Breaking Night Mountain
by Gray Woodland
Lionel was born a third prince in the country of Allicanzade, and a third prince is one more than anybody needs. As soon as he was old enough, he rode into the Wood of Weyre, and took the adventure he found at a crossroads. The end of it was, he came over a field sown with bigger men's bones to the Terrible Tower, and by great luck and courage rode away singing with the king's daughter of Sarrisain mounted up before him, and the evil enchanter dead in his own wine-press.
The king's daughter of Sarrisain said, on their first night at camp, "The enchanter has spoiled Spring Shining-Eye with his vile dreams. My father said my hand was the prize for saving me; but, friend, I beg you never claim it, for I cannot bear to marry."
"Then never you shall," said Lionel grieving; for she was the bravest and loveliest of women, and she had been kind to him without hope and in his direst peril. "Who claims your hand must strike down mine first."
They rode home together, and the old king was angry at what Spring and Lionel offered him. Then the princess spoke one of the runes she had learned in the tower, and her beauty went slithering off her to the floor. And everyone but Lionel drew back from her in horror. But her little sister turned again in her flight, and threw herself into Spring's haggard arms, and wept bitterly upon her knobbed shoulder.
Spring said in a voice still clear and strong, "Hush thee, hush dear Florry, for now I'll walk untroubled. All my royalty and dowry I renounce to thee. Princess Spring Shining-Eye is no more, but I will be the Witch Fall Fell-Glance, and woe to the wicked magician who troubles our land while I live!" Then she took up her beauty from the floor, and laid it about Florry's slim shoulders. All gasped, for the Princess Florimel had been merely pretty before, but now she was lovely almost past enduring.
"This is the best man in the world," said Fall Fell-Glance, turning her to Lionel where he stood amazed, "and, friend, here is the sweetest sister a woman ever had. Be happy, for I mean to!" And she walked off back to the woods, and nobody dared to follow. Lionel and Florimel might have dared, but they were lost in silence and each other's eyes.
Very presently they fell in love, and were married with the old king's good will, and Lionel became king after him. In time, Florimel the Fair bore him a daughter, and she lived till the time came to name her.
While they told names to the birds at the naming-spring and looked for an omen, suddenly came a great squawking and a scolding, and into the midst of it walked Fall with a stout grizzled man at her elbow. "Scold me for something better!" laughed Fall, and threw off her ugliness to cover the whole flock. And some ate it up and became eagles, but others wore it and became vultures. And she looked like Spring Shining-Eye again; and said, "Kiss me, Harold, for thy kindness!" Which the stout man did, gently, but as a man long dry for drink.
Then she turned to the others where they stood amazed as before, and said, "This is Master Harold Tapp of the Two Pikes Inn, who has chased away all dreams but mine, and learned me to love those again. So I'll be Summer the Sorceress; and since when I'm not sorcering I have work in a country tavern, here's some court-finery as a naming present for my niece!" Then she twirled gaily, and threw off her young glamour like a gypsy dancer, and caught it in her hand to lay upon the babe. It vanished, and the babe gurgled happily, and Summer stood before them as a lean brown working woman, with the lines of many smiles about her merry eyes and thin wilful mouth. "Will it do, Harold?" she teased him.
"You were always so to me," he said quietly. "Will you marry me, then, Summer?"
"With all my heart!" said she, and clasped him tight in a fit of sudden weeping. Now they must all hug her and weep tears of joy with her, before they were done. Last of all she went to kiss the beautiful babe, and said,
"I'm the only bird left, so I've your name to tell. And you should be Leonie for your brave father, and Melisande for your sweet mother, and Sophie for I'd have you wiser than I. So I give you all three, but it's you must choose between them!" Leonie-Melisande-Sophie squawled to have her clothes changed. So quickly she was splashed with the fountain, and they all went home to tea.
Leonie-Melisande-Sophie grew up to be called Lemmy, because that was what she made of it when she was little. And if Lemmy was not much of a name for the most famous and beautiful princess for ten days' ride around, by the time she was seventeen none of the young men would have minded if she were called Dogfish.
Not that they bothered her about it. Everybody remembered what Fall had done to that archimage and what Summer had done to those bandits, and that was before reckoning with noble King Lionel himself. In fact, the young men were so good about not bothering Lemmy, she began to wish somebody would - in a polite, respectful way, to be sure. But nobody quite dared. She took to walking in lonely gardens and along obsolete battlements, in the hope that something romantic would happen to her.
So it was Princess Lemmy who saw, from the high dusty turret where they stored the ambassadors' gifts nobody wanted, the black carriage riding on the bitter October wind.
Its horses were whip-maned nightmares, and its lacquer was black ice, and it was borne up upon the air's fleeing away before it in terror. As Lemmy leaned out the window to squint at its frosty coat-of-arms, she saw that it was driving straight for the Palace, and she was divided between running like a good sentry to tell her father, and waiting for some Prince of Hyperborea to carry her off to wonders and adventures beyond the North Pole. Then there was no time, for she was plucked up on the wind, and borne down hard to sit on the coachman's box cold as any tomb. She turned to the coachman to ask him, but quailed away: he was only a cold wind in a black cowl. "Aunty!" she cried, for she'd never been in true danger before. "Summer the Sorceress, save me from horrible evil!"
Then the voice spoke from the carriage, and it chilled her to the core. "Summer's dying," it said. "Winter comes!" And they floated down to the courtyard; and there were her mother and father too, wafted out from whatever they'd been doing upon the magician's bitter breezes. The dark door creaked open as they all touched down together.
Summer the Sorceress slid down to Earth.
She was Summer still. But her mouth was like a crack in parched earth, and her eyes were like the pitiless Sun that hammers down on the sands until it melts them to glass, to make mirages for mortal folks' torment.
She said, "The light of the world's gone out."
"Oh, Summer," breathed Queen Florimel, "is it Harold?"
Summer howled like the murdering mistral, but all the world grew colder about them. "It was the winter of his life," she said, and her voice killed the race of every blood. "There are no charms against that."
"Summer..." said King Lionel, stepping hesitantly forward.
"Beat ten drums slowly," said Summer the Sorceress. "Lay him in a tomb of forty kings. Let a hundred white-clad maidens sing him home!"
"I will, " said King Lionel, and hastened off to see to it. Florry and Lemmy came quickly to comfort Summer; but she would not be touched, and there was no comfort for her, and always the bone-chilling cold grew deeper about her.
At last the hundred maidens came, and a priest to lead them, which last Summer blew with a savage wave into eleven o'clock next Wednesday. Then Lionel and the three women and Summer's invisible creatures bore the heavy bier into the Royal Chapel, and Summer spoke to them crisp and colourless of what it was to be a man who lived the love of strangers.
"Go," she said, when Master Harold was laid under stone with all the famous kings of Sarrisain. Queen Florimel led the maidens all filing away.
With them all gone, the chapel was deadly, and King Lionel said in great pity and love, "Summer...!"
"Go," she said, and he left like a doddering old man. Princess Lemmy, who barely knew death and was harder to crush with it, went up to the sorceress and caught the dry brown hands in her own.
"Aunty dear," she said trembling, "please, won't you come away?"
"Summer's dead," said the older woman. "Winter's here."
Then she reached up and tore apart the husk of her summer, top to toe. Lemmy cried out and fell sobbing on the frosted flagstones, for there was nothing behind it save the cold draughts in the chapel and a sudden squawl of hail against the stained-glass windows. But afterwards they say that the mask on Harold's tomb was found smiling, so Lemmy at any rate believed there was something kindly that lived past it.
The Princess came often afterwards to that tomb, for she missed her aunty dearly, and could never bear to leave her without fresh flowers and a whispering of young girl's secrets. Now, it happened that others were keeping an eye out as well.
So as one twilit evening she was kissing the cold stone good night, and promising more tales tomorrow of those mocking-eyed masterful men she'd been walking out with in her sleep, there came heavy footsteps behind her, and a cough like the breaking of a weathered stone seal. She looked up. There standing a head higher than her tall father was a man deeply hooded and cloaked, and his face seemed in more shadow than was called for. Her heart raced, and she said, "Sir, I hadn't heard you come in. Did you know my aunt, the Sorceress, then?"
"Yes," he said, in a voice as deep as old time. "Will you stand, Princess? I came to pay my last respects." And when she stood, he grasped her hair and stuffed shadows into her mouth so she could not cry out; and then he bound her with more shadows until the chapel was bare of them as a stripped room is of curtains, and her struggles availed her no more than a mouse's in a man's hand. Then he set her down mannerly on a prayer-bench, and said, "Your pardon, Princess, but this may not wait," and hiked up the skirts of his robes, and danced a merry wild jig five minutes on Summer's tomb before whooping up a pint of black phlegm on it. Then he turned to her with his hood back, and it was a face flat like a lion's, and tusked like a boar's, and with a nose like some unclean part of a toad.
"I am the Demon Borgardiraki," said that demon, "and you will be just the morsel I wanted, now old Simoom-Breath can't wither me." She glared desperate defiance, and he grinned and licked his liver lips. "Yes," he growled. "Courage is my drink, because mortals' souls spill out in it. It makes up for your looking like something I'd mulch my flowers with. Come away, little Fuff-Cat, and be rescued!"
He cloaked himself again, and slung her over his shoulder like a bag, and walked bold as black sorrow out of the chapel door; but however Lemmy kicked, he took no notice, and nobody else took notice of them either, all the way through the darkening town. At last they came to poor streets running with filth, where life was none so sweet as in the Palace. When a despairing scream came from an upper window on one of the narrow overhanging houses, Borgardiraki soared up on it to the sky, and bore Princess Lemmy off to his stronghold in the Wood of Weyre.
There was great dismay at court when Lemmy was missed. Her mother went all about trying to find her, and her father sent about the same. But no-one had seen or heard anything, and all there was to see was the defilement of Summer's grave. And when the last messenger came back with nothing, and the last wizard had taken ten minutes to say no more, Queen Florimel's hope left her, and she let out a wail of despair that rove every heart that heard it. Down her cry and through the windows slid a thickening clot of shadows, and there in front of the thrones stood the laughing monster Borgardiraki. "I have news, Funny-Face!" said the demon.
"Speak it quick, then!" said King Lionel.
"I am the Demon Borgardiraki," said that one, "and now the old ale-wife is dead, I fear no-one this side of the Woods. So I've taken your daughter away for company, and because it's so nice to scare her. Would you know how to get her back?"
"Yes, Demon," said Queen Florimel quickly, as her husband's face congested with fury so he could not speak. "What must we do?"
"Find someone man enough to kill me," said Borgardiraki. Lionel leapt up in a passion, but he was no longer a young hero and had many years of soft living under his belt. The demon smacked him away so hard, he broke his arm and dazed his head against the far wall. "Oh, not old Fatbelly here. You'll want the best of the best: a mighty man who could have challenged Summer May-Fly in her prime. And here is where all the world may find me: in the Cave of the Grave, on Breaking Night Mountain, in the Wood of Weyre. Don't wait too long!" He flicked steel-clad claws in and out of his bloody-furred fingers. "A demon finds work for his idle hands to do. Sweet dreams, Grizzle-Cheeks!"
Florimel raised her hand, and ten arrows struck him, with an itch-spell that was all the wizard could manage. "Thanks for the toothpick and the tickle," the demon added, stumping grinning over to King Lionel and throwing his loyal guards aside like matchwood. "Oh, wait, a tasty snack for the road!" Lionel's face was white with pain and he staggered, but he had drawn his court-sword left-handed. The demon bent it into a hair-pin and grabbed him by the throat. "So brave," said Borgardiraki admiringly. "That's the soul that makes the chew-bone!"
Tender Queen Florimel grabbed a magic sword off the wall and ran down screaming at him in a blood-rage. She struck with deadly aim. He parried her with Lionel, and soared off to the sky on the wings of their wails of anguish, trailing his vile laughter like a kite's tail after him.
Then those who knew something of healing carried the weeping queen away from where she knelt in her husband's spreading blood, and did what they might for both of them. The end of it was, King Lionel lived, but woe on him if he fought so much as a mouse over the next few months. So presently he and Queen Florimel put their heads together, and soon their heralds and those of their best allies were riding all round and about the Wood and beyond. What they said changed from kingdom to kingdom, for it's a herald's trade to know how to say what to whom, but the scroll they were all working from said this:
"PRINCESS DISTRESSED! Leonie-Melisande-Sophie, 'the Lovely', 17. Durance vile, demon, unspeakable evil, soul-eater, impatient, defies world's best, etc. Borgardiraki, Cave of Grave, Breaking Night Mtn, Wood of Weyre. A RESCUE! Prince preferred, all considered, magic essential. Usual terms - hand, 1/2 kdom, N.B. heiress-apparent! Sorceresses, witches, viragos! - hand 2nd prince Jourdelain, 1/2 (this) kdom in fee, other bens. neg. Apply King Lionel Marasbane & Queen Florimel the Fair, Sarrisain, SAUNCE DELAY! Godspeed, honour!"
