Once upon a time…far to the East of the Dragaeran Empire, four brothers ruled in Fenario:
King Laszlo, a good man—though perhaps a little mad; Prince Andor, a clever man—though perhaps a little shallow; Prince Vilmos, a strong man—though perhaps a little stupid; and Prince Miklos, the youngest brother, perhaps a little—no, a lot-stubborn.
Once upon a time there were four brothers—and a goddess, a wizard, an enigmatic talking stallion, a very hungry dragon—and a crumbling, broken-down palace with hungry jhereg circling overhead. And then…
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BROKEDOWN PALACE (Chapter One)
FIRST, CONSIDER THE RIVER.
It began in thunder; a cascade from Lake Fenarr, pouring over the lip of Mount Szaniszló. From there it cut a deep, straight path through the center of Fenario, eventually joined by other, lesser rivers. It cut a gap in the Eastern Grimwall, after which it turned south toward the sea, passing beyond the ken of Fenario’s denizens.
Once, when Miklós was eleven, he had been in a mood of pleasant melancholy and had gone down to the near bank, to a secret place between the Palace loading docks and Midriver Rock. There, hidden by rushes and reeds, he had sat holding a single yellow flower that he had wanted to present to his middle-older brother. But his brother had been busy and had brushed him off, which was the reason for his melancholy. So he had taken the flower and thrown it into the river. The idea was to watch it as it floated out of sight, while thinking of how the world mistreated him. With luck, he could bring tears to his own eyes, which would cap the event nicely.
But the River, perverse thing that it was, had carried the offering back to him, spoiling the gesture completely. It always did things like that.
Now, remembering this, Miklós decided that the River ought to rise from its banks and sweep his wounded, broken body away, out of sight to the east. But it wouldn’t.
Miklós was twenty-one years old, and dying.
NEXT, THE PALACE:
It loomed over the bend in the River, over the city of Fenario, over the River Valley, over the land, and over Miklós’s left shoulder.
It had stood for nearly a thousand years if you count the hut. Nine hundred and fifty years if you count the fort. Seven hundred years if you count the Old Palace. Four hundred years by any way of counting, and that is a long time. And for all of that time, back to when it was merely the hut where Fenarr had dwelt, the idol of the Demon Goddess had watched over it.
Miklós craned his neck to look at the Palace and to try to forget the pain. It jutted up against wispy night clouds and a few half-hearted stars. The central tower resembled a stiletto; the River Wall resembled a blank, gray shield. Above it and above him, jhereg circled ominously, their cries harsh and distant, commenting on his state and, obliquely, on the Palace itself.
It looked its age. The nearest tower had a perceptible tilt, and he’d overheard his eldest brother, the King, speak of the way the wind played games with it. The River Wall was cracked and breaking. Its bones were showing.
Are my bones showing? he wondered. Enough of them are certainly broken, and I’m bleeding in enough places. There are probably a few bones coming through the skin.
The thought would have made him retch, but he hadn’t the strength.
NOW, OBSERVE THE INTERIOR:
Start at the bottom. The Palace had been built without a basement of any sort, but tunnels had been dug during the long siege when the Northmen came down from the northern Grimwall Mountains and swept over the land more than three hundred years before.
The siege had lasted five years, and by the end of that time the whole area beneath the Palace, and beneath much of the surrounding city, was riddled with cunning tunnels that were used to sneak food in, or to harass the Northerners, or to spy out fortifications. When the enemy was finally driven out, the tunnels were promptly turned into wine cellars—which is one of the reasons that the wines of Fenario are known for thousands of miles around.
Let us move up from the cellars.
The walls throughout on the main floor were done in the palest of pale blues, and thought had been given to the areas of darkness and of light. Rippling patterns from a candelabrum, unlit, drew and erased wavering lines on the floor before the entrance. Now, was the candelabrum responsible for the patterns, or were the hanging, swaying oil lamps? Both, certainly. One determined essence, the other determined shape.
Here was the nursery, when Miklós was very young. All thoughts of taste had been left for other chambers. Here was a cacophony of colors and hanging beads and flowing streamers. It had been filled with things that rolled and things that tumbled and things that pushed or pulled other things that rolled or tumbled.
