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Well of the Unicorn
by Fletcher Pratt
Copyright 1948 Fletcher Pratt.
This edition published by Reading Essentials.
All Rights Reserved.
by Fletcher Pratt
Author’s Note: BEFORE THE TALE BEGINS
1. Taxed Out
2. The Cot: There Is a Song
3. Naaros: A New Friend at The Old Sword
4. Naaros: Men Meet at Night
5. The Road: Change and Unchange
6. The Iulia: First Tale of the Well
7. The Iulia Once More: Gifts Are Given
8. The Isles of Gentebbi: “It Is Not Fair”
9. Ships Come to Salmonessa
10. Salmonessa: Now We Have an Allegiance
11. Salmonessa: The Duke Plans
12. A Night in Salmonessa
13. The Causeway: Battle
14. A Night in Mariola
15. Hestinga: It Is Another Day
16. A Judgment in Hestinga
17. The Count’s Pillow: Second Tale of the Well
18. Issue of the Pass: Captains Gather
19. The Whiteriverdales: Spear and Shield
20. The Whiteriverdales: Debate of the Deserion
21. The High Hills of Froy: They Ride
22. Shalland: Evil at the Inn
23. Shalland: Debate of Meliboë the Enchanter
24. The Northern Sea: A Bond Broken
25. The Northern Sea: Third Tale of the Well
26. Os Erigu: The Cup of War
27. Os Erigu: Generosity Rejected
28. Os Erigu: Ramp of the Cat
29. Os Erigu: Treason
30. Bear Fjord: The Brand Is Aloft
31. Farewell to Os Erigu
32. Hrakra Mouth: Great Tidings
33. The Coast of Skogalang: Fourth Tale of the Well
34. Return from Sea
35. Naaros: “I Am Free”
36. Naaros: Duty
37. Naaros: Wedding Day
38. The Whiteriverdales: Wedding Night
39. The Whiteriverdales: No End
This is the reader’s book. All proper names are therefore to be pronounced in any way he chooses, except in conversation with another reader, in which case the two must settle their differences as best they can, for there is no rule.
It may be that one imagines he has caught a warcry or a movement that reminds him of something he has known in another world than the one discussed here, and yet not quite the same. He will be perfectly correct in this; one of the most fascinating things about histories real or imagined (and this is not to draw a line between the two) is how they almost repeat an earlier pattern but never quite accomplish it, like one of those designs in a tessellated pavement which runs out into something else at a corner. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is interesting to stare at such a pave or to follow real and unreal history when one is idle of other matters. One is watching for the repeated shock which never quite comes. In our world Augustus-Napoleon does not follow Caesar-Napoleon, however men expect that he will, nor does Hitler-Bonaparte attain the fate of his model.
So in this other world, but that is an off-wandering; the need here is to provide a guide as far as the gate of our history, imaginary or real. A certain Irish chronicler named Dunsany caught some of the news from this nowhere and set it down under the style of “King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior,” but the events he cites took place generations before any told here, and he was only interested in a very small part of them, to wit: the revolt of King Argimenes. The Irish chronicler did not tell that the revolt was against x the heathen of Dzik, who burst in upon the Dalarnan lands with their gospel and sword in the days when men were living at peace and their problems all seemed solved; though he did say that, like all conquerors, these conquerors had become luxurious.
This Argimenes was one of the greatest kings of whom there is a record and his son Argentarius hardly less. They ruled over the Dalecarles, who before the heathen invasion were one people with those that later come to be called Vulkings (since all their counts were named Vulk), which is shown by the fact that their institutions bear so much resemblance. The mountain counties, as Acquilème and the Lacias, East and West, were corners of Dalarna never under the rule of Dzik; their people had a certain dark-haired strain in them, whereas the coastal Dalecarles were, like the heathen, blond. Therefore the Vulkings held they were the only true Dalecarles and, after the heathen were driven from the land, sought to restore it as it was before, or as they thought it had been, which is not at all the same thing. Quarrels arose, for if the Dalecarles had been in subjection, the Vulkings had been kept out of it, which makes men far more intolerant.
Yet both parties still paid respect to the Empire, for it was by this time an Empire, King Argimenes in his later years having been wedded with the Princess of Stassia from across the southern sea that is also called the Blue Sea. It would be some time before this union that there was discovered the Well of the Unicorn, the well of peace, with which this narrative is concerned; the world’s wonder. The turbulent Twelve Cities, which had known no master, submitted themselves to the Empire to partake in the blessings of the Well; they are east-away and somewhat south from Stassia, among islands and half-islands, and their back-country is full of men who wear skirts, take more than one wife, and do not have the true religion. Even the terrible heathen of Dzik kept the peace of the Well—after they had been fairly beaten in the field by Argimenes, Argentarius, and above all, Aureolus, that changed the kingdom to an Empire and its title from silver to gold.
East of Dalarna lies Salmonessa and its hot dukes (but the maps will show that); south of all are Uravedu and the Spice Islands, very rich, but the commons thereof are blue-faced pagans who wear breechclouts only; north is the Micton country stretching to eternal mists, where short-legged warlocks dwell. At the period of which we speak the Counts Vulk have made good their claim to rule all Dalarna—and the rest is the story.
Airar could hear the horses before they reached the corner of the hedge where the big plane tree was. They were six in number, not talking—an oldish man in dirty blue with a twist-beard, who would be the bailiff; three archers, one of them a dark-skinned Micton man with his bow already strung; and damned Fabrizius in the middle, with his broad flat face and nose held high, well muffled in a fur-lined jacket and followed by a servant on a horse that stumbled.
Airar stood up with the wintry southering sun striking through branches across his face as one of the archers helped his lordship the bailiff to descend, the row of seals across his belly tinkling against each other like cracked pans. He had a parchment in his sleeve.
“I have a mission in the Count’s name with Alvar Airarson.”
“He is not here. I am Airar Alvarson.”
