Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - General, #Fantastic Fiction, #Wizards, #Fantasy - Series
So I accepted their hospitality for the night, helped with the camp chores, and joined in the sing-along on the less-religious songs-I always did like "Amazing Grace," but I wasn't too good on the Gregorian stuff. I was a devoutly agnostic Protestant, and the God I didn't believe in was Calvin's, so I didn't do too well on the Latin-only one year in high school, and it didn't sound much like theirs. Different dialect, no doubt.
Then I bedded down at their fire, helped with the morning chores, hauled a bucket of water to help douse the fire-and held up an open hand in salute. "Well, it's been fun. Thanks a lot for your hospitality, Sir Monk-but I gotta be going now."
"Assuredly you will not ride alone!" He seemed to be genuinely dismayed. "You are not yet past the reach of Queen Suettay. Wizard or not a lone man is a marked man; you will be easy prey for whatever evil forces she may send against you!"
"I've managed okay so far," I objected.
He sighed. "You have indeed-yet you slept among armed monks last night. How many other nights have you spent in Allustria?" I swallowed thickly, remembering what superstition claimed about nighttime. "None," I admitted. "Only one day."
"Even so." He scowled. "And in that day, you did work magic?"
"Well, I wouldn't have said so, but . . ." He chopped off my comment with a sideways sweep of his hand.
"What you would say matters little; what you did, is all. Be assured that Suettay knows of your presence-or that her underlings do." That, I could believe, whether or not magic really did work here. Sobaka's boss was bound to notice she was missing, sooner or later-and if she were at all efficient, it would be sooner. First thing I knew, I might have bloodhounds on my track, and I had a notion that in this world, the emphasis was on the blood. "I'll be okay," I protested.
"You mean, 'well enough,' " he interpreted, "and in Allustria, there is no such state. You are either holy enough to withstand the assaults of the satanic, or you will succumb to their temptations and become yourself an ally of evil."
"No way!" I glared up at him. "I don't buy it, Captain! You don't have to be either a saint or a devil-you can just be yourself, human
and humane. A man can stand alone, and I intend to! I refuse to commit myself!"
"Mayhap that is true in the land from which you came, but it is not, in Allustria." He clapped and beckoned. The knights and squires looked up in surprise, and he pointed at Gilbert, the guy I'd wrestled yesterday, then beckoned. The kid dropped his horse's reins and came over.
"This foolish wizard seeks to ride alone, still within Queen Suettay's reach," the commander explained.
The kid went wide-eyed, staring at me as if I had just volunteered to be the main course at a state dinner.
"It's not really that bad," I protested.
"Nay, it is!" he said. "You will be corrupted or slain ere you see another dawn! " My stomach sank, but I stood up a little straighter and said, "Look, I'm not the superstitious kind, but I'm no fool, either. if I see trouble coming, I'll hide, and if it won't pass by, I'll fight."
" 'Tis praiseworthy to die fighting," Gilbert admitted, "yet foolish
to spend your life needlessly."
The commander nodded. "Buy some advance in grace, at least, if you must give up your life. Nay, I cannot let you ride fully unguarded. Gilbert, do you ride with him, as his shield and buckler." The kid stared at him as if he'd been wounded. "But, my general!
To lose my chance for glory in our quest-" "is what I require of you." The commander's tone was iron.
Gilbert flushed, then slowly bowed his head, but his back was ramrod-stiff.
" 'Tis not so vile as it may seem." The commander's tone softened. "I have had a dream that has shown me that this man is a hinge-upon him will turn great events, and if he can be held to the path of goodness, I doubt not he will aid greatly in the overthrow of the evil queen, and the establishment of the reign of goodness in Allustria."
Gilbert looked startled, then glanced at me.
"Don't look over here," I said. "It's news to me, too."
"A stalwart man with a rugged face did speak to me as I lay sleeping," the commander said. "He wore kingly robes, and a cap with leaden images of saints all about its rim. He told me that this man Saul will be the lever that topples the throne of Allustria, even as the disciple Paul was transformed from the sword that slew the early Christians, to the share that plowed the field of Gentiles." He turned to me. "You are fortunately named."
