The Prince in Waiting
ONE FOUR SWORDS IN CANDLELIGHT
THE ARMORER’S FORGE WAS EAST of the river, in that part of the city called Chesil. It was a large, cavernous building, its floor of ancient stone cracked in places but all of a piece, dark except where the great central fire sent sparks springing up toward the square hole in the timbered roof. In the dimness the dwarfs moved here and there to the clang of metal on metal. They did not look up from their work when I came in. I stood for a moment by the door, watching and accustoming my eyes to the light. The Armorer Dwarf was on the far side of the fire, stooped over the big anvil. I went to stand beside him.
“Health, Rudi,” I said.
He did not answer at once. He took a sword off the anvil and held it between himself and the fire, lifting it up and down slightly to judge its trueness by the shifting gleam of light. He nodded and gave it to the dwarf who stood beside him, balancing the blade on his palm and offering the hilt. Then he turned to me.
“Health, Master Luke. How is the world outside? Freezing yet? Your cheeks look as though frost has stroked them.”
“It’s cold enough. A north wind still.”
“A pot of mulled ale, would you say?” He called an order to a dwarf apprentice who went off roll-gaited into the shadows. “Come and sit with me, Master Luke, and tell me how life goes in the city.”
My eyes followed the sword which had been taken to the whetstone. The dwarf there treadled with his foot and the wheel went round. He brought the steel edge to it and bright sparks flew.
“Is that . . .?”
“For the Contest? No, those are already made and burnished. Would you see them?”
He lit a candle, thrusting the wick into the fire’s heat in a way that would have scorched my flesh, and took it to the wall where swords hung waiting collection. The four made for the Contest rested apart from the others. They were also smaller, no more than two and a half feet from hilt to tip. Rudi took one down and handed it to me. The hilt fitted my grasp. I swung it lightly in the air.
Rudi watched me. He was big for a dwarf, close on five feet in height, and he did not have their squatness of figure to so marked an extent as was usual. His arms were brawny, muscled from his work, but the lower part of his body might almost have been human. His face was broad, brown and wrinkled, his hair and beard white. He said:
“Being chosen for the Contest is not everything, Master Luke.”
I did not answer but swung the sword once more and gave it back. He hung it carefully on its hook.
They were not, of course, the swords that would actually be used in the Contest. Those were of wood, unpointed, capable of prodding or sweeping an opponent off his horse but not of penetrating the stiff leather jerkins they wore. But at the Contest’s end each of the Young Captains would be given his real sword, one of these four. That nearest me had a red stone in its crosspiece that winked in the candlelight. It would go to the winner of the Contest, the conqueror.
Pots of ale were brought to us. Rudi offered me his own seat, its high back carved with the figures of past Armorers, but I refused it. I sat on a stool and sipped from the pewter pot. The ale was hot and sweet, flavored with spices. It warmed my throat and belly but did not lift the black depression from my shoulders.
Rudi said: “You would have been young for it.”
“No younger than Matthew is.”
“But his father is cousin to the Prince.”
He drank deeply and gave his pot to a dwarf for refilling. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “You take things hard, Master Luke. It is a failing, if I may presume to say so.”
I would not have taken such a criticism from any other dwarf, but no other would have made it. In the past I had often taken troubles to Rudi and had good counsel from him. This counsel, too, might be good, but I got no comfort from it.
The Contest was part of the Fair which, in mid-March, was meant to mark the end of winter’s grip, the coming of spring. (Though year by year, it seemed, the cold stayed longer, the trees were slower in budding.) In it four sons of Captains led their troops against one another in a series of skirmishes on the Contest Field. To be chosen one must be between thirteen and fourteen years of age. My thirteenth birthday had fallen two months ago.
This year three of the four contenders were obvious choices. There was Edmund, the Prince’s second son. There was Henry, whose father, Captain Blaine, stood high in the Prince’s war council. There was also Gregory, son of Captain Harding, and the Hardings ranked with the Blaines in distinction. And not only rank was in their favor. They were older than I—Henry would be fourteen a week after the Fair—and known to be good fighters. Matthew, on the other hand, was three weeks my junior and I could beat him any day at swordplay or jousting. But his father, as Rudi had said, was a cousin to the Prince while mine had been a Sergeant ennobled on the field of battle, a commoner born. My hopes of taking the fourth place had always been slim, but they had been hopes. And dashed three days ago when the herald cried the news at the palace gate. Matthew was to be the fourth Young Captain, and wear the sword afterward.