When Miklós was five, it was time for Prince László, then fifteen, to have his own chambers. Miklós had to move out. The nursery was emptied of things that rolled and tumbled, and filled with things that cut and stabbed. It was emptied of bright colors and filled with tasteful decorations of people cutting and stabbing.
But let us not be heavy-handed.
Every room was in use. Many were used for things for which they were not intended. This bedchamber was once a library. That servants’ dining room was once a private study. Miklós’s bedchamber, which had been one in the original design, was in the process of becoming a study. Now, was the bedchamber a misused library, or has the change in function changed the definition? Do definitions matter?
Well, define “dying.” How about: “that state where the absence of life is imminent.”
It would seem clear that Miklós cannot be blamed for having received the beating when, really, all he did to bring it on was to be there for twenty-one years. But consider the candelabrum and the lamp.
If you don’t find this a fair analogy, rest assured that Miklós didn’t either.
Miklós thought that it would be nice, in any number of ways, if the River would pick him up and drown him or carry him off to die far away. The longer he lay there dying, the nicer the idea seemed. In his chambers at night, alone, death was a mysterious, terrifying mystery—a wall whose contemplation sent shudders through him while he couldn’t help trying to see over it. But here, death was merely a relief from pain—a relief that he began to fear would never come. Above him, the jhereg had given up, save one whose cries now seemed to say, The River! The River!
Finally, Miklós used what little strength he had in his right leg (which had only a hairline fracture) to push himself down the bank and into the icy water, which should have been the end of it.
But, as was pointed out earlier, the River is perverse.
AND THE CITY:
It was called Fenario, as was the land. It was the largest city in the country—the largest for thousands of miles in any direction beyondit. Well, any direction except west. West of the land of Fenario were the Mountains of Faerie, and who knows what lay beyond? But the city was a huge, sprawling thing on both sides of the River, with a population of well over five thousand. From the city, the towers of the Palace—all six—were infallible landmarks. Each was distinct: the tall and leaning King’s Tower, the pockmarked Tower of the Goddess, the squat and rotund Tower of Past Glories, the worn and threadbare East Tower of the Watch, and crowned West Tower of the Watch, and the graceful, silvery Tower of the Marshal. Though the dwellers in the city were unaware of it, they oriented themselves by these towers. Should the towers vanish one day, the merchants and artisans of Fenario would have suddenly felt lost.
The walls surrounding the Palace courtyard ended some two hundred feet from where the city began, and, by the natural course of things, it was the most prosperous of inns and markets that were located nearest, along with homes of noble families who chose not to live among their estates.
Oddly, from the Palace the city was all but invisible. The wall hid the view from the lower two stories, and the third story, containing almost nothing but the Great Hall, had only windows high upon it. The towers had no windows at all (these having been filled in during one especially cold winter some years before), save for the East and West Towers of the Watch.
The city was built where the River of Faerie joined the North River, and grew slowly. Along the North River came grapes, as well as lamb and bacon, both liberally spiced to preserve them against the summer’s heat. The spices traveled back north much more slowly. Wool also came along this river.
Down the River of Faerie came cotton from the marshes to the south, and timber and mushrooms from the Forest. There were docks along the south bank to receive these things, and two bridgesover to the north bank—the Merchant’s bridge and the King’s bridge.
Miklós used to wander the city during the day with Prince Andor, who was the second oldest and his elder by six years.
“What is that, Andor?” he said once, pointing to the clouds moving in from the west.
“The Hand of Faerie, Miklós,” his brother answered. “The people say it bodes great ill when it covers the whole land.”
“Does it?” asked Miklós in wonder.
Andor shook his head. “I’ve seen it cover the whole sky two or three times, and nothing ever happened except that it has blown away in a few days.”
And Miklós nodded, content, and took his brother’s hand. That evening, he asked his brother Prince Vilmos, who was only three years his elder. Vilmos grinned wickedly and, for two hours, told him stories of what had happened during “Dark Times.” The next day, Miklós asked László, but the latter only grunted and returned to his studies.
