Excerpt: The Grasshopper and the King

On this day of days there was an unfamiliar stirring deep inside the dozing heart of the Hayholt, in the castle’s bewildering warren of quiet passages and overgrown, ivy-choked courtyards, in the monk’s holes and damp, shadowed chambers. Courtiers and servants alike goggled and whispered. Scullions exchanged significant glances across the washing tubs in the steamy kitchen. Hushed conversations seemed to be taking place in every hallway and dooryard of the great keep. It might have been the first day of spring, to judge from the air of breathless anticipation, but the great calendar in Doctor Morgenes’ cluttered chamber showed differently: the month was only Novander. Autumn was holding the door, and Winter was trudging in.

What made this a day different from all others was not a season but a place–the Hayholt’s throne room. For three long years its doors had been shut by the king’s order, and heavy draperies had cloaked the multicolored windows. Even the cleaning servants had not been permitted to cross the threshold, causing the Mistress of Chambermaids no end of personal anguish. Three summers and three winters it had stood undisturbed. Today it was no longer empty, and all the castle hummed with rumor.

In truth, there was one person in the busy Hayholt whose attention was not fixed on that long-untenanted room, one bee in the murmuring hive whose solitary song was not in key with the greater droning. That one sat in the heart of the Hedge Garden, in an alcove between the dull red stone of the chapel and the leafless side of a skeletal hedge-lion, and thought he was not missed. It had been an irritating day so far–the women all busy, with scant time to answer questions; breakfast late, and cold into the bargain. Confusing orders had been given to him, as usual, and no one had any time to waste with any of his problems….

And that was also, he thought grumpily, quite predictable. If it hadn’t been for his discovery of this huge, magnificent beetle–which had come strolling across the garden, as self-satisfied as any prosperous villager–then the entire afternoon would have been a waste of time.

With a twig he widened the tiny road he had scraped in the dark, cold earth beside the wall, but still the captive would not walk forward. He tickled gently at its glossy carapace, but the stubborn beetle would not budge. Frowning, he sucked at his upper lip.

“Simon! Where in the name of holy Creation have you been!”

The twig dropped from his nerveless fingers, as though an arrow had pierced his heart. Slowly, he turned to look at the looming shape.

“Nowhere…” Simon began to say, but even as the words passed his lips a pair of bony fingers caught his ear and brought him sharply to his feet, yelping in pain.

“Don’t you dare ‘nowhere’ me, young layabout,” Rachel the Dragon, Mistress of Chambermaids, barked full into his face-a juxtaposition made possible only by Rachel’s tiptoed stance and the boy’s natural inclination to slouch, for the head chambermaid lacked nearly a foot of Simon’s height.

“Sorry, then, mistress, I’m sorry,” Simon muttered, noting with sadness the beetle nosing toward a crack in the chapel wall and freedom.

“‘Sorry’ is not going to get you by forever,” Rachel growled. “Every single body in the house is at work a-getting things ready but you! And, bad enough that is, but then I have to waste my valuable time trying to find you! How can you be such a wicked boy, Simon, when you should be acting like a man? How can you?”

The boy, fourteen gangly years old and furiously embarrassed, said nothing. Rachel stared at him.

Sad enough, she thought, that red hair and those spots, but when he squints his eyes all up that way and scowls–why, the child looks half-witted!

Simon, staring in turn at his captor, saw Rachel breathing heavily, pluming the Novander air with puffs of vapor. She was shivering, too, although whether from the cold or anger, Simon couldn’t tell. It didn’t really matter. It just made him feel worse.

She’s still waiting for an answer–how tired and cross she looks! He curled himself into an even more pronounced slump and glared at his own feet.

“Well, you’ll just come with me, then. The good Lord knows I’ve got things to keep an idle boy busy with. Don’t you know the king is up out of his sickbed? That he’s gone to his throne room today? Are you deaf and blind?” She grabbed his elbow and frog-marched him across the garden.

“The King? King John?” Simon asked, surprised.

