THE LANCE THROWER
I CANNOT RECALL much about my early childhood, but I have always been grateful, nevertheless, that I survived it, and that the memories of it that remain with me are happy ones, steeped in the eternal sunlight of long, bygone summer days and unaffected by the truths I learned later. The Lady Vivienne of Ganis, who occupied the center of my life then, since I grew up regarding her as my mother, was in fact my mother's twin and therefore my aunt. Her husband, whom I also believed for years to be my father, was called Ban of Benwick, King of the Benwick Franks who settled the Ganis lands in southeastern Gaul before my birth.
I was seven years old when first I heard the story that my mother had abandoned me, and I remember the occasion well. I scoffed at first, pointing out to Frotto, the loudmouthed lout who was tormenting me, that my mother was Vivienne, whom people called the Lady of the Lake. Everyone knew that, I told him smugly, except him.
Not so, he yelled at me, in a jeering voice that contained an awful note of conviction. His mother had told him that the Lady Vivienne had taken me in as a homeless baby, after my true mother had abandoned both me and my father to run off with another man. Infuriated, and strangely frightened by his outrageous accusations, I charged at him. He sidestepped my rush easily, being two years older than me and almost twice my size, and kicked me hard on the shin. While I was hopping on one foot and clutching my injured leg, he punched me twice with large, meaty fists, bloodying my nose with one and then knocking me down and blackening both my eyes with the other.
Of course, I went running home, half blinded by tears andbruises and bleeding from my nose like a gravely wounded man, and Lady Vivienne was horrified when I burst into her rooms, dribbling blood and mucus all over her clean floor. She rushed to me and held me, uncaring about damage to her clothing, then hugged and comforted me and listened to my distraught tale while she tended to my wounds, holding my head back gently but firmly until the bleeding from my nostrils had dried up, then cleansing and dressing my cut leg. As soon as my face was free of blood and snot, she laid me on her own enormous bed and bathed my swollen eyes with a cool cloth, holding me to her bosom and crooning over me until I was pacified, while her women made sure that none of my siblings made their way in to gawk at me in my distress.
The major part of my comfort that day sprang from Lady Vivienne's immediate denial of Frotto's tale. She told me I must pay no heed to him or to his wicked lies, and I believed her. How could I not? She was my mother, the most beautiful being in my world, and it was inconceivable to me that she could lie, even to save me from pain. And so three more full years passed by before I learned the truth.
Once again, it was Frotto who precipitated things. By then he and I were implacable enemies, although he had learned to curb his tongue and keep away from me, most of the time at least. He was still larger than I was, and fatter, but I had grown too, gaining height more quickly than he and thickening steadily toward the strength and bulk that would sustain me as a warrior thereafter. I was larger than any of the other boys I knew of my own age, and that in itself might have been enough to keep Frotto away from me; he liked his victims to be much smaller than himself. And his father was a wheelwright, whereas mine was the King, so while he spent his time roaming at large with his croniesand I was often jealous of his freedomI spent most of mine, from the age of eight, in training to be a warrior. Chulderic, my father's Master-at-Arms, was my official tutor in such things, and he kept me hard at work, learning to ride and fight with sword and spear, and I was an apt pupil.
On the day I was to learn the truth about my parentage, Iran into Frotto and two of his friends while leading my injured horse, Rollo, to a lush pasture, a clearing in the woods I had discovered days earlier. Rollo and I had taken a fall that morning, and while I had been no more than slightly scratched and winded by the event, Rollo had gashed his pastern on a splintered branch that lay hidden in the thicket we had tried to gallop through. Now, a few hours later, his injured leg cleaned and firmly bandaged, I had thought to make reparation to him for my carelessness by taking him where he could eat his fill of succulent grass. I was walking slowly, allowing him to pick his way carefully as he hobbled beside me, favoring his sore ankle, and I was daydreaming, fretting about the damage I had caused to my beloved horse through my own enthusiasm and lack of thought. We Franks have always been proud of our prowess with horses, and we regard ourselves as natural horsemen, born to ride. But it had never really dawned on me until that day that the invincibility and invulnerability I felt, once mounted on my horse's back, were foolish. My poor horse was anything but invulnerable. By sending him charging into that copse the way I had, into its hidden dangers, I might easily have killed him and myself.
Thinking that, I led him around a bush, and found myself face-to-face with Frotto.
He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him, and it was pleasant for neither one of us. His first reaction was to draw back guiltily, leaping away from what he had been doing and looking beyond me as his two friends scattered, too, to see who else might emerge from behind the bush. For my part, I immediately looked to see what he had been doing. A skinny eight-year-old child I recognized as the daughter of one of my father's house servants lay on her back in the long grass, naked, her legs spread wide to expose everything that made her female. Her eyes were wide with fear, although whether she was frightened by what they had been doing to her or afraid of being caught doing it I could not tell. The truth is, I did not know myself what they were doing. I simply reacted to the guilt on Frotto's face.
"What's going on here? What are you up to, Frotto?"
My question broke his momentary panic. He had seen that there was no one with me, and so he charged at me, catching me with a shoulder to my chest and sending me flying to rediscover aches and bruises that I had sustained earlier in my fall from Rollo's back. Winded for the second time that day, I sprawled in the grass, looking up at him towering above me, his fists clenched and his face contorted with anger.
"What's it matter to you, shit spawn, what I'm up to?" He drew back his foot and swung a kick at me, and I rolled toward him, catching his flying foot between my arm and my chest and twisting to pull him off balance. He landed on top of me, and the sour stink of his stale sweat flooded my nostrils as I pushed him away and rolled again to regain my feet. Before I could rise, one of his friends kicked me behind the knee and I went down again, this time on all fours, just in time to take a third kick, full in the ribs, from the third boy. My vision hazed with red and I fought to keep from vomiting from the pain, but I could see Frotto scrambling away from me and I thought he was going to run.
I was wrong. He scrabbled on hands and knees until he reached the place where they had abandoned their fighting sticks, and he picked one up and rose slowly to his feet, hefting the short, thick club in his hand while measuring me with his eyes and grinning the grin that I had learned to detest. Seeing what was coming, I tried again to stand up, but again his friends prevented me, one of them sweeping my legs from under me with a wide, looping kick. And as I huddled there, face down, half lying and half kneeling, Frotto struck me across the shoulders with his cudgel.
Pain flashed across my back, but he had not hit me as hard as he could have; I knew that even as the blow landed, and a part of me wondered why. Chulderic, my trainer, had long since taught me that, once committed to a fight, it was sheer folly to hold back and be anything less than ruthless in disabling your enemy. Now, despite my pain, I was wondering what was going on in Frotto's mind. Perhaps he was still afraid of my status as my father's son. I fell forward onto my elbows, my face brushing the grass, and then I gathered myself and lunged, pushing upward and forward, forcing myselfto my feet in a shuffling run that caught all three of them by surprise.
The largest of the three came close to catching me. As his fingers closed on my tunic, pulling me around, I seized his own tunic in both my hands, then head-butted him hard. His nose crunched and he fell away from me, howling and falling hard to the ground, his hands clamped over the blood spewing from his ravaged face. Before either of the others could recover from the shock of what had happened, I leaped over the distance remaining between me and the other two cudgels that still lay on the ground. I snatched them up, one in each hand, spun toward my tormentors and dropped into a fighting stance.
The fight should have been over at that point. I had cut their strength by one-third and now I held two clubs to their one. And they must have seen how angry I was, in the set of my face. They knew I had been training hard for more than two years with cudgels very like those I now held, except that my own were longer and even heavier. It was plain to me that neither of them wanted to be the one who would put my training to the test. But poor stupid Frotto couldn't simply back away and accept the situation for what it was. Perhaps if he had, and had kept his mouth shut, I might have allowed him to walk away, even then, but that was not Frotto's way. He had to try to convince his dullard friend that they had bested me and that I wasn't worthy of their time or attention, and so he went into his customary diatribe about my parentage, and how my "real" mother had been a faithless slut.
I had heard the tirade many times by then, and I had almost grown immune to it, accustomed to letting it flow around my ears without heed. This time, however, I decided I had had enough, and I knew that Frotto's additional height, weight, and years were no longer significant to me. I raised my right hand high and lowered my left, advancing toward him slowly and daring him to swing at me. He did, and I parried his blow with the club in my left hand, then smashed him on the wrist with the other. He howled, his club went flying, and he spun away in agony, tucking his injured wristbeneath his armpit. I followed him, moving quickly, bringing one cudgel and then the other down as hard as I could on his bent back, driving him to his knees.
The lout with the broken nose had managed to struggle up, but there was no fight left in him. The third, uninjured one stood gaping at me, hovering between flight and fight. I lunged at him and he broke, running for his life. As he went I noticed that the little girl had vanished, probably having escaped as soon as our attention had been removed from her. Broken Nose rose to his feet, one blood-covered hand upraised, palm outward, mutely begging me not to hit him again. I jerked my head at him and he, too, ran off, leaving me with Frotto. My tormentor had regained his feet by that time and stood looking at me, still hugging his wrist under his arm, his face the color of bread dough.
My anger had all drained away, leaving me cold, but I was far from finished with Frotto. I jumped toward him and slashed the club in my right hand downward, striking him brutally on the left knee, and his leg gave way, pitching him at my feet.
"Now listen to me, you fat pig," I hissed. "If I ever hear you say another word about my mother, or about anything to do with my family, I'll kill you. Do you hear me?"
He groveled, whining and blubbering, and the coldness I had been feeling suddenly welled up in me, blinding me to everything but the infuriating sight of him. I hit him again, this time on his upraised arm, wanting to break it, but as I raised my cudgel yet again I became aware of violent movement beside me. A powerful blow sent me spinning to fall flat on my face.
"Enough, I said!" The voice roaring above me snapped me back to my senses. "God's teeth, don't you know when a fight's over? Are you trying to kill him? Pick that sack of guts up and get him out of here. See to him, and hold him with the others."
I raised myself On one elbow and saw two of my father's men-at-arms pulling the blubbering Frotto up between them. Beside me, Chulderic, the Master-at-Arms, was livid with rage. I looked away from him, shaking my head to clear it,and saw four more men holding my other two assailants by the arms. Both of them looked terrified.
I had caught the rough edge of Chulderic's tongue and temper before, but I had never seen anything like the fury that drove him now. King's son or not, I was hauled up by the back of my tunic and sent sprawling again with his boot in my backside before he recaptured me and dragged me, kicking and struggling, to his own horse. He picked me up and threw me face down across his saddle, yelling at me to stay there and not move if I valued my hide.
We made an inglorious entry to the settlement surrounding our fortress and attracted much derisive attention, me hanging head down over Chulderic's saddle and my three former assailants limping and dragging between their pairs of stern-faced escorts. Chulderic strode in front of me, holding his horse's reins, and I could only suppose that another of the men-at-arms was leading my injured mount.
"Bring those idiots over here!" We had stopped just outside the main gates of the castle and, face down as I was, I had seen Chulderic's legs striding toward me. He grasped me by both shoulders and heaved me bodily toward him, jerking my torso up so that my legs hit the ground and folded just as he let me go. I fell forward on my arms and then pushed myself back up until I was kneeling, and then as the other three were brought toward me I struggled to my feet. We stood side by side facing our glowering captor, all four of us swaying unsteadily. Chulderic's face was filled with disgust as he looked from one to the other of us, his eyes moving up and down the length of our bodies.
"Warriors, are we?" he snarled. "Fighting men? Brawling animals, more like. Three against one, too. And him barely half the size of any one of you, and he bests all of you. Warriors. Hah!" His eyes came to me, the disgust in them no less than it had been for the others. "And you, kinglet. Training to be a murderer, are you? Set to dash out the brains of anyone who crosses you? A fine king you'll make, raving and foaming at the mouth like some mad Hun. Is that what I'vemanaged to teach you in two years, to take no prisoners? To lose your mind and give yourself up to killing anyone you dislike, even though they're down and finished?"
I started to protest.
"Quiet!" he roared so that everyone watching could hear him, even from the top of the walls at his back. "I don't want to hear your puling tales of how it was. I saw for myself how it was. You won your fight, and then you set out to wade through blood that shouldn't have been spilt
He barked a command to Stegus, the commander of the detachment. "Punishment. Stones." My heart sank, and I wanted to weep with shame and frustration.
