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The Book of Knights
By Yves Meynard, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1998 Yves Meynard
All rights reserved.
Adelrune's earliest memories were of finding the Book of Knights, hidden away in the attic of the four-story house of bricks where his foster parents lived.
In retrospect, it seemed unthinkable that he should find a book, any book, in that dour and austere house, apart from the Rule and its twelve accompanying volumes of Commentaries, which garnished the oaken shelves of the parlor. How often had he heard Stepfather repeat, with smug relish, the words of Didactor Moncure: "All the wisdom of the world is to be found in the Rule and its Commentaries. All other texts are but a waste of parchment."
Yet he had found the book in his foster parents' house: in the attic, wedged between a great empty trunk and the rearmost wall of the house, further camouflaged by clotted spiderwebs and decades of dust. He had pulled the book out, dropped it in his lap; wiped the cover clean, and seen the gilt letters come to life—or rather, half-life, since he did not yet know how to read, and so could not understand the patterns they formed.
He was at that age when miracles cannot be distinguished from ordinary occurrences; the discovery awoke in him no sense of awe, nor dread, nor wonder. He accepted it with the terrible serenity of the young, and so broke the preordained pattern of his life. Had the book been naught but text, all might still have returned to normalcy, for Adelrune, already trained to be methodical at the age of five, would have swiftly grown bored with the meaningless letters and put the book carefully back in its place, thereafter forgetting all about it.
But there were pictures. Adelrune had seen pictures before, large pictures in color, painted on the walls of the smaller Canon House, where young children were brought while their parents went to Temple, to begin their acquaintance with the Rule. On one wall stood the pictures that illustrated the Precepts of the Rule, with the rewards it entailed to follow them; on the other were portraits of famous men whose exemplary lives were deemed to optimally embody the Rule. Adelrune had been allowed, indeed encouraged, to pore over these pictures to his heart's content; yet they had not impressed him much.
The illustrations in the book were in faded black ink, and quite a bit smaller; and yet to Adelrune they were infinitely engrossing. Looking upon them, he felt nothing at first but intense curiosity: the thought formed in his mind that somehow he must understand what the pictures meant. And on the heels of this thought came another, an odd thought for him: that he must keep quiet about his discovery. He must not tell Stepmother, nor Stepfather. He already sensed that they would not approve.
They told him often enough, both in words and not, that he should be grateful. Grateful for everything in his life, since nothing had ever been owed him. He wasn't a child like any other: he was a foundling, abandoned at birth by his true parents. Stepmother and Stepfather had taken him in, sheltered him, clothed and fed him. It was a measure of their great devotion to the Rule—almost, it might be inferred, their saintliness—that they had bothered to do so, that they continued to undertake so many sacrifices for his sake.
And Adelrune did feel grateful, conscientiously, taking pains to make it clear in words at least once a day. Often Stepmother found more concrete ways as well for him to express his gratitude: fetching small things, dusting low shelves, cleaning the kitchen floor. All aspects of a good boy's life: obedience to one's parents prefigured obedience to the Rule.
Adelrune knew, from some place at the back of his mind, as dusty and quiet as was the attic, that looking at the book would not be construed as obedience or gratefulness. He had not been forbidden it, but then it was likely neither of his foster parents knew of its existence. Having been carefully brought up, he would not, could not, disobey a direct interdiction. But as long as they didn't know of the book, he could look at it and at least pretend to be blameless.
And so it was in secret that he came back to the Book of Knights, again and again, day after day. The pictures were his first doorway into the book, all that year before he learned to read.
There were twenty-two, scattered across far more pages than Adelrune could hope to count. The main subject of every illustration was a man—never the same one, though some resembled each other as brothers might. Usually the man wore armor, though sometimes he wore only clothing, and in one picture he was nearly naked—most definitely a breach of the Rule, though it might be that his clothes had been stolen by the crowd of bird-headed men who surrounded him, leering and jeering.
Adelrune soon grew to know each picture by heart, to recognize in each its own innate character. Some of the pictures were serene and almost gay; they enjoyed being looked at. Like the drawing of the mustachioed man in baroque armor, lying on a bed of moss, being fed grapes by a cohort of small girls with huge eyes and little horns poking through their hair.
Other pictures were reserved and made the boy want to turn the page after a brief while. In one of those a man stood in a courtyard, holding a bloodied sword in his left hand and looking down at the ground. Bodies lay all around him, apparently slain by the man's sword. None wore armor or carried weapons. There were clouds massing, visible over the rim of the surrounding wall. The sun was sinking, and half the courtyard lay in shadow from the walls. At the edge of one patch of shadow a hand was visible—someone hiding from the man?
