by John Kendon
The servants had cleaned up most of the blood, but the room still bore the scars of the previous night's frenzy.
Degalis hovered in the doorway, waiting for Valdemar to acknowledge him. The King was bent over the grate, poker in hand. A small fire of sea coal and wood struggled against the damp night air. Wisps of smoke escaped from the chimney and trailed past Valdemar's head. The King ignored them.
He also continued to ignore Degalis.
The room looked as if it had been in a fight. The wall hangings were torn. A faded tapestry depicting green figures hiding in a forest was distinctly charred around the edges. The carvings around the bed-head were chipped where someone had tried to pry them loose. Somebody else -- at least, Degalis assumed it was somebody else, though for all he knew it could have been the same person -- had tried to mend the praying-desk under the window. They hadn't made a very good job of it.
Degalis cleared his throat. "Why not summon a page, Sire?"
"One of the very few remaining pleasures in my life," the King said through gritted teeth, "is playing with my own fire."
He thrust the poker into the coal and raked it savagely back and forth.
"Sire? I have the final casualty lists."
"Good." The King glanced impatiently over his shoulder. "Shut the door, will you?"
Degalis closed the door and came into the room, clutching the bundle of papers.
"Put them over there." The King pointed at a table with a deep gouge in its polished surface.
The fire sprang to life with a loud thump. A puff of smoke billowed out from the grate, hiding the King. Startled, Degalis felt the bundle begin to slip from his grasp. He juggled frantically, and one by one the papers slid away, falling like the leaves of autumn.
The King turned, mouth open.
"I'm sorry," said the King. He helped his secretary pick up the documents. "I'm in an ill humour, but that's no reason to snarl at you. How many have we lost?"
"Ten dead and fifteen wounded, Sire. Of the wounded, five are fit for duty at once and the rest should recover quickly."
The King nodded slowly. "That's something. What about the Earl's people?"
Degalis shrugged. "It's difficult to say." He glanced up and saw the King glowering at him from under pale eyebrows.
"A handful are left," he said, placing the papers on the table before he could drop them again. "The very old and the very young."
"And our prisoner?"
"Prisoner?" Degalis repeated, not understanding.
The King made a sharp gesture in the air. "Our guest. The man responsible for all this."
"Downstairs in the Great Hall."
"He is under guard?"
Degalis pursed his lips, started to reply and thought better of it.
"Then see that he is watched," the King said curtly, turning back to the fire to signify the interview was over.
A thin man sits in one corner of the Great Hall, well away from the trestle tables and benches where the drunken lordlings celebrate their victory. His head is in his hands. From time to time the revellers glance over at him, frowning or spitting or laughing each according to his or her nature. The thin man pays them no attention.
He is far away, lost in his memories:
From the curtain wall one can watch the birds swoop and wheel in the wooded gorge far below, see the trees sway soundlessly from side to side, parting and rejoining, each with its own rhythm, so the whole forest appears to be moving slowly westwards. In the middle of the valley is a tiny patch of glittering white water, half-hidden by the shadows of the dark branches.
It is Nim's pleasure every morning to mount the battlements and survey the world before turning to his work. For years now his day has begun with this routine.
He always starts on the southern wall, looking out across the gorge to where the bare hillside rises above the trees. Then he shifts westwards and stares at the river valley with its farms and tiny hamlets scattered among the spinneys. Along the line of the horizon the brown moor unfolds like the painted backdrop the mummers use for some of their plays.
In that direction lies home, though it is so long since he was last there that saplings have grown to maturity in his absence.
The northern wall does not warrant so long a stay. The slope on this side is much gentler, and the foreground is cluttered with the wattle and daub huts of the village which has mysteriously sprung up in the castle's shadow, despite periodic attempts by the Earl to keep the approaches clear.
From the eastern wall he looks along the twisting white line of the road running along the ridge, a road which leads to heart of the kingdom (and ultimately, he has been told, the sea). Sometimes his feet itch with the desire to be off and travelling; always he restrains himself and goes dutifully about his work in the Countess's garden.
Degalis descended the main staircase cautiously, wondering to whom he should relay the King's instructions. With each bend in the stairs the noise grew louder, beating up from below in great waves of sound.