It did its job, of course. In a land with more little kingdoms than anybody can count, there are always more petty princes than anybody could want. Four-and-twenty princes arrived before the may-trees bloomed , and three-and-twenty rode into the woods never to be heard from again. Prince Archroy of Montamort turned out to be a barrow-wight with the seven-hundred-year itch for liveliness, and had to be sent away grumbling.
Only one sorceress answered, for those are rarer - little stooping Clotho Crabfoot, with the wit keener and less comfortable than spears. She cast one scornful look at the second prince of Jourdelain, and turned herself into a young man and asked if she could have Lemmy instead. Lionel and especially Florimel were disgusted; but they were also desperate, and since every tale of Clotho made her annoying but none made her exactly evil, they wrote her down as Prince Otho and sent him to ride after the rest. But he never came back from the Cave of the Grave, either.
It came down to three men in the end, because it always does; and two dozen red-targe adventurers might have kept their bones in their bodies by remembering it, only they never do. Three princes, and the last who came: Beroald, Frederick, Tully.
Beroald the Bold was the eldest, and he came first and furthest. He was a second son whose stodgy elder brother had grown up to be king while Beroald was out bashing monsters, braving bandits, and all those things a diligent small-country hero does. Now his first stray grey hairs were finding him, and he had hoped to become general of all his brother's armies; only his brother, who had studied kinging carefully, didn't think anybody needed a general quite as honest and honourable as all that.
Our Beroald was very military and dashing, with his broad shoulders and frank flashing eyes and neat clipped moustaches. Every lady loved him who looked no further - but it was Beroald's curse only to want a wife who did. Yet he had no small talk, and the one thing he feared in all the world was to bore a lady who'd rather be anywhere else.
When King Lionel's herald cried his quest, Beroald said to himself, "This is my last chance for great deeds, and saving her from a demon will be something to talk about, besides who went to tomorrow's play in yesterday's dress with whose lover's cousin. Besides, better me than a worse fellow! Well, up and play the game!" And he said to the herald, "I'll do it. On with your ride, man! I'll be in Sarrisain before you are." Nor could his brother, nor his aunty, nor his niece persuade him it was a fool's quest to get his soul eaten in.
Prince Beroald always planned things out beforehand, even if none of the plans happened when it came to it. He put on the armour that his many-times-great-grandfather had worn to kill a dragon of all dragons, since modern steel couldn't cut this foe, and so he doubted it could shield either. He took his favourite magic sword, but also from the deepest armouries chose Croakum, that short broad oricalch blade with which his greatest-grandfather-of-all had slain an especially needless god. He took a saint's thighbone to beat the demon's head, and a cursed crossbow to shoot the demon dead, and went through all the rest of his pack until it was as deadly as it could possibly be. Then he rode off on his good grey stallion, and when he came to Sarrisain castle with the red plumes on his helmet blowing in the wind, he lifted every heart in the court back up to a moment's hope again.
Not long he stayed, but only long enough to hear everything of how Borgardiraki had fought. Then he rode off to the rescue, and the silence rang long and hard behind him. At last King Lionel said, "Truly, my love, if not this man, I don't know where we'll find a better!"
"Nor do I," said Queen Florimel; but she never told him how her heart misgave her.
Prince Beroald the Bold rode into the Wood of Weyre, and in short order he came to a crossroads, and off to one side came an old woman's voice, this way: "Lordy lawks-a-mighty! I'm stuck in the ditch, and the ditch is full of shite, and everyone's too fine to come and help me out! Help, kind sir! Help!"
To you and I and Beroald there is only one answer to that, though some tales whisper some others. He pulled her out of the ditch, which was just as she'd said, and ruined his finery carrying her back to the nearest stream to refresh herself. When she'd done washing and he'd done guarding her, she was still a very wretched old body, but she marched up to him with eyes glittering fiercer than his own and said, "Sir, a kind deed to poor Wacky Wanda, and what boon will I do you in return?"
Chivalry forbade his asking much, so he bowed his head as if she were truly a lady, and said mildly, "This was no great deed, goody, but one thing I'll ask if you know it: which way to Breaking Night Mountain?"
"Right at the crossroads, left at the brook, my master," she cackled, "and I guess you're the man to dare what waits there!"
"What's that, goody?" he asked. But her cackling took her over, and in her last peals of mirth she answered, "What's sufficient; and trust to steel!" Then she paled, and gaped, and pointed over his shoulder. He swung round to fight it, but found nothing then or later. When he turned again to the stream, she was all gone, body and breath and bending of grass alike.
Prince Beroald thought no good of this, but followed her directions for lack of better, until he came across the brook to a mountain black and jagged as a flint fish-spear. He scrambled across the broken lands at its feet, and saw nowhere further to go, and cried out in a high voice, "I am Prince Beroald the Bold, and Borgardiraki or I dies today, or else he delivers the fair Princess safe into my hands! Which is it to be, now? Chop-chop!"
"It is to be... tssshhop," said a great voice, and the mountain shook to it, and the small rockslides rushed down the gullies. "I am the Worm Gunnlaug!" Like an eel from somewhere you wish to see no eel, a massive blackened-copper shape began slithering out from a hidden gap in the mountainside. "Will you wrestle a fall with me?"
"I will," said Beroald tensely, and leapt aside at once from the cold-drake's blasting vomit of hailstorms. He rushed dodging and diving in, good steel sword at the ready, to engage it hand-and-claw in combat; and that was more than it could bear in the end, though they were both sore wounded. Beroald it was who hacked through his enemy's neck as it lay spent and spoilt on the hard rocks before him. He thought a shadow fell upon him then, but it was gone when he spun around sword in hand. Then he mastered himself, and saluted Gunnlaug's great courage, and pressed on to the Cave of the Grave whence the worm had come.
Within, he came to a cavern that was all mirror-facets and iron angles. There was no door, but in the ghastly distorting light he made out a great she-sphinx looking down on him, provoking as a cat can be. "Well, Prince Beroald," said the sphinx without being introduced, "who are we? How is the dance footed? What is the way beyond you and me to the End of the Night?"
"I don't know that!" said Beroald, lifting his sword warningly. "Beware and be out of my way, for I killed the cold-drake already!"
"Did you?" asked the sphinx incuriously. "What was the point in that?"
"The point that'll be in you too, madam, if you block me!" said Beroald, for this was one of his only five jokes and he never wasted a chance for one. "Avaunt! Aroint! Begone!"
"Why let me stop you?" yawned the sphinx, and took a catnap right there in front of him. Well, that made things difficult, since a prince surnamed the Bold couldn't very well murder a lady sleeping. So very carefully, and waiting all the time for her to wake and pounce on him, Beroald searched all around the cavern for any way further in. He searched until the hard angles were starting to wear through his gauntlets, and the mirrors to dazzle his eyes. Then he began to think that was the point of it all, and turned back to the drake's cave to recover.
He turned everything about the cave and the sphinx's riddle over in his head, but could make nothing of them. Back he went again. The sphinx yawned and stretched to greet him. She asked him the riddle again.
So Beroald trusted boldly to his nature. "We are cat and mouse," he answered, "but which of us is the cat? The dance is footed in fence and pounce, but who must step outside? The way beyond you and me to the End of the Night is Death, and which of us will take it? You are the door as well as the bar, and it is time for us to fight!"
"Dog got your brains?" demanded the sphinx, flicking her tail at him. "Why don't you go and think about it some more? In the meantime, what is the difference between another duck?"
"Have at you!" said Beroald grimly, and charged her with steel in one hand and oricalch in the other. But the sphinx divided laughing on both sides of him, and he almost brained himself on the far wall. Then he turned round to cut her for true, but she divided wherever he went and knitted together wherever he wasn't; and this was the most grisly sight anybody can think about, and what was worse she was laughing at him all the while and coining stupid riddles at him, some of them in limericks. At last, fit to weep with frustration, he stormed out of the cave to make a camp. Long and weary days he stayed, trying with all his might to answer the riddle, whilst all manner of unwholesome signs and portents happened around the mountain, just as flies and mice happen around the alleys between the food-shops. But never could he make anything of it, or find any other way into the mountain.
At last another prince came riding down the trail, dressed gay as a popinjay and riding on a milk-white mare, and Prince Beroald the Bold knew shame that he had failed.
Frederick the Fine was cut from a different cloth. He was a third prince and therefore no use to anybody except for adventuring, no need to think about it. But it was Frederick's pleasure to think, whether there was need for it or no. He spoke to many old proved adventurers when his family started hinting at him, and formed a firm opinion that adventures were other people having hard times far away, and scraping up the luck to come back bragging about it afterwards. He also contrived to meet their beautiful brides at various parties - for Frederick was a sparkling fellow at every party worth being seen at - and he concluded, very privately, that they were just the sort of people to need rescuing after a midnight walk in the grove their fairy godmother warned them against.
Now though our young Prince Frederick was courteous and amiable to everybody he met, he tried very hard not to meet stupid people more than he could help, and a dull wife would have been like somebody scraping nails down a slate for the rest of his days. Also, just as a sparkling wit could light up his desire like a flame, he saw all sorts of trouble coming if he rescued a slug-slow princess and couldn't afterwards bear to touch her. So he set out to make his fortune, since everybody told him he must; but he made it in trading fine wines, and other people's promises to sell a bunch of other people spices on the Twelfth of Never, and I don't know what-all else.
When he had such a monstrous load of money that he could just spread it around and let it carry on making itself, he came home and spent as much as he liked on gay parties, and rare books, and subtle magics, and going to today's play with everybody's cousin's lover before he charmed her out of tomorrow's dress.
A lot of people thought this was unprincely, especially everybody's cousin. But after great hulking Prince Rudiger from next door spoke of what a shame it was for royal blood to be mixed up in such a coward-custard, and Frederick called him out to a duel and left him with the points of his trousers cut snick-snack and his arse striped every way from the flat of Frederick's blade, nobody except Frederick's family wanted to talk about it. For Frederick was so prudent, he was always wary that Fortune would play some stupid third-prince trick on him and make him rescue his sister or somebody; and so however good the wine, or the books, or the company, he always made two hours a day to practice swordplay and such needful things, just in case.
Now it came at last that Frederick grew mighty bored with all the clever, sparkling, useless people he went to parties and plays with; and even, if truth be told, with being clever and sparkling and useless himself. But he could imagine nothing better worth doing. Then King Lionel's heralds came, and everybody looked at Frederick and waited for him to come up with some witty excuse they could tell all their cousins about.
But Prince Frederick thought, "I have a better joke on them than any. By a good golly, I know every gentlewoman three kingdoms around too well already, or else I don't want to. This one's seventeen - she can't be too expert a bore yet. She's Summer the Sorceress's niece - her brain can't be all pease pudding. And a demon! - that's the sort of thing I bar. All those Rudigers who'll come running have no idea what they're getting into!"
He bowed, and laid his hand on his heart, and said lightly, "Then by my life and breath and honour, good sirs, she shall come again, or I never. Wait three hours, and I'll collect my things and ride home with you." And the whole court set to buzzing like a beehive overturned.
Frederick kept all his treasures in careful order, and soon found amongst them what he wanted. For a weapon he took the enchanted sword Glissade, that was made of glass and as sharp as glass can shatter, yet strong and tough as blood-forged steel. For armour he took a popinjay suit of bright silks in every colour you like; but the silk was spun by the Spiders of Fate in the old days, and it would turn every weapon that was not doomed to strike home. Moreover he took many amulets, good-luck charms, and other tools and trinkets it couldn't hurt to have handy. Last of all, he chose a book of Lady Jadwiga's poems, in case the heralds turned out to be awful bores to ride all the way to Sarrisain with.
If they did bore him, Frederick never showed it, and they rode in great good-fellowship up to the gates of Sarrisain palace. Quickly he put King Lionel and Queen Florimel at their ease, and inside five minutes he made them feel that here was a man who knew how every affair was managed, because at some time or other he had managed it himself. They gave a great feast in his honour, at which he charmed everybody from duke to priest to the smallest page who poured him the best wine they could muster. Idly he inquired after the princes who'd gone before him, and sat musing a moment when they finally got to the end of them.
"Not bad!" he said at last. "I shouldn't like to write off Gorgias or Beroald just yet, by the way. They're something a bit extra. By the way, who's this Otho fellow? I thought I'd heard of everybody!"
Queen Florimel looked as though some lemon sorbet had gone down the wrong way. "The Sorceress Clotho Crabfoot turned herself into a prince. We thought everybody had come who was going to, and we..."
"Yes, quite, quite!" said Frederick distractedly. "I absolutely see... The demon ate Clotho?"
"I suppose he must have," said King Lionel. "Why?"
