Volume III: The Hound and the Falcon
by Judith Tarr
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-182-5
He knew distinction in three abstractions of sound,
the women’s cry under the thong of Lupercal,
the Pope’s voice singing the Glory on Lateran,
the howl of a wolf in the coast of Broceliande.
Taliessin Through Logres
The fire had gone out some time since. For all its warmth of carpets and hangings and its chest of books, the room was cold; icy.
Its occupant seemed not to notice. He sat in his plain dark robe that could have been anything, lord’s cotte, scholar’s gown, monk’s habit, intent upon a closely written page. His only light was a stub of candle, the day having died somewhat before the fire, darkening one of the greater treasures of the Royal Chancery: the tall glass window that looked upon the sea.
A second treasure lay on the desk near his hand, the heavy chain and the jeweled seal of the King’s Chancellor, silver and sapphire, ashimmer in the unsteady light.
He shifted slightly on his tall scribe’s stool. The candle, flaring, turned his hair to silver fire.
He heeded the changing light no more than he had the cold. Or the one who watched him, silent in the doorway, almost smiling.
As he stirred, she stirred likewise. Her feet were soundless on the eastern carpet, her movements fluid, graceful. Her eyes glinted golden bronze. In a moment, perhaps, she would burst into laughter.
Directly behind the Chancellor, she paused. He did not move. She slid her arms about him and set her chin upon his shoulder. He neither started nor recoiled.
“Look at this,” he said, as if she had been there reading with him for the past hour and more. “Every year for the past fifty, the Lord of St. Dol has taken a half-tariff from every boatload of fish brought into his demesne; taken it and sold it and turned a handsome profit. But here you see—the fishermen are wise. They take care to pause in certain havens and folds in the coast, and to dispose of goodly portions of their catches before submitting the rest to the lord’s inspection, thus turning handsome profits on their own. So extortion requites extortion, and everyone knows and no one says a word, and each party grows gratifyingly rich.”
“Very gratifyingly,” she said, amused. It was not easy, shaped as she was now, to stand for long as she stood; she moved to his side. His arm settled itself around her swollen middle. She leaned comfortably against him. “And what will my lord Chancellor do to right this twofold wrong?”
Her mockery made him smile. “Wrong, Thea? The wrong is only this, that the King has no share in it. I’ll give the lord His Majesty’s justice: a half-tariff on his half-tariff. To increase accordingly if he tries to extort more from his people in order to keep up his profits.”
She laughed. “That’s royal justice! And the fishermen?”
“What of the fishermen? They pay their lord duly and properly. Their share is included in his.”
She shook her head. “You’ll spoil them, Alf. They’ll begin to think they can wriggle out of their taxes elsewhere.”
“They won’t,” he said, “unless it pleases them to have their less… public transactions recorded and taxed as well.”
Her eyes went wide, mock-astounded. “Why, Alfred, my saintly love, you’re devious!”
“It comes with the office.” His free hand brushed the chain; paused; gathered it up. It was heavy. World-heavy. She knew; she had set it on his shoulders often enough.
He let it fall again with a cold clashing of silver. “I didn’t want it,” he said. “I didn’t want anything except quiet and a book or two, and you. But Gwydion will never be denied.”
“Maddening, isn’t it? There’s one man in the world who’s more obstinate than you are. And being King, he can do proper battle against you.”
“I’m not sure if I’d call it proper. He knighted me—that was bearable; I earned my spurs well enough, if not entirely gladly. But the spurs had titles attached. Lands; lordship. I had it all before I even knew it.”
“Baron of the High Council of the Kingdom of Rhiyana,” she said, savoring it. Warden of the Wood of Broceliande. Kinsman of the King.”
“And what of your own titles, my lady of Careol?”
“They’re lovely. But not as lovely as your face the day Gwydion gave you yonder chain.” Her eyes danced upon it. “What a splendid spectacle that was! Here was old Bishop Ogyrfan, raised up to join Saint Peter’s Chancery, alleluia—where no doubt his talents would be in great demand. But who would take his place here below? Some elderly prelate, surely, as dry as his own ledgers, with an abacus for a brain. There were one or two very likely candidates. And Gwydion stood up in court and handed the chain to his dear kinsman beside him and said, ‘Labor well for me, my lord Chancellor.’”
