* * * * * *
Martlet’s sleepy daze was disturbed sometime near of witching hour by the ringing tramp of mailed boots at the end of the corridor. Houndwise she opened one bleary eye, careful to keep perfect stillness, as out of the far dark loomed two figures. They had entered the hall and were coming wearily toward her. The taller of the two was speaking, and she recognized the voice as that of Phillip Cheval himself.
“The land is nothing to me fallow,” he was saying. “It has lain fallow long enough. Let him tend it. It will do the land good, and do him passing good as well. I am needing a tenant there, anyhow.”
By now they were nearly over her, pausing in the stairwell doorway. Martlet dared not breathe, dared not move, but lay bug-flat on the rushes in the corner of the corridor’s end.
It was Guy Rollo who replied. Martlet recognized his voice, rather too small for his brown-bull frame. “I know the land needs ploughing, Phillip—was I born yesterday? But is your choice of tenant wise?”
Phillip Cheval’s voice was laughing and strangely iron firm at once. “What slander! No, no, coz; for all his faults, the man can thrust a plough into the earth’s life-blood. Let him tend the land. In a hand-span’s time we will see that I am right.”
Guy Rollo spread his hands and rumbled back like a war-horse grumbling over his evening grain. The noise sparked Phillip Cheval’s laughter—dark lightning laughter, thought Martlet—and the two stepped together up the stairs. But as they did so something small and round fell from Phillip Cheval into the rushes. It fell without a sound, and only Martlet, her heart quickened to a pounding in her empty belly, saw it fall and where it fell. She lay in the tense stillness of death until the smothered ring of boots finally drifted up into quiet…then with a heron-dart her arm flashed out, her hand closed over the tiny object, and faster than thought she had rolled back into the shadows with the thing cupped close to her chest. In the little panting quiet she lay and looked at it.
It was round and made of metal, and in the darkness nearly coal-black. But in what dim light there was Martlet saw a kind of slumbering colour within, far down in and rich, which made her flesh tingle, though she could not say why. The thing was skin-warm on one side and had a great smooth hole in it through which she could put a finger.
Why, she thought, it is a ring!
The ring was battered, smooth with wear, and roughly made, but to Martlet, snuffing it houndwise, it was a thing of beauty. Never in her life had she touched such a jewel; never in her life had she been as close to such a jewel as she had been close to the high and lofty Phillip Cheval. Her head spun with it and with the hunger in her belly.
For a long while she lay with the ring clutched in both hands, her heart alternately quieting and quickening and quieting again. But after a time she gathered herself up laboriously, rolling over and getting to her wobbly knees, reaching as she did so with one hand for her crutches. In her other hand she clutched the ring as though her life depended on it. She got herself up on her wooden legs and like a lamed bird got herself into the stairwell. The stairs were agony; she crawled up many of them, desperate to be quiet, and fought every inch against the vertigo of height and hunger. Round and round, upward and upward she climbed, crawling against the downward flow of the dark around her as a fish might fight a current. She was breathless and shaking visibly by the time she reached the top. There was a blur of golden light before her but for a while it shifted on her vision like light on water and she had to lie still on the cold stone top of the step before it steadied. It was a torch, a single torch set in its ring high up above a door, and the knife-shaped flame of it was casting wild tiger-light all around the doorway and the guard who sat at attention there. With a little mewing whimper Martlet got herself up and stumbled forward.
The guard saw her coming long before she reached the pool of light. He watched her quizzically, fingers tapping from boredom. Her struggle against hunger and her crutches seemed to interest him until he realized that she was not going past his pool of light, and he pushed off from the chair, thunder clouding his brow.
“I don’t have any scraps, waif,” he said gruffly. He waved a hand. “Keep going. Don’t loiter.”
The effort to speak brushed a wave of nausea over Martlet’s vision. She fought it off, took a firm hold on her crutches, and drew herself upright. “Is this Phillip Cheval’s room?” she asked in a thin voice.
“No, this is Heaven, and I am Saint Peter. Go away!” He moved forward to urge her on.
Martlet gave a single piercing, warning shriek, like a cat which has been stepped on, and stopped the man in his tracks. She swallowed, shuffled forward, and began again. “I have a thing for Phillip Cheval. It is very important. He will want it back.”