"No reason especially," said Frederick, recovering his poise. "It's like hearing somebody shut up Simon Say-So, or killed the God of Nuisances, that's all. One of those things half the world wants to do, and some of it could, but you can't quite believe it would ever happen... Did you hear what she did in Brueckkaemmeritz?" And he held everybody enthralled with a true but ridiculous story, till the feast broke up with almost all of them certain that Lemmy was about to be rescued in the best possible way. Afterwards, Prince Frederick managed to get a word alone with the King and Queen without anybody else making much of it.
"Cousins," he said earnestly, in that way royal folk do amongst themselves even when they're less kin to each other than I am to the God of Nuisances, "we may be in for a spot of trouble. If I'm gone as long as Beroald, I'm dead. Here are blank drafts on all my banks and goldsmiths. Call in your alliances, lay up siege weapons, sign up Sarastro or a demigod or somebody of that sort, if all your leagues together can swing one. I know why he took your Lemmy now - and it's good news for her, but not so hot for the rest of us!"
"How so?" demanded Florimel intently.
"He doesn't want her for herself," explained Frederick. "He's a soul-eater, yes, and he likes courage? He's been eating brave princes one after another, and growing strong on them until now he can smack down a sorceress handily. That's what this was about from the beginning. When we stop feeding him, he's going to flap his terror about and come conquering and devouring, until people start praying him not to. Demons all want to be gods, you know!"
Lionel frowned. "Can he?"
"If we don't stop him first? Probably. Weetzli did something like that with his pyramids, and his cult were still annoying people over the Faraway Hills the last I heard of it." Frederick shrugged, and found a thin smile. "This one's not there yet, or we'd know it. With four-and-twenty princes and a sorceress in his gizzard, though... umm. Clotho wasn't in Summer's class, of course, but I'm afraid Borgardiraki must be by now. If he's really taken Gorgias and Beroald, he's good. If he can take me too - it's gone past throwing princes at him, that's all!"
Lionel looked him up and down with an old warrior's eye. "I doubt I could have matched Beroald in my prime. Are you sure you're so much stronger?"
"No," said Frederick unconcernedly. "I wouldn't fight any of your top four, strength against strength. I'd pick my own way, and I'd win. The same with this fellow. - Which brings us back to getting ready here. You mustn't send him more princes, and Lemmy mustn't be there when he realizes the gravy-boat's sailed. So if I don't think I can bring him down, I'm going to try and steal her away instead. Be ready to run him off from here, if it comes to it!"
"We'll try," said King Lionel. "I've been funding some lectures from a bunch of shabby wizards, and Florry's turning to religion with all this..." He shared a look of fierce conspiracy with his wife. "That many horse-doctors and holy men about the place ought to slow him down next time, at least."
Frederick raised an eyebrow. "Cousins," he said warmly, "I can tell your daughter's going to be an absolute pleasure to rescue!"
After he rode off in the morning, Queen Florimel said, "My love, if anyone can get her out of it, I think it must be him!"
"So do I," said King Lionel; but his heart misgave him sorely, and Florimel could always read him like a book, though she never let him know it.
Prince Frederick the Fine rode into the Wood of Weyre, and his maps led him a fair way into it before they let him down, and he found out the hard way why all the songs call it a wandering wood. At last he made a cold camp, where it was hard to sleep in that rustling scratching dark with no sweet companion beside him. He ruled his fears. Just as he was ready to tip off into a dream of cleaner and merrier places, a voice like an echoing tomb said from behind him, "Woe, and dread, and the doom beyond fair death!"
Now if Frederick had one fault in his courage, it was his horror of the unquiet dead, and the hollows where their lives had been. But if there was another thing he feared more, it was to be ridiculous, so still and cool as a mountain-tarn he made answer, "Sir ghost, I have no need of these; therefore do peddle your wares elsewhere, and let a weary fellow sleep, won't you?"
"Let me sleep, rather!" intoned the ghost. "I am murdered in a ditch, and the ditch is full of shite, and shall a prince rest easy in such a shameful grave? Bury a poor old lich honourably, and you shall have my thanks!"
"Willingly," said Prince Frederick, without moving. "Tell me now carefully where you lie, since stumbling through haunted forests in the dark feeling for ditches full of what-you-may-call-it is only another way to join you."
So the ghost gave him long and complicated directions, and when Frederick had them all off by heart, he sat up and watched till morning, going over them so as not to forget. Of course there was no ghost to ask by day, but the prince now riddled every direction till half the day was done, and he found a tall mailed corpse in a ditch that was just as the ghost said.
When Frederick had heaved him out, and bemired his gorgeous silken armour past describing, and afterwards soaked it with sweat building a cairn over the dead prince by a clean fair stream, he was all spent. Though he grudged every moment away from his true quest, he so dreaded the crawling of the unquiet grave, he could never think to leave another man stuck in one. He cleaned himself and his gear as best he could in the stream, and made his camp by the cairn, and sat puzzling at maps until sundown.
Said the ghost out of the piled stones, "Sir, a noble service to poor Prince Barry, and what boon must I do you before I sleep forever?"
To Frederick the Fine there was only one answer to that. "Just the one thing, if you know it," he said lightly. "How may the Demon Borgardiraki be slain?"
"Not by man nor woman, spell nor steel, living nor dead may he fall," the stones answered, "and I deem you're the man to riddle that!"
"Thank you," said Frederick ironically, hiding his dismay. "I see seven answers already, each stupider than the last. Perhaps I should just drop rocks on him?"
"Be sufficient," hissed the voice, "and trust to wisdom!" Then its death sucked it away, and it faded with a hollow moan into the ground. Prince Frederick shook his head, and poured the dead man a libation from his dwindling wineskin. He toasted the unexplained Prince Barry - and Life, and Reason, and Flirt Fortune, and of course Princess Lemmy - until he was toasted enough to sleep even in the Wood of Weyre, without waking or startling until long into the broad morning.
It took Prince Frederick some riding and reckoning to get to Breaking Night Mountain, and when he got there he found the bones of a great dragon, and a cairn of heroic size with a several swords and an axe-helve sticking out of the top. A knight much bigger than he sat dejectedly upon a stone before it. "Hail and well met!" cried our hero, vaulting down from his white horse. "Prince Frederick of Waldenburg, at your service. And you, I think, must be Beroald the Bold?"
"Aye," said Beroald grimly. "I slew the Cold-Drake Gunnlaug, but there's a riddle inside I can't ravel. Well, your turn to save her now; there's no more for me here."
"I don't know about that," said Frederick. "A cold-drake might have cooled me down for good. Look, sir - if it sits with your honour - how about this? I'm the man for riddles, if any prince is; and there's probably some third peril, because magic likes threes. And the demon is going to be pure trouble on toast. What say we join our forces, and let the Princess decide which of us she likes best? Winner takes her and the glory, loser takes the demon's treasure. I tell you frankly, I like half my chances better with you than all of them without!"
Beroald smiled thinly. "I've heard of you before," he said. "You do think like a merchant, don't you?"
"Yes," said Frederick frankly, "and say this too: a merchant-adventurer, and what I dare, I dare."
"All right," said Beroald. "It's a shabby point of honour that leaves a fair maid in a demon's claws, and I don't mind another chance with her. There's this sphinx." And he told Frederick all about it.
"Thanks," said Frederick. "Let me turn that over for a while. Also, there might be a doom, if it wasn't just some lying sending to dull my edge with worrying." And he told Beroald of the ghost's warning.
"Oh, come on, man!" exploded Beroald. "What kind of hero drags an artillery train behind him?"
"Quite," said Frederick tartly. "The best I've come up with so far, is chop off his arm and then beat him to death with it. The whole thing's so sloppy I'm not sure I believe in it; but there it is, in case we need it in a hurry. Now, one last thing. Are we sure we're the only ones left?"
"The worm got Gorgias and Lucky Fritz, for sure," said Beroald. "I found Sea-Grey and Two-Bits in with all the bones. The rest were just regular magic swords with no legends to 'em. Even the skulls were too shattered to make a tally, but... I made it two dozen or so. Even if one or two cowards turned tail, does it matter?"
"It does, a bit. This whole quest is only a ramp so he can grow strong on brave men's souls."
Beroald snorted in furious disgust.
"My feelings exactly," endorsed Frederick, "and one of the princes was a sorceress in disguise, and I was really hoping he hadn't eaten her magic into the bargain. Here, have some salt and moly." He fished out a little embroidered bag, and handed it over to the great warrior. "This against sorcery is like padded jackets against swords; then again, he mayn't be that good with it yet. - I'm going to think about that sphinx for a bit. Keep an eye out for anything strange; and if dead men start talking to you too all of a sudden, view their words with gravest suspicion!"
"Ha, ha!" said Beroald flatly, for he considered Frederick's quip to be encroaching on the borders of another of his own five jokes, and he treasured them very jealously. The younger prince paced round and around for some minutes, muttering to himself and snapping his fingers, and generally seeming in another world altogether. Presently he came back wearing a smile that was dangerous for somebody, and said,
"I think I've got it. Don't follow me in, because I'm sphinx kibble if I'm wrong, and you can't save me. Supposing it goes bad, off you go to Sarrisain as fast as you can, and help King Lionel defend it. If you have to do that, well, I promise you there'll be songs about it."
This seemed to cheer Beroald up a fair deal. Frederick drew Glissade, saluted him with it, and stepped boldly into the Cave of the Grave.
"I say, ma'am!" he said to the sphinx in the cave of mirrors and facets. "I'm Prince Frederick the Fine, and either Borgardiraki's about to learn loneliness or I am. I don't suppose you could tell me how to find him?"
"Well, pepper-pedlar of Waldenburg," said the sphinx without being told that, "who are we? How is the dance footed? What is the way beyond you and me to the End of the Night?"
"You are the cat, and I am the mouse," said Frederick steadily. "The dance is Ladies Excuse Me, and you must lead and I must follow. Before the End of the Night, you and I shall be one flesh, and that is the way I see before me."
"You fancy yourself a lot, don't you?" remarked the sphinx, yawning wide. So Prince Frederick marched straight down her gaping throat, and through a winding mile of her cavernous guts, until a door like a stone rose dilated before him and left him standing on a ledge of glimmering crystal.
"Would you be so kind," the sphinx requested stiffly, "as remember that a gentleman never tells?" She hyperbolated up her own involute, and what that means a wizard knows better than I; but the sum of it was, no more sphinx behind him, and ahead of him a chasm of deadly night with no other end in sight, and a bridge of a razor's edge glimmering across it into nothingness.
He looked long upon that dreadful span, and then marched up and down the crystal shelf looking for secret tricks to turn it. When he was certain there were none, he stepped up to the brink. Thin vile voices like ghosts laughing at him seemed to echo out of the black heights, and deep down below he thought he could catch faintest slitherings and munchings, like a rumour of worms crawling over each other and eating each other up. He girded up all his failing courage, and put his best foot forward onto the bridge.
He felt the razor's edge cut into his boot, and he swayed in horror. Mocking ghostly laughter and insatiable wormish hunger called to him as the ground calls giddy men down off a mountain. With all the will that was left to him, he hurled himself rolling backwards onto the crystal shelf. Glissade slipped from his hand and went skittering away down over the dreadful edge.
A shadow moved as no shadow should, and was gone. Frederick turned tail and ran with all his might through dark and winding caverns, until he saw daylight again and a cut-iron cave with no sphinx in it. Then in shivering shame he returned to Beroald, and said bitterly,
"I have no courage for the next peril after all. The Princess and the glory are yours, for Lionel's daughter and Summer's niece will never love a coward-custard. Here are the talismans I have that may protect you against demon's treachery. If there are more riddles, come back and I'll read them for you, if I may!"
Beroald nodded. "To every man his part," he said kindly, and stepped soberly into the cave with both his swords out; but his heart was singing. He strode on down the long winding tunnels until he came to the white crystal ledge and the black abyss.
"A bridge of courage," he said, looking at the razor's edge. "Not much peril, for a man who knows his worth. Princess, I come!" And he ran boldly out onto the span.
The bridge-blade couldn't pierce his boots, but it grew no wider under him. He overbalanced, windmilled wildly, and the chasm yawned horridly in his eyes and ears, as if the world were bored with bearing him. Making the great leap of his life at the last moment he could, he hurled himself back onto the treacherous crystal ledge and scrabbled himself a hold; but his good nameless blade and godslaying Croakum went clattering down into darkness. Beroald turned again, found that nothing had changed, and stamped back down the tunnels longing for anything to fight until he came back into the wretched sunlight.
"No man can walk that bridge," he told Frederick. "I never blenched, but I began to fall. Perhaps the falling is the test of courage. If it is, it's no courage of mine, this giving myself to helplessness in the dark!"
"As well it isn't," Frederick replied, and his face was ashen and clammy. "The death of souls was in that fall, as surely as in the cold-drake's slaughters or the sphinx's ravelling of minds - "
"The sphinx's what?"
"What sphinxes do to sorcerers. I think there's no way in here, Beroald. All he needs to give us is the bait of the Princess, and deathtraps so he can devour us when we're too busy dying to fight him. Do you stop here, and keep the next fool from feeding him. I'll ride back to King Lionel, and warn him how it's gone. We're in for a god-war, I'm afraid!"