In any case, the sky was clear and the stars were bright and piercing when, during Miklós’s sixth year, half of the west wing collapsed. It had been snowing hard for a week, although this only sped up what would have happened anyway, sooner or later. The collapse injured Miklós’s father and, indirectly, led to Miklós’s present situation.
At night there weren’t many of the denizens of the city who visited the Riverbanks, so it wasn’t surprising that no one saw the youngest brother of King László being carried away, his head somehow staying above the water, by the River that runs down out of the Mountains of Faerie.
FINALLY, THE LAND:
One could describe the terrain by the food—apples, for instance.North was crisp and tart, from the hills at the feet of the Grimwall Mountains, East was sweet, from the valley carved by the River, South, near the Great Marsh, were crab apples.
Corn from the silt loams along the River in the east. The western forests had as many varieties of mushroom as the central plains near the city had varieties of pepper. The colder and dryer north gave wheat. Rice grew in the south. Cattle and pigs were raised below the northern hills; sheep upon the hills themselves.
The land was enclosed by mountains on three sides: the Grimwall to the north and east, the Mountains of Faerie to the west. In the southwest the Wandering Forest, which for the most part rested like a skirt at the ankles of the Mountains of Faerie, gradually meshed with and turned into marshland. Then fens and bogs as one went farther south until, along the southern borders, the way was impassible save in the very depths of the coldest of winters.
Now consider early autumn. Consider the first hints of color from the birch and the elm and the hickory. Notice the strings of red peppers hanging like scraggly beards from the eaves of the peasants’ houses. Find the place where a gentle curve in the River causes a small eddy before the exposed roots of an oak that has watched the Riverbank forever. Notice Miklós clutching the roots and wonder, as he does, why the weight of torn shirt, leather boots, and heavy cotton doublet hasn’t dragged him under.
And we’re ready to begin.
MIKLÓS AWOKE TO HOT BREATH IN HIS FACE AND THE CORRESPONDING sound of breathing—no, blowing. These things were accompanied by a dull ache in his lower back. His eyes opened to stare up into what he finally recognized as the nostrils of a horse.
Then it came to him that his back hurt—that is, that only his back hurt. His last memories were of swirling water; his mindclouded by the misery of broken arms and legs, cracked ribs, and a collection of cuts and bruises that had made consciousness an agony.
The human mind being what it is, however, he looked for the source of his current pain before considering the absence of his past pain. He discovered that he was lying on exposed tree roots. As he moved away from them, the horse backed away several steps, and Miklós got his first good look at it.
There were three distinct breeds of horses in Fenario. This was like none of them. It had the gray coloring sometimes found among the small, fast lovasság breed from the central plains; was as large as the munkás workhorses of the north; and had the high head, broad chest, strong shoulders and thin ankles of the repül, owned only by the proudest among the nobility. Its legs were thin but strong, its stance seemed narrow. Its eyes were wide and blue above a swirl of hair perhaps half a shade lighter than that around it.
Miklós, though he had no horse of his own, had been around them all his life, and knowledge of horses was so automatic to him that he took no pride in it. As he studied the horse, it stared back as if studying him.
Let us, then, pause long enough to say that Miklós was a tall, lanky young man with light brown hair, brown eyes, a thin face, and something of a distant look about him. His face was clean-shaven but gave the impression that he would have had trouble growing a beard even had he wanted to. His hands were long and thin, his cheekbones high, his eyes perhaps a bit narrow and slanted. His complexion was dark, with the least trace of yellow if one looked closely.
After a moment Miklós rose to his feet, shakily. He looked around. From the position of the sun, he decided that it was early afternoon. He studied the River and saw that it had carried him a long way. His clothing was only slightly damp, so he must have leftthe River several hours before. His eyes returned to the horse, which was still staring at him.
Just to see what would happen, he held out his hand, made clucking sounds, and said, “C’mon, boy. C’mon.” He was surprised at how strong his voice sounded.
The horse shook its head and walked up to him. Its step was high. It stopped only a few feet away. It opened its mouth then and said, “I’m glad you have recovered, master.”
