Once upon a time, there were four brothers who lived in the land of Fenario. These were the King and Princes of the land, and they lived together in the decrepit Old Palace in the center of the city of Fenario.
King László, the oldest of the brothers, is a fair and just ruler. He became King after his father, King János VI, was crippled when a portion of the old and frail palace collapsed and crushed his legs.
Prince Andor is the second-oldest brother. He is a well-meaning man, though he tends to be a bit literal-minded and obsessive, which blinds him to his own uselessness.
Prince Vilmos is the strongest man in the kingdom. He is an exceedingly loyal and devoted caretaker of the kingdom.
Prince Miklós is the youngest brother, and he has just been beaten by his older brother, the King, and forced to flee from the rundown palace, bleeding to death from his wounds.
Miklós flees to the river, where, feeling helpless and betrayed, he casts himself in, expecting to die. The river, however, has other plans for Miklós. Waking somewhat later, he find his wounds have been healed--even his torn clothing is repaired--and standing before him is a horse unlike any he has ever seen. The horse is named Bölcseség, or simply Bölk. Miklós knows this because the horse tells him so. Bölk is a táltos horse, a creature of legend that can speak, and has magical abilities.
With nowhere to go, and with Bölk as a steed, Miklós decides he would like to visit Faerie. Bölk agrees to this, but says he will not venture into Faerie, having rejected it due to a prior experience. Leaving Bölk behind, Miklós climbs into the western mountains and enters into the lands of Faerie--after a brief encounter with a strange young girl named Devera.
Back in Fenario, two years pass. King László laments his actions--which led to the loss of his brother Miklós--who everyone presumes is dead. However, affairs of state demand his attention, including the presence of a dragon in the western part of the Kingdom. Acting on the advice of his advisor Rezső and his wizard Sándor, László sends Vilmos to slay the dragon. Later, the captain of the Palace guard, Viktor, sends a young woman, Brigitta to the King's bedchamber to help alleviate the tensions of his many responsibilities. No one notices the strange growth in the abandoned room that once belonged to Miklós...
After two hard years living as a Teckla serf in Faerie, Miklós makes his way back over the mountains to his homeland. He has learned much of the world, including the secrets of the Powers of Faerie. After his descent from the mountains, Miklós encounters the very dragon that his brother (unknown to him) has been sent to slay. Miklós witnesses Vilmos' struggle with the dragon, but is knocked senseless just before Vilmos kills the beast. Miklós wakes alone in the forest several days later. Picking himself up, he heads back to the palace, and home.
Back in the aging palace, a new arrival Mariska, Countess of Mordfal, arrives with the intention of pursuing marriage with King László. The two prove amiable partners, and though there is no real love between them, they decide to wed in several months.
Later that night, Miklós slips back into the well-worn palace quietly via a secret entrance in the crumbling walls that he left there years before. In the dilapidated basements, he encounters the coachman for the Countess, drinking alone in the basement. He tells the young prince a story from the history of the royal family before Miklós leaves him to his pálinka. Emerging into the living quarters of the decaying structure, Miklós encounters Brigitta, Vilmos, and finally László.
An offhand comment on the condition of the frayed palace angers László before Miklós can even attempt a reconciliation, and Miklós--despite his new faerie abilities--again ends up wounded and fleeing from the palace to the river.
As before, he finds Bölk waiting by the river's side. This time, however, Miklós is determined not to flee from the problem as he did the first time. Before he can take action, however, he is tracked down by Brigitta, who sympathizes with him, and then by Sándor and Andor, who do not. In a show of force, Sándor attempts to use his faerie powers to bring Miklós back to the palace, but Bölk, immune to the wizard's abilities, intervenes and sends him back to the deteriorating palace empty-handed.
It is then that Bölk reveals that the ultimate enemy he faces is none other than the Demon Goddess, Verra, who is patron protector of Fenario. Needless to say, this makes Miklós uncomfortable, but he determines to return to the creaking palace to try to set things right, in any event.