Beyond, Airar could see Fabrizius shake his head—with that expression of decent regret that always covered his baseness.
“Then you stand deputy in his name as the heir of the house?” asked the bailiff, more with statement than question. “In accordance with the statute of the fourth year of Count Vulk, fourteenth of the name, relating to real properties, confirmed by the Emperor Auraris, I make demand on this estate for two years’ arrears of the wall tax; and moreover for repayment of certain sums loaned to the estate by one Leonce Fabrizius, the said loan having been duly registered with the chancery of Vastmanstad and attest by the mark of Alvar Airarson.”
Airar swallowed and took half a step, but the bailiff surveyed him with the impassive eye of a fish while the Micton archer tittered and nocked a shaft. “I do not have the money,” said he.
“Then in the name of the law and the Count, I do declare this stead called Trangsted forfeit to the Empire. Yet as it is provided in the statute of the realm that no stead shall be forfeit without price, but acquired by purchase only, I do offer you the sum of one gold aura therefore out of the Count’s generosity, and those present shall be witness. Wherewith you stand quit of all claims against you and go free.” He fumbled the piece from the scrip at his side, bored manner of a formula of many repetitions. For a moment Airar seemed like to strike it from his hand; then seeing the Micton’s covetous eye fall toward it, reached instead.
“So now this land and house are the property of our Count. I call on you to leave it, bearing not more than you carry on your back without setting the bundle down for five thousand paces.” He turned from Airar, business with him done, to look expectant at Fabrizius; but the latter beckoned to Alvarson, who stood a moment with hand on pack, mouth set in a line of 3 mutiny, yet well enough bred to hear what even the Prince of Hell had to say for himself.
“A moment, son of Alvar,” said he while Airar noted how the little tuft of fur over his ear wagged as the broad mouth opened. “You have not been altogether well treated, and though you may not believe it, I hold a high regard for you. For as our Count has said, we must all live together, Dalecarles and Vulkings, each giving his best to make one people in this land. So I have made a place for you where you can do better than well. If you will go to Naaros by the dock and tell your name to the master of the cog Unicorn, he will make you of his company for a voyage of sure profit. Come, my boy, your hand.”
“No hand,” said Airar shortly, and swinging his pack up started resolutely down between the hedges wondering whether he ought not to throw a spell, but no, they would have protection. Fabrizius shrugged and turned to the bailiff, but now it was the latter’s turn to be busy, signing to the tall archer, the one who had remained mounted, to go with the young man—perhaps fearing some trick of violence like a return along the shadows of the hedge and a flung knife, though Airar carried no other weapon.
As he turned down the road where the hedge fell low, an old brown horse beginning to turn grey at the edges lifted his head and stepped slowly toward the roadside. His name was Pil. Airar looked past him, not meeting his eye, past the house where now no smoke came from the chimney, across the long brown fells rising like waves with crests of brush here and there, till they went up into the rounded crests of the Hogsback, with black trees thinning out to pine and the gleam of snow along the upper ridges far beyond. A door banged sharply in the still air, Leonce Fabrizius entering his new house. Good-bye, Trangsted—good-bye, Pil. Airar shook his head, trudging along, and the tall archer leaned down:
“Cheer up, younker, you have the world to make. What you need is a couple of nights with one of Madame Korin’s girls at Naaros. That’ll fix you up.”
The horse’s hoofs went klop-klop on the frozen road and Airar said nothing.
“You get over it. Why, when I was a lad we were taxed out ourselves—that was up in West Lacia in the days of the old Count and how I came into service, scrubbing armor at Briella, when the old man went down there and hired himself out for a cook in the castle, at the time of the Count’s war with the heathens.”
Not a word said Airar, and the tall archer tapped the neck of his horse with one glove.
“Now take yourself,” he went on. “Here you are, a free man, no debts, or service due, and a figure to make some of those court fillies prance to be ridden or a baron glad to have you at his gate. The world’s not perfect, but a young fellow is a fool not to make the best out of what he has given him. Set yourself up for an archer, younker, or a billman, which is easier; you’ll be noticed, never doubt it. I’ve done all right at Briella and here I am with a face to scare mice. But you’re a Dalecarle, not so? Well, then, try Salmonessa; Duke Roger keeps lively girls there and I have heard he keeps an agent in Naaros to wage men. I’ll even give you a word. What do you say?”
“No, bugger Roger of Salmonessa.”
“Why, you sguittard, you milk-sucker, if—”
He jerked hard on the rein and Airar looked up angry into a face unlike most Vulkings, long, lean, and lined from nose to jaw. “Oh, sir,” he cried, all his black mood running off as soon as it had accomplished its object of reaching another, “I cry your pardon. There must be a doom on me that always I strike at those who would be my friends. But in fact you speak at a hard time when I have lost everything and can gain nothing, being clerk but kept by law from it, nor carry weapons in Dalarna that is my home, nor have even a roof to my head.”
The tall archer dropped rein and hand, now mollified. “No matter, younker. I grant you grace. Aye, it would be an ill life, playing tomcat to one of Duke Roger’s bawds. Duke! Why, he’s only a hedge-duke, 5 or duke of the rabbits, not worth sitting at the feet of a simple count. Now—”
He left it unfinished and for a while they strode and rode along with communication silently established past the stead where the three sons of Viclid used to live. There were a couple of Micton slaves in the barnyard, trying to persuade a bullock to some mysterious doing, trotting around incompetently with many cries, the slow beef pulling from their grasp. The young man thought of these clumsy fools tracking mud across the floors of Trangsted. Presently the place and the hill on which it stood were left behind, the noise behind them still, and the tall archer said:
“My name is Pertuit. You are for Naaros, then?”
Airar gave a short, hard laugh, like a bark. “A—a—father’s brother—Tholo hight.”
“No friend of mine. But it is said: long is the street where no sibling sits at the end.”