The steps were uneven, the pitch varying at random between steep and shallow. The device was intended to throw attackers off balance, but it worked every bit as well on him.
As he rounded the final bend the sounds of celebration became deafening. He staggered and missed his footing. He would have fallen if a shadow had not detached itself from the wall and caught him.
For a moment they swayed together like lovers locked in a dance, then his benefactor heaved him upright.
"Why so glum, Master Secretary?" The grip on his arm was like a vice.
"The... the King is not happy," he stammered.
The scarred face stared at the crowd in the Great Hall. "Who is, apart from these fools? They don't understand what has happened."
Shaking slightly from the narrowness of his escape at the end of a long day, Degalis said with unaccustomed courage: "Neither do I."
The cruel mouth lifted in a smile, twisting the long white line that ran from the nose to the remnants of the right ear.
"Today Valdemar has made a number of discoveries about himself and about what it means to be King of Catelande. At the same time his supporters have also made a number of discoveries about what it means to follow Valdemar."
Degalis waited for her to continue, but she was once again studying the drinkers in the hall.
"It wasn't his fault!" he protested, knowing how young he sounded.
"Oh yes it was," said the scarred woman, subjecting Degalis to the same cold scrutiny she had been giving the drinkers. "He is the King -- or so he claims -- and this is his army. He is responsible for everything the army does, just as I am responsible for everything my people do."
"But… But your people were among the first into the castle…" Shaken by his own temerity Degalis let his voice trail away.
"Yes," said the scarred woman, moving down the last few steps into the body of the hall. "Yes, they were."
Of all the gardens, the orchard is the part Nim loves the best.
The orchard is also where Nim most often meets the children. Whenever they can escape from their nurse they come to find him. He has noticed they seem particularly good at giving the woman the slip on the days he is manuring. Both children are fascinated by the process, and love to hear him explain why only the dung from certain animals will suit his beloved apple trees.
"Poultry are good, geese are better. But best of all are sheep."
"What about cows?" demand the children. "We've got more of them."
"All right if you can't find any better," he says. "But they don't spread their goodness as evenly, anymore than pigs do, see?"
They nod their understanding, as they have nodded it a hundred times before.
"My father the Earl says you must have come from the ghost forest," announces the boy.
"Now why would he say a thing like that?" he asks.
"Because you know so much about trees!" they chorus triumphantly.
"Well!" he says, rubbing his forehead with a thumbnail. "Well, I don't know if that's a good thing to say about a person or a bad thing. What do you know about the ghost forest, anyway?"
The girl answers, her dark curls bobbing in her excitement. "Far, far away to the west, beyond the great moors, the world becomes forest. And in that forest live ghosts called Leshies who talk with the trees, and if anyone goes into the forest they lead him astray and send him blundering round and around in circles until he finishes up where he started."
"I see. And what do they look like, these Leshies?"
"Sometimes they are tall," says the boy.
"And sometimes they are small," says the girl.
"They have blue blood so their cheeks have a blue tint to them," says the boy.
"They have green eyes and a long green beard," says the girl.
He strokes his chin. "I don't have a beard," he says. "And my eyes are brown, not green."
"Perhaps you're in disguise!" exclaims the boy.
He raises a finger to his lips. "Shush! Don't tell anyone, or your father the Earl will put me in his dungeon."
They giggle and run away, ducking beneath the low boughs, and their flight turns into a game of tag between the trees.
Degalis eased his way between the benches, ignoring the jibes of the drinkers as he searched for somebody both sober and responsible to whom he could give the King's orders. His arm hurt where Mevrain had gripped it, and his head ached with the stresses of the day.
Now that he was out in the middle of the Great Hall he could see what had not been visible from the stairs: small groups of men and women standing against the walls, obviously in deep conversation, their faces serious.
Something about their attitude disturbed him.
He fought clear of the benches, smiling politely at the mocking invitations to sit down and have a drink, and walked towards the nearest group. They saw him coming and fell silent.
"Master Secretary." The grey haired man at the heart of the group offered him a formal greeting in neutral tones.
"Lord Egrith. The King wishes a watch to be kept over the -- ah -- the man." Degalis nodded at the thin man in the corner.
"I will see to it," said Egrith. "How is the King?"
Degalis hesitated before replying. "Not himself."