“And his kinsman,” said Alfred, “stood gawping like a villein at a fair.”
“Actually,” she said, “he looked like a monk whose abbot has ordered him to embrace a woman. Shocked; indignant; and—buried deep beneath the rest—delighted.”
“That last, I certainly was not. I was appalled. Everyone knows what I am: a very reluctant nobleman, and in spite of all your teaching, still one of the world’s innocents. Do you remember how shocked I was in Constantinopolis to learn that men are paid to be healers?”
“I remember. I also remember how you took what Gwydion gave you. Admit it now; you weren’t taken completely by surprise. You’d wander into the Chancery, maybe to look up a record, maybe to argue law and Scripture with old Ogrfan, and there’d be some small tangle somewhere. You’d look, lift that famous eyebrow of yours, and with a word or two you’d have it all unraveled.”
“It was never that simple.”
“Wasn’t it?” Thea asked. His hand, forsaking the chain, had come to rest upon the generous swell of her belly. Her own settled over it. “You have a talent for ordering kingdoms. As for so much else.”
Beneath their hands life woke, rolling and kicking, a prominence that might have been a heel, a tight coil of body. The sudden light in Alf’s face made Thea’s breath catch. Her laughter showed it, light, not entirely steady. “He wears armor, that son of yours. And spurs.”
Alf’s arms linked behind her; he smiled his swift brilliant smile. “You don’t mind.”
“Not much, I don’t. Once he’s born, I’ll give as good as I get.”
He laughed softly and laid his cheek where his hand had been. She looked down upon the top of his head with its thick, fine, white-fair hair; the pale lashes on the pale cheeks, and the lingering curve of his smile. If she looked very closely in the candle’s flicker, she could discern the thickening of down that might, in time, become a beard.
She shook her head wryly. She had never met a man less vain, or with more reason to be; but sometimes she caught him in front of her mirror, frowning at his reflection.
It was always the same. Piercing-fair, luminous-pale, and very young. But the eyes as he stared into the polished silver, those were not a boy’s at all.
Nor was his voice, that had the purity of a tenor bell. “Marry me, Thea,” he said.
That ritual was years old. She completed it as she always had. “What! and ruin my reputation?”
“I’m thinking of our children.” Which was the new litany, nearly ten months old.
“So am I,” she said. “They’ll be beautiful little bastards.”
He stiffened a little at the word, relaxing with an effort. “They should not have to be—”
“It’s somewhat too late for that. And what priest would marry us? I’m a Greek, a schismatic. I won’t convert to Rome even for you, my love.”
“Jehan wouldn’t care. He should be here tomorrow—even today. He’d be more than glad to make us respectable.”
“Jehan would go to Hell for you if you asked him. But you won’t, nor will you ask him this. I won’t agree to it.”
He raised his head. He was neither hurt nor angry, only puzzled. “Why?”
“I love to be a scandal.”
“In this place,” he said, “that’s not easy.”
“Of course not. There’s Prince Aidan—he wanted a full court wedding. And his bride a wild Saracen, an honest-to- Heaven Assassin. It took ten years and five Popes and all his mighty powers of persuasion, but he had his way. Then the Archbishop wouldn’t say the words, and began a new battle royal. I have to work to keep up with that.”
He sighed; rose and stretched. He was tall; he could seem frail, with his long limbs and his moonflower skin. Now and then a stranger would think him fair prey, a lovely boy as meek as a girl; would prick him and find the hunting leopard.
It was not for his scholarship, or even for his feats in Chancery, that the King had dubbed him knight. “I wish you would see reason,” he said.
She smiled her most wicked smile “I see it now. You want to keep me to yourself. Fie for shame, sir! I’m a free woman; I can do as I please.”
His gaze rested upon her, clear as sunlit water and utterly undismayed. “There are two edges to that sword, my lady. Fidelity I gladly meet with fidelity. But if you, being free, decide to stray…”
He smiled sweetly. “Gwydion’s court is the fairest in the world. No lady in it surpasses you, but one or two could be your equal.”
Her teeth bared; her eyes went narrow and vicious, cat-wild. “I’ll claw her eyes out!”
Even in his amusement he reached for her, afraid, for she shifted and blurred. For an instant the woman’s form wavered behind that of a golden lioness tensed to spring. But the vision faded. Thea stood in her own form, glowing in amber silk, crackling with temper.