“No, you ignorant boy. King Stone-in-the-Road! Of course King John!” Rachel halted in her tracks to push a wisp of limp steel-gray hair back under her bonnet. Her hand trembled. “There, I hope you’re happy,” she said. “You’ve gotten me so flummoxed and upset that I’ve gone and been disrespectful to the name of our good old King John. And him so sick and all.” She snuffled loudly and then leaned over to deal Simon a stinging slap on the fat part of his arm. “Just you come.”

She stumped forward, wicked boy in tow.

Simon had never known any other home but the ageless castle called Hayholt, which meant High Keep. It was well named: Green Angel Tower, its loftiest point, soared far above even the eldest and tallest of trees. If the Angel herself, perched on the tower top, had dropped a stone from her verdigrised hand it would have plummeted nearly two hundred cubits before splashing into the brackish moat and troubling the sleep of the great pikefish bobbing close above the centuried mud.

The Hayholt was older by far than all the generations of Erkynlandish peasants who had been born, labored, and died in the fields and villages surrounding the great keep. The Erkynlanders were only the latest to claim the castle–many others had called it their own, but none had been able to make it wholly so. The outwall around the sprawling keep showed the work of diverse hands and times: the rough-hewn rock and timber of the Rimmersmen, the haphazard patching and strange carvings of the Hernystiri, even the meticulous stonework of Nabbanai craftsmen. But looming over all stood Green Angel Tower, erected by the undying Sithi long before men had come to these lands, when all of Osten Ard had been their dominion. The Sithi had been the first to build here, constructing their primeval stronghold on the headlands overlooking the Kynslagh and the river-road to the sea. They had called their castle Asu’a; if it had a true name, this house of many masters, then Asu’a was that name.

The Fair Folk had vanished now from the grassy plains and rolling hill country, fled mostly to the woods and craggy mountains and other dark places inconvenient to men. The bones of their castle–a home to usurpers–remained behind.

Asu’a the paradox; proud yet ramshackle, festive and forbidding, seemingly oblivious to changes of tenantry. Asu’a–the Hayholt. It bulked mountainously above the outlands and town, hunched over its fief like a sleeping, honey-muzzled bear among her cubs.

It often seemed that Simon was the only dweller in the great castle who had not settled into his place in life. The masons plastered the whitewashed facing of the residence and shored up the castle’s crumbling walls–although the crumbling did sometimes seem to outpace the restorations–with never a thought toward how the world spun or why. The pantlers and butlers, whistling merrily, rolled huge casks of sack and salted beef here and there. With the castle seneschal beside them, they haggled with farmers over the whiskery onions and soil-moist carrots brought in sacks to the Hayholt’s kitchen every morning. And Rachel and her chambermaids were always excruciatingly busy, flourishing their brooms of bound straw, chasing dust balls as if herding skittish sheep, muttering pious imprecations about the way some people left a chamber when they departed, and generally terrorizing the slothful and slovenly.

In the midst of such industry, gawky Simon was the fabled grasshopper in the nest of ants. He knew he would never amount to much: many people had told him so, and nearly all of them were older-and presumably wiser-than he. At an age when other boys were clamoring for the responsibilities of manhood, Simon was still a muddier and a meanderer. No matter what task he was given to do, his attention soon wandered, and he would be dreaming of battles, and giants, and sea voyages on tall, shining ships… and somehow, things would get broken, or lost, or done wrong.

Other times he could not be found at all. He skulked around the castle like a scrawny shadow, could shinny up a wall as well as the roof-masons and glaziers, and knew so many passageways and hiding holes that the castle folk called him “ghost boy.” Rachel boxed his ears frequently, and called him a mooncalf.

Rachel had finally let go of his arm, and Simon dragged his feet glumly as he followed the Mistress of Chambermaids like a stick caught in a skirt hem. He had been discovered, his beetle had escaped, and the afternoon was ruined.

“What must I do, Rachel,” he mumbled unpleasantly, “help in the kitchen?”

