— 10 —
HIS HORSE TACKED WITH A POLISHED SADDLE FROM Camelot’s own stables, and himself smartly outfitted with all the accoutrements necessary for a proper quest, Gore set out for the Castle Dolorous. He heard the cheering vaguely, but his memories superimposed the laughter the villagers had heaped on him not so long before, when he lost control of his horse on the way to the Black Tor.
The skies darkened as he rode. The chilly air smelled sweet with coming rain.
He considered what sorts of perils the trip itself might have for him. He tried reaching back into his shallow reservoir of Medieval literature but came up with nothing aside from a green giant who could survive having his head chopped off by one of King Arthur’s knights.
Jack o’ Japes’ songs were a small guide. Thus far Gore had mostly heard English and French tunes. The English preferred stories about combat and feats of physical strength. The French leaned to love and romantic challenges.
Gore preferred the latter kind. He would get enough combat with Duke Marrok.
But while most people associated the Middle Ages and England hand in hand, there was far more to Europe than that little island and France. The Scandinavians were still afoot (or aship), the Germans were learning to be ruthlessly efficient, Italy was a set of squabbling kingdoms, Spain was balanced on a teetering edge of fighting and uneasy truces between Europeans in the north and Moors in the south, and so on. There was also Eastern Europe, home of Good King Wenceslas, and Russia…
Gore shook his head. Speculating about what Scadia might throw at him was a narrow muddy path to madness. Better to ponder what he knew awaited him.
What if the Wicked Duke refused his challenge? There was no face for him to save if he bore no honor to begin with. But one way or another Gore refused to turn around empty-handed.
He considered a number of insults that might rile the Wicked Duke enough to draw him out.
And if the Duke did meet Gore’s challenge? Marrok had one cheek on the throne by the time the silent Knight of the Red Gauntlet intervened. Gore had his own native strength combined with an almost berserker fury. But Duke Marrok had been combat trained for years, while Gore’s entry into this world was barely a week old.
Gore decided he would cross that drawbridge when he came to it.
It was only after he brought himself out of his hours’ worth of ruminations that he realized there was a distant figure behind him. It slowed when Gore slowed and sped up when Gore did. Wishing he had a rearview mirror, Gore discreetly leaned over his horse’s flanks ostensibly to check his stirrups, and had no trouble recognizing the man.
Jack o’ Japes was following him.
Gore’s hands tightened on the reins until his knuckles were white, but he forced himself not to stop to challenge the itinerant bard. If Jack really was a Federal agent, he was already in position enough to make trouble as it was.
At the next convenient bend Gore took his horse into the tangled forest—the edge of the Perilous Woods, he realized. The horse groused and nickered, then whinnied a bit as the shadows began closing in, but stayed put. Jack rode on by.
Gore waited. He wanted to give Jack a good lead. But despite the fact that it was morning the sky was darkening until the shadowed outlines of the trees melted together. The chill breeze turned into a stiff and wet near-gale howling like banshees from the forest directly behind him. The wind lashed at the branches which then took out their anger on Gore. He—and his horse—both felt they’d better exit the woods soon or the trees would whip them to death.
Getting out was easier said than done. Aside from the lack of light, the woods seemed thicker than ere, full of thorns to catch at Gore’s trousers and scratch his increasingly discontent horse. When they finally did break out into the road again it looked—different.
He couldn’t tell how, exactly. Hadn’t it bent right instead of left? Wasn’t it a little wider? This path seemed barely wide enough for a cart. But he was sure he’d exited the Perilous Woods the same way he entered. It must’ve just been a trick of the light.
His stomach unwound a knot he didn’t know it had when he at last saw a sign writ with CASTLE DOLOROUS.
But the sign was rocking back and forth in the wind. For a wild moment Gore wondered if maybe it was now pointing the wrong way… but there was only one road. Remembering the taverns he’d seen on the road to Camelot, Gore reasoned he would learn soon enough whether or not he journeyed the proper way.