His hand retreated. He remembered to breathe again.
Her glare seared him. “And well you might tremble for provoking me so! Or do you want your son to be born a lion cub?”
He met her fierce witch-eyes. His own were milder but no more human; he smiled. “I want that for my son no more than you want it for your daughter.”
“She might profit from it.”
“Then so might he.” Alt took her hands and kissed them. “My sweet lady, you have no rival and you know it. And it’s only a little longer that you need suffer confinement to this single shape. When our children are born, when you’re strong again, we’ll run away for a while. An hour; a day. We’ll run wolf-grey through Broceliande; we’ll fly on falcon-wings. We’ll be like young lovers again.”
Her temper was cooling, but it smoldered still. “We, Alf? Are you going to forget your fears at last and venture the change?”
Slowly he nodded. “I’m ready,” he said. “At long last. I think, with you to share it, I could let go.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Alfred.”
His smile neither wavered nor weakened, although his fingers were cold. “I mean you to.”
“Good, because you’ve left yourself no choice at all.” She tilted her head slightly, looking up at him, making no secret of the pleasure she took in it.
His hands were warming again to their wonted fire-heat, that made him impervious to winter’s cold. He had willed his tension away, the old fear, the deep dread that struck in the midst of the change, when no part of his body was solid or stable and all his being threatened to scatter into the wind. But for all of that fear, he was a very great enchanter, equal to any of their people; save only, perhaps, the King.
“And you,” he said softly, caught in her mind as she was caught in his.
“In some of the arts,” she admitted, “maybe. In others you pass us all.” Her laughter had come back all at once to ripple over him. “Then, sir prophet, how is it that you cannot see? Jehan is here. Has been here this past hour and more.”
“You never—” He broke off. He knew her. Too well. “Witch! And you’ve let us dally here.”
“He’s had plenty to do. Gwydion gave him formal greeting first and a proper welcome after; all the Folk took it up. The last I saw, he had Anna on his knee and Nikki leaning on his shoulder, and he was telling tales to the whole court.”
He took it from her mind, whole and wonderful; with mirth at the vision of Anna Chrysolora, woman grown and much upon her dignity, enthroned in the lap of her beloved Father Jehan.
Bishop Jehan it was now, though that was not immediately obvious. He wore as always the coarse brown habit of a monk of Saint Jerome; he seemed larger than ever, a great Norman tower of a man, with a strong-boned, broken- nosed, unabashedly homely face.
As it turned to Alf, it was suddenly, miraculously beautiful. “Alf!” Jehan laughed for sheer pleasure as he held his friend at arm’s length, taking him in. “Alfred, you rogue, why didn’t you tell me about Thea?”
They had all drawn back, the court, the King, even Thea, watching, smiling. Alf was hardly aware of them. “I knew you were coming for Christmas Court,” he answered, “and that was more than time enough. You’ll do the christening, of course.”
“You’d be hard pressed to keep me from it.” Jehan’s grin kept escaping, stripping years from his face, bringing back the bright-eyed boy who had learned philosophy from a white elf-monk. But there was a ring on his finger, gold set with a great amethyst. Alf bent and kissed it.
“My homage to the Bishop of Sarum,” he said.
Jehan bowed in return. “And mine to the Chancellor of Rhiyana. We’ve been busy lately, you and I, rising in the world.”
“Every man receives his just deserts,” said Alf.
The young Bishop looked at him—something in any case that he could never get enough of—and smiled. Alf looked splendid. Quiet; content. As if he were home and at ease, and completely at peace with himself and his world. No troubles, no torments. No yearning for the cloister he had forsaken.
“I can hardly go back to it now,” he said, reading Jehan’s thoughts with the ease of long friendship.
Jehan laughed and glanced at Thea. “Hardly indeed! She’d never allow it.”
“Nor would I. We’re having twins, you know. A son for me, she says. A daughter for herself. It will only be the second birth among the Kindred in Rhiyana, the second time two of us together have made a child.” Alf smiled. “Prince Alun is more excited than I am. At last, while he’s still young enough to enjoy it, he’ll have cousins like himself.”
“Twelve this past All Hallows. We all spoil him shamefully, but somehow he manages to come out unscathed. That bodes well,” Alf added, “for the two who are coming.”
“Love never spoiled anyone,” Jehan said with pontifical surety.
