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Three Hearts and Three Lions
By Poul Anderson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1961 Poul Anderson
All rights reserved.
He woke slowly. For a while he lay unaware of more than the pain in his head. Vision came piecemeal, until he saw that the thing before him was the root of a tree. As he turned over, a thick carpet of old leaves crackled. Earth and moss and moisture made a pungency in his nose.
'Det var som fanden!' he muttered, which means, roughly, 'What the hell!' He sat up.
Touching his head, he felt clotted blood. His mind was still dulled, but he realized that a bullet must have creased his scalp and knocked him out. A few centimeters lower – He shivered.
But what had happened since? He lay in a forest, by daylight. No one else was around. No sign of anyone else. His friends must have escaped, carrying him along, and hidden him in this tract. But why had they removed his clothes and abandoned him?
Stiff, dizzy, mouth dry and evil-tasting, stomach full of hunger, he clutched his head lest it fall into pieces and got up. By the rays slanting between the tree trunks he saw the time was late afternoon. Morning light doesn't have that peculiar golden quality. Heh! He'd almost slept the clock around. He sneezed.
Not far off, a brook tinkled through deep sun-flecked shadows. He went over, stooped, and drank enormously. Afterward he washed his face. The cold water gave him back a little strength. He looked around and tried to think where he might be. Grib's Wood?
No, by Heaven. These trees were too big and gnarly and wild: oak, ash, beech, thorn, densely covered with moss, underbrush tangled between them to form a nearly solid wall. There had been no such area in Denmark since the Middle Ages.
A squirrel ran like a red fire-streak up a bole. A pair of starlings flew away. Through a rift in the leafage he saw a hawk hovering, immensely far above. Were any hawks left in his country?
Well, maybe a few, he didn't know. He looked at his nakedness and wondered groggily what to do next. If he'd been stripped and left here by his comrades there must be a good reason and he shouldn't wander off. Especially in this state of deshabille. On the other hand, something might have happened to them.
'You can hardly camp here overnight, my boy,' he said. 'Let's at least find out where you are.' His voice seemed unnaturally loud where only the forest rustled.
No, another sound. He tensed before recognizing the neigh of a horse. That made him feel better. There must be a farm nearby. His legs were steady enough now that he could push through a screen of withes to find the horse.
When he did, he stopped. 'No,' he said.
The animal was gigantic, a stallion the size of a Percheron but with more graceful build, sleek and black as polished midnight. It was not tethered, though an elaborate fringed pair of reins hung from a headstall chased with silver and arabesques. On its back was a saddle, high in pommel and cantle, also of ornamented leather; a sweeping silken blanket, white with an embroidered black eagle; and a bundle of some kind.
Holger swallowed and approached closer. All right, he thought, so somebody liked to ride around in such style. 'Hallo,' he called. 'Hallo, is anyone there?'
The horse tossed his flowing mane and whinnied as he neared. A soft nose nuzzled his cheek and the big hoofs stamped as if to be off. Holger patted the animal – he'd never seen a horse so friendly to strangers – and looked closer. Engraved in the silver of the headstall was a word in odd, ancient-looking characters; Papillon.
'Papillon,' he said wonderingly. The horse whinnied again, stamped, and dragged at the bridle he had caught.
'Papillon, is that your name?' Holger stroked him. 'French for butterfly, isn't it? Fancy calling a chap your size Butterfly.'
The package behind the saddle caught his attention, and he stepped over for a look. What the devil? Chain mail!
'Hallo!' he called again. 'Is anyone there? Help!'
A magpie gibed at him.
Staring around, Holger saw a long steel-headed shaft leaned against a tree, with a basket hilt near the end. A lance, before God, a regular medieval lance. Excitement thuttered in him. His restless life had made him less painstakingly law-abiding than most of his countrymen, and he didn't hesitate to untie the bundle and spread it out. He found quite a bit: a byrnie long enough to reach his knees; a conical crimson-plumed helmet, visorless but with a noseguard; a dagger; assorted belts and thongs; the quilted underpadding for armor. Then there were some changes of clothes, consisting of breeches, full-sleeved shirts, tunics, jerkins, cloaks, and so on. Where the cloth was not coarse, gaily dyed linen, it was silk trimmed with fur. Going around to the left side of the horse, he wasn't surprised to find a sword and shield hung on the breeching. The shield was of conventional heraldic form, about four feet long, and obviously new. When he took the canvas cover off its surface, which was a thin steel overlay on a wooden base, he saw a design of three golden lions alternating with three red hearts on a blue background.
A dim remembrance stirred in him. He stood puzzling for a while. Was this ... wait. The Danish coat of arms. No, that had nine hearts. The memory sank down again.
