PART ONE - Brothers and Sisters
The passenger stood by the railing, watching the shore slowly emerge from darkness as the eastern sky lightened from grey to yellow. A light breeze came up with the dawn, tugging at his cloak until he pulled it tighter around him. Behind him, the sailors emerged from the hold, yawning, and began unfurling the sails. It was too early for shouting or song, and they belayed the lines and raised the anchor in silence.
As the ship began to move, the water murmuring against its side, the passenger gestured toward the captain. The captain came to him at once. The man had paid enough that the voyage would have been worthwhile even without the cargo. He had been a model passenger, giving no trouble, never sick, eating the same hard biscuits as the crew without complaint, even though demanding better for the woman and little girl who accompanied him. But something about him always seemed to suggest that ferocity waited just beneath his good manners.
“Is this the coast of Cornwall?” the man asked, his voice soft with the accents of the south. His hair and eyes were black, his chin clean-shaven in the southern style, and his cloak of patterned silk, but a two-handed broadsword was strapped across his back, and his boots were heavily worn with long use. He, the woman, and the girl had come aboard with no more luggage than the clothes on their backs—and a heavy pouch of gold.
“This is still Bretagne,” the captain answered. “We will cross to Cornwall tomorrow, and from there it will be on to Eire. The journey will be over in another week.”
The man nodded, and when he seemed to have nothing more to say, the captain excused himself and went up to the prow. The water was foaming now along the sides of the ship, and the rigging hummed as the sun rose over the coast of Bretagne.
The passenger caught a flicker of motion from the corner of his eye and turned, quick as a cat, one hand already on the knife in his belt. But then he smiled, slipped the knife back, and beckoned. “Are you feeling better, Brangein?”
The little girl emerged from behind a coil of rope. Her curly hair was tangled, half hiding her bright black eyes. “Yes, I felt much better as soon as Isolde gave me the potion. But it’s stuffy in the cabin. And I can hardly wait to see Eire.”
“Only a few more days, little cousin. Another week is all, the captain tells me.” He pulled her over to stand beside him, under a fold of his cloak. She was shivering; the early morning sun had done nothing yet to dispel the night’s chill. “Is my sister still asleep?”
Brangein nodded. “I tried not to wake her.” The two watched in silence for several minutes as the jagged black rocks of the coast slid by. At one point a line of standing stones marched across the thin grass of a headland and right down into the sea. Seabirds sailed overhead, their calls high and mournful.
Brangein went to the rail and put her head back to watch them. Their broad circles and the steady movement of the ship under her feet made her dizzy, but she did not look away, only clung to the railing until it was slippery under her hands. For a moment, looking straight up into the morning sky, she felt as though she had shaken free of ship and sea and might herself soar on the salt wind.
When her neck grew stiff and she looked down again, Isolde had emerged from the cabin and was standing beside her brother. She was nearly as tall as he was, black-haired like him, with the same suggestion of carefully restrained ferocity. She wore a necklace of silver bezants and silver rings on all her fingers.
“I am sick of this ship, Morold,” she said, though in a low voice that none but they might hear. “Could you not have chosen some court closer than Eire?”
“Closer courts might be better informed of affairs in the south,” he said with a shrug. “And we know the king of Eire is unmarried. A few more days, and you will never have to sail anywhere again.”
“I like sailing,” piped up Brangein, slipping back to Morold’s side. “I like seeing new places.”
“Eire will be new,” he promised, and bent to give her a one-armed hug and tousle her hair.
Suddenly she pointed, her arm emerging from under his cloak. “Look at the castle!”
The castle emerged from behind a promontory, located on its own narrow bay. Not very wide but very tall, its towers rose toward the sky, far higher than the mast of the ship passing below. The castle walls were as black as the rocks of the coast, but the roofs were tiled in bright geometric patterns, red and blue and gold. Everything about it suggested newness, order, and harmony. Pennants snapped from the highest towers, and a faint line of smoke indicated that someone was cooking breakfast: something doubtless better than hard and stale biscuits.
“I like that castle,” Brangein announced. “I want to live there.” She leaned her chin on the rail, straining to see better, all thought forgotten of flying with the seabirds. Several boats floated in the bay, none of them rigged. She spotted no people, but two cows appeared beyond the far side of the castle and wandered off toward pasture.
“That is just a little country castle,” said her cousin with a laugh. “We’ll be living at the royal court in Eire. It will be much finer.”