“Aye. Tholo Airarson sits in a street where Leonce Fabrizius’ house is and plays his client.”
The archer Pertuit whistled. “That’s a fine coil. Not that I have anything against Fabrizius, but you were a pig’s head sure to be his man, even at the second remove, under the circumstances. Yet what else have you? Hell’s broth, it’s like being taken by the heathen of Dzik, that offer you a horse—to ride with them to the wars or before them to the scaffold. I was there once, but I found a little black-haired wench who would rather have me play jig on a pallet with her than alone at the end of a rope, therefore escaped.”
He shook his head, problem too deep for him, and they came to the crest of another of the long fingers reaching down from the Hogsback. The trees by the roadside dropped away here and a little distance out the knuckle ended, so they could see for miles in the windless clear air out to the west where a clump of wood on the horizon took a nip from the sinking sun. Between were long fields, only a few checkered with winter plowing, the rest brown pasture and animals like toys, moving slowly. Through its center ran the 6 great river, the Naar, dark blue in illumination already becoming uncertain, with flashes of white that caught the last light as ice slid down its floor toward Naaros city.
Pertuit the archer drew rein. “I call this five thousand paces,” said he, “and moreover, I’m for supper. Look here, younker, we spend the night at that place of yours, Dingsted or Frogsted or how you call it. But tomorrow I’ll be back in the city. Ask for me at the archers’ barracks, foot of the citadel, toward evening. We’ll toss a pot and think what may be done. You’re all right.”
He reached down a hand and this time Airar touched it. “Done—at the archers’ barracks,” Airar said. The archer turned round and with a “Hey Nonnine,” to make his horse trot, was gone back down into the shadows of the valley they had just left. Airar Alvarson turned down the opposite slope, alone in the world with his single gold noble, his pack, and his knife, going to the city certainly, but now it struck him for the first time that a city is a big place, not friendly like the steads of the hills, and he would be certain to arrive after dark when the gates were shut with a watch over them. No matter; he had slept abroad before, and in winter, fox-trapping up the Hogsback fells. But it was not comfortable.
So he walked and meditated down into the vale from which the next finger rose to bar the way to Naaros. The sun had gone down, but up aloft it was still bright. In that dim brightness a big owl flew out of somewhere and lit on a long branch that overreached the road. Airar looked up at it. The owl stretched one wing, shifted its claws on the branch, and said abruptly:
Perhaps some other might have doubted his own hearing, but this young man had long since reached for himself the thought that the world’s not all made of matter. He stopped, gazed, and without showing whether startled or not, said, “What will you have?”
“Airar Alvarson,” repeated the owl.
“Lira-lira-bekki,” said Airar, and giving a yank to 7 his pack, which was growing heavy, put down his head and trudged along. When he had gone about a hundred yards the owl swept dimly past him through the gloom and perching on another branch by the roadside, said once more, “Airar Alvarson.”
Ahead, down at the bottom of the valley, someone was coming out from the city in a cart, the first person Airar had met on that road. The shape was dim but the horse’s hoofbeats could be heard change sound on the wooden bridge at the bottom, and one of the wheels needed tallow. A few minutes more and there he was, an old man with no cap on his white head and a sleepy boy leaning against him, who gave Airar soft-voiced greeting and nodded his head to the return. When he was well past and Airar himself was crossing the bridge, the owl came and sat on the hand-rail at its farther end, once more repeating its two-word remark.
—Fabrizius’ work, reflected Airar and began looking annoyedly for a stone to throw, but looking, reflected that one does not get rid of a sending with a thrown stone, so called up his clerkly knowledge to mind. The Seven Powers?—would take a spray of witch-hazel twisted so, and how find it in the dark? Nor the Three Divinities either, which needed a reading from the book, too long to make by any flicker he might strike from tinder there. So he even had to bear the sending, plodding along the road through night now complete with a slice of moon just beginning behind the trees, on the road toward Naaros. It was after all harmless enough to be silly, a big bird that fluttered a few yards ahead to light and again repeat his name with idiot persistence, only kept him from bedding down when he otherwise might.
So they moved, man and owl, over the last of the low ridges above the plain. There was a stead on the far slope with a light in the window behind bushes and somebody singing inside; in another mood he might have sought harborage and been happy, but he was feeling all the world lost with the penalties of the afternoon and the owl hooting round his head, so 8 pressed on down the plain, where the lights and towers of the city showed distant beyond the great sweep of the Naar, glittering faintly under its bridges in the starshine.
The way led now downhill through a tall alley of trees with more behind them that concealed whatever view there had been from the hilltop. There were hedges of thorn-apple grown rank, their unfriendly spicules outflung against the night sky, when he paused on the uncertain footing to glance at the odd bird which followed him still. Small things moved among hedge and trees; and they reached a place where a path led winding from the road leftward, not wide enough for a cart. Here Airar looked sharp, for something long and grey scuttled across the path, and through the screen of leafless branches a flicker of light seemed to leap and disappear; not warm yellow, but blue foxfire or lightning. The talking owl swung low past his head, to station itself at the very path, and “Airar Alvarson!” cried, a tone higher. It came to 10 the young man’s mind that the bird wanted him to enter by that path, but at the same time thinking—What if not?—he set face and foot to the road again.
At once he had the curst bird in his face, wingtip brushing one ear, as it soared away from his clutching hand, shouting “Airar!” again in the new note of urgency. At the same moment from around a corner down the road ahead, there came a faint jingle of accouterment, a laugh and the sound of voices singing discordantly, where some group came from the taverns of Naaros.
Since there was no great loss of honor, a roof for the night possible and avoidance of the roisterers, Airar let himself be schooled to the owl’s path; and presently stood before the door of a house set so close round with trees and bush that one could hardly see how from the window, time and time, came the flash of dead-blue light.