"Not so fast," objected Prince Beroald. "That's giving her up: not ready for that. Sleep on it, get your pluck back, see if you can't think of something else clever."
"The only clever answer to this quest," said Frederick heavily, "was for nobody to go on it. If my wit could get her out, she'd be on my horse already!"
"So you say now!" said Beroald. "Wait. Magic likes threes, you said it yourself. What if it needs three of us to finish?"
"What if it needs seven?" gloomed Frederick. "Or twelve, or sixty? Well, we might as well see what we can think of, while we wait for one more. Though if Lionel and Florimel have the sense of barnacle geese, they'll put the next adventurer in chains before they let him ride this road after us!"
"There's always one," said Beroald.
They camped before the Cave of the Grave. They thought of nothing useful.
When they saw what came down the trail instead of the one they'd hoped for, Princes Beroald and Frederick hung their heads, and knew the sorrow of a last chance lost.
Tulwin Agila Vidimer of Gotharingia was never called anything else except 'Tully', or nothing he cared to repeat. He was, as his black-clad poker-backed mother never tired of reminding him, a prince. But since the Gotharings had chopped off his father's head for chopping off too many bits off them, and set up a republic in which the worst crime was wanting a crown, Tully was only a poor lad in one country whose parents had been royal in another. He had learned young and painfully that this is the one thing more useless than a spare prince in his own palace, and that his noble lineage and a tuppence would buy him a mug of small beer. So he worked long careful hours as a clerk to keep his mother well fed and respectably clothed, and bore patiently with the scorn she heaped on him for what she called his lack of princely spirit.
In truth Tully had no mind ever to go back to Gotharingia, where nobody wanted him for anything but to shave his head down to the neck. Nor did he wish to avenge his father, seeing how if the king here in Austerghast had behaved half so cruelly, Tully would willingly have joined every sweeper-grocer-yes-sir-no-sir in raising the bloody bill against him. Yet a boy must not break his mother's heart, and so he never spoke his mind in these matters.
His mother for contrast spoke her mind on them all the time. When Tully was not around to listen, she spoke them to the League of the White Lily, whom she received every other Tuesday in her dim dusty rooms on the second floor of a piece-rented mansion on the depressing end of Hollyhock Street. The Lily League were terrible old women who were all royalty if everybody had their rights, and spent all their time telling each other about it, and planning how they'd punish their peoples for rebellion when Duke Destiny set the world right again.
One Thursday evening, Tully came home late from some extra copying, and the Countess Carmel Caramelli met him at the door. She was a withered scrawny creature with parchment skin and pale hungry eyes, the daughter of an evil sorceress whose peasants had burned her for grinding the bones of a hundred maidens to make magic rusks with. Carmel drank only warm water and virgin's blood, and the rest of the Lily Leaguers bullied her and sponged off her, because she was not a countess whereas they were not great queens; but since she was at least a bloodsucker, they allowed her to make the tea and run errands for them.
"Tully, Tully!" croaked Carmel. "Come upstairs quickly! Your mother and the League have a great charge for you!"
"Oh, gods, Carmie!" he said, turning nearly as white as she. "They don't want me to invade Gotharingia a week this Friday, do they?"
"No," she said, sniffling and leading him upstairs by the hand. "It's something you can do. You're not going to like it, though." Since Carmel Caramelli was the only one of his mother's friends who could think like a normal human being even by accident, Tully knew from her words and her sniffling that he was in very deep trouble indeed.
She took him up to the landing, where his door stood open, and through to the horrible frowsy museum that his mother called their drawing-room. "So!" said his mother in a high proud voice. "Rejoice, my son, for this day you become a prince indeed!" And she read to him the message of King Lionel's heralds.
"She sounds like a splendid person," Tully said, with a sinking heart, "but there must be a hundred better heroes riding to save her already. I've never ridden anything fiercer than a hack, and I'm nothing of a fencer, and no wizard at all. What will I do, stab him with my penknife?"
"There are no better heroes than the true king of the Gotharings," said his mother coldly. "Your good blood will raise your sluggish spirits to a kingdom of your own. As for the rest, it is provided for. Arms to the man we bring, who shall restore the greatness of our names! Let the gifts be given!"
Then prying old Princess Alice Nares rose to her feet, bearing a dull heavy helm. Her grandfather had been driven from his throne for trying to put a spy in every household, so all his subjects should live just right: she had learned nothing from it. "This, Prince Tulwin," she said, placing it on his head, "is the Helm of the High-Mind, the heirloom of my house. Who wears this helm shall never see the base and cowardly ways stretch out before him, but shall virtuously strike down every wickedness he sees. Wear it to good report in every land!"
Then spiteful Princess Sabine Talion rose up, bearing a short ironwood spear with a blade of jagged flint. Her uncle had been tossed on ten pikes for putting too many of his subjects to torment: she had learned nothing from it except that he must have been too gentle with them. "This, Prince Tulwin the Exile," she said, placing it in his right hand, "is the Spear of Screams, the heirloom of my house. Whomsoever its blade strikes shall be too eaten up with agony to wish to defend himself again. Sheathe it with swift justice in every foe!"
Then billowy mumbling Princess Fatima Cloudscrape heaved herself to her feet, bearing a girdle of grey-green silk. Her father had put his younger brother in charge of his army, and not paid much attention to what the soldiers did afterwards until they hurled him from his battlements: she had never learned anything from anything.
"Oh, oh dearie, oh!" she said. "This, Prince Tulward - Tulwin - Tulwine the, er, Prince? Anyway, this is the Zone of Zahra, the mumble of my house? Whose waist it goes around shall never look in lust at anybody who didn't tie it there, and, I mumble mumble know we're all supposed to arm you; but really, my dear, this wouldn't be titter suitable at all, would it?, and Uncle stole all the things that were useful in battle, and after all I'm sure she's a very nice princess, dear, but demons mumble mumble, a young man can never be too careful!" She looked vaguely around for somewhere that wasn't his waist to put it, and ended up draping it around his neck for lack of decent ideas.
Finally came his mother, and Countess Carmel had to help her carry her gift. It was a long-faced steel shield, newly polished, with the Old Gotharingian arms on it: a black eagle biting off a white snake's head against a blood-red ground. Tully had hated the sight of it all his life.
"My son," intoned his mother, placing it in his off-hand, "you will bear this to glory and victory, or else let it be your honourable tombstone in the Cave of the Grave. The Countess has arranged you a horse, and a journey-purse, and whatever else wants only filthy lucre to manage it. Leave my house now, and never think to return until you are a king with a thousand swords behind you for reaping rebel heads with!" She turned away sharply, and struck a great blow on the dented old dinner-gong to dismiss him. Carmel led him off, and he was too numb to resist: in any case, he could barely see anything out the Helm of the High-Mind's visor. The rest of the League of the White Lily clapped their hands and cheered behind him.
When they were far away from that place of broken crowns and dried-up hearts, the Countess Carmel unlaced his helm for him. They were in a field beyond the walls, and there was a horse of sorts tied to a tree and looking at him curiously. He looked back at it aghast, and then again at his companion.
"I'm so sorry, Tully!" she said, her sunken eyes redder and deeper than usual. "This quest has struck her on her mad bone, and the queens egg each other on so!"
"Carmie," he said gently, dropping the despised shield into the mud and very carefully setting the Spear of Screams to point away from them both, "you can't afford to buy me a horse!" For what he knew and the League of the White Lily could never have abided, was that Countess Carmel Caramelli worked for her living, playing gooseberry to rich old men's beautiful daughters so that daring young men should not boast of knowing them better than they ought. He suspected it had something to do with her virgin's-blood habit, too, but was too fond of the poor soft-hearted leech to wish to know for sure. At any rate, he knew that she barely got by respectably, even without his mother and her friends sponging off her all the time.
"I saved a bit," she said defiantly. "It's not for them: it's for you. What would I spend it on anyway? I don't have any pleasures, and those stupid selfish old women deserve to do without theirs while you're gone!"
Tully swallowed. "If I really go," he pointed out, "I won't be coming back. All our princes made noises like a chicken and clucked off from this quest the moment the herald spoke it, and the weakest of them could clean my clock with one hand tied behind him. If I can think of some way of ducking out from under it without breaking Mother's heart, I'll take it!"
"Don't you dare!" she snapped. "That isn't you. Don't you see, you're the weakest prince in the game, and the best in your spirit - the one who always wins through?"
"The true king always comes home to avenge his father too, and everyone's happy and it's all a really good idea," Tully said, between tears and laughter at her earnestness. "I don't believe in fairy tales, Carmie."
"I don't either," she said, her breath whistling in her weak lungs where her passion was stronger than her rags and bones of a body. "I believe in you!" She twisted the ring that was her only jewel off her bony finger; except for a little tackiness, it came off easily. It was heavy gold, with a dull black stone set like a die spinning on its corner.
"They wouldn't let me arm you, because I'm not royal enough. Well, Tully my lad, I won't let them kill you either. This is the ring Die-Hard, the last heirloom of my house from before it was dead and disgusting. It gets Flirt Fortune's attention. She never does anything for me but kick me in the face, because why would she, but you're young and handsome and you never ask anything for yourself. Take this, and kill the demon, and win Leonie-what's-her-name of Sarrisain and live happily ever after!" She rammed it hard onto his finger and stood glaring at him.
"That, I will believe in," he soothed her; and made it truth, for he knew she would read a lie. "Well, now I can do it after all. Goodbye, Carmie. Drink deep, but not too deep!" And he slashed his belt-knife lightly across his palm, and held it up to her parched lips.
She took a huge sucking slurp he felt all up to his shoulder, and hurled his hand aside as if it burned her. Her lips and cheeks filled out, and her flesh went from mummy-wrap to firm olive, and her stringy frazzled hair darkened and straightened. She stood before him a moment as what she truly was: a high-mettled young woman about his own age, her grey eyes smudged deep from a life that was only hurt. "Look after her, Carmie," he whispered, kissing her forehead. "You're the only one of them with any sense or kindness. When I'm a king, somehow I'll find some sorcerer who can lift this - "
"Tully, don't!" she sobbed, tearing herself away violently and turning her back to him. "Don't, don't, don't!" Her shoulders were shrinking as they shook, and he could see her bone-rusk immortality seizing her again.
"If this is a fairy-tale," he said with a quiet rage that was new to him, "my children can do without fairy godmothers. You're better than any of them!" And he took up his arms, and mounted his horse, and rode away in great haste and wrath. Die-Hard gleamed with sudden whiteness against the haft of the Spear of Screams.
"The Princess Leonie-Melisande-Sophie," he cried aloud when he saw its shining, "and the Countess Carmel Caramelli!" She heard that back in the field, as he'd meant her to; but he never knew how it tore at the white wasp's-nest of her heart, nor how near she came to ripping out Princess Sabine Talion's throat with her teeth to slake the pain of it that evening.
Prince Tully rode until the fey mood was off him, and then he considered again how he was going to kill a demon, as he rested and watered his nag - being not so good a horseman as to do very much thinking in the saddle.
By that stream he discovered that the Countess had put too many pennies and too much food and wine in his saddle-bags, and must certainly have borrowed money from somebody shady to afford this on top of the horse. He cursed the League of the White Lily heartily, but reflected that his only good answer now was to become a king, and give the dear good leech the rich rents and treasures she deserved. This decided, he put Austerghast and Carmel behind him, and Sarrisain and its Princess before him, and rode directly for the Wood by the quickest way, not liking to trouble Lionel and Florimel with boasts before his deeds.
In the next kingdom he passed by a ditch, and the ditch was full of shite. He dismounted, took off the Zone of Zahra, and passed its slick verdigris silk between his fingers. He said, "Zahra, whoever you were, I'm sorry I wasn't there to do this before they tied it on you. There's no place for this belt in the world!" Then he very carefully sawed it to bits on the teeth of the magical Spear of Screams. It was like sawing steel mesh, but the Spear prevailed. He tied each bit around a different rock, and threw each rock into a different part of the ditch, and so one of the petty evils passed away forever.
Then he looked with loathing at that Spear. He put on the Helm of the High-Mind, took up a great rock, and began hammering hard at its flint blade to shatter it. For though it might have bitten the Demon Borgardiraki deep, our Tully was trusting now to his fortune and his fate, and what sort of either can a prince expect when he carries a spear tipped with the pangs of Hell?
The blade broke at last, since flint only takes an edge because it shatters. Tully took each piece carefully up in his gloved left hand, and pitched it into a different part of the shite. Last of all he dug up the turf beneath it with his knife and pitched that in too, lest any small splinters should remain. As for the shaft, he lit a fire and burned it, and cast the ashes to every wind, just in case. So Tully the Gotharing destroyed another of the world's meaner terrors forever.
"If you two were demons," he said in jest, "then I'm a demon's-bane already!" And they had been, and he was, though he couldn't know it. Then he rode on, pale and sweating from his perilous work with the spear, until he came to a fair town and a cleanly inn to rest in.