The captain had approached again. “That is the castle of Parmenie. If we had been an hour further along the coast at twilight yesterday, we might have anchored in its bay. Its lord is named Rivalin. Sometimes when we anchor there he buys goods from our cargo.”
“Lord Rivalin of Parmenie,” said Isolde, turning the words over thoughtfully and looking at her brother. “Is he married?”
“Not unless he has married very recently,” the captain answered. “He has not been much at home the last year or two; the castle is maintained by his steward. The last I heard, Lord Rivalin had quarreled with his liege lord. He is a fiery young man by all accounts.”
“You would not like that,” said Morold with a wink for his sister. “A fiery man who quarrels with his liege lord? Impossible!”
Brangein did not listen to their conversation but continued to watch the distant castle until it disappeared behind another tall headland.
King Mark burst into his sister’s solar. Blancheflor had been sitting in the window seat with her ladies, sewing. The solar was a pleasant room, well lit and airy, which was why she always sat there, even though in the last year or two she had sometimes had to remind herself with some sternness that the constant sameness of sitting and sewing there was part of its appeal.
Blancheflor looked up, smiling, as Mark came in. He appeared more a boy than a king, his blond hair windblown, the laces of his jerkin untied. “There’s a merchant ship in the harbor!”
“Then we should see if they have any goods we want,” she said, “and if they have news of other lands. How long has it been since we heard anything new? I would be happy even with a new song!” She rose, put down her sewing, and tightened the belt she had loosened while sitting at ease. The castle keys swung at one hip, her purse of woven chain at the other. “Summon the knights, that we may make a good display.”
A few minutes later, Mark and Blancheflor led a small procession down from the front gates of Tintagel, stepping carefully on the slick shale of the staircase that led to the harbor. Breaking waves boomed against the deeply-cut shore here, sending spray as high as the castle gates. An unwary step on the stairs would send one straight down into the water-carved rocks. But they had lived their whole lives in the castle and knew, almost without thinking, where to tread, where to pause, and where not to trust their weight.
The knights behind them, wearing their byrnies but with their helmets under their arms, stepped somewhat more cautiously. Behind the knights, Blancheflor’s ladies were even more cautious in their soft slippers, squealing and snatching at each other as they balanced on the narrow stairs.
Tied to the jetty was a southern merchant ship. It was round-hulled and salt stained, with a plunging dolphin for a figurehead. The sailors had already furled the sails and were coiling ropes. Mark, walking now with deliberate dignity, crossed the greensward that thrust out between the jetty and the base of the stairs that led to the castle. He had refastened his jerkin and put a cap on his unruly hair. The knights pulled on their helmets and strode on either side of him, as Blancheflor dropped back with her ladies.
She recognized the ship at once; the captain had stopped in Cornwall several times in recent years, carrying cargo back and forth between Eire and Ispania. But Mark stopped a bowshot away from the jetty, and one of his knights called out, “Who seeks audience at the royal court of Tintagel?”
“The Dolphin, with cargo from Ispania!” the captain shouted back. “We beg leave to come ashore and show our wares! We have goods to please knights and goods to please the ladies!”
“Welcome, then, to Cornwall,” Mark called, still very dignified. “We will examine your wares.” He gave Blancheflor a quick smile and dropped his voice. “I wonder if they have another knife like the one I bought from them last year. I knew I should have bought two!”
The gangplank rattled down, and men from the ship began carrying out casks and bundles of goods. Blancheflor noticed, standing on the deck to one side, a dark-haired man and woman, both wearing cloaks of patterned silk and she a heavy silver necklace. Not just their clothing but the confident way they looked out over Tintagel’s harbor indicated a couple of high noble birth.
“Please come ashore,” Blancheflor called up to them. “You may wish to repose here on the grass while we look over the wares, and I am sure you would like some refreshment.” She gave a few quick orders to two of her ladies, who turned and hurried back toward the castle.
The woman was moving almost before Blancheflor had finished speaking. She came down the gangplank with long strides, the silver bezants of her necklace ringing together. “Thank you,” she said, giving a deep curtsey. “I have been aboard that ship for far too long.”
“Welcome to Cornwall,” Mark said in his best royal voice, but he was much more interested in the men laying out the ship’s wares than in the ship’s passengers, and he left them to his sister.
The man was right behind the woman, and with him a little curly-haired girl whom Blancheflor had not at first noticed. “My lady,” the man said with a deep bow. “You see before you Morold and his sister Isolde. And our little cousin, Brangein,” pressing the girl forward to curtsey as well.