The castle we lived in had dominated the shores of the great lake of Genava for hundreds of years, built originally as a standard Roman cohortal camp that would accommodate a garrison of six hundred men. But it had been fortified and enlarged steadily over the course of half a millennium, until it could now house more than four times its original complement. And as the art of siege warfare had progressed and expanded, so had the defenses of the stronghold, so that the fortifications were forever incomplete, each new improvement giving way upon completion to another, newer development. The most recent addition, still under construction, was a matching pair of barbicanshigh stone towers jutting far out from the regular line of the walls, flanking and protecting the main gates, from which heavy artillery and concentrated bowfire could be brought to bear on any attacking force below before it could approach close enough to engage the main defenses.
Such massive constructions required an endless supply of stones, and a constant flow of carts and heavy wagons brought stones and boulders from all around the countryside to a dumping ground outside the castle walls. That area was known as the stone fields, and stones were the only crop anyone had ever known to grow there, the inexhaustible piles of them rising and falling constantly, fed by the unending stream of wagons and depleted by the laboring prisoners. It was standard punishment duty, and had been from time immemorial, for criminals, miscreants, and malcontentsto carry these stones, one at a time, from the place where they had been dumped to the area where the masons and builders needed them on any given day. It was bleak, crippling labor, the most detested punishment in the entire region. I had never been assigned to it beforethe very idea of it had been unthinkableand neither, to the best of my knowledge, had Frotto or either of his friends. But I knew there was no recourse open to me, and that it was going to be a painful, miserable day until the sun set.
By midafternoon, my hands were sore and bleeding, my nails broken and splintered, and every muscle in my arms, back, and legs felt as though it was being torn into shreds. But time passed with no respite other than a cup of water at the end of every trip to the walls, and eventually the sun began to sink toward the horizon. Twice I fell to my knees under the weight of individual stones, and both times was convinced that I could not rise up again. But the guard set over me was unyielding. He carried a supple length of willow, peeled and cut to leave only a grip for his hand, and he stood over me, counting aloud as I knelt in exhaustion, and with every fifth count he lashed me with the wand. He was not vicious, not malevolent, but merely dutiful; he took no pleasure out of whipping me, but neither had he any pity. His arm rose and fell mechanically, and its remorselessness inspired me to find wells of energy inside my aching body that I might not else have known existed. Both times I rose up and continued my punishment.
Long before the middle of the afternoon crawled around, however, I had sworn an oath to all the gods in the universe that I would never let myself be consigned here again; not as a boy, and not as a man. Nothing, I had decided, no fleeting self-indulgence, even the most sublime, could be worth this much agony and misery. And yet I knew that we four were escaping lightly. We were but boys and the stones we were made to carry were boy-sized, backbreaking though they were. The men who labored there fared far worse, and they were committed to weeks, months, and sometimes years of punishment. The rocks they carried were enormous, and they were forced to make two trips before receiving water.
It took me several moments to realize that my guard was speaking to me. I stopped, hugging the stone to my chest, heaving and hitching it higher, trying to gain a better grip on it.
"Drop it," he said. "You're being summoned."
Too dazed and tired to feel any elation, I opened my arms and let the stone fall to my feet. It landed with a heavy thump and I stood for a moment looking down at it, aware again, as I had been at the end of every trip to the masons' area, that my hands and arms seemed unaware of being freed of their burden. The throbbing ache in them was too bone-deep to permit any instant relaxation at the mere dropping of a stone. I glanced up then to see Stegus, the guard commander, heading toward me, the speed of his walk lifting the material of his long cloak so that it seemed to float about him rather than hang from his shoulders. I tried to stand straighter as I waited for him, but my shoulders felt as though they might be permanently bowed.
Stegus came directly to me, and nodded to my guard. "I'll take him now. See to the release of the other three and then go back to what you should be doing today." The guard snapped him a salute, turned smartly on his heel, and marched away.
I knew Stegus well and liked him, for he often supervised my training at times when Chulderic had other tasks to perform, but there was no trace now of the easygoing officer with whom I was used to dealing. His face and eyes expressionless, he looked me over from head to foot, taking in the condition of my filthy, torn clothing, and his gaze lingered very briefly on my bloody, dirt-crusted hands. He offered me no recognition, no acknowledgment that he even knew my name.
"King Ban wants you. Come."
As I trudged behind him, fighting to keep my back straight and wanting only to fall down and cry like a baby, the misery of my day deepened and grew more malevolent. Now I had to face my father, something I had not anticipated. As angry as Chulderic had been, I still had notthought he would tell my father about my disgrace. Now it was obvious that he had, and considering the truth of that, I realized that it had been inevitable from the start and cursed myself for a fool for believing, for even one moment, that it might not be. Chulderic, as my father's Master-at-Arms, had condemned me to the stones for a day, and I was the King's son. It was impossible for him to conceal that, or his reasons for doing it, from the King.
I walked in a daze, scarcely aware of my surroundings as we passed through the castle gates, crossed the main yard, and entered the central fortress. Only the flickering of torches and the echo of Stegus's iron-shod boots on the flagged floor of the passageway to my father's duty quarters brought me back to reality.
"Come," my father's voice boomed in response to Stegus's knock on his door. Stegus leaned on the handle and swung one of the heavy, iron-studded doors open until he could lean inside.
"Your son is here, sir."
"Thank you, Stegus."
Stegus held the door open for me while I stepped across the threshold, and then he closed it quietly behind me, leaving me alone with my father, King Ban of Benwick.
As usual, the first thing I noticed was the chill. It was always cold in my father's day quarters, even at the height of summer, because they lay at the north end of the central stone-walled building of the fort and had large, open windows with high arches, set with a heavy iron grille, that looked out onto a walled garden. The windows had shutters, both internal and external, with wooden slats that could be closed against foul weather, but I had never known them to be closed. On this occasion I did not even look at the windows. I had eyes only for my father's shape, outlined against the brightness beyond them.
He was standing behind the enormous wooden table he used as a desk, gazing down at a wide, unrolled parchment that was held open on one side by his sheathed dagger andon the other by a heavy, squat inkhorn mounted on a carved ivory base. His bronze and iron helmet, crested with tightly packed short, prickly dark brown horsehair, sat by his right hand, and his plain brown cloak lay beside it, casually folded and thrown where he had dropped it. A row of high-backed Roman chairs of the type known as stellae faced the table, their backs to me. On the far side, where he stood, there was only his massive armed chair of black and ancient oak, carved over every point of its surface.
I stood motionless and waited for him to take notice of me. He was engrossed in whatever he was working on, however, and paid me no attention at all for a long time, and as I waited I felt my initial fear abating. I had no fear of him as my father, none at all, but I knew I had earned the punishment I had endured thus far that day and I expected more to come. Patience and tolerance my father had in abundance, but when discipline was called for he could be ferocious and unsparing. Looking at him now, when he was unaware of being watched, I saw that the light behind him made him appear different, in some subtle fashion, older than I had thought him. In fact I did not know how old my father was, but I knew he was much older than my mother, Vivienne of Ganis, for his firstborn son, Gunthar, had been born out of wedlock to a different mother, who had died birthing the boy years before Ban and Vivienne of Ganis ever met. My mother, who had given him four sonsSamson, Theuderic, Brach, and mewas, in effect, his second wife. It was perhaps that difference that made it easy for the four of us who were Vivienne's sons to believe that our half-brother, Gunthar, was both mad and dangerous, but then, we were all mere boys and Gunthar was a disapproving and unfriendly elder who also happened to be a sibling, so we felt justified in regarding him as both alien and inimical.
The light shining in on my father from the windows behind him outlined the deep, vertical scar on the left side of his face where a hard-swung sword had almost cloven his skull in some long-past fight but had glanced down the side of his head instead, trenching his face and separating theflesh of it from the underlying bone, so that even his skilled surgeons had been unable to repair the damage. His hair, iron gray, was cut short, close to his scalp, in what I had heard called the warrior's crop, and he was wearing his standard, daily armor, a sculpted cuirass of layered, hammered, highly polished bullhide embossed with broad bronze rosettes on his breast and a delicate tracery of bronze inlay outlining the abdominal muscles beneath. Heavy, armored epaulettes protected his shoulders, and from waist to ankles he wore breeches of soft, supple, carefully tanned leather. Over those, he was still wearing his armored leggings, which meant that he had not long since come in from riding, for the leggings were heavy and cumbersome things to wear when not on horseback.
My father was proud of his leggings, because they were an innovation that he had designed himself, years earlier and in cooperation with a few of his friends, after the cataphractus, the heavy, armored blanket developed by the Romans to protect their horses against weapons and projectiles. The cataphractus had worked so well as a protective device that riders had soon begun adapting its design to protect themselves in the saddle, reshaping and extending the blanket so that one flap of it could cover their legs. My father had taken the adaptation one step further, fashioning a kind of divided skirt that covered him from waist to ankle, separate from the cataphractus itself but serving the same purpose for the rider that the armored blanket served for the horse he rode. The resultant leggings were little more than hanging flaps of ring mail, leather panels held in place by a thick belt and encrusted with thousands upon thousands of tiny rings of bronze, sewn to overlap each other thickly enough to deflect a sword blade or a spear point, but they could be laced at knee and ankle to wrap around and cover the vulnerable parts of a rider's legs. It was obvious to me that before I entered his quarters that day he had already started to remove his leggings, for the laces at both knees and ankles hung free, and the belt tongue threaded through the heavy bronze buckle at his waist had been pulled through on one side, then left hanging. He had removed his scabbarded sword belt,tooit was worn over the belted leggingsand hooked it over the back of his chair.
As I watched him, thinking he had already lost awareness of my being there, he crossed one arm in front of his chest to support the other, drew back his upper lip in a rictus of frowning thought, and began to tap the back of one fingernail against his upper teeth. The sound of it carried clearly to me, and I listened as the tempo of his tapping increased then stopped. He sniffed sharply, then sighed and looked up at me, sweeping me from head to toe with his eyes before turning away to gaze out of the window.
"You look like a casualty. Mud, blood, and crusted dirt. Your mother's going to be very pleased with you."
I gazed at his back, unsure whether or not to speak and trying to gauge how angry he was with me. He hadn't sounded angry. But before I could respond he spoke again, still facing the garden.
"You're ten years old now, boy, more than halfway to manhood and big for your age. Do you think you'll ever make a decent man?" He didn't wait for a reply this time, but swung back to face me. "Chulderic thought you would, until today, but now he's not so sure. And from what he has told me, I have to wonder, too." He gazed at me for three long, pounding heartbeats, then closed his eyes, leaving his face expressionless. "Now tell me, do I need to wonder? What happened out there?"
My face was crimson, my chest crushed with shame.
"I got into a fight."
He opened his eyes wide and raised one eyebrow high. I did not know the word sardonic at the time, but I recognized the expression on his face.
"I know that. You against three others, bigger and older than you. You won. That's not what worries Chulderic. He's the one who taught you to fight, and he might have been proud of you. But he tells me that when everything was over, and you had thrashed all three of them, you went wild and tried to kill the biggest one. Frotto, is it?"
When I nodded, he frowned. "Aye. Well, Chulderic is my Master-at-Arms, and a fighter born and bred, not some terrifiedold woman. He says you stopped, stepped back, chased off the other two and then went after the big one again, even though there was no fight left in the fellow. Chulderic believes you were trying to kill him. He says he yelled at you and you ignored him. He says that if he hadn't torn you away and thrown you down you would have smashed the boy's head in. So you tell me, now, the truth. Is Chulderic lying?"
I shook my head, trying to swallow the lump in my throat and blinking my eyes fiercely to stem the tears that threatened to spill out of me. "No," I whispered, almost choking as I tried to speak. "I wasn't trying to kill him ... I only wanted to beat him badly, to teach him a lesson."
My father's eyes narrowed to slits. "Why? And what lesson?"
"To keep his big mouth shut and stop telling those lies about me."
I was crying openly now, the hurt spewing out of me. "The same ones he always tells. Every time I meet him he tells all his friends that I'm not really who I am. He tells them you're not my real father, and that my real mother was a ... was a faithless whore who left me and my father when I was a baby to run away with another man. He says his mother says that you and Mother took me in out of pity, and he says anyone can tell, just by looking at Gunthar and Samson and Theuderic and Brach, that I'm not their brother. I hate him and he's always lying and I wanted to make him stop, to make him afraid of me so that he would stop."
I squeezed my eyes shut, scrubbing at my face with my sleeves to dry my tears, and when I opened them I saw my father frowning at me in stupefaction.
