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By Card, Orson Scott
Orb BooksCopyright © 2003 Card, Orson Scott
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Palicrovol Becomes a King in his Heart
This is the story of how God taught an unambitious man to seek a throne.
The dream of Zymas
Zymas was the King's right arm, the King's right eye, and--so the irreverent said--the King's right cobble, too. Zymas was born to a stablehand, but first his strength, then his skill, and at last his wisdom brought him such fame that now he was general of all the King's armies, and the terror of Zymas spread throughout all of Burland.
Zymas had only five hundred soldiers, both horse and foot, but this was a day when a village had five families and a town had fifty, so that five hundred soldiers were quite enough to subdue whoever needed subduing. And if some group of barons or counts combined their petty forces so that they outnumbered Zymas, they were still foredoomed. If there were ten such barons, they could be sure that one had joined the rebellion as the King's agent, two had joined as Zymas's men, and the rest would hang before the month was out.
Zymas had known days of glory on the frontier, where wild tribes from the inner mountains destroyed themselves against the pikes of Zymas's army. And there were days of glory on the littoral, when the raiders from the east beached their craft and died by the hundreds before they could get beyond the tideline. Oh, Zymas was a mighty warrior! But now, with the King's outwardenemies all broken and paying tribute, Zymas led his men from mountain to coastline, not to defend Burland from attack, but to protect the tax collectors, to punish the disobedient, to terrorize the weak and defenseless.
There were those who said that Zymas had no heart, that he killed for pleasure. There were those who said that Zymas had no mind of his own, that he never so much as questioned any order that the King gave him. But those who said such things were wrong.
Zymas camped for the night with his half a thousand men on the banks of Burring, high on the river, where the locals still called the stream Banning. The village was too small to have a name--four families, recorded in the books as "seventh village near Banningside." It was recorded that this village had not paid their assessment of thirty bushels. This was causing resentment and was a bad example to the other villages. Zymas was here to punish them. Tomorrow he would come with fifty footsoldiers, surround the village, and then call for their surrender. If they surrendered, they would be hanged. If they did not surrender, they would be spitted and hung over fires or seated on sharpened stakes or some such thing, the normal these days, men and women and children, the normal. Zymas contemplated tomorrow and felt his heart drain away as it always did, so that he would not be ashamed.
When at last his heart was empty, he lay on the cold ground and slept. But tonight his still rest was broken by a dream. It surprised him to be dreaming, surprised him even within the dream, for dreaming was something he had given up long ago. It was a most holy dream, for in it he saw an ancient stag walking painfully through a wood. What was the pain? A rat hung by its teeth from the hart's belly, and at every step the stag shuddered with the pain. Zymas reached out his hand to take the rat, but a voice stopped him.
"If you take away the rat, what will close the great wound in the hart's belly?"
Zymas looked closer, and now he saw that the rat's teeth were holding together the lips of a long and vicious wound that threatened to split the stag from breast to groin. Yet he knew the rat was poisoning the wound.
Then a fierce eagle stooped, and landed brutally on the hart's back. Zymas saw at once what he must do. He took the eagle in his hands, turned it upside down, and thrust its feet under the hart. The talons reached and seized, spanning the wound, binding the edges together far more firmly than the rat's teeth. Then, still upside down, the eagle devoured the rat, every bit. The stag was saved because Zymas had set the eagle in its place.
"Palicrovol," said the voice, and Zymas knew it meant the eagle.
"Nasilee," said the eagle, and Zymas knew it meant the rat.
Nasilee was the name of the King. Palicrovol was the name of the Count of Traffing. Zymas awoke then, and lay awake the rest of the night.
Before dawn he took his fifty men and went to the village, and in moments the people had surrendered. The patriarch of the little village tried to explain why the taxes had gone unpaid, but Zymas had heard the excuses a thousand times. He did not hear the old man. He did not hear the moans of the women, the crying of the children. He only saw that each one stood before him with the face of a great old stag, and he knew that his dream had not come to him by chance.
"Men," he said, and all heard his voice, though he did not shout.
"Zymas," they answered. They called him by his unadorned name because he had made it nobler than any title they might have given him.
"Nasilee gnaws at the belly of Burland like a rat, and we, we are his teeth."
Puzzled, they did not know how to respond.
"Does the true King hang these helpless ones?"
Unsure what kind of test Zymas was posing, one of the men said, "Yes?"
"Perhaps he does," Zymas said, "but if he is the true King, then I will follow a false King who is good, and I will make him true, and the people will no longer have to fear the coming of the army of Zymas."
It seemed impossible to the soldiers that Zymas could speak such treason, but not so impossible as the idea of Zymas telling a lie or making a jest. So Zymas was going to rebel against the King. Was there any man there who would choose the King over Zymas?