Miklós felt his eyes widening, and sudden understanding came to him. “You … you’re a táltos horse, aren’t you?”
“Indeed I am, master,” said the horse.
“Then it was you who healed my wounds!”
“Who can say?” The horse flung his head back and shook it.
Miklós shook his head, unconsciously imitating the horse. After a moment of desperately searching for something to say, he came up with, “What’s your name?”
“I am called Bölcseség,” said the horse. The prince’s mouth worked a bit as he tried to pronounce this. After a moment, the horse said, “Bölk will do, master.”
“Bölk,” repeated Miklós. “Good. I can say that.”
“But can you understand it?”
“Pay no mind, master. But tell me, if you will, how you came to be injured.”
Miklós bit his lip but made no reply. Bölk continued to study him, his large, bright blue eyes somber. At last, Miklós sat down with his back against the hard ridges of the tree. He said, “My brother László did it.” When Bölk remained silent Miklós added, “I don’t really know why.”
The horse blinked. “Your brother László,” repeated Bölk. “Do you mean King László?”
Miklós said, “Yes, that’s right.”
“But you still think of him as your brother,” Bölk said.
“And yet,” continued the horse, “you don’t know why you were beaten?”
Miklós turned his head to the side and squinted, pulling up his knees and hugging them. “I see what you mean,” he admitted.
“Tell me what happened, master,” said Bölk.
“Well, I was in my room reading and—my broth—that is, the King entered, without announcement.” Miklós paused, waiting for Bölk to make an interjection. When the horse remained silent, he continued. “He told me he needed my bedchamber. That he needed a room of that size to pursue his studies. He said he was having one of the servants’ quarters cleared for me. I didn’t argue—”
“Why not, master?”
“Well … he’s the King.”
“And it does you no good to argue in any case?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So what did you say?”
“That he could have the blasted room. That the walls were cracking anyway, and the ceiling was sagging, and what did I care.”
“And he attacked you?”
Miklós trembled with the memory. “I’ve never seen him so angry! We’ve never gotten along well, but this! He drew his sword—he always carries it—and struck me with the flat and then with the pommel. He kept—” Miklós stopped, his eyes growing wide again. “My clothes!” he cried. “They were torn to rags! He half ripped my doublet trying to hold on to me and now it’s whole!”
Bölk chuckled. “So, the mending of your clothing seems more startling to you than the healing of your body?”
“No, no, it isn’t that … well, I guess it is. I don’t know. How did you do it?”
“I had no part in it, master. But how did you escape?”
Miklós closed his eyes, trying to remember. Already it seemed so long ago. “It’s mostly a blur,” he said finally. “I remember crawling out of the door, thinking that Lász—that the King would follow me, but he didn’t. I remember wanting to reach the River and to throw myself into it. I thought I was dying. I was dying! What happened?”
“Who can say, master?” said Bölk. “Yet here you are. Do you think your brother will pursue you?”
Miklós considered. “I doubt it. But I can’t go back home now. I’m afraid to.”
“You needn’t,” said the horse. “I will bear you wherever you wish.”
“I have said so, dear master.”
“But … why will you?”
“Because you have found me at a time when I needed to be found.”
“But it was you who found me.”
Miklós fell silent. After a time, Bölk said, “Whither shall we go then, master?”
“I don’t know, Bölk. I have nowhere to go.”
“And nothing to do?”
“Nothing that I know how to do.”
“Nothing you want to see?”
“I don’t know what to look for.” He looked up suddenly. “Except—I would like to look for whoever or whatever healed me, so I can give thanks and perhaps do a service for him or her or it.”
Bölk’s head drooped for a moment and shook in that manner peculiar to horses and shake-dancers. Then he looked back at Miklós once more and said, “Do you really not know?”
Miklós closed his eyes. He thought of the Demon Goddess, but he hadn’t called out to her, so how could she have known to come to him, even if she chose to? Then, suddenly, he realized that he did know. “It was the River, wasn’t it?” he said quietly.
“The River,” said Bölk, “flows down out of the Mountains of Faerie.”
“Then,” said Miklós, standing, “I wish to go to Faerie.”