The door had no pillars nor carved name. Airar raised a hand to knock, but before touch it sprang open upon a boy or manikin (for the features were of adult proportion to the body) who gave a tittering laugh in his face. “Airar Alvarson,” said the owl from right overhead.
“You are expected,” said the dwarf, and bowed not too quickly to hide a mocking grin; then turned and led on soft-shod feet through a room larger than it seemed from outside to another with many furnishings. It was hung heavily with old tapestries worked in a design of frightful beasts and human faces twisted with fear, half visible in the light of a single candle. “Wait,” said the guide, snickered, ducked under one of the tapestries, and disappeared.
There was a chair of pretense placed beside a table on which an alembic with a broken neck jostled parchments. Airar avoided it, swung down pack, and sat on a stool. Behind the tapestry to his near right occurred a sound that he, woodsman, identified as like a rabbit moving secretly in brush. The tapestry before him parted and a man came in—medium tall, full-bearded and grey, clad in a robe rather ruffled than neat, stained in front and with a rip in it. Thin white hair 11 made a halo in the rising candlelight and threw shadows up deep eye-arches, but his face bore an expression determinedly friendly.
He sat down in the chair. “You are Airar Alvarson,” he said, making no offer of hand, “and I am Meliboë.”
Airar knew the name and it was not a good one. The other’s expression did not alter at the flicker of muscle round the young man’s mouth. “I have sent for you because we can do each other service.”
Meliboë waved a deprecatory hand. “A familiar, and harmless. If I had wished to compel your attendance—” he stood up with a motion lithe for such age, talking as he walked, “—I show you this to prove I deal gently and it is alliance not servitude I offer.” The tapestry by Airar’s side was drawn back and the rustling had been made by a loathsome great worm in a cage, large as a cockadrill, shining in green and yellow, with pairs of clawed feet where its back-armor ran down in joints. It gazed at the young man with multiplex cloudy eyes and made a small mewing sound, blowing bubbles of froth from a hexagonal mouth. Airar wanted to vomit.
“You perceive I have powers,” said the enchanter, tranquilly. “You had better endure an adder’s bite than even be clasped by his claws. . . . Tsa, bibé” He dropped the tapestry.
Airar managed to say, “But why me, of all Dalarna?”
“Ha!” Meliboë raised a finger. “You had a visit from Leonce Fabrizius today, I think?” Against expectation he paused to be answered.
“Aye,” said the young man.
“Then you are for what place? Naaros, no doubt? To join your father, son of Alvar?”
“Lives with Tholo Airarson as pensioner of that same Fabrizius. I understand, young man. You are of honor, as noble-born. Most fair; I had not sent for you otherwise.”
“The more why me? You have powers and I am friendless.”
Meliboë swivelled round to look at him full as though here were something caught to surprise. “It is not less than I would have expected, to find you so acute,” he said, “and it does my judgment compliment. Well, since I see you will have nothing less than the full tale, here it is: there are not few, and I am among them, who would be less than melancholy to see an alternation in the rule of our good Count Vulk, fourteenth of the name. Yet here am I, court doctor and astrologer; not Dalecarle by birth. Shall I not need an impeccable ambassador before the Iron Ring?”
There was a moment’s silence, no sound at all but an intake of breath from Airar as the last words fell. Oh, aye, he knew of iron ring and iron ring—badge worn by Micton slaves and those sentenced for a time to servitude by the Vulking courts; some words half-caught from behind the door of his lock-bed, the night the stranger in the worn blue coat guested at Trangsted, his father saying—“No and no again. What? Leave my stead and my son’s future to [here a gap] iron ring?”—the nine days’ wonder of old Tyel, who had hanged himself (men said) in the barn of the upper farm at Gräntraen, with an iron ring new forged around his neck. But at the market in Naaros, no one would speak of that. . . .
“I do not know what you mean about the Iron Ring,” he said stoutly, but Meliboë laughed. “It is as I would have desired. You are a model of discretion. So let us put it this way; there is a certain group at Naaros with whom I am wishful to strike hands, but may not do so in person. You seek employment; I wage you as plenipotentiary before them and will pay well, from which it will grow that either they send you back to me with another message for a second payment, or find employment enough for you of their own. That it is not altogether without danger I admit. Can you do better unhelped?”
The offer seemed fair enough even though (as Airar noted, secretly amused) the remark about danger was made more for encouragement than fairness. But he was of peasant stock. “How great is the wage?”
“I wonder, did you take the Count’s goldpiece? I 13 think you would. No matter; three like it paid down for this one message.”
The sum was princely, yet “Is it enough?” asked Airar.
Meliboë looked at him narrowly. “Four then. I am striking too high to haggle.” The note was finality.
“And the message?”
“Merely this: that Meliboë, a poor doctor of the philosophies, wishes them well; and as proof that he does so wish them, he is full aware of what the syndics of the guilds of Mariupol propose, but none at the court knows of it else; that a scorpion without a head can sting but not bite, but that by certain philosophic arts one might find a hand to bear a banner.”
“To whom given?”
Meliboë twitched lips, but, wise to take substance rather than shadow, answered: “To a certain group who meet at a tavern, called Of The Old Sword, with the arms of the Argimenids before, as though it were imperial property, but differenced as to color. It is in the Street of the Unicorn, hard by the Lady-Chapel, and the hour is one after sunset.”
“It smacks of secret. How shall they believe I am to come?”
The philosophic doctor placed his head a little on one side, a long forefinger up the angle of his jaw, the back of his hand ruffling beard under chin. “Your care is admirable,” he said; turning, unlocked a drawer Airar had not noticed amid the carving of the table, and drew forth a small ring, intricately wrought in silver. “This be your passport.”
To Airar’s fingers it felt wholly smooth. He looked up surprised and a smile stretched across the limits of Meliboë’s beard. “A small enchantment,” said he. “Look you but now.” The parchments and desk litter were tossed aside till he found a gugglet of water from which he sprinkled a few drops as Airar held the ring outstretched. It was plain iron with square edges, but when the young man rubbed it dry on the edge of his jerkin there it was again to appearance silver and much carven.
