, even though they are poor and must ask aid of others, which none dare grant. One child is dead of poor food and chill; another is ailing. They are at wits' end and near to despair. Therefore hath our abbot sent us forth, to win glory by bringing these poor folk out of the land of spiritual misery, and into the light of Merovence."
"That could be dangerous," I suggested, "if there really are so many evil sorcerers around-and even more, so many evil knights."
"Most dangerous indeed, and 'tis quite possible we shall lose our lives in the attempt." His jaw firmed and his eyes flashed. "Yet 'tis for us to seek to ward the godly, unheeding of the peril-and if we die, we die. Spending our lives in so worthy a cause, we shall surely not linger long in Purgatory, and it may be that we shall even be accorded the crown of martyrdom."
I winced; I wondered how many people had been lured into unnecessary suffering and early death by that promise.
'Tis not death we should fear," the commander said, "but that we might fail in the attempt-for we must bring that family out right quickly, ere they despair and are subverted and dishonored, or slain."
"Should fear," I said softly. "But what you really do fear is the evil that you have heard is in that land. Right?"
"We should be fools if we did not." His whole body tightened so much that I knew it was closer to terror than fear. Privately, I gave him credit for being either a hero, a saint, or a fool. I didn't think he could really qualify as a saint, since he was using a sword-so, all things considered, I strongly favored the last option: a fool. Not that I was about to say so, of course.