He returned to the seat he had left, a bench set against the tapestried wall. The court eddied beyond, returned to its own concerns: the King on his throne with his Queen beside him, the high ones moving in the ancient pattern of courts, fixed and formal as a dance. Music had begun to play softly beneath the murmur of voices.
Alf settled beside Jehan. His eyes, changeful as water, had warmed to pale gold; he rested his arm on the wide shoulders. They had sat just so at their last meeting—was it five years ago already? And again, three before that; and three more. The same bench that first time, the same rich hanging portraying David with his harp and Jonathan at his feet, tall white-skinned black-headed youths, each with the same eagle-proud face.
Not that Jehan had noticed them that time, or troubled to find the models in the King and his princely brother—his nose had been new-broken then in celebration of his emergence from two years’ cloistered retreat, and though almost healed, it ached unbearably when the wind blew cold. Until Alf touched him with that wondrous healer’s touch and took the pain away, and would have worked full healing if Jehan had allowed it.
“Let be,” he had said, proud young priest-knight on the Pope’s errand. “It’s not as if I had any beauty to lose; and I earned the stroke. Entering a tournament with two months’ practice behind me and two years’ softening in a library, and letting myself be matched with the best man on the field. It’s a wonder he left my head on my shoulders.”
Alf had smiled and let be. But Jehan knew he knew. Helmless, reeling, half strangling in his own blood, with God and fate and the champion’s arrogance to aid him, Jehan had struck his adversary to the ground.
The tale had run ahead of him, embroidered already into a legend. Ladies sighed over him, whose face was all one hideous bruise from chin to forehead, as if he had been as beautiful as the man beside him.
The bruise was long gone, the face neither harmed nor helped by its broken arch. Soldier’s weathering was proving stronger than the scholar’s pallor, the lines setting firm, the hair beginning to retreat toward the tonsure. But he still had all his teeth, and good strong white ones they were; his strength had never been greater.
He drew a lungful of clean Rhiyanan air overlaid with woodsmoke and fresh rushes and a hint—a hint only—of humanity. The last of which, he knew certainly, did not come from his companion. Alf on shipboard, unbathed for a month save in sea water and toiling at the oars like any sailor, had no more scent than a child or a clean animal.
His eyes looked past Jehan, resting like a caress upon his lady, who held court near the fire. Lamplight and firelight leached all the humanity from his stare, turning the great irises to silvery gold, narrowing the pupils to slits.
So even in the chrysalid child could one mark his kind, the people called by many names: changelings, elf-brood, Fair Folk; children of the Devil, of the old dead gods, of the Jann; but in Rhiyana, the Kindred of the King. Though that was not a kinship the law or the Church would recognize, of blood and of family, save for the two who were brothers, twinborn, king and royal prince: David and Jonathan of the tapestry, Gwydion the King and Aidan his brother. The rest had come as Alf had from far countries, brought to this kingdom by the presence of its King.
There were perhaps a score of them. They ran tall, although there were knights of the court who overtopped the tallest; they were paler of skin than most, although some were ivory. Man and woman, or rather youth and maid, for the eldest looked hardly to have passed his twentieth year, each with the same cast of feature, narrow, high-cheeked, great-eyed. And the same beauty—a beauty to launch fleets of ships, to whistle kingdoms down the wind, fierce and keen and splendid as the light upon a sword.
And as changeable, and as changeless. Just so had Alf been, monk and master scholar of an abbey in the west of Anglia, ordained priest long years before Coeur-de-Lion was born. Just so had he been in the debacle that was the Crusade against Byzantium, when the Great City fell and a Prankish emperor ruled over the ruins. Just so was he now with king and emperor long in their graves, and so would he always be. Blade or bolt might end his life. Age and sickness could not.
It should have been unbearable, Jehan supposed. He found it comforting. A deep, warm, pagan comfort that his priest’s conscience chose not to acknowledge nor to condemn. Like the old Pope with his grimoires, who sang Mass with true devotion and called up his demons after, the scholar’s mind knew its divisions. In one, God and the Church and all the Canons. In the other, Alfred and his kin and his high white magic, and his perfect constancy. Whatever became of the world, he remained. Would always remain, a bright strong presence on the edge of Jehan’s awareness.
His physical presence was a rare and precious thing, to be savored slowly, in silence. But this time the pleasure could not last. Memory flooded, cold and deadly. Jehan’s muscles knotted.