Five of the twenty-two Adelrune grew to call the Angry Pictures; those forced the boy to stare at them, tried to prevent him from ever tearing his gaze away. What they showed made him unwilling to even touch that area of the page. The worst one was a winter scene. It showed a man, his hair an unkempt mane and his cheeks roughened by a nascent beard, strapped to a contraption of metal and wood full of spikes, saw-toothed blades, and hooked thorns. At first Adelrune had believed this some sort of torture rack, and felt disgusted. But then he'd understood the frame was a kind of armor, that it moved with the man, made him into a ten-foot giant whose every surface was deadly. The huge double-bladed cleaver at the end of one arm wasn't hinged to disembowel the man, it was a weapon meant to destroy others. What the boy had taken for snowdrifts all about the man now appeared to be the coils of some colossal wormlike being. And the too-perfect icicles that stabbed downward in the foreground, were they not the translucent teeth of the beast? Meaning that the vantage point of the illustration was from within its very mouth.
For all the fear—and, always, oddly, sadness—that these images evoked, Adelrune looked at them often at the start, until in time he learned to avoid opening the book to their pages. Still, he would sometimes dream of the Angry Pictures at night. When he thought of the book, always these five images hovered in his mind just beyond the book itself. Remember us. We are as real as the others, if not more so.
The mysteries of the pictures did not pale with time, as might have been expected. Rather, they awoke in Adelrune, more and more fiercely, the desire to understand the signs on the pages of the Book of Knights. It seemed to him only logical to assume that the letters on the pages were the same as those used in the Rule and its Commentaries. Therefore—this leap of logic took him a few days—if Adelrune were to learn how to read those books, he would also be able to read from the Book of Knights.
Adelrune conceived of a clever plan to that effect. That evening, after dinner, the three of them left the kitchen table and went into the living room. Stepmother sat in her usual chair as Stepfather went to his single shelf of books and pulled out one of the Commentaries on the Rule. Normally, Adelrune would have sat down on his own chair, a tiny wooden one brought down from the attic, and remained there. He never fidgeted; he had only had to be told twice and hit once to remember forever more that it was not proper to squirm while the Rule was being read out.
This time, however, he waited by Stepfather's leg and cleared his throat.
"What is it, boy? You have to go?"
"No, sir. I wanted to sit at your side. I want to learn how to read the Rule."
Stepfather had started to frown, but he now stopped. He looked to his wife for advice. She said in a soft voice, "Why not allow him, Harkle? It's a good thing to learn to read early, isn't it?"
"Hmpf. Very well, Adelrune. Climb up here and look at the pages, but don't touch the book and especially don't fidget."
"No, sir. Thank you, sir."
While Stepfather read aloud, Adelrune stared at the page and tried to figure out the script. He remained very quiet and still, once painfully stifling a sneeze.
"'As the Eighty-ninth Precept instructs us, we must in all things keep an awareness of the boundaries of the Rule. This must be understood in detail: it is not enough to know that one is within the Rule, but also how far from the limit of proper conduct one stands. Praise to the righteous man, secure as he is in the very heart of the Rule, knowing himself as distant as may be from the least form of misconduct. Beware the potential sinner, who leans deliberately close to the boundary of what is allowed; for in time, if he should not feel the burning need to return to the center, then he shall surely get ever closer to the unallowable until he steps over the boundary and transgresses against the Rule.' Do you understand that, boy? It means you've always got to do your absolute best at all times. If you shirk your duty, even though you don't do anything wrong, you're bad. You understand?"
"Yes, sir. I'll always do my best."
Day after day this went on, Adelrune sitting carefully by Stepfather's side, trying to follow the man's words on the page, not daring to ask whether it was this word or that which was being read out. At times, overwhelmed by the task, he would lose his focus completely and let the words wash over him without bothering even to figure them out; then Stepfather would turn a page and Adelrune jumped at the chance, knowing that the first word spoken must be at the top left.
Once Stepfather was done reading, Adelrune was sent to his room, though he was allowed an idle hour before bed. One evening, perhaps two weeks since he'd started his reading program, he came down to the kitchen to get water from the pump. He carefully set his assigned tumbler at the bottom of the sink and worked the handle until water gushed into it. He was about to leave when he heard his name spoken. Thinking he'd been called, he went toward the door to the parlor, but stopped short when he realized he was in fact being talked about.
