9 - ESTIAN: BECKRAM, ERDRICK AND GARRANON
My father always said that Jakoven was an evil, sly, dangerous coward. If it hadn't been for the cowardice and the annual sovereign's tithe the king demanded, I think the Hurogmeten might have liked the high king.
"Just for one night," implored Beckram. "Ciernack's brought in an Avinhellish sword dancer."
Erdrick crossed his arms and sat on his bed. "That's what you said the last time we switched places. It took three days."
"Please, Erdrick." Beckram smiled winningly. "You do it so well."
"I don't do it well," said Erdrick in driven tones. "You know I don't." He saw the triumph in Beckram's face and knew he should have stuck to a simple "No." Now the argument had slipped from his willingness to his ability.
"Your court manners are flawless, and you know it. Everyone is expected to be on their best behavior tonight. You can even retire early with a headache or something."
"You aren't ever on your best behavior," snapped Erdrick. "If you start now, everyone will be suspicious."
"No," Beckram sounded unexpectedly grim. "They'll just think I've put on airs since the king confirmed Father's hold on Hurog."
"It's not your fault. You tried," Erdrick left the bed and touched his twin's shoulder.
Beckram rubbed his hand over his face. "Then why did the king smile at me when he made the announcement? I should have left well enough alone. Waited until Father could talk to him."
"Father wouldn't have done any better than you did."
Beckram smiled to acknowledge Erdrick's support, but the warmth didn't touch the desperation in his eyes. "I put my foot in it somehow, Erdrick. You know it, and I know it." He rubbed a spot on his linen sleeve. "All else aside, Erdrick, I just can't face them tonight. I need to go somewhere I don't have to play games. Just tonight. I need to take my mind off the king, off the queen, off of Father. He's worried sick about Ward."
"So are you," commented Erdrick.
Beckram's eyebrow rose in disbelief. "I don't even like him."
"You envy him," corrected Erdrick shrewdly. "Stupid or not, he's a good man. You like him better than you like yourself."
Beckram flushed with temper. "He's an idiot. If he hadn't been a moron, none of this would be necessary."
"Father will straighten it out," Erdrick said. "Father's good at this sort of thing."
Beckram nodded and gripped his twin's hand. "Thank you, Rick. Wear my blue and gold outfit; everyone knows it. They'll look at you in it and see me."
Erdrick watched Beckram stride energetically back to his room and wondered how he'd ended up agreeing to this. He reviewed the conversation in his mind and couldn't suppress a grin when he realized that he hadn't agreed to it. Trust Beckram. Erdrick put the book he'd been reading back on the shelves. He'd hoped to finish it tonight, but it looked like he'd be strutting with the court peacocks instead.
Garranon ducked under Haverness's sword blade and drew his arm back to deliver a mortal blow, but Haverness's knife swept out of nowhere to touch his throat.
"Your fight," Garranon said with a smile to show he held no grudges. Actually, he was pleased he'd managed to fight the old man off as long as he had. Stupidly forthright Haverness might be politically, but few could compare with his swordsmanship.
Haverness withdrew his knife and sheathed it. He looked at Garranon grimly. "Now you will tell me what this was about. I trust you didn't call upon me in your father's name for a bout of sword and knife?"
Garranon looked around the training grounds. Though the ancient room was empty, he said, "Let's walk." That way no one could listen in.
The old man stiffened. "You play games."
"I grant you that. But I'm the one at risk if the king finds out why I've approached you. Please, walk with me."
After an insultingly long hesitation, Haverness sheathed his sword and gestured for Garranon to lead the way.
Garranon didn't talk as he strode down the halls that would bring them, eventually, to the gardens where the sound of running water would cover their voices. No one they passed looked twice; their weaponry and sweat gave answer to why the newly named Champion of Oranstone would walk with the king's favorite.
The smell of sweet blossoms was almost overwhelmingly strong when they left the musty halls for the gardens at the heart of the keep. It was early yet, and the gardens were deserted.
"Are you serious about taking a hundred men to defeat the Vorsagians?" asked Garranon abruptly.
Haverness's eyebrows rose in mild inquiry. "I am his majesty's most obedient servant." If the old man felt bitterness, Garranon couldn't hear it in his voice.
"Who is going?" Garranon almost winced after he asked the question. That hadn't been what he'd meant to ask, and he wasn't surprised when Haverness's face went blank.
"My clerk has a list, but I can't recall offhand."