"How long has this been going on?"
I knew then that my mother had never mentioned the first incident to him, and young as I was, something inside me shrank and withered. "For a long time. Since I was seven."
"Three years? Why haven't you told me this before?"
What could I say to that? I knew that if I spoke the truth my mother would have to answer for it, and in my confusion, wondering myself why she had said nothing to him, Icould think of nothing else to say. He was glowering deeply now. "Answer me, boy. Why didn't you come to me?"
"I ..." And suddenly the answer sprang to my lips, along with the knowledge that I could protect my mother. "You told me not to," I said, and saw his eyes widen. "When I told you about Ector stealing my knife you were angry at me. You told me that you had more to think about than silly boys' squabbles and said if I came running to you every time someone did something to me that I didn't like, I would never grow up."
He gazed at me for a long time, his lips moving together soundlessly as though he were nibbling something, and then he drew himself erect and breathed out through his nose. "That's true, I did, didn't I. But that was a long time ago. You were, what, six at the time? And I had a fresh war on my hands. That very day you came crying to me over your stolen knife, as I recall, I had just received word that an entire unit of my men had been ambushed and wiped out by marauders, less than ten miles from here." His hands moved to the heavy buckle at his waist and he undid the belt of his leggings, folding them over one arm and dropping them heavily over the back of his chair, beside his sword belt. "But at six, I suppose you would have been too young to know anything about the seriousness of that. You saw your own problem that day as the most serious one in the world, and I barked at you like an angry dog and sent you off to resolve it by yourself. And you've never brought me another problem since, have you? Not until now."
He walked to the window again and stood staring out at the garden, clasping his hands behind his back. "I need to think about this, but I'll tell Chulderic he need have no fears about your savagerythat you did what you did for good reasongood enough to satisfy me, at least. Leave me now. Go to the bathhouse and clean yourself up. Tell Lorio I want him to look at your injuries. I'll have someone bring you fresh clothes. And we'll say nothing-to your mother about your punishment today. When you're presentable again, come back here." He turned back to face me. "Show me your hands."
I went to him and did as he had asked. He took one of my hands in each of his own, turning them over to inspect my swollen fingers and mangled nails. When he was satisfied, he grunted and released me. "Well, they're not permanently damaged, but you'd better be sure to have Lorio bandage those two fingers on your left hand. I imagine that's all he'll be able to do for you, other than to rub in some liniment. The bruising will go away and the nails will grow back, but you're going to be sore for a few days. I think that, and the punishment you've already undergone, will be sufficient for the sins you've committed. What about Frotto?"
I blinked at him. "Frotto? What about him, Father?"
"What am I to do with him and his friends? Do you want me to have them whipped?"
"No!" I surprised myself with my vehemence and with the realization that I was no longer angry with Frotto. "No, if you please. Let them go."
"I already have, but I could bring them back and have them flogged. Are you sure you want to let this quarrel end that simply?"
He shrugged, but I could tell he was pleased with me for some reason. "As you wish. We'll say no more about it. Do you think you frightened him enough to make him stop baiting you?"
I frowned. "Perhaps not, but I think Chulderic did."
My father's face broke into the wide-mouthed smile I loved. "Aye," he said. "I believe you might be right about that. Off with you now, and see Lorio, but waste no time. Come back here as soon as you're clean and dressed again."
How easy it is for us to delude ourselves in matters we simply do not want to confront. Thinking back on that afternoonand it is a scene I have revisited countless timesI am constantly astounded by my own lack of perception. Of course, I was only ten years old, no matter how grown up and worldly I believed myself to be, and yet it has often seemed to me that the mindless relief with which I soughtmy freedom, scampering off to the bathhouse to be tended to and fussed over by Lorio, would have been unchanged had I been twice the age I was.
I threw myself into the task of washing away all signs of my misadventures that day, accepting the stinging pain of hot water on my bruises and injuries as an easily bearable penance. When I was clean and dried, Lorio massaged my aching hands, then smeared them with unguents and bound them carefully in clean bright white bandages of boiled linen. I was appalled by that clean brightness, for the sight of it filled my mind immediately with the impossibility of concealing the bandages from my mother. She would immediately want to know what I had done to myself. The fact that my father had told me we would say nothing to her about my escapades that day became meaningless. Neither of us, I knew, could lie to her, for my father's celebrated courage and heroism were all confined to what he did in battle. Even at ten, I knew they counted for naught in his own household whenever he clashed with his wife. My father would tell her the truth, and she would be angry.
Thinking such thoughts, I made my way slowly back to my father's day quarters in the gathering dusk. It did not cross my mind that my father had not denied Frotto's taunts, as my mother had; I had too many other thoughts to occupy my mind. Because of the shame and humiliation I had already brought upon myself that day, I was convinced that nothing could make matters worse than they already were that afternoon.
My father was still reading when I returned. The broad chart he had been studying earlier, whatever it might have been, was still spread on the table in front of him, but his attention was now focused elsewhere. He was sitting in his huge chair, deep in concentration and whispering to himself as he deciphered the script on a thick wad of paper sheets held stretched between his hands. As I entered the room he finished reading one page and moved it to the back of the pile, and the entire wad sprang back into the tubular shape in which it had been delivered, rolling itself up over his left thumb. He anchored the moved sheet carefully against theothers in his left fist and then straightened the entire bundle again before he continued to read. I could tell from the speed of his whispering that he had already read the script at least once before, for first readings were always slow and hesitant as the eyes and the mind struggled with deciphering the written words and separating them from each other, trying to make sense out of the densely packed mass of characters that covered the paper. I stood patiently until he reached a natural stopping point, when he released the right edges of the missive again and allowed it to snap back into shape before he rolled it tightly and slid it back into the leather tube in which it had come to him.
"That's better," he grunted in my direction. "You look more like your mother's son now. How do you feel? Are your hands sore?"
"A little," I admitted, and he placed the leather tube carefully on the table.
"Aye, well, they will be for the next few days, I suspect. Come."
He led me from the room and past his guards, along the stone-flagged passageway to the wide, curving staircase of hand-carved steps that led up to the King's Quarters, where our entire family lived in a sumptuously appointed privacy that was unique in the entire kingdom. These quarters, elaborate and grand, formed the official center of the fortified castle and had been built for a Roman procurator more than a hundred years earlier, when this region had been one of the most prosperous provincial centers in the Empire. The broad, shallow stairs swept grandly upward to a deep and spacious oval landing facing three tall and imposing doorways, the central one slightly taller and wider than those on either side, its double doors of dark, polished wood more elaborately carved. The doorway on the right was the entrance to the King's bedchambers, and its double doors opened into a suite of four large rooms, two of which were bedchambers, while the others were a living room and a private bathhouse for the sole use of the King and his wife. The imposing central doors concealed our opulent official reception rooms, the third and farthest of which was a private diningroom that could seat upward of fifty people in comfort and was built directly above the main kitchens on the ground floor. The third set of doors, to the left, led to what had originally been sleeping quarters for important visitors and imperial guests and now served the rest of our familya long row of sleeping cubicles for myself and my siblings, with an extra common room, all of which opened off the left of a long passageway that ran along the wall of the central reception hall.
I remained obediently on the landing as my father entered his own rooms, closing the massive doors behind him and leaving me to wonder idly what was going on. I let my gaze fall to the familiar colors on the floor beneath my feet, illuminated by dim, late-afternoon light from a narrow, open skylight far above my head. I slid the toe of one shod foot over the tiny bright mosaic tiles that formed an enormous and intricately worked oval depiction of the Chi-Rho symbol of the Christian Church. My mother had commissioned this work years earlier, when I was still a crawling tot, engaging the services of a brilliantly gifted artisan named Poli-dorus who traveled all the way from Antioch in Asia Minor to design and install the floor over the course of three years. I could still recall the rapt awe with which, as I grew older, I had watched the old man work, meticulously selecting tiny square fragments of polished stonehe called them tesseraefrom the piles of red, white, and blue. He would place them effortlessly but with great precision so that, from day to day, the picture he was creating grew in size and complexity. It had been endlessly fascinating to me to wonder how the old man would be able to fill the shrinking work space to perfection, completing the design with squares of stone. so that the irregular, shapeless, and rapidly dwindling space would be filled without obvious flaws to indicate where he had left off working. For every stone he set in place diminished the open area remaining for his work, and I was incapable of seeing how he would reduce the ragged, asymmetrical work area that remained so that it would eventually accommodate and accept exactly, at the very last, onefinal, perfect square of stone. But flawless he had been to the last, so that nowadays, although I knew the approximate position of the final tessera he had set in place, I found myself unable to identify the spot.
Alone on the landing, gazing at the floor, I became aware of the silence surrounding me. There were no guards up here. Only when King Ban was receiving guests and envoys did he station guards at these doors, more for display than for security, and even then my mother disapproved. These were her quarters, too, and she saw no need for guards. In truth, there were many things for which my mother saw no needfrequently to the great frustration of my father, I knewand one of those was concern over the opinions that other people held of her. She was a conscientious and committed Christian, and that alone set her apart from the majority of the people whom her husband ruled and governed, as Christianity was something of a novelty among the pagan folk who peopled our land. It amused and delighted my mother that the people around us thought her both unnatural and magical. Her Christianity they could take in stride, although they might wonder at it among themselves, but they truly believed she was a faery creature: a water sprite; a supernatural being whose true element was water and who lived as easily beneath the surface of the lake, communing with the spirits there, as she did on land by day, where she mixed with normal folk. They called her the Lady of the Lake, and although others assumed that this name derived from our castle's position on the shores of the lake the Romans called Genava, they knew within themselves what the name really signified, and they smiled at the foolishness of others. They knew all about my mother and her strangeness, our local folk, for my mother's magic was that she could swim, and she did so as easily and naturally as did a fish, for the sheer pleasure it gave her.
But what our people saw as strange and unnatural was perfectly straightforward and unremarkable in lands not much farther to the south and west. My mother had learned to swim as a child, on a long-ago visit to the imperial island of Capri in the Middle Sea when she and her mother hadbeen privileged to accompany her father on official business for the Emperor Honorius. For an entire summer there, in the warm, pellucid waters surrounding the beautiful island, she swam every day and developed a lifetime love of the pleasures of swimming underwater, marveling at the beauties that abounded there. The waters of our lake of Genava were far colder than those of the Middle Sea, but such was my mother's love of being underwater that she had grown inured to the discomforts of our more northerly climate and plunged into the lake every year as soon as the chill temperature grew bearable in summer. Once begun then, she swam every day, sometimes for hours on end, stopping with great reluctance only when autumn was far gone and the winds and frosts of each new approaching winter threatened to bring ice.
To our local people, such behavior was incomprehensible. They had a passing familiarity with hot-water bathing, thanks to their hundreds of years of association with the ruling Romans, but even that activity seemed alien to them. They themselves simply did not bathe, in the sense of immersing themselves in water, hot or otherwise. Bathing, voluntary self-immersion, was madness to them, since no one could breathe in water without drowning. By that logic, therefore, swimming in the open waters of a vast lake demonstrated complete insanity; or, alternatively, it endowed the swimmer, my unique and beautiful mother, with supernatural attributes. People chose to believe the latter, because they could see in their daily dealings with her that the Lady Vivienne was as sane as they were. Besides, the alternative explanation provided rich fodder for their imaginative murmurs and whisperings over the long winter nights.
And so my mother was perceived and talked about as a water sprite, which caused her great amusement and enabled her to go about her life as a conscientious Christian wife and mother without being concerned that her true beliefs might attract unwelcome attention. That reluctance to be noticed as a Christian was no empty fear, because outside the primary Roman spheres of influencethe towns and fortifications throughout the provinceChristians were few, and becausethey had a reputation for meek submissiveness in turning the other cheek to aggressors, they made easy targets for predators. Tales of slaughtered, robbed, and despoiled families of Christians were commonplace, although such depredations were usually carried out by strangers or wandering bandits, rather than by any of my father's people. On the whole, the ordinary people of our lands were pagan in their beliefs, but not savage; a large proportion of them were completely godless, but the remainder shared their worship, when they did worship, among an entire pantheon of gods imported over the ages from all parts of the far-flung Empire.
King Ban was Christian, too, of course, as were we all, his sons and daughters. But even at the age of ten I knew that Ban's was a nominal Christianity, held and observed more to please his wife than to save his soul. Left to himself and living his life as King Ban of Benwick, nominal vassal to what-ever subemperor might be in power at any given time, my father was a responsible warrior king first, an administrative imperial official next, and a working Christian last and least.