The sky was nearly black now with storm clouds and the road narrowed further. Now the wind seemed to be shooting straight down the road from ahead of Gore as if channeled between the trees. After an hour’s passage the road was so thin a desk could block it—and indeed, one did.
Granted, it was an extraordinarily large desk. Its wings extended into the woods. It was nearly as tall as Gore himself, and Gore was tall even for his own era, to say nothing of the Middle Ages.
He tried to ride around it and a peculiarly high voice called, “Ho there! You cannot pass, squire!”
This was no Black Knight guarding a bridge; no troll, no ogre, no dragon, no Perilous Woods banshee. The man wielded a stylus rather than a sword.
“You cannot pass!” the man, tall and lanky and wearing a toga, shouted again. “Not until you have filled out the paperwork and received approval from official channels!”
At least Gore thought it was a toga. It was pinned at the left shoulder and stretched down to his calves. But instead of being white it was a bright red with gold trim. On the front was a golden double-headed eagle, each head looking away from the other, with a stylus in its right talon and a scroll in its left. The man wore gold chains about his neck and soft leather boots encrusted with jewels.
Beside him was what Gore would have thought the fanciest mansion in all Scadia were it bigger than a tollbooth. Columns flanked the tiny arched doorway. Red slates created the roof. Inside Gore could see multi-colored, heavy on the gold, paintings and tile mosaics of stylized religious icons boasting halo-crowned heads.
Mirroring the eagle, the man clutched a stylus in one hand with a thick sheaf of papers in the other. He pounded the sheaf with his fist. “My name is Agathias Diatribos, Official Registrar of this district. You cannot just ride through here, you know! You must secure the proper legal permissions first. You may begin the process with me.”
“I’m on my way to the Castle Dolorous,” Gore told him, “and ’twas my understanding that Scadia offered freedom of travel anywhere one pleased.”
The man—a bureaucrat, Gore realized, if an expensively dressed one— wrinkled his nose and then scowled down it at Gore. “Aye, I know what King Marhaus has declared. But he has no jurisdiction. This is the domain of the Basileus. He wields sovereignty both secular and spiritual over all these lands.”
“The Basil who?”
“The emperor, knave! God’s Representative on Earth, Born to the Purple, Ruler of the World and Time, Master of the Bosphorus… !”
Gore sneered. “Aren’t you a little late? The Roman Empire is long dust and broken statues.”
“A common error made by unlettered fools. It is true the Western Empire fell, but ’twas only a husk. The holy Emperor Constantine had moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople well ere the Germans conquered Italy.”
Light dawned from one of Gore’s crash history lessons. The eastern half of the Roman Empire, headquartered in Constantinople and controlling regions long held by Rome, including Greece and Egypt, survived Rome’s fall by nearly a thousand years. It stuck in his memory because it was such an odd juxtaposition: an honest-to-goodness Roman Empire bumping against the kingdoms of Medieval Europe.
“The Byzantine Empire,” Gore remembered.
Agathias scrunched his nose so hard it shrunk back into his face. “A name thrust upon us by barbarians. We are the true Roman Empire. And you are… ?” He held up the stylus and paper again.
Gore dutifully gave his name, announced himself in the service of Sir Bobaunce of High Tower, and declared his quest to free one Lady Melisounde from the clutches of the Wicked Duke.
The bureaucrat shook his head and fretted, “No, that will not do at all. Quite a frivolous exercise. We shall find you a much nobler quest if you are determined to so waste your time… Ah yes! Here is one most excellent: the search for Prester John, the so-called king of a faraway desert. Three years ago he sent a terribly impertinent letter to the Basileus declaring that this land had long since forgotten its true purpose, and must revert back to its original foundations or else be…”
“Let me pass,” Gore snapped.
“Very well. Dismount and fill these papers out—can you sign your name?” He sat behind the desk and had to extend his arms upward to write. “These papers give notice of your intention to use this road. The next set here declares your intentions to travel through the realm of the Basileus. These will declare how long you intend to stay and to state your business—when you pass this way again you’ll fill out a duplicate set explaining how long you actually remained and accounting for any discrepancies if you remained longer than your original declaration.”
