"Is Renald come home?" King Charlemagne asked.
Bradamant looked at him in surprise. Surely any message bringing news of her brother's whereabouts would have been delivered to their uncle both as kinsman and as King of France, as well as to her. The victory celebrations, such as they were, and the mourning days for the dead were mostly complete, but the celebrations had not much lightened the mourning for either of them.
He stopped beside her under a high archway, striped brightly with red and yellow stone facing. Beyond, in a hall of the palace, Prince Charlot and Prince Louis were playing chess. The boys had not been with them at the battle at Roncesval. They played their game intently.
After the battle, Bradamant had sent her soldiers home to Este, and with them the message to her son that he was now the lord of Este. Her husband Roger was one of the many who had died in winning safe passage for the French back from Spain into France and securing the border between them. She had stayed with the king and the rest of the army as they marched slowly from Roncesval to Paris. The loss of her cousin Roland, the king's chief warrior as well as his nephew, and so many others of her fellow warriors, was hard for all the survivors. From Paris they had returned to Aix-la-Chapelle, the empire's capital, where the king disbanded the foot-soldiers not already sent to their homes.
Bradamant stopped herself from sighing and told him, "I haven't had any news. I suppose he could be." It was bitter to think that her brother had been still journeying on pilgrimage in his exile during the fighting. Not that it would have made any difference if Renald had been at Roncesval. He would have died with her husband and the king's nephew Roland and the rest of the Peers and the others in the rear-guard, that was all. Even Roland's magically enduring sword, Durendal, had not saved any lives in the rear-guard. "I could go to Renald's castle at Montalban and see if they've heard anything of him."
The king nodded and looked down, twisting his gold seal-ring, with its double-headed eagle, the sign of commanding power for the French now, as for the Romans and the Trojans before them. Her husband Roger had borne an eagle for his emblem, too.
Bradamant took her leave and set off for Montalban.
The trees were still bare. Poplars lined the road, the grey trunks and the tall white branches flashing silver where the sun lit them. A small patch of snow lay north of each one, shining against the darkness of the muddy ground, a light that marked the absence of sunlight. There was no grass yet, except where the ground sloped south. The footing was not as good as it might have been, for the roads were still wet. But Marron was a strong horse, if not quite as strong as his sire, Bayard, and he made good time.
When she came into the forests of the Ardennes, poplars gave way to thick groves of oak and chestnut. Even without new leaves, the heavy branches shut out much of the sky.
When she came over a ridge and saw a stream running along the bottom of the valley there, she thought it was time for Marron to have some water, but the water at the ford was muddy. She dismounted and led Marron upstream, walking noisily, so as not to surprise any stray wolf or boar. The king hunted in these woods, and, given warning, all the animals would avoid a human step. She caught one glimpse of a weasel, staring at her from under a bramble bush. The little eyes glittered, and then it spun about silently and disappeared down a tunnel.
When she reached water that ran almost clear, she set Marron free to drink and graze a little on the remains of last year's grasses. The bread she had brought with her was stale, but she bit and chewed doggedly to stop her stomach from rumbling.
She wrapped her cloak around her and snuggled her hands in a fold of the wool, then leaned against a tree and looked about. Some of the oaks were covered with stubborn leaves, left over from the autumn. They were copper where the light came through, black in the shadow. A single snowdrop had come into bloom and stood in a patch of mud, so white it looked like silver bells.
Bradamant blinked and squinted her eyes, trying to see it more clearly. It was silver—but it couldn't be, could it? The little bells began to sway, and she felt a breeze on her face. The shadows in the darkness of the oak behind the snowdrop stirred, and took shape.
A boy dressed in black robes and wearing a silver crown stood before her. No, not a boy. His body was too long and lean; his head and feet fit too well with him to be those of a child yet to finish growing, or a dwarf whose growth had ended early.
He was one of the little people.
When he began to speak she wondered if she had mistaken the appearance of things. His voice was soft, as if from far away—perhaps he was, and it was only distance that made him seem small.
No. His words were distinct, and, anyway, how could he be farther off than the trunk of the oak tree behind him?
