The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part three)
The mustering grounds, within the ramparts of the fort, met my eyes dressed in the panoply of a fair day. I had never thought to see the inside of a garrison’s stronghold.
And could not imagine the fort in its sobriety…
The Prince had ordered entertainments, fights staged for joy, mounted men driving at each other, a melee fought with clubs. The injured carried off the field to cheers, half-melodious chants in the northern tongue, making of my death-battle with Mumas a triviality…not even the best of shows on the day’s ticket. The Prince had invited guests to sit with him, their couches (and the viands’ braziers, the roasting meat and spiced wine warming, the servants tending these noble spectators, their knights on bored alert) under a canopy, on the rampart at my right hand, entering.
Sited on its promontory, the fort had high and steep walls, outside…and far down among the rocks, secret ways, it was said, so siege could never defeat us, while our fort defended us; inside, the walls might be only twice my height, gained by stairways from the gallery of the stronghold itself, in whose warrens were housed the general quarters, weapons-stores, kitchens, stables, treasury.
And so the Prince had the magnificent view, seaward, if he preferred it. The sky was blue and cloudless, the sun kind, warm. The sea cared her least on such days as she wore her greatest beauty, her sapphire mantle…and sang songs of her own…for our brave banners, our jugglers, our pipes and drums.
“Bid it approach,” someone said.
I stood unseconded, unescorted. The voice was Elberin’s. Knowing him, quashing useless astonishment that he should be here, I obeyed my old master. I did not wait to be bidden.
“Will you bow before your Prince?”
I stood too far below. A stone wall draped in cloths stitched with insignia, loomed between myself and the eyes, hidden, that apparently could see me.
“I will bow. But I don’t know the form, so you will add that to my list of offenses. In the style of my own country, and yours, Elberin.”
I bowed, and a laughter which was the Prince’s rose above the others. I had not belonged to Elberin, and still he had profited by the selling of me. I had not called him Vlan, before these men of high rank.
“And so, Vlan, you see. Now, wait also for the outcome. This creature…”
Elberin had found his comeuppance for me ready to hand, as I might have guessed, in tendering his own humility to the Prince. His dry laugh cut abruptly.
“…enjoys the Giver’s guardianship. There will be some twist to the story.”
“Then let us have the end of it now.”
These words were enough for the Prince’s competent underling. I heard his running feet fade along the parapet, and soon he was crossing the field, tapping men on the shoulder. Some game with a ball, the object that this was not to touch earth, for its novelty played ringed by our own foot soldiers, was shouted into default, victory to the side that scurried away smug.
Nervousness seized me.
The field was mudded and pocked. I thought of Mumas and his bleached summer tunic; guilty, I thought that I had known him but one summer… Yet this must be habit, or character, so far as character were divined from habit. He cared for this in his appearance, Mumas, that his garments be white, as one who can have his horses saddled by a servant, a man of refinement…was it possible?
All this delving felt sick-making to me, taking what I could see of him in memory, subterfuge my aim, so that if I might prey on his weaknesses, I might destroy him. But, for the space of a minute or two, while these temptings and loathings flickered, I asked myself, is fastidiousness for clothing a thing, even, that goes deep in the grain? Would it catch at his attention, a lifelong disgust of dirt, if I worked him towards a miry patch, and then—
Stol, with his question, had made me think. Could I kill a man with a blow?
Could I play this war-maker’s game with subtlety enough, drop my shield, as we’d rehearsed, hit Mumas, ducking when he swung, at the knee, slicing sinews, my hand darting behind his leg? If I did this, would he fall, and the curved thickness of the shield’s edge catch him by the ear, as his horse’s hoof had caught Lom?
If I could ask so much of the gods, I thought. Mumas dead by a sort of fatefulness, not needing to be an act that I had done.
“What do you suppose all this delay is?”
Stol was beside me. The tone of his question seemed too conversational; he was speculating aloud, irritated that his groomed fighter be toyed with, that the Prince had such slight honor as to command this battle, and to not respect it. He had said enough to me in our time together that I knew this of his mind, while in fact he did not wait my answer, but moved to tackle a knight of the Prince, who wandered in our direction, helmeted face blank, as to offer encouragement or dismissal.
“Why do they not begin? Why have they not marked out the field and cleared those stragglers?”
The knight laughed. He came and put his hand on my head, in the way of someone measuring playfully, making conspicuous the puniness of another. But, and it did not surprise, he spoke none of our language. He drew his long knife and feinted it at me, and said something to Stol that ended in a shrug.
There was a shout, well down the field, the import seeming that the game was over. Not, I suppose, of the shout itself, but the head-hanging posture of those near the tower’s base, who stumped disorganizedly towards emptying stalls, where little refreshment was left to be purchased.
I said it myself, to Stol. “What now? The Prince has not ordered the combat off?”
“Your rival does not appear. I say you have won…and I don’t know what it is.”
It was a stranger expressed himself in this way, and not badly, for a northerner. For neither can I say what it was I won that day. I had expected a desperate hurling at my opponent all I had in strength, all I could conjure in cunning, all that my muscles, so sore and over-tried, could be driven to, to serve me…
And here, while the crowd milled disconsolate, while I, and Stol, and our comrade of a passing moment stood, facing in a circle, none facing the tower, a figure dropped from its crown…they said they saw it, some who were there.
I did not. I heard only, far off, a wet crunch, and shrieks.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)