Garranon waved his hand in dismissal and sought another course. "What I wanted to know is, do you have space for me? In my father's day, Buril had three hundred trained men. I cannot do so well, but there are sixty arms-men, and I can gather another hundred raw recruits."
"Oh, is that what you think I'm doing?" whispered Haverness almost to himself. His features hardened into a cold mask.
"It's what I hope you're doing," replied Garranon steadily. "It doesn't matter if the king knows it or not, though he seems to be more concerned with his queen's affairs right now. He cannot withdraw his approval now."
They paced once around the outside of the garden before Haverness spoke again. "You look like your father."
"Askenwen refused to consider coming." Askenwen was the richest of the Oranstonians, a young man who relished court life. "He likes Tallven just fine. Oranstone is too wet, he said. Do you know what his father was called during the war?"
"The Direwolf," replied Garranon with a thin smile. "The Direwolf stood off an entire army with a score of men for three days to let our armies disperse so we could retreat to our holds and protect our families after we knew the war was lost. His son prefers to get drunk in Shade-town at Black Ciernack's tavern."
Haverness shook his head, his mouth twisted in a bitter smile. "Don't get excited about winning this war. Jakoven has done too good a job of gelding our young men. I suspect we'll all be valiant martyrs for use as rallying cries when Jakoven finally decides to defend the Kingdoms."
"Being a martyr is highly overrated," observed Garranon. "Useless lot for the most part - my father included, begging your pardon, sir." He took a deep breath. "Askenwen's younger brother, Kirkovenal, started a fight yesterday."
"Indeed?" Haverness sounded lost in his own thoughts.
"He was fined for disturbing the peace, as the king did not find defending the honor of Oranstone a sufficient reason to beat the stuffing out of a pair of loyal Tallvenish subjects." Garranon let his gaze linger on a small pond where lilies floated. "He has been running Grensward for his brother since he was old enough to hold a pen."
"He's a boy."
"Eighteen. Old enough to hold a sword, eh?" Garranon reminded Haverness gently. "Old enough to rally Grensward...against her enemies." Not just Vorsagian enemies.
Haverness caught the leading pause. "The Rebellion is dead."
Not as long as I live, thought Garranon. He said, "Yes. But if we don't defeat the Vorsag, Oranstone will be dead, too. I can help."
Haverness started to say something, but he was interrupted by a royal page.
"My Lord Garranon, sir," panted the boy before he stopped to get his breath. "The king requires your presence at his breakfast in his rooms."
Garranon watched Haverness's face freeze and could have cursed. The old man had been about to accept him before the page reminded him who Garranon's bed partner was.
Garranon drew a deep breath and sent the boy on his way with a few courteous words. Before Haverness could speak, Garranon said, "The streams in here are a marvel, do you not agree. A tribute to Jakoven's skill."
"A tribute to the king's mages."
Garranon shook his head and met Haverness's eyes firmly. "No, a tribute to the high king. He has his secrets, our Jakoven; do not underestimate him. Now, King Kariarn of Vorsag would like you to think he's a wizard, but he's not. He does have, however, at least four adept mages in his employ."
Haverness swallowed the information about Jakoven but said, "There aren't four adept mages in the whole of Vorsag."
Garranon shrugged. "Nonetheless, four adepts serve Kariarn, according to Arten, Jakoven's archmage. I have other information you might find useful...if you bring me with you."
Haverness nodded thoughtfully, his eyes hooded. "I'll consider that."
"Of course," replied Garranon with more calm than he felt. Bleakly, he knew he'd be standing on the king's right when Haverness rode out of Estian with his hundred. "Thank you for the bout. Pray excuse me, the king commands my presence."
Erdrick looked in the mirror at himself wearing Beckram's green and gold court outfit. He closed his eyes and imagined pulling Beckram's reckless self-assurance around his shoulders like a cloak. This is the last time, he thought, and couldn't tell if he were serious or not. There was freedom in being Beckram, freedom and exhilaration. When Erdrick opened his eyes, he looked at Beckram in the mirror, tugged the neck of his tunic straight, and strolled out of his rooms.
Despite his protests to Beckram, Erdrick was comfortable in his brother's skin. In the crowded court he flirted and charmed the ladies and exchanged half-barbed quips with the men. But he couldn't force himself go near the queen. Let his brother make up with her afterward if she chose to take offense.
At dinner, Alizon, the king's half brother, sat at the empty place next to him. "So, your father has been named Hurogmeten in his brother's place," he said in a bored tone.