"With reason," muttered somebody behind him.
"An ill day's work," murmured another. "We'll rue it later."
Suddenly Degalis realised something he should have noticed earlier: everybody in this cluster and the other small gatherings he could see around the edges of the room was a native of Catelande. Despite the preponderance of foreigners in Valdemar's army, there was not a single one in any of the groups.
On a misty morning in early spring, as Nim is pruning the spurs of the gooseberry bushes that grow against the wall of the orchard, his old friend the Steward comes to him with serious news.
"Nim, have you heard? King Ulric is dead."
He straightens from his crouch, still holding the pruning shears, and wrinkles his brow. "Then who rules?"
The Steward smiles thinly. "Good question. The niece or the nephew?"
"Ulric left no indication of his wishes?"
"None. The Earl is for the Lady Jehanna, but the Countess prefers the Lord Valdemar."
"Why?" he asks.
"The Earl favours Jehanna because she is the older of the cousins by a full decade, though born of the younger sister, and because she is already in the country. The Countess would have Valdemar because his mother was Ulric's eldest sister, and because she knows him well."
The Steward leans closer to impart his secret. "They played together as children. Do you see the advantages of that, if Valdemar takes the throne? He's not likely to neglect his old playmate and her husband, especially if they help him on his way."
"But Valdemar is not here?"
"No, he is in the far south, with his father." Again the Steward leans forward, so Nim can feel the man's breath hot on his cheek. "If Jehanna has herself crowned -- which she will, my friend, she will -- then what odds will you give me that Valdemar raises an army and comes north to claim his own, eh?"
Nim blinks as the import of what the Steward is saying hits him. "Played together as children, did they? Her children -- the Countess Kupala's children I mean -- often come here to play. It will not be easy for them, if there is war."
"It will not be easy for any of us," says the Steward.
Degalis, so weary his eyes would barely stay open, wandered away from the Great Hall in search of a place to spend the rest of the night. The corridors were gloomy, lit only by a few torches set at irregular intervals. After the brightness of the hall he found it hard to see.
His foot slipped on something soft. With an angry squeal the sleeper woke and kicked him hard on the thigh. He stumbled (this time there were no arms to catch him) and went sprawling on the cold floor.
"Degalis!" a voice said in disgust.
"Sorry, Tryfa," he said when he'd caught his breath. "I didn't mean to tread on you."
"Oh don't apologise. You're always apologising. Here, sit down properly and tell me the news. Shove over, Fulke, make some room for the King's Secretary."
The bodies shuffled until he could lean his back against the wall. Now his eyes had adapted to the lack of light, he could see he had landed in the middle of Mevrain's company of mercenaries.
"Have they started slinking off yet?" demanded Tryfa.
"The barons. Egrith and his friends."
He came wide awake with a start. "Is that why they're all talking in corners? But -- I don't understand. Why should they go now?"
Tryfa shook her head despairingly. "How on earth a creature as innocent as you came to be the King's Secretary I cannot imagine."
"But we won!" he protested. "We took this castle with only ten dead. A great victory."
The mercenaries were silent.
"Only ten dead on our side," said Fulke. "But rather more among the defenders."
"Well, yes, all right. But today was no worse than what we did in Gundesburg or Fallowthorpe."
"Oh be quiet, Fulke, He's entitled to think of himself as part of the army, isn't he?" snapped Tryfa. "Look, Degalis, what's important about today is not what happened, but the King's reaction to it. Over the next few days Valdemar's loyal barons are going to start making excuses to leave -- you know the kind of thing: winter's coming, the campaigning season's over -- and before we know it we'll be down to just us, the professionals and the outlanders."
"Will they come back in the spring?"
She shrugged. "Some will. Most will sit tight and wait to see what Jehanna does."
In the dying days of summer Valdemar's army appears before the castle.
Nim and the Steward stand on the Barbican and look down at the force arrayed against them, at the bright pavilions with their pennants snapping merrily in the breeze, at the foot soldiers dragging the great catapults forward in preparation for the bombardment, at the engineers surveying the lie of the land.
"They say Queen Jehanna has fled into the Northlands," remarks the Steward.
"Most of Valdemar's followers are foreigners, you know," continues the Steward. "Younger sons in search of land, mercenaries in search of pay. Good pickings, I should think."
