Chapter Thirteen

Rolf had no trouble getting away from the old men that morning. Both seemed occupied with their own thoughts. A haunch of venison and a heavy wedge of cheese had been acquired from somewhere. They all ate their fill with enough left for several days. Columba had prayed over them all in a language that didn’t sound like Latin. Not that Rolf could speak or read the holy words.

He didn’t exactly lie when he told them he’d be up early in the morning to check the snares. Rolf rose before dawn and left with only his cloak and his staff.  Taking food would have revealed his purpose, so he hoped Will could get something for him at the castle.

Finding Burg Altz was a simple matter of following any watercourse downstream. Walking through the fresh snow slowed him. He fleetingly wished Blackie was along. The castle was farther away than he had imagined the day before, but he got there by mid-morning. The fortress declared itself before he even saw the walls. First the forest thinned, then was cleared around the castle. 

Burg Altz looked higher than it was wide. A brooding presence set in a bight in the river, it rose three or four levels above a rocky prominence. Only the highest levels had windows, all of them closed by shutters with a black device, which from a distance looked like a crow but closer inspection revealed to be a long-necked dragon on a yellow background. Arrow slots punctuated the front of the gatehouse.

  “Stop there. Who you be, and what you want?” The guard at the near end of the draw bridge challenged from far enough that he could easily bring his pole arm down to defend himself. This guard and the one at the far end of the bridge wore short shirts of mail covered with dirty yellow tabards showing the dragon device. A wool cloak draped over their shoulders, easily dropped at need. They wore kettle helmets with linked mail coifs and carried long pole arms. Their feet were shod in felt boots much like Will’s, only taller. Next to the other guard, an archer was stepping his bow to notch the string.

“My name is Rolf. I’m the brother of Will, a soldier of this garrison.” As soon as the guard asked his name, he knew this was a mistake. He would only make trouble for his brother and possibly for himself. He resolved not to even think about Jordanes or Columba. Concentrate on the sword, he told himself. Think only about the sword.

This didn’t seem to be as good an idea as Rolf had thought a few hours before.

“Stay here.” The guard walked across the bridge and consulted with the other men. Rolf didn’t understand what was so complicated about his request. Either Will was here or he wasn’t. Surely there was no harm in him seeing his brother.

“There’s a Will here,” the first guard replied. “We’ll ask if you can see him.” 

The other guard disappeared down the tunnel into the castle proper. Rolf had to wait for what seemed like too long before the guard returned and said, yes, he could come in, but first he must speak to Will’s officer.

Rolf saw no other way in or out of the castle. Tracks suggested only a few horses and men had entered or left the castle since the snow. The bridge was swept clear, but snow stood white down the road except for a few muddy footprints. He saw no outside structures, though he smelled pigs. Of course, pig stench carried. 

A narrow, wooden lift bridge across the river gave access to the castle gate. Wooden beams and chains reached it from the overhanging gatehouse, but the bridge had already lowered for the day or perhaps was only raised during times of trouble. 

“You won’t need that in here.” The guard took his staff and set it among the stacked pole arms by the watch room and led Rolf through the tunnel in the gate house. “Wait here.” 

Rolf considered how stupid he’d been. If he didn’t get himself in trouble, he was certainly fouling things for Will. He’d probably get thrown in a dungeon or something leaving those old men wondering what had happened to him.

Someone who looked important strode from the castle tower and marched straight toward him. A tall man, he wore a clean yellow tabard with the dragon device sewn to his knee-length hauberk. The coif of his mail hung over his cloak, which was lighter colored and tighter woven than those of the guards. His tabard was belted at the waist, but the clips for his scabbard were empty. A sheathed side dagger showed under his right elbow. He wore short, fur-lined leather boots. His nose and cheeks glowed as one often exposed to weather.

“You are Will of Uberbache’s brother?” he asked. Without waiting for Rolf’s response, he said, “Come with me.”

“Is my brother sick or hurt?”

The officer raised his hand to forestall further questions and led Rolf back across the yard. He saw more cattle than horses and not nearly the bustle he expected. No flags, no sword drill. Except for a small smithy to the right, the niches surrounding the yard seemed filled with stores and quiet.

He followed the officer into the tower and up the stone stairs directly inside the doors. At the first landing they turned left and passed a room that looked like a counting house. Several long tables ran the length of the room. Large books were stacked at the end of the far table. Ink pots and quills were evident, though no scribes. 

The next door opened into a triangular room. Tapestries covered its walls. A man, dressed in ochre-colored velvet tunic, sat in a folding wood curule chair, one foot forward in an imperial pose. He wore no armor or tabard, but he could only be the Dragon. He was tall and trim with golden hair falling over broad shoulders. A close-trimmed beard framed his noble face.

As Rolf stepped through the door, he staggered. Instead of a man sitting in a chair, the person across the room swelled into a gigantic reptilian being twenty feet tall with wings spreading beyond. All sense of the room disappeared as well. The great creature burst beyond the limits of the room and castle. He was magnificent. Beautiful. Wise and loving.