“Put it on.” The enchanter waved hands. “You will 14 go then to this tavern; if they make difficulties ask for a few drops of wine or water and show it anew. What do you think?”
“Good. But a ring is not always on the hand of the owner.”
“That is thought on. There is also a certain song from one of the old tongues before the heathen. How much clerk are you?”
“Somewhat; but not to practice.”
The enchanter laughed shortly. “Not for admission to bailiffs, I know. Well, then, one shall hum to you or sing softly,
Geme, plange, moesto mori—
and your reply to the same air is,
Or you may reverse it, offering the first line in challenge.”
Airar caught the air and repeated it readily enough, but Meliboë waved hands and stood up. “So for business; now courtesy. You have supped?”
Said Airar, who was in a state to attack the worm and carve steaks from its ribs, “Not I.”
“All my apologies.” His host pulled aside another part of the tapestry than the dwarf had used when he entered. “Young sir and partner, come.”
There was a passage. At the end of it Meliboë ushered him into an apartment where again one candle burned, this above a bed well furnished. He clapped hands. Airar noticed the door had a lock and was glad; the manikin entered, still smiling at his secret jest, and was told to bring a plate with somewhat to drink. Meliboë remained on his feet and so did Airar for politeness, while time paused, from which the enchanter’s eyes rolled suddenly. “You are a lucky man and will do much,” he said, “but I do not think your luck will hold against that of the three-fingered lord, though he be himself less than fortunate. A mystery.”
Airar stared at him. The dwarf, whom it would be more like to call a small man, since he was in all respects perfectly proportioned, came in with a tray that held meat, drink, and a manchet of bread; but at the moment he entered, there was a frightful dying scream that seemed to run through the whole building and rend one to the very marrow.
The little man set down the tray and tittered. “The leopard is dead,” he said.
“Ten thousand furies!” cried Meliboë and dived through the door. Airar drove home the bolt before he addressed himself to the food.
Airar had been in Naaros often enough but never with five pieces of gold and all time to himself, so it was new. He wandered among shops, was beset to avoid slops, took his noon meal in a cook-stall where he left his pack in care, and found the temptation to buy strong till the very moment of entering the shop to chaffer. Then he would reflect that he bore his only home on his back, like a turtle; therefore ended by purchasing not even what he might in another mood have wished, like a beautiful little grimoire to fit the pocket, in the Street of the Booksellers. He went near neither the street where his father’s brother kept house and artisanship in the name of Fabrizius, nor the dock where the latter had told 17 him the cog Unicorn would lie—no, death’s resort, both—though from the street of the piers he could see tall masts rising and catch the pungent whiff of spices from Uravedu and the South Isles; and it was of regret that the chance to sail thither had come in such a form.
Without trouble he found the Street of the Unicorn, the Lady-Chapel, and the tavern called Of The Old Sword, marking it well for the evening’s use. A black-fronted place, beamed up to a jutting overstory, with a narrow entrance and a somewhat ill-avised big man lounging against it with hair half over his eyes, who made way for nobody. That was behind, it would be toward sunset, and the brouhaha of the city dying toward gate-close when the son of Alvar came upon a street at the base of the peninsula where Naar runs round the tall tongue of rock to outline Naaros citadel. It was an old street that stood on a filled-in moat; therefore zigzagged, the ground windows mostly given to the sale of weapons and such gaudy trinkets as soldiers buy.
Had Airar not been tired with walking paves he would have little paused; had he not looked at things wholly unwanted, the dag whose jewelling caught the last level light had not seemed so priceless good. But so it was; his heart leaped at finding something he could both buy and carry, and he went in. It was a fat man with a squint eye, who with tradesman’s deliberation brought the dag from the window for Airar to handle. Permandos work, said he, and the price forty solvars. The weapon was sweetly balanced; at its touch Airar became so eager to buy that he only carried the bargaining down to thirty (though he might have had it for less) and brought out one of his goldpieces. The shopkeeper weighed it reflectively on fingertips and looked the young man up and down.
“Are you not a Dalecarle?” he asked.
“Yes, and what of that?” said Airar, somewhat shortly, having encountered this before. “This is Dalecarle’s country.”
The man was patient. “May I see your exemption?”
Said Airar, “I do not know that I take your meaning,” fearing that he most accurately did take it.
“Exemption. Writing over the seal of our Lord Provost with leave to buy weapons of the classes not by the ordinance to those of Dalecarle blood.”
Now Airar did understand with no doubt about it and felt his face flush hot. “If that’s your ordinance,” he cried, “take your dirty kitchen knife to my Lord Provost and ram it down his weazand with my compliments.” He reached for his piece of money.
The squinted eye blinked rapidly. “Young sir, I no more made the rules you live by than I made you six feet tall. It falls hardest on me. Now I must ask your name and to the archers’ barrack to be questioned around and around about why you are buying death-tools; or if I fail, then you turn out to be one of my lord’s deputies, and where am I?”
The words roused in Airar not only sympathy, but a memory lost among the events of the night. “My name’s my own,” he said, “but if that’s the matter, I’ll even go with you. I know an archer who’ll make all right.”
Squint-eye gave him a long, squinting glance, now clearly confirmed in his suspicions. “I thank you, young sir. You are gracious. But there’s none to leave with my shop. You know how to reach it, no doubt? To your right the first street and follow it straight around.”
He made a half-bow over a smile of pure malice and it would have been Airar’s pleasure to thrust a fist into it, but he restrained and strode out with no more words. The street gave on a wide cobbled square with a stockade at the far end, and the road to the rock of the castle winding up out of it; he had not been there before. At the gate of the stockade a man in jack and sallet held a bill in the crook of his arm and attentively examined some small spot on his hand.
“What d’you want?”
“Is Pertuit the archer within?”