"You are Bradamant, a warrior of Charlemagne," he said.
She crossed herself, but nothing happened, except that he laughed.
"I have a boon to ask of you," he said.
"What are you?"
"I am called Oberon."
She had heard of this king in Faerie. She crossed herself again, still without result. The priests most often said the fays were devils, but then they also said that her cousin Malgis was damned because he was a magician, and that seemed to her unlikely. Her cousin Astolf was a magician, too, after all, and no one called him a lost soul. Of course, he was English, and expected to be odd. Perhaps the little people were like the paynim, with damned souls but as much ordinary good and evil, and as much worldly honesty as other people had. Humans were like that. But then it was said also that the little people had no souls. And many said that they were crafty, lying by equivocation. Everyone said that they held by their word. And it did not bother him when she crossed herself. She gave up the riddle. "What do you want, Majesty?"
But instead of answering directly, he said, "The world grows old, and it grows further from us, year by year."
This was as much of a riddle as the rest. "Do you mean to stop the world from getting old?"
"If I did, I wouldn't ask a mortal's help," said Oberon, wryly.
"Just as well. I don't think I'd be much good at it."
He said gently, "It's time to give back the gifts of Faerie. They're too powerful for mortals to use safely—and they lose, in your world, by little and little, those powers which they have and draw from us. We grow the weaker in their failure."
"But if the Spanish attack again—"
"You are both weary of fighting." Oberon raised his head up and to the side for a moment, as if trying to imagine the future or to see into it. Then he fixed his grey eyes on her again and said, "It's hard to know if gifts of power bring victory more swiftly or serve only to kill mortals in larger numbers. Your cousin Roland threw the Frisian king's fire engine into the North Sea rather than leave so dangerous a weapon in the world."
Well, that was true enough. Bradamant rested her hand on her sword, not to draw it, but to feel the comforting solidity and smoothness of the ruby in the hilt. "Majesty," she said, "this would be a work of many years. The journey to Far Cathay alone would—"
"Cathay? Oh—you mean the Princess Angelica's ring of invisibility. No. Such talismans I leave to others. I ask of you only the gifts you have yourself, in your own family."
"I? But I have nothing!" She caught her hand away from the sword and looked down at it, half fearing to see hell-flames burst magically from it. It was still only her old, familiar sword, made for her by her father's armorer.
"Where is the lance from Cathay your cousin Astolf gave you?"
"But that isn't magic—it's only lucky." Bradamant listened to her own words and was astonished. "I thought it was my own skill," she said ruefully.
"Your skill is considerable," said Oberon, "but as you say, there is luck in the spear. Old Galafrone had the tempering of it beyond the world."
"But I don't have it. I gave it to Marfisa, my sister—Roger's sister—and she's gone off wandering since we avenged Roger's death."
"You are generous," he said dryly. "Your cousin Roland's sword, Durendal?"
"We buried it with him at Roncesval."
"And what did you do with the shield your husband won from the magician Atlante?"
"Roger threw it away so that no one would be tempted to use so dishonorable a device."
Oberon was evidently starting to find this litany amusing. He managed not to smile at the carelessness of mortal generosity, but his eyes and brows were alive with mischief. "Surely your husband won the dragonskin armor of Nimrod when he defeated Rodomont in tourney?"
"Oh, so that's why the mail looked just like scales!"
Oberon waited patiently.
"No. Rodomont wore fresh armor to fight Roger. I won his mail by the grave of Isabel of Galicia—but I buried it there in the shrine."
"Of course. And the golden helmet of Mambrino, which your brother won?"
"I don't know if Renald left it at Montalban or took it with him into exile."
"He set him free." She thought a moment and added, "But I don't know if he went home. He liked Astolf."
"What of the book to undo spells and the olifant Logistilla gave him?"
"I don't know—the horn lost its power in the Moon."
"The book of spells your cousin Malgis uses for his sorcery?"
"Oh, yes, he has that."
"A wonder!" said Oberon.
"—but I don't think he'd ever let it go."
"Well, well. It would seem, Bradamant, that I am asking a quest more difficult than I knew. But will you undertake it?"