Rudi said: “It is not much help to tell anyone that he must bear his disappointments, but it is a truth that has to be learned. Some find it more difficult than others.” His pot was returned brimming and he drank. “So they must school themselves harder.”
“You can say that,” I said, “as Master Armorer.”
He nodded. “Master Armorer. And dwarf.”
“But . . .”
I stopped. His words had startled me. If he had been a polymuf I might have understood. They, after all, were the lowest of the low, servants to men, landless, holding no property except at a master’s whim. These things, as much as their deformities, set them apart, and while many fawned, some glowered. Disgusting to men, their condition must be hateful to themselves.
But dwarfs had pride, not just in their crafts but as a race. For the most part they bred true and could trace their families back for generations, often further than proper men. They had houses, small-holdings, polymuf servants. They could amass wealth and loved to dress their dumpy womenfolk in silks and decorate them with bright jewelry and heavy gold chains. They could not bear arms and so could not be ennobled, but they were, and knew themselves to be, essential to the life of the city as workers in metal and leather, weavers, brewers, grooms to the stables—all kind of necessary crafts. They could rise to positions of high status. Rudi himself had a seat at state banquets: below the second salt but at the Prince’s table.
He said: “Even though you do not lead a troop at the Contest, next year you will be squired. In time you will be a Captain like your father.”
“Rudi,” I said, “would you have wished to be a warrior?”
I still could not believe it. I had heard dwarfs talk, and never known such a thing even hinted. They saw their kind as the builders and producers of the city’s wealth, war as a sickness that afflicted proper men, laying waste to the land’s prosperity. I had heard one say once that if there were only dwarfs all cities would be at peace and grow rich.
Rudi finished his second pot and laughed.
“A warrior, Master Luke? When I am Master Armorer? And will die at last in my bed, with no scars on my body except the small scars of my trade. But you would find it hard, I think, to make swords for other men to use. There are disappointments in all men’s lives, even those who have achieved their ambition, and there are compensations. You are young and strong, and gaining skill in arms. You will go far in the Prince’s service, and prosper. Not to be chosen for the Contest is a small thing to bear.”
It was true, I supposed, but it did not help. I looked past him at the four swords on the wall, only dimly visible among the shadows that moved as the fire rose and fell with the blowing of the bellows. I had worn one of them in imagination all winter, sometimes the one with the red stone winking in its crosspiece. I had rejected that particular part of the daydream as futile, but the other had seemed possible. Having to abandon it was bitter.
Rudi threw his pot to the assistant dwarf and stood up.
“There is work still to do,” he said. “Come, and I will show you how to put an edge on steel, in case a fairy touches you in the night and your legs shorten.”
• • •
When I left the forge I crossed the river. There was confusion on the bridge, with carts jammed together and men shouting angrily, smoking the chill air with their curses. An overloaded cart had overturned and the way was blocked. The river, pouring violently from the millstream, ran free and turbulent at its center but the verges were rimmed with ice and downstream, between the grazing meadows, the ice spread right across from side to side. Farther down still it was thick enough for skating; or had been yesterday, and there could be no thaw with this sharp wind. I meant to go there in the afternoon but the morning had worn away and my chief thought was of dinner.
My home lay higher up in the city, among the houses that surrounded the Prince’s palace. I did not go that way, though, but turned right along the street that ran parallel with the river for a while, and was called the River Road. The house into which I went was small but well kept, shutters and door painted bright blue, window sills and flagstones underneath them scoured and whitened. Bedding hung from the open windows at the top and would do so until mid-afternoon, when mattresses, sheets, blankets and eiderdowns were taken in for the beds to be made up and heated with the wrapped bricks that now lay at the back of the hearth. Everything was spick and span and in good order. This was my Aunt Mary’s house.
She was not truly my aunt, but my father’s first wife. They had known each other as children and he had married her when he was a young warrior. They had a son, my half brother Peter, whom I called cousin. Riding to war with the Prince (the old Prince, our present Prince’s father) my father had seen a farmer’s daughter, my mother, whose beauty had amazed and confounded him. It was in that campaign that he was made Captain and so could divorce his wife, on petition to the Prince, and take another. He divorced my Aunt Mary and brought his young bride back to the city, and the next year I was born.
He had made provision for his first wife and child. He would have done so even if the law had not required it because he was a just man. Moreover, although he no longer loved her, he respected my Aunt Mary and came to her house often, not just to see his son but to talk to her and listen to her advice. And I, from my earliest days of roaming abroad, treated her house as my second home.