Táltos horse and young Prince remained still, as if this announcement had created or removed a barrier between them and they weren’t sure which.
“Few from this land,” said Bölk, “ever travel that way. Fenarr himself; perhaps others. Are you certain you wish to go there?”
Miklós shook his head. “No,” he said, “I’m not sure. You asked what I wished to see, and that is the answer. But I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything. Do you think it’s a foolish thing to do?”
“I am not certain myself, master,” said Bölk. “You may find there what you need. You may not. I have some knowledge of Faerie, but what I know causes me to turn from it.”
“What do you mean?”
The horse said, “I have been there once. To return, one must embrace it. I reject it; I cannot go there. I can bring you to the border, high in the mountains, but no farther.”
“You reject it?” said Miklós.
“I do. I must. But that does not mean you should. I am old, master. I am from another age. Once I was stronger than the power of Faerie. Now, it is stronger than I. Perhaps someday I shall be the stronger again. I know that in Faerie, should you go and return, you will learn much. But I don’t know if this knowledge is good or ill. If you go, you must decide this yourself.”
“‘Another age …’ Was it you who carried Fenarr? You, yourself? But I thought you had died!”
Bölk made that sound which is called snorting in a horse or aman. “Myself? Another? Who can say? The land has changed; I have changed; the world has changed. All things become what they were not, and I am no different. I remember Fenarr, if that is what you mean; but my memory differs from the legends, and I am not certain that the legends are not more accurate. But master, the choice is still before you.”
As the horse finished speaking, Miklós suddenly knew that all thought of not going had left him. He straightened his back and said, “Come then, Bölk. Take me as far as you may, and I will learn what I learn.”
“But what will you do with what you learn, master?”
“Pay no mind. Only climb onto my back. We have a hundred leagues of plains before we come to the foothills that bring us to the pass the River has carved, and from there we must find our way to the great waterfall that is its source. I think we should avoid the city, and doing so will add yet more time.”
“We’re in no hurry, Bölk.”
“Are we not, then, master?”
“What do you mean?”
“Pay no mind.”
THEY EMERGED FROM THE WANDERING FOREST LATE AT night, after riding to it for four days and through it for another three. They camped just beyond its border. The next morning, Miklós rose, stretched, turned, and gaped.
The Mountains of Faerie stood before him, awesome and magnificent.
Ten millions of years before, a battle had taken place. On one side had been billions of tons of rock, mostly granite, wishing to go east. On the other, billions more tons of rock, mostly limestone, sandstone, and shale, desiring to travel west. The battle lasted forhundreds of thousands of years of pushing, withdrawing, looking for avenues of escape, and head-to-head duels of pure strength. In the end, the limestone had succeeded in passing beneath the granite.
The victorious limestone, except for occasional patches, remained invisible. The granite could be seen for scores of miles. All conception of distance left Miklós as he viewed the closest peak. Its base was near enough that individual evergreens could be seen, yet trees at the top were merely a blur. The peaks farther back, and higher, gleamed white with snow in the early morning sun. Those still farther back showed faint white that the sun couldn’t reach because the Hand of Faerie loomed over them like a blanket, shaken, about to settle.
“It’s beautiful,” he said at last.
Bölk stood next to him, watching Miklós’s face instead of the mountains.
After what seemed like hours, Miklós noticed the morning chill and hastened to don a plain gray cloak that he had purchased in a village on the other side of the forest, trading his ring for it and for other things Bölk had said he would need.
“We must leave soon, master,” said Bölk.
“I know,” said Miklós, almost to himself. “We’ll be traveling—how far can you bring me?”
“To the base of the flats that come from Lake Fenarr and signal the beginning of the River of Faerie.”
“How far is that?”
“There is a path into the mountain before us that soon joins the Riverbed. We will reach the path a few hours after we start, and the base of the falls a few hours after that.”
“So today is our last day together?”
“It is, master.”
Miklós said nothing, but stared at the mountain before him while laying a hand on Bölk’s neck.
“You should eat, master,” said Bölk, gently.