He look Airar up and down as the shopkeeper had done, less friendly, there being no money involved; balanced bill, turned head, and shouted: “Louche! 19 Louche! Tell old Cowface there’s a snotty here to see him.” It was Airar’s first contact with the guard, save Pertuit himself and the friendly stupid men who kept order at the market.
Pertuit came down capped and sworded, yawning gustily and scratching himself, a burr of new beard round his chin; somewhat shamefast and hoity-toity of look over the glance and whistle his comrade gave to see him called for by a handsome Dalecarle youth. “What’s now?” he said, and Airar would have walked away but that there is no loneliness like that of a countryman in town.
“I had thought you might help me find a tavern where we could pick a bone,” he said. “Having money—” and dandled one of his aurar.
The archer’s ill humor vanished. “Bless you, younker!” he said. “We’ll make a Vulking of you yet, that are good to an old fighting man who has spent all his life in service. None has offered any here aught since Prince Aurareus came over in the imperial viceroy’s train and sent every man of the castle guard six bottles to drink his health.” He had taken Airar by the arm and was leading him rapidly across the square from the wicket-guard, who stood looking after with his mouth watering. “Not that—” Pertuit glanced round sharply, and gave a kind of snort. “Ha, stinking Imperials, all perfume. But you never see old Red-beard buying wine for the archer guard and I don’t care who knows I said it. Here’s a good place.”
To Airar’s eyes the room stretched back illimitable, smoking with cressets, deaf with sound. A whole row of spits turned; the smell was delicious. He blinked as the host came forward, smiling at the red triangle on Pertuit’s shoulder, but looking with a somewhat anxious eye as the archer said, “We’ll have a stall, a bird, and Carrhoene—not the kind with resin, ha? It’s all right, the young lord’s rich. Show him the color of your shield, Élair.”
“My name is Airar,” but he clinked gold for the man, whose smile became a smirk as he led toward the rear and a place where the pair could sit beside on a thing like a church pew with arm-rests once 20 carved in the heads of curious beasts, now knife-hacked out of recognition. The pot-boy brought the bottle; Pertuit took a long draft and looked not unkindly at the young man.
“It’s a matter of employ, is’t not, younker?” he asked, willing enough to pay for entertainment in what coin he could muster.
Airar felt himself blush. “As for that, I’m not so urgent—that is, I would spend a day or two to see—I—”
“Oho, already? Is she fair? Take a veteran’s advice and look at the breasts; that’s where you have to lie. The face is only the shingle before the shop. Is that her ring you wear?” He laughed loud and now Airar blushed in good earnest, for he was a decent lad.
“Nor that either.” Pressed to the point of saying something to cover Meliboë’s mission, Airar burst out with the story of his effort to buy the dag, and Pertuit whistled as he took another long drink. “Faith, younker, you fall foul of the law like a dog chasing ducks in a barnyard. Were you truly ignorant of the ordinance?”
“For long weapons, aye, I knew. But a mere dag?”
“A dag is long in Naaros city by order of his worship the Baron Vanette-Millepigue. What’s to do on this?” He drummed fingers. “Best devance the matter, say I, by going before a magistrate to confess the fault. But you’ll need three compurgators. I’ll stand willing for one—swear I never saw a chick more harmless—but where’s the rest? D’you suppose Fabrizius would speak for you?”
“No doubt.” Airar laughed short. “But the price would be to sail in his curst ship.”
“If ’twere to Dzik or Uravedu you might make a fortune, but I misdoubt this Fabrizius trades only with the Twelve Cities, and in essence Carrhoene, where you have as much chance to draw wine from a well as you have to win a solvar. Ah, well, give tomorrow’s problem to the dawn, as the song says.” He drank another draft, tilted back his head and sang:
“When I was young and in my prime
I thought on age and the end of time;
but now my hair and beard are grey,
I know that time is here to stay.
There are seven other verses, but they all come to the same thing.”
The host brought their bird and toothsome it was, with a sauce of little shrimps from the Naarmouth; but Airar found to no pleasure his companion drinking uneasy fast and talking faster even though with the best of spirits and wit. For there were guests in the other stalls who looked and laughed, and the young man could not but think on how he might deliver the enchanter’s message at a place where Pertuit would sure be no welcome guest. He was a fool for the invitation and the room seemed slightly to blur as with distance which was a sensation he knew, so at last burst out: “Sir archer and friend, this has been joyous, but as you forgive me, I must even bid good-night. A matter of business—”
“Aha!” roared the archer before Airar could pick up from that hesitation. “The young cock wants to rut.” He leaned forward and wagged a finger. “Hark, younker, I’ll go with you. Every girl should have two lovers, one to keep guard at the door.”
“I do assure you—”
“You assure me of nothing. On the contrary, I assure you against all interruption. What! Am I not an archer of the guard of his lordship, the bastardly Red Baron? Gurion!” He swept up arm in a beckoning gesture for the landlord. “The slate. Pay it clear, younker; I’ll leave drink-money for the lad, and let’s begone.”
It could have been the wine that somewhat dulled Airar’s perceptions; yet at the best, what could he do with one so masterful and moreover in authority, but go on and trust that those to whom he was bound would set a guard to screen out archers? He paid then, and rose. Pertuit took his arm, clapped the boniface on the back, saluted some in a neighboring stall, and led Airar magniloquently toward 22 the door. The night air smelled good, with a salty tang the young man remembered coming to Trangsted only when the wind was strong southerly.
“Where are we bound?” asked the archer.
“I go to the Street of the Unicorn. But are you not required to be at the barrack by a named hour?”
“Pish. Never mention it. Is not my trade being guard? And who better to guard than an old friend at his adventures? I’ll answer for all—all, to any night-watch. Does she have a sister?”
