Sample text for The dragon queen / Alice Borchardt.
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Tintigal, Year of our Lord 470
THE SHIP PULLED UP TO THE QUAY.
Above the fortress, rock frowned down on the two men standing on the deck. “It has never fallen to assault,” the captain told Maeniel.
“This I can believe,” Maeniel said, studying the formidable stone and wood walls at the top.
“Even Caesar did not care to besiege it,” the captain continued. “Or so it is said.”
Though spring had come to the continent, the wind in Britain still had a bite to it, especially the sea wind. Maeniel pulled his mantle more tightly around himself. He knew the captain was eaten alive with curiosity about him and his mission. He had declined to say more than absolutely necessary about it to the man. The people he served needed as much protection as they could get. Not simply from the imperial tax gatherers but also from the barbarian warlords who so willingly served the interests of those who monopolized the remnants of Roman power. The captain probably had friends in every port where the Veneti called. A man now might be hard put to get a letter to Rome within a year, but gossip spread like a brush fire.
“I was surprised when they gave me permission to bring you here,” the captain continued.
“I have business with Vortigen,” Maeniel said.
The captain laughed. “I love the way you say that, as though you were a man stepping out to a fair to purchase a horse. A small matter of business, nothing extraordinary. Vortigen is the high king of Britain, and he seems to know your name. Oh no, my lord Maeniel, nothing unusual about this situation at all. Big doings up there tonight, though. I have been ferrying important people out here all day, one after another. You will be the last. Enjoy yourself at the feast, my lord.”
Maeniel nodded and smiled.
“High king or not, I hope he knows what he’s doing—all those Saxons,” the captain said, spitting the word Saxon.
One of the sailors reached out with a hook and pulled the boat up against the quay, while two others began mooring her fore and aft to iron rings set in the stone.
“No!” the captain shouted. “Don’t. We will sail with the tide. I won’t remain here. Not tonight at any rate.” He looked up at the fortress through narrowed eyes.
The man holding the boat to the dock gave him a puzzled glance. “I thought you enjoyed the king’s hospitality.”
“Not tonight, I won’t,” the captain said. “And don’t ask me any questions about why.”
Maeniel jumped over the gunwales to the stone quay. “You are returning to Gaul, then?” he called back to the captain.
“Come,” the man said. “All this trouble for nothing. We could at least stay the night. We might pick up a cargo.”
“No,” said the captain. “We will be in Vennies by sunrise. I’d prefer it that way.”
A dozen men were at the oars. The mate shrugged and pushed off with the boat hook.
“Put your backs into it!” the captain shouted to the crew. “We will be home by morning. You married men can chase your wives’ lovers out the window and get some sleep. We were paid in gold for this day’s work. Everyone will have a share.”
Then they were gone, drawing away on the evening tide.
Maeniel’s eyes closed. The sea wind brought a mixture of odors to his nostrils: salt, roasting meat, and other savory cooking smells; pitch from the torches being lit on the walls above him; the human odor of infrequently washed bodies living in close quarters on the rock, perspiration and perfume, the diverse odors of linen, silk, and wool. This was going to be an aristocratic gathering.
And something else was borne on the wind to him, something he didn’t want to intrude on his consciousness just now, a warning. Yes, a definite warning. Sometimes humans sense things also. Yes, he’d paid the captain in gold to bring him to Tintigal in the kingdom of Dumnonia, but the man might as well have remained and tried to pick up a cargo. In fact, the captain had not done too badly once Maeniel was in Britain, picking up other travelers along the coast and ferrying them out to the rock. But come nightfall, he began to grow nervous. Maeniel knew the signs very well. The hair on the back of the captain’s neck began to stir, as had Maeniel’s when he first saw the fortress. And the captain didn’t know why any more than Maeniel did. Left to himself, Maeniel the wolf would have cleared out. He wouldn’t have run exactly, but that “not right” feeling, when it wouldn’t leave yet wouldn’t be resolved, was something the wolf wouldn’t have wanted to play around with. But humans—as he was now—with their predetermined appointments and planned meetings left little room for a response to the shadowy awareness that haunted him, that haunted the wolf.
A serving man appeared at his elbow. He bowed. “My lord.” He was responding to Maeniel’s silk woolen tunic and heavy velvet mantle. “My lord, are you here for the feast?”
“The stairs are to your left. They will bring you to the citadel; but before you go, if you would be so kind, I must have your sword.”
Maeniel felt even more uneasy. He was tempted to say no, but in the growing gloom he saw two indistinct figures behind the serving man and realized they must be part of the king’s guard. “Will I be the only one who must yield up his weapon?”
The servant bowed again. “No, my lord. No one may bring a weapon to the king’s board, not tonight. They will be held in the strong rooms under the fortress and will be returned in the morning. They will all be under guard through the night.”
Maeniel unbuckled his sword belt. “I want to see where you take this,” he said.
The servant smiled, a little bit patronizingly, but said, “Certainly, sir.”
Then his eyes widened slightly at the sight of the hilt. It was wrapped in gold wire. A lot of gold wire, more gold than the servant had ever seen in his life. “It looks old,” he said.