"Damnable thing," Erdrick agreed in Beckram's lazy drawl. "Poor Father. Hurog's cold in the winter and damp in the summer. Half the peasants are freeholders - serfs are much easier to deal with. Most of the time, it's all the Hurogmeten can do to see that the people are fed; the rest of the time, they're not fed."
"The title's an old one."
"That and a half copper will buy a loaf of bread. The worst of it is - " Erdrick managed exactly the right put-upon tone. " - my younger brother gets the better end of the bargain. Iftahar is richer and warmer than Hurog."
"So you didn't ask the king to settle Hurog on your father?" asked Alizon, glancing up.
"Do I look stupid?" replied Erdrick indignantly. "Why would I do that? I don't want Hurog."
After Alizon left, Erdrick wiped the sweat off the back of his neck. The king's half brother was entirely too unnerving. This was absolutely the last time he took Beckram's place.
He drained his cup of wine and gathered another from a passing servant. When he finally stood up to retreat to his room, he could feel the effects of the alcohol. So instead of taking a shorter route, he walked through the courtyard gardens. The cool night air did a lot to restore his sense of balance.
Next to the library, the garden was his favorite part of the castle. The sound of the flowing water from the fountains and artificial streams reminded him of home. He smelled the petals of a flower that stood out ghostly white in the darkness. He was disappointed to find it had no scent at all.
When someone grabbed him by the shoulder, he was still thinking about flowers.
In Black Ciernack's tavern, Beckram coughed suddenly and swallowed a hefty draft to counter the sudden pain in his throat. It worried him for a moment, but when it dispersed so quickly, he decided it must have been just a muscle cramp. Beckram turned his attention back to the dancer who was in the process of sheathing her sword in a way no man ever could.
Jakoven jumped back from the spray of blood, waiting for the writhing body to grow still. He licked a drop of the dark liquid dripping from his knife, then threw it on the ground beside the boy. The knife wasn't distinctive, though that didn't matter. Everyone would know who'd done it.
"No more lovers for my lady queen," he said out loud. He nudged the body with his toe, but the boy didn't move. The high king stared at the pale face. "Not even a stupid Shavig boy was safe enough. So, Beckram, what do you think? Should she commit suicide when she hears of your death? Or should she choose to sequester herself at one of my country estates? Not much help, are you? Never mind, I'll decide tomorrow."
In the shadows, Alizon, who'd arrived just a moment too late, clenched his fists and thought, Too many bodies, Jakoven.
Beckram whistled cheerfully as he changed his clothes. The sword dancer had been as good as she was touted and more. He might have stayed longer, but some niggling worry about his brother sent him home early. Maybe it was just guilt at making Erdrick take his place again.
He popped open the door to his twin's room and found it empty. It was later than Erdrick usually stayed out, but the festivities would last until dawn.
"Well, brother mine, did you seduce some lass? Got to be careful with that, wouldn't want the queen jealous..." He stopped talking when another thought crossed his mind. "No, you wouldn't, would you? Not with the queen." Maybe, he thought, that was the source of his restlessness tonight.
He glanced down at himself to make sure his clothes were something Erdrick would wear and pulled the yellow scarf off his knee. Then, slouching a little, Beckram paced down the hall.
There were a lot of people still in the court hall, so it took Beckram a long time to see that Erdrick wasn't there. When he saw the queen gossiping with one of her ladies, he relaxed. Not that he'd believed his brother could betray him, not really. "Erdrick?"
He was better at being Erdrick than Erdrick was at being him. Beckram didn't even hesitate in responding to his brother's name. "Lord Alizon?"
The older man looked tired. "You don't usually come to the dances, Erdrick."
Beckram gave his brother's soft, half-embarrassed laugh. "Well, I'm looking for Beckram. He borrowed one of my books to press a crease out of a scarf, and now I can't find it anywhere."
"Ah," the king's brother shrugged. "I haven't seen him here lately. After dinner, he said something about catching some air."
"I'll check the courtyard, then," said Beckram.
Alizon nodded. "If I see him, I'll tell him you're looking for him."
When the Shavig boy wandered away, Alizon sipped his water to wash the foul taste of his brother's business out of his mouth.
At first, Beckram thought the courtyard was empty. It was a little chilly, not yet fall but soon. The unease, which had brought him home earlier than his comrades, hadn't dissipated with the reassurance that Erdrick hadn't poached his lady.
He stood in the middle of the courtyard and tapped his toe impatiently. To bed, he decided abruptly. There must have been something odd in the ale he'd had tonight that produced this feeling that something was wrong. The damned palace was too big to search for his brother, who was probably passed out on some forgotten couch somewhere.