As these thoughts of my father filled my mind the door opened again and he stepped out halfway, looking at me with one eyebrow raised. "Come," he said, and stepped back inside, holding the door open for me to follow him. I entered the long, lamp-lit hallway that I had not seen in the time that had elapsedmore than two years nowsince my eighth birthday, when I had been ritually deemed too old to share my mother's bed any longer and old enough to be able to fend for myself among my elder siblings. It had been a form of banishment, but one which every boy endured when he turned eight, and therefore it had been bearable. Now the warm, familiar atmosphere washed over me and I stood there, blinking, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. My father moved ahead of me and walked directly toward the brightness spilling from the room at the far end, and I trailed behind him, glancing at each of the doors on my right as I passed.
The first, I knew, concealed a deep, narrow storeroom lined with shelves, and the second led to the family's private bathhouse. I also knew that behind that door, at the end of ashort, narrow passageway, hung double floor-to-ceiling curtains of heavily waxed cloth that contained the steam and moisture from the baths and prevented it from spilling out into the passageway. The next room was my parents' sleeping chamber, containing an enormous bed, framed in dark, richly polished wood and surrounded by curtains of the finest, most diaphanous cloth made by the nomads of Asia Minor. My mother would be in there, I assumed, but the thought had barely entered my head when I saw her instead peering anxiously toward me from the room my father had just entered, the family room at the end of the hallway. This spacious room was the heart of their private quarters, and it was filled now with the evening light that shone through the hundreds of small, translucent rectangles of colorless glass in the high, arched windows in the outer wall. There were six hundred of these glass panelsI had counted them many timesall uniform in size and held in place by a mesh of lead strips, and they were the wonder of all our land. People marveled at them, I knew, because I had often heard them speaking of their beauty and speculating on the cost of them. They were unimpressive from the outside, looking up at them, but the light that poured through them during the day transformed the room's interior in a manner that seemed magical.
As I stepped into the room, I lost awareness of all else as my attention became focused instantly on my mother's distress. Her face looked gaunt and distraught, her eyes deep set and haunted, but she did not appear to be angry with me, and I felt an instant of selfish relief. She seemed afraid, more than anything else, and that frightened me in turn, for I could not imagine what kind of terror might have frightened her here, in her own castle, with her husband by her side and his warriors all around us.
"Mother?" I said, beginning to ask her what was wrong, but the moment I uttered the word she rushed to me and drew me into the kind of enveloping embrace she had not shared with me since I had entered training as a warrior. Her hand clasped behind my head and drew me to her bosom and her other arm wrapped about my back, pulling me close, sothat I felt the womanly softness of her body as I had never been aware of it before, and as she held me I felt her shuddering with grief and heard her anguished sobs above my head. Mystified, I did not know what to do or how to respond and so I simply stood there, letting her crush me to her until I felt my father's hand gripping my shoulder, pulling me away. As I obeyed and stepped back, I saw that he was grasping both of us, one in each hand, prizing us apart.
"Enough, Vivienne," he said, and his voice was gentle. "The boy's unhurt. A few scrapes, no more than that. Nothing that will not heal and disappear within the week." I saw him wince, as though in pain himself, as he uttered the last words, and I understood immediately that he wished he had not said them. My mother groaned and swung away from his now gentle grasp, catching her breath in her throat and turning her back on both of us. My father-looked from her to me and shook his head tightly in what I recognized, even at ten years of age, as frustration with the behavior of women.
"Sit down," he said to me, pointing to one of the room's large padded armchairs, and then he slipped his arm about my mother's waist and murmured something to her that I could not hear. She sniffed and fumbled for the kerchief in her sleeve and then, wiping her eyes, she permitted him to lead her to a couch, where she sat staring at me for long moments until fresh tears welled up into her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.
"Vivienne." There was a warning tone to my father's voice, and she looked up to where he stood beside her, watching her.
"Must we, Ban?" Her voice was plaintive, beseeching him.
"Yes, we must. Now."
Both of them turned their eyes on me then, and I spoke through the panic that had been building in my breast since this strange behavior began. "What is it, Father? Mother, what's the matter, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. Nothing is wrong, Clotharnot in the way you mean." My father perched on the arm of Mother's couch and leaned slightly to rest one hand lightly on her shoulder, histhumb moving soothingly against her neck. "I said something to you earlier today, when you first came to me, about your age. You were ten, I said, more than halfway along toward manhood. Do you remember?"
"And then I asked you if you thought you would ever make a decent man." He was looking intently at me now. "I had never doubted that you would, until I heard that report from Chulderic today, and your explanation satisfied any doubt I had then. You will be a fine man when you are grown, and you are growing quickly. You have the makings of a warrior and a king, both. Any father would be proud to have you as a son."
He glanced down to where his thumb still stroked his wife's neck, comforting her. My mother had stopped weeping and sat gazing at me, and I frowned in puzzlement at what my father had saidnot about his pride but about my having the makings of a king. I was the youngest of five sons, with little chance of ever becoming King of Benwick, and I had known and accepted that all my life. Mine would be a warrior's life, but not a king's.
"This fool, Frotto ... Your mother told me earlier today, while you were at the baths with Lorio, that you came to her three years ago, when he first began taunting you. She told you then he was lying, but she said nothing to me at the time, thinking it was no more than a boys' spat and would pass." He glanced sideways at my mother, who showed no reaction but stared steadfastly at me. "I am not displeased over that. I might have said and done the same things, at that time, had I been faced with the dilemma you presented to her. You were left to deal with Frotto's bullying for three years, but that's a normal thing that all boys have to undergo, in one form or another."
I felt myself frowning at him now. He saw my confusion and rose to his feet, sighing deeply and expelling the air noisily through pursed lips. "Damnation, boy, you understand nothing of what I'm saying, do you?" He did not expect an answer and moved away, pacing the length of thefloor three times before he spoke again, and by the time he did, nameless terrors were clawing at my guts.
He approached and stood directly in front of my chair, holding out his right hand palm downward in the ancient, imperious gesture that demanded fealty and obedience. I leaned forward and took his hand in both my own, feeling the calluses of his weapons-hardened palm.
"Time for truth, boy. Time to grow up, to leave childhood behind and face the world of men. Do you fear me?"
I shook my head, wide-eyed. "No, Father."
"Do you doubt my love for you as a son?"
"Good, so we are as one on that. In all respects save one, you are my son, and I am proud of you."
"What?" My question emerged almost as a bleat, betraying all my sudden fears and consternation, and he turned his hand, grasping both of mine tightly but not painfully.
"Frotto is a fool, Clothara loudmouthed, mindless, empty-headed fool who gabbles about things he neither knows nor understands. But he is not completely wrong, and I will not lie to you. Most of his mouthings are mangled, foolish, ignorant noises, almost completely untrue in all respects, yet nonetheless, when all is said and done, even in his wrongness he is correct, and I should have his idiot tongue cut out." His fingers tightened on mine. "I am not your father, nor is your mother your true mother. Your real father and mother died many years ago, murdered when you were a tiny child, still suckling at your nurse's breast."
I know I must have cried out, because the Lady Vivienne sprang to her feet and rushed to kneel beside me, and as her arms closed around me, pulling me close again, King Ban released my hand and moved away. I was vaguely conscious of the stiff set of his back and shoulders as he went, but I have no other recollection of how I actually felt. All I can recall is a reeling numbness, a yawning emptiness, and a deep-seated, aching coldness in my chest and belly.
"Vivienne! Leave him and sit down. This has to be finished quickly, the needless pain of it. There will be time tocomfort him later, once he is ready for comfort. Right now he needs to hear the truth, to take away the strength of Frotto's lies. Step away, if you love him."
She did as she was bidden, slowly, leaving me to huddle in the depths of my large chair.
I looked up again at the man who had been my father all my life and now was not. I saw the familiar size and strength of him and the unusual severity in his face, but all I could think was that he was not what he appeared to be. He was not my father. I was not his son.
"Listen carefully to what I say. Listen to me, and put all thoughts of what Frotto said out of your mind. What I will tell you now is the truth, the only truth. Do you understand me? Do you?" He watched for my nod, and then perched himself on one corner of the large table by the wall opposite my chair. This was a favorite position for him, in any room, braced on one long, rigid leg and sitting with his back straight and his head erect, his other leg crooked over the table's corner; it allowed him to look down upon anyone seated elsewhere, or to gaze eye to eye with standing men from a position of authoritative comfort.
"I know you feel betrayed by both of us. I can see it in your face. You think your life has been a lie and that we have gulled you. Well, that's not true, and the quicker you accept that, the sooner you'll reach manhood. The only thing we have concealed from you is the truth of your identityof who you really areand that was for your own protection."
His words were echoing in the hollow emptiness of my mind, but I could understand them, if not their full meaning. He spoke of protecting me, but from what, or from whom? The only threat I had known until then had stemmed from Frotto, and no one had protected me from him. I wanted to challenge the King on that, but I did not know where or how to begin, and he was already speaking again.
"You are high-born, boy, of bloodlines nobler and far older than mine. The truth of that is demonstrable, and the time has come for you to know about it. You were your father's firstborn son and the sole heir to his kingdom. Youwould have died for that alone, slain like your parents, had your father's murderer known where to find you. But he did not know where you werenor was he even certain that you remained alive. And no one here, except my most trusted warriors, Clodio and Chulderic, knew where you came from. That kept you safe.
"But you are a king's son. Your birthright and standing are the same as those of Gunthar, my firstborn. So you will be a king someday, although not here in Benwick. When you are old enough and strong enough to claim your own and take your vengeance for your parents' blood, I, or your brother Gunthar if he is king by then, will assist you in claiming what is yours by right of blood and birth, and the man you must strike down will know who you are and why he is being destroyed." He had my full attention now; I could feel my own eyes wide upon his. He knew I wanted to speak, and he nodded. "What is it?"
I had to swallow before I could make any sounds. Even then, however, in my extreme youth and in the shock of having my entire world reshaped, there was a doubt in my mind. It was not a doubt about my father's truthfulnesseven now I think of him as the father of my boyhoodbut rather of his blindness concerning the nature of his firstborn son, for I knew with complete conviction that Gunthar, son of Ban and future king of Benwick, would be no source of help to me, ever. Gunthar was simply not an amiable or accommodating person. Even at ten years old I knew better than to trust him in anything, and I had grave misgivings, shared with my other brothers, about his sanity. We joked about it among ourselves, but none of us believed that he was normal in his mind. Gunthar's was a cold, calculating mind well matched to an emotionless, distrustful personality that considered his own welfare and his personal advantage first and foremost in all things. But there were times when he could also be terrifyingly irrational, and at those times you could practically smell the threat of rabid violence in him. None of us had ever voiced the thought aloud, but none of us doubted, either, that Gunthar would kill us without a thought if we provoked him far enough.
I thrust those thoughts aside, dismissing them as unimportant, and condensed all my newfound pain, my wonderings and curiosity, and my sudden, soul-deep longings into one simple question.
"My father ... my real father ... . Who was he?"
"His name was Childebertus. He was my closest friend for many years, though he was much younger than me. We served in the legions together, long ago, during the reign of Honorius, just after the death of Stilicho, and your father was no more than a lad when first we meta bright, sparkling lad, only seven years older than you are now. I was his first commanding officer, but he was talented and won promotions quickly. He grew level with me quickly, then went on to outrank me. He was a brilliant soldier."
Chillbirtoos, I thought, repeating the name in my mind as he had pronounced it. My father was Chillbirtoos, a brilliant soldier. The skin on my arms rose up in gooseflesh, but the King was still talking.
"We became close, he and I, over the ten years that followed, brothers in arms, closer than blood brothershim and me and one other friend who outranked both of us and commanded an entire army group. And then, one day about twelve years ago, your father and I met and married twin sistersthe Lady Vivienne, here, and your own mother, the Lady Elaine, both daughters of King Garth of Ganis." He stopped suddenly, then waved his hand toward his wife in an unmistakable order for her to hold her peace. He kept his eyes fixed on mine. "Stand up."
I rose to my feet obediently.
"Would you ever call my wife a whore?"
The question stunned me, and I felt my face blaze with a sudden rush of blood and shame at the awfulness of what he had asked me. I did not dare to look at the Lady Vivienne, nor had I words to answer him, so I merely shook my head, blushing harder than ever.
