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The Time of Contempt
By Andrzej Sapkowski
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Andrzej Sapkowski
All rights reserved.
When talking to youngsters entering the service, Aplegatt usually told them that in order to make their living as mounted messengers two things would be necessary: a head of gold and an arse of iron.
A head of gold is essential, Aplegatt instructed the young messengers, since in the flat leather pouch strapped to his chest beneath his clothing the messenger only carries news of less vital importance, which could without fear be entrusted to treacherous paper or manuscript. The really important, secret tidings–those on which a great deal depended–must be committed to memory by the messenger and only repeated to the intended recipient. Word for word; and at times those words are far from simple. Difficult to pronounce, let alone remember. In order to memorise them and not make a mistake when they are recounted, one has to have a truly golden head.
And the benefits of an arse of iron, oh, every messenger will swiftly learn those for himself. When the moment comes for him to spend three days and nights in the saddle, riding a hundred or even two hundred miles along roads or sometimes, when necessary, trackless terrain, then it is needed. No, of course you don't sit in the saddle without respite; sometimes you dismount and rest. For a man can bear a great deal, but a horse less. However, when it's time to get back in the saddle after resting, it's as though your arse were shouting, 'Help! Murder!'
'But who needs mounted messengers now, Master Aplegatt?' young people would occasionally ask in astonishment. 'Take Vengerberg to Vizima; no one could knock that off in less than four–or even five–days, even on the swiftest steed. But how long does a sorcerer from Vengerberg need to send news to a sorcerer from Vizima? Half an hour, or not even that. A messenger's horse may go lame, but a sorcerer's message always arrives. It never loses its way. It never arrives late or gets lost. What's the point of messengers, if there are sorcerers everywhere, at every kingly court? Messengers are no longer necessary, Master Aplegatt.'
For some time Aplegatt had also been thinking he was no longer of any use to anyone. He was thirty-six and small but strong and wiry, wasn't afraid of hard work and had–naturally–a head of gold. He could have found other work to support himself and his wife, to put a bit of money by for the dowries of his two as yet unmarried daughters and to continue helping the married one whose husband, the sad loser, was always unlucky in his business ventures. But Aplegatt couldn't and didn't want to imagine any other job. He was a royal mounted messenger and that was that.
And then suddenly, after a long period of being forgotten and humiliatingly idle, Aplegatt was once again needed. And the highways and forest tracks once again echoed to the sound of hooves. Just like the old days, messengers began to travel the land bearing news from town to town.
Aplegatt knew why. He saw a lot and heard even more. It was expected that he would immediately erase each message from his memory once it had been given, that he would forget it so as to be unable to recall it even under torture. But Aplegatt remembered. He knew why kings had suddenly stopped communicating with the help of magic and sorcerers. The news that the messengers were carrying was meant to remain a secret from them. Kings had suddenly stopped trusting sorcerers; stopped confiding their secrets in them.
Aplegatt didn't know what had caused this sudden cooling off in the friendship between kings and sorcerers and wasn't overly concerned about it. He regarded both kings and magic-users as incomprehensible creatures, unpredictable in their deeds–particularly when times were becoming hard. And the fact that times were now hard could not be ignored, not if one travelled across the land from castle to castle, from town to town, from kingdom to kingdom.
There were plenty of troops on the roads. With every step one came across an infantry or cavalry column, and every commander you met was edgy, nervous, curt and as self-important as if the fate of the entire world rested on him alone. The cities and castles were also full of armed men, and a feverish bustle went on there, day and night. The usually invisible burgraves and castellans now ceaselessly rushed along walls and through courtyards, angry as wasps before a storm, yelling, swearing and issuing orders and kicks. Day and night, lumbering columns of laden wagons rolled towards strongholds and garrisons, passing carts on their way back, moving quickly, unburdened and empty. Herds of frisky three- year-old mounts taken straight out of stables kicked dust up on the roads. Ponies not accustomed to bits nor armed riders cheerfully enjoyed their last days of freedom, giving stable boys plenty of extra work and other road users no small trouble.
To put it briefly, war hung in the hot, still air.
Aplegatt stood up in his stirrups and looked around. Down at the foot of the hill a river sparkled, meandering sharply among meadows and clusters of trees. Forests stretched out beyond it, to the south. The messenger urged his horse on. Time was running out.
He'd been on the road for two days. The royal order and mail had caught up with him in Hagge, where he was resting after returning from Tretogor. He had left the stronghold by night, galloping along the highway following the left bank of the Pontar, crossed the border with Temeria before dawn, and now, at noon of the following day, was already at the bank of the Ismena. Had King Foltest been in Vizima, Aplegatt would have delivered him the message that night. Unfortunately, the king was not in the capital; he was residing in the south of the country, in Maribor, almost two hundred miles from Vizima. Aplegatt knew this, so in the region of the White Bridge he left the westward-leading road and rode through woodland towards Ellander. He was taking a risk. The Scoia'tael1 continued to roam the forests, and woe betide anyone who fell into their hands or came within arrowshot. But a royal messenger had to take risks. Such was his duty.