But what in the world? He scratched his head. Had somebody been organizing a pageant, or what? He drew the sword: a great broad-bladed affair, cross-hilted, double-edged, and knife sharp. His engineer's eyes recognized low-carbon steel. Nobody reproduced medieval equipment that accurately, even for a movie, let alone a parade. Yet he remembered museum exhibits. Man in the Middle Ages was a good deal smaller than his present-day descendants. This sword fitted his hand as if designed for that one grasp, and he was big in the twentieth century.
Papillon snorted and reared. Holger whirled around and saw the bear.
It was a large brown one, which had perhaps ambled around to investigate the noise. It blinked at them, Holger wished wildly for his gun, then the bear was gone again into the brush.
Holger leaned against Papillon till he got his wind back. 'Now a small stand of wildwood is possible,' he heard himself saying earnestly. 'There may be a few hawks left. But there are no, positively no bears in Denmark.'
Unless one had escaped from a zoo ... He was going hog wild. What he must do was learn the facts, and cope with them.
Was he crazy, or delirious, or dreaming? Not likely. His mind was working too well by this time. He sensed sunlight and the fine dust motes which danced therein, leaves that formed long archways down the forest, the sharp mingled smells of horse and mold and his own sweat, everything utterly detailed and utterly prosaic. Anyway, he decided, as his naturally calm temperament got back into gear, he could do nothing but carry on, even in a dream. What he needed was information and food.
On second thought he reversed the order of importance.
The stallion seemed friendly enough. He had no right to take the beast, nor a suit of clothes, but his case was doubtless more urgent than that of whoever had so carelessly left this property here. Methodically he dressed himself; the unfamiliar stuff needed some figuring out but everything, to the very shoes, fitted disturbingly well. He repacked the extra garments and the armor and lashed them back in place. The stallion whickered softly as he swung himself up in the stirrups, and walked over to the lance.
'I never thought horses were that smart,' he said aloud. 'Okay, I can take a hint.' He fitted the butt of the weapon into a rest he found depending from the saddle, took the reins in his left hand, and clucked. Papillon started sunward.
Not till he had been riding for some time did Holger notice how well he did so. His experience had hitherto been confined to some rather unhappy incidents at rental stables, and he recalled now having always said that a horse was a large ungainly object good only for taking up space that might otherwise be occupied by another horse. Odd, the instant affection he'd felt for this black monster. Still more odd, the easy way his body adjusted to the saddle, as if he'd been a cowboy all his life. When he thought about it, he grew awkward again, and Papillon snorted with what he could have taken oath was derision. So he pushed the fact out of his mind and concentrated on picking a way through the trees. Though they were following a narrow trail – made by deer? – it was a clumsy business riding through the woods, especially when toting a lance.
The sun went low until only a few red slivers showed behind black trunks and branches. Damn it, there just couldn't be a wild stretch this big anywhere in Denmark. Had he been carried unconscious into Norway? Lapland? Russia, for Pete's sake? Or had the bullet left him amnesiac, for weeks maybe? No, that wouldn't do. His injury was fresh.
He sighed. Worry couldn't stand against thoughts of food. Let's see, about three broiled cod and a mug of Carlsberg Hof ... no, let's be American and have a T-bone, smothered in French-fried onions —
Papillon reared. He almost tossed Holger overboard. Through the brush and the rising darkness a lion came.
Holger yelled. The lion stopped, twitched its tail, rumbled in the maned throat. Papillon skittered and pawed the ground. Holger grew aware that he had dropped the lance shaft into a horizontal rest and was pointing it forward.
Somewhere sounded what could only be a wolf-howl. The lion stood firm. Holger didn't feel like disputing rights of way. He guided Papillon around, though the horse seemed ready to fight. Once past the lion, he wanted to gallop; but a bough would be sure to sweep him off if he tried it in this murk. He was sweating.
Night came. They stumbled on. So did Holger's mind. Bears and wolves and lions sounded like no place on earth, except maybe some remote district of India. But they didn't have European trees in India, did they? He tried to remember his Kipling. Nothing came to him except vague recollections that east was east and west was west. Then a twig swatted him in the face and he turned to cursing.
'Looks as if we'll spend the night outdoors,' he said. 'Whoa.'
Papillon continued, another shadow in a darkness that muttered. Holger heard owls, a remote screech that might be from a wildcat, more wolves. And what was that? An evil tittering, low in the brush – 'Who's there? Who is that?'
Small feet pattered away. The laughter went with them. Holger shivered. It was as well to keep in motion, he decided.
The night had grown chilly.
Stars burst into his sky. He needed a moment to understand that they had emerged in a clearing. A light glimmered ahead. A house? He urged Papillon into a jarring trot.
When they reached the place, Holger saw a cottage of the most primitive sort, wattle and clay walls, a sod roof. Firelight was red on smoke rising from a hole in the top, and gleamed out the tiny shuttered windows and around the sagging door. He drew rein and wet his lips. His heart thumped as if the lion were back.