"What can I gain?"
Oberon stooped and picked up a brown oakleaf. He blew on it, and it turned to gold. The sharp curves of the indentations flashed, catching what light there was. He tossed it to her, and she caught the brightness in her hands. She had expected something as light as a leaf, and had to take a step to catch her balance. It was as heavy as gold.
"Fairy gold is little worth," he said. "This is a pretty gaud if you will keep it from the touch of cold iron. But gauds, I think, are all I can give you. I must retrieve talismans of power now, and not bestow them. If you will undertake this as a quest, you shall have honor and glory in Faerie."
Bradamant's father, Duke Aymon, was as proud as he was stubborn, and all his children had taken from him the longing for glory. But— "Could you bring Roger back to life?" she said.
"No. I could make you an airy likeness of him. You might find it a comfort in your bed, and it could talk with you in his voice, but its words would come only from your memories."
Bradamant shook her head. She would like to hear Roger's voice again, even if all it had to say was things he'd said before. But Oberon seemed to think it would be cheating of some sort, and maybe he was right. "No. Let it be fame. I'll try to find the things for that—it's better than a ghost."
"Is it?" said Oberon. "Then I thank you. Call me in any place of old powers, when you have a talisman to return to me, and I'll meet you there."
Bradamant looked at him doubtfully, worried again by his mention of unhuman powers.
Oberon shook his head, guessing her fear. "The old powers were not devils," he said. "They were more powerful than your people commonly are, that's all. I can hear you from their places. But if you fear them—" He held out his hand for her to give him back the gold leaf.
His willingness to take no for an answer added a good deal to her comfort. She did not think Oberon could mean more ill by her than an evil human might have done, and she was a fair judge of humans. She could be deceived—she had been before—but not often. She thought Oberon meant well by her, and if she could trust him that far, she ought to be able to trust his judgment of the others like him. There were priests, she knew, who fumed mightily when a maid so much as dropped a coin down a wishing well to wish for a lover. Some wishing wells were dangerous enough. But that was because love was dangerous. She had never thought the wishing damnable.
"I'll try," she said. She tucked the gold oakleaf into the width of a sleeve and stooped to gather up the flower. The stem broke easily, and Bradamant put the silver spray in the other sleeve. Gold and silver prickled a moment against her arms, but then she forgot them. Oberon was shrinking. The breeze was up again, blowing on her back. He grew small, and smaller, and vanished. The wind sang for a moment in the branches of the trees, and then it was gone.
Bradamant looked about her. To one side, away from the river, she heard water bubbling. She went after the sound and came to a pair of springs, each banked around with earth, and the earth tiled with mosaics, apparently long untended, for both were overgrown with moss. Bradamant sat down on one, but Oberon's voice, so soft it was hardly more than a thought, said, "I wouldn't, if I were you." Bradamant jumped up, looked at the moss, then set to work pulling enough of it off to let her see the patterns.
Each fountain showed a winged boy, much faded and discolored, but clear enough in outline. Each held a bow and arrows. She could no longer tell which was armed with gold and which with ebon, but it scarcely mattered to her which was Eros and which Anteros. She had no mind to fall into a passion, either of love or hatred, with the next person she met. Her brother Renald had had trouble enough, loving Angelica, and all for an unwary drink of water. And while he'd been at it, Angelica's heart was set on leaving these mad Franks behind and winning her way home across the world to Cathay.
Renald's wife Clarice had not been well pleased, either.
Bradamant had thought to fill up her wine-skins with water, to stretch out her supply of drink, but it could wait. She bowed to the air and said, in case Oberon still had the corner of his eye on her, "Thanks, my lord," then made her way out of the grove of old powers.
From Paris she followed the old Roman roads that zig-zagged south, up the Seine and overland to the Loire, then around the edges of the Central Massif, and so home. Charlemagne had been prodding his nobles to build more roads, but the work took time.
In the south the poplars along the road gave way to olives, bright with the clusters of little white flowers among the grey-green leaves. The undersides of the leaves were rimy white, and as breezes tossed them up or down the olives glimmered light and dark.