"What does that mean, that mum show? Answer my question."
"No! I never would. Never."
"I thought not. But yet you called her sister oneyour own dead mother whom you never knew."
My humiliation was complete. I lowered my head in an attempt to hide the hot tears that blurred my sight.
I heard him moving, rising from his perch and coming toward me, and then I felt his rough hand grasp my chin, not ungently, and lift my head to where I could see him peering into my watery eyes. I blinked hard, trying to clear my vision and look back at him defiantly, but I knew nothing of defiance then, and he had no thought of seeing any.
"Frotto lied, boy, because he is a fool and knows no better. You are more man, at ten years old, than he will ever be. But a man must quickly learn to recognize the truth when he hears it, and to know the difference between truth and lies. Hear the truth now, from me, witnessed by my wife who is your mother's sister. What you have heard about your mother is a malicious lie, spread by this Frotto's mother, who is even more stupid than her witless son. She worked here once, when you were newly arrived, and we cast her out for lying and for clumsy thievery. Her tattling afterward was the result of thatmalicious gossip bred of sullen resentment, nothing more.
"Your mother was Elaine of Ganis and she loved you. She loved your father, Childebertus, who was my friend, even more. She and your father both died because of an evil manshe by her own handand you yourself survived only by good fortune and the bravery of the same man who set you to work on the stones today, Chulderic of Ganis. He brought you here to us, and here you have remained. Apart from Chulderic and ourselves, and Clodio, who led Chulderic to us when he first arrived, no one here knows who you really are, including Frotto's vindictive mother. You became our son because you were already dear to us as the child of those we had loved and lost. And you will remain our son for as long as you wish to do so. Do you understand what I have told you?"
I nodded, half blinded by, but now uncaring of, the tears that streamed down my face. He nodded back at me andsucked in a great, deep breath through his nostrils. "Aye, well, that's good. So be it. And so be it that you never think another thought of your mother having abandoned you. She bought your life with her own and died in your defense. Don't ever forget that."
"I won't." I looked again to where the Lady Vivienne sat watching me. "But what will I call you now?"
"Hmm?" The King's deep-chested grunt betrayed his surprise, but he answered me immediately. "You'll call us what you always haveFather and Mother. Why should you not? Nothing has changed. We will still call you Clothar and you will continue to be as much a son to us as you have always been. We will continue to be your parents, in the eyes of everyone who knows no better. It's safer to keep it that way."
"But why, Father? Why is it safer, I mean?"
His swift frown of impatience with my slowness died as quickly as it had sprung into being. "Because you are yet at risk. Your father's murderer is still alive and well, and he is powerful, damnation to his black, worthless soul. Better that we do nothing that could betray you to him, for if he even suspected that you live he would send men to kill you, and he would not stop until you were dead, because fatherless boys grow up to be men capable of seeking vengeance for their fathers' murders."
I thought for a moment, then asked, "Who is this man, Father?"
"His name is Clodas. Clodas of Ganis. At least, that's what he calls himself now and will for a few more years, unless God smites him dead in the meantime. But he was no more than plain Clodas, a minor chief among your father's clans, before he set eyes upon your mother and began his scheming. In the end, he slew both your parents and your grandfather and usurped your grandfather's holdings, stealing his very name."
"But why didn't you fight him, kill him, take revenge on him?" In my ten-year-old eyes, Ban of Benwick was omnipotent and invincible in war. I found it incredible that he should not have exacted vengeance long ago on the slayer of his friends and family.
His mouth twisted wryly before he glanced from me to his wife and back. "A fair question, I suppose. And one that I have often asked myself, even knowing all the answers. I couldn't, Clothar. That's the only answer I can give you. I could not, for many reasons, none of which might make any sense to you today."
"Why not? Because I'm just a boy?"
He shrugged and almost smiled, but then he sobered. "Aye. That's right."
"But you've just told me I'm to be a man, from this day on. It's time to grow up, you said, and face the truth ... to leave childhood behind and face the world of men. Isn't that what you said? Tell me, then, as a man."
He inhaled deeply, straightening his back, then blew the air from between pursed lips. "Very well, as a man, then. I had my hands full here when all this happened, and the news came but slowly to us. We heard nothing about it for monthsmore than half a year. It was only when Chulderic arrived the following summer, bringing you and your nurse, that we found out what had occurred."
"Ludda came with me? She is from Ganis, too?"
"No, not Ludda. Your first nurse died. She was sick with a fever from the journey when she arrived and she died within a few days. Ludda came to us after that, because she had lost her own child at birth and had milk, so she could feed you."
"How old was I?"
"Youngnot yet a year."
I thought about that, then dismissed it. "You said you couldn't fight this man Clodas because your hands were full. Full of what?"
He half grinned at my unconscious humor. "Many things," he said with a shrug, "and most of them like sand, threatening to run through my fingers and be scattered on the winds no matter what I did. I had a war to fight, first and foremost. The Alamanni were threatening to wipe us out, and my father was newly dead, killed fighting them. I had to take his place or see our home and our people go down into ruin and destruction."
I nodded gravely, trying to impress him with my understanding,for I knew the truth of what he said from my own lessons. The man whom I had always thought of as my grandfather until that day, King Ban the Bald, had been the first true king of Benwick, awarded the title by the Emperor Theodosius in recognition of thirty years of loyal service to the Empire. He had ruled Benwick well for twenty-five years after that and had fallen in battle against the Alamanni, at seventy years of age, the year before I was born.
Before becoming a kingdom, Benwick had merely been a territory settled by our people. Frankish tribes had swept into Gaul years earlier from the north and east, overcoming all opposition to become the predominant people in most of the ancient Gaulish lands that lay west of the Alps, with the exception of the central and southwestern territories held by the Burgundians. The rulers of Benwick were from a far-wandered clan of the tribes of Franks known as the Ripuarians, who had drifted southward in large numbers from the Germanic regions of the Rhine River over the course of more than a hundred years. Ban the Bald had been hereditary chief of the clan, but from the moment he returned to them at the head of a small army of Roman-trained warriors, they had prospered under his new kingship and had established a new society, complete with laws and defenses, within a very short time.
Even so, they had not enjoyed sole possession of their new lands for long, for the route their forefathers had followed down and across Gaul attracted other wanderers, most notably the German tribes the Romans called the Alamanni, who were also looking for a place to settle. When the first of these new arrivals saw the beauty of our rich lands around the Lake of Genava, they decided they had wandered far enough, and so they spread out among and around our settlements and began to set down roots of their own.
For some time after that, we coexisted peacefully with them. But the Alamanni kept on coming south, in ever-increasing numbers, and soon there was no more room for newcomers. Tensions sprang up between the incoming land-hungry migrants and our own people and soon grew into hostilities that quickly escalated into full-scale war. That warhad lasted longer than my lifetime and had ended only two years before, when our forces, better trained and more disciplined than the masses of Alamanni migrants, finally won a decisive and bloody victory over an army more than twice their numbers.
After that battle the enemy, shattered by their enormous battle losses, had sought terms to end the conflict, and it had been agreed by the leaders of both sides that the Alamanni would withdraw their southern border northward by fifty miles, leaving us to live unrestricted in our own small region on the southern shores of Genava. It was a great triumph for Ban of Benwick. But still, I thought, the war had been over now for two years and our whole country was at peace and growing prosperous again, yet Ban had done nothing about seeking vengeance against this Clodas. Even as the thought formed in my mind, however, the King anticipated it.
"Even although we are now at peace, I can make no move against Clodas yet. He is too far removed."
"Where is he?"
"Far to the north and west, in the Salian regions on the borders of Germania. Five hundred miles from here, at least."
"Five hundred miles?"
"Aye. What did you think? I told you it took Chulderic more than half a year to reach us after the murders. He could have been here sooner, had he been mounted and had an escort, but he was alone and on foot, traveling through hostile territory all the time, and he had a woman and a baby with him."
"Five hundred miles ..."
"A long way, Clothar. Not a journey to be undertaken lightly, even with an army at your back. It would take years of preparation for us to wage a campaign that far away from home, even if it did not mean having to fight our way every single step from here to there. And even were I ready now, I couldn't take my army away for that length of time. The Alamanni would break the treaty as soon as we set out, and there would be nothing left for us to come home to when our campaign was over."
This was information I did not want to hear, and yet it puzzled me. "Why would you have to fight every step of the way, Father?"
"Because we would be traveling through other people's territories. No one wants a foreign army marching through their lands, even if it doesn't threaten them with war. Armies have to eat, and they eat off the land, and that land already belongs to people who need the food themselves, so they will fight fiercely to protect it. We would have to fight our way northward and westward for five hundred miles. That would be madness. And we are not a seagoing people, so we could not make the journey by water."
"Then we can never take revenge for my father and mother."
"No, that is not what I said." He paused, gazing directly into my eyes until he was sure I was listening intently. "What I said was that when you are readystrong enough and grown into your own manhoodBenwick will give you soldiers enough to claim your kingship."
"Germanus," my mother said, and both of us looked at her, me thinking that she had meant Germania, the land King Ban had mentioned moments earlier. But then she said it again. "Tell him about Germanus."
The King frowned. "I intend to, Vivienne, as soon as I may."
I looked from one to the other of them. "Who is Germanus?"
"A friend." The King looked at me again, his eyes narrowed. "You'll remember what I said about your father and I being brothers in arms. I said there were three of us, one of them a man who outranked both of us by far. That was Germanus, Legate Commander of the Imperial Armies of Gaul, appointed by the Emperor Honorius himself."
"An Imperial Legate Commander? He was my father's friend?"
"Friend and brother, as he was to me. The three of us were as peas in a pod for years. But whereas your father and I were warriors and minor kings, Germanus had great power at his command, with almost a hundred thousand troops athis disposal before he left the legions. He left the same year your father and I left, but where we returned to our former lives, Germanus joined the Church. He is a bishop now, still wielding great power, though of a different kind, and people are saying he has become a worker of miracles, a very holy man."
He thought about that for a moment, and then smiled. "Your father would find that amusing. I do, too, God knows, because the Germanus we knew as young men loved to laugh at other people's folly and he was no one's idea of a very holy man. He was a fine man, completely admirable, among the best of the best by anyone's standards: strong, courageous, afraid of nothing and absolutely trustworthy." He smiled again, a savage kind of grin. "And now that I think of it, he worked miracles even then, years ago ... but those were miracles of soldieringachieving the impossible, it sometimes seemed, with very few resources." His smile faded but remained in place, as though at something only he could see. "He was always a noble man, Germanus, when we three rode together ... honest and straightforward as the day is long ... . But we would never have thought of him as holy."
"What does holy mean?" I asked.
"mean? I'm not sure what it really means. Devout, pious, unworldly, and possessing sanctity, I suppose. A man of God. It means all of those things yet more than all of them, for a devout and pious manan ordinary bishop, for examplecannot expect to cast out devils easily or bring dead people back to life. A man needs true holiness to do such things. Yet I have heard tales of my friend Germanus doing them, and often. And they are tales from people I know and trust."
"Where is he now?"
"He's here, in Gaul. He is the Bishop of Auxerre, about two hundred miles northwest of where we sit now."
"Oh-zerr?" I had never heard of such a place. "What kind of name is that?"
"It's what the local people there call their town. What more explanation do you need? Its old Roman name wasAutessiodurum, back in the days of the Caesars when that part of Gaul was officially called Gallia Comata. But I suppose Autessiodurum was too much of a jawbreaker for the local folk, much the same as Gallia Comata turned out to be. It's been hundreds of years since anyone has called that region Gallia Comata."
"Comata? That means long-haired. How could that be the name of a country?"
The King grinned at me, his fine white teeth flashing. "Because all the people who lived up there were long-haired back then, when Julius Caesar first came strutting, thinking to conquer us. That was the explanation I was given, anyway, when I asked my tutor the same question at about your age."
"What were we called, then?"
"We?" He laughed. "Your people were Salian Franks. They lived up there, below the Rhine River. This part of Gaul down here was called Gallia Cisalpina, Cisalpine Gaul, because the Alps lie between us and the northern borders of Italia. My people called themselves Ripuarian Franksbut do not ask me what that means because I have no idea. The Romans, however, called us all Gauls."
"So why did people in Auxerre stop calling it Autessiodurum? I like that name."