He crossed the river without difficulty–it hadn't rained since June and the Ismena's waters had fallen considerably. Keeping to the edge of the forest, he reached the track leading south-east from Vizima, towards the dwarven foundries, forges and settlements in the Mahakam Mountains. There were plenty of carts along the track, often being overtaken by small mounted units. Aplegatt sighed in relief. Where there were lots of humans, there weren't any Scoia'tael. The campaign against the guerrilla elves had endured in Temeria for a year and, being harried in the forests, the Scoia'tael commandos had divided up into smaller groups. These smaller groups kept well away from well-used roads and didn't set ambushes on them.
Before nightfall he was already on the western border of the duchy of Ellander, at a crossroads near the village of Zavada. From here he had a straight and safe road to Maribor: forty-two miles of hard, well-frequented forest track, and there was an inn at the crossroads. He decided to rest his horse and himself there. Were he to set off at daybreak he knew that, even without pushing his mount too hard, he would see the silver and black pennants on the red roofs of Maribor Castle's towers before sundown.
He unsaddled his mare and groomed her himself, sending the stable boy away. He was a royal messenger, and a royal messenger never permits anyone to touch his horse. He ate a goodly portion of scrambled eggs with sausage and a quarter of a loaf of rye bread, washed down with a quart of ale. He listened to the gossip. Of various kinds. Travellers from every corner of the world were dining at the inn.
Aplegatt learned there'd been more trouble in Dol Angra; a troop of Lyrian cavalry had once again clashed with a mounted Nilfgaardian unit. Meve, the queen of Lyria, had loudly accused Nilfgaard of provocation–again–and called for help from King Demavend of Aedirn. Tretogor had seen the public execution of a Redanian baron who had secretly allied himself with emissaries of the Nilfgaardian emperor, Emhyr. In Kaedwen, Scoia'tael commandos, amassed into a large unit, had orchestrated a massacre in Fort Leyda. To avenge the massacre, the people of Ard Carraigh had organised a pogrom, murdering almost four hundred non-humans residing in the capital.
Meanwhile the merchants travelling from the south described the grief and mourning among the Cintran emigrants gathered in Temeria, under the standard of Marshal Vissegerd. The dreadful news of the death of Princess Cirilla, the Lion Cub, the last of the bloodline of Queen Calanthe, had been confirmed.
Some even darker, more foreboding gossip was told. That in several villages in the region of Aldersberg cows had suddenly begun to squirt blood from their udders while being milked, and at dawn the Virgin Bane, harbinger of terrible destruction, had been seen in the fog. The Wild Hunt, a spectral army galloping across the firmament, had appeared in Brugge, in the region of Brokilon Forest, the forbidden kingdom of the forest dryads; and the Wild Hunt, as is generally known, always heralds war. And a spectral ship had been spotted off Cape Bremervoord with a ghoul on board: a black knight in a helmet adorned with the wings of a bird of prey
The messenger stopped listening; he was too tired. He went to the common sleeping chamber, dropped onto his pallet and fell fast asleep.
He arose at daybreak and was a little surprised as he entered the courtyard–he was not the first person preparing to leave, which was unusual. A black gelding stood saddled by the well, while nearby a woman in male clothing was washing her hands in the trough. Hearing Aplegatt's footsteps she turned, gathered her luxuriant black hair in her wet hands, and tossed it back. The messenger bowed. The woman gave a faint nod.
As he entered the stable he almost ran into another early riser, a girl in a velvet beret who was just leading a dapple grey mare out into the courtyard. The girl rubbed her face and yawned, leaning against her horse's withers.
'Oh my,' she murmured, passing the messenger, 'I'll probably fall asleep on my horse ... I'll just flake out ... Auuh ...'
'The cold'll wake you up when you give your mare free rein,' said Aplegatt courteously, pulling his saddle off the rack. 'Godspeed, miss.'
The girl turned and looked at him, as though she had only then noticed him. Her eyes were large and as green as emeralds. Aplegatt threw the saddlecloth over his horse.
'I wished you a safe journey,' he said. He wasn't usually talkative or effusive but now he felt the need to talk to someone, even if this someone was just a sleepy teenager. Perhaps it was those long days of solitude on the road, or possibly that the girl reminded him a little of his middle daughter.
'May the gods protect you,' he added, 'from accidents and foul weather. There are but two of you, and womenfolk at that ... And times are ill at present. Danger lurks everywhere on the highways.'
The girl opened her green eyes wider. The messenger felt his spine go cold, and a shudder passed through him.