Reluctantly, Bradamant unpacked her armor. She did not expect to need it, but it was not so long since they had fought Saracens up and down this countryside. So it was back to the routine of stuffing herself into her gear each morning—mailshirt and leggings, gloves and helm. Armor and arms together were worth over 30 cows—enough to stock a royal estate.
Dealing with armor took time, as always, but now, besides that, she found at the end of a day's riding cased in iron and leather that her legs were swollen. It was hard to get them out of the greaves, and her feet were so sore that it was painful to walk even as far as behind a bush. An old woman, she decided, that's what she was. She shouldn't be going on a quest, she should be at home at Este telling the boy how to manage the estate. Not that he'd appreciate it, and she didn't like calling herself too old to do what she said she would. Everyone knew Duke Aymon's brood were stubborn. And she wasn't all that old, either. She still timed her journeys, when practical, so that she would not be on the road when beginning her month. She intended to reach Montalban before the next.
When she came in sight of her brother's castle of Montalban, the mountain was as white as its name, the meadows sudsy with anemones. They rippled in the breeze, like foam on water. Marron trotted faster, seeing a familiar place with the promise of oats.
Across the field a warrior on a grey horse, seeing their charge uphill, lowered his lance and came riding at them.
Bradamant's first thought was so well drilled into her arms and legs that she had put it into action for some time before going on to her second thought.
The first thought was defense. She wheeled Marron to the side, and touched her heels to his flanks to start the gallop, brought her lance out of its rest and aimed it with one hand, and swung up her shield with the other.
Meanwhile, her second thought had taken shape at the sight of her enemy's boots tucked firmly in the stirrups, the better to ride her down without being unseated himself.
Not all of Charlemagne's warriors were so comfortable riding full tilt to collision. And that particular line of arm and shoulder to lance was familiar—Bradamant had seen it since they were children jousting on hobby horses, with mullein stalks for spears.
She wheeled again to let the charge go past her, set the lance at rest, and took off her helmet. Her hair was darker now than in earlier days. It fell down about her shoulders, brown instead of fair.
Renald circled round, shouting "Coward!" and pulled up in confusion, seeing her face, framed in the long tresses.
Bradamant trotted towards him.
"If you'd keep the muck of the road off your shield," he complained, "you'd give your friends a better chance to know you."
She pointed at his own muddy shield, and he made a face at her. Then they were close enough to embrace and kiss. Even next to him, she could hardly see a gleam from the silver mountain on his shield.
They went on up, twisting back and forth across the hillside, on the road to the castle. Bradamant would have liked to delay giving him the news, but he asked after her husband, so she told him.
Renald nodded. His thin face was getting wrinkled, and the lines seemed to deepen as he heard of Roncesval. "I was afraid it must be something like that," he said. "The horse I was riding ran away with me one day, and I thought surely it was Malgis setting some cantrip to bring me home. But he forgot to think of the heat. At Acre the horse fell dead, and I found myself sick with the ague. I wasn't able to look for shipping until months later."
At the gate, once the porter looked at their dusty faces more carefully, there was a great bustle—sending for Renald's two sons, who were out helping to plough for the spring planting, sending for the steward, calling for wine and rooms and fresh clothes to be prepared, calling for someone to stable the horses, then apologizing when an older servant interrupted angrily that the lord would want to see to that himself.
"Yes, thanks, Humphrey," said Renald, and took the old man by the sleeve. "Why doesn't anyone tell me where my wife is?"
Humphrey cleared his throat and reached up to pat Renald's mailed shoulder. "I'm sorry, lad. Lady Clarice took ill this last winter—"
Renald nodded and set out for the stable, with its comforting, familiar smells of musty hay, horseflesh, and horse droppings.
Bayard had been left behind when Renald went on his pilgrimage. The horse reared up, neighing a welcome. Renald turned aside to hug the stallion, hiding his face against the bay stallion's warm flank for a moment.
Bradamant followed, and they groomed and fed their horses in silence.
They met again at supper, cleaned, combed, and dressed in velvet robes embroidered with silk lilies. (The robes were not quite clean, but they had been carefully brushed, and Renald's steward, a thrifty soul, still considered them noble, not ready to be given to the servants.)