“It is old,” Maeniel answered.
“The hilt is nothing. The blade is everything.” So saying, Maeniel drew half its length from the sheath. The torchlight shining down from the ramparts above woke rainbows in the steel.
The two soldiers behind the servant peered over his shoulder to look into the blade, for indeed, they could see their reflections there.
“Only the gods could make such a weapon,” one of them said.
Maeniel looked down at it sadly. “Not the gods but men made and wore it before the Romans came to Gaul. But no matter, please take care of it.” He handed belt, sword, and scabbard to the servant. “My teacher bestowed weapons on me. I cherish them.”
Then he turned and began climbing the stair. The servant walked ahead with the sword, the soldiers behind.
From the stair, Maeniel could look out over the ocean. The sun was only a salmon glow among the purplish-blue clouds on the horizon, but since a feast was in the offing, torches blazed everywhere. The serving man paused before they reached the top.
“The fortress was built in the form of rings, each higher level above but inside the lower.”
Here Maeniel encountered magic. He always seemed to do so when he least expected it. This ring had a broader area of open ground than the others, and it had been turned into a garden. Large square clay pans held food crops, and giant urns housed small trees and shrubs. A waist-high wall surrounded the garden, and the trees and vines flowed from troughs at the edge, hanging down so far that they almost reached the next level. There were roses—many roses—white, yellow, and red. Pomegranates, hazel trees, and berry vines, their long thorny canes draped over the rail. They were not in fruit but in bloom, white flowers scattered like stars among the vines. The clay pans were filled with herbs—rosemary; mints, which will grow anywhere if they have water and sun; pennyroyal; spearmint and the hairy apple mints—onions, leeks, garlic, cabbages, and mustards, their cross-shaped yellow flowers open to the night wind and sea air.
“A garden in the sky,” Maeniel said.
“Yes. Are you then an adept?”
“Adept?” Maeniel said, mystified. “Adept at what?”
“Magic, sir,” the serving man answered, then pointed to the soldiers. They were climbing the last flight of stairs to the inner keep above. “They don’t even know we are not with them, though they will announce your presence to the king. He will thank them for it. He is always polite and will not warn them that they are deceived.
“Most can’t see this garden at all, and those who can only think it is a quaint concept of the high king to keep a few pots of flowers and vegetables near his front door. I will conduct you to the hall of weapons.”
“Yes,” Maeniel said. “Beneath the rose.”
“Behind it,” the serving man corrected, for there were pots of white roses all along the inner wall.
Maeniel saw the wall and the entrance hidden by magic, and he and the serving man—by now Maeniel was sure he was no ordinary servant—stepped into it.
Was it morning or was it evening? He couldn’t be sure, and the wolf did not inform him. The sun was just over the horizon, driving long shafts of light into the mists drifting in the vast hall.
Vast, Maeniel thought. Why vast? The drifting mist was so thick he could barely make out the doorway behind him. Yet he had the sense of enormous empty space, a high roof, and giant windows looking out over a cloud-filled sky, of winds that drove sharp downdrafts, cold and moist, and updrafts, hot and reeking of jungle, forest, and marsh, and a sense of latent lightning hovering just out of being but poised to rend both earth and sky. The mists around him were not fog or dew but clouds drifting over the summer country of an earth below.
“You are no natural man,” the servant said.
“No,” Maeniel answered as the clouds, dark, now bright blue, silver, and bloody with the new—or was it the old?—sun boiled around him. “I am a wolf who is sometimes a man. Tell me, is it twilight or dawn here?”
“There is no here here,” the servant answered, “and it is neither one nor the other, each and both at the same time. Do you wish my master any harm?”
“No. I came in hopes of his help for—”
The servant raised his hand. “I need know nothing more. There are those here who do wish him ill. He has been warned, but he balances the need for peace with the danger they pose. I can do no more than advise caution.” He extended the sword before him. There was a chime as though a great bell had rung. The sword vanished. “It will be returned in two days. Wherever you may be, you will receive it. The blade is warm with the love its maker put in it. His blood went into the molten steel as an offering, making it resistant to any magic but your own. No matter what I do, I cannot retain it here for long. It is yours in more than one sense.”
Seconds later they were both climbing up the steps to Vortigen’s hall.
“Not even the dead can remain long in the halls of the sky,” the servant continued. “Birds alone rule it. That’s why they are sacred to her—she who gave you face and form. She has always had only one name, The Lady.”
They reached the top, and Vortigen’s hall stood before them. When Maeniel turned to look, the servant had gone.
The feasting hall occupied the top of the fortress, a dome of fitted, unmortared stone.
Vitrified, Maeniel thought, a house of glass.
He’d heard of the process but had not seen it before. The walls had originally been made of wood, the dome of sand and other silicates framed within it. A hot controlled burn fused the sand into a mass like obsidian, and when the wood was burned away a glass bubble remained. This was Vortigen’s hall. The exterior and interior walls were polished, with openings drilled for a door and smoke hole in the roof.
It was beautiful.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Cornwall (England : County) Fiction, Arthurian romances Adaptations