In the next kingdom he met a knight whose lady's father had set him a long random quest of ninety-six needless episodes to discourage him, and who was getting discouraged already on the forty-fifth. Tully swapped him the Helm of the High-Mind for a plain nameless magic sword, which he immediately named Lucky Strike because that was what he needed from it.
By the time he reached the Wood of Weyre, he kept only his ancestral shield of all the arms his mother had packed him off with, and that was only because it would break her heart if he came back without it. For his own part, he had rather thrown it into every ditch full of shite along the way. As he rode at adventure up a gorse-grown rise, with Fortune's ring glaring now diamond-bright upon his finger, a naked green nymph ran squealing across his path, and after her stormed a huge villain knight armoured top-to-toe in mail of the elder days. A sword as big as Tully swung across his broad back.
Tully wished mightily that he had passed here half an hour ago, but now there was no help for it. "Hold, foul recreant!" he cried, with all the nerve he could muster. "Miss, is this man bothering you?"
"Bothering her?" boomed the knight, without turning or slowing. "I am ruining her; I am murdering her; I am dragging her houseless spirit down to the pits where dead stars wail forever. Follow us, if you want the same!" And his voice was the voice of the ravening tomb.
"No," said Tully through gritted teeth, "you're not doing that!" His horse was balking and fussing, so he clambered down from it, and charged after the horror without dwelling any more on its nonsense.
Next thing, the nymph had sprained her ankle or what not, and the knight was turning round to meet him. Speaking all the while, dead-calm and echoing, of the torments of the grave, the tomb-knight swung a blow at Tully that would have split him crown to crotch had it landed. By a hair's breadth he stumbled aside from it. Seeing that he was no match for the dead man in skill or strength, Tully gambled all on a mad thrust for the heart that left him wide open to everything if he missed. The mail stopped Lucky Strike, which wasn't cut out for thrusting to begin with; but Tully followed through with a clumsy shield-bash, because that was the last thing he'd have time for. As soon as the Shield of the Gotharings struck the dead man, he dropped his sword and toppled heavily to the ground, to move no more.
"I'll be blest!" exclaimed Tully. "It's good for something after all!"
"Rejoice, Prince!" purred the nymph, forgetting her sprained ankle and slinking up to him with all her enchantments out. "I am Lissom Lissa, Queen of the Love-Sprites; and surely shalt thou dwell as King in bliss with me for a legion of lives in my bowers of the hollow trees, nor ever know any deaths except the little kind!"
Tully's body rose up mightily against his will, but he overcame it.
"Lovely Lissa," said he, "I am promised to save another princess already, and to wed her. Besides, you deserve a bigger man than me, for I only took the dead man down by accident."
"Well," she said, straightening, "I guess you're the man to answer Borgardiraki!" Then she stripped off her young nakedness like an uncomfortable ballgown, and beneath it she was a little stooping woman with a limp, a small malicious mouth, and green eyes brilliant with gaiety and mischief. "Clotho Crabfoot," she said. "Sorceress, gourmet, and jobbing corrupter of innocence. The big galoot's Prince Archroy of Montamort, a barrow-wight out on a spree."
"Hello," said the dead man's voice behind him. "I guess you'll do, too. A word in your ear, lord: hang your fencing-master!"
"I got my ten shillings' worth," said Tully, ignoring the crawling between his shoulder-blades. "What was all this Saturday morning mummery about?"
"The demon's defences looked a bit tasty for me," said Clotho. "I thought I'd let some other fools beat them down first. I doubt I want the silly little snip that much anyway, though a royal wine-cellar might be fun. Anyhow, old Bogey-Rack's been eating the nice fat adventurous souls as his guardian eats their bodies, and we don't need him any stronger, so I roped in Archie and we've been screening out the hopeless cases between us."
The barrow-wight coughed like a great man's death-rattle. "I hadn't anything more pressing to do," he said deprecatingly.
"Thank you!" said Tully. "If you'll just tell me where I can find Breaking Night Mountain, I'll be on my way and finish this."
"We'll do better than that!" gloated Clotho. "We'll show you. You might say things have gotten sort of complicated..."
When the three heroes from the wood met the two outside the Cave of the Grave, things got more complicated yet. Beroald and Archroy began playing tomcat chess with each other on sight, and Frederick and Clotho hadn't passed ten words before they were exchanging every other cattiness at so many dozen to the minute. Eventually Tully got their united attention by shrugging and starting off into the cave without them. A clamour called him back, and shortly everybody knew everything we've told up to now, except the parts that were none of their business.
"What I'd very much like to know before we go on," said Frederick, looking hard at Archroy, "is whether there was any truth in your flim-flam about how Borgardiraki couldn't be killed?"
"Not even a little lie to sweeten it for your palate," Clotho smirked. "I'm a fair sort of sibyl after the fifth brandy, and Archie's on first-name terms with half the loafers on the last border. We divined that much between us."
"Divine hardly describes either your spirits or his," murmured Frederick, "but I suppose it's best to look on the safe side. How were you planning on getting round it, Tully - or is it all three of you?"
"Me with my trick ankle and all?" demanded Clotho. "Count me out of the razor bridge, oh Prince Razor-Wits!"
"Me too," agreed the barrow-wight. "The grave is famished for me already. I'm not dancing over a bottomless one."
"It'll take a living courage - " began Beroald, and drew up short. "Oh," he said in a changed voice. "It has. He must have gone in again."
"That's our boy!" said Clotho Crabfoot, and sniggered till she couldn't stand for sneezing.
Tully went quietly in while the others were arguing, and passed by Fortune's flickering light through glittering cave and squirming tunnels until he came to the shelf of white crystal and the bridge that was a razor. There was plainly no clever way across it, and he just as plainly had to pass it. Since he must not break his mother's heart, and could not doubt the Countess's gift, there was only one thing for a man like Tully to do. He walked straight onto it, trusting to his destiny and his luck to see him through to the last fight.
The bridge tilted violently beneath him, tipping him off into the abyss of the last betrayal. But Tully didn't believe in that abyss, so he used his shield to brake himself, and his free hand to grasp the razor's edge.
It was no razor's edge that met his grip, but a surface rough and crunching as giant barnacles. The shield scraped slowly through it, hindering his fall. With all his strength and need he hauled himself back onto the bridge, which now ran straight and true as the flat of a file into the haunted dark. He stood up. The light of Die-Hard flared and guttered on his finger like a dying candle.
"Thank you, Ma'am!" he said undismayed to Flirt Fortune, knowing that a proper man will not pester her for favour after favour. Her light went out, and left him with only the glow of the crystal behind him to light his fading path.
"Leonie-Melisande-Sophie," he said, and could not picture who hid behind that name, "I'm coming!" He drew Lucky Strike, and put his best foot forward.
The thing that crunched under his boot was his mother's heart, when he got his soul eaten by the invincible demon on a vain quest that was all her fault. Sabine Talion's vicious laughter blew on every wind.
It rocked him, but he put his foot down all the way. "She chose," he said, "and I chose, and we choose freely!" And his mother's heart was dust beneath his boots, and he walked on.
Then it was the last of Carmel's joy and kindliness he was crushing, and the black winds wailed with her victims' screams as she damned herself from guilty despair. "She chose," said Tully, "and I chose, and we choose freely!" And his dear friend's heart was dust, and he walked on.
At every step he shattered the heart of somebody, living or dead, whom he had loved or admired or at least been mildly fond of. And at every step he felt everything it was, that he did it. But Tully would not unmake their choices or his own, and by the time he came in sight of the great fanged gate that glowed like rotting bones, the pavement had nothing left but his Tuesday evening skittles team, which barely slowed him down at all. So it was at a good pace that he came to the last great stride of the bridge.
The Princess Leonie-Melisande-Sophie's heart began to splinter beneath his tread, and he heard the choking screams of an innocent young girl who is sold away to a crude clod she couldn't care less about. He recoiled, and swayed, and nearly lost his balance and fell down on the shield side into the ravaging night.
He stamped down hard on her heart to stay his fall, crying so the cavern echoed with it, "She shall choose! I shall choose! We'll not choose that!" And he thought his own heart was bursting within him. But the evil of the cavern was silenced, and the darkness around him crawled no more.
Tully turned about, and raised his sword in salute across the void. "She shall choose!" he cried again. "You shall choose! We shall face him all together!" And Die-Hard let out a sudden shooting-star flare, brilliant and intolerable as the burning steel of Magnesia. Across from the crystal ledge, over an honest span with no more hearts left to break upon it, they came running and cheering to join him: Beroald, Frederick, Archroy, and little lame Clotho behind them all.
With a whoop and a hop at the top of the arch, Clotho threw bouncing spells of silver taffy and golden over either edge, and came up with Glissade in one hand and Croakum in the other. She armed Frederick and Beroald when she reached them, and there they all stood frowning at the last barrier. The gate was shut, with no seam nor hinges upon it, and this riddle set in rusty iron nails upon a band of skulls running across its middle: WHEN IS A DOOR NOT A DOOR?
"When somebody kicks it in," said Archroy presently, and did so. Rotting bones against three hundred pounds of barrow-wight and elder armour are not a contest: it took him four kicks and eight seconds. Tully led them into the demon's chamber at the charge.
She who was once called Lemmy the Lovely never much cared afterwards to talk about what happened to her in the demon's cave; but now and then somebody would come up with a song or a play that so irritated her, she had to set part of it right. As she put it, there were some lies that did more to turn their hearers towards demons than against them.
"He never did all that much to me, the way you mean much," she explained one time. "He didn't have to. What people won't understand is that he didn't think like a human being at all. For instance, they hear how I had nothing to wear but his shadows, and straight away they see me as Salome Shuttleworth in Lament for a Demon Lover, with three bits of grey gauze on and nothing but blushes between them. Well, they like looking at Mrs Shuttleworth, don't they? But Borgardiraki would rather have looked at pregnant sow-toads than at me. When he had a specially succulent soul to chew on, he used to truss me up and stuff me into a bag of blind night, so the sight of me wouldn't spoil his appetite.
"That thing the Jourdelaines arrested Lana Calturny for wearing in The Dawnfall and the Dew, with all those black leather straps and buckles, was more like it. All he cared about was making them pinch and catch so it was embarrassing and uncomfortable, and he kept sliding them around with a wave or a careless word so I'd never get used to it. That was one of his mistakes - if your clothes don't fit, of course you keep fiddling with them, don't you?
"Lana dresses to show off Lana, so she didn't put anything over it. He put shadow mist over my face for a veil, and shadow silk twisted about my neck for a scarf, and shadow sackcloth down to my ankles for a gown. My soul was the only part of me he wanted to know about.
"That was what he did. He talked a lot, in that nasty civil way he had. No - trust me - you don't want to hear. But the worst of it was when his dragon killed one of the men who came to rescue me, and he'd pick their souls to pieces on his hotplate. He wouldn't let me look away, and he'd talk cheerfully about what he was doing to them and what he was going to do next. There aren't any words for how bad it was.
"No, it wasn't my sweet nature. I hated to see it, but who wouldn't? The point was, he let me know right from the start that he was going to do all those things to me, as soon as I ran out of princes who were ready to die for me. In the meantime he fed me on baby birds and twilight wine, and talked about art and calligraphy and how to corrupt souls by the nationload if you have two hundred years to do it in - oh, and what you can do with them afterwards, of course.
"Brave? Not the way my aunt was brave - Borgardiraki knew just what he was doing. He nibbled on my courage only as fast as it could grow again, so he'd always have something to snack on between princes. And he smiled a lot, and vomited poison when he laughed. Do you see why I don't find all these romances very flattering, Master Taffett? Even La Lana couldn't make people want to watch what it was really like. They'd burn down the theatre around her, if she managed it.
"That's right. I don't. Why don't you stroll along to the Two Pikes Inn instead, and ask Hannah Tapp to tell you about Aunt Summer at Market Ryde Cross? You can commend a play about that to me any day, and I understand that Cyndi Shepton was ever so nice to look at!"
Princess Lemmy was tied to an iron chair shaped for something wrong to sit in, with the shadows of Borgardiraki's whim pulling at her dark hair and eyelashes to make her follow his demonstration of how to cut the decency out of a frog's ghost. Suddenly a huge hero like death warmed up was kicking down the door. "Ha!" said the demon. "Banquet time!" He yanked the frog's hope out, threw it at her over his shoulder so that it squelched and dissolved in her face, and reached into the black runed brazier for his damning-fork.
The door crashed down in spores and splinters, and first through it ran a stocky man with a royal shield on his left arm and a star's light on his sword-hand. Borgardiraki threw a gut-scooping kick at him with bare taloned feet: his whims lost hold of Lemmy in that instant. The prince caught the blow on his shield, but it hurled him yards back against the wall.
Lemmy felt gingerly for the tricky touch of shadow with her fingers. She'd studied her captor's shadow-play intently, and practised adjusting his uncomfortable straps and bands beneath her sack-dress with his ever knowing. Now she must escape in earnest, and dare her last throw.