Sister and cousin, Blancheflor thought—she had taken the pair for husband and wife and the girl for their child. Both brother and sister had soft southern accents and deep dark eyes, that seemed to draw her in and yet were strangely difficult to meet. For the first time she noticed the great broadsword strapped across the man’s back.
“And am I honored to be greeted by the queen of Cornwall?” Morold continued politely.
Blancheflor recollected herself enough to draw back from sinking into the depths of his eyes. “Princess Blancheflor,” she corrected him, pulling her skirts wide in a curtsey. “My brother is King Mark, and this the royal castle of Tintagel. Have you been voyaging long?”
“Long enough,” said the lady in a low voice, as they all turned to look toward Mark.
He had had the merchants open a barrel of swords and knives, wrapped individually in oilskin. He was unwrapping knives and examining them carefully, fingering the hilts and the enameling on the blades.
Morold and Isolde, Blancheflor thought suddenly, were like the knives: sharp, southern, beautiful but deadly. “Perhaps you have news to give us from Ispania,” she said, feeling strangely flustered. This man and woman seemed more at ease on the grass below her castle than she did herself.
Morold chuckled. “There is war in Ispania, but then there is always war in Ispania. Some fight for the Christians, although they could not say upon their honor that they knew even the first words of the Creed. Some fight for the Moors, although they follow the Prophet no more than they follow anyone or anything other than silver itself. Some fight for both sides, as the opportunity allows—although the king of Ispania now seeks to destroy any he does not see as altogether trustworthy. Or so I understand.”
“Of course, of course,” said Blancheflor, not following at all. But she did have a sudden mental image of a sun-baked foreign land and of men in turbans with long, curved swords. Some illumination in a book of histories, perhaps? She knew she had seen it somewhere. She would have to search for it later. Later, after Morold and Isolde were gone.
But she did not want them to go. The castle of Tintagel, chilly even under the mild sun of a Cornish midday, suddenly seemed hopelessly dull.
Her ladies were hurrying back from the castle, carrying a white cloth and a basket. The little curly haired girl, who had been completely silent, went at once to help them unpack the repast. In a moment the cloth was spread, and strawberries, lettuces, and fresh bread with butter set out on plates: all the things that Blancheflor knew her visitors would not have eaten for weeks on the ship.
“I shall have to record and recount the grace and generosity of Cornwall,” said Morold, but his sister said no more than two perfunctory words of thanks before snatching up bread and lettuce and washing them down with new milk.
In a moment, however, she turned apologetically to Blancheflor. “Thank you for all you have given us,” she said. “In return, I urge you to take my advice. Do not set out on a sea voyage from Ispania to Eire. Not even in the springtime. Especially,” and then she smiled properly for the first time since Blancheflor had met her, “especially not with a brother like mine, making light of it all: the storms, the hardships, and being attacked by whales!”
Mark had wandered over, holding one of the southern knives out before him. “Whales?” he said with interest. “You were attacked by whales?”
“As big as the ship if not bigger,” said Isolde. “They rubbed against us like a cow rubbing against a fence post, until the ship was thrown half out of the water and her mast almost turned into the waves.”
“Dolphins,” said Morold with his slow smile. “They were dolphins, but never let it be said that I contradicted my lady sister. They shall be whales if you wish.”
Mark, losing interest in whales, turned to Blancheflor. “Here it is,” he said, “almost exactly the mate of the knife I got last year. Do you think I should get a shield as well? The captain said they have some decorated in the same pattern.”
Blancheflor reached for her purse. “The knife, certainly,” she said with an indulgent smile. “But you have your own excellent shield from your knighting, and Father’s old shield, which would look like new with a fresh coat of paint, and many others in the armory, both more and less battered. For what wars in Cornwall could you possibly need a shield?”
“The captain said he has leather goods,” said Mark, taking the coins she gave him. “You should look at his wares too.”
As he hurried away, Blancheflor heard Morold behind her saying in a low voice, “If you hate being on the ship, if you do not wish to sail a few more days to Eire, then what say you to Cornwall?”
“Too young,” said Isolde, equally low. When Blancheflor turned around, she held up her empty plate, her teeth flashing white in a wide smile. “Thank you, my princess. You can see how hungry I was for what you offered us.”
“There may still be some honey cakes in the basket,” said Blancheflor.
Several minutes later, the basket was completely empty. “This seems a rich and well-favored land,” Morold commented, delicately wiping honey from his fingers onto a napkin. His nails were clean but ragged and broken. “Does your brother have many liege men?”
