Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (44 page)

The sun had set, but it was a clear night, and three moons were in the sky. He thought of that as a lucky omen, but when he rode up to the gates of the Great Hall the gates were barred against him, and when he dismounted and beat on them, the voice of his father’s old
coridom
, Gwynn, came gruffly though: “Be off with you? Who rides here when honest folk be abed? If you ha’ business with Dom Rafael, come back by daylight when the rogues run back to their dens!”
“Open this gate, Gwynn,” Bard shouted, laughing, “for it is the Kilghard Wolf, and if you do not I shall leap the wall, and make you pay blood money if the rogues get my home! What, would you bar me from my father’s hearthside?”
“Young Master Bard! Is it really you? Brynat, Haldran, come here and unbar these gates! We heard you were on your way, young sir, but who’d think that you’d come at this hour?” The gate swung wide. Bard dismounted and led his horse in, and old Gwynn came and fumbled one-handed to embrace him. He was ancient, gray and stooped; he walked lamely, and one arm had been taken off at the elbow when he had held the towers of the Great Hall single-handed before Bard was born, and hidden the lady, Dom Rafael’s first wife, in the lofts. For that service, Dom Rafael had sworn that none but old Gwynn should ever be
coridom
while he lived, and while the old man was long past his office, he jealously held on to it, refusing to let any younger man take over for him. He had shown Bard his first moves at swordplay when Bard was not seven years old. Now he hugged and kissed him, saying, “Foster father, why are the gates barred in this peaceful countryside?”
“There’s no peace anywhere these days, Master Bard,” the old man said soberly. “Not with the Hasturs swearing all this land round here is theirs from away back, land that’s been held all these years by the di Asturiens—why, the very name
Asturias
means
land of di Asturiens;
how come all these damned Hasturs try to claim it? And now folk at Hali swearing to make all this one land under their tyrants, and trying to take weapons away from honest folk so we’ll all be at the mercy of cutthroats and bandits! Oh, Master Bard, it’s evil days in this land since you went away!”
“I heard King Ardrin was dead,” Bard said.
“True, sir, and young Prince Beltran murdered by assassins, about that same time you left us, sir, though between you and me I’ve never been sure that Hastur who’s trying to claim the throne now didn’t have some hand in it. He and the young prince rode out together, so they said, and only one of them came back, and of course it was the Hastur, and him a dirty
laranzu
and sandal-wearer. So with Beltran dead, and Queen Ariel fled out of the country—Dom Rafael said it, when the old king died,
‘That land fares ill where the king’s but a babe,’
and sure enough, they’re fighting all up and down the land, and honest folk can’t get their crops in for the bandits in the fields, if it’s not the soldiers! And now, I hear, if the Hasturs win this war they’ll take away all our weapons, even bows for hunting, leave us with no more than daggers and pitchforks, and if they have their way, I dare say a shepherd won’t be allowed to carry a club to keep off the wolves!”
He added, taking the reins of Bard’s horse with his good arm, “But come away in, sir, Dom Rafael’s going to be glad to hear you’ve come!” He shouted for a couple of grooms to come and unsaddle him, to carry his packs inside the Great Hall, and to bring lights and servants; in a little while, there were people running everywhere in the courtyard, dogs barking, noise and confusion.
Bard said, “I wonder, has my father gone to bed?”
“No, sir,” said the childish voice almost under his feet, “for I told him you would come tonight; I saw it in my starstone. And so grandsire waited for you in the Hall.”
Old Gwynn started back in dismay.
“Young Master Erlend!” he said crossly. “Ye’ve been forbidden the stables, ye uncanny wee man, you might have been trampled under all the horses! Yeur mammy will be angry with me!”
“The horses know me, and my voice,” said the child, coming out into the light. “They won’t step on me.” He looked to be about six years old, small for his age, and with a great mop of curly red hair, like freshly minted copper in the torchlight. Bard knew who he must be, even before the boy bent his knee in an odd, old-fashioned bow, and said, “Welcome home to you, sir my father, I wanted to be the first to see you. Gwynn, you must not be afraid, I shall tell Grandsire not to be angry with you.”
