Authors: John Myers Myers
Ace Fantasy Books by John Myers Myers
THE HARP AND THE BLADE
THE MOON’S FIRE-EATING DAUGHTER
THE HARP AND THE BLADE
An Ace Fantasy Book / published by arrangement with
Starblaze Editions of the Donning Company / Publishers
Originally published by E. P. Dutton in 1941
The Donning Company / Publishers edition 1982
Ace edition / February 1985
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1982 by John Myers Myers
Cover art by James Warhola
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.
For information address: The Donning Company / Publishers, Inc., 253 West Bute Street, Norfolk, VA 23510.
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PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TO MY FATHER
JOHN CALDWELL MYERS
Who gave me the best to read and drink.
Charlemagne was alive,” the big Frank shouted, “your lousy princeling would be lucky to get a job as swineherd!” He roared at his own jest, but it turned and bit him.
“He’s already a swineherd,” the slim, young Saxon was sticking up for Otho, the capable emperor of his own people, “and the pigs he’s chivvying are Franks!”
That was fighting talk, too near truth to be said or accepted good-humoredly. I had been bored by their bellowing, but then I looked up from the Ovid manuscript on which I had been reading proof. The stinking little inn had but one window, and we three as the only patrons had commandeered the two tables it lighted. The others were practically shouting in my ear, but the rest of the room was too dark for my work.
I finished my wine and looked enviously at the large flagon they were too drunk to appreciate. Then I looked more closely at the men. The Frank’s face was not too dissipated, nor was it weak or stupid; but it showed that curious arrogance that is not in itself ruthlessness as to other men’s rights. It springs instead from a bald incredulity that such rights exist. The Saxon’s countenance was less definite, not marked enough to show how he would be, but he looked like a decent enough lad.
Just then, however, he was talking out of turn in view of the fact that he was on Frankish territory. I shook my head. In times like ours it isn’t safe to discuss politics with a man who has more than one arm unless he is known to concur. But that isn’t likely, what with so many factions there are hardly enough men to go around. And the big fellow was not, I was sure, going to let the matter drop. He was very angry, and I judged him the kind to take his anger seriously.
“Just because you German lice have beat up on some Huns and Wends,” he began ominously.
“And Franks,” the younger man taunted. “You may have had an empire once, but what good does that do you, now you’ve lost your guts? Otho’s kicked you all around the place; and you know the only reason he hasn’t taken you over?”
“No, but I’d like to.” The Frank was almost sober through sheer force of rage, and I shifted uneasily. He was then a dangerous-looking man if I ever saw one. The boy, on the other hand, though he was being very noisy, was just talking, hugely enjoying having the upper hand in the argument. He wasn’t going to stop talking, either.
“No, Otho can’t be bothered ruling you,” he rubbed it in.
“You haven’t said why.” His companion spoke with alert quietness, and the tensing of his body told me he was ready to act.
I almost intervened. First I thought of warning the youth, but that would no doubt have resulted in having them united to avenge my impudence. There was something reasonable I could do, however. From where I sat it would be a simple matter to conk the young fellow with the empty flask on my table, explaining to his companion that I, too, could not bear to have Franks insulted. My hand closed on the decanter, then drew away. I shrugged. It was none of my business if a man didn’t know whom to get drunk with.
“Well, it’s this way,” the Saxon laughed, and I gripped the table, waiting. “Otho doesn’t want any washed-up has-beens in this empire. He likes to rule
” He threw back his head, the better to enjoy his mirth; and as he did so the Frank drove a knife in his throat.
That was that. It had happened, and I had known it would. There was nothing to do or say now. I watched the killer draw out his knife and the blood follow as the corpse collapsed.
The Frank took a long pull at his glass, then looked around for something on which to wipe his dripping blade. My manuscript caught his eye. Probably he didn’t think, and just as probably he wouldn’t have cared if he had; but before I could stop him he had caught up a carefully written page and cleaned his dirk on it.
During the murder the life in me had been stilled, but now it awoke in a rush of fury, due only in part to the killing. That page not only represented hard work, but it was vellum, expensive and not easily come by. I caught up my stool from under me as I rose. Though not as big as the Frank was, I’m big enough for most purposes.
“You’ll have to pay me for that,” I said, giving him a chance.
He hadn’t really seen me before; but my face told him the anger my words withheld, and he reacted in kind. Grinning, with the murderer’s fire still in his eyes, he crumpled the vellum and reached for another sheet. In case he never knew what hit him, it was the stool I swung from behind me. He went down with a gashed forehead and lay still.