Rachel snorted disdainfully and waddled on, a badger in an apron. Simon looked back regretfully on the sheltering trees and hedges of the garden. Their commingled footfalls resounded solemnly down the long stone hallway.

He had been raised by the chambermaids, but since he was certainly never going to be one himself–his boyness aside, Simon was obviously not to be trusted with delicate domestic operations–a concerted effort had been made to find suitable labors for him. In a great house, and the Hayholt was doubtless the greatest, there was no place for those who did not work. He found employment of a sort in the castle kitchens, but even at this undemanding job he was not completely successful. The other scullions would laugh and nudge each other to see Simon–elbow-deep in hot water, eyes squinted shut in oblivious reverie–learning the trick of bird flight, or saving dream-maidens from imaginary beasts as his scrubbing stick floated off across the washing vat.

Legend had it that Sir Fluiren–a relative of the famous Sir Camaris of Nabban–had in his youth come to the Hayholt to be a knight, and had worked a year in disguise in this same scullery, due to his ineffable humility. The kitchen workers had teased him–or so the story went–calling him “Pretty-hands” because the terrible toil did not diminish the fine whiteness of his fingers.

Simon had only to look at his own cracked-nail, pink-boiled paws to know that he was no great lord’s orphan son. He was a scullion and a corner sweeper, and that was that. At a not much greater age, everyone knew, King John had slain the Red Dragon. Simon wrestled with brooms and pots. Not that it made much difference: it was a different, quieter world than in John’s youth, thanks largely to the old king himself. No dragons–living ones, anyway–inhabited the dark, endless halls of the Hayholt. But Rachel–as Simon often cursed to himself–with her sour face and terrible, tweezing fingers, was near enough.

They reached the antechamber before the throne room, the center of the inordinate activity. The chambermaids, moving at a near-run, careened from wall to wall like flies in a bottle. Rachel stood with fists set on hips and surveyed her domain–seeming, from the smile that tightened her thin mouth, to find it good.

Simon lurked against a tapestried wall, forgotten for a moment. Slouching, he stared from the corner of his eyes at the new girl Hepzibah, who was plump and curly-haired and walked with an insolent sway. Passing by with a sloshing bucket of water she caught his glance and smiled widely, amused. Simon felt fire crackling up his neck into his cheeks and turned to pick at the tattered wall hanging.

Rachel had not missed the exchange of looks.

“Lord whip you for a donkey, boy, didn’t I tell you to get to work? Have at it, then!”

“At what? Do what?” Simon shouted, and was mortified to hear Hepzibah’s silvery giggle float out from the hallway. He pinched his own arm in frustration. It hurt.

“Take this broom, and go and sweep out the Doctor’s chambers. That man lives like a pack rat, and who knows where the king will want to go now that he’s up?” It was clear from her tone that Rachel found the general contrariness of men to be undiminished by kingship.

“Doctor Morgenes’ chambers?” Simon asked; for the first time since he had been discovered in the garden his spirits rose. “I’ll do it straight away!” He snatched the broom at a dead run and was gone.

Rachel snorted and turned back to examine the spotless perfection of the antechamber. She briefly wondered what could possibly be going on behind the great throne-room door, then dismissed the errant thought as mercilessly as she might swat a hovering gnat. Herding her legions with clapping hands and steely eye, she led them out of the antechamber and off to another pitched battle against her archenemy, disorder.

In that hall beyond the door dusty banners hung, row upon row along the walls, a faded bestiary of fantastic animals: the sun-golden stallion of Clan Mehrdon, Nabban’s gleaming kingfisher crest, owl and ox, otter, unicorn, and cockatrice–rank after rank of silent, sleeping creatures. No draft stirred these threadbare hangings; even the spiderwebs sagged empty and unstitched.

Some small change had come to the throne room, though–something lived once more in the shadowed chamber. Someone was singing a quiet tune in the thin voice of a very young boy or a very old man.

