— 14 —
THE OTHERWISE CLUMSY BARD ENJOYED TWO SPOTS OF GOOD fortune the remainder of the opening night of the siege: first, Gore believed him. Or at least ordered his soldiers to keep a sharp eye on Jack if he proved a liar.
Second, Sergeant Hal had watched the entire transaction from the battlement and listened with a veteran’s trained ears. He brought a medical kit to Jack’s side at once, and the sergeant’s battle-trained stitching delicately belied his massive frame and brutish mug.
Gore made free with the castle’s stock of wine. He had little use for it until the siege was lifted, but it was the closest thing he owned to antiseptics and anesthesia. He wondered for a moment why if you were going to recreate the Middle Ages not as they were but should have been, to the point where you allowed modern plumbing, why not modern medicines too? Then he remembered the name of the role he had taken over.
When the night was long in the tooth, Jack o’ Japes seemed as well-off as he could be for the nonce. He even sang a little tune (minus his lute) for Sergeant Hal—about a brave soldier forced to fight a distant war and, worse still, be separated from his lady fair.
Gore recognized the music. It was one of the songs Jack sang to the Greenwood outlaws with details altered hither and yon. Gore had never felt any separation pangs himself, but it did seem that Scadians were especially susceptible to them.
Finally Gore told Sergeant Hal to get some sleep, which made the sergeant bellow with laughter, and sat down next to Jack. “Why a bard?” he asked. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea of staying in a lowly station—particularly one where your meals depended on the good graces of others.
“I don’t plan to stay here for eternity, but no king or duke or knight will open up to a peasant, and I didn’t want to spend the next few years working my way up the ladder. I realized that in Medieval society—or at least in the Scadian version thereof—the bard is the equivalent to a bartender or a psychiatrist. Especially when people have been drinking all night to my music.” His eyes gleamed wickedly. “And the women here love musicians.”
All rationales Gore could understand.
“Tell me all thou know about Scadia,” Gore demanded.
“Then I shall enter the tale at the beginning, Friend Will, or what passes for one. When the government decided to parcel off land ere the so-called Economy of Abundance was kicked off good and proper two-score years ago, and get gone some of the good citizens from our increasingly vertical cities, Scadia was one of the first alternate communities. A wealthy prince of a fellow named John—such was all I could discover about him—secured land in Northern California through means legal—or mayhaps otherwise. The result was initially four kingdoms and six cities—the others were called Constantinople, Canterbury, Ravenna, Avignon, and Toledo—surrounded by miles of a perilous thorn forest. The Sick Pen War wrecked all the other cities but Constantinople— though I hear tell Toledo got what was coming to it. And over the years the society mutated beyond its founders’ intentions…”
“As every society,” Gore said.
“Now there’s one lone kingdom, consolidated under the umbrella Barony of Scadia…”
“The Byzantine Emperor might argue that point.”
“For certes. And the institutions thou have seen: the royal couple of Camelot, the Wicked Duke—I suspect thou also had a run-in with the Witch of Agravaine. Do I win a prize?”
“And I suspect the founders’ intention didn’t include lethal combat,” Gore interrupted. “And since there’s no iron mine here, and perhaps no Federal technicians to fix the robots, and a dozen other sources of modern amenities, some of these schizophrenic Scadians need to turn a blind eye to occasional contact with the Outside. We’re not as isolated as the Scadians would like to pretend.”
Jack shrugged. “So what if they do turn a blind eye, Friend Will? Can thou speak in sooth thou has ne’er committed the like?”
Since Gore knew the answer to that, particularly after years of dealing with politicians and energy companies, he had no answer for the minstrel. “And as for forbearing lethal encounters… Aye, but did thou kill any man who was no soldier or had not attacked thee first? Those men chose their lives and their perils.
“For the remainder, would thou care for any wager that life here be worse than on the Outside? Good men and women on the bottom rung of the ladder all too often stay at the bottom and cannot even glimpse upward, much less climb. Here anyone can become a noble. None will go hungry, none need be cold, none need fear—short of wandering too far into the Perilous Woods—criminal acts upon their persons.”
Gore remained silent.
Jack stretched and put his hands behind his head. “You think these folks be odd, Friend Will, but they be no moreso than those Outside. Thou must needs only adjust thy lens. I reckon for the nonce thou are still here and not back out There.”