It seemed probable that he would be out for some while. I rifled his wallet for indemnity, then as compensation for injured feelings helped myself to some badly needed wine. As I put my cup down the Saxon stiffened with the first onset of
and the uncanny twitching drew my attention. With the drunken flush sucked from his face he looked younger than ever, and there was a clean, winsome cast to his features that made me wish again I had obeyed my impulse to save him. I cursed the Frank, but I was no friends with myself, either.
There had been no scuffling to speak of. Doubtless it was rather the sudden silence that caused the landlord, a dark, shrewd-faced little fellow to emerge from the kitchen. He stopped in the doorway and crossed himself, but he didn’t cry out. He, like all of us today, had seen too much of violence and death to be shocked or even especially surprised.
“Both dead?” he asked me.
The quiet impersonality of his voice relieved me of any fear that he might shout for help. “The big one’s just knocked out. He killed the other.”
He nodded. “I heard ‘em quarreling.”
“I had to hit him. He was going for me, too,” I explained, but he was thinking about something else and not interested.
“You robbed ‘em yet?”
“The Frank destroyed something of mine, and I saw to it that he paid me back; but that’s all.”
He started to make up for my negligence, pleased and mildly amused. “Finicky, eh?”
“Maybe.” I was in no mood for jibes. “Does it bother you?”
“No, of course not. I ain’t got anything against you. Look, I’ll even give you some good advice. Get as far away from here as soon as you can.”
I thought he was probably right, but it was getting late, and I didn’t want to leave if it was avoidable. “Why?” I asked.
He touched the prostrate Frank with his foot. “A gang of this guy’s men will be back here pretty soon. They’re just down the road rounding up some cattle and sheep that don’t belong to them.”
I started rolling up my manuscript. “Who is he?”
“His name’s Chilbert, and he runs things around here.” The landlord pursed his lips. “He says he’s a count, and maybe he is. He came to these parts with a gang a few years back and built a fort. You know how things go now. Anything belongs to anybody that can take it, and nobody but the guy who’s being robbed cares. So I guess he’s a count, at that. He can make it stick.”
He filled the dead man’s cup and drank moodily. “I suppose you think I’m a thief.”
“And a corpse robber,” I pointed out.
“It’d be no use to the lad now,” he shrugged. “As for Chilbert, he and his men never pay me for my wine. He burned my first place because I cussed a bit when he wouldn’t pay the score.”
This recalled my own obligation, but he refused my money. “You won’t take your cut, but the wine’s on the house. Besides, it was worth it to have the bastard knocked out. He hung my brother because my brother didn’t like his pigs stolen.”
I thought that over while belting on my sword. “Why don’t you finish him, now you’ve got the chance?” I inquired.
“Aw, his men would just go on a murdering spree, then one of them or somebody just as mean would move in and claim as how he was count. So what’s the good?”
My harp twanged deeply as I picked it up. “Won’t Chilbert get nasty when he finds his money gone?”
He smiled cunningly. “After I’ve hidden the loot I’ll make a bump on my head and lie down. They’ll find me unconscious, then I’ll tell the count how you frisked him.”
I started to get angry, then laughed instead. “Get me a skin of wine,” I said, putting down a coin. “I may need something to keep the chill out tonight. “
He was back in a minute. “Too bad about the lad.”
“Yes,” I said, my conscience itching again. “Who was he?”
“Oh, one of Otho’s men sent down to look the situation over, I guess. Boys shouldn’t be used for such work. They can’t help strutting as if they’d made an empire themselves.” As I passed Chilbert I dropped my Ovid by his unconscious head. “What did you do that for?” the innkeeper asked.
“He paid for it,” I said. “Didn’t he ever tell you he was fond of poetry?”
The landlord’s all but emotionless acceptance of things was in its way as oppressive a part of the inn’s atmosphere as its normal stench, the smell of blood, and the presence of death. Outside there was the freshness of early summer in a green land. And in spite of the fact that I didn’t know where I would sleep that night it seemed well to be traveling again.
From force of habit I started toward the amiable nag I had purchased after landing at Nantes a few days before. But there were two other horses hitched near it, both of much greater beauty and far fewer years. Moreover, one, at least, was short a master. There was a trim, little mare, undoubtedly the Saxon’s, and a tall, powerful bay with lines promising speed as well as endurance. I gasped at my good fortune. The landlord might not have understood the difference between stealing money and taking the legitimate spoils of war, but it was clear enough in my mind.
The horse jibbed a bit while I was arranging my gear, and I saw from his hide that Chilbert wore spurs and used them roughly. I didn’t try to be too friendly, but let him get the smell of me before I mounted. “This is your lucky day,” I assured him, adding as a courteous afterthought: “And mine, too.”