Beckram started for the entrance nearest his rooms but stopped when he smelled blood. As the air brought the rich scent of it to his nose, something within him died as a sudden certainly grew within him. Something had happened to his twin.
"Rick?" he called anyway, answered only by a faint breeze that made the leaves whisper together.
A dizzy feeling of unreality swept over him as he stepped through the carefully planted bed and followed the scent of death to the shape that lay half hidden in shadows. Shock was replaced first by grief, then by rage, as he stared at his twin's dead face. He remembered the pale face of the queen's last lover after he'd been drowned and cursed himself for asking Erdrick to take his place. He should have known better.
The urge to kill Jakoven was overwhelming. He knew he could do it, too, despite the king's reputation as a swordsman. Who would be so stupid as to defeat the high king? Beckram's sword work had been polished by Stala. Yes, he could kill Jakoven. There were places the king didn't bring his guards.
But if he did, his father would lose both of his sons, one to murder and the other to the headsman's ax. Beckram held that thought and rode the pain it brought: There could be no overt revenge. He would have to hold to the oaths he swore to the king for his father's sake.
Carefully, Beckram closed his twin's eyes. He kissed the cool forehead and muttered a few words of love. Then he slid an arm beneath Erdrick's shoulders and under his knees, gathering him close.
It wasn't easy getting to his feet, for Erdrick weighed no less than Beckram, and neither of them were small men. Beckram staggered a bit, adjusting to the weight, then began to walk.
Beckram stood momentarily unnoticed in the entranceway and looked around. His gaze drifted over Haverness and found a dozen more nobles who were just the kind of men he was looking for. Men whose loyalty to the throne could not be doubted nor could their word be bought.
Satisfied, Beckram strode in with measured footsteps, the beat of his pulse dictating his steps. He could tell when they saw him, the hundred or so people still dancing at this hour, because a hush fell over the crowd. Everyone in this room knew about the queen's previous lover. Everyone knew Beckram had been her lover. Everyone knew they were watching Erdrick carry Beckram's body before the king who had killed him.
The king remained where he was, expressionless. Beckram heard the small sound the queen made, but he had eyes only for Jakoven. When the king was five paces away, the traditional space for fealty swearing, Beckram knelt and set his brother on the white marble tiles. He remained kneeling.
"My king," he said, using his voice as his father had taught him so it carried to the far corner of the room. "Hurogs have served the Tallvenish rule since there have been high kings. My father, his brother, their father before them served you. It is my intention to do the same. Haverness?"
O, brave man, thought Beckram as he saw the Oranstone nobleman approach out of the corner of his eye.
Haverness waited to answer until he stood behind the king. We are all doing this by tradition, thought Beckram with that same eerie calmness that had claimed him from his entrance into the dance room.
"Hurog?" asked Haverness.
It startled Beckram to be called that; he'd always been addressed as Iftahar, after his father's holding, but it was appropriate. Surely his soul was encased in the cold black stone of Hurog.
"How many men go with you, Haverness?" Beckram asked, not taking his eyes from the king.
"And you leave when?"
"Ten days' time."
"Would you consider taking me?"
"Hurogs are rare men. I would be honored."
For the first time since he'd entered the room, Beckram looked away from the king. He stared at his twin's gray face and black blood. No more dusty books, he thought.
Beckram returned his gaze to the king's face, wanting to watch his reaction. "Then you may put down the name of Beckram of Hurog on your list."
A gasp of surprise traveled around the room.
"First though, I must take my brother Erdrick to Hurog for burial. He met with an accident in the courtyard - or maybe it was suicide." Beckram looked at the gaping wound, then looked around the room. "No, I suppose it was an accident. He tripped and cut his throat on a thorn in the garden." Beckram scooped his brother off the floor - the body seemed much lighter - and strode to the nearest door. It wasn't until he was in the corridor that he realized Haverness and Garranon paced beside him. "When are you leaving?" asked Garranon. "Now," Beckram replied shortly.
"Do you have enough gold to hire horses along the way?"
Garranon pulled his belt purse loose and tied it to Beckram's belt. "That should be enough."
"I'll have two of my men ride honor guard," said Haverness. "They'll meet you at the stables."
"I won't wait."
"If they're late, they'll catch up." They left him then, and he walked the rest of the way to his rooms alone. He had to set Erdrick down to open the door, and it was harder to pick him up again this time. The strength of anger was seeping away, leaving only guilt.