Nim spits over the edge. "I saw the smoke of burning villages yesterday. Winter is coming. What happens then?"
The Steward smiles crookedly. "The barons fight, the poor starve. Always the way. The Lord of Eastmarch now strikes his own coinage, did you hear that? Worthless, of course, but it makes him rich, giving bad money for good."
"The Kingdom is failing."
They stand in silence for a time, watching the engineers mark the ground with stakes.
"Tunnel?" asks Nim.
"Probably. Aimed at the east tower, I'd say."
"What will the Earl do?"
"Oh, the usual. Offer to surrender if relief doesn't come by a certain date. We won't have to fight. Jehanna has no forces left in the south, except us. Nobody will come to our help, so we'll surrender after going through the motions."
"It's like a game to them."
The Steward glances round, surprised by the note of bitterness in Nim's voice.
"It is a game. The rules must be observed. Earl Brandis has sworn an oath of loyalty to Queen Jehanna. Once he has done his duty he can submit to Valdemar with a clear conscience, which is what his wife the Countess wants."
Tryfa yawned, revealing yellow teeth in the torchlight.
"We were the first in, you know. Fulke here was on watch when the drawbridge came down."
"What was it like?" asked Degalis, unable to help himself, though he knew Fulke was the group's storyteller and incapable of giving a straightforward account.
"What was it like?" mused Fulke. "Why, it was like this."
He straightened up and ran a hand through his tousled hair, then began to talk:
"One moment we were sitting in the night, complaining that we get all the boring unglamorous jobs, our eyes on the moon-silvered loom of the battlements against the heavens, arguing about whose turn it was to make the rounds, and the next we heard the clank of chains and a background rumble which we knew -- however unlikely it seemed -- had to be the drawbridge coming down.
"So we stood to arms -- which sounds far more efficient than the reality of sleepy men and women tumbling over each other in their haste to don mail shirts and find spears -- we were expecting a cavalry raid, or at least a raid involving cavalry, coming out to burn the siege engines -- and discovered to our surprise that nothing was happening.
"Then Mevrain appeared from somewhere, clad in her war-gear, long axe in her hand -- the moon picking out the patterns etched on the blade -- and we followed her blindly when she led us forward towards the gate, the camp stirring behind us as others realised what was happening.
"The bridge echoed hollow under our feet as we ran in silence for the shelter of the towers, waiting for the flight of arrows from the defenders, feeling naked in the bright moonlight. Ahead of us we could hear shouts, mingled with the bleating of panicked sheep and the bellow of cattle -- they had driven their livestock into the Outer Bailey, and somehow it was loose from the pens, though we did not yet know this.
"We raced through the tunnel under the Barbican, drawn by the moonlight visible at the far end where the inner gates should have barred the way, still fearful this was some elaborate trap and the next heartbeat would see a bombardment of boiling oil or hot lead through the holes in the passage roof, and still nothing opposed us.
"When we entered the Outer Bailey and found the animals milling and the peasants trying to catch them and the men-at-arms trying to fight their way through the chaos to close the gates, Mevrain sent me with some others to secure the Barbican.
"We climbed the tower steps cautiously, waiting for the defenders to fall upon us from above, and came to the darkened gatehouse where the winches are for the portcullis. There, tumbled carelessly across the stone flags, were the guards, all lying dead in their own blood, and stuffed in the mouth of each of them -- as in the mouths of the roast boars they serve in great households at Midwinter -- was an apple."
On the fifth day of the siege the Earl orders that the orchard be felled.
The nights have grown cold and damp as the days grow shorter, and in the confusion of the civil war Nim's old friend the Steward has neglected to lay in an adequate supply of firewood.
Nim protests that the apple trees will be too green to burn well, but the Earl is adamant. In the end, Nim takes the axe and carries out the desecration himself, refusing to let anybody else help.
The children watch him, tears flowing down their faces, as first he makes the ritual stroke to kill each tree, and then lets fly, the axe biting deep and the sap running like blood, splinters of soft pulp sprinkling the ground.
They cannot tell if he too is weeping.
"Did anybody ever discover why he did it?" asked Tryfa.
Fulke shrugged, and they both looked at Degalis.