Of course Gore could not go back, but he would not tell Jack this. Still, if he could…
Jack could be a good friend indeed. If he had verily been the confidant of knights and the privy counselor of kings and queens, the hope of peasants and the companion of maidens, he might know the ins and outs of Scadian society—the Code—better than anyone else in the barony. A good friend indeed, Gore repeated to himself.
Gore started when he noticed a figure in the open doorway until he recognized Melisounde’s familiar curves. She was smiling sweetly. “A word with thee, M’lord?”
She took his hand and led him to the bedchamber where she shut and bolted the door. Gore felt his exhaustion sieving away until she asked, “Why has thou not ridden out from the castle to challenge the invaders at our doorstep?”
“M’lady, would thou have me exit in darkness to challenge ten fresh knights when I am worn from dispatching the first half of their number?”
“Is it pleasant for thee for the king and my husband to be camped at a stone’s throw from our home?”
“Will thou begrudge me sleep?” Gore nearly shouted in return. All at once Melisounde’s sweet face had turned viperous and Gore wondered how he had violated the Code this time.
No, not the Code—a spoiled noblewoman’s expectations.
Mayhaps this was never about Gore at all but one large, if quickly rendered, twisted passion play for Melisounde. Flirting—then courtly love—with the handsome new and rough-around-the-edges stranger. Then her abduction, with the stranger coming to fight for her, and letting herself be claimed as the stranger’s prize… all the while knowing her husband—and even the king himself!—would come to her rescue. Then she would watch excitedly, even lustfully, while the stranger and her husband battled to the death over her.
Melisounde’s face grew darker by the second as if to confirm his worst thoughts.
“Are thou a man or nay?” she demanded.
“I am the lord and master of this castle,” he told her, “and I will conduct my part of this siege as I see fit.”
For a half-second Gore expected her to cross her arms and stamp her foot as the opening act of a pout. Instead she jabbed her finger back toward the door. He then half-expected her to tell him to get out, but instead she asked him, “Is it thy plan to continue offering our castle’s hospitality to that treacherous music-hacker? I trust him nor his bemusing words not and would thou no longer give him comfort in our walls.”
For some reason that made Gore angrier than the demand to face certain death just beyond the drawbridge. “He was sore hurt by the dwarf dragons, M’lady. He is our guest while he heals. The Code forbids we toss him out on his ear.” The last statement was a blind stab but succeeded in taking Melisounde aback.
Besides, Jack was potentially too useful to Gore to be dismissed. He also realized in a stark instant of clarity that he desired no more deaths on his hands. He had no wish to go down in Scadian history known as Gore the Bloody.
Suddenly he was tired. He wanted nothing more than to sleep and told Melisounde so. When he dropped into their bed, clothes and all, he expected Melisounde to storm off. Instead she lay beside him and slipped her hands almost languidly under her pillow as she often did after they made love. When a pillow was available, anyway.
“M’lord,” she cooed, “will thou kill my husband?”
Gore had no desire to kill Sir Bobaunce—or, again, anyone else. Sir
Bobaunce was arrogant, but that was no capital crime.
“I will offer him the chance to surrender,” he told her. “I have no grievance against thy husband.”
His arm whipped up reflexively to block the plunging knife he hadn’t realized she held until he gripped her wrist inches from his throat. One savage twist of that wrist and the blade dropped; another and she tumbled out of the bed.
“Femme fatale!” he shouted at her. “Faithless, cold Morgan le Fay!” He heard the words as if someone else shouted them, then his own mind snapped back in place. He never in his wildest dreams would have expected doing this to her—though there had been one particular woman in Los Angeles who had enjoyed it, granted—but when he finally gave a boot to her backside it was every bit as gratifying as Alain had promised.
He dragged her to the battlements, where the soldiers looked aghast as if he’d just told them he would throw her into the moat. He ordered the wide-awake Sergeant Hal o’ Neck, “Sergeant, return this termagant to her husband. And I warn thee, this Herculean task will no doubt require half-a-dozen of thy best well-armed men.”
Gore felt Melisounde’s icy glare on his back as he stormed back to his bedchamber.
His adrenaline rush must have disturbed his bedchamber ceiling, as it stared down at him for the remainder of the night. For a time his brain was itching that the suit of armor off in the corner of the room was staring at him as well. It took another moment before he realized he had never before seen a suit of armor in the bedchamber.
