Authors: Christopher Stasheff
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction; Fantasy; Magic, #Science Fiction, #Fiction - Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Fantasy - Epic, #Fantasy Fiction, #Epic, #Fantasy - General, #Wizards
The horse was steaming, and Matt was fuming. They clattered in over the drawbridge and past the guards with nothing but a perfunctory grunt. They exchanged a glance and shook their heads.
Matt pulled up by the stables and tossed the reins to the first groom who came running, then turned away on his heel, stalking toward the towering bulk of the keep. The groom stared after him, shocked--the Lord Wizard was unfailing in his politeness, with always time for a cheerful word or two.
But Her Majesty's Wizard was anything but cheerful, and in no mood to be polite to anyone, least of all Her Majesty. The fact that he had to ride a mere horse only made things worse. Of course, he had had to be content with ordinary mounts since his dragon friend Stegoman had gone gallivanting off with his other friend Sir Guy on an errand of errantry, a gallant mission to save the kingdom of Ibile from the wretched stew of sorcery it had simmered into over the last two hundred years--and, at the moment, Matt wished most ardently that he had gone with them. The danger seemed of relatively little importance compared to the simple fact of a mission worth undertaking. Not like this last little fracas, which...!
He stormed up to the doors of the royal apartments, but as he laid hold of the handle, a sentry leaped forward, albeit with trepidation. "Nay, my Lord Wizard! Her Majesty hath not given leave!"
"Too right she hasn't!" Matt snarled. Alisande seemed to have developed an aversion to Matt's company lately, probably because every time he saw her, he pressed her to set a date for their wedding: But they had been engaged for three years now, so it wasn't surprising that Matt was getting a little impatient. It was time to have it out with her. He yanked the door open and stormed into the corridor, trailing a howling wake of horrified sentries and servants. The queen looked up from her writing, blue eyes wide in surprise, then in outrage.
It almost stopped Matt--not her rage, but her beauty. The oval face was framed in a cascade of blond hair, unbound here in her private apartments, and set off perfectly by the mauve of her casual gown.
"Why don't you just say you don't want me around anymore?" Matt slapped his gloves down on the table. "That last trip was something any village magician could have taken care of. No, strike that--he would have sent his apprentice!"
"I did not deem a plague of locusts a trivial matter, Lord Wizard!" Alisande said in a voice that would have frozen penguins. "It may be of little moment to you, but the poor peasant folk thereabout thought it disastrous!"
"Sure, because their village magician had dropped dead two years ago, and their baron was too cheap to hire a replacement! And don't tell me you didn't know that!"
"Assuredly, I did--and thought it your office to see to it! What, must I undertake every smallest matter myself? Have I none to aid me?"
"Oh, come off it with the wounded violet routine! You could have told me why the baron didn't have a magician, and I would have sent one out." Alisande's gaze faltered. "Mayhap, yet still 'twas thy duty to see to his installation."
"And just conveniently put myself out of your way for a fortnight, so you didn't have to worry about my importuning you!"
Alisande tried to bring her gaze back up to his, but didn't quite manage it.
"Wherefore ought I find concern..."
"Because I keep pressing you to set the date! Which is scarcely surprising, considering how long we've been engaged! But every time I bring up the subject of marriage, you keep putting me off--and off, and off. Meanwhile, I hang around here like your tame poodle--just another ornament for your palace, never getting to do anything I really want to do!"
"Not what you wish! Pray Heaven any of us could do what we wished! And what is it you wish to do?"
Alisande took a deep breath, fighting for patience and trying to still her beating heart. "It shall come some day, Lord Wizard."
"Yes, I understand it will. I seem to remember some sort of promise to that effect..."
"Promise?" Alisande's gaze sharpened "I made no promise!"
"Oh?" Matt cocked his head to the side. "Then what would you call those words we exchanged on Breden Plain?"
"My appeal, and your response. As I mind me, 'twas yourself who did give promise that day, not I--and somewhat unwillingly at that."
"Well, I'm more than willing now!" Matt swallowed down outrage. "And you may not have actually given me a promise, but there certainly seemed to be something implied."
Alisande tossed her head impatiently. "In a moment of weakness, I gave you a kiss, naught more--and, Lord Wizard, a kiss is not a promise." Matt held his face impassive while he absorbed the hurt. Alisande saw, and quailed within, but met wooden face with flint.
Finally, Matt said, "If that kiss happened in a moment of weakness, then you have a weakness for me--which means that, underneath your mask of duty, you're really in love with me, and hopefully, want to spend your life with me." Alisande bridled, the more so because it was true. "You overreach yourself, Lord Wizard. Yet whether I love you or not, I may not act upon it." Matt just stared at her.
Then he said, "Let me get this straight. You love me, but you can't do anything about it?"
Alisande kept her face hard. "You must know that a queen cannot marry for love--but only for the good of the kingdom, using her marriage as a way of forming an alliance, or in other ways benefiting her people." Matt felt his stomach sink--he did indeed know. So, of course, he tried to fend off the vision of a lifetime of hanging around the court as the bachelor least likely to succeed, by going on the offensive. "That means that if I were the king of some other country, you'd marry me?"
"Aye, if the goodwill of that land were of need to my own."
"Okay--so I'll go win a kingdom." Matt started to turn away.
"Speak not so foolishly, Lord Wizard!" Alisande snapped, with her first hint of real temper. "Kingdoms are not to be had for the asking! To say such is nigh to sacrilege!"
"Oh, come on!" Matt turned back. "There has to be a kingdom somewhere near that has a rotten king, and needs a new one."
"Aye, both Ibile and Allustria--yet I do well but to ward against them, with all my horses and all my men! How should we conquer them?"
"I'll find a way."
