“Don’t just stand there and gawk at it like a naked maid.” Lord Manerion said. “Pick it up.”
As Moribus regarded the fresh mound of dung, a naked maid was about the farthest thing from his mind. “That right there?” he pointed, figuring he must have misunderstood. “You want me to pick that up?”
“Did I stutter, boy? Did I start speaking in high Endish? Now get down off your fornicating horse and get it for Rho’s sake!”
“But it’s just a pile of crap. What could you possibly want that for?”
“Look,” Lord Manerion gave a long-suffering sigh. “That pile of crap happens to be goat droppings. Fresh, smelly goat droppings by the looks of it. And dragons, I happen to know, have sensitive sniffers that can smell a rat fart a mile downwind. When we go riding up to the dragon’s doorstep, would you rather smell like juicy human-flesh or an ever-loving goat?”
Grudgingly, Moribus dismounted and set about the distasteful task. When he had filled two pouches, they set on their way again, inching closer to the line of peaks that sawed off the horizon. The land was bunched and folded with thickly forested valleys and bare, boulder-strewn heights. Knight and squire traveled the middle ground along a winding, gravel-strewn path. The Elyddon Road with its stream of travelers was already three days behind them. Food was hard to come by, and Moribus felt hungry nearly all the time, except at night when he was too cold to notice.
Aside from the change of scenery, the days following the duel had been much the same as those preceding it. Neither spoke of it although, in point of fact, the knight rarely spoke on any subject unless it was to heap insult upon it. On those rare occasions when Moribus caught him in a talkative mood, he eagerly plied him for information.
“How many dragons have you really slain?” he ventured one afternoon. “Is it as many as they say?”
“And how many would that be?”
“Dozens. Scores. Hundreds, some say.”
Lord Manerion shrugged. “Sounds about right.”
“But that could be almost any number. Don’t you even remember?”
“I don’t remember how many wenches I bedded, either, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t bed them. What does it matter to you, anyway? You keeping a ledger?”
“I just want to know the truth is all.”
“Ah, the truth,” Lord Manerion chuckled. “Now there’s a funny thing. People will travel a thousand miles to find the truth, and then, right when they have it in their grasp, they’ll seize onto the nearest falsehood. Here’s a lesson for you, boy. People will believe what they want to believe, and there’s not a fornicating thing you or I or the sheep-loving king of Illiam can do about it.”
But Moribus would not be put off the scent so easily. “What about those skulls buried in your garden? Are they really dragon skulls like everyone says?”
“Oh, those,” replied Lord Manerion. “Dragon hatchlings.”
“They don’t look much like dragon skulls.”
“And just when in your paltry, meaningless life have you ever seen a real dragon skull, boy?”
“In the great hall,” Moribus said. “In your manse.”
The knight ran his tongue along the front of his teeth as if to dislodge a stuck bit of food.
“They’re not really dragon skulls, are they?” Moribus persisted.
“And just what kind of skulls do you suppose they’d be? Sewer rats?”
“Oliphaunt skulls, if I had to guess.”
“And I’m sure you can explain why I would go to all the trouble of burying a load of fornicating oliphaunt skulls in my garden?”
Moribus could. “So everyone would think you’ve slain that many dragons.”
The knight fixed him with a piercing stare. “Oh, you’re a very clever boy. Let’s just hope you’re not too clever for your own good.”
* * * * *
“How does the wind blow? How does it blow-ee-oh-oh?” Moribus sang softly to himself. “Hm-hmmm-hm-hm-wo. Hm-h-hm-wayo-wayo. How does the snow fall? How does it fall-ee-all-all? Sh-shhhh-sh-sh-shoo. Shh-sh-shh-shoo-oo-shoo-oo.”
“What’s that you’re singing?” Lord Manerion asked.
Moribus hadn’t noticed the knight pull alongside him. “Just a song I picked up from somewhere,” he said uneasily. “It’s rather silly, actually.”
“Don’t stop on account of little ol’ me.”
“I’m not sure I remember the rest of it.”
“You seemed to be remembering fine a moment ago.”
Moribus was about to refuse, but something in the knight’s look caused him to reconsider. He had never noticed before how rutted and worn his face was. There were dark bags under the capillaried eyes, and the jowls had begun to sag into drooping pouches that quivered when he spoke. Unless Moribus missed his guess, the famed knight didn’t have many more dragon quests left in him.
Taking a deep breath, Moribus began. “How does the wind blow? How does it blow-ee-oh—” his voice broke. His throat felt dry and tight all of a sudden.
“Go on,” Lord Manerion said, not unkindly.
Moribus swallowed and wet his lips. “Hm-hmmm-hm-hm-wo. Hm-h-hm-wayo-wayo,” he resumed, avoiding the knight’s gaze. An audience of one, he was discovering, could be more unsettling than a crowd, especially when that audience was Lord Manerion. But as one note blended into the next, his voice settled into the mesmerizing rhythm. Snow-like shushing was followed by hooting owls, lowing cows, purring kittens, squeaking mice and finally, a baby gently snoring.
“I’ve never heard that tune before,” Lord Manerion said when it was over.
“It’s a lullaby. Like the kind your mother would have sung to you as a child.”
The knight’s face tightened. “My mother died giving me birth. Good thing too. If she hadn’t, I would have strangled the poxy bitch myself.” With a sharp kick to his horse’s flanks, he surged ahead, putting distance between them.
An hour or more passed in brooding silence. The lullaby and the knight’s reaction to it reminded Moribus of the fateful afternoon when he had lost his own mother, and the role he had played in it. How impetuous he had been! And how naïve. When he spied his mother sitting in the buckwheat and stroking a strange man’s head against her breast in the same tender way she stroked his own, Moribus had been filled with jealous rage. He wanted her punished for her betrayal. But he never wanted her to be sent away. Only too late did he realize the events he had set in motion by telling his father.
Abrahim Ansol was just and fair to a fault. Whether he loved his wife was a private matter, but the sin of adultery was a public affair; once her indiscretion had been exposed, he could not turn a blind eye to it.
The judgment for adultery was a harrowing exile designed to inflict maximum humiliation. Maygold Ansol was shaved bald then clothed in sackcloth soaked in ram’s blood and placed on the back of a pack mule. Then she was forced to traverse the length of the town under the cold, baleful glares of the same townspeople that, only days before, she had exchanged herbs and gossip with. He could still see the back of her shaved head, smooth as an eggshell and glaring white in the noonday sun. Having never ridden a pack animal before, she lurched about clumsily and was in constant danger of falling off. She had seemed so small and shrunken then, so unlike the steady matron with sure hands and a warm bosom that had buttressed him against the shifting gales of childhood.
Standing by the side of the road, Moribus felt an overwhelming desire to run to her, but his father held his shoulders in a vice grip. When he turned to glance up at him, he found no trace of pity or remorse in the weather-beaten face, only unwavering resolve and dark, implacable eyes that seemed to say, “You see what happens to an unfaithful woman.”
Lost in reflection, Moribus failed to notice when the knight came to a sudden halt. He reined up hard to avoid colliding with him. “What is it?” he asked.
Lord Manerion motioned for silence.
Nothing appeared out of the ordinary at first. In the foreground, there were knobby hills and overgrown valleys; in the distance loomed the ragged line of mountains. The sounds were familiar too: the pine-rattle of the wind, the flicking of the horses’ tails, the squeaking of leather, and the far-off cry of a hawk.
“There,” the knight whispered breathlessly.
“What is it?”
“Dragon-call. Far off still. But not so far as I would have thought. It’s time we unpacked the cloaks. Oh, and we’ll be needing those pouches of goat crap too.”