Another smile and a shake of his head. "Why do people do anything? I can't tell you anything about that, lad ... other than that they were Gauls and they wanted nothing to do with any Roman place called Autessiodurum. They'd had their own name for the place, long before the Romans came.
"Anyway, it's Germanus's home country. His family have been there for hundreds of years and own most of the land for many miles around. Or they used to own it. It has new owners nowadays, apparently. I've heard tell, again from people who know, that when he swore allegiance to the Church, as a bishop, Germanus turned over all of his possessions to his superiors, keeping nothing for himself, since he has no heirs."
"He gave away everything?"
"Aye, to the Church."
"You will have to ask him that for yourself. He will be here within the month. The letter I was reading when you came to me today was from him. We have not seen each other since our legion days, and he will be passing close to here on one of his missions, so he will stay with us for a few days."
"Will you be spending lots of time with him while he is here?"
"All of it. Why would you ask that?"
"Will you tell me more about my father before he comes?"
He looked slightly surprised. "Aye, I will."
He turned his eyes away from mine to look at his wife, and I looked at her too, wondering what was passing between them. The Lady Vivienne simply smiled at him, her lips curving faintly upward, but her face was very pale. He nodded, tensely, I thought, and then looked back to me.
"Tonight, if you would like that. It's almost dinnertime now, and I have guests to look after. You eat, then go to bed at your appointed time, and I will wake you when I am done with my tasks. You and I can talk then and no one will interrupt us."
As though she had received some signal that I missed, my motherand that word seemed suddenly strange to merose and crossed to where I sat, then stooped to kiss my cheek and told me gently to go and take my place with my brothers in the dining hall. As I left the room, I could feel both of them watching me.
I was so excited that evening that I did not believe I could possibly sleep when bedtime came. I ate without awareness of eating, my eyes fastened on King Ban and his guests at the head table as I willed the King to look toward me and nod some kind of acknowledgment of his promise. But he paid me no attention, his entire being focused upon the entertainment of his guests at the high table, and shortly afterthey had finished their meal and left the hall, Ludda came looking for me to gather me up and supervise my bedding down for the night. Ten years old and more than halfway to manhood I might be, but my nurse's word still ruled my behavior.
On this occasion, however, I made no demur about going to bed. I was looking forward to lying awake in the warm darkness, thinking about my real father and mother and imagining the tales King Ban would have to tell me. And of course, once in bed and warm, I fell straight to sleep.
I awoke to the sound of my name, to find the King standing above me, holding a flickering lamp.
"Up, boy. Or would you rather stay there and go back to sleep?"
Almost before he had finished speaking, I was rolling out of bed, wide-awake, my heart already hammering. In anticipation of being summoned, I had gone to bed still wearing my tunic and leggings, and as I groped for my felt shoes the King threw me a heavy, fur-lined robe that had been folded over his arm.
"Here, put this on. It's cold tonight."
I followed him quickly, clutching the warm, heavy robe around me as he led me down the great curved staircase and back toward his day quarters. I had no idea what time of night it was, but I knew it must be very late because it was so cold, and because the hallways were utterly deserted and several of the bracketed torches lining the walls had burned themselves out. King Ban did not look back at me but strode directly to his private quarters, where he threw open one half of the heavy doors and swept through. I closed the door quietly behind me, looking around me in surprise. The room was awash with the leaping light of flames from a huge number of fine candles and a roaring log fire in the brazier in the hearth. The windows were firmly shuttered and secured against the night, and it was warm in there for the first time ever, to my knowledge.
"Sit, over there."
I sat in the comfortably padded chair the King had indicated, on the left side of the hearth, and he crossed to itstwin on the other side, but he did not sit down immediately. He stood with one hand on the back of the chair and stared back toward the door. I looked to see what he was staring at, but there was nothing.
"Where is the man?" As he spoke the words, the door swung open again, and Guntram, Ban's veteran personal servitor, entered carefully, holding the door ajar with his buttocks as he stooped to gather up two steaming jugs.
"Worthy lad," the King addressed him, "I was beginning to think you might have died in the kitchens."
Guntram, who was many decades beyond being a lad of any description, paid no attention to his lord and master. Carrying one large jug in each hand, he crossed the room quickly and placed them gently beside an array of mugs that sat on a long, narrow table flanking the King's big worktable. He stood quietly for a few moments, gazing down at the table as though taking stock of everything it held, then turned to the King.
"Will you need anything else, Lord? Shall I pour for you?"
Ban finally smiled. "No, and I have kept you from your sleep for far too long. Get you to bed now, and sleep well. I may just have another task for you tomorrow."
Again the old man ignored the raillery. "Aye, sir." His eyes moved from the King to me and he nodded slightly. "Late night, for a young lad. Tomorrow, then."
I watched King Ban watch Guntram leave the room, and as soon as the door closed with a thud, he swung away toward the table with its steaming jugs. He filled a mug for himself, then poured mine from the first, larger jug, and topped it up from the second before bringing it over to me.
"Spiced wine and honeyed water. For me, spiced wine alone. I dislike the taste of water, honeyed or otherwise."
I could scarcely believe the privileges I was enjoyingfirst a uniquely private audience with the King, deep in the night, in quarters I could never have imagined being so intimately comfortable, and now this. I held the mug up to my nostrils, inhaling the fragrant steam that rose from it.
"I've never had this before," I said.
"I know," the King said, bending to thrust the long iron poker deep into the heart of the fire. He left it lodged there and sat back again. "But tonight is for talk of manhood and the preparations for it. Spiced wine is part of that. Try it. You might find the taste even better than the smell of it."
I sipped, cautiously on two counts, alert to the high heat of the brew and to the unimaginable taste. Both were acceptable, the flavor of the sweet, diluted spicy wine indescribably delicious. The King watched me suck in my cheeks and smile my pleasure before he raised his own cup to his lips, nodding gently.
"Sets the mouth a-jangling, doesn't it?" He sipped a mouthful and savored it, rolling it around his tongue before swallowing, and seeing his pleasure I raised my own mug again.
"Be careful. Drink it very slowly, a little at a time. We have much to talk about tonight and you are not used to wine. I warn you, even watered down, it will go straight to your head. Especially when it is hot."
I nodded solemnly and sipped sparingly at the delicious potion, wondering what he meant by saying it would go to my head.
"Well," he said then, lounging back into his chair and stretching out his long legs to the fire. "Take off that robe now, if you're warm enough." I placed my mug on the floor and stood up, shrugged out of the warm fur-lined garment and folded it carefully over my chair back, and when I was seated again he sipped again at his own drink. "I'm glad you slept. It was a long, wearisome night and I was feared you might have lain awake, waiting for me."
"I meant to," I said, suddenly more shy than I had ever been in his company. "But I fell asleep anyway."
"Hmm. I wish I could have. Instead I spent useless hours listening to the mutterings of drunken fools. So, you have had time to think about the things I told you earlier, which means you must have questions. Fire away, then. What do you want to ask me about?"
"My mother, if it please you, Sire."
"Your mother. Of course that is what you would want toknow ... and it is what I am least qualified to tell you about, for I did not know her well. Your mother was my wife's sister and my best friend's wife, but I only ever met her twice and so knew little of the lady herself, apart from what others told me of her. But I can try to answer you. What would you like to know?"
"I ..." I stopped, thinking hard about what I wanted to ask him. "You said Clodas did not begin his scheming until he set eyes on her. What does it mean?"
He sighed, and sat staring into his cup, his lower lip protruding in a pout. "What does it mean? I don't know, Clothar ... . In plain truth, I do not know ... . That is a deep question, and there is much more to it than meets the eye, so let me think about it before I answer. What does it mean?" He drew one leg up, away from the fire's heat, and looked into the flames. "It means, I suppose, that something was transformed in Clodas the moment he first saw your mother, the Lady Elaine of Ganis. Something happened inside him, at the sight of her; something dark in there, and shapeless, changed and grew hard and took a form it had not had before. It means all of that." He threw me a fierce glance. "But your mother was no more guilty of willfully affecting or attracting Clodas than the winter frost is guilty of turning the waters of a pond to ice. The frost freezes the water but is no more than the breath of winter. The sight of your mother's beauty undid Clodas, but her presence could have been no more than a beam of light shining into the blackness of his soul, showing it what might have been. And what was within that blackness we can never know.
"Would Clodas have been a better man had he never seen your mother? No, he would not, because the thing that changed inside him was already there." He paused, looking at me curiously. "Can you guess what it was?"
I shook my head, and he nodded, unsurprised.
"What was inside him, boy, was plainly a sickness, unseen before then and unsuspected by anyone else, and it was born of a mixture of poisons: malice, gross ambition, discontent, and envy of anyone he thought of as being better off than he."
"Was my mother that beautiful?"
"Aye, she was. But you must ask my wife that question. I am only a man, and men see women differently from women. Vivienne will tell you the truth. But be sure not to ask her when she is surrounded by the lovesick young admirers who swarm among my followers. I doubt she would thank you for that. Famed for her beauty as she is in these partsand I know there is none more beautiful, within as well as withoutmy lady will tell you that she always felt plain around her sister. They were twins, born but an hour apart, but they were not identical. Elaine was the beauty of the pair, tall and upright, with raven hair and bright blue eyes, where Vivienne's height was normal, her hair golden and her eyes were that sparkling green they are today. Elaine's ... your mother's beauty, seen unexpectedly, could make a man's breath catch in his throat."
"Was ... was the Lady Vivienne jealous of her?"
"Jealous, of Elaine?" He laughed. "God, no, boy! They almost breathed as one, the two of them, so close were they. They may have had their disagreements from time to time, as all siblings will, and each might have felt some envy of the other from time to time, but there was never any lack of love between them, and certainly no jealousy. Jealousy is a bleak and bitter thing, Clothar. Those two loved each other too much as friends and sisters to be jealous, and each was happy when the other found a man to marrytwo men as close to each other as the sisters were to themselves."
I digested that in silence, then continued with my catechism. "Clodas." I hesitated. "What was it that made him want to kill my mother?"
"He had no desire to kill your mother. It was your father he set out to kill. Your mother took her own life, in the end, but his murder of her husbandand of you, she thoughtwas the direct cause of her death. He destroyed her family and loved ones, yet expected her to consent to being his wife. That is insanity. You understand that word, insanity? Well, Clodas was insane." He paused, considering that, and then went on, "Clodas is insane. I suppose it might be possible to find some depraved woman, somewhere, who couldaccept that kind of thing, but Elaine of Ganis could never be such a one. Clodas was a monster whose existence she could not accept, and at the thought of having him control her life, she chose to kill herself."
Another long silence while the King stared into the fire, then: "I do not often trouble myself to think about whatever it is that makes men do the things they do. If they do something I find it necessary to condemn, I will condemn them, discipline themslap them down or cut them down, depending on the gravity of what they've done.
"I am not a talker. I'm a soldiera fighter. But I am also a king, and that often complicates things for me because a king must speak out forcefully from time to time ... . I am forever surrounded by people waiting for me to tell them what to do and what to think. Most of the time, when something angers me or when someone has offended me by breaking a law, or when I'm displeased and have a strong opinion to make plain, I attend to it with a sword in my hand. But this is a time for thought, and for clear words, so let me think, and then listen to what I have to tell you."
I waited, and he soon began again. "Clodas is a monster. But monsters come in many guises, Clothar, and not all of them are frightening to look at. Some are born monstrously deformed, and they grow ever less pleasing to the eyes as they age. But that is no more than misfortune, pure and simple. Ill formed as they are, they are not often ill natured. Many of them are meek and gentle souls. We call them monsters because they frighten us, but that reflects our failings, not theirs."
He thought for a while. "And then there are some men who grow to be monsters. They learn to be that way. You'll see more than you want to see of that as you grow older and become accustomed to war and killing, and as a Christian you will deplore it while the warrior within you learns to recognize it and to use it. That kind of monster you will learn to recognize on sight, and even to employ at times, for many of them you will number among your own men. Their disfigurement" He paused, shaking his head impatiently and clearly searching for another word. "Their affliction is awanton disregard for human life, born of too much hatred and bloodshed. Those men become rigid with hate, incapable of kindness or compassion. They see all but their ownand sometimes even their ownas enemies deserving death, and they are masters of spilling blood and spreading havoc. They are cold and pitiless, devoid of love, or mercy, or even hope, and that is their crippling misfortune. Life holds no value for them, not even their own, and nothing seems to them worth living for." His voice faded, but just as I was beginning to think he had finished, he began to speak again, his tone low and troubled, almost as though he were speaking to himself.