“A great many,” said Blancheflor, still stinging from the suggestion that Mark was too young to be a king. She was not entirely sure of the context of what she had overheard, but it clearly was a slur on her brother. “Cornwall’s greatest wealth is in its tin mines, but there are many fish in the coastal waters, orchards and meadows inland, and fine and noble halls past counting. The land has known nothing but peace for a great many years, since our father was a young man.”
“Then your brother is a happy man to be this country’s king,” Morold commented, his tone so neutral that Blancheflor could not tell if it was a compliment or a subtle mockery.
“You ask my thoughts,” Isolde said to her brother, “but you do not tell me yours.” She spoke to him with no effort to avoid being overheard. “Would you yourself be content to stay in Cornwall, rather than going on to Eire?”
Morold chuckled. “What would I do in Cornwall? I am a fighting man, and the Princess Blancheflor has just told us that this is a peaceful country, without wars.”
“There could be other inducements than fighting.”
“An inducement would have to be powerful indeed to turn me from what I do best—something weak and unexciting would never do.”
“So you are married to your sword,” Isolde commented. “I can see there is nothing for it but to continue to Eire—or the ends of the earth, whichever we reach first.”
Blancheflor started gathering up the remains of the repast; the little girl helped her. She no longer felt, as she had only a few minutes earlier, that she wanted Morold and Isolde to stay a very long time. She could not say exactly what had changed her mind, but she was now glad that she had brought the food out to them, rather than inviting them up to the castle.
Tintagel’s towers seemed to float high above the narrow grassy stretch of land that ran down to the sea. Morold looked up at them thoughtfully: almost, she thought, as though wondering if there was another way to reach the castle than the steep and narrow steps. The approach on the inland side, of course, was much easier than on the seaward side, but she was suddenly pleased that she had not shown him.
Morold went over to look at the merchant wares with King Mark. “They have been selling their wares all the way up the coast from Ispania,” he said, hefting a shield that Mark had been examining. “If those of Eire do not take the rest, then the captain may stop here again on his way home.”
Mark looked back toward Blancheflor, jingling the few coins she had given him. His sister and the visiting lady sat on the white cloth, one head black and one blond. Their hair, ruffled by the ocean breeze, was restrained by no more than a few ribbons. Isolde leaned toward Blancheflor to say something in her ear, then sat back with a laugh. “The maidens make a lovely picture,” Mark commented.
“You are very fond of your sister,” said Morold. It was not a question.
“She is everything to me,” Mark said confidentially. “Our parents died when I was just a little boy, and she had to be mother as well as sister. I feel blessed to have such a sister, for with her I know the finest of womanhood.”
“One day, I hope you realize,” said Morold, “she will fall in love and marry, a brave knight or a great lord or even another king, and you will have to share her with another man. Will you still love her and believe in her the same way?”
Mark smiled. “Some men, I know, have difficulty in trusting women, but with Blancheflor I have learned how to recognize the best in womanhood. I know that nothing will ever change her affection for me. And she has taught me by her example what a woman can be, so that if I myself ever love and marry, I shall be able to trust that woman with my life.”
“You have only just met my sister, haven’t you,” put in Morold, as though irrelevantly.
“She is very beautiful,” said Mark, not quite sure what the other was suggesting. When Morold appeared to be waiting expectantly for more, he added, “Her dark hair and complexion make her seem exotic and intriguing to those like me who rarely see women from southern lands.”
“You truly believe so?” asked Morold. “The women of these northern lands seem rather pale and insipid to those of us from the south, so I must ask myself: do dark women like my sister perhaps seem plain to those of you who like their women light-haired?”
“I trust you are not calling the princess Blancheflor insipid,” Mark replied, with a sharp edge to his tone that had not been there before.
Morold smiled widely. “A good reply, your majesty. No, I will not say she is insipid. But do you think that another northerner like yourself would look at my sister with pleasure?”
“She makes a lovely picture,” said Mark, somewhat tentatively. “As I said.”
“And I appreciate your kind words. Your sister too is fair, I can affirm. Now, the merchants are wondering if you are going to pay for that knife, and if you are indeed going to buy the matching shield. I myself recommend it.”
The rain stopped falling in the early morning. The coast of Eire emerged green and wrapped in ribbons of mist. Brangein thought it might be a good place to live, much cooler and richer in growing things than the dry brown hills of Ispania. But Cornwall would have been a good place too, and she had not stopped thinking about the beautiful little castle of Parmenie.