In some ways, even, I preferred it to my own. It was smaller, pokier, but clean and sweet smelling. My aunt had only two polymuf servants, my mother eight or nine, but the two were closely watched and supervised, the eight or nine for the most part slack and grumbling. From time to time my mother, in despair, would have my father dismiss one or more and get others, hiding in her room while this was done, and would make resolutions that in the future everything would be different. It never was. I heard my father say one day in exasperation that no one could have imagined such a thing—a farmer’s daughter who knew less of running a house than a lady of five generations’ idleness. She wept, and he forgot his annoyance in comforting her.
She was beautiful. At thirty she had the skin, the face and figure of a girl. Her likeness hung on the walls of half a dozen great houses, including the palace itself: Margry, the Prince’s painter, had had her sit for him a score of times. And yet she aroused no spite or jealousy among the ladies of the court. Everyone recognized she was without malice and therefore she provoked none. I had seen her petulant sometimes but never angry. For the most part she was happy, talkative, eager to please and to be pleased. She liked sunshine and pet animals and glancing at her own beauty in the glass.
My Aunt Mary was very different. She was gray-haired and had a long harsh face scored with years of work and brooding. She was deep-natured. She did not make a show of her feelings—she spoke little and smiled less—but their strength was shown in small things: a brief condemnation of that person, a rare word of praise for this. Of all men she most respected my father and continued to treat him as master of the house which he had left when he divorced her. Toward others, with a single exception, she was reserved. That one was her son, my cousin Peter. Him she loved with the depth and fierceness of a river forced to run between narrow banks. Even this she strove to hide, but it could not be hidden.
She would have accepted me because of my father—it was his house and his son, though by another wife, must be made welcome in it—but I fancied she liked me a little apart from that. She was strict, as she was in everything, and I would never have dared to go to her table with unwashed hands as I had sometimes done at home. But she showed me some kindness, and somehow my black moods sat on me less heavily in her house. It was not that she indulged me in them, if anything the reverse, but that my misery seemed less important in the presence of her watchful austerity.
This morning she greeted me with a nod and told me that dinner was almost ready. I had scented it, a stew whose rich smell made my appetite clamorous. At home the polymuf cook used the best of meats and vegetables but the stews were thin and tasteless. I went to the kitchen to wash and saw one of the polymufs scouring a pan. (My aunt did her own cooking but kept her servants busy with cleaning and polishing.) This was Gerda; she had short arms and the mark of an extra eye on her forehead, though it had never opened. She bobbed her head to me without ceasing her work. My aunt allowed her servants fair periods of rest but required good labor the rest of the time.
I was at the table and eating when Peter came in. I heard him tethering his horse outside and he pulled off his big leather coat as he entered. Gerda brought a bowl of hot water, soap and a towel, and he washed in the hall as befitted a grown man. He was eighteen, a Sergeant under my father’s command, soon to be made Mister as the junior Captains were called. When he had finished he took the seat at the head of the table, which was his except when my father dined here. He said to me cheerfully:
“Have you heard the news, Luke?”
“Matthew Grant went skating this morning and broke a leg.”
I looked up quickly and saw him laughing. I flushed and turned back to my dinner, for which, suddenly, my appetite had gone. Aunt Mary said:
“Do not tease him.”
Peter said: “You are not brooding over this, Luke, are you? You would have had no chance of lasting beyond the first round. You would have been cut down in a few minutes and earned nothing but jeers.”
He had seen that the jest had hurt me and was doing his best to put things right. I knew he would not wound me except by accident. He was slow-moving and amiable, a smiling contrast to his mother’s dourness. Not slow in thought; his mind was sharp enough. Except where people were concerned. There he did not look below the surface, accepting them as they were or as they seemed to be.
In appearance he was tall, broad-shouldered, fair, resembling my father much more than I did. I was of no more than average height, stockier, swarthy in my looks. I suppose I was more like my aunt, who was no blood kin to me, than either of my parents. Peter, like my mother, had no enemies, and for much the same reason. But unlike her he was warm in his affections. He went on talking, saying too much was made of the Contest. He had not been chosen and what difference had it made? Digby, who won the jewel in that year, was giving up soldiering to marry a merchant’s daughter and turn shopkeeper.
What he did not understand was that I was different from both him and Digby. It had not mattered that he had not got a place because he had not minded, but I did. It only made it the more bitter that someone like Digby, willing now to give up being a warrior, should have had the chance to win the jeweled sword. If Peter did not resent it, he ought to.
