Read The Summer's King Online

Authors: Cherry; Wilder

The Summer's King

The Summer's King

Cherry Wilder

The Captain-General brought the king a letter. It was bound with a strip of leather to the shaft of an arrow; the watch had found it embedded in the trunk of a plum tree. In the night an archer had fired it across the moat.

The letter was written in an Eildon hand and addressed to “The High and Mighty Prince, Sharn Am Zor, King of the Chameln, who shares the double throne.”

You will bring no bride out of Eildon. Know this and, while you can, hold yourself and your champions far from the Tourney of All Trees and the vigil that will follow. Do this for those who love you and respect your ancient line. There is still time for you to forswear this tournament because of the injury to the Lord Denwick or for some other ground. For if you once take part in these ceremonies, you will be bound, by Eildon custom, to follow the ritual or suffer a disgrace that is worse than death for a true knight. Heed this entreaty, noble Sharn, and know that the one who risks great pain and penalty to send this warning is your true friend.

The Rulers of Hylor trilogy

A Princess of the Chameln

Yorath the Wolf

The Summer's King

PART I

THE KING'S PLEASURE

CHAPTER I

ACHAMAR

In Achamar, in the wooden Palace of the Zor, the young King Sharn lies asleep. His chamber, widened at his own command, is a lake of quiet with the huge curtained bed, rich with the shining cloths of Lien, floating like a barge upon the lake. Prickett and Yuri, the two valets, make excursions to peer at their master, stepping on the scattered fur rugs. The pillow beside his own is dented; Yuri, a boy from the northern tribes, reaches in and lifts a long shining hair from this pillow. Prickett, an older man, from Lien, catches the boy's wrist. He takes the long, dark hair, winds it round his finger and casts it on the floor.

The king lies on his back, uncovered to the waist. Relaxed in sleep he is still as beautiful as a god, his features strong and regular, his lips perfectly shaped, his teeth white and even. His golden hair clings to his forehead in damp peaks; on a thin golden chain about his neck he wears some small token. His hands are large and well shaped; he wears no rings. Under blue-veined lids his eyes move: the king is dreaming.

He is a boy, running through a maze of roses. He comes up against a smaller boy, his brother Carel, and pushes him into the thorny wall of the maze. He runs and runs, and no one can catch him; women in billowing gowns snatch at him, screaming half in anger, half in admiration. He runs on over sand, over grass, over thick carpet embroidered with flowers, and behind him he hears the sound of hoofbeats. The giant horse, riderless, pounds after him. It is a light bay, strong and fierce, with a wild bloodshot eye and bared teeth. He is trapped now, the dream has become a nightmare. He runs through a ruined building, shadowy and terrifying, and sees a man dressed in motley beckoning from an arched doorway. “Here, lad . . .” But as Sharn darts into cover, he trips over a rope hidden in the grass and brings down a wooden stand piled with arms and armor. The swords, spears, shields, helmets, suits of mail, come cascading down upon him with a loud, brazen clangor that dwindles into the gentle tinkling of a silver bell . . .

A shaft of sunlight touches the king's face as he opens his eyes. Yuri has hauled back the long hanging at a southern window and Prickett has drawn the bed curtains. He gives the silver bell a final shake. Sharn, awake on the instant, raises a hand to shield his face from the sunlight. A new day as king. He remembers what day it is. He remembers his dream. Straightaway he gets up, steps down from the high bed, thrusts his arms into the silken bedgown the valets are holding for him. Halfway to his bathroom he smiles and speaks, his eye lighting upon Yuri, as if seeing him for the first time.

“The trumpeters . . .” he says.

“Yes, Dan Sharn,” says the boy, bobbing his head. “Yes, all ready.”

Beyond the carved and painted door of the bedchamber, there is a murmuring and a rustling. Sharn moves deliberately from the bathroom back to his bed again. The pillows have been turned and piled high, the curtains drawn back. He settles himself comfortably; Prickett smoothes the featherbed and the embroidered coverlet. Yuri pulls on the wrist-thick bellcord that hangs beside the fireplace. The doors of the bedchamber are flung wide; twenty people in livery or court dress come tumbling into the room. It is the king's awakening.