Her other four rescuers ducked under the brimstone coals Borgardiraki showered them with from the brazier, spreading out to attack him in a wide arc. Besides the dead-faced hulk, there was a neat-moustached hero out of every song, and a handsome man in stained silks with a glass sword, and a blue-clad bounding fop with a preposterous codpiece who waved his rapier about like a feather-duster.
This was all good. Lemmy slipped her hands loose of the shadow-bonds without her enemy's ever getting a chance to notice.
The hero came in strongly, slicing like lightning for the demon's thick neck with a strange yellow blade. Borgardiraki parried him with a flick of the damning-fork; made the handsome prince trip over the hulk with a sweep of his free claw and his off foot; rolled under the blast of golden fire that the fop's sword suddenly turned into; came up under the hero's swift riposte, and bodged out his eye with the damning-fork. Lemmy scrabbled frantically at the bindings on her legs.
Borgardiraki tried to soar up above the fight on the hero's howl of agony, and came up only with a nimble leap when he got nothing to soar on. Handsome darted in with clever fence, and disarmed him of his damning-fork; a swipe from Hulk's monstrous sword sent him staggering back and leftwards, away from the wounded man. Lemmy got free. The star-hand prince rushed in while the demon was off-balance, smashing aside a claw-swipe with his shield and getting an outrageously lucky stab in straight to his enemy's heart. It knocked Borgardiraki back several inches.
The demon guffawed out a gout of black acid that sizzled half the shield away into dripping corruption. "Fool!" he boomed. "No man alive may slay me!"
Lemmy stepped up behind Borgardiraki, and with all her might she garotted him with the scarf of shadows. He bent in a violent mock bow that sent her flying break-neck fast over his back. Somebody said a word that was not a word, and her fall changed into that of a feather. "Man homo, not vir!" the demon boomed, very jolly. "Brush up on - oh, would you now?"
An ugly little woman not previously noticed handed Lemmy down to her feet. "I saw what you did first," she said. "Spoke his shadows if he tries them: now stay the hell out of our way!" She shot Borgardiraki with lightning from her fingernails, which bounced off his gorgeous dressing-gown. The fop had vanished. The demon had grabbed Hulk's two-handed sword as it came down, and now used it as a lever to throw the huge man at Hero, who was coming on again half-blind and not caring. Hero dodged; Hulk landed flat out with killing impact, and started staggering up again.
"Nor dead men neither," yawned Borgardiraki, parrying Hero with a sudden handful of sword-long steel claws, and Handsome with another. "Nor steel nor spell, now I think of it. Let me explain what fun we're all going to have, when you all run out of puff and I don't ever." He barked a word that should not have been a word, and what was left of the beasts on Star-Hand's shield suddenly tore apart with a vile grinding of metal and began fighting one another. "No, wait, you're all so slow on the uptake, I'd better show you all on your precious Princess first, before I shite what's left of her into a cankered gehenna. Happy to have something to look forward to, Monkey-Nuts?"
But Star-Hand came bleeding and circling out of the sharp wreck of his shield, crying in a great voice, "All for one! Everybody at once, on our lives!" And with some strange battle-cry about caramel he stabbed the demon in the back, just as all the other sworders struck him anywhere they could, and the sorceress flared a spear of blue fire between his eyes.
Lemmy, not daring to be left out, reached out with the hands of her shadow to twist again the scarf that still dangled around Borgardiraki's massive neck. Greatly to her surprise, it worked.
And so by man and woman, and steel and spell, and the living and the dead all at once, Borgardiraki was stricken with six deadly wounds, and the custardy ichor spurted from him like pus from the world's worst boil.
"This was a rubbishy doom," Borgardiraki wheezed as finishing blows rained down on him, "and I want my sacrifices back!" Then Lemmy's scarf took his voice, and so he laid no dying curse, nor could he soar off into the last night upon his own death-cry. The ichor began to bubble and steam, and his body to bubble and steam shortly afterwards, and naught was left of him but a bad smell and an evil memory.
"Hold still," said Handsome to Hero. "Let's field-dress that eye, before worse comes of it." Lemmy felt her shoulders begin to shake a little, and made it stop, for she thought this was no situation to collapse in.
"By the by," said the little sorceress, leaning forward, "you get to choose between us; and that was sweet slinky spellcraft for a novice, and sorcering's ever so much more fun than queening it. I'm Clotho Crabfoot, and I'd just love to take you home and train you up right!"
Clotho's face was so luminous with such a comically mortal lechery that Lemmy couldn't quite find it in her to be disgusted. "No women for me, I'm afraid, thank you," she said temperately, stepping back just a pace.
"I can always be Prince Otho Otherwise," persisted Clotho, "if that's the way your scabbard swings. You'll be amazed at how skin-changing broadens the mind, when you get to it."
"Especially not when they're men too," said Lemmy firmly. "I'm sorry, Clotho, but that's just icky!"
"Of course it is," retorted the sorceress. "What's the good of a man with no ick in him?"
"I resent that remark," said the dead hulking fellow, in a voice like a tombstone rolling home. "Prince Archroy of Montamort, barrow-wight and gentleman of leisure, at your service!"
"Nor dead men either," said Lemmy, very very carefully not rolling her eyes. "I think you're the best bravest dead man in the world, but I'm... er... not one of those girls at all!"
"I only meant for company," said the barrow-wight, blushing a specially ashy grey. "I'm a bit past that type of thing. Whatever it was! But I heard you liked to spend your time tending tombstones, et cetera. People say a lot of girls your age have a high old time with that, these days. Say you're not interested in ick, I've got a nice cool barrow with beds of pale gold - ancient cursed treasures a mort of 'em - long gloomy scrolls about last hopeless stands - very romantic, if you like that sort of thing. Thought you might. No offence if you don't."
"I'm flattered," said Lemmy, "but that's really not me either. I'm sure you'll find the right person for you soon, though!" The stocky lad who'd saved them all - he looked a bit like some particularly improbable third prince, and rather more like some merchant's clerk who was playing at being one - came over to rescue her or something then.
"I'm Tully," he said, "and may I suggest we all shut up about romance for a bit, and get out of this hell-hole into clean air and light again?"
She smiled and linked his arm. "Thank you, sir," she said. "Call me Lemmy. And I think I'll need to throw fifteen screaming fits when I'm finally out of this, so please don't take it personally for a minute!"
When Lemmy saw the cairn over her damned rescuers' bones, she decided that screaming fits would be disrespectful, and put them on the shelf for the while. But she wept hot tears for the senseless wickedness of the world, and thought how her Aunt Summer would never have allowed all this. Tully nodded like a man who understands, and walked away, and made the others leave her alone until she was ready.
Then they all saddled up, and she rode pillion with the handsome prince called Frederick the Fine - since dashing Beroald the Bold was so wounded, and Tully had one of those horses you buy from a man whose first name is Honest. At last they made a good camp above a gurgling crystal spring, where Lemmy washed and changed into a riding-habit of hers that Frederick had thought to pack, whilst the others were building a lusty campfire that blazed comfort into the night. When she came back she sat aside, thinking dark thoughts and running its flickering shadows through her hands time and again. Only Clotho was cloth-eared enough to try and talk to her; but whenever the sorceress started, Lemmy noticed out the corner of her mind that urbane Frederick would distract her with some clever put-down, and straight away she would switch to putting him down instead.
When she was finally ready to cry herself secretly to sleep, Beroald and Frederick had both remembered extra bed-rolls for the journey home; but it was quiet dead Archroy who stretched himself out between her and the rest of the camp, his great blade naked at his side, with that absolute tacit menace that nobody does better than a barrow-wight. Her sleep was very long, and horridly broken with nightmares. When she truly awoke, it was high noon, and all the others were bandying more words or fewer among themselves.
Princess Lemmy yawned, and stretched, and felt the sunshine sluice away her long nightmare more sweetly than the gentlest of hot springs. They fell silent as she walked over to join them. All of them, except for Archroy, were looking at her with that bold wondering desire that she had so longed for in her young innocence, and that was now dear meat and drink to her after all those months living with Borgardiraki's thin bloodless corruption: gruel with mouse-whiskers and mildew. Even icky-minded Clotho was life after death to her, and might look at her that way as long as she left it there.
"Good afternoon, dear friends!" said she, as regal and untroubled as she could manage. "I've decided. Archroy, you shall haunt our chapel in Sarrisain as long as you wish. Anybody who doesn't like it can lump it, and anybody who wants to leave with you - the priests can lump that too.
"Clotho, you shall teach me sorcery on the way home, if you like. But really, really nothing else at all. I'm not sure about this shadow-play, and I want to make sure I don't do anything bad by accident."
"Certainly," said Clotho readily. "Whenever you do something bad, I'd like it to be on purpose!"
"My dear Clotho," drawled Frederick, "I fear you're judging everyone by your own yardstick again."
"My poor Frederick," Clotho snapped back without missing a beat, "at least I have a yardstick when I want one!"
"Leaving aside the weights and measures," said Lemmy, severely repressing the most unregal giggles, "is there anything you'd like that isn't me, isn't impossible, and that my parents won't regret giving you forever afterwards?"
"Mm," said the little sorceress thoughtfully. "Ah. Yum. Tricky! But the wine cellar would be a start - and Queen Misty II's recipe for angelica cake - and I've heard your great-grandfather's librarian picked up a copy of Don Ybon's De Re Iffibus somewhere. And how about a royal command performance of Miss Fiametta's Fifty Feather Dance?"
"Done, and fairly done!" declared Lemmy with great relief. "And now, well. This is the - the difficult part." She looked at valiant war-scarred Beroald, and her heart began to race; and then at handsome witty Frederick, and her mind began to dance; and last at kind homely Tully, who was plainly the third prince and the greatest hero. Him she did not begin to understand, and therefore very much longed to.
"Gentlemen," she said, "I like you all, and I see you like me too; but a fight and a night in the Wood of Weyre is no way to choose the great love of two lifetimes. It's a long road home, and plenty of time to get to know each other. Shall we see how we all feel about it by the time we come to Sarrisain?"
And that was how the courting of Princess Leonie-Melisande-Sophie began, in the springtime of the year.
The month was turning towards summer before they got home, and by then it was all settled.
Prince Frederick the Fine was the first. He was at once so witty and so thoughtful that when they went walking and talking beyond the campfire's circle, Lemmy had no room in her head for anyone else at all. Also, he was always the one who could come between her and Clotho Crabfoot's strange guises and relentless innuendos without any unpleasantness spilling over: he and the sorceress would often end up volleying insults long past the point where anybody else could understand them, while Lemmy walked and talked with one of her other suitors. This particular night, Tully had captured Clotho's attention with some questions about his magic ring, so that Lemmy and Frederick were free to walk without nuisance.
They spoke of other starlit nights they had known in Waldenburg and Sarrisain, and of how many degrees there are in a lie, and of how Lemmy was like her Aunt Summer and how they each thought she was different. At last they came back to things touched with romance, and Frederick's facile tongue now seemed strangely tangled.
"My clever cavalier," Lemmy teased him gently, "I shall think you cannot love me after all!" She was not sure whether that was hope or fear in her own ears. "When you aren't shunning me for mink-taming by the fireside - la! - I am boring even you into silence..."
"My Princess," he said, all his easy feigning wonderfully gone from his words, and a high-mettled man shown stark behind them, "I have loved you since we first spoke in earnest, and I knew you would always be the world's great adventure and never any man's prize. But I have loved and been loved no little, and believe me when I tell you: you do not love me. If that were all, I might persevere to change it, with hope or without until you chose.
"Well - it isn't all, that's all! Out of all this I've found someone who suits me better, and she says that I suit her, so it's happy ever after and no more boredom for either of us by the looks of it. And if you call her a mink, she wouldn't quarrel with it, so I'm dashed if I should. I've been called the same in my time, and likely with more justice."
"You and Clotho?" Lemmy said stupidly. "Oh. I thought - Frederick, doesn't it bother you at all that she's sometimes a man? I don't think I'll ever be quite as sophisticated as that!"
"Bother?" said Frederick, with a crooked smile and a gleam in his eye she couldn't then fathom. "No, bother isn't quite the word I should use... Anyway, we thought we'd turn aside at the Cheating Elms, and ride off to start the scandal ringing back in the old home town. Clotho says you've learned all you really need to from her by now - reckons anyone who'd start trouble with all four of you at once, mightn't even notice what she and I could throw into the scale besides. We'll ride the rest of the way with you if you'd rather, though."
"No," said Lemmy, throwing her arms about his shoulders and kissing him on the cheek. "A girl has to grow up some time. Frederick, I hope you'll both be so happy!"
"Only one thing could make us happier," cackled Clotho, stepping out of some trees and swatting her bottom familiarly. "And since - awk!" Lemmy, with a movement that was getting rather practiced, had tweaked the sorceress's nose hard between the shadows of two branches. She gave the little pest a brisker more careful hug and kiss, and stepped back lightly, warning,
"Hands in your pockets, dear Clotho, or I may forget to send along that angelica recipe!"
