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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 and bruises 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 cronies---and I was often jealous of his freedom---I 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, I ran 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, facedown, 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 myself to 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 wrist beneath 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've managed 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 barbicans---high 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 malcontents to 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 before---the very idea of it had been unthinkable---and 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 not thought 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 and on 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 sons---Samson, Theuderic, Brach, and me---was, 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 the flesh 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, too---it was worn over the belted leggings---and 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 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 terrified old 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, I could 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 savagery---that you did what you did for good reason---good 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?”
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