Bard scowled down at the boy. He said, “So you are Erlend.” Strange that he had not thought of that; Melisendra had had the red hair of the old kindreds, bred into them generations ago, the blood of the Hastur kin, of Hastur and Cassilda; but he had not thought that the boy might be
laran
gifted. “And you know who I am, then?” How, he wondered, had Melisendra spoken of him?
“Yes,” he said, “I have seen you in my mother’s mind and memory, though more when I was smaller than now; now she is too busy, she says, bringing up a great boy like me, to have time for remembering the past days. And I have seen you in my starstone, and Grandsire has told me that you are a great warrior, and that you are called Wolf. I think perhaps I would like to be a great warrior too, though my lady mother said that more likely I will be a
laranzu,
a wielder of magic like
her
father. May I look at your sword, Father?”
“Yes, certainly.” Bard smiled at the small, serious boy, and knelt beside him, drawing his sword from the sheath. Erlend laid a small, respectful hand on the hilt. Bard started to warn him not to touch the blade, then realized that the boy already knew better. He sheathed the blade and swung the boy to his shoulder.
“So my son is the first to welcome me home after all these years of exile, and that is very fitting,” he said. “Come with me when I greet my father.”
The Great Hall seemed smaller than when he had last seen it, and shabbier. A long, low room, stone-floored, with the shields and banners of generations of di Asturien men hanging on the walls, and weapons too old for use displayed there too: pikes, and the old spears which were too clumsy for the close in fighting of the day, and tapestries woven hundreds of years ago, showing old gods and goddesses, the harvest goddess driving a banshee from the fields, Hastur sleeping on the shores of Hali, Cassilda at her loom. The stone floor was uneven under foot, and a fire was burning at each end of the long hall. At the far end, women were clustered together, and Bard heard the sound of a
rryl;
at the near fireside, Dom Rafael di Asturien rose from his armchair as Bard came near with his son in his arms.
He was wearing a long indoor gown of woven dark-green wool with embroideries at neck and sleeves. The di Asturien men were blond, all of them, and Dom Rafael’s hair was so light it was impossible to see whether it was graying, or not; but his beard was white. He looked very much as he had looked when Bard had last seen him, only thinner, his eyes somewhat sunken as if with worry.
He held out his arms, but Bard set Erlend down on his feet, and knelt to his father. He had never done this to any of the overlords he had served in his seven years of exile.
“I have come back, my father,” he said, sensing somewhere in his mind the surprise of his son, that his father, the renowned warrior and the outlaw, should kneel to his grandfather just as the vassals did. He felt his father’s hand touch his hair.
“Take my blessing, son. And whatever gods there are, if any, be praised that they have brought you safely back to me. But then, I never doubted that. Get up, dear son, and embrace me,” Dom Rafael said, and Bard, obeying, saw the lines in his father’s face and felt the sharp thinness of his bones. He thought, with shock and dismay,
Why, he is already old. The giant of my youth is already an old man!
It troubled him, that he was taller than his father, and so much broader that he could have lifted him in his arms as he had done with Erlend!
So swiftly had the years passed, while he fought in strange wars in foreign lands!
Time has left its hand heavy on me too
, he thought, and sighed.
“I see that Erlend came to greet you,” Dom Rafael said, as Bard joined him on the seat before the fire. “But now you must away to your bed, grandson; what was your nurse thinking of, to let you out into the night so late?”
“I suppose she was thinking I was already in bed, for that is where she left me,” Erlend said, “but I felt it most seemly to go and greet my father. Good night, Grandsire, good night, sir,” he added, with his funny, precocious little bow, and Dom Rafael laughed as he went out of the hall.
“What a little wizard he is! Half the serving folk are afraid of him already,” he said, “but he is clever and well grown for his years, and I am proud of him. I wish, though, that you had told me that you had gotten Melisendra with child. It would have saved her, and me too, some angry words from my Lady; I did not know that Melisendra was being kept virgin for the Sight. And so we all suffered, for Jerana was wonderfully cross, to lose her
leronis
so young.”
“I did not tell you because I did not know,” Bard said, “and Melisendra’s foresight could not have been so wonderful after all, if it did not keep her out of my chamber when I was alone and wanting a woman.” After he said it he was a little ashamed, remembering that he had given her, after all, no choice in the matter. But, he told himself, if Melisendra had half as much
laran
as that red hair promised, she would never have fallen victim to that compulsion anyhow! He could not, for instance, have done it to Melora.