"Now, that's dirty," the older woman sulked. "Freddy, come aside and make this up to me toot-sweet. Miss Snip's put my nose out of joint again!"
Tully was the second - Lemmy could never think of him as Prince Tully, since he carried on so like one of her parents' friendlier clerks, and he didn't seem to care a button whether he was a prince or not. Like everything to do with Tully, it was a great deal less than clear what it meant, even after it had happened.
Lemmy talked with Tully more than she did with Frederick. She became good friends with him quicker than with any of the others, for he was a comfortable man; and if he wasn't half so witty or learned as Frederick or Clotho or even she herself, she soon began to suspect that beneath his everyday manner he was both kinder and wiser. Clearly smitten with her, he courted her as doggedly and patiently as he'd led her impossible rescue, until several times she would have shouted at him to shut up and kiss her, if only she'd been quite sure she wanted it. There was, she felt, some spark missing between them, and she began to guess that its name might be hope. But close though they grew, she could never come close enough to guess what he could possibly have to despair about.
"He trusted his life and soul to sheer luck on a fool's hope to rescue me," she argued once to Archroy, on one of those rare days when she needed somebody who was out of the game to rave at. "If he's got the pluck for that, he ought to have plenty and to spare for everything else!"
"There's something a bit dead in him," the barrow-wight agreed approvingly. "The world wouldn't have gone so far down since my day, if more young whippersnappers could say the same. Stability - you can't beat it, in the long run!"
Lemmy was eighteen then, and still as romantic as last year, and guessed that maybe when she was eight hundred she might feel as her friend the sleepless corpse did. She had no mind to be eight hundred, ever. She had a much better mind to find out what bit of Tully was dead, and whether it was something the love of a great woman could kindle to blazing life again.
The night after Frederick and Clotho left, she found out, or found what there was to find.
Tully seemed sleep-draggled up to the farewells, but after them he fell into such a savage black study as she'd never guessed he had in him. There was no talking to him all day, and when they made camp he sat huddled on the outskirts, like a cat that has taken a deathly sickness and will rise or die alone.
A clammy fear came over Lemmy, and it came to her for the first time in her short life that perhaps a true courting ought not always to run one way. She glided over and knelt down beside Tully. His pleasant plain face was set in hard bleak lines, and he glared off towards the fire as if he saw no light in it. His ring of fortune was black as caked bile. "Tully," she said softly. "Tully, come walk with me?"
He shook his head. "I'm no company tonight, Princess. Give me today and tomorrow, and I'll be a man again."
"Tully," she whispered, "tonight you needn't be my company: I'll be yours. Oh, my friend, what cruelty did Clotho speak you?"
"The truth," he rasped. "It's nothing you'd know or care about. Peace, then!"
"If it does this to you," she said, her heart racing, "it's everything. Must I plead with you, Tully?"
"No," he said mildly, and his face was homely and pleasant again, and quite lifeless when she nudged the deeper shadows away from it. "Let's walk, then. You'll see how silly it is, when I tell you."
They went far from the circle of the fire, and beneath the waning moon she said steadily, "I think you are a man of men here and now, and that she spoke some stone to break any man's back with. Two backs are stronger than one. What was it?"
"This," said Tully wryly, and raised his lightless ring to her. "Clotho says it's no luckstone at all, only a gimcrack that shines and dims with your spirit. Fortune was what I counted on all my way to you, you know. Gods know, I didn't have anything else special."
She must have looked bewildered, for he smiled such a smile as she never hoped to see again. "I did think there was someone back there who wasn't trying to kill me for old glory's sake," he said. "Well, it was all a waste of a life, and I promise you a better one from tomorrow."
A fatal instinct warned her that the man who lived that life would be named among the great before he died, and that she mightn't want to live in a world with him in it. "Tully!" she said. "Who was she?"
He began to deny her, but she brushed his cheek with a wisp of moonshadow, and then in a voice bleached clearer and paler than moonshine he began to tell her what was the League of the White Lily, and how he had really left Austerghast, and of the ring and the faith he had had from the Countess Carmel Caramelli.
And when he spoke of his friend the foul shrivelled rusk-leech, she thought: That is what is missing from your eyes and your voice when you think you're courting me, and if it was for me, I think you could hold me in the palm of your hand! Oh, Tully, loving a Countess Anybody Caramelli was never anything but hurt and death and ruin; and you don't even see that you're doing it! Lemmy the Lovely had never imagined such a slight could happen to her.
In that moment Tully seemed to her the most romantic man in the world. But the pain she read in him was too bone-deep for her to behave like a stupid girl on a balcony. She cupped his face in her hands, and hushed him with a tap of shadow on his lips, and said earnestly, "Tully, I can see your friend when you speak of her like that, and that's because you know her. She didn't lie to you - Clotho thinks the worst of everybody. How old is your countess, Tully? How old is this 'heirloom of her house'? How could she possibly know what some gypsy fobbed off on her ancestors for a luck-piece?"
He took a breath to answer, and then his brow cleared and he said faintly, "Well, how could she, after all? It's all she can do to pay her rent, less say run everything she has past a jobbing sorcerer! Lemmy, I'm a thumping idiot, and... you're not. Thank you!" He did kiss her then, and for a giddy moment Princess Lemmy had a thoroughly breathtaking idea of what it would be to be married to this homely clerkly man if he ever did catch fire for her.
Then he smiled again, and this was the old Tully, and he still belonged to his memories and not to her yet. But Lemmy was content, for the man who walked her back to the campfire was her friend again, and would never be that hollow day-walker whom the Countess had betrayed with a jewel, and whose shadow had scared her at all the world's remove.
By the time they neared the Sarrisain border, she knew she would never find the ends of him nor weary of his company, and that he would be such a king and a husband to her as few princesses ever got by marrying for rescue.
One more speech, and the hardest, before that.
Prince Beroald the Bold was the last.
Lemmy spent more time with him than either of the others. His courting was brisk and neat and gallant, especially to begin with; and when they were alone, there was an edge to it that made her feel always in his danger, but never of anything that she would not want. At first he thrilled her with many tales of his adventures and battles, and the glorious last stands of old: his single eye would shine when he told these, and his straight back stiffen to attention. But later when he had told his best, they found they had not so many interests in common, and he would often twinkle at her and make a crisp jest and then shut up after discovering another thing that bored her. Lemmy hated being bored, yet his increasing silences were no bore to her, for it is something to know somebody whom you can walk with whenever you like, for no reason and with no need for jabbering.
He had been everywhere except the famous places, and done everything but only this one great thing, and his greying middle age and Borgardiraki's damning-fork marked out the end of his adventuring days. She couldn't get him to talk about his feelings except by trite conventions, or hers except in rusty proverbs. So since he was deeds not words, and all his deeds were fading, she kept him company without words, and came to know him as best she might.
She thought that he loved her well behind the silence, and moreover was truly in love with her as Tully wasn't yet. She thought she would be seven ways mad to marry him, and needed no shadow-craft to see all the sorrows that might come of it. When the Sarrisain border was a bare day away, she could put it off no longer, and took the last quiet walk with him that they would be allowed.
"Tomorrow," she said, when they were far from the camp, "I must choose, and so I must tell you today."
"Princess," he said dryly, fixing her with his bright, bright eye, "I've noticed. Good man, young Tully. Not your regular run of anything - don't quite get him, all the time - but all I get is sound, clear through. Learned from his silly ass father's mistakes, which exiles don't generally. Just enough older than you, too. Bit shy - make no mistake, though, he thinks you hang the moon. You'll do well enough."
"I didn't say that, Berry!" she complained exasperatedly.
"An archer knows which way the wind blows," he returned wisely. "Besides, I've decided: I won't stand rival to him. It'd be no service to you, if you'd blow around to me and I'd let you. I'm twenty years nearer death than you, and half-blind, and all depth-blind so I'll never shine in glory again. And old glories are all I know worth talking about. You cut along, Princess, and don't look back. Send your sons along to me for training, if you want to make me happy when I'm old!"
"Berry," she said, and on him she would use no shadows but took his broad callused hands in hers. "You're right on every point, and of course I mind them all very much. Would you mind rounding them off by telling me you don't love me?"
"Not that," he said. "Not that, for the world."
Then the ploughshare found her heart, and between laughter and bitter tears she cried, "Then against them all: I have found thee, and I love thee, and I will not let thee go!" And they fell in each other's arms hungry as wolves upon a winter fold.
But when pressed against his breastbone she could tell he was gathering his strength for some foolish nobility or other, she added fiercely, "For in this too I must favour my Aunt Summer; and the joy she found I choose too, and the wild winter after. - Don't unmake my choice, Berry. I haven't the strength to make it again, and the rest is only shadows after all!"
They came back much later to tell Tully and Archroy. Tully seemed sobered by the news but not very much surprised. After he had embraced them and given them best wishes for their betrothal, she thought he stood both sadder and straighter, as if some precious burden were lifted from his shoulders.
Never was such a rejoicing in Sarrisain as when those four companions came home. The tale of Six against the Demon was sung from palace to parlour to drunken dive, and Beroald's part in it waxed greater than Tully's however many times the old soldier protested that was all nonsense. Prince Archroy the barrow-wight settled down for a nice long laze on a bed of flowers and thrupences in the royal chapel, and the priests had to lump it. The formal betrothal took place three days after the company returned. A great surprise turned up in it.
The exchange of rings and promises was the happy couple's first appearance before a crowd, and then it was only the court in the great hall at the palace. The first thing the priest did was ask them their names, because that was the ritual, and somehow somebody might not know. Beroald the Bold said that he was Prince Beroald of Scandermarche. But Lemmy the Lovely turned to her people for the last time, and said,
"Three names my godmother gave me, and warned me I must come to choose between them. And I was Leonie, but I can't be as brave as my father; and I was Melisande, but I can't be as sweet as my mother; and I am Sophie, because I take Aunt Summer's road and must be as wise as I can. My name is Sophie Shadowdance, and this man alone I will have until the last dark, for he is become my sun behind all shadows!"
The young sorceress raised her hands high, and every shadow danced along the wall away from its caster. Laughing she threw her arms around Beroald, and every shadow found somebody's shadow to dance with to some music here unheard. And the priest was upstaged again, and blessed them in everything's name out of clenched teeth. Afterwards there was canary wine and honey-cakes, and his shadow took a dance with pretty Miss Fiametta's, and he blessed them more honestly in his heart before he went home.
Tully stayed for the wedding, and was much fêted, and had many offers of honours and goods and pleasures he never knew before: some of them he had to look up in the King's dictionary. All he would take was an introduction to the new college of wizards, and some jewels that had been wasted in a strong-room, and a knighthood from the hands of Queen Florimel. The Royal Wedding itself was enormously magnificent and correct and stuffy, and everybody did exactly what they were supposed to, whilst waiting for it all to be over and for better things to follow. Tully was best man. The wedding being over and the whole city ready to feast, King Lionel got up at the head of the highest table to make the bride's father's speech.
One of the things Lionel's people had always loved in him was his speeches, for they were plain and short. That day he set the record. "Friends!" said he. "Florry and I have earned some time for ourselves, and young Beroald's the man to give it to us." In truth Beroald was not so many years younger than Lionel. "Splitting our land down the middle and knitting it back together later is a fool's game and a waste of work. We're handing over. Kneel, son; kneel, Sophie love!" The bride and groom did so, and Florimel and Lionel took off their crowns and set them on the heads of Sophie and Beroald. Then they took them up by their hands, and knelt before them in turn, crying aloud, "All hail King Beroald the Bold and Queen Sophie Shadowdance of Sarrisain!"
"Beroald the Bold and Sophie Shadowdance!" the court cried in many voices. "King Beroald and Queen Sophie! Demonsbane! Long life and great glory to them forever!" And the cries spread throughout the city. Once the heralds had been around and assured everybody there was no parricide at the party, the rejoicing was high and long, and every fountain flowed all night with wine, or at least with people who were full of it.
There was a proper stuffy coronation much later, to keep all the oaths and paperwork in order, but none of the songs could care less.
During the long hangover that was the honeymoon unless your name was Beroald or Sophie, Tully and Prince Archroy said their goodbyes and slipped quietly out of the city on foot. Neither had found any of the things they were looking for. Together they walked the long road to Austerghast, where Tully said he knew a lady any dead man should count himself lucky to meet. Archroy was openly pining now for the cold comforts of his barrow, and spent a lot of the journey singing about curséd gold and dooms of old; but, as he said, the bachelor life is a young man's game, and a body wants to settle down with company at last.