As the morning advanced, the sun emerged from the clouds that hid the horizon, and the mists began to fade. The ship rounded a rocky promontory, and before them spread a wide harbor. A city rose on the far side, low thatched houses for the most part, but in the middle a minster’s spire and a white-washed castle. The city was luminous in the freshly-washed air. Brangein leaned on the rail, both eager to see the place that had been their goal this whole long voyage, and reluctant to have that voyage come to an end.
Her cousins spoke together quietly. Isolde was smiling more than she had smiled all voyage. “—rich and a king and unmarried,” Brangein heard her say. “But you’ve never told me how old.”
“This one is no boy. Not like Mark of Cornwall.”
Morold sounded dismissive, but Brangein had rather liked King Mark of Cornwall. She had not thought him a boy, either. As the ship prepared to leave Tintagel, he had given her a red velvet ribbon. It came out of the ship’s wares, as she knew because she had seen the ribbons unpacked in a dozen ports already, and she knew she could have had one any time had she asked the captain. But Mark said, “This will be lovely in your hair.” The captain had never said that anything would be lovely in her hair—he had scarcely seemed to notice she was on his ship at all.
Morold beckoned her to him. “They are unlikely to ask you, little cousin,” he said, “but if you are, remember, we were sent here by the king of Ispania.”
Brangein nodded. She was always happy to do whatever Morold said, though she did not always understand why he asked certain things of her. Back in Ispania, he had often been gone for months, off fighting, and from what she overheard she knew others considered him a ferocious warrior, but he had never been ferocious to her. When he had come back home, exhausted and battered and laden with booty, he would gravely take the glass of wine she would bring him on a tray, then scoop her up into his lap. While he drank she sat close against his chest, surrounded by his scent, sweat and horse and dust. Those were the best times. Then she would heat the water for his bath, and after he slid into the tub, he would let her scrub his back with black soap and a sea sponge and pour rinse water over his head.
The last time he had come home to their flower-grown white house, however, there had been little time for bringing him wine or for scrubbing his back. The first morning after his return, a strange man had come by the house, stepping in only for a minute, waving Brangein away when she offered to bring him a drink, then slipping away out the back.
This man looked like her idea of a ferocious fighter, scarred and filthy and sunburned and unsmiling, but she had had little time to think about him. Just two minutes later, telling their landlady they were going out for a brief stroll, Morold and Isolde and Brangein walked out the front door and straight down to the harbor, and were sailing away to Eire half an hour later.
Brangein had never met the king of Ispania, but she thought maybe the stranger warrior had been the king’s representative. She had for that matter never seen any king besides Mark of Cornwall and wondered if the king of Eire would also offer her a ribbon. Somehow she doubted it.
There were no other merchant ships in the harbor; most of the boats were little fishing vessels. “Will the king of Eire come down to look at the wares?” Brangein asked.
“He will likely send representatives to examine the goods from Ispania,” said Morold, “but he will be too haughty to come down himself among the fisherfolk and shopkeepers. Cornwall is just a little kingdom, with most of its wealth derived from salvaging shipwrecks, I would guess, in spite of all their talk of tin mines. But this king, I have heard, is called the High King, with all the other kings of Eire his liege men.”
“A High King, unmarried,” commented Isolde. “Is he a deformed idiot, that no woman will have him? Or does he prefer men’s company to that of women? Or have such fastidious taste that no woman can please him?”
“I am sure your skills, dear sister, would overcome any man’s objections,” said Morold. “And even if you found his person unpleasing, would not your skills work on yourself as well?
She gave him a quick, angry glance. “I would never use my potions on myself. I will make my choice, and if I am reluctant then I shall not overcome my own reluctance with herbcraft. I know that you hope we may find a new place to live and to live well, but even for you, I would never do that! And I would also never use potions on a man who might be my husband—he must love me for myself, not against his will.” Then she smiled, dark eyes flashing. “If I like a man, I doubt not my ability to win him—without what you call skills!”
The three of them walked up from the harbor toward the castle, attracting stares from the people in the muddy streets. The tall man and woman, black haired and olive skinned, stood out among the blond and red-headed men and women of Eire, and the two-handed broadsword on the man’s back made many step briskly aside. Brangein, walking between them, went unnoticed.
She looked around as they went. If they were to live here and live well, as Morold said, then she wondered if one of these thatched cottages might soon be theirs. Though none were covered with exuberant magenta blooms like the house they had left in Ispania, some had rose bushes by the door.