But he soothed me enough for the smell of Aunt Mary’s stew to tempt me back into hunger and I ate my dinner. There was apple pie to follow, made from apples picked in the autumn, then peeled and ringed and hung to dry on long lines in the attic. Afterward we sat in front of the fire in the living room until the clock on the mantel struck two. At that Peter yawned and stretched and stood up, his fair head almost touching the low whitewashed ceiling.
“Time to be back. More formation training. I think we must be the best formation riders this side of the Burning Lands. We may not fight, but we ride very well.”
He spoke in jest but there were others who said much the same and more sourly. The city had been five years at peace and men were restless.
In this we had separated ourselves from the customs of the civilized lands. The summer campaigns were a part of the pattern of living, as much as the feasts of spring and autumn and mid-winter. In the yearly challenge to its enemies a city maintained its pride, and through pride purpose. This was, moreover, the source of all honor. The dwarfs might be content with their crafts and trades, but for a proper man in his youth and strength the only true glory lay in fighting for his city. If he was killed his body was brought back to lie with the other heroes in the Citadel; if he was crippled his Prince cared for him as long as he lived. And if, as was more often the case, he returned unscathed or with minor wounds he had his fame; and stories to tell, boasts to make during the long idleness of winter.
The Prince’s father, Egbert, had been a great fighter; it was under him that my own father had been ennobled in a savage battle against the men of Basingstoke. Our new Prince was very different. Each year he found some reason for not taking our army into the field. From the beginning there had been doubts of his valor and the doubts had grown as summer succeeded summer with fresh excuses. He was a big man with a black curling beard but had a strangely empty look, like a vessel that had missed being filled.
There was a tale which had never been forgotten of a wrestling contest when he was a young man. It was that form of wrestling in which the object is not to throw one’s opponent to the ground but to lift him off his feet and hold him in the air. Stephen, though even then big for his age, had chosen the smallest of the group to contend against, presumably because he doubted his chances with the others. And after a great struggle this one, though inches shorter and narrow of chest, had lifted him not once but twice, the second time carrying him helpless round the ring.
So his excuses now—an illness of his Lady, the weather being unpropitious or the crops needing special attention, once a warning from the Spirits in a dream (he said) of disaster to the city if the troops went forth—were suspect. Last year he was supposed to have injured his back, so that he could not ride or even walk without pain, and he had kept to his bed for two months. But it had been remarked that he walked well enough when the Autumn Feast came round, and rode to the Hunt afterward.
And all this time the reputation which his father had gained, for himself and for the city, was dissipating. It did not happen at once: our warriors had made themselves feared and respected as far afield as Guildford and Newbury and Ringwood, and our neighbors were glad enough at first to be free of their attentions. But lately it was known that they had begun to mock him and us. Last year the men of Alton had ridden into our lands while Stephen lay on his bed, with blocks of wood tied to his feet to straighten out the kink he was supposed to have in his spine, and carried away more than four score head of cattle. It was important that this year we should go after them and teach them a lesson, but no one really believed that our Prince would move. Year after year he had built the city’s walls higher and deepened the ditch beyond them.
Aunt Mary said: “There is no sense in fighting for the sake of fighting. They wound and kill each other and are no better for it.”
Peter shook his head. “That is the way a woman thinks.”
He smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. She impatiently shook herself free; she would not admit how much she welcomed the signs of his affection.
“It is not a question of men or women,” she said. “I am not against fighting—or killing—if it is for something worthwhile. But not for empty glories, paid for with real deaths.”
Peter smiled past her at me. What she said meant nothing to him, nor would it have to any warrior. A man fought for the sake of fighting, for his own honor and the honor of his city. Accepting the complicity he offered me, proud of being spoken to as someone who would one day be a warrior and understood the way a warrior thought, I said:
“I wonder how our Prince will get out of it this year. Maybe he will have them take him into Sincross!”
Sincross was the big house in which the old men lived whose wits had failed through age. It was a feeble enough joke at best but as I saw Peter frown I remembered something. Younger people also were taken there when the Spirits had crazed their brains. This had been the case with Aunt Mary’s brother many years ago, even before Peter’s birth, and he had died in madness when not much more than twenty. And I remembered too that I had heard talk once, among servants who did not realize I was listening, that it had been thought the same might happen to Aunt Mary herself at the time my father divorced her, so strange she had been and so deeply sunk in melancholy.
I was struck into confusion by my thoughtlessness and could not look at Aunt Mary. But she seemed anyway to pay no heed to my remark. She was concerned with Peter, with making sure that he put on his scarf and wound it tight around his body under his leather coat before going out into the cold. As a child, she reminded him, scolding gently, he had had a weakness in his chest and he must take care.