There is no need for the king to speak to any of those who have come to dress him and offer him drinks, perfume. Sometimes, after a festival, when everyone, the king included, has had far too little sleep, he may go through the whole awakening, the bath, the robing, without a word. But if the ritual falters—Prickett has said this to Yuri more than once—if even a close friend or the privileged lady who has not long left the King's side forgets the order of the vessels on the tray, lets fall a towel, trips on the steps of the bed, then watch out for fireworks. Yuri watches hopefully, day after day, but the king is gracious, pleasant.

On this day of all days, one of the new torch-bearers, Denzil of Denwick, drops the tray with a clatter. Beakers of fresh milk, wine, fruit juice go crashing down to the polished floor.

“Zilly, you clumsy idiot!” shouts Sharn Am Zor. “Are you trying to kill me!”

He bounds out of the other side of his bed and strides off to his bath, with those gentlemen whose duty it is to wash the king stumbling after him. The remaining courtiers step back; the liveried servants clean up the mess. Yuri wants to leap forward and help, but Prickett holds him back.


Their
duty,” he whispers. And when the silver tray is carried away and the floor cleaned, “
Now
. . .” he says.

The two valets march forward, strip the bed, hand part of its linen to a waiting laundrymaid. Prickett flashes a glance to remind the new Master of the Bedchamber, the young Count Caddah, a gangling southerner, of his duty. The signal is given for the royal wardrobe and four servants wheel from one of the adjoining rooms the wooden rack bearing the king's attire for the day, together with a tall draped mirror upon a stand.

As the courtiers and servants hang about waiting for the king to return, a very old and privileged lady, the dowager Countess Palazan Am Panget, Holder of the Royal Jewels, is heard to make a loud remark in the Old Speech. None of the newcomers from Lien understand her and those Chameln nobles who do look shocked.

“What was that?” hisses Prickett.

Yuri cannot keep a grin off his face. “She said, ‘How much more simply this is done in the Palace of the Firn, without all this Lienish ceremony.'”

“Old hag!” murmurs Prickett. “She thrives on ceremony.”

The king returns at last. He is in an angry mood, and the reason is plain to see. He wears Chameln underwear: a short linen chemise, linen underdrawers to the knee and white silk and wool stockings. The fine clothes waiting on the rack are Chameln clothes fit for a king, and the king hates them. He is almost pouting as the ladies and gentlemen persuade him into the long white doeskin breeches, the long, heavily embroidered tunic of blue velvet and softest yellow leather, and, at last, the brown and gold boots.

The clothes fit perfectly and are very becoming. Sharn Am Zor allows his hair to be brushed and combed. He selects from the tray offered by the Countess Am Panget a gold ring with a ruby, a silver ring in the shape of a fox's mask, with eyes of amethyst, a heavy gold chain with a pendant of amber. He waves away the tray, refuses a hand mirror, a glass of wine, an elixir to give sweet breath, but accepts a lace-edged handkerchief offered by the dark-haired beauty, Lady Seyl. At last the king, gorgeously arrayed, stands poised before the long mirror. Caddah again gives the signal, and Yuri reefs away the silken cloth.

Sharn Am Zor reels back with a cry; a woman screams, other nobles and servants gasp or cry out. Even Veddera the palace barber, the man with the steadiest hand at the court of the Zor, drops his tray of instruments. Yuri, in terror lest he has done something wrong, is ready to fling himself down on the polished floor. He peers at the mirror and cries out.

“Cover the glass!” shouts the king.

Prickett snatches the cloth from Yuri and blots out the sight.

“Out! Clear the chamber!” cries Sharn Am Zor. “Zilly, Seyl . . . stay with me.. . .”

There is a blind rush for the door. Some of the courtiers are insulted; others, who were not following, are baffled. The Countess Am Panget spills the jewels; Prickett rescues a pearl ring and pockets it. The old lady is borne on out of the room crying, “What was it? What did he see?”