Alf’s grip tightened, though gentle still, a mere shadow of his strength. He did not speak. A warmth crept from his arm and hand, soothing, loosening, healing.
Jehan set his teeth against it. “You’re perilous, you know,” he said, trying to be light, “like lotus flowers, or poppy. Won’t you let me suffer a bit? It’s good for my soul.”
“Is it?” Alf asked. “Not that I would know, who have none.” His glance was bright, full of mockery, but like Jehan’s own it had a bitter core.
Jehan flashed out against it. “You know that’s not true! You of all people in the world, who wrote the book for all our theologians to build on.”
“They build on Aristotle now,” Alf said, “and on the Lombard’s Sentences. Not on my Gloria Dei. Which may be almost as great as its flatterers make it, but it remains in its essence a testimony to one man’s pride. If man you may call him—and when he wrote it, a beardless brilliant boy of thirty-three, he knew that he was not.”
“You were scrupulous. You defined the soul according to Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Martianus. You quoted Scripture and the Fathers and every recorded authority all the way to the Lombard himself. You corrected the philosophers’ errors; you reconciled the canonists’ contradictions. But nowhere,” said Jehan, “did you exclude the possibility that you yourself, in your immortal body, might not possess an immortal soul.”
“I still had hopes then of my own mortality. Hopes only, but they were tenacious. They dissolved long before my vows.” Alt smiled with no appearance of strain. “It rather amuses me now. Arrogant innocent that I was, embodying all theology in a single book and sending my first copy direct to the Pope. As if all the vexed and vexing questions, answered, could encompass the reality of God—or even of a woman’s smile.”
“God and woman are great mysteries. But there’s some comfort in answered questions, and more in your book, however you shrug it away.”
“Not for me. And not for the busy scribblers in the schools or in the Papal Curia. They have no love for simple solutions, nor for my lamentable touch of mysticism. They’ll lock all the world into their Categories; any who fails to fit them must be anathema.”
Jehan shuddered deep and painfully. “You’re prophesying. Do you know that?”
“For once,” Alf answered, “yes. Tell me what you have to tell.”
“What need of that? You know already.”
But Jehan, whose ready tongue was famous, could not bring himself to begin. “The King—does he—”
He was on his throne in a circle of nobles, deep in converse with a portly prelate, the Archbishop of Caer Gwent.
He was the Elvenking. He could hear what no mere man could.
Jehan drew a slow breath. Foolish, he upbraided himself. It’s nothing so terrible. Tell it and have done!
His voice went at it cornerwise. “It’s been a bitter year, this past one. John Lackland of Anglia dead and buried, and a child crowned in Winchester; though it’s a strong regency we’ll have, and I’ll see my own country again. Pray God I can stay in it for more than a month at a time. I haven’t done that since Coeur-de-Lion died, close on twenty years now. But I’m going back in fine fettle, with a bishopric to hammer into shape, and a good number of friends at court and in the Church. I’ll do well enough. I could only wish…”
“You wish,” Alf said for him when he could not, “that Pope Innocent had not died hard upon the Anglian King, as if their long struggle for control of the See of Canterbury, once ended, left nothing for either to live for. And you wish that Innocent’s death hadn’t slipped the muzzles from his Hounds.”
“The Hounds of God.” It was a sour taste on Jehan’s tongue. “The Order of Saint Paul of the Damascus Road. Hunters of the Church’s enemies. Richard threw them out of Anglia for your sake; John at least had the sense to keep them out, and the Regents will see that they stay there. They’re not faring so splendidly well elsewhere, either. When the Cathari in Languedoc murdered the Pope’s legate, Innocent preached a Crusade against all heretics, and the Paulines swarmed in like flies to a carcass. But someone else had got there first: that Spanish madman, Domingo, and his Preachers. That was Innocent’s doing, who’d never had much use for his Hounds; he found them intractable.
“Now Innocent is dead and Honorius is Pope, and Domingo’s irregulars have been signed, sealed, and chartered: the Ordo Praedicatorum, with a particular mission to preach the Gospel to the lost sheep of Rome. But Honorius is no fool. He knows he doesn’t have Innocent’s power, or the sheer gall, to kennel God’s Hounds; and they’re yapping in his ear day and night. Languedoc? What’s Languedoc? A few villages full of Cathars, and a priest or two with a harem. There’s a better target in the north. Small but fabulously rich, ruled not by mere mortal heretics but by children of the Devil himself.”