“Well, at least her son is handsome and clever, and I see you had him brought up in this house instead of fostering him out to some nobody!”
His father said, staring into the fire, “You were going into outlawry and exile. I feared he should be all I had left of you. And in any case,” he added, defensively, as if he were ashamed of this weakness, “Jerana had not the heart to separate Melisendra from her baby.”
Bard reflected that he had never suspected Lady Jerana of having any heart at all, so that was no surprise to him. He did not want to say that to his father, so he said, “I see that his mother has taught her son some of her craft too; already he bears a starstone, young as he is. And now enough of women and children, Father. I thought you would already have moved against that damned upstart of a Hastur who has tried to make himself master of this land.”
“I cannot move against Geremy at once,” said Dom Rafael, “for he still has Alaric in his keeping. I sent for you to try to devise some way to get your brother back, so that I can move freely against these Hasturs.”
Bard said, enraged, “Geremy is a snake whose coils lie everywhere! I had him in my hand once, and forebore to kill him. Would I had been as foresighted as you say Melisendra was!”
“Oh, I bear the boy no ill will,” Dom Rafael said. “In his boots I should have taken the same step, no doubt. He was hostage at Ardrin’s court for the good will of King Carolin of Thendara! I have no doubt Geremy grew to manhood knowing that if ill will came between Ardrin and Carolin, his own head would be the first to fall, be he ever so much the foster-brother of Ardrin’s son! And speaking of Ardrin’s sons—you knew, did you not, that Beltran was dead?”
Bard set his teeth and nodded. Some day he would tell his father how Beltran had come to die; but not now. “Father,” he asked what he had never thought to ask before. “Was I hostage at Ardrin’s court for your good behavior?”
“I thought you had known that all your life,” Dom Rafael said. “Ardrin never trusted me overmuch. Yet, no doubt, Ardrin valued you at your true worth, or he would never have promoted you to his own banner bearer, nor set you above his own son. You flung that away by your own folly, my boy, but you seem to have prospered in these years of exile, so we will say no more of that. But while you, and then Alaric, were at his court, Ardrin knew I would make no trouble, nor strive with him for the throne, though my claim to sit there was as good as his own, and better than that of his younger son. Now, however, with both Ardrin and Beltran dead, it would be catastrophe, in times like these, for a baby king to reign—rats make havoc in the kitchen when the cat’s a kitten! If you are with me—”
“Can you doubt that, Father?” Bard asked, but before he could speak further, a woman came from the woman’s fire, slender, with graying hair, clad in a richly embroidered and braided robe.
“So you are back again, foster son? Seven years outlawry seem to have done you no very great harm, after all. Indeed,” she added, looking at his fur-trimmed garb, the jeweled dagger and sword hanging at his side, the warrior’s braid banded with jewels, “you must have prospered in the foreign wars! This is no wolf’s pelt!”
Bard bowed to the Lady Jerana. He thought,
still the same sour-faced, ill-spoken bitch, it would take three times seven years to make any improvement in her, and the best improvement would be a shroud
, but in seven years he had learned not to say everything that came into his head.
“Seven years indeed have made small change in you, foster mother,” he said, and her smile was sour.
“Your manners, at least, are much improved.”
“Why,
domna,
I have lived seven years by my wits and my sword; in such lands and circumstances, lady, one improves quickly or one dies, and as you see, I still walk among the living.”
“But your father is remiss in hospitality,” Lady Jerana said. “He has offered you no refreshment. How came you to ride so late in such times?” she added when she had signaled to her servants to bring food and wine.
“Is it so unsafe,
domna?
Old Gwynn said something of this, but I thought, at his age, his wits might well have gone roving.”
“His wits are clear enough,” Dom Rafael said. “It is I who have given orders for the gates to be barred every night at sunset, and that every beast and man and woman and child shall be within the walls. And I have set rangers to ride the borders, with beacon fires to warn us if more than three riders are sighted in a party—which is why we did not welcome you properly. It never occurred to us that you would ride alone, without bodyguard or paxman or even serving manor squire!”

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