At the farthest end of the hall a massive tapestry hung on the stone wall between the statues of the High Kings of the Hayholt, a tapestry bearing the royal coat of arms, the Firedrake and the Tree. The grim malachite statues, an honor guard of six, flanked a huge, heavy chair that seemed entirely carved from yellowing ivory, the chair arms knobbed and knuckled, the back capped with a huge, many-toothed, serpentine skull whose eyes were pools of shadow.

It was on and before this chair that two figures sat. The small one clothed in worn motley was singing; it was his voice that floated up from the foot of the throne, too weak to chip loose even a slight echo. Over him bent a gaunt shape, perched at the edge of the chair like an aged raptor–a tired, hobbled bird of prey shackled to the dull bone.

The king, three years sick and enfeebled, had returned to his dusty hall. He listened as the small man at his feet sang; the king’s long, mottled hands grasped the arms of his great, yellowing throne.

He was a tall man–once very tall, but now hunched like a monk at prayer. He wore a sagging robe of sky blue, and was bearded like a Usirean prophet. A sword lay athwart his lap, shining as though new-polished; on his brow sat an iron crown, studded all about with sea-green emeralds and secretive opals.

The mannekin at the king’s feet paused for a long, silent moment, then began another song:

“Can tha count th’ rain-drops
When th’ sun is high?
Can tha swim th’ river
When th’ bed gang dry?
Can tha catch a cloud?
Nay, canst not, nor I…
An’ th’ wind a cry ‘Wait.’
As a passeth by.
Th’wind a cry ‘Wait.’
As a passeth by…”

When the tune was finished, the tall old man in the blue robe reached down his hand and the jester took it. Neither said a word.

John the Presbyter, Lord of Erkynland and High King of all Osten Ard; scourge of the Sithi and defender of the true faith, wielder of the sword Bright-Nail, bane of the dragon Shurakai…Prester John was sitting once more upon his chair made of dragon’s bones. He was very, very old, and had been crying.

“Ah, Towser,” he breathed at last, his voice deep but flawed with age, “it is surely an unmerciful God who could bring me to this sorry pass.”

“Perhaps, my lord.” The little old man in the checkered jerkin smiled a wrinkled smile. “Perhaps… but doubtless many others would not complain of cruelty if brought to your station in life.”

“But that is just what I mean, old friend!” The king shook his head angrily. “In this shadow-age of infirmity, all men are leveled. Any thick-witted tailor’s apprentice sups more of life that I!”

“Ah, la now my lord, my lord…” Towser’s grizzled head wagged from side to side, but the bells of his cap–long since clapperless–did not jingle. “My lord, you complain seasonably, but unreasonably. All men come to this pass, great or small. You have had a fine life.”

Prester John lifted the hilt of Bright-Nail before him, holding it as though it were a Holy Tree. He pulled the back of a long thin hand across his eyes.

“Do you know the story of this blade?” he asked.

Towser looked up sharply: he had heard the story many times.

“Tell me, O King,” he said quietly.

Prester John smiled, but his eyes never left the leather-bound hilt before him. “A sword, small friend, is the extension of a man’s right hand…and the end point of his heart.” He lifted the blade up higher, so that it caught a glimmer of light from one of the tiny, high windows. “Just the same is Man the good right hand of God–Man is the sharp executor of the Heart of God. Do you see?”

Suddenly he was leaning down, eyes bird-bright beneath shaggy brows. “Do you know what this is?” His shaking finger indicated a bit of crimped, rusty metal bound into the sword haft with golden wire.

“Tell me, Lord,” Towser knew perfectly well.

“This is the only nail of the true Execution Tree still remaining in Osten Ard.” Prester John brought the hilt forward to his lips and kissed it, then held the cool metal against his cheek. “This nail came from the palm of Usires Aedon, our Savior…from His hand…” The king’s eyes, catching for a moment a strange half-light from above, were fiery mirrors.

“And there is also the relic, of course,” he said after a quiet moment, “the finger-bone of martyred Saint Eahlstan, the dragon-slain, right here in the hilt….”

© 1988 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved.

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