Gore’s patience was already nearly at an end. “Then may I pass?”
“Then I post the papers to Nikos for approval—he handles the district’s commercial affairs. Then pending his approval he will forward them to the Exarch, and if he approves them he will send them up to the Magister Officiorum…”
All at once Gore realized why anything twisted, labyrinthine, and impossibly bureaucratic was called Byzantine. Without a thought he unsheathed his sword and swung it at the little desk clerk.
The man blocked it with his stylus.
“Tsk tsk,” he said. “Violence against an Imperial official will advance you nowhere but prison. These things must be done properly or they shall not be done at all.”
Gore tried riding past the desk but Agathias blocked his way. For a bureaucrat he was quick, leaping hither and fro wherever Gore aimed his horse.
Gore contemplated the cathartic notion of using his blade to slice the paperwork like Alexander chopping the Gordian knot. But aside from his previous failure, another on-the-lam memory bubbled to the surface.
“The Basileus is not my sovereign,” Gore told him. “Not since the fall of Constantinople to the kingdoms of Europe.”
The bureaucrat started blubbering but Gore cut him off. “Zounds, haven’t you heard? The Crusaders were on their way to the Holy Land but decided to have a little fun in Constantinople, and sacked the city in the meantime. They replaced the emperor with one of their own. Now stand aside!”
The man stumbled to his desk and sorted frantically through his papers, at which point Gore galloped forward and didn’t stop to turn around till he was a good fifty yards away.
“Give my regards to Istanbul!” he shouted, twirling his hand.
“You’ll pay for this!” the bureaucrat shouted back. “No one uses this road without paying the toll! The Evil Eye upon you, then!”
All in all, Gore had found fighting the dragon less taxing.
Within the next hour the sky opened up with its best attempt to deluge the world in a second Flood.
The woods on either side closed in so tightly Gore felt as if they were trying to convince him he rode into his own tomb. The sky blackened and shadows followed him every time he looked behind. He almost wished Jack o’ Japes were with him, though there would barely be enough room now to ride side by side.
At one point Gore saw tantalizing lights and the broken outline of a crumbling castle. But the tease of dry shelter vanished as he approached.
He slogged on through the rain, through shockwaves of thunder, through lightning that blinded him but did little else to light his way. At some point in the day—or evening, or night, he couldn’t rightly tell—he saw the shades of the ruined castle again.
But how could he be riding in circles? The road continued straight on for mile after mucking mile. Or was it curving with gentle deception?
When he passed the mirage castle the third time, seeing dancing lights from it until he was nearly on top of it, after which it disappeared into the fog again, it was on the opposite side of the road.
Then the road itself was blocked.
Gore shouted a curse to the sky but it was drowned out by lightless thunder. One would think that recreating the Middle Ages as they should have been would include road maintenance, but here was a stand of thorns stretching from one side to the other.
He slid off his shaking horse and hacked away. His blade bounced off the thorns as if they were made of iron themselves.
He chopped and chopped again with the same results, except now his arm was vibrating from the blows. A fourth try and the sword merely slipped away from the wet and adamant foliage.
It seemed Nature, or God, or whatever forces were at work here were telling Gore he was not worthy to continue his quest.
He mounted again and turned around, feeling completely beaten down for the first time he could remember.
This time when the castle appeared a mud-thick road opened a path through the hedge walls. Gore thought he caught lights inside but they disappeared whenever he looked at the bleak walls directly. Once he saw eyes peering at him from behind a fog-woven cowl and caught himself hoping it was only Jack o’ Japes.
The moat was filled not with water but thorns like the ones that had just barred his way. The gate was open and a stale draft from the castle crawled its way to Gore’s nose. He wondered why the Scadians, so resolute about appearances elsewhere, would let a perfectly good castle go to ruin.
But such rational thoughts deserted him when he crossed the drawbridge, so desperate for shelter before he drowned in the saddle he didn’t care what form his shelter took.
Then he was inside, and the castle swallowed him in blackness.