He jolted out of bed as a cloud bade farewell to the moon and the moon’s pale reply illuminated the armor’s red sheen.
Gore leaped for his sword at the same instant the Knight of the Red Gauntlet slashed open the mattress. The knight’s second blow was blocked but strong enough to send Gore’s broadsword flying and all but crack his arm bones straight up to the shoulder. At once Gore knew why even the Wicked Duke had so much trouble with this man—and that Gore himself had little chance against him even with the red haze filling his vision.
Except the red haze did not come.
Gore didn’t want to bet this meant the Red Knight would spare him. He would bet that otherwise he was a dead man. The thought echoed in the ringing of steel as the knight kicked the broadsword out of Gore’s hands.
It was only then Gore noticed the knight was dripping wet. So he must have come in through the secret entrance. But how had he known about it? And if he was strong enough to swim it in full armor… but Gore had already felt those muscles in the knight’s first blow.
The knight hesitated as if waiting for his prey to go for the blade again. Instead Gore enjoyed a flash of remembrance: the knight had stopped short of killing Duke Marrok. He offered the Duke a chance to yield. Farther back, he had appeared after the former Wicked Duke challenged everyone, including the king, to a duel. So it seemed the Knight of the Red Gauntlet came—was summoned—whenever someone in Scadia got too big for his iron britches.
‘Twas a hope Gore could latch upon. “Are thou here because I have grown too uppity for my place?” he asked.
The Red Knight nodded slowly and silently.
The words tasted a mix of ashes and pus in his mouth, but nevertheless Gore replied, “Then I surrender, good Sir Knight.”
The Red Knight answered with a downward blow that would have cleaved Gore’s skull had he not rolled out of the way a heartbeat prior.
The next thing Gore knew he was running through the castle with the Red Knight close at his heels. He expected King Marhaus and Sir Bobaunce would not lift the siege even with Melisounde returned anymore than the Achaeans would have sailed home from Troy if Helen had been given back to them. He had not expected—though should have, he knew—to be a continued target for assassination. Maybe he wouldn’t have been except for the Lady le Fay being so wroth.
There was no time to ruminate on Hell’s fury, however. He knew there would be no escaping the Red Knight one way or the other. He may as well stand and fight and go down like a man.
He worked his way up to the battlements and demanded a sword— Sergeant Hal o’ Neck surrendered his own weapon, long and narrow and thin and light, meant for combat but not too heavy for extended marches. Perfectly balanced too, despite the occasional nick, though Gore was certain its near-perfection would avail him naught.
The Red Knight appeared seconds later and the sergeant commanded his men to leave. Gore wondered if this was another bit of the Code he learned too late: no help when the Knight of the Red Gauntlet came calling.
The sergeant bowed, said, “Sorry, sire” with what sounded like sincere regret—who knew when there would rise another Wicked Duke willing to offer a universal pay raise?—and then Gore was alone with his doom.
He blocked every blow and managed to hold onto his sword but was forced back at every strike. After a very short time his spine was against the wall.
The Red Knight, a killing specter betwixt the shadows of a vat of tar and the unyielding castle wall, with Gore’s only escape a sixty-foot drop into a crocodile-filled moat, took his blade with both hands, pulled it behind his shoulder, and readied the fatal blow.
Gore decided to exercise the better part of valor. He cheated.
Before the Red Knight could finish his theatrical death stroke Gore leaped past him with sword ready, onto the battlements, one foot on a tar vat as he perched himself high above the moat. The knight swung downward and Gore leaped away in time for the sword to smash into one side of the vat’s cantilevered woodwork.
The vat tipped and emptied its contents across the stone floor. Gore ran quickly enough to escape it; the Red Knight, secure in his combat supremacy, did not.
The knight had no more than turned around before the tar piled up to his calves and refused release. There may have been fury under that helm for all Gore knew, but his enemy never made a sound.
Gore knocked the blade from the knight’s hand and his long steel over-reached into the only passage the armor allowed: a sliver at the knight’s throat. A broadsword would never have penetrated it; Sergeant Hal o’ Neck’s thin sword was a perfect fit.
Blood seeped from the wound. Blood that smoked. Blood carrying wires and microcircuitry.