The man regarded her for a while in silence, his lips pressed into a thin, uncompromising line so that the scruff of his ruddy brown beard stuck out menacingly like so many flame-tipped spears at the end of his chin. He had put his hands into his belt, and his two first fingers were playing idly with the cruciform buckle of his belt.
“Eh!” he said at last. “You don’t look like a murderer… If you have something for my Lord, hand it over and I will give it to him.”
But Martlet shook her head. “N-no, I must give it to him. It is too—too important.” Her right hand gripped the ring until she could feel the metal cutting into her skin.
“Splendour of God,” the man swore softly, and jerked his hands out of his belt. “Very well, I will ask him. Do you stand here and don’t fiddle—” he caught up his pouch which had been hanging on the back of his chair “—with anything.”
She could hear him muttering soft and fantastically under his breath as he turned around and raised a fist to the door. The sound of his knocking banged off the walls all the way down the corridor. There was a pause, then a voice called from within and the guard opened the door, sending dagger-points of yellow light into Martlet’s unprotected eyes. She squinted and grimaced, and by the time she could open her eyes again the guard had gone in and the door was shut again.
Like a lamed bird she moved closer and propped herself against the door, ear pressed to the wood. The guard must have been standing only just inside, for she could hear his words clearly.
“There is a girl outside, sir. She says she has something for you.”
The other’s voice came from a distance, and was a little sharp with bewilderment. “A girl?”
“A little waif.”
“Is that what the caterwaul was?”
The guard gave an admitting laugh. “Yes, sir. The little cat was most adamant about giving something to you. She said it was important and that you would want it.”
There was a long considering silence, which Martlet found agonizing. In the flickering light of the torch she looked down at the object in her hands. It was still drenched in the shadow, but she could just see the round form of it. It was still skin-warm to her touch.
“I wouldn’t have bothered, only she seemed insistent—” the guard began again.
But Phillip Cheval cut him off. “No, no, never mind, Chancy. Show her in.”
Martlet reeled back from the door just as the guard rattled it open again. She peered blinkingly up into his shadowed face. “Phillip Cheval will see you,” he said a trifle grudgingly. “Come on in.” And he added, as she shuffled past him, “And be respectful!”
She got herself into the room beyond and heard the guard Chancy shut the door. Somehow that was the worst sound of all, that door shutting on her, cutting her off from the long familiar tunnel of empty darkness, shutting her in on this firelit, crowded, rich world. Her eyes were wide in her head as she stared about her. Rugs of bearskin covered the floor and there was not a rotten straw in sight. The fireplace, which was lighting up most of the room, was faced in a cold white stone that had little blue veins in it, like a lady’s hand. Tapestries hung on the walls, sporting scenes of the hunt and the battle, with men and hounds and horses and falcons, limbs all flailing wildly after whatever sport they were about. The colours dazzled her. There was an enormous bed, a real bed, with rich red hangings and a mane of gold stuff dangling from its four posts. There were tables and couches, and off of everything, it seemed, the light was jinking and catching and lashing itself back. She was drowning. She was drowning under all that horrible bright splendour. She could not breathe. She could not move. She stood like a struck bird in the middle of the floor, surrounded by it, feeling her face blanching.
A smooth, dark voice called to her, breaking through the suffocation. “Come here, child.”
She turned her gaze slowly from a rack of swords to see Phillip Cheval seated in a low-slung camp chair, his legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, his arms draped idly over the arms of the chair. It was a picture of languid poise, but Martlet was not fooled. She heard the iron-dark edge beneath the voice and knew that this man, this long, dark man surrounded by all this richness and splendour, was a very terrible man.
It was with a kind of blind effort that she answered those summons. The low, smouldering, hawk-eye stare that was in the great one’s eyes did not waver from her, and somehow hers did not waver from it though she felt as though it peeled her very skin back so that she was all the soft redness and bone that was inside. It was a horrible feeling.
She stopped at the end of his feet and for a moment the silence and firelight and gloom was between them. The world to Martlet was that pale blue stare and the crush of metal against her palm.
At last Phillip Cheval spoke, and his speaking was as the release from an enchantment. “You don’t have the look of a murderer… What is it that you have for me?”