"But yet another kind of monster walks among us, sharing our daily lives and giving us no sign, until it is too late, that they are deeply different from us." He turned his head to look at me. "Clodas is one of those, and they are almost impossible to guard against."
The word father sounded alien in my mind as I spoke it, but I used it because at that moment I could think of no other name to call him. Uncle would have seemed ridiculous.
"Because they are so different from the ruck of ordinary, honest men. They take the trust on which we live and turn it into poison."
"I don't understand."
"That does not surprise me. Trust is not ... it's not something we think about very often, but we depend on it for everything worthwhile. We all deal in trust, Clotharpeople's lives are founded on trust. D'you understand that?"
"I think so."
"It's true. We form our own opinions of the folk we live among, the friends and neighbors and companions and soldiers with whom we share our lives, and we trust them to behave in certain waysas they do uswith honesty and dignity and respect for themselves and for their neighbors. And based upon that trust, that mutuality of trust and common interests, we make laws and rules to govern how we all live with one another. But these monsters I speak of now, monsters like Clodas, are governed by no laws, no rules.They are predators, wild beasts who prey upon honest, ordinary men as victimsperceiving them and treating them as weaklings and helpless fools created solely to fulfill their needs. They havethey know no honesty, these creatures. Worse, they have no understanding of what honesty is, and that, alone, makes them dangerous to all who cross their paths. They see no worth in trust, because they themselves have no belief in it. It is alien to their nature, and therefore they exploit the trust of other people as a fatal flaw.
"By far the worst part of such beings, however, is that they quickly learn to keep their true natures hidden from the eyes and knowledge of others. They learn to ape the manners and behavior of others unlike themselves, behaving outwardly as they believe others think they ought to behave, and concealing their own monstrousness. Their entire existence is a lie. They deal in a kind of treachery that ordinary men cannot imagine, and that treachery grants them a power against which no one else can be prepared."
His words chilled me, because as he spoke them I found myself, without warning, seeing my brother Gunthar in my mind instead of the faceless Clodas who was no more than a name to me, albeit a name I had already begun to hate. The King's voice had grown quieter as he spilled all of this out, and when he had finished he sat frowning into the flames, his eyes fixed on some far-distant recollection. I remember wondering whether he was thinking about the treachery of Clodas or whether he, like me, might be aware of another, similar monster, closer to home and even more troublesome to his peace. I waited again for him to continue, but this time he showed no signs of having anything to add and so eventually I prompted him, clearing my throat three times before he noticed.
"What? There's a question in your eyes."
"You said they have a power no one else is prepared for. What kind of power is that?"
"The power to deceive. And to betray."
I blinked at him. "But anyone can deceive anyone else."
"True," he conceded without hesitation. He looked away briefly and inhaled sharply before turning quickly back.
"You can deceive someone without betraying him, Clothar. Deceit is usually self-serving, but it need not be harmful to others. Betrayal, on the other hand, is always harmful. And when someone who has gained a high position of trust betrays that trust as Clodas did, its effect has the power of a hard-swung ax, smashing through everything it encounters because there are no barriers, no armor or defenses, to stop it. Clodas was your father's blood kin, his first cousin. His mother and your grandfather were brother and sister. He destroyed your family and part of mine because he had placed himself in a position from which no one expected treachery, and until he struck no one had ever suspected that he might. His betrayal was monstrous, a crime no normal person could have imagined ... your father least of all."
He emptied his mug at one gulp and I sipped at my own, surprised to find that I had drunk most of it and what was left was almost cold. The King rose to his feet and pulled the iron poker from the fire. It was bright yellow, whitening toward the tip. He tapped it against the side of the iron fire basket, then held it out to one side and crossed to the table where the pitchers sat. He plunged it into first one and then the other, sending clouds of fragrant steam billowing across the room.
"Bring the mugs."
I did as I was bidden, then returned to the hearth to add more fuel to the fire, thinking about all the King had said. He rejoined me moments later, bringing my drink with him, and when we were seated again I asked him the question foremost in my mind.
"Do you really think Clodas would send men to kill me, Father?"
He turned his head toward me quickly, his eyes narrowing. "Without a doubt, if he suspected you were still alive. Not because you are a harmless boy, but because you will soon be a man. So we can take no risks in that matter. None at all. Bear that in mind above all else and say nothing of this to anyone. Not to anyone. We have no control over the way tales spread. One word leads to another and the information spreads like ripples on a pond."
"But you said he is five hundred miles away."
"Aye, he is, but that changes nothing about the risk. You have five more years to go before you reach full manhood, and much could happen before then. I can protect you against an invading army, but no one could defend you against a hired, faceless murderer acting alone. So by keeping your mouth shut, you might save your own life."
I fell silent again, then remembered something else. "You said no oneand least of all my fathercould have imagined Clodas's crime before it was committed. What did you mean by that ... that he was least of all?"
The King shrugged, dipping his head. He drank again, then clasped both hands around his cup. "I have never known anyone like your father, Clothar. He was my best and dearest friend, closer to me than anyone else has ever been or could ever be today, and yet the two of us were totally unlike each other. We saw things differently, thought differently, and responded differentlyoften very differentlyto the same things. In this case, I would never have trusted Clodas the way your father did. I had met the man, although only once. But with some·people, once is enough. I disliked and distrusted him on sight, without reason. He set my teeth on edge and made me feel suspicious, even although I had no reason to suspect him of anything at the time."
"Did you tell my father that?"
"Aye, and he laughed at me and called me an old woman, reading omens and portents where there were none to be read. Clodas was his cousin, he said, a loyal chieftain and a fine warrior. His deeds spoke for him, your father said, and they were many and worthy. He would put no credence in my doubts. I wasn't surprised, but nor was I offended. He and I had differed on such things in the pastprobably more times than we. agreed, if truth be toldand so I shut my mouth and said no more. But when Chulderic brought me word of what had happened, it only confirmed that I had been right from the beginning, and by then it was far too late and useless to seek any comfort in thinking that."
"What was he like, my father?"
"What was he like?" He twisted in his seat and looked at me more closely than he had before, scanning my face. "He was much like you, to look ator you will be much like him, when you are grown. Same eyes, same hair, same mouth, I suspect, once your face fills out. You'll certainly have his nose when you reach manhood, although yours will be straighter. I do not normally pay attention to such things, but even I can see you resemble him far more than you do your mother. Her hair was glossy black, like crow feathers, and in bright light it sometimes looked almost blue, like the sky at night. Yours is not quite blackit's more like your father's, dark, deep brown, and your skin is dark, like his. Your mother's skin was very fair."
"That's how Frotto's mother knew I am not really your son. I'm too dark skinned."
"Nonsense. She knew because Vivienne had not been with childyou can't hide thatand you were suddenly here. It's true our boys are all tow-headed like me, but that counts for naught."
I bowed my head, afraid that what I had to say next might anger him. "If it please you, Sire, I asked you what my father was like, and you told me how he looked, but what I really meant was, what manner of man was he?"
"Hmm." His mouth quirked upward, but not in a smile. I could see him nibbling at the inside of his cheek. "I know not how I can answer that ... . He was the kind of man who turned heads everywhere he went. He had ... he had a certain way about him that told everyone, without a word being spoken, that here was someone to note and admirenot because he was comely to look upon, although he was that, too, but because he filled a room with his presence and he ... he seemed to glow with authority and promise."
"Tell me about him, if it please you."
"I suppose if I ask you what you would like to know, you'll say everything." He was smiling again and I nodded. He nodded back. "Aye, well, let's see what comes to mind." A log collapsed in the brazier and sent up an explosion of sparks, some of which swirled outward, one of them landing on the King's leggings. He flicked the tiny ember to thefloor, then rose to his feet again. He picked up another length of fresh wood and used it to poke the fire down before he thrust it deep into the heart of the flames. "He wasn't a Frank, you know, not really, although his mother was. That's how he got his Frankish name, Childebertus."
"Chillbirtoos;" I repeated, savoring the sound of it.
"Aye. You're three-quarters Frank yourself, through your grandmother and your mother, but the other fourth is all your father's blood."
That stunned me, for I had never thought of myself as being anything other than a Frank. "What was he, then?"
"He was a Gael, from Britain. Remember, I met him in the army, when I was with the legions. He came to us from Rome, as a recruit, and had been living there for most of his life, but he was born in Britain. By the time we left the legions, his father, Jacobus, had died, and so he had no reason to return to Rome. He came here to Gaul with me instead and met your mother shortly after that, when I began to pay court to her sister."
"A Gael ..." There was something wondrous in the sound of that.
"Aye, but there was more to him than that, according to his father's account. I never met your grandsire Jacobus, and Childebertus never spoke about him much, but Germanus told me more about your family, years later. He had come to know your grandfather in Rome, where they were both lawyers, and it was Jacobus who later introduced Germanus to the woman who would become his wife. She was a kinswoman of the Emperor Honorius, so that in marrying her, Germanus himself formed some kind of kinship with the Emperor. They became friends, too. It was Honorius himself who convinced Germanus, after the death of his wife, that he should give up the law and become a soldier. But that's Germanus's story, not your father's.
"What Germanus told me was that your father's family could trace their paternity, the bloodline of their fathers, directly back through twenty generations to the province of Judea, to the time of the Christ himself and beyond that. That seemed unbelievable to me when I heard about it, butGermanus said it was a solemn matter of great family pride and he had no doubt of the truth of it."
I had no interest in that story, for my mind had fastened on the place-name he had mentioned. "Judea?" The name was strange to me. "Is it in Britain?"
"No, nowhere near it."
"But I thought the Gaels all came from Britain."
"No, that's not so, either. Many are from northern Gaul ... Gaul, Gael, it's the same basic word. But Judea is the land where Jesus, the Christus, was born."
"That was Galilee."
"No, Galilee was the region he lived in, just as this place we live in now, Genava, is a region of Gaul. The Scriptures tell us Jesus was born in a place called Bethlehem, but he lived in the town of Nazareth. All threeGalilee, Nazareth, and Bethlehemare in Judea. The people who live there call themselves Jews."
I had heard of the Jews, but I had thought they all lived in a place called Jerusalem. I knew nothing more about them, or what being a Jew entailed, except that I had been told long before, by my earliest tutor, that the Jews had used the Roman law to crucify the Christ and were therefore guilty of the Blood of the Lamb. The words still rang in my mind, and although I had never understood their meaning, the condemnation they contained had sounded grim and unforgivable. This sudden revelation that my father might have shared that guilt appalled me. "My father was a Jew?"
"No, he was a Christian. Well, by his ancestral blood and descent he was Jewish, I suppose, but by belief he was a Christian. One of the most sincere Christians I ever met. It can be confusing, all this talk of Jewish creed and Jewish blood, but I've seen enough spilt blood to know that it's all reddoesn't matter who it comes from. It's impossible to distinguish the shed blood of a black Nubian from that of a blond Northerner or a flat-faced, brown-skinned Hun. I don't even know who my own grandfather's grandsire was, let alone where he came from, and I don't care. I know where I belong, and that's enough for me. But according to your own family historiansand they took great care oftheir clan's historyyour father's ancestors have been Christians for four hundred years, and numbered among the very first followers of the Creed."
"Are they small people, the Jews?"
The King smiled, perhaps at me, perhaps at a memory. "You mean in size? No, not if they resemble your father. He was taller than me, by the width of his fist, and broader across the shoulders. He was a big lad, Childebertus. But he was half Frank, half Gael, remember. Most of his Judean traits, if ever there were any, might have been bred out of his clan long since. He was dark of skin, as you are, but no darker than many a Roman I've met born and bred in Italia, so I can't judge by that.
"But Judea is a desert land with a fierce sun, from what I've heard, so the people there must be dark skinned, and they probably dress differently because of the heat in their homeland. Here in our land, however, wearing the same clothes we wear, who would know how to tell them apart from others? You'll meet some folk who'll tell you that the Jews are accursed, because they crucified the Savior. That might be true, it might not. I prefer to make no judgments on it. And I know, that when it comes to God and godly matters, there will always be people who claim to have exclusive access to God's ear and wishes. Well, let them all make their judgments without involving me. They will, anyway. What I know is that my dearest friend, the finest man I ever knew, took pride in his Jewish descent and was taught to revere the memory of his Judean forefathers. So why should I believe what others mutter when I have my own memories to prove that they are wrong?"
