Authors: John Dickinson
man came among the mountains, hunting his son with a sword.
In the late afternoon he led his horse along one side of a great, empty valley. On his right hand the slope – all grey rock and patches of low thorns – rose steeply to a high crest. To his left it dropped eerily away, hundreds of feet to the valley bottom, where a stream ran with the opaque blues of glacier water. The path he followed was narrow, threading upwards along the hillside towards a distant ridgeline. A light wake of pebbles trickled down and away behind him, kicked from their places by the hooves of his horse or by his own armoured heels.
He was a short man, but strong. Within the iron frame of his helmet his face was deeply lined. His surplice was a faded blue and white. Under it, and through the long rents in it, peeped a coat of mail that was brown from weeks on the road. His back ran with the sweat of his climb.
Now and again he spoke to the horse that followed him.
‘Come Stefan, come.’
The horse was a great, grey animal, bred for carrying a knight across the plains of their home: not for these narrow places where nothing was level. It peered unhappily at the ground and picked its way with care, as it had done all day and for many days before this. On its back it bore the knight's high saddle, his bags and gear and weaponry. A spear clunked remorselessly in a long holster, flicking its tiny point of iron against the sky.
The sun was setting when they reached the ridgeline. Shadows welled in the valleys, and in the yellowing light of evening the hill-crests were like islands in a rising sea. Far ahead a high, round-shouldered peak rose to ice-fields that glowed in the last sun. A few carrion birds turned in the air, almost level with the man's eyes. Before him the ridge ran on, bare and rocky, dipping to a sudden end in—
– In a clump of tiled roofs and walls of dressed stone!
The walls were the same brown-grey colour as the rock on which they were built. That was why he had not seen it at once. That, and because it was the last thing he would ever have expected in this place. The path, running now along the very ridgeback, led down from his feet to a gate between two squat towers. There it ended.
A house – of all things, a fortified house! Here, after days of journey into the mountains?
The back of the knight's gauntlet scraped upon his metalled brow. Without thinking, he had put his hand up to rub his eyes. But this was not a dream. His feet were on stone ground. The evening air was chilly in his lungs.
There was no light showing in the building. There was
no smoke from any chimney, no movement or clink or call among its stones. The walls were old – even in this light, he could see that.
The very smallness of the towers seemed sinister.
A house – here?
The mountains were desolate places. Very few people came into them. In the days since entering them he had seen nobody; not even one of the poor, savage hill folk who lived here. Last night he had lain in an abandoned hill village. There had barely been enough room in those mean huts for him to stand upright.
The hillmen did not build places like this. Nevertheless, it was a house.
Men might be there now. And if men were there, they might know, or have seen, or be sheltering the one man he was looking for. Raymonde, his son, at last.
Yesterday he had found the remains of the horse. It had been dead perhaps a week, but still he had known it from his own stables. Raymonde had always been careless with animals.
A fugitive might travel far in a week, even on foot. But the dead horse had been the knight's first real finding in days. After searching and guessing for so long, a sign as firm as that one made him feel he must be close. There had only been one path from the deserted village that had looked as though it might go anywhere. It had brought him here. Now it wound down to the silent gate and stopped. There might be other paths, looping and curling out from the buildings across the hillsides, but none could go far. The ridge dropped steeply on three sides. There
was no road off it that he could see but back the way he had come.
So, if Raymonde had followed this path at all, he might be here still. After all these weeks, he might be only a short walk away.
The knight drew a long breath. His throat was tight and his palms tingling.
But remember what he's done, he said to himself. Remember, remember; all the sick, familiar litany that brought the rage trembling back into his limbs again.
Remember Varens, your child, his own brother – dead in your keep. Pale and dead and bloody; his eye dull and white fingers clutching at nothing!
Remember – Raymonde
that. Did it behind your back! The sneaking, snivelling, graceless, treacherous …
Remember Varens – laughing in the house, leading at the hunt, brave under punishment. Varens –
Raymonde! You … Murder – theft – witchcraft! In
Did you think I would never come for you?
Reaching up on tiptoe he drew his sword from where it hung by the saddle. It was a short weapon, but familiar to him, and the single oak leaf cut and painted on its pommel was the badge of a woman he had once loved. It settled into his palm and was ready there. He peered down through his armoured eye-holes at the gate that he had found.
Still nothing moved among the buildings. For a moment more he hesitated. But it was no use asking himself if he was ready.
‘Let's get it finished, then,’ he said aloud.
He led the horse slowly forward. The clank and scrape of their movements sounded in the air. Anyone inside would hear him coming. There was no help for that – except the iron in his hand and the mail upon his body.
The gates were wood: rugged and old. One door was ajar. Sword in hand, point down, he stepped through.
No one lurked behind it. He jerked the other leaf open and grunted to his horse, which followed him big-shouldered into the gate-tunnel and out into the space beyond.
The knight stood in a small, paved courtyard scattered with dry goat-droppings. To his left the yard was bounded by a low wall, giving a clear view across the valley to the hills on the far side. On the other three sides were buildings with blank windows and doors shut fast. Between two of the buildings opposite was another arch, half-blocked by a goat-hurdle that had been pushed roughly to one side. He stole through.
Here was another court, surrounded on three sides by pillared walkways. And here again there was a low wall to the left, with a view of the darkening mountains across the valley. Shadows gathered in the colonnades. There were more doorways, but they were open. The rooms within were wells of darkness. There was a horrible stillness in this place.
Nothing for it …
He stole up to one of the doorways. If there was anyone within they would hear the scrape of his heels upon the stones.
His heart was beating hard. Now, in seconds, surely …
‘Let's get it finished,’ he muttered again.
At once he moved, ducking through the opening with both hands on the hilt of his sword, and stepped immediately to his left to set his back against the wall. His thigh banged against something which rocked and gave. There was a huge clatter – things falling, things breaking in the darkness around him. He swore.