For once he was able to answer without stumbling.
"Not really, no. He made a long rambling statement all about how the Earl ordered his trees cut down -- he was the orchard keeper -- because the Earl was jealous that his children, the Earl's children I mean, spent every spare moment with him, but when Egrith asked him if that was why he had opened the gates he laughed and told him not to be ridiculous."
"Sounds mad to me," growled Fulke.
Degalis shook his head. ‘‘Not when you meet him, no."
"So what happened next?"
"Egrith demanded to know why he had opened the gates, and he launched into another long explanation of some conversation between him and the Earl's Steward, about war being a game for the likes of the Earl and the Countess, but life and death to the common people, who didn't care whether Valdemar or Jehanna sat on the throne anyway. Why couldn't they get married, or fight it out between the two of them, he wanted to know."
Fulke chuckled. "Put us out of work, eh Tryfa?"
She ignored him. "So was that why he did it?"
"We assumed so at first. Then when Egrith asked him directly, he denied it. Said it didn't matter why he'd done it, only that he had."
"How odd! Did he know the Earl would have surrendered in any case before much longer?"
"Oh yes. Yes, he and the Steward had talked about it."
"I'd like to see him," she said. "What's his name?"
"Nim. You can see him tomorrow. The King intends to examine him publicly in the Great Hall, to decide what should be done with him."
Most of the revellers in the Great Hall have finally given up and collapsed into sleep. A handful of torches still burn in the iron cressets placed along the walls, casting more shadows than light.
The thin man sits on the stool he has occupied all evening. Two guards snore beside him, their breath whistling in unison. Mevrain crosses the hall and crouches at his side without disturbing either guard.
"Remember me?" she says.
The thin man raises his head from his hands and glances at her scarred face, then looks away at nothing in particular.
"You're the one who captured me. Mevrain, they called you."
She snorts. "Captured you? I think not. I accepted your surrender, that's all."
Nim smiles gently, his eyes still fixed on the middle distance. "You want to know why I did it?"
"No. I don't doubt you had your reasons. I'm not so simple minded as the rest of them, who would have it that you acted as you did because of this or because of that, as if a person's motives can be reduced to neat words on a sheet of parchment." She shifts on her haunches. "No, what I want to know is what made me act as I did."
He laughs, softly so as not to wake the guards.
"And how did you act?"
"Do you know much about mercenaries?"
He shakes his head. "No."
"I've spent most of my life in the employ of the Southern city-states. It's flat and dry country, ideal conditions for the professional soldier. Most people think of mercenaries as ruthless killers, but that isn't true."
"Is this an apology for your way of life?"
"No. But you must understand something about us, about mercenaries, in order for what happened last night to take on meaning. You see, in the South our battles are largely a matter of manoeuvring, of deploying troops to outflank the enemy or to force him into attacking you across bad ground, of gaining advantage without fighting. The object is to win with as few casualties as possible. A trained mercenary is a valuable commodity."
"So what I did last night was out of character. I do not lead wild charges into what I assume are strongly held positions. I do not put my life, or my soldiers' lives, at risk if I can possibly avoid it."
She rubs at the livid scar on her cheek. "When we reached the end of the tunnel and found the inner gates open and undefended, I thought perhaps Earl Brandis had arranged this to give him an excuse for surrendering early. After all, once the Barbican had fallen he could argue that the castle had become indefensible, that the best thing he could do was accept whatever terms Valdemar would give him -- and if those included changing sides, then so be it. He would have done all he could and his honour would be intact."
Her breath is hot on Nim's ear. She is waiting for him to speak, so he says nothing. After a moment she continues:
"Then I saw that the way was open to the Keep itself, that there was nothing to stop us seizing the entire castle. A madness swept over me, and over those with me. We ran on, killing any who crossed our path, and broke into the Keep, hunting down those within and slaughtering them.
"Tell me, Nim, what made me act as I did?"
He turns his head, closing his eyes. Across the hall somebody cries out in his sleep. One of the guards stirs a little, working his mouth to break the dryness.
Mevrain lets the man settle before she speaks again.
"I saw the Countess Kupala die, though it was none of my doing. Nor was it one of my company who killed her. It was one of Egrith's men, some peasant given a pike and eager to use it. Not a pretty death, a pike in the stomach."