Bradamant was quiet during most of the meal. Renald and the boys were trying, awkwardly, to get used to each other.
It was not until Aymonet and Yonet withdrew that she told him her errand. He sat quietly, eating his sauce of dried fruits in honey, and drinking a cup of thin local wine. He made no comment, but heard her out in silence.
"Will you let me take the helmet?" she said, at the end.
"Here I am just back from pilgrimage, and you ask me to give to devils?"
"He wasn't a devil."
"The priests say fairies—"
"The priests say devils fear the cross," she interrupted.
"The helmet's mine," he answered.
"I'll fight you for it," she said. Honor required that she do her best to gain the helm, but having done that, she could fail honorably.
"Not if I'm the only one with something to lose. What will you offer me if I win?"
Bradamant recognized the casual tone which had signaled a trap when they were both children, fox that he was. They should really have called him Renard. He'd even had the red hair, back then. But there didn't seem to be any way to keep her word to Oberon without springing Renald's trap. Besides, she wanted to find out what it was. "What would you suggest?"
"If you lose, you give up your devil's quest."
Snap! she said to herself. It made an interesting point of honor: was it better to give up the helmet of Mambrino and continue the remainder of the quest, or should she stand fast and try for all? Renald was certainly the better fighter, unless he was slowing with age. She looked at his hands, but saw no swelling in the knuckle joints to suggest that he was beginning to have any trouble with inflammation in his bones. She would have liked to consult Roger—but then, if Roger were alive to be consulted, she would not have taken on her fool's errand. "Done," she said.
They drank another cup on it.
Bradamant awoke to a familiar sensation of knots being tied in her guts. She groaned and pushed herself out from between the sheets. They were not stained, fortunately, so she had only the smallclothes she had worn to bed to throw in the corner for the maidservant to deal with. A pity to make more work, but she could apologize for it later. She hunted about in the pale dawnlight for the soft rags that the steward ought to have provided. She found them at last at the bottom of a chest, some loose and some stitched together along the side. She took one of the tubes, stuffed loose rags inside it, and pinned the ends over her sash to hold the pad in place. She dressed and went down to the kitchens to ask for a tisane. The cook clucked sympathetically and recommended sage and rosemary. It was not much of a breakfast, but the sweet, heavy smell cleared her head, and the hot liquid eased her belly. She wondered if her brother was fox enough to have known.
By sunrise she was at the stable. Renald was already there, saddling Bayard. The bay nuzzled his shoulder. The grey he had ridden home, looked up at the activities beginning, and down again, apparently glad not to be called on for any further use just then. It was cold, and Renald jingled in his mail.
Bradamant hurried to get Marron ready.
They trotted downhill to the same field they had used the day before. This time their shields were clean and fresh-painted, Bradamant's silver with a silver hand on a red cedar, and her brother's red with a silver pile pointing up from the base. A few of the servants, with their cloaks wrapped close around them, followed them out. They were to help in case of injury. Even with the iron lancehead left off, a wooden stave with the weight of a fast horse behind it could do considerable damage.
They could not ride crossways, as they had done before, because of the rising sun, but at the foot of the hill there was a good stretch of level ground beside the road, so that they could ride against each other, and neither one would have the disadvantage of riding into the light or up the slope. Bayard and Marron, both well used to the exercise, took their positions with hardly a touch from either rider.
The gold helm glittered red in the early sunlight.
When they had finished moving into position and halted, Bradamant could hear the birds in the trees nearby celebrating spring and sunrise. A lark, too high to see, was singing in the sky.
Humphrey, with a look of disapproval, shouted, "Let them go!" and dropped his arms.
On the first pass, both struck, but each near the edge of the other's shield. Both turned, letting the blow slip by. They galloped to the ends of the field and wheeled the horses round. Their track was marked with mashed anemones and some scattered divots.
Renald had caught the rhythm, and knew whether he would be at the top, bottom, or center of the horse's stride when his spear touched. The stave crashed into the center of her shield. She fell back, but kept her feet in the stirrups, and was pushed flat on Marron's croup without being shoved off.