Beckram lay Erdrick on the bed while he packed. He took Garranon's pouch and put it in his saddlebags, then stared around the suite at a loss. What was appropriate to pack?
In the end, he just wrapped Erdrick in the top quilt of the bed and staggered out with near-empty saddlebags. He didn't bother waking the grooms but settled his burden on a pile of hay and saddled both horses. The Hurog-bred geldings snorted a bit at the dead body, but Hellebore, Erdrick's war-trained mount, stood steady while Beckram heaved the wrapped body over the saddle and secured it with rope.
Mounting his own steed, Beckram started out. He passed a couple of men wearing Haverness's colors running to the stable, but he didn't stop. He would spend no more time than he had to in the home of the man who murdered his brother. He didn't even notice it was Garranon and Haverness who opened the palace gates and let him through.
"Haverness, I need to ride with you," said Garranon hoarsely. "If I stay here longer, I'll slit Jakoven's throat myself - which fool act would do Oranstone no good at all."
Haverness gave him an odd look, then shifted his gaze to watch his two men galloping after the Shavig lordling. "Foolish indeed. Very well, Garranon, ride with us for Oranstone."
"Oranstone lives." Garranon made a sign with his fingers, an old sign of the Oranstone rebels.
Haverness returned the signal easily and switched to his native tongue. "Oranstone free."
Garranon wondered if everyone hadn't been a little too certain of Haverness's loyalty to the king.
Beckram's rented horses were staggering by the time Hurog appeared, dark and foreboding in the morning skyline. Two days and three nights of riding, eight changes of mounts, and most of Garranon's gold had gotten him this far. He hadn't seen Haverness's men since the second night.
Just in front of the gate, Beckram drew his horse to a halt. When he'd ruined a friend's horse by jumping it recklessly over a fence too high for hurdling, his father had paid for the animal. This time there was nothing his father could fix.
Exhausted, Beckram laughed, though there was nothing humorous about it. He'd been bringing his brother to Hurog for his father to fix, and he hadn't even realized it. He let the horses plod ahead.
The sound of hooves on the pavement in front of Hurog alerted the sentries, but they recognized him and opened the gate. Although it was barely dawn, his father was in the bailey talking to one of the farmers when Beckram rode in.
Beckram blinked stupidly, wondering how his father had jumped across the bailey so fast. Then it occurred to him that he'd closed his eyes for a bit.
"Erdrick? What's wrong? Who's...who's on the horse?"
Beckram slid off his horse and continued to fall until he knelt on the cool ground.
"I'm Beckram," he said clearly. "Erdrick's dead. My fault." He stared at his father, waiting for the news to hit, waiting to be punished as he deserved.
"So the king killed Erdrick. Because you were sleeping with the queen? After he'd all but ordered you to do so?"
Beckram wondered that his father's voice was so calm. They sat in a small antechamber, where no one could hear.
Beckram was still tired, but he'd slept, drugged with mulled wine and exhaustion, until the dreams had driven him from his bed. For the third time he said, "The king killed Erdrick, thinking he was me. If I hadn't talked Erdrick into taking my place, he would be alive."
Duraugh closed his eyes. "I saved that young fool's life once, did you know? Saved it so he could kill my son." He sighed. "We'll bury Erdrick tomorrow. Your mother's here."
"She'll want to bury him at Iftahar."
His father heard the need in his voice. "He'll be buried here unless you wish it differently."
"Here. Hurog will protect him from murderers and fools." He hadn't meant to say that, it sounded silly aloud.
His father merely nodded.
Beckram relaxed a bit. "I'll leave the next day for Estian."
"You're still set on joining Haverness in his fool's errand?"
Beckram picked at the table covering. "I need something to do. If I don't, I'll kill him."
Duraugh's mouth tightened. "Don't think I haven't considered it. If it were fifteen years ago, I could do it. Young Alizon was popular, and the world was used to war. But Jakoven has gotten rid of most of the men who could stand against him, and Alizon's a useless fop outside the battlefield." He sighed. "Very well, go. But I won't send you alone. I'll talk to Stala. She and fifty men will accompany you, fighting under your command."
"I can't take them," said Beckram. "Haverness only has leave for a hundred men. I believe I'm the eighty-fifth."
"You'll take them," said Duraugh, standing up. "The Blue Guard's motto is 'We fight as one. You will only be one."
"The king won't accept that."
Duraugh smiled coldly. "I'll talk to him. Leave it to me."