I sat rapt, absorbing his every word and believing, and a sudden question came to me. "Why did you say my nose will be straighter than my father's?"
Suddenly his grin was wolfish. "Because his was bent, broken in a brawl."
"Were you there?"
King Ban of Benwick laughed. "In the thick of it. I saw the blow that did the damage, a flying fist. I was flat on my back between your father's feet and he was defending mewhen someoneI didn't see who it wassmacked him from the side. A wide, fast, looping swing from a clenched fistalmost ripped his head off. I saw the punch land and the blood fly and poor Childebertus went sideways, head over heels. I tried to go to him, but I couldn't stand up. So I stayed on my hands and knees until my head stopped spinning, and by that time things had begun to settle down. Tavern brawls seldom last long. They're undisciplined, and they tire people out quickly because everyone is drunk. Anyway, by the time I got to him, still on all fours, your father was sitting up, trying to stanch the bleeding. He bled like a throat-cut pigI can still remember itand his nose was twisted right across his face, from left to right. We tried to straighten itmyself and a few othersbut we didn't get it quite right, and it set crooked. That was the real start of our friendship."
"You were drunk? You?" I was awestruck, barely able to believe what I was hearing, but the King had no thought in his mind now of his dignity, enjoying the recollection of his tale too much.
"We were all drunk that night. We had just come back that afternoon from a long ten-day patrol in which we'd lost two men during a freak storm, when we were near to drowning in torrential rain. It happened four days into our patrol and to this day I have never seen anything to equal it. We were blinded by it, deep among the trees. The light simply vanishedwent from day to night before we could adjust to itand our horses were terrified by the lightning and the noise. We were, too, for that matter.
"Anyway, we could see nothing and lightning was striking all around us, huge trees splitting and exploding into flames. It was absolute chaos, but we couldn't stop, not there. We had to keep moving, hoping to find a clearing where we could dismount and calm the horses.
"Instead, we found a big raiding party that had crossed from the northern Outlands on the other side of the Rhine. We rode right into the middle of them without seeing them, and I doubt if they saw us, either, until we were among them. They were sheltering, too, hundreds of them, among the trees and bushes. We had to fight our way out of there, outnumberedby at least five to one, but they were afoot and we were mounted. We were lucky, nonetheless. Things might easily have gone much worse for us. We were in heavy forest and the underbrush was thick. Our horses couldn't make headway, let alone maneuver, and they were fetlock-deep in mud. If the raiders had been able to surround us completely we would all have died there. Fortunately they were as surprised as we were, and equally hampered by the storm and the darkness. But two of our men went down before we could ride clear of them."
"Did you leave them behind?"
He glanced at me sharply. "Our men? No, we did not. We don't do that. We rode clear of the area and waited until the storm broke and the raiders moved on, the following day. Then we went back and buried our two men, and after that we followed the raiding party at a distance until they emerged from the forest. As soon as they were out in the open where we could fight to our own advantage as cavalry, we attacked and destroyed them."
"But you said they outnumbered you five to one."
"Aye, but one cavalryman is more than equal to five men on foot, unless they're Roman infantry."
"How many of them were there?"
He wrinkled his nose. "Close to two hundred, perhaps a score or so more."
"And you were forty? Two squadrons?"
"No, only one squadron, a full turma. There was myself, the squadron commander and his two decurions, and forty troopers, one of whom was your fatherminus the two killed in the first encounter. That's why we were drinking the night your father had his nose broken. We were bidding farewell to our dead comrades."
"Then why were you fighting one another? Would your two dead comrades have enjoyed that?"
The King's eyes went wide with surprise and then he smiled, shaking his head. "Aye, they would, could they have seen it. But we weren't fighting among ourselves, Clothar. There were other soldiers there that night, from an infantry detachment. They thought we were being too noisy and wethought they were being insulting. One word led to another, and eventually someone swung a fist or threw a drink, and it was all of us against all of them. Someone hit me with somethingprobably a pitcher or a table bowland I went down and your father jumped across to protect me, straddling me and fighting off all comers until I could regain my senses. Unfortunately, I was not quick enough and someone got him, too."
"Why didn't you straighten his nose properly?"
"We couldn't. We could barely see it, let alone straighten it. By the time we started, his face had swollen up like a cow's udder. His eyes were puffed into slits and turning black already and his cheeks looked as though he had apples stuffed in them. Even without all the blood, he was a disastrous sight. It took him more than two weeks to look normal again. Besides, his nose looked better afterward, bent as it was. It simply added character to his face. He'd been almost too pretty before that, a boy wearing soldier's clothing. The broken nose made him look more like a man and ... dangerous. That was how your mother described him to her sister when she first met him. She said he looked dangerous. Evidently not sufficiently dangerous, however, to frighten her."
"Had you and he not been friends before then?"
"No. I barely knew him before that night. He had been with us for less than a yeara recruit, and an outsider, at that. Most of the men in my command at that time were my ownmy father's men, I mean, from here in Genavaand we had been together from the start. We were part of a cavalry division based on the Rhine river, which is too heavily forested to be good cavalry country at the best of times. It was a mobile force, never less than four hundred strong, never more than five hundred, and it was constantly being split and reformed, elements distributed as needed at any time among the serving legions in the region. I was one of five senior commanders, all of us under the overall command of the legate Suetonius Marcellus, who we used to say must have been born astride a horse. He was a fine mankilled in a silly little skirmish a few years after that, shot out of his saddle by an arrow that deflected up off his cuirass,went between the guard flaps of his helmet, and caught him under the chin. Germanus gave me the division after that, but while Suetonius was alive he and I worked well together, which means he trusted me well enough not to interfere in the way I ran my own command. I had three squadrons of forty, and a full hundred of those were Genavans from Benwick. I was not yet their King at the time, but I was my father's firstborn son and therefore his heir, and that meant that my men were mine ahead of Rome's, so be it that we did as Rome required of us. Suetonius respected that and never tried to split us up.
"Your father was the youngest of our officer trainees. And he was also the best looking, which might have been unfortunate. In soldiering, a comely face can be a disadvantage. Some of my veterans thought that anyone who looked so young and pretty could not possibly be taken seriously. Fortunately for him, however, he was a fine horseman, a natural rider even among our Franks, who consider themselves the Empire's best. That saved him much grief, because it won him the respect his physical appearance might otherwise have cost him, and over the months since he had joined us a few of my younger officers had grown to like him and befriended him.
"By the time the fight was over that night, he was one of us. Things began to change between him and me. I had been impressed by the way he had fought above me, straddling me while I was downit's difficult not to like someone who will fight and fall for youand so I began paying more attention to him.
"He was six years younger than I was, seventeen to my twenty-three, a man in years and yet not fully grown, but big and strong, with every sign of becoming formidable. And as I watched him, I recognized him as a natural leader. The men assigned to him behaved well for him, always, and he was never at a loss in the training exercises we set for him. According to all the reports I had heard, read, and evaluated, Childebertus was resourceful, intelligent, adaptable, and above all flexible in his thinking. Without exception, all his supervisors had the same thing to say about him, althoughtheir words may have varied: "The more difficult the problem we set him, whether in logistics, tactics, or strategy, the more easily he seems to solve it."
Somewhere beyond the heavy shutters a cock crowed and the sound startled both of us, bringing the King's head up sharply. He crossed quickly to the window, where he opened both sets of shutters and peered out and upward, into the darkness, waiting for the sound to be repeated. Sometime later, when he was satisfied that it would not be, he secured the shutters again and came back to the fire.
"Sky's clear. Clear enough to confuse that stupid bird into thinking it was dawn. For a moment there I thought we had lost the entire night and we still have much to talk about. Are you tired?"
"No! No, Father, not at all. I'm wide-awake."
He squinted sideways at me, pursing his lips, and then evidently decided I was being truthful. "Good. You can sleep late tomorrow. I'll tell Chulderic." He busied himself replenishing the fire, then set the poker among the embers to heat again. I could tell from the way he kept his eyes on his task that he was thinking deeply about what he would say next, but I dared to interrupt him anyway.
"Will you tell me about how my father died?"
He was bent over the brazier, keeping his eyes on the fire, and he twisted the iron poker in its bed before straightening up. "No, because Chulderic can do that much better than I could, so you should hear that tale from him. He was there at the time, and he had been your father's loyal man for years. I'll tell him you need to know what happened, and he'll tell it to you as he saw it." He read the expression on my face accurately. "Don't fret yourself, I'll make sure he wastes no time before telling you. But in the meantime, you and I have something else to talk about."
I gazed at him, wondering what he meant.
"Germanus," he said, as though that should have been obvious to me. "We need to talk about Germanus, you and I. He will be here within the month. I told you that. What I didnot tell you is why that is important, for you." He cleared his throat loudly and spat into the brazier, then wiped his lips with the sleeve of his tunic before he continued. "He is to be your teacher."
I heard the words, but they went winging over my head like passing geese, observed but insignificant, their meaning lacking any import to me. And then I heard them again, this time in my mind. He is to be your teacher. I was aware of the King's watching me closely, and I shifted nervously in my chair, wriggling in discomfort as though I could avoid the awareness that was growing in me. He is to be your teacher.
"WhaWhat do you mean, Father?"
"Simply what I said. Germanus will be your teacher from now on. When he returns to his home in Auxerre, you will go with him."
"But ... but this is where I live."
"Aye, for now, and perhaps some time again in the future, but for the next few years you will be living and studying with Germanus. The years between ten and sixteen are the most important of your life, and Germanus is the finest teacher you could have in living them."
"But he's a bishop ... a holy man ... ."
"Aye, he is, but he is also a famed and powerful lawyer and a victorious and unconquered battle commandera soldier's soldier. He has always been a teacher, too, no matter what his calling was at any time, and that has not changed. In fact it is more true than ever. Since he became a bishop, Germanus has established a school for boys in Auxerre, and he tells me he plans to create many others. You will be one of the first students in that school, and it will be the making of you."
"I don't want to go."
My stepfather shrugged his broad shoulders. "That is unfortunate, Clothar, but you will change your mind once you are there and settled, for you are going, whether you wish it or not. This is not a passing whim of mine. It has always been intended, decided upon many years ago, soon after the death of your parents, when Germanus and I met to talk about your future. We decided then that since I was marriedand Germanus had no wife to care for you, you would spend your childhood here under my protection, living a normal boy's life among children your own age. Later, when you were grown enough to be aware of who and what you are, your education would pass into the care of Germanus, who would be responsible for teaching you all the things you would need to knowthe things I could never teach you, since they are unknown to me: logic and debate; Latin and other languages; history, both civil and military; theology and the study of religion, and a whole host of other things I could not even begin to guess at. But you'll also continue your existing studies there, your riding and military training, weapons craft and warfare, strategy and tactics. Bear in mind, Germanus was a legate; you could have no finer teacher in such things.
"When you came here to my quarters yesterday, in the afternoon, I was reading a letter. Do you remember that?" I nodded. "Well, that letter was from Germanus and it concerned this very matter. That is the real reason for his visit."
I knew, listening to the finality in his tone, that there was no hope of a reprieve from this decree, and my initial reaction was one of sadness at the thought of leaving this place that had been my home for most of my lifefor all of it that I could remember. But I found, to my surprise, that I was not nearly as dejected as I might have expected to be as recently as the previous day, because I had learned this night from King Ban that I was the son of a heroic warrior called Childebertus, who had been befriended by a king and by an imperial legate, and that the same legate would now become my teacher, merely because I was the orphan son of his friend. There was a promise of adventure there, and of fulfillment. Besides, I had always known that at some point I would have to leave home to continue my military training, earning my manhood in the service of some other leader. All of my older brothers had already done so and were now scattered among the territories of King Ban's allies. Gunthar had only recently returned home, a fully grown man and warrior, after four years spent in the service of Merovech, another Frankish king far to the northwest.
I suddenly became aware that King Ban was staring at me, obviously waiting for me to say something, and I realized that he must have asked me a question that I had not heard. I felt my face grow red.
"Forgive me, Sire, I didn't hear what you asked me. I was dreaming."
"I asked you if there was anything else you wanted to ask me, about all of this."
I thought about that for a few moments, then shook my head. "No, Sire. I can't think of anything."
"Excellent!" He rose to his feet, stretching up onto tiptoe and raising his arms high above his head. "Perhaps now we can get some sleep before the dawn breaks. Come, bed for both of us, for an hour at least."
Copyright © 2004 by Jack Whyte