"I don't know," Stepmother was saying. "That's a lot of money, and for what? You said yourself the masons' guild won't take him, for all that he should be entitled, being your son. What good will an education do him? Juhal offered to take him as an apprentice if he grew strong enough, and there's Rodle who said ..."
"Yes, yes, all your friends' unguilded husbands looking for cheap work. And that's well and good, 'earning a modest wage is a clear path to righteousness,' not to mention our cut on his salary. I agree: that's the safe way. But, Eddrin, he could be more than that. He wants to learn. He respects the Rule better than many children his age. Why not try to get him into the ranks of the hierarchy?"
"It's a hard regimen. If he fails, we'll look like we were trying to get above our station."
"Bah, what does a woman know about hardship? He won't fail. Think what it'll be like to have a son who's an adjunct to the Didactors."
"They won't let him rise high. An abandoned child, born of unknown parents? They'll never allow a bastard to—"
Stepfather cut her off: "Don't use words like that in my house. Adelrune is a foundling, and we've given him a decent, righteous family. It's true that the Didactors won't let him rise too high, but he could still go all the way up to deacon. Wouldn't that be something? It would repay us for all we've done for him, all the sacrifices we had to make to raise him. Our son, a deacon."
"Well, yes, that would be nice.... A deacon." She tried on the word for size and feel. "'The other day, my son Adelrune, the deacon ...'" Her voice trailed off into a mumble.
"I'll enroll him at the Canon House starting next week, then."
"As you will, my dear," said Stepmother obediently.
There came the noise of Stepfather's footsteps. Adelrune went hurriedly up to his room, lest he be caught eavesdropping and immediately ruin his chances. Schooling! He would never have dared to dream of that.
Adelrune found the school regimen unpleasant but, ultimately, bearable. The various indignities he was forced to endure, the meaningless rote and drills, those he could stand, so long as he was eventually given the key to the book that awaited him each day as he returned home.
And he learned. Slowly, but steadily, he learned. What each letter signified and how they went along with each other, how these arrangements made words. Until one day, as he labored to shape proper fs on his slate, along with a dozen other pupils, something turned over within him and he knew that he was ready. All this time he had held back from actually looking at the book, since it would be worse to be able to read only a few words here and there than not to understand them at all. Now he need no longer put it off.
The revelation shook him. His fs began to grow more and more crooked, all trembling stems and oblique crossbars. The young Didactor in charge of the class took one disgusted look at Adelrune's handiwork, cuffed him on the side of the head, and ordered him to erase his slate and do it all over again.
The pain was almost welcome, since it distracted his mind from the revelation. Adelrune sponged his slate clean and redid his letters with care, eliciting a nod of approval from the Didactor. The rest of the day, the boy managed to keep his mind on his duties, thrusting away any thoughts of the book. At long last, four o'clock was rung from the bell tower in the center of town. The pupils rose and intoned that day's hymn, led by the Didactor's off-key baritone. Once that was over, the Canon House's dismissal bell was rattled; children poured out from the various classrooms.
Adelrune made his way home, walking as fast as decency allowed. He went up to his room, put his vest away and brushed his shoes clean—remembering always the Eighty-ninth Precept, which was even more popular at the Canon House than at his home. Once all his obligations had been discharged, he went to the attic on trembling legs, pulled the book out of its hiding place, and set it in his lap.
He read the cover first; the gilt letters, after a space of nearly a year, finally able to deliver their import to him: "A History of the Famous Lives and Deeds of Valor of Many Brave Knights."
At the Canon House there was no talk of knights, no hint that anything existed in the world outside the boundaries of the Rule. But sometimes, going to the House, he would walk behind a group of other children, close enough to overhear. In their conversations, knights might be mentioned, in the same breath as kings, castles, and magicians. But even the children seemed to think that all these were equally fanciful, the product of wild imaginations. If he had tried to write down all that he had heard of knights, Adelrune would have produced only a very short list. But it was as if the word itself, when spoken, carried most of its meaning; for if he had tried to write down all that he knew of knights, his list would have been significantly longer. And this book, now, this huge book that had so many pages they needed three digits to be numbered, this book was so many, many times longer than the imaginary list he had in his mind. When he had read it, how many times more would he know?
Adelrune opened the book and shattered the chains of his destiny.
Excerpted from The Book of Knights by Yves Meynard, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 1998 Yves Meynard. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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