Balancing herself on her crutch, she stretched out her hand and peeled back her stiff fingers. “It is this,” she said. Then, feeling as though she ought to give proper account, “It fell from you when you were passing up the stairs, and I found it for you.”
Phillip Cheval folded himself back up into his chair, leaning forward to see the thing in her hand. His lips parted in surprise when he saw it. He took it from her and held it in his own hand—hers dropped once more to her side—and the terribleness that had been in his face was suddenly replaced by something tender. Martlet looked from his face to the ring-thing that he turned and turned in his fingers. In her hands it had been coal-black, but in Phillip Cheval’s it was of mottled gold and the slumbering colour that had been in the gem had woken now to a red and wicked light, winking in the depths, flashing off its faces like the red lightning of a dun-coloured autumn evening. She shuddered cold. Was that where he kept his terribleness, she wondered, and when he did not have his ring about him he wore the terribleness in his face?
Phillip Cheval laughed soft to himself through his nose and snatched up a glance at her. “So…! It is my ring.” Then his gaze became searching, and he asked, “Why did you bring it back to me?”
The ache in her belly, which had whimpered low until now, flared out again with a crippling power. She fought against the dryness in her throat and took the time to find the words for a thing for which there were no words at all. “The light was in it when I found it,” she said. “But it had gone down, and it said it wouldn’t wake until you had it again. It told me it wanted you.”
The eyes, which had turned terrible again, held her as though he had gripped her shoulder. The dark laughter which she had heard from him was in them, flickering back and forth, back and forth. She felt horribly small under that gaze.
“So…” he said, and he leaned back once more. “It is my ring, and it may be that you and I alone understand why such an old and battered thing is of worth to me.” He held it between thumb and forefinger and rolled it back and forth, letting the light play in the red gem and run widdershins around the bezel. “It is too small a thing for me,” he mused. “I was young when my father passed it on to me, and even then my hands were too large for it. It must be that my people were smaller once and finer-built.” He looked intently and tenderly into it, and Martlet could see the red reflection of it in his pale blue eyes. “They say it comes down from the Welsh war-lords, and maybe even from the kings of Rome. But that is a truth found on the other side of the Dark, and no one can find the truth there anymore. Still,” his eyes jumped to hers and he folded his fingers back on the ring so that it vanished from sight, “it is mine to me. I wear it ever on a chain because my fingers are too large for it. It must be that the chain-latch broke.”
He dug into the front of his leather jerkin, which even at this hour he had not put off, and fetched out from there a long fine chain of silver colour. Sure as he had said, as he held it up to the light, Martlet saw that the latch had snapped. “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully.
“I’ve seen the blacksmith,” Martlet prompted respectfully, “make chains with their links closed on each other. Mayhap Brix can make a chain like that for you, so that there is no latch to break.”
“Mayhap he?” mused Phillip Cheval. “Mayhap he will. Meanwhile a boot lace will do passing well for the task as any other thing.”
Martlet stood rooted to the spot—for if she moved, she feared she might fall—while the great man rose and crossed the room and began rummaging among his chests for the boot lace that he sought. Presently he found it, and she watched him thread the scarlet-speaking ring-thing on it, and lift it over his head. He seemed taller than ever as he did it, tapered as he was to the waist and broadened at the shoulders, like the post-man’s horse, which ran like the wind and cut the wind up as with knives around it. And he shook himself, horse-like, when he had put away the ring and swung back round on Martlet.
“Well, little waifling,” he said, resuming his seat. “What can I give to you for this?”
She stared back at him, her brain alternately hot and cold, groggy and clear. She felt the cat-shriek rising in her throat and, beyond it, with the clearness of a young thing which has not many years to its name, she remembered her father recalling the words of a poor monk. “A man mayn’t have much, but by God he’s got his dignity.” Her hungry frame felt like an autumn leaf, dried out, empty, lifeless, and the tempest of her rage shook her like an autumn leaf in a gale.
“I didn’t come in here for anything,” she blurted out, her thin voice cracking. “I come because I minded you would want the ring. Sir,” she added, remembering some semblance of manners at the last moment.
The great man held her gaze, the wayward forelock of his hair hanging between his eyes. But she did not feel the terribleness that was in those eyes because of the muffling anger in her brain. She held the gaze and shook, and shook and held the gaze, and the silence between them was a long silence. Then suddenly Phillip Cheval’s lips cracked into a smile, and the laughter that was in those eyes, Martlet realized, was a white laughter.