I wasn't about to disagree with him, but I did think his metaphors were a little odd. "Who was this saint you saw in your dream?" But the commander shook his head. "Some holy man of Allustria's age of virtue, belike, who lived in humble obscurity and died unknown; not all the saints were famed, or even known. He was none of whom I have ever heard. Yet his face did not shine, so he may be a blessed one, not a saint."
I frowned. "How do you know he isn't a devil masquerading in disguise? " Everybody in hearing range looked up with a gasp, and the commander stared, offended. "Why, for that I am in a state of grace!"
"Uh, sorry." I swallowed and forced a smile. "But even in a state of grace, you could be tempted."
"Mayhap," he said slowly, "but a devil would not wear saints'
medals on his hat."
I gave it up. He was so certain about it that he couldn't even consider being wrong. "But look-I really don't need an escort. This young man has important work to do."
"My work is what my captain commands," the kid assured me, and if he says that accompanying you is of greater import than our quest, he must be right."
That grated. Faith is all well and good, but so is skepticism. But the commander was nodding. "Import there is, and the danger will be no less-mayhap greater. Nay, there will be great chance of gaining glory in this mission-and, win or lose, you will gain your spurs.
The kid's eyes fired.
"Dead or alive," I muttered.
"How do you say?" the young man asked me courteously.
"That this really isn't necessary," I snapped. I had to admit that I liked the idea of an armed escort, but I have this thing about close and continued contact with people I don't know well. "Look, I really appreciate the offer, but I travel alone." I grabbed his hand and pumped it. "Nice wrestling with you. Have a good trip." I dropped
his hand, gave the commander a curt bow. "Thanks for your hospitality, Sir. I wish you well on your quest-and good-bye." Then I turned on my heel and strode away.
Behind me, I heard him call, "God be with you, too, Wizard," and to somebody else, presumably the squire, "Why do you wait, Gilbert?
Take sword, buckler, and horse, and go with him!" I walked faster. If the kid had to pack, I had a few minutes to get lost, at least. There was a line of evergreens ahead; if I could make it to the trees, I could hide well enough so that he might miss me.
I was about ten yards away from the first fir when I heard the hoof beats behind me.
Look, I hate jocks-or, well, not jocks as people, just jocks as a class; and you couldn't have any better example of the jock-ocracy than medieval knighthood.
The evergreen boughs closed around me. I heard a blundering behind me, and a cry, "Wilt thou not wait?"
No. I wouldn't. At least, not if I had any choice. I dodged to the left, since he'd probably be expecting the right, and plastered myself behind the largest trunk I could find.
I tracked his voice and, as he moved forward, I sidled around backward, trying to keep the tree trunk between us. I must have succeeded, because he blundered around for an awfully long while, coming up with all sorts of swear words that had to be so clean they were almost antiseptic-things like, "By blue!" and "Bones!" and
"Blood and iron!" I resolved to remember them if I ever had to cure an infection. When he was far enough away, I sprinted to a little thicket I had seen and crawled in. He kept crashing around, coming up with an amazing variety of expletives that had absolutely no need to be deleted, while I tried to stifle my laughter, Finally he gave up, blundering back out the way he had come, lamenting his failure loudly and at great length. I felt sorry for him, a little, then reminded myself sternly that he was probably better off
with his buddies-and in any case, this was my chance for a getaway.
I crawled out and started walking fast, heading downhill. Twice I struck a trail wide enough for a horse, but I sheered away from them-that was exactly the kind of road he'd be likely to take, if he hadn't given up looking for me yet. They angled across my path, instead of going straight down, which I figured was a plus. Finally, I came out onto a clear road, wide enough for two horses side by side. It was still trending downhill, but at an angle opposite to the trails I'd seen, and I decided to chance it. The kid had either given up by now, or passed me by. But I kept a wary ear tuned as I went down the dirt track, walking fast, alert for the slightest sign of him. So the first time, Gilbert saved my bacon without even being therebecause I was listening for him, I heard the sudden rustle in the leaves just behind me, and had already leapt forward before I heard the thud on the ground. I whirled, chopping at the point where a uy's neck would be if he were crouching. I was a little high; I caught him on the side of the head, and he yelled as he went sprawling. I whirled back to the front, having a hunch he wouldn't have dared jump an able-bodied man if he were alone. Sure enough, another specimen was just coming out of his crouch from having dropped from the branch ahead of me, as four of his buddies stepped in from the sides, two with battle-axes, two with arrows drawn.