Marron staggered and neighed his distress. The force of the blow and the force of Bradamant's own lance changing direction to point at the sky almost toppled him, but he danced, found his balance, and sped on.
Bradamant pulled herself up on the saddlebow and patted Marron. At the touch of the sweaty mane, she felt the rhythm of the step go into her pulse. She turned again.
Renald was aiming for her helmet. If it landed, she would be stunned and thrown. If she ducked, her own stroke would miss. If she raised her shield, she couldn't see. She didn't need to.
Renald's lance skidded up her shield into air. Hers took him on the right shoulder, where his shield did not cover him. He toppled over sideways and back, and thumped to the ground.
Bradamant turned, and rode back. Humphrey was running to meet them, with the other servants following close behind.
Renald lay jingling on the flowers. He was shaking. She held out her hands to help him up, but he did not take them. He squinted against the light at her. She moved round to the shady side and knelt by him. "What is it?"
He put up his hands and fumbled for the helmet, but could not work the strap.
Humphrey reached them and helped him pull the helmet off, thrusting it impatiently at Bradamant to take so that his hands were free to help Renald sit up. Renald paid no attention to where it had gone.
"Bring the cart over," Humphrey told one of the others, then scowled at Bradamant's confusion. "Don't be simple, madame. It's the ague. What would you expect?"
She swallowed to clear her throat. "Will he be all right?"
"Of course," said Renald faintly. "Rest and proper feeding."
Bradamant looked doubtfully at her brother, wondering how much to trust the cure he envisioned. He should not have fought. "Isn't this an excess of gallantry? You must have known, and if you wanted to let me—"
"I didn't want to," he said. "The bad days of a tertian ague should be every third day, and I thought I'd be weak tomorrow. But sometimes it comes early, or maybe I mis-counted the days."
The cart was beside them. Bradamant helped lift Renald up and tucked a blanket around him.
He grinned at her expression. "You could make amends by giving it back," he suggested.
He nodded and closed his eyes. The cart lurched forward, with Humphrey walking beside it.
Bradamant rode ahead of it to warn the cook that her skill in physicking would be needed again, and to rest a little. Ridding herself of the golden helmet could wait until she felt more like a human.
There were caves and sink-holes in many spots along the course of the Garonne. Opinion divided as to which of these were the work of the river, dropping north out of the Pyrenees, and which had been dug by giants before the Flood.
Bradamant and her brothers had no doubt about the cave nearest Montalban. It was screened by the vines and weeds that grew along the banks of the river, and inside a curving tunnel led to the darkness of a round stone room, where the walls were covered with wild-oxen and hairy elephants. There were still wild-oxen to be found, and the king had a white elephant, the gift of the righteous Saracen, Haroun al Raschid, but she had never heard of a country where hairy elephants ranged.
She went in with a pine torch, and wandered down the cool, mud-smelling passage. The animals, seen in the flickering light, nodded a welcome to her. "Oberon?" she said.
A shadow wavered between two elephants, steadied, and stepped into the light.
Bradamant took the helmet of Mambrino from her head, and put it into Oberon's hands.
He looked up at her. "Do you regret it?"
He tossed it and caught it, balanced spinning on the end of one finger. The gold was bright in the torchlight.
The color faded, growing lighter, with more yellow and less red. The spinning stopped, and Oberon held a basin with a wide brim most of the way round it, such as a barber might use.
Oberon nodded and spun it again. It stopped and was gold.
"What is it really?" said Bradamant.
He spun it. "It is what you have eyes to see."
"I can't see it like that," she pointed out.
He blew on it, and it spun faster. "Shall I let you off your word Bradamant? —but we will have use for it in time to come, if you will let it go."
She said nothing.
The yellow brightness gave back the torchlight, seeming as it were itself a light. The light grew smaller, and went out, taking Oberon with it.
An elk on the wall behind him looked for a moment like a horse and skinny rider, but the torch burned higher, and she could see the painted elk tossing its horns against some enemy dead before the Flood.
She had consented, and the golden helmet of Mambrino was gone out of the world.