Miklós sighed and put wood into the shallow pit where the fire had been placed the night before. He kindled flame using flint and thin pieces of bark he had picked up while traveling through the forest. When the fire began to burn, he took a loaf of bread and cut it into strips which he set on the rocks next to the fire.
From the pack which he had purchased at the same time as the cloak, he took a slab of bacon and pushed a stick through it. Holding the stick with his left hand, he used his knife to make a checkered pattern on both sides of the bacon. Then he held the slab over the flame exactly the way his brother Vilmos had taught him.
By the time the bread was toasted, grease began to drip from the bacon. He used his right hand to occasionally hold pieces of bread under it to catch the drippings as it cooked. Bölk watched him in silence.
A gentle wind came from the west, shifting slightly every minute or so. Miklós sat facing the wind, though the smoke stung his eyes, so he could more easily stare at the Mountains of Faerie as he ate his breakfast and cooked his lunch.
“Bölk,” he said at one point.
“I’ve never seen you eat. Don’t you?”
“Not as you do, master. I am fed by the use folk such as you make of me.”
Miklós turned from the mountains to stare at him. “Is that true?”
“I cannot lie, master.”
“But … then are you always accompanied by someone or other?”
“No. Often I go for years, or hundreds of years, seeing no one who needs my help. Or no one who can use it.”
“What do you do then?”
“I starve, master.”
Miklós continued staring at him. “I can’t leave you!” he burst out at last.
Bölk chuckled. “Yet you wish to go to Faerie. So, from that time on, you can’t make use of me whether you want to or not.”
Miklós, with no answer to this, continued looking at the horse for some time until, at last, his gaze was drawn back to the mountains.
MIKLÓS WIPED WATER DROPLETS FROM HIS FACE AND TURNED his back to the spray. Behind and above him, the waterfall towered white and blue and brown, and there was thundering in his ears.
“You can go no farther?” he asked.
“No farther,” said Bölk. “But I assure you that getting to Faerie will be easy. Up this cliff to the lake, then west, and down the other side. You can see that the climb will not be difficult.”
Miklós studied it, then nodded (wiping more water droplets from his face).
“It’s funny,” he said. “You don’t realize how sharply you’re climbing until you see how far you’ve come.”
“Mountain trails are like that.”
“Yes.” Then, “Will I see you again?”
“I don’t know, master. Returning to Fenario will be harder than leaving it. But if you wish to, and you manage, we may meet again. But then, I will no longer be the same.”
Miklós snorted. “Nor will I.”
Bölk nodded slowly. “Perhaps,” he said, “you will come to understand.”
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING UP HERE, LITTLE GIRL?”
“That was a pretty horse, mister.”
“My name is Miklós.”
“I’m Devera. Where are you going?”
“I’m on a journey to Faerie. The horse couldn’t take me any farther.”
“Huh? Why, just down the mountain, over there.”
“Oh. Is that what you call it?”
“What do you call it?”
“What’s down that way?”
“That’s Fenario. Why don’t you … say! You’re from Faerie, aren’t you, Devera?”
“Well, sort of.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I have a … friend, who said I should go to … what did you say it was called?”
“Fenario. He said I should go to Fenario because I would be able to learn something about—well, I’m really not supposed to say. But I must have missed, since I’m way up here, and that means I’m probably early, too.”
“Never mind, Mister Miklós. I like your name.”
“Thank you. You sound like Bölk. That’s the horse.”
“He talks? Or do you mean mentally?”
“How can you talk mentally?”
“You do sound like Bölk. No, he talks. He’s a táltos horse.”
“Okay. I sure do like this lake, Mister Miklós.”
“Yes, it’s pretty, isn’t it? It’s called Lake Fenarr. How did you …”
“What is it, Mister Miklós?”
“Your eyes. For just a second there, I thought I saw something in them. Like a palace, but not like any palace I’ve ever—”
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Mister Miklós. I have to go down that way now.”
“Oh, I’ll be fine. Maybe we’ll see each other again, Mister Miklós. Good-bye now.”
“But … now where did she go?”
BROKEDOWN PALACE. Copyright © 1986 by Steven K. Zoltán Brust