Let me tell you, these were not the nice, clean boys from Sherwood Forest-or, rather, if there really was a Robin Hood, this is probably what most of his merry men really did look like. Their clothes were patched and filthy-I could actually see the dirt-and the only one of them who shaved had been neglecting that art for several days. The others looked as if their beards got trimmed once a year, and that had been January first. Their grins showed rotten teeth, and they smelled to high Heaven.
The one in front uncoiled from his crouch and sprang at me with a shout. I didn't try to get out of the way, just gave ground fast, so that he didn't slam into me terribly hard. I nearly kicked him away from sheer disgust; the stench of him was more likely to knock me out than his fighting. But the archers wouldn't try a shot, if he was real close, so I ignored the stench and grappled him. Unfortunately, he grappled back, throwing his arms around me and squeezing. I whirled him around with the pain in my ribs getting worse and worse-all he knew was a bear hug, but he was strong! I'd caught him with one of my arms up, though, so I waltzed him over toward his
buddies at the side of the path, hoping my wind would last until I was next to one of the hatchet men.
Max the Axe saw me coming and backed off, keeping just far enough away for a swing, worse luck, and I was starting to see spots, so I stamped on my hugger's instep. He howled and loosened up; I broke his hug and hit him with three quick punches to the face. He let go with an oath that would have blistered paint, if they'd had any, and I staggered away, just accidentally stumbling into the axeman. He saw me coming and shouted, swinging his blade up, but I slammed into him in a body block, and we both went down. I grabbed the axe handle and twisted as I rolled. He yelped, and I came up holding an axe in both hands.
A stick cracked down on my right-hand fingers. I yelled as the fingers went numb, and somebody twisted the axe. My hurt hand fell loose, but I yanked hard on the other one and kicked. I got him in the gut-he was the first one I'd chopped, getting back into the fight. He gave a loud grunt and fell away, and I started whirling the axe, as if it were a propeller blade. The four who were still on their feet backed away-they didn't like the look of that, and the archers didn't look too sure about trying a shot.
I was just realizing that one was missing when the blow caught me on the back of the head, and for a minute, I couldn't see. Somebody grabbed the axe out of my hand; somebody else kicked me in the gut, and I went down with that awful dread that the final blow is coming, that I was just about to gain empiric evidence as to whether there is an afterlife.
But there was a lot of yelling going on still, and some very odd ringing noises. I heard heavy, dull, staccato sounds with some howling thrown in, and managed to pull myself up, my eyes clearing, to see three of the bandits trying to scramble back into the brush, three of them lying crumpled on the ground in front of the horse's hooves, and my old buddy Gilbert, with a little round shield on his left arm and a large sword in his right, hefting and glaring after them as if trying to decide whether to go chasing.
"Don't try it," I croaked. "Once you're off the road, they've got the advantage. They can just sit up in the trees and throw rocks at you, even. " "Friend Saul!" he cried, whirling toward me. "You are hurt!"
"Just a mild concussion." I hoped I was as well as I was trying to sound. "Y' know, I think I'm glad you decided to tag along, after all."
Then things got kind of dim, and my knees folded.
He was there before I hit the ground, leaning down from his horse, holding me up.
"I'll ... be all right," I managed. "Just ... need to get my bearings. " "You should rest."
"Just a little while." I looked up into his broad, open face, saw the frown of concern, and decided maybe there was something to be said for jocks, after all-if they were on my side.
Well, what could I do? Tell him to go home to Papa, after he'd saved my life? Right.
So we went along together. Gilbert insisted that I ride the horse, and I insisted that I didn't-if it doesn't have brakes and a gear shift, I'm not interested.
"You shall have to learn to ride, if you stay long in our land!" he remonstrated.