His unworthiness to even approach such an august being assaulted Rolf. What did he think, a peasant shepherd wandering through the hills seeking his brother, that one such as this should even look on him, let alone help him? Rolf was tempted to fall on the floor. In fact, as soon as that idea flashed into his mind, it seemed the best and only action. He dropped to his knees. “My lord Dragon.”

“You see, Ulrich, even the peasants know. Get up, boy.” 

The voice was like none Rolf had ever heard. The dragon was gone, but the man radiated the same authority. So manly, so masterful. Yes, here was a man to follow to the ends of the earth. To serve until death. Rolf struggled to his feet. He dared not raise his eyes to the face of someone so magnificent. He dared only look at his feet, but a glance toward the throne revealed what lay across the Dragon’s lap.

“Our sword!” Rolf looked up for an instant, before lowering his gaze to fix on the Willard family sword. What was he doing with it? How did he know Rolf had come to get it? 

“Yes, your family sword. As you can see, it is safe and well cared for. As is, for the moment, your brother. Now, tell me what you are doing here?”

“I came to get it. That is, my lord, I came to plead with my brother to return the sword to our father.” Rolf’s head felt like it was spinning. As if he were about to fall from a lofty height. No, as if he was already falling. He fought to control his stomach. “And I hoped … before I saw you, my lord, I hoped to persuade him to come home. You see we aren’t properly your vassals, and we, uh … “


“We owe allegiance to our own lord. And it wouldn’t be right.”

“And do you still think that way?”

“Oh, no, my lord. I mean … I don’t know what to do,” Rolf said. “My father sent me to get his sword. It’s really his, my lord, not my brother’s nor mine. And yet I can see that Will was right to come join you, my lord. I mean, you being so … lordly.” Stop. Stop. Close your mouth. You’re making a fool of yourself.

Laughter filled the small room. “Perhaps I should turn down the charm for this one, Ulrich.”

“He seems properly cowed, my lord.”

“Answer me a few questions, young—what is your name, boy?”

“Rolf, if it please your lordship.”

“Rolf, tell me about this sword. Damascene blades are rare. Your brother tells me a forbearer of yours brought it back from a Crusade. But it’s straight, not the curved style favored by the Saracens. Is that true?”

“Yes, my lord. My father says that he, that is the first Willard, came back with a sword, horse, and a book. And they were what made us great. Only we’re not great anymore, my lord, as you can see.”

“How the proud have fallen. But you think perhaps you might be great again. Does Will have greatness in him?”

“Oh, yes, my lord. With a leader like you, Will could do great things.”

“And yourself?” the Dragon asked.

“Me? No, I’ll never be great. I’m just a shepherd.”

“A sword, a horse and a book. What book?”

“I don’t know, my lord. I never saw it.” Rolf wondered why the Dragon would be interested in another book.

“I understand it is in safe keeping at a monastery on the Mulde. Is that so?”

“I don’t know, my lord. I’ve never seen it. Not sure if Will has. Father says the holy brothers know it’s our book. It has writing about us in it.”

“A book about your family?” the Dragon asked.

“No, I don’t think so. I can’t read. I think it’s a book someone wrote in about our family.”

“I see. It could be very important to your family then?”

“Yes, my lord. At least that’s what my father says.”

“It might define the circumstances and conditions of the gifting that you describe as a sword and a horse.”

“I don’t know, my lord.” Rolf was close to tears. He didn’t understand why the great lord kept asking him the same thing over and over.

“My lord, perhaps confinement would help clarify his memory,” Ulrich said.

“The dungeon hasn’t done much for his brother’s memory,” the Dragon replied.

“Dungeon? Will’s in the dungeon?”

A dungeon. He is in the room prepared to confine of people we don’t want to hurt or offend. The other two are more traditional. What say you, Rolf? Would a night fighting off rats help you remember?”

“No, my lord. That is, I already told you. I’ll do anything, my lord. Only don’t shut me in no hole.”

“He may be sincere,” Ulrich said.

“Yes, my lord, yes. I’ve told you all I know.”

“No!” The Dragon shouted. He stood, his hand on the hilt. “You most certainly have not told me all you know. I sense you are holding something back. You may not be a skilled liar, young man, but you’ve done a credible job of deflecting my interrogation. What aren’t you telling me?”

“What am I not—my lord, you know everything. There’s nothing I could hold back from you. I mean, yeah, I know things about sheep and all that you may not know, but I—”

“Silence,” the Dragon shouted. “Ulrich, take him to the second dungeon.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“No food or water for a day. And cut off rations to his brother. There’s more to this mystery, and I want to know what it is. These boys or this old family sword—” The Dragon tossed the sword horizontally and grasped it by its dark patterned blade. “Take him away, then bring his brother. Don’t let them see, much less speak to, each other.”

“Certainly, my lord.”

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