"I swear to God I will!" Matt shouted. "I'll kick that Ibilian monster-monarch off his throne or die trying!"
Alisande blanched, and the throne room was suddenly as silent as a tomb, even the guards staring in scandalized shock. Matt glanced at them out of the corners of his eyes, and something inside him said, in a very tiny voice, Oh. I should not have said that, should I?
Then Alisande caught her breath and shouted, "Guards! Seize that man! Bind and gag him! Chain him to the thickest wall in my deepest dungeon!" Matt stared, unbelieving. His one true love? Sending him into solitary?
Then the guards hit, and he believed. Two men hugged his arms and two more his legs, picking him up bodily, ignoring his struggles. He opened his mouth to shout a spell, but somebody's glove jammed in between his teeth. Enraged, he tried to spit it out, but someone else was already wrapping a sash around his face and tying it tight. He couldn't speak, he couldn't gesture!
"Well done," Alisande said, discreetly disregarding the guards' ashen faces.
"Now bear him to the dungeons, and chain him to the wall. Then mount guard over him, inside the cell and out--and if he should even attempt to speak, give him so shrewd a knock alongside the head that he loses consciousness again. Oh, be sure, he must not speak! Or he will cast a spell!"
Matt felt his stomach sink, as the guards turned him about and headed for the stairway. Alisande was right, unfortunately--and the guards had hit too fast for him to get his mouth working. He was well and truly trussed this time--and not liable to get out of it.
But his one true love! How could she do such a thing to him? Humiliate him so? Not to mention the discomfort!
Easy--she didn't love him. He'd just been a valuable asset. A heavy mass seemed to weigh down upon his spirits, as the guards hauled him down, down through the keep and into the dark of the dungeon. Dark, yes, but no darker than the mood that descended over his soul.
The blacksmith finished riveting the manacles chaining Malt's wrists behind him and stepped back with a look of trepidation. "You know we wouldn't have done this on our own, Your Lordship."
Matt glowered at him, but he couldn't keep it up. Reluctantly, he nodded. It wasn't just fear of his magic--the common folk all liked him too well to do anything against him. Most of them, anyway. He gargled something that sounded like grudging acceptance.
Relief washed the smith's face. "Godspeed you, Lord Wizard. Heaven knows, you have served her Majesty too well to deserve such as this!"
" 'Tis not for you to say, Smith!" the captain of the guard snapped. "Out with you, now. 'Tis enough for you to know the Lord Wizard will not seek revenge."
Matt muttered and nodded. He couldn't really blame a man for doing his job properly. He shrugged.
The smith broke into a grateful smile, hoisted his portable anvil, and went out the door.
"We shall leave you now, milord," the captain of the guard said. "Yet I, too, would have you know, 'tis not by my wish you are here." Matt didn't know whether he was trying to mend his fences, or give support--but again he shrugged the apology away. The man was just doing as he was bound to do, by his oath of service. Alisande was his queen, after all. The captain seemed faintly relieved. Had he understood Matt's thought so well as that? But no, Matt hadn't recited a telepathy spell. How could he, bound and gagged?
"Even so, I mislike coming between a man and his leman," the other guard growled.
Matt understood--domestic disputes were always rough on the cops. But don't worry, boys, I won't hold it against you, he thought as hard as he could. Again, the look of relief. "Is there aught to make you comfortable, milord, ere we go?"
Matt nodded, working his mouth around his gag, then miming the act of drinking water.
"Aye." The captain hefted a wineskin. "There must be two of us for when you wish to drink henceforth, must there not? Unstop his mouth, soldier--and stand ready to smite him if he should speak a single word."
The guard nodded as he untied the sash, face hard. "I would I did not have to, Lord Wizard, yet such is the queen's command."
The gag came out, and Matt drew a long breath of clean air with relief. The captain held out the wineskin, and Matt leaned back and drew a long draught. Eyeing his jailers warily, he decided not to try speaking even to thank them, and opened his mouth with a sigh.
It was a new and more comfortable gag they put in--no doubt the captain wanted his glove back--but to say a gag is "more comfortable" is to say a torture is "less painful." Matt resigned himself and slumped back against the wall with a sigh. It was going to be a long existence, with a very dry mouth and aching jaws.
The guard finished tying the gag back in place, Matt sat down with a groan, and the captain nodded, turning to go. "May all be as well for you as it may, Lord Wizard."
The door slammed shut, but there was still a torch, since the remaining guard needed light. After all, there wasn't much point stationing him there with his short cudgel, if he couldn't see whether or not Matt had worked his gag loose.
And Matt was certainly in a mood to try, feeling angry, vengeful, betrayed, rejected, and bewildered. Where had he gone wrong? How had he lost Alisande's love? Or had he ever had it in the first place? Was it class paranoia, the nobleman's antipathy toward the social climber? Or was it just friction between man and mate, telling her what she wanted to hear but in the wrong way?
No, it couldn't be that. He had told her he loved her in fifty different ways, fifty times at least in the last three years, some of them as ardent and romantic as any woman could want--and she had certainly responded; he could have sworn she was burning to answer his fervor with her own. But something had held her back...
Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To treat me so discourteously,
When I have loved you oh, so long,
Delighting in your company!
She had even worn green sleeves when they were questing together!
The guard shifted nervously and glanced down at Matt, commiserating. Matt felt an irrational flash of gratitude toward the man, and tried to smile reassuringly. But his mind strayed back to Alisande--didn't it always? He tried to pull himself out of the slough of despond, but the betrayal weighed on his spirits too heavily.
What ails thee, captive Knight at arms,
Compelled to enforced loitering;
Where niter gathers on stone walls,
And no birds sing.
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all,
Who cried--"La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!"