She leans in so close her lips are almost touching his ear. The smell of blood and smoke is strong on her.
"I saw the girl die as well, her brains dashed out against the wall by some lout with the blood lust on him. I saved the boy, though he was terrified of me." She touches her ruined face. "This does not inspire confidence in the young."
"What would you have of me?" His voice is harsh. "Absolution? Congratulation?"
Mevrain sighs, draws back. "No, it does not matter. What's done is done. I suppose I had some vague hope you would tell me you had cast a spell over us, that it was not our fault, that we were ensorcelled by your magic arts." She smiles bitterly. "Foolishness, no? You are a gardener, an orchard keeper, not a wizard."
Rising from her crouch she stretches cramped limbs. "Speaking of which -- was it revenge for the trees they cut down?"
She frowns, starts to walk away, halts and turns back.
"You do realise what you've done will prolong the war? It will drag on for years now."
"The battle lost by winning," he murmurs.
Mevrain stares at him, suspecting mockery, but he keeps his face expressionless.
It was very late by the time Degalis found a quiet corner in which to lie down. He spread his cloak under him, but the stone floor was hard and cold, and sleep did not come easily.
He dreamed he stood in an orchard, an apple orchard. The trees were laden with white blossom, and there beside him was his old playmate Kupala.
"She's not my playmate," he thought, and then he understood that in the dream he was not Degalis the timid secretary, but Valdemar the king.
"You're alive!" he said.
She smiled sweetly and made no reply.
They climbed the low hanging boughs, stepping neatly from one to another, setting the branches bobbing, and waiting for them at the top of the tree was a thin man with a long green beard and a bluish tinge to his cheeks.
The man seized Kupala by the neck and strangled her till her face turned purple, then cast her down from the tree to the grass below, where she lay like an old rag doll left out in the rain.
Degalis-who-was-Valdemar beat at him with childish fists, but the man just grinned and said "There! Think on that!" before he vanished into the blossom, which was withering and turning brown even as Degalis woke.
He sat up -- the broken headboard rough and strangely cold against his shoulders -- and stared at the tapestry on the wall opposite, the one his men had nearly burnt in their excitement at capturing the castle. Green figures lurked in thick foliage, glaring malevolently back at him.
"Leshy!" he exclaimed. Then he rubbed his eyes and came fully awake to the darkness of the corridor, where there was no tapestry and, in any case, no light to see it by.
The King has said that this morning he intends to interrogate the orchard keeper in public. Instead, to the surprise of those present in the Great Hall, he announces that the man will be let go free.
A murmur of dismay goes up from the assembled barons, and they cast dubious glances at the thin figure as it stands in isolation before the dais.
"But first," bellows the King above the buzz of conversation, "first I would have one of our prisoners speak with him."
Degalis and a woman bring forward a small boy.
"Nim!" cries the boy when he sees the orchard keeper, "Nim! It isn't true! It isn't true!"
He hacks Master Degalis on the shin, which raises a laugh from the crowd, jumps from the platform and runs to the thin man.
"They're all dead," he says. "My mother the Countess, my father the Earl, and my sister Astlabelle. Even Master Steward is dead. They say it's your fault, everything is your fault. It isn't true, is it?"
The body to which he clings is as stiff and unyielding as a lump of wood.
The boy straightens then and looks up into the brown eyes.
"Is it true? Did you betray us all?" he whispers.
Nim makes no reply.
The silence hangs between them. The crowd waits.
"It is true," breathes the boy at last. "You did open the gate."
He recoils from the thin man and backs towards the dais. His eyes move across the sea of watching faces, look up at Valdemar on the platform, return to the figure of the thin man.
"When I am a man grown," the boy shouts, "I shall find you, traitor, and avenge my family."
Nim stares at him for a moment, smiles quietly to himself, and walks away down the hall. The crowd part to let him through, drawing aside the hems of their garments lest he defile them with his touch, and the King and the boy watch him go and make no move to stop him.
© 2007 John Kendon
Bio: John Kendon lives in the U.K. and makes occasional visits to the Aphelion Forum as Coalbiter. He has also braved the hazardous waters of a Forum Flash Challenge with "Job Interview", in the September competition.
E-mail: John Kendon
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