:: Sunday, April 05, 2009 ::
The Finest Deed, Chapter Four
Snow. Ice. Blood.
Blood everywhere. Men screaming as their bodies were ripped apart by blades, by beasts, by things unseen from the ground. He fought on, but he could no longer see her before him. She was on horseback now, riding away from him and the war, at the side of another.
He tried to fight, but they were too many. He tried to run but they were too thick. He tried to die but they would not let him. She was gone.
Snow. Ice. Blood.
And then the crows came. Dozens. Hundreds. Thousands of crows, beckoned by the promise of warmly slain meat and blood to slake their thirst. A crow landed before him and fixed its eye upon him, and he felt its breath upon his face. It was cold breath, icy breath. He didn't know what crow's breath was supposed to be like, but that wasn't it.
Why had she left him?
The crow lifted from the ground and came straight at him, its beak sharper than the sharpest blade, angling for his eye.
"Sir Baigent! A rider!"
And with that, Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt snapped back from the dream he'd had while dozing on the back of his horse.
"I am sorry," said the soldier next to him. "You looked to be asleep."
"I was." Sir Baigent patted his horse's neck. Arradwen had borne him through many trials, and though she was older than most horses, she still had strength in her bones and she had come to know his manner in the saddle. This war would not be a good time to break in a new steed. "No matter, though. You were right to stir me."
A light snow fell from a gray sky as he awaited the signal. He held his helmet under his left arm, and scratched at his scalp with his right hand, suddenly realizing how long it had been since he had trimmed his hair, which had now grown to a length to which he was totally unaccustomed, although it was now barely shoulder-length and would take a very long time to equal the length of Sir Jules’s. Here he stood, along with two hundred other men, under the eaves of a wood overlooking a grassy valley that was bisected by a small river whose name he had forgotten. Off to his left he heard an approaching rider, whom he turned to greet.
“The King will be in position very soon,” said Estren of the Nine Bards, who had come with the company on this act of engagement. “If he is not already.”
“Good,” said Sir Baigent. He looked over the snow-dusted valley, and over the small army that was now setting forth from its encampment for a day of marching. A week before, Sir Jules’s scouts had spotted this force, sworn to a local lord named Duke Balder, clearly moving toward joining King Cwerith. More than four hundred men, with two hundred horse – this was a large force indeed, and denying its strength to the Traitor Kings would be a distinct blow to Cwerith’s ambitions. King Arthur had pushed his force hard from Badon Hill to intercept this army at this place, and Sir Baigent felt the tension of proximity to the enemy. They were a mere three days’ march from where Cwerith’s main army waited, and the same three days away from the hill that King Arthur had renamed Badon, where their own army lay. Here, halfway between the great armies, a fairly minor skirmish would take place. Minor, of course, would be the scholar’s way of describing it: years from now, if they all survived and there was still of realm of Prydein with a history to be chronicled, the clerics and bards would spare little time for the battle that was about to unfold in this unnamed, unremarkable vale. Sir Baigent, though, knew otherwise. No skirmish was ever minor to the men who fought in it, especially for those who would not walk from this field to fight another.
And as usual, the thought of scholars and clerics brought Sir Baigent’s mind to Lady Gwynwhyfar. He rubbed the sore spot in his side, where he had suffered a bad wound in her name. It had healed fairly well, although like all such wounds he would carry the scar and the ache for the rest of his days. He wondered now how she was enjoying being dressed up each day and paraded in front of hundreds of people who had come to see her like so many gulls on a discarded hunk of bread. He chuckled at the thought, knowing that she would hate it. Her tongue, especially, would not be able to stand the pressure of remaining still for so long a time.
Sir Baigent took a long sip of water from his flask as he studied the vale’s gentle downward slope, which the force below was following. They were in a pretty good position