The castle was small, no larger than the castle of Parmenie and not as new. “Petty lordlings in Ispania have richer castles than this,” Isolde muttered. It rose from a steep hill, surrounded by a wooden stockade. A white banner, emblazoned with a green harp, snapped from over the stockade gates. The gates were open, but several men, spears in their hands, leaned against the jambs, eyeing their approach.
Morold tossed back his hair and tucked his thumbs into his belt. “I come as a messenger from the king of Ispania to the royal court of Eire! Tell your master that Morold is here.”
The guards looked dubious. “And tell them that Morold’s sister Isolde is here as well,” she said, fixing them with her great dark eyes. The eyes seemed more compelling even than the broadsword, for the guards glanced at each other and nodded, and one hurried away. Isolde smiled, as if shyly, at the other guards while they were waiting. In only a few moments the guard returned to escort them through the gates.
Inside the stockade were stables, kitchens, and a half dozen chickens. At the center rose the white-washed castle on its hill. A knight in a byrnie and helmet stood at the bottom of the wooden stairs that led up to the castle’s entrance, a dozen feet above the ground. “You will need to leave your sword here, sir,” he said, slapping his own blade against a gloved hand. “King Gurmun’s orders.”
Isolde gave her brother a sharp look, but he only smiled and reached around to loosen the straps. “Your master is wise not to trust a stranger,” he said, as though instructing the knight on a perhaps obscure point. “King Gurmun shall learn to trust me soon enough.”
As they climbed up toward the castle entrance, Morold murmured, “Gurmun. Good. I had not remembered the name.”
The arched doorway led into a great stone hall, dimly lit by high windows and a few flickering torches. Two bagpipers played, a merry tune over the steady note of the drone. Brangein looked at them curiously as they passed, then turned her attention to the hall itself, eager to see what other wonders the castle might offer.
She had never before been in any building this big. There were larger structures in Ispania, and this castle was smaller than that of Tintagel, but she had not been inside any of them. Isolde might have been dismissive, but Brangein hoped to see piles of glorious treasure such as were always found in castles, at least according to the stories she had heard back home. But the hall was rather plain, its only furniture trestle tables pushed against the wall, and an oak chair, massive and black with age, on a dais at the far end.
A man, red-haired and freckled, sat on the chair, hurriedly settling a thin golden circlet on his hair as they came in. He was older than King Mark of Cornwall but still a young man—Isolde’s age. Neither deformed nor an idiot, Brangein thought. He looked toward them curiously, seeming intrigued by Isolde, but Morold gave him no time for contemplation.
He strode the length of the hall, ignoring everyone else there, and went into a deep bow, down on both knees with his arms extended. “Hail Gurmun, king of Eire!” he cried. “I bring you greetings from the king of Ispania. Tales have reached us in the south of the beauty of your kingdom and the glories of your court, and I see that those tales have not lied. I come to propose friendship between our lands.”
Isolde walked the length of the hall just a few paces behind her brother, not with her usual long strides but sinuously, walking from the hips, glancing from side to side from under half-lowered lids. She had, on their last day at sea, begged some fresh water from the captain to wash her hair, and it lay loose in soft midnight waves across her shoulders.
Brangein trotted along beside her, but, as usual, no one paid her the slightest attention.
“Morold, is it then?” said King Gurmun. “I fear I know much less of Ispania that you know of Eire.”
“Good,” said Isolde, just under her breath, and Brangein doubted that any heard it but she.
“Approach then,” Gurmun said, “and tell me what message my royal brother sends.”
Morold reached for the pouch at his belt and undid the leather ties. He held it high for a second, then upended it on the dais at the king’s feet. Heavy gold coins, silver bezants, and small coppers cascaded out. The ringing sound seemed to go on and on, even after the coins stopped rolling.
A gasp went through the hall, but Morold appeared not to notice. “This is his message,” he said in a great voice. “The king of Ispania seeks your assistance against the enemies of Christendom. If you will join us, he wishes you to know that you can find rewards like this, as well as rewards for your soul.”
King Gurmun started to reach down for the coins, then caught himself and slowly withdrew his hand. “The saints be praised,” he said in a low voice, but Brangein did not think his mind was on the saints.
Morold and Isolde exchanged quick glances. Morold did not actually wink, but he came close.
The king took a deep breath, then straightened and smiled. “Dine with me, ambassador from Ispania, and we can discuss further the proposal from your lord. And your sister—Isolde, is it not? I would be honored to have you dine with us, my lady.”
She dipped her head and smiled slowly and radiantly. “And may we bring our little cousin?” The king started, noticing the girl for the first time. “Her name is Brangein.”