He decided he was wisest to remain mounted, and struck the door with his lance butt. It creaked open. A bent figure stood black against the interior. An old woman's voice, high and cracked, came to him: 'Who are ye? Who would stop with Mother Gerd?'
'I seem to be lost,' Holger told her. 'Can you spare me a bed?'
'Ah. Ah, yes. A fine young knight, I see, yes, yes. Old these eyes may be, but Mother Gerd knows well what knocks at her door o' nights, indeed, indeed. Come, fair sir, dismount ye and partake of what little a poor old woman can offer, for certes, ye've naught to fear from me, nor I from ye, not at my age; though mine ye, there was a time – But that was before ye were born, and now I am but a poor lonely old grandame, all too glad for news of the great doings beyond this humble cot. Come, come, be not afeared. Come in, I pray ye. Shelter is all too rare, here by the edge of the world.'
Holger squinted past her, into the shack. He couldn't see anyone else. Doubtless he could safely stop here.
He was on the ground before he realized she had spoken in a language he did not know – and he had answered her in the same tongue.CHAPTER 2
He sat at the rickety table of undressed wood. His eyes stung with the smoke that gathered below the rafters. One door led into a stable where his horse was now tied, otherwise the building consisted only of this dirt-floored room. The sole dim light came from a fire on a hearthstone. Looking about, Holger saw a few chairs, a straw tick, some tools and utensils, a black cat seated on an incongruously big and ornate wooden chest. Its yellow gaze never winked or left him. The woman, Mother Gerd, was stirring an iron pot above the fire. She herself was stooped and withered, her dress like a tattered sack; gray hair straggled around a hook-nosed sunken face which forever showed snaggle teeth in a meaningless grin. But her eyes were a hard bright black.
'Ah, yes, yes,' she said, "tis not for the likes of me, poor old woman that I be, to inquire of that which strangers would fain keep hid. There are many who'd liefer go a-secret in these uneasy lands near the edge of the world, and for all I know ye might be some knight of Faerie in human guise, who'd put a spell on an impertinent tongue. Nonetheless, good sir, might I make bold to ask a name of ye? Not your own name, understand, if ye wish not to give it to any old dame like me, who means ye well but admits being chattersome in her dotage, but some name to address ye properly and with respect.'
'Holger Carlsen,' he answered absently.
She started so she almost knocked over the pot. 'What say ye?'
'Why —' Was he hunted? Was this some weird part of Germany? He felt the dagger, which he had prudently thrust in his belt. 'Holger Carlsen! What about it?'
'Oh ... nothing, good sir.' Gerd glanced away, then back to him, quick and birdlike. 'Save that Holger and Carl are both somewhat well-known names, as ye wot, though in sooth 'tis never been said that one was the son of the other, since indeed their fathers were Pepin and Godfred, or rather I should say the other way around; yet in a sense, a king is the father of his vassal and —'
'I'm neither of those gentlemen,' he said, to stem the tide. 'Pure chance, my name.'
She relaxed and dished up a bowl of stew for him, which he attacked without stopping to worry about germs or drugs. He was also given bread and cheese, to hack off with his knife and eat with his fingers, and a mug of uncommonly good ale. A long time passed before he leaned back, sighed, and said, 'Thank you. That saved my life, or at least my reason.'
"Tis naught, sire, 'tis but coarse fare for such as ye, who must oft have supped with kings and belted earls and listened to the minstrels of Provence, their glees and curious tricks, but though I am old and humble, yet would I do ye such honors as —'
'Your ale is marvelous,' said Holger in haste. 'I'd not thought to find any so good, unless your —' He meant to say, 'unless your local brewery has escaped all fame,' but she interrupted him with a sly laugh.
'Ah, good Sir Holger, for sure I am 'tis a knight ye must be, if not of yet higher condition, ye're a man of wit and perceiving, who must see through the poor old woman's little tricks on the instant. Yet though most of your order do frown on such cantrips and call 'em devices of the Devil, though in truth 'tis no different in principle from the wonder-working relics of some saint, that do their miracles alike for Christians or paynim, still must ye be aware how many here in this marchland do traffic in such minor magics, as much for their own protection against the Middle World powers as for comfort and gain, and ye can understand in your mercy 'twould scarce be justice to burn a poor old goodwife for witching up a bit of beer to warm her bones of winter nights when there be such many and powerful sorcerers, open traffickers in the black arts, who go unpunished, and —'
So you're a witch? thought Holger. That I've got to see. What did she think she was putting over on him, anyway? What kind of build-up was this?
He let her ramble on while he puzzled over the language. It was a strange tongue, hard and clangorous in his own mouth, an archaic French with a lot of Germanic words mixed in, one that he might have been able to unravel slowly in a book but could surely never have spoken as if born to it. Somehow the transition to – wherever this was – had equipped him with the local dialect.
Excerpted from Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson. Copyright © 1961 Poul Anderson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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