Zymas let them choose freely, but all five hundred marched with him away from the bewildered villagers, toward Traffing. He did not tell them whom he meant to put in the King's place. The dream had said Palicrovol, but Zymas meant to see the man for himself before he helped him to revolt. Dreams come when your eyes are closed, but Zymas only acted with his eyes open.
The Guard and the Godsman
In the land of Traffing, in the dead of winter, a figure in a white robe walked like a ghost upon the snow. The guard at the fortress of the Count trembled in fear until he saw it was a man, with his face reddened by the cold, and his hands thrust deep into a bedroll for warmth. Ghosts have nothing to fear from the cold, the guard knew, and so he hailed the man--hailed rudely, because the guard had been afraid.
"What do you want! It's near dark, and we do no work on the Feast of Hinds."
"I come from God," said the man. "I have a message for the Count."
The guard grew angry. He had heard all about God, whose priests were so arrogant they denied even the Sweet Sisters, even the Hart, though the people had known their power far longer than this new-fashioned deity. "Would you have him blaspheme against the Hart's own lady?"
"Old things are done away," said the Godsman.
"You're done away if you don't go away!" cried the guard.
The Godsman only smiled. "Of course you do not know me," he said. And then, suddenly, before the guard's very eyes, the Godsman reached out his hands beseechingly and the bar of the gate broke in two and the gate fell open before him.
"You won't hurt him?" asked the guard.
"Don't cower so," said the Godsman. "I come for the good of all Burland."
From the King, then? The guard hated the King enough to spit in the snow, despite his fear of this man who broke gates without touching them. "The good of Burland is never the good of Traffing."
"Tonight it is," said the Godsman.
Suddenly the sunset erupted, hot streams down the slope of the sky, and the guard became a Godsman himself from that moment.
"Were you invited?" asked Palicrovol.
The Godsman looked about him at the nearly naked men sitting on ice-covered rocks around a fire. "I am invited to the feasts of all the gods." Palicrovol was young and beautiful, even with the treebark mantle on his shoulders; the Godsman loved the sight of him, even though the Count was angry. Anger would pass. The Count's beauty would not.
"My guard is impressed with you," the Count said.
"Such men are easily impressed," said the Godsman.
"I've seen magic before," said the Count, for beside him sat Sleeve, the pink-eyed wizard who served only the master that he chose.
"Then I will give you what no other can: I will give you truth."
Palicrovol smiled and looked at Sleeve, but Sleeve was not smiling, and Palicrovol began to wonder if he ought to take this Godsman seriously. "What sort of truth?"
"Words can only tell two kinds of truth. Words can name you, and words can say what you will do before you do it."
"And which will you do?"
"To name a man is to say what he will do before he does it. So I will name you, Palicrovol. You are King of Burland."
Suddenly Count Palicrovol grew afraid. "I am Count of Traffing."
"The people hate King Nasilee. They have given him their life's blood, and he has given them only poverty and terror. They long for someone to set them free from this burden."
"Then go to a man with armies." If Nasilee heard that Palicrovol had even listened to this Godsman, it would be the end of the house of Traffing.
"General Zymas will come to you and follow you to the day he dies."
"Which will be very soon, if he dares to rebel against the King."
"On the contrary," said the Godsman. "Three hundred years from now you and Zymas and Sleeve will all be alive, with a man's life yet ahead of you."
Sleeve laughed. "Since when does your magic-hating god give gifts to a poor wizard?"
"For every day that you're glad of the gift, there will be five days when you hate it."
Palicrovol leaned forward. "I should have you killed."
"What would be the point? I'm only a poor old man, and when God lets go of my body, I will know even less than you do."
Sleeve shook his head. "There is no poetry in this man's prophecy."
"True," said Palicrovol. "But there's a tale in it."
"This is not a prophecy," said the Godsman. "This is your name. Zymas will come to you, and in the name of God you will conquer. You will enter the city of Hart's Hope and the King's daughter will ride the hart for you. You will build a new temple of God and you will name the city Inwit, and no other god will be worshipped there. And this above all: You will not be safe upon the throne until King Nasilee and his daughter Asineth are dead."
These words spoken, the Godsman shuddered, his jaw went slack, and the light departed from his eyes. He began to look about him in tired surprise. This had no doubt happened to him before, but plainly he was not yet used to finding himself in strange places--particularly in the midst of a very serious Feast of Hinds.
"What bright servants this god chooses for himself," said Sleeve.
Palicrovol did not laugh. The fire that had left the old man's eyes had left a spark in Palicrovol. "Here before you all," he said, "I will tell you what I have not dared to say before. I hate King Nasilee and all his acts, and for the sake of all Burland I long to see him driven from the throne."
At these treasonous words, especially spoken at the Feast of Hinds, his own men grew still and watched him warily.
"It is good that we love you," said Sleeve. "We will all keep silence and tell no one that you spoke against King Nasilee. And we will pray to the Hart that you will not be seduced by the flattery of a strange and jealous god."