“Your pardon, little cat,” he said smoothly. “I did not mean to rub your fur awrong.”
Once more he rose, lunging upward in an oddly graceful way, and he swung over to the table which stood before the fire with the sea-rolling gait of a man who is blind-weary. With his words the fight had gone back out of Martlet and she stood draped on her own crutches, hoping that they would not lose their grip on the floor, and she watched the man rustle among the things on the tabletop without really seeing what he did. The anger had left her emptier than before, and now all she wanted was to get out before she fainted, because she could not have borne that. But she saw with clarity, out of the other things he moved, the hunk of peat-dark hard bread that he picked up, and the wedge of cheese. He took a leather sack off the back of a chair, a sack embroidered all over with lily patterns of scarlet and silver, and he dropped the bread and cheese inside. Leaning far over the table, he drew close a skin of wine and this, too, he put in the bag.
Martlet watched all this with her breathe bated. She did not dare to breathe, lest everything blow away and howl off down the narrow tunnel of light that her vision was becoming. Phillip Cheval returned and held out the bag idle-wise, as if it were nothing at all. “Marian is ill with the fever and can’t clear up tonight. It is a shame for this to go to waste.”
The roughness of the strap slid against Martlet’s palm, the one that the ring had bitten.
“I know it is late—it is beyond late—but I need you to find the time to take care of this for me.”
“Anything,” Martlet heard her own thin voice saying, though she stared and could not lift her eyes from the lily-pattern of the threads. “I would do anything, sir.”
“Yes,” said Phillip Cheval softly. Then, lifting his voice, “Chancy!”
The door cracked open with such speed that Martlet guessed the guard Chancy had been listening the whole while. And perhaps Phillip Cheval guessed it too, for the dark laughter was in his voice as he said, “Here is the little cat, Chancy. Mind her fur and take her off.”
“Yes, sir.” Chancy stood aside to leave the doorway empty for her, but Martlet, momentarily immobilized, stood staring at the leather bag that dragged so heavily against her arm. Chancy was waiting, Phillip Cheval was waiting. She felt her face going warm, but she could not quite move.
Phillip Cheval’s voice broke gently through to her. “I forgot to ask, little cat. Have you a name?”
She pulled her eyes from the bag. Had she a name? For a moment she felt rabbit-hunted, and her name a warren down which she wanted to scurry but she had lost the way to it. But then there it was, in the biting pressure of the crutches under her arms. “They call me Martlet.”
Phillip Cheval’s teeth flashed, white, with his laughter. “So they do? So they do… God be with you, little Martlet.”
She could go then, as though he had broken some enchantment over her. The clack-clack of her crutches were the only sound in the stillness as she shuffled along the floor and passed Chancy in the doorway. The guard rumbled a good-night to his lord, and the lord gave one back, and then the door swung shut and the two of them were standing in the corridor where the torch fought the shadows for dominance.
“You’re a rum one,” said Chancy roundly.
Wave after wave of dizziness washed over Martlet’s brain. “Mm, coo,” she said sleepily. Then, rousing herself with an effort, for she had still to make her way back down to her pile of rushes in the corner at the base of the stairs, she said, “He—he is very terrible, you know.”
Chancy’s lips pressed again into a thin line, plunging his bristled chin into shadow. He stood with his hands in his belt, fingers playing with the buckle. “He is terrible, I know, but such a one as men are wont to follow… Na,” he shook himself and broke off, waving a hand dismissively at her. “What would a girl know of that kind of thing? Get on, cat. I’ve got hours of boring guarding to do, and I want to do it undisturbed.”
Martlet shuffled off without another word, feeling the circle of torchlight drop away from her shoulders as it were some saffron fairy-cloak. She went, her body like a husk, her spirit too full for it. The only thing that seemed to keep her anchored was the weight of the bag in her hand. But at the head of the stairs she stopped and looked back. Chancy had resumed his position in his chair, elbows on his knees, leaning forward to peer into the dark. She pressed her lip forward, poutingly, thoughtfully, and murmured,
“No, but I do know of that kind of thing. The ring told it to me.”
Then, owl-like, she shook herself free and melted away into the dark of the stairs.