The city was quiet and echoing after the noise of the day, the moon low in the sky and shadows everywhere with only a lighted window now and then, so that presently even Pertuit gave over his chatter. They met few and those mostly cloaked, seeming unanxious for company; but as they passed the Lady-Chapel there seemed to be movement among the darkness, and where the Inn of The Old Sword was, one of these shadows stepped forward and from under a cloak thrust a tallow-lantern in their faces.
“Where do you go?” he asked gruffly, and beyond the light Airar thought he caught a glimpse of the surly big-boned man who had lounged there earlier.
“Where I please and answer to none,” said Pertuit, voice suddenly metal-hard, and reached round to tap the badge on his shoulder. “Archer of the guard.” A light flashed on suddenly within the inn and was quickly out.
“Pass, archer,” said the fellow, and lowering the lantern, stepped back a half-pace, but as he did so Airar caught from the tail of his eye a flick of motion that sang danger. Pertuit saw it first and—all one movement with a speed Airar would not have credited in a man half-drunken still—whipped out his shortsword and thrust, shouting, “Watch! Watch! A pax! A pax!”
The big man glided like smoke before the blow and Airar heard a sound of ripping cloth. He half-turned at some touch; at the some moment a laurel-leaf spearhead whipped past his shoulder, the shape forever fixed in memory during that fraction of a second. It dipped and caught his companion full 23 under the shoulder-blade from behind. The last shout died in bubbles; there was a rush of blood on the young man’s hand, something clipped him hard behind the ear, and down he went in a tangle with the body of Pertuit the archer.
“Hold,” Airar dreamily heard someone say in a high voice. “This one wears the ring.”
“Give him the question, then.” The second voice was gruff from the big man. “No safety for any till we find how he came by that.”
There was a light outside Airar’s lids, which the headache made as much as he could bear, his hands felt sticky, and he misdoubted his ability to move.
“Nay, Gallil,” said still a third. “Here’s no Vulking. Look at that hair and those inches.”
“By the Well! The question then, for a traitorous lizard. How came he running with the Red Dog’s pup?”
Airar opened his eyes and immediately shut them again to the wave of light and pain, but in that evanescent glance caught the fact that there was a 25 circle of faces and he was lying on a floor under a dark, low-beamed ceiling.
“The animal’s awake,” growled the Gallil-voice. “Question him quick before the syndic comes, or that old fool will be out the door, leaving nothing behind but a bad smell. Naught more ogresome than the thought of death to a man who’s near it.”
“Nay.” Airar tried to sit up and the effort set all the stars of heaven crashing through his head. He lifted a hand, saw that it was drenched with blood, felt sick, and would have fallen back but that one long-nosed and clean-shaven, in the costume of a mountain-hunter, put an arm around him. “Hold the way!” he cried, and it was the third speaker, who had remarked Airar’s hair and size. “Some water—or aquaviva.”
“True,” said a man with a bald head and an iron beard that bristled out from his face like the prickles of a porcupine, passing over a bottle of something that stung Airar’s lips. “Let’s hear what tune he pipes for himself before making him dance to ours.”
Airar coughed, gasped, shook free of the supporting hand, and with an effort heaved himself up, but had to grip a side pillar to face the circle of maybe a score, skeptic to unfriendly.
“Well, man, what’s your business, say?” cried someone impatiently, and the hunter: “Give him time for life,” but Gallil, “Time for lies, rather.”
The son of Alvar looked at his hand. “It’s all blood,” he said foolishly. “You killed my friend.” Then, gaining strength with speed as the sense of danger hit home: “You of the Iron Ring for sure make rude enough welcome for those delegated with messages to your ears.”
There was a stir on that. “Messages from whom?” cried one, and “Proof, proof!” another, Gallil threw back his torn cloak to show he was grasping hilt beneath, and a voice asked if the Korosh speaker had come. But Airar faced them till he had all their eyes, having some experience with folk-meetings in Vastmanstad, then hummed through his teeth:
Geme, plange, moesto mori—
letting it drop at the end of the line, and without waiting for the answer, said, “If you’ll but give me the means to cleanse myself, you shall hear the rest. Sirs, if I were indeed contrarious to you, would I have come to your meeting with a single archer? It is too many or too few.”
The mountain-hunter laughed clear. “Aye, Gallil, there’s your proof,” said he. “It’s a true Dalecarle—bad argument and good heart. Why any archer at all he says not, you’ll remark. Let’s to full meeting and hear in form this maker of conditions.” He gripped Airar by the arm and led him half-staggering through another room, where there was a long table with places for many, to a buttery where he could wash, remarking not unkindly as he waited, “Give them name and station at once; no need to trick out with speech. We’re fair to all of Dalecarle blood. I’m Rogai of Mariola.” He touched hands for friendship and led the way in.
The group were all in places round the table, as he could see now with clearing head an assembly in all the costumes of Dalarna. This Gallil, now that one got him in the light, was evidently from the peasantry of Vastmanstad itself; there was one who snorted with asthma from a fisherman’s beard and a leather jerkin; that tall man with the wind-red face bore a doublet that was surely never fashioned other where than on the boundless plains of Hestinga; and a man with delicate hands on the table, wearing a knight’s hacqueton beneath a sharp triangular chin, might well be that Sir Ludomir Ludomirson of whom Airar had so often heard.
The young man gripped the back of a chair. “Sirs,” said he, seeing they were attendant upon him, “I will show you my affair without concealment. I am Airar Alvarson, now of no place, being taxed out of my father’s stead no earlier than yesterday by Leonce Fabrizius.” Murmurs, and the fisher cried, “That’s what we’re for to cure.”
“Well then, as I made my way to town last night, 27 I fell on an encounter with a certain doctor philosophicus, one Meliboë. He told me you would gather here tonight; gave me this ring and your song as passports and waged me to bear a message.”