'Danger ...' the girl said suddenly, in a strange, altered voice. 'Danger comes silently. You will not hear it when it swoops down on grey feathers. I had a dream. The sand ... The sand was hot from the sun.'
'What?' Aplegatt froze with the saddle pressed against his belly. 'What say you, miss? What sand?'
The girl shuddered violently and rubbed her face. The dapple grey mare shook its head.
'Ciri!' shouted the black-haired woman sharply from the courtyard, adjusting the girth on her black stallion. 'Hurry up!'
The girl yawned, looked at Aplegatt and blinked, appearing surprised by his presence in the stable. The messenger said nothing.
'Ciri,' repeated the woman, 'have you fallen asleep in there?'
'I'm coming, Madam Yennefer.'
By the time Aplegatt had finally saddled his horse and led it out into the courtyard there was no sign of either woman or girl. A cock crowed long and hoarsely, a dog barked, and a cuckoo called from among the trees. The messenger leapt into the saddle. He suddenly recalled the sleepy girl's green eyes and her strange words. Danger comes silently? Grey feathers? Hot sand? The maid was probably not right in the head, he thought. You come across a lot like that these days; deranged girls spoiled by vagabonds or other ne'er-do-wells in these times of war ... Yes, definitely deranged. Or possibly only sleepy, torn from her slumbers, not yet fully awake. It's amazing the poppycock people come out with when they're roaming around at dawn, still caught between sleep and wakefulness ...
A second shudder passed through him, and he felt a pain between his shoulder blades. He massaged his back with a fist.
Weak at the knees, he spurred his horse on as soon as he was back on the Maribor road, and rode away at a gallop. Time was running out.
The messenger did not rest for long in Maribor–not a day had passed before the wind was whistling in his ears again. His new horse, a roan gelding from the Maribor stable, ran hard, head forward and its tail flowing behind. Roadside willows flashed past. The satchel with the diplomatic mail pressed against Aplegatt's chest. His arse ached.
'Oi! I hope you break your neck, you blasted gadabout!' yelled a carter in his wake, pulling in the halter of his team, startled by the galloping roan flashing by. 'See how he runs, like devils were licking his heels! Ride on, giddy-head, ride; you won't outrun Death himself!'
Aplegatt wiped an eye, which was watering from the speed.
The day before he had given King Foltest a letter, and then recited King Demavend's secret message.
'Demavend to Foltest. All is prepared in Dol Angra. The disguised forces await the order. Estimated date: the second night after the July new moon. The boats are to beach on the far shore two days later.'
Flocks of crows flew over the highway, cawing loudly. They flew east, towards Mahakam and Dol Angra, towards Vengerberg. As he rode, the messenger silently repeated the confidential message the king of Temeria had entrusted to him for the king of Aedirn.
'Foltest to Demavend. Firstly: let us call off the campaign. The windbags have called a council. They are going to meet and debate on the Isle of Thanedd. This council may change much. Secondly: the search for the Lion Cub can be called off. It is confirmed. The Lion Cub is dead.'
Aplegatt spurred on his horse. Time was running out.
The narrow forest track was blocked with wagons. Aplegatt slowed down and trotted unhurriedly up to the last wagon in the long column. He saw he could not force his way through the obstruction, but nor could he think about heading back; too much time would be lost. Venturing into the boggy thicket and riding around the obstruction was not an attractive alternative either, particularly since darkness was falling.
'What's going on?' he asked the drivers of the last wagon in the column. They were two old men, one of whom seemed to be dozing and the other showing no signs of life. 'An attack? Scoia'tael? Speak up! I'm in a hurry ...'
Before either of the two old men had a chance to answer, screams could be heard from the head of the column, hidden amongst the trees. Drivers leapt onto their wagons, lashing their horses and oxen to the accompaniment of choice oaths. The column moved off ponderously. The dozing old man awoke, moved his chin, clucked at his mules and flicked the reins across their rumps. The moribund old man came to life too, drew his straw hat back from his eyes and looked at Aplegatt.
'Mark him,' he said. 'A hasty one. Well, laddie, your luck's in. You've joined the company right on time.'
'Aye,' said the other old man, motioning with his chin and urging the mules forward. 'You are timely. Had you come at noon, you'd have come to a stop like us and waited for a clear passage. We're all in a hurry, but we had to wait. How can you ride on, when the way is closed?'
'The way closed? Why so?'
'There's a cruel man-eater in these parts, laddie. He fell on a knight riding along the road with nowt but a boy for company. They say the monster rent the knight's head right off–helmet and all–and spilt his horse's gizzards. The boy made good his escape and said it was a fell beast, that the road was crimson with gore—'
'What kind of monster is it?' asked Aplegatt, reining in his horse in order to continue talking to the wagoners as they drove on. 'A dragon?'
Excerpted from The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski. Copyright © 2013 Andrzej Sapkowski. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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