“Rhiyana,” Alf said calmly.
“Rhiyana,” Jehan echoed him, without the placidity. “Or Rhiyanon, or Rhiannon. With such a name, how can it be anything but a lair of magic? And with such a king. Gwydion makes no secret of what he is, nor could he. The whole world knows how long he’s held his throne. Fourscore years, of which he shows a mere score-and he was a grown man when he began. Even the Pauline Father General doesn’t try to deny that the throne came to him from his safely mortal father. His mother was another matter. A woman of unearthly beauty, come out of Broceliande to love a young king, bearing his sons—and a daughter who died as mortal women die, though no one has much to say of that—and keeping her loveliness unaltered through long years; and when her lord died, vanishing away into the secret Wood, never to be seen again. It’s fine fodder for a romance. It’s meat and drink to God’s Hounds.”
Alf was silent, clear-eyed, unfrightened. Jehan’s hands fisted on his thighs. “Rome has always walked shy of Rhiyana. It’s never submitted to invasion, but neither has it encroached on its neighbors, nor meddled—publicly—where it wasn’t wanted. Its King is noted for his singularly harmonious relations with his clergy, is in fact a most perfectly Christian monarch, unstinting in either his gifts or his duties to Mother Church.
“True, he’s banned the Hounds from his domains, and he’s been strict in enforcing it. But it’s not the Hounds themselves who make me tremble. It’s not even the fabric of lies and twisted truths that they’ve woven around the Pope; they’ve been weaving it since their founding.” At last he let it go. “They’re preaching a Crusade.”
“Ah,” said Alf. “It’s no longer a mutter in the Curia. It’s a rumble in the mob.”
“It’s more than a rumble. It’s a delegation sent to investigate the Church in the realm, and it’s a gaggle of preachers mustering men in Normandy and Maine and Anjou. All your neighbors; not your great allies, but the little men who are their vassals, the barons with a taste for plunder, the mercenaries with a taste for blood. And the poor and the pious, who shrink from slaughtering their fellow man—however doctrinally misguided—but who would be more than glad to rid the world of a sorcerer king.”
“The delegation we know of,” Alf said. “It’s to arrive by Twelfth Night. A legate from the new Pope with a train of holy monks. They will, His Holiness informs us, undertake to ascertain that all is well with the Church in Rhiyana; that the clergy are doing their duty and that the King harbors no Jews or heretics.”
“God’s teeth!” cried Jehan. “How can you be so calm about it? Even without Gwydion’s lineage blazoned on his face for a blind man to see—even if the Folk can bottle up their magic and the human folk resist the Pope’s Inquisitors—they’ll all burn for the rest of it. Rabbi Gamaliel in his synagogue near the schools, the Heresiarchs debating the divinity of Christ with the Masters of Theology, and Greeks and Saracens mingling freely with good Christians in the streets. This kingdom is a very den of iniquity.”
“Monstrous,” Alf agreed. “Like the madman—heretic surely, and lost to all good doctrine—who proclaimed: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’”
Jehan realized that his mouth was open, gaping. He closed it with a snap, and suddenly laughed. “Alf! You’re dangerous.”
“I can hope so. For so are our enemies. Deadly dangerous; and for all our power, we of Gwydion’s Kin are very few. If I can hold off the attack by my wits and my tongue, mark you well, I will.”
“But it will come. I’m a mere man and no prophet, but I know that. I feel it in my bones.”
Alf said nothing. His eyes had returned to Thea. It was as clear as a cry: the love he bore her and the children she carried; the fear that he would not—could not—admit. And he was a seer. He knew what would come.
Jehan seized him with sudden fierce strength. “Alf. Go. Go soon. Go now. Go where nothing human can touch you.”
His heavy hands should have crushed those fine bones, but they were as supple as Damascus steel. “You can,” he pressed on in Alf’s silence, easing his grip a little, but not the intensity of his voice. “You told me years ago, when Gwydion gave you Broceliande. It’s only half in this world now—the Wood, the lands and the castles, even that part of the sea. You can close it off completely behind a wall of magic—”
“Power,” Alf corrected very gently.
“Isn’t it all the same?”