Sleeve's words counseled against rebellion, but Palicrovol had learned that Sleeve's words rarely gave Sleeve's meaning. Sleeve might mean that it was already too late for Palicrovol to change his mind, for now he would live in constant fear of betrayal by someone who had heard his words. And as to the Godsman's prophecy of victory, was Sleeve doubting? Or testing? Palicrovol looked at the unnaturally white face of the wizard, his transparent skin, his hair as fine and pale as spiderweb. How can I read your strange face? Palicrovol wondered. Even as he wondered, he knew that Sleeve did not mean his face to be read. Sleeve probed others, but was not himself probed; Sleeve comprehended, but remained incomprehensible. "You came to me for no reason I could understand," said Palicrovol. "Until now. You came to me because of now."
Sleeve pursed his lips contemptuously. "I follow the entrails of animals. I use the power of their blood and in return they teach me where to go. Whatever plans God has for you, they're no concern of mine." But his denial was a confirmation, for never had Sleeve bothered to explain himself before.
A trumpet sounded outside the palisade. Count Palicrovol leapt to his feet. The treebark mantle slipped from his shoulders as he stood. "The King," whispered some of the men, for such was the terror of King Nasilee's Eyes and Ears that they thought he had already heard of this treason and come to punish Palicrovol. They felt no easier when they saw an army of five hundred men gathered outside the fortress.
"Who are you, who bring an army to my gate!" cried Palicrovol from the battlement.
"I am Zymas, once general of the King's army. And who are you, who stand naked at the battlement!"
Palicrovol felt the winter cold for the first time in the Feast of Hinds: the prophecy was already being fulfilled. In that moment he made his decision. "I am Palicrovol, King of Burland!"
But the army did not raise a cheer, and Palicrovol felt the giddiness of despair: he had spoken treason in front of the King's right hand, all because he had believed the mad prophet of a foolish God.
"Palicrovol!" called Zymas.
"Can these gates keep you out if you want to come in?" asked Palicrovol.
Zymas answered, "Can these soldiers keep you in if you want to come out?"
"If these soldiers are my enemies, then I will not come out. I will stay here and make them pay in blood for every step they take inside my walls."
"And if we are your friends?"
"Why did you come to me?" cried Palicrovol from the battlement. "Why do you taunt me?"
"I dreamed of you, Count Traffing. Why did I dream of you?"
Palicrovol turned to Sleeve, who smiled. "It is the Feast of Hinds," said Sleeve.
"It is the Feast of Hinds!" called Palicrovol.
"The tripes were heavy, and the womb was all but five days full," said Sleeve.
"The tripes were heavy, and the womb was all but five days full!" called Palicrovol. As he echoed Sleeve's words, Palicrovol was relieved. When the hind that gave herself at the Feast of Hinds was utterly full, the enterprise of the master of the feast could not go wrong. Someone's enterprise, anyway, and it was usually polite to read all good omens for the host.
"I know nothing of augury," said Zymas. "Who is the wizard who is teaching you what to say?"
Sleeve spoke for himself then. "I am Sleeve," he said. "The Sweet Sisters showed me a heavy hind. God spoke to Palicrovol through an old fool. And the Hart has come to you in a dream. If all the great gods are with Palicrovol, what will withstand him?"
Zymas had not said there was a hart in his dream. "What need has he of me?"
"What need have you of him? It is enough that you are both committed to treason now. If you work together, you can bring down this King. If you oppose each other, Nasilee will find his work much easier."
Zymas thought of still another argument. Sleeve, the greatest of the living wizards, is with this Count Traffing. "Palicrovol, if you would be King, I will help you wed the King's daughter and have the throne. Will you be a just and good king?"
"I will be the same sort of king as I have been Count," said Palicrovol. "My people prosper more than the people of any other lord. I am a just judge, as far as any man can be."
"If that is true, I will follow you, and my men will follow you," said Zymas.
So the Godsman's prophecy was perfect, though it had predicted an event as unlikely as Burring flowing backward. Zymas had come to him, and come even before Palicrovol himself had taken one single act toward rebellion. God was now his god. "And I," cried Palicrovol, "I will follow God."
And I, whispered white-skinned Sleeve, pink-eyed Sleeve, I could shake the earth and unmake this fortress, and with my left hand I could cause a forest to rise in the place of Zymas's five hundred men. Why should I link myself to these unmagicked men, particularly if they fear that ridiculous god named God? They have no need of me, nor I of them. But Sleeve felt the hind's blood hardening on his arms and hands, and he was content that Palicrovol should be king, even if he did it in the name of this angry young God.
And that is how Palicrovol began his quest for the throne of Burland.
Copyright 1983 by Orson Scott Card
Excerpted from Hart's Hope by Card, Orson Scott Copyright © 2003 by Card, Orson Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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