They came back to Hollyhock Street one languid midsummer's evening, which Tully had specially timed to be one of the tea-party Tuesdays. Archroy pounded on the door like a young battering ram, and the rhythm was Tully's old sign of Sally pull the sash-cord up. Before it was fairly done the door was flying open, and there shaking and blinking stood his oldest damnedest friend in her patched faded dress. "The Countess Carmel Caramelli," said Tully, " - the Prince Archroy of Montamort. Archroy, Carmel. Come on, Carmie. We're cleaning house this evening!" And he strode upstairs past her like the king of his own hall, and burst into his mother's drawing room with her still panting and Archroy plodding on the flights behind him.
"Hello, Mother!" he said. "I'm home!"
The other three ladies went all of a twitter, but his mother only turned upon him her cold resenting eyes. "I see no king," she said, "and no thousand swords, and you have lost the shield that should have marked your tomb. Why did you not slay the upstarts, and take her? Begone, and redeem your name before you come again!"
"And where is my Helm?" demanded Princess Alice Nares. "And what pie-dog ran away with my Spear in it?" sneered Princess Sabine Talion. "And what, oh goodness, what kind of woman did you tie my Zone on instead?" shrieked Princess Fatima Cloudscrape.
"How dare you, any of you?" cried Carmel, running headlong into the room wheezing like a punctured accordion. "Leave him alone, you stupid, vicious old women!"
"Common thing," said Tully's mother in an awful voice, "leave my house forever!"
"Carmie," said Tully, not turning, "stay yet a while!" His voice was now the royaller, and even his mother was silenced for two breaths.
"The shield was drowned in demon's venom saving Queen Sophie Shadowdance," he said distinctly, "and that was the best deed it ever did. The other treasures I used, as my road to her bade me use them. For these boons I thank you all, and make you the best return I know how." A clanking ponderous tread was advancing through the front room. "Ladies and great princesses of your houses, permit me to introduce Prince Archroy of Montamort, a barrow-wight of seven centuries' standing and an older lineage even than ours. He comes looking for a companion of good breeding and impeccable reputation to haunt his barrow with him. I know Mother's devoted to Father's memory, but I thought of the rest of you at once!"
The League of the White Lily cowered back in their chairs as Prince Archroy entered the room, respectfully doffing his helmet. He smiled the same smile that Death does.
"It's a nice little doom, if I do say so," he said modestly, "and with care, it'll last an eternity. But this can only be the famous Princess Sab-"
All his mother's guests except Carmel broke and ran screeching around him for the door as Archroy took another step forward, nor durst any of them cross that threshold ever again. Sabine Talion left in such a hurry that she bounced twice on her way downstairs, and broke her spiteful umbrella in three places.
"Well," said Tully's mother without moving, "a princess of the Gotharings has yet to learn terror from the truant of any outland grave-mound!"
"Yes," said Prince Archroy admiringly. "I see you're one of the old school, Dread Princess. These modern vapourish misses aren't what their foremothers were, and that's sad truth. But I see by your frown that the lying songs out of Sarrisain haven't done your son's deeds their justice. By your leave, I'll tell you how he hewed to the heart of the doom when the rest of us fought blind, and how fear-banning Beroald set Tully's name before his own." Tully's mother sat forward in her seat now, and her face was drawn with name-greed. "Hwaet! I tell of Tully, Gotharing and ringthane. Swiftly strode the Star-Hand through the Wood of Weyre - "
The barrow-wight's hollow cadences filled the high room, and chilled it to the spirit. Tully took Carmel's arm and whispered, "Eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves. Let's get out!"
They made it as far as the downstairs foyer before they fell over each other giggling. "He can keep that up for hours," said Tully, when they could draw breath again. "And will. By the time he's done, Mother will be so set about with fame and royalty, she'll forgive the thousand insults. I've got a letter from Lemmy - I mean Queen Sophie - inviting her to tea some day, just to nail it home. I'm rich enough to buy this place and do it up, and set us all up for life afterwards. You'll stay with us, won't you, Carmie? It's all owed to you anyway!"
She wiped the yellow rheum from her scaling eyelids, and peered at him in a way that made him uneasy. "That was funny," she said, "but you don't need him to stand up to your mother any more, and he didn't come out of his way to scare nasty old gossips down the stairs. What are you really up to, Tully?"
"He's a good man," he said awkwardly. "Sort of good. A good friend, anyhow. I thought - well. I thought you might like to meet him."
She bared her misshapen teeth, and boxed his ears so hard that his head rang with it.
"You imbecile!" she stormed. "A barrow-wight? Because I'm nineteen parts dead, did you think I wanted to make it twenty too? I'd rather stuff my face with garlic and wash my hair in the temple font! Didn't your Sophie the So-Wise teach you anything?"
She turned on her heel to go, but she had spent so much of her small strength already, it was little more than a shamble. He turned her about again, and met her red ravening gaze, and kissed her crinkled brow.
"This," he said sadly, "that you were always my best friend, and that every story is worse without you in it. Don't leave me now, Carmie!"
A rust she could ill afford flowed in her tears, and she wailed, "Don't, Tully, don't! Don't you know why I can't stay?"
And then the ploughshare found his heart at last, and he saw for both of them.
"Yes," he said, "and I asked all the wizards. I knew then there was no wizardry against the bone-rusks, and I know now I don't care. Come what will come, but never anything come between us from today. Drink deep, Carmie; drink as deep as ever you like!"
But she pushed herself away from him, and shrank against the far wall, crying, "Never think I'll drink of you again!"
"Then never do," he said equably, "so long as you won't leave me. And if it gets hard to bear sometimes, they say two backs are stronger than one."
She stood glaring at him, clawing her hands and balling them, and neither of them would yield until at last she sank her shoulders in weariness, saying, "On one condition, if you must be madder than all the Lily ladies put together!"
"Name it," said he.
"Take me to the theatre until the sagas die down upstairs," said the Countess Carmel Caramelli. "All my languishing little snob-nosed charges will be there with their mummies, watching bad actors do bad impressions of bad rumours of you and all your quest-mates. If we can bear so much of each other's burdens for three hours, I'll call that a good beginning."
"If I can dress you in precious opal, and the dove-throat silks, and a good goat's-wool shawl from the House of Nonesuch," he answered. "All of which I happen to have packed in my chest at the inn by accident. If we can pull every nose that ever turned up at you out of joint with envy!"
"That, too," she agreed, linking his arm again with an evil smile and letting him lead her out into the summer evening. All of these things they did, and the ring Die-Hard blazed their way home through the night brighter than any mortal fire.
The four of them had not lived very long together on Hollyhock Street (and it was proving no easy living for Tully and Carmel, but they would abide their choice as long as they could) when Archroy came very stiff and formal to Tully to ask for his mother's hand in curse-lock.
"And, son," she added unasked, stiffer and more formal than any mere dead prince could manage, "you owe me the obedience to grant it, since it is my will to remove with Dread Archroy to his royal barrow where the good old ways are still cherished, and uphold the memory of Old Gotharingia forever!"
"She is to have a side-chamber for your father's relics, and I will sleep one decade in the seven so as not to distract her from them," said Archroy solemnly. "There is no question of any disrespect!"
"If that's what you both want," agreed Tully rather faintly, "then of course you must go with my bl- my best wishes!"
So it was settled, and the packing begun at once. All of it was Tully's mother's things, of course; and since it was wicked for anybody but a noblewoman to pack them, and since Tully's mother was a monster to pack for, Carmel had a specially hard time of it for the next three days. When all was nearly done, and the rooms grown so empty and unwanted that it gnawed the heart to sit in them, Archroy took Tully aside for a last lich-to-man talk.
"She'll really be much happier away from all this noise and new-fangled manners," he promised for the fifteenth time. "But about you and the little Countess, my boy: when are you going to grind yourself some bone-rusks, and make an honest leech of her? I've seen the way she looks at you, if your mother hasn't. You wouldn't want to die of your mortality some careless century and leave her howling her spirit out on the winds, now would you?"
"She's what you'd call modern," Tully apologized. "I don't mean to shock you, Archroy, but we're still holding out for a way to break the curse on her someday. She doesn't like what she is, and that's no road for me either. Some people are just cut out for mortality, in the end."
"And I'm one of them," said Carmel, bustling into the room with two hats worse than decay and death. "Has anybody seen that stupid hexagonal hatbox, or did she leave it back in Gotharingia after all?"
"No idea here," said Tully. "Tell her Fatima sat on it."
"No - wait a moment," the barrow-wight protested. "I thought you were getting betrothed after - well." He looked meaningfully at the horrible hats. "You talk as if you'd both rather die!"
"That, too," said Carmel tightly. "The point would be the living, first!"
"That never made sense to me, even at the time," observed Archroy. "Well, then, I see your problem. The counter to bone-rusk isn't - well. I can see why you're waiting for the sorcerers to come up with something decent!"
"What?" said Carmel. "What?" said Tully.
"You know," said the dead man, lowering his voice until it was the frigid draught through the tomb-door. "That counter!"
"No," said Tully, dreadfully quiet. "I don't know. Nobody's ever heard of one."
"Breathers these days!" complained Archroy. "Eight hundred years ago, I don't mind telling you, everybody knew that sort of thing. We just didn't feel we had to spend all day talking about it!"
"Perhaps," said Carmel dangerously, "that's why nobody knows it any more. What is it?"
Archroy's lantern cheeks blushed greyer than Tully had ever seen them. "It's the counter," he said wretchedly. "I should hardly need to explain. You, ah, one simply drinks - something that isn't blood - from - somebody who isn't a virgin any more. Ah. Add true love and there you, ah- "
"Excuse me, Archroy," said Carmel, dropping the hats on the floor. "I have to see a man about a maiden!"
"Vice versa," added Tully. He scooped her up in his arms and carried her out of the room. The last of them that Archroy heard were the words, "Drink deep, Carmie; drink deep - !" and the closing snick of an upstairs door.
"Young folk these days!" murmured the old barrow-wight in happy scandal, and went about looking for a hexagonal hatbox.
Even in these sweet years after her rescue and her marriage, the Sorceress-Queen of Sarrisain was still partial to disused chambers and yesterday's battlements and lonely balconies. She seldom found much time to visit them, and she was never lonely when she did, for her magic shadow-lanterns hung in all of them to bring her all the company that fitted her mood.
This one lovely lazy evening in the latter summer, she had slipped away for a stolen hour in the old turret-room with all the junk now cleared out of it. Her face was fairer than callow Lemmy's had ever been, for it had grown wiser and more beloved; but her girlhood slimness was a thing of memory, and the curve of her belly beneath her dress of dream-weave and sun-dust was the curve of the waxing moon. Shadows danced all about to delight her, but there was a round one and a slender one that did not move with the rest, and to these Queen Sophie was speaking.
"Aumery if a boy," she said musingly, "and Claribel, I think, if a girl. Or possibly Harriet, or Nyneve. What do you think? - Oh. Do you think so? Nobody ever called Nina of the Nineteen that, surely? Can you imagine? - Well, on second thoughts, best be safe after all. Niamh is nice, but nobody in ten here knows how to spell it, and N-E-V-E's just illiterate. - Yes. Yes, plenty of time yet.
"It's the godmother thing I'm wondering about. You're unavailable, and Clotho's unreliable. She'd probably give Baby a virtue to seduce cakes, or pick her nose with her toes, or something. Miniver? Would she really? Could you? - Oh, thanks, my dear. Let me know what comes of - "
An untimely commotion began below in the courtyard: a lesser gate's opening, a scrambling of servants for action. Sophie ran to the window and peered out.
"They're here!" she squealed gleefully. "Oh, come, come and see! I've wanted you to meet them for ages!"
The broad shadow and the slim one squeezed up close to her in the little turret window. A rich carriage of a light varnished wood was drawn up in the courtyard: it bore an escutcheon divided between a golden honeycomb in the night, and a red heart in the day.
"Their motto is, THE BLOOD SERVES THE HEART," Sophie explained. "One of these days, he's going to tell me what the rest of the joke is. Well, now he's taking my shilling in my chancery, I've got him just where I want him. - No, he doesn't look like a clerk in his rich master's clothes, either! Don't be such an old snark!
"Oh. Oh, that's her. It must be. I never imagined her tanned like that, all warmth and sunlight. Motherhood agrees with her, doesn't it? Oh dear, stupid body, stupid humours. I'm going to cry now. Oh. Oh. Oh. - Yes. Body, stop it. They've called him Orland. I don't know where they came up with it, either.
"Dear hearts, I'll have to love and leave you now. Berry will never forgive me if I leave him to do all the meeting and greeting. Carmel isn't really the sort of person he knows how to talk to without help." She leaned further out the window, and waved to her guests wildly with a giant hand of shadow across the sunlight. Four cheery hands, and what might possibly be one tiny one, waved back at her from the diminished courtyard below.
The broad shadow bowed out quietly into the dance, but the slender one lingered a moment, brushing lightly and tangibly through the young queen's night-black hair. Silver ice-crystals ran along its track as brief sparkling jewels.
"Goodbye, Winter!" said Queen Sophie Shadowdance, and kissed the empty air, and went heart-full downstairs to meet the living.
Copyright © 2010 by Gray Woodland.