The three young men, Sharn and his two closest companions, stand before the mirror, and Yuri is told to lift the cloth again. They behold, as calmly as they can, a sparkling mist, and in it a dark point of light. It grows quickly into the figure of a man in a robe of midnight blue. He is pale-faced, with flowing hair of a distinctive dark red. Yuri has never seen the man, the sorcerer, before, but Prickett trembles. He recognizes Rosmer, the Vizier of the Markgraf of Lien.

“What do you want with me?” demands Sharn Am Zor.

In spite of the wild extravagance of his sudden appearance, Rosmer is matter-of-fact.

“Majesty,” he says, “I must speak of your sister and brother, Princess Merilla and Prince Carel.”

“What about them?”

“They are gone,” says Rosmer. “They went riding yesterday afternoon and did not return to the royal manor.”

“Alldene?” asks the king.

“Hodd,” says Rosmer. “They have ridden off, I believe, in the direction of the Nesbath road.”

“You believe!” cries the king. “Should I believe you, old toad!”

“Majesty,” says Rosmer humbly, “I tell you for their safety. The princess has run off to join you and taken her brother . . .”

“Are they alone?” ventures Denzil of Denwick. “No servants?”

“One servant, lord,” says the magician, “and they are all well mounted.”

“I will see to them,” says the king. “I will receive them. I hope this is not another of your damnable tricks. The princess was summoned to Achamar, but my Uncle Kelen would keep her in Lien!”

“The Markgraf Kelen and the Markgräfin Zaramund are gravely concerned,” says Rosmer, smooth as ever. “They send their greetings to the Daindru . . .”

Sharn inclines his head, barely acknowledging the greeting. With an effort, twisting the rings upon his fingers, he asks in a low choking voice, “How fares Queen Aravel, my mother?”

“The queen is quiet,” says Rosmer. “She has not been told.”

There is a moment of silence. Outside in the palace garden an officer shouts a command.

“Majesty,” says Rosmer, “that is my message, brought in haste, for the safety of the princess and the prince.”

“I have the message then!”

“Majesty . . . Dan Sharn, may I say—”

“Get out of my sight!”

The magician raises a hand, veiling his face with a wide blue sleeve. As he turns himself about, the mirror clouds and presently gives back the image of the young king, magnificently dressed, frowning and pale.

Sharn turns to his companions. The three young men talk softly, their heads together, and Prickett sighs and smiles. This is how they took counsel as boys, in Lien, in the schoolroom at Alldene. Seyl is the most sensible and cool-headed; Denwick is rueful, anxious. The leader, then as now, is the king. He walks through the royal apartments, flanked by the two torch-bearers, with that proud, swift, striding walk that carries him ahead of every gathering, past every outstretched hand and eager glance.

“Send Engist to the garrison at once,” he says. “Company of kedran to ride south. Curse Rilla and Carel for putting me to this trouble.”

Yuri and Prickett fling open succeeding doors, and the king marches down a deserted corridor, newly paneled to hide the Chameln walls of intricate reedwork over the ancient wood. Guards shout, bells ring, the king is proceeding to breakfast.

In the sunlit lower eastern hall the commotion of the king's approach can be heard far off, and the hearts of all the petitioners beat faster. They do not know that their case is hopeless. Tradition permits a few chosen petitioners of every estate to stand in this hall before the green saloon where the king breakfasts, but there is no power in heaven and earth to make the king speak to a petitioner before breakfast. They are permitted to stand in the hall every morning for eight days, hoping for the royal lightning to strike before they take their petitions through other, more tedious channels.

When the king comes down a few steps into the lower eastern hall, he passes within a few feet of a short, dark young man in the riding dress of the northern tribes. He is booted to the thigh and wears a short flaring tunic of dark red and a blue cloak embroidered with stags. His draped scarlet hat with a jeweled band marks him out as a chief's son. Today is his last day. He has been standing in the hall every morning for seven days, poised, alert, hopeful, holding in his right hand a scroll of parchment: his petition.

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