I left with him and watched him unhitch his horse. Peter’s frown had gone. He offered to ride me up the hill on his saddlebow but I refused. I might not have been chosen for the Contest but I felt I was too old for that. Until I had a horse of my own, I would walk.
• • •
Before I could go skating I had to go home and get my skates and so I made my way up the High Street rather than along the river bank. It was a little less cold, or perhaps seemed so because my stomach was full. In a few places, missed by the polymuf street cleaners, snow lay in frozen, dirt-specked ridges. The last fall had been a week ago. The sky was hazy with a watery sun peering through. Winter’s grip seemed as firm as ever. Carts creaked past me, one of them piled high with fodder. I had heard my father say that supplies were very low and grain too in short supply. There would be more cattle slaughtered unless the cold spell broke soon, and probably some horses.
My name was called from behind. I knew the voice and involuntarily shivered. I turned and saw Ezzard striding toward me, his black cloak wrapped tightly round his tall lean frame. I waited for him to come up, telling myself I was no longer a child to be frightened by the Seer. His Spirits did not venture out of the Seance Hall, and anyway I had done nothing to offend them.
But he was a man who in himself inspired awe. Taller even than my father, he had a craggy face with a beaked nose and black bushy eyebrows. His eyes were set deep and close together and were cold and blue. His skin was very white, as though he spent all his time in darkness and not just the hours when he was communing with the Spirits. In the summer when the light was stronger he wore spectacles that were darkly tinted; even without these there seemed a strange blankness, an emptiness, in his look.
He said: “Where are you bound, boy?”
I did not care for being addressed as “boy,” and even though it was the Seer I answered a little stiffly. But his eyes, staring into mine, made me drop my gaze.
He said: “You respect the Spirits?”
“There are some, of your age, who do not—who mock foolishly.”
I said: “I have seen the Spirits and heard them.”
He nodded. “Remember that. Remember another thing: that the Spirits take care of those who show them proper reverence. The fools who mock at last are mocked. And they are fools all along.”
He raised his hand in the blessing, though as Ezzard gave it it was almost menacing.
“Away to your skating, then. Make the most of it. It will be your last of the winter.”
I did not need to seek a meaning to that riddle. The Spirits foretold the weather to him. The thaw was coming and by tomorrow the ice would be too weak to bear. I was flattered that he should have told me this, as though I were one of the Prince’s messengers. I nodded and turned to go. As I did his hand grasped my shoulder.
“Perhaps your last indeed.”
I shivered again. One skated until one became a man, and one was not a man until fifteen. There were times when the Spirits prophesied a death.
But he was smiling, his face improbably drawn into a grin.
“Go your way, Luke. The Spirits go with you.”
• • •
I found Martin and we took our skates to the river. In the morning he had been busy with duties; his mother was a widow and too poor to afford even a single polymuf servant. We skated for a couple of hours and by the end of that time one could tell the change that was taking place: the wind had swung from north to west and there was mildness in it. I told him of Ezzard’s words as we walked back. He said:
“He is right often enough. But how?”
“Through the Spirits. How else?”
Martin was not even as tall as I, and slim with it. He had a girl’s skin, delicate, almost transparent, and his brown eyes were big like a girl’s. We had become friends when I rescued him from other boys who were tormenting him. The biggest of them was someone I very much disliked, and it was more through this than through a desire to help Martin that I had taken him on and given him a beating. It was only later that I grew to like Martin. His mind was curious, odd in its way of thinking, restless and speculative. Sometimes absurdly so. I said:
“The Spirits know the future as they know the past. And they tell Ezzard because he is the Seer. There is nothing difficult about it.”
He did not answer, and we did not pursue the matter because there was a horseman riding toward us, along Burnt Lane. I recognized horse and rider. My father called:
“Greetings, son! I was told you were down at the river and I came out to meet you.”
His lips laughed between the fair beard and curling yellow moustache. He would not have done this for a trivial reason. My heart leaped, but I said as evenly as I could:
“What news, sir?”
“Young Grant is ill. A fever. He will not fight on Thursday. You have his place in the Contest.”
I stared at him. He leaned down and swept me onto his saddlebow, and I did not resent it. We rode homeward, Martin running beside us.
And I thought of what Ezzard had said. A Young Captain was called a man, though not fifteen. I would not skate next winter with the boys, but serve the Prince as apprentice warrior. There had been two prophecies after all.