Torn in anguish by his second rash expulsion of Miklós, László greets his return to the declining palace with courtesy, and the two agree to try and resolve their differences and become a family once more. It is then that Miklós learns of a strange tree, that has sprung from the cracked floorboards of his old quarters in the fraying palace. The Demon Goddess appears in a vision to King László to tell him he must remove the tree, or it will pull the ancient palace apart.
The tree resists all efforts to remove it, and even Sándor's faerie powers prove useless against it. László initially suspects the plant is some sort of plot by Miklós, but when Miklós agrees to help in the effort to dislodge the tree, László accepts that Miklós is innocent. Swords will not cut the tree; Vilmos, for some reason, cannot bring himself to try to pull out its roots; and fire would likely destroy the fragile palace entirely. The King, fearful of the damage the tree may cause, refuses to use the kingdom's mightiest weapon Állam against it, save in direst need.
Brigitta alone recognizes that the tree is beautiful, and refuses to aid in its destruction.
Efforts are made to contain the tree, but it draws its strength from the river, and soon it is pressing against the walls of the small chamber. After a consultation with Bölk, and a tryst with Brigitta, Miklós determines that he must protect the tree, since it appears to represent the re-genesis of the strength of Fenario.
Realizing that this conviction places him in direct conflict with the Demon Goddess, Miklós and Bölk destroy the statue of the goddess in the palace courtyard. She appears in anger and attempts to destroy Miklós. Bölk, however, leaps in front of Miklós and is destroyed in his stead. With his dying whisper, Bölk tells Miklós to remove his dying heart and fling it into the face of the Demon Goddess. The blood of the táltos animal causes the goddess to fall in agony, and vanish--apparently destroyed.
Aghast at what Miklós has done, and unable to believe the Goddess is no more, his brothers leave Miklós alone, trying to understand what they should do next. Miklós orders Viktor to bury Bölk's body by the pedestal of the fallen statue. Later, Miklós and Brigitta return to the palace to protect the tree from the efforts of the others.
In a final confrontation, the tree begins pressing mightily against the walls of the decaying palace. László finally unleashes Állam, first against his brothers--removing Andor's hand and seriously wounding Vilmos-- and then against the tree. The tree responds by growing an appendage that becomes a club, which contains the reborn essence of Bölk. Vilmos takes this weapon and confronts László; the mightiest sword of the kingdom is broken.
With the shattered palace falling to pieces around them, Vilmos, Andor and Miklós watch as Viktor is killed, László leaps to his death, and Sándor, his faerie powers suddenly denied to him, drowns in the river.
It is left to the surviving brothers to rebuild the family, and the kingdom, in the mighty new palace that has suddenly grown from the strange tree.
Brigitta, now with child by Miklós, determines that she cannot remain in Fenario, and leaves for the lands of Faerie.
In a final visit from Devera, Miklós learns that while Brigitta will arrive safely in Faerie, and bear him a daughter, Brigitta will not long survive the childbirth. He asks Devera to watch over his daughter, and learns that it is the world, instead, that needs to watch out for her.
"Behind and above him, the new palace rose strong and proud. It would have to be enough."
- "I'm probably early, too."
- Advice for reverse mountain climbers
- Vilmos slays a dragon.
- The tale told by Miska to Miklós.
- Sándor gets a pair of shoes--in the forehead.
- The showdown with the Demon Goddess.
(all copyrights Steven Brust, quotes for review and enjoyment only)
Miklós meets Bölk:
"I am called Bölcseség," said the horse. The prince's mouth worked a bit as he tried to pronounce this. After a moment, the horse said, "Bölk will do, master."
"Bölk," repeated Miklós. "Good. I can say that."
"But can you understand it?"
Miska, the coachman:
"More questions! I seek answers and receive only questions. Are you a garabonciás?"
Miklós laughed suddenly. "Do you know, I think I am!"
Brigitta meets the new Bölk:
He and Andor turned the staff so the carved end faced her.
"As always," said the horse.
"No, different this time, I think," she said.
"Yes," said Bölk, "As always."