The Cup of the World
Part I: The Man in the Dream
The Courts of the King
Phaedra did not know the way, in the unlit corridors of the King's house. She was following the older girls through the shadowy passages, going by their whispers, the scuff of their feet and the sounds of their suppressed excitement. The noises led her to the left, and then to the right, past storerooms and scroll rooms and rooms for purposes that she could not guess. The shutters on the windows were all closed. No one had thought to bring a light, because it had been bright day outside when they had hatched this plan between them. She supposed that someone up at the front must be leading.
There was a pause ahead. The girls had reached a door. From beyond it there rose a great babble: the sound of a crowd in a large room.
Phaedra had imagined that the royal court was a silent place, like a service in chapel where people only spoke when necessary. She had not expected this unruly noise. Perhaps it would make it easier for them to get into the throne hall without being noticed. She had no idea what would happen after that. She had never seen a witch trial before.
A trumpet sounded from ahead of them. The girls had the door open. Phaedra saw the shapes of their heads and shoulders against the light beyond as they stepped one by one through the doorway. She made her way out after the others onto a narrow wooden gallery that ran along the wall of a huge vaulted hall. The babble she had heard was dying. Somewhere below her, a voice had begun to speak. She found a place at the rail, and drew breath. She knew she should not be where she was, looking down at the throne hall of the King.
It was hard to see.
From the high windows the sun shot, barring the hall with rays. Torches glowed feebly. Gold threads gleamed upon banners that swayed in the columns of heat. Below her was the crowd - knights and barons and nobles, packed against either wall so that the long aisle was clear. Where the sun fell the men stood lit in white silver, every detail plain from the badge of a house to the blink of an eye. Their faces were tense, bearded, craning for a view. Between the light beams was a mass of shapes and silhouettes, in deeper and deeper shadows up the hall to the throne. The air pricked with the sweat of two hundred men in heavy cloth. Little noises washed around the walls: clinks, shifting feet, the squeak of leather, and halfsentences murmured into neighbours' ears. The men spoke like hunters, a-tiptoe in the forests. And the beast that stalked the thickets was the imminence of Death.
She looked at once for her father, down among the mass of unknown men. He must be there - but had he seen her? If he had seen her, he might be angry that she had come when she should not have done. If she was going to have to face that later, it would be better to know now. But she could not pick him out, because she was a stranger to the court and did not know where to look for him. She did not know where he would stand among all these nobles: high, surely, but how near to the King?
She could see the King - that white-bearded figure upon the High Throne. Above him the sun of his house blazoned the wall with dull gold. In the shadow to his right sat a younger man - Prince Barius, upon the Throne Ochre, bolt upright with a sword across his knees. And the younger man to the King's left must be Prince Septimus, who was to be knighted that evening at the same feast during which she was to be presented.
To one side of the thrones stood a small group of bishops, robed and capped with gold, and their tonsured priests. On the other were the chosen officers of the court - a rank of serious faces, with gold chains around their necks. There were guards before the dais. Their helms and axes and polished shoulder-pieces flickered with reflected torch fire.
A baron stood in the aisle, in the last streak of sun before the throne. His black beard and doublet paled in the glare, and the skin of his face was dead white, except for the solid little shadow below the tip of his nose. He was facing full into the light. Surely he could see very little; but every soul in the hall could see him: his heavy brow; his face strong. He must have placed himself deliberately in that ray of sun the moment the trumpets had died. The voice she had heard came from a figure in the gloom beside the baron: a man in a cap and robe who was reading aloud from a scroll.
'. . . Didst consort with fell spirits . . . didst conspire with rebels . . . didst most foully plot violence by magic, against us a baron of the realm . . . we call on our liege for justice and an end to evil . . . that thou shalt suffer death under the law of this land . . .'
Somebody else was standing in the expanse of gloomy flagstones. It was a woman, alone. Her head was bowed a little. And it seemed to Phaedra that not a face in the crowd changed as the charges poured on over this creature. Their frown ran from the steps of the King to the gates of the hall.
Phaedra had not known what a witch would look like. If she had expected anything, it was some cackling nightmare, caged like a beast to thrill a fair. She had not been prepared for a plain woman, only a few years older than herself. So this was the one on whom the baron wanted revenge. This was the woman who would lie in an unshriven grave, buried headless with a stake through her heart. Phaedra drew another long breath, and wondered if her limbs were really trembling in that stifling air.
From the Hardcover edition.