Alf’s face was unreadable, his eyes—slightly but clearly, damn him—amused.
Jehan persisted doggedly. “Gwydion was born in the Wood. He’s always meant to go back; to be King for as long as he’s needed, to withdraw gracefully, to vanish into legend. It’s all very pretty, very noble, and very much like Gwydion. But even he—he’s wise, the wisest king in the world, but I think he’s waited too long. If he goes now, before the delegation comes—if you all go—you’ll be safe. And Rhiyana won’t suffer.”
“Will it not?”
“How can it? You’ll all have vanished with perfectly diabolical cowardice. Rhiyana will be an unimpeachably human kingdom.”
“And Rabbi Gamaliel? The Heresiarch Matthias? Hakim bin Ali and Demetrios Kantakouzenos and Jusuf of Haifa? Not to mention my own dear brother and sister, the last of the House Akestas—what of them? Shall we abandon them to the Church’s tender mercies?”
Jehan’s fear turned to sheer annoyance. “Don’t tell me you haven’t found a refuge for each and every one of them, and all their goods and chattels.”
“If so,” Alf said, unruffled, “it’s not this way that we would go, like a flock of frightened geese.”
“Not even for your children’s sake?”
Alf went stark white. His eyes were truly uncanny, vague yet piercing, seeing what no other could see.
Abruptly they focused. Jehan saw himself mirrored in them, pale and shocked but set on his course. “Go,” he said. “Take a day if you must, settle your gaggle of friends and infidels, and leave. Or do you want to see Rhiyana laid waste around you, and your people under Interdict, and a stake on a pyre in every marketplace?”
Alf smiled. But the color had not returned to his face. “Jehan, my dearest friend and brother, we know exactly what we do. Trust us. Trust Gwydion at least, who rules us all. He’s known for long and long what must finally come to be, the payment for all his years of peace. He will not leave it to his poor people, who love him and trust him and look to him for protection. Only when they are truly and finally safe will he leave them.”
“But he is their danger. You all are. Without you—”
“Without us and with all our infidels gone to haven, the Crusade loses it target. Or does it? This is a land of fabled wealth, soft and fat with long idleness. A splendid prize for an army of bandits, far more splendid than poor ravaged Languedoc. Where, I remind you, my lord Bishop, the Cathari have been the merest of pretexts.” Gently, with no perceptible effort, Alf freed himself from Jehan’s grasp. “I grant you, the Crusade is our fault, for existing, for tarrying so long in the mortal world. But Crusades have a way of outgrowing their makers, like the demons in the tales, destroying the sorcerers who invoked them.”
Jehan knew that as well as Alf. He had been to Constantinople. He had helped to shatter that city in a war that had begun in order to free the Holy Sepulcher; had twisted and knotted and broken, turning from a Crusade against the Saracen into the gaining of a throne for an exiled Byzantine prince, and thence into an outright war of conquest.
“Yes,” Alf said, following his thoughts. “But this will be no Byzantium. Not while Gwydion is King.”
“Or while Alfred is Chancellor.” Suddenly Jehan was very tired. He had ridden all the endless way from Rome into the teeth of winter, striving to outrace the Pope’s men. He was not old, but neither was he so very young; and he had a long battle ahead of him in his own country, a bishopric to claim and defend, a kingdom to aid in ruling. And this was no land and no people of his—by his very vows he should have shunned them.
And yet, like the great, half-witted, ridiculously noble fool that he was, he loved them. Alf, Thea, the two young Greeks they had brought out of the fallen City; Gwydion and his Queen and his fiery brother and all his wild magical Kin; even the land itself, the prosperous towns, the green burgeoning farmsteads, the woods and the fields, the windy headlands and the standing stones.
Certainly he was a bad priest and very probably he was damned, but he could not help it. He could not even wish to.
Alf’s hands were warm and firm upon him, Alf’s eyes as gentle as they were strange. “God knows,” he said softly, “and God is merciful. Nor has He ever condemned love truly and freely given. To do that would be to deny Himself.”
So wise, he, to look such a boy.
Alf laughed. Jehan flushed, for that was a thought he had not meant to be read. “Didn’t you, brother?” The thin strong hands drew him up. “Come. It’s a bed you need now, and a long sleep, and a day or two of Rhiyana’s peace. That much at least is left to us all.”