Now there was stir indeed, Gallil leaping up so fierce his chair crashed to the floor, crying, “Said I not so? Give him the question at once!” and mountain-hunter Rogai, pale under brown, “How came that old vulture by our song and sign?” with many other confused voicings till the knight stood up, lifting his hands, and only when there was peace, saying:
“A moment.” He addressed Airar: “Young sir, this is a very astounding and dangerous thing to tell us, for among all the enemies of our race none is worse than this same Meliboë and if he be ware of our intimate doings, we are not far from sped. Therefore—”
“That is my message. I—”
“You will be still till we give you leave to speak, since you stand here in no good odor. Moreover, you will address me as sir; I am a dubbed knight. I continue: we would be satisfied that you do indeed come as the plenipotentiary of this wizard and demon. Where did you encounter him?”
“In a cot at the foot of a hill where a small road turns off, some eight to ten thousand paces beyond the last bridge as one takes the great high toward the two Lacias out from Naaros—sir.”
“Gallil, you’re our delegate of Vastmanstad. Is this plausible?”
The big man nodded gloomily behind his beard. “Veritable, even, Sir Ludomir. Few know it, but Meliboë has a pleasaunce there, where he works his dirty witcheries with the help of a dwarf called Cobbo, offspring of a mismating between a sea-demon and a Micton wench.”
Sir Ludomir turned back to Airar. “We will take it as proved that you have seen Sir Doctor Meliboë. Have you any proof that you bear his word?”
For answer Airar stepped to the window of the buttery where the water was, thrust his hand into the 28 bucket, then held it aloft. “Sir, and you, sirs,” he said, “I ask you to look whether this be not an iron ring such as I see some of you wear. But now look.” He rubbed it dry and threw it on the table, where it caught the light in multiplex reflection of the twined silvery design.
Rogai the mountain-hunter laughed. “Sorcery!” cried someone, but Airar: “I could remove the enchantment myself if I had a book here.”
The knight picked up the ring, rolled it between his fingers, examined it closely, and looked up with raised eyebrows: “And the message?”
“Sir, that this Doctor Meliboë finds the world wagging ill under Count Vulk and would fall in with you to change it. As proof of good will, he offers this—that he knows what you propose with the guilds of Mariupol; but says a scorpion without a head may sting but not bite, yet through certain arts he might find you a hand to lift a banner.”
Once again there was babble and Sir Ludomir looked forth like a hawk from shadowed eyes. “And what think you—” he began, but before he could achieve the word, there came from the door a knock double and triple. The knight slid the ring down the table to Airar, Rogai-of-the-mountains motioned him to a place, and the portal was unbarred to admit a man.
He was clad in furs, so richly that at a glance one missed the person himself, yet on second sight there was nothing remarkable in this, since it was an ancient, so bleached and colorless as to be without personal existence, with a thin, solemn face, like a priest’s.
Rogai of Mariola sprang up. “This is Wigrak,” he said in a loud voice, “syndic of the great guilds of Mariupol, to hear whom we are convoked tonight.” The old man smiled thanks as Sir Ludomir offered him a chair and said in a voice silver-clear, “With your permission, I will sit and talk.”
“We are all one in the Iron Ring, with no rules of sit or stand,” said the knight, in the tone of one repeating a formula, which the elder capped with:
“In some measure it is precisely for that that I have come. How long are we of Dalarna to lie under the Mountain? I will give you a hard saying on that if you 29 are men enough to hear it—till there are rules of sit and stand, and a captain over us.”
He paused for a moment to let them grasp it, and the prickle-beard man said slowly, “So told us Meliboë through the mouth of the youngling messenger.”
Wigrak did not look at him even. “When’s peace and amity we can talk of no man better than his neighbor, but, gentles, I do assure you we are now in the midst of most desperate war, though with no standard lifted, which will not end till we are all made Vulkings or the servants of Vulkings—you were not met here else. You were not else bearing that iron band by which Count Vulk proclaims that Dalecarle and barbarous Micton are one.”
He paused again. In answer to some signal Airar had not caught, a chubby girl came in from the pantry and set mead round the table, while one and another exchanged low-voiced words; though none drank but a stoop-shouldered man near Sir Ludomir, dressed fancily in the style of the Korsor hills; but Rogai, who seemed in some sense the old man’s sponsor, said: “And the rest?”
Wigrak raised a paper-white hand.
“Patience,” said he. “This is blood and treasure and more than we own and it is well to think each step. But here it is briefly—this day one month Mariupol city throws off the allegiance of Count Vulk and rises in arms. To you of the Iron Ring, we say—join us; this is the acceptable hour of the sword.”
Now there was tumult of a kind to make dim that over Airar’s message, half the room on their feet and some of them shouting, so the girl stuck her head from the pantry, but when they took their places again, the prickle-beard man did not sit and he addressed the syndic:
“That is the best of news to all who would see the Mountain cut down, but our guest has said somewhat of rules and rulers. Before we pledge heart and sword, I would know to whom.”
“Ha!” growled black Gallil, half under his breath. “A rat and a Whiteriverdalesman will never cross a 30 bridge till it is paved with cheese,” and Prickle-beard flushed, but Wigrak the syndic signed for the word:
“That is a most fair question, frankly put, and will be answered in the same spirit. Mark you: has Dalarna a leader fit to stand in battle before the Vulking captains—Bordvin Wildfang or even the bloody Red Baron of Naaros? It was our failure at the Red Hills long ago that we had none; and since this matter will come to battle soon or late, the Mariupol guilds have sought champions where they might be found; to it, we have waged the Star-Captains out of Carrhoene to be our leaders, with sundry of their spears.”
Airar had heard of those five Star-Captains, each glorious as a trumpet-blast, and had any risen to shout at that word, he too over the thought they fought for Dalarna. But round the table only one or two stirred, looks were less joyous than those of lovers, Sir Ludomir tapped with his fingers, and Gallil scowled darkly, while the Korsor man cried, “What’s the wage and who pays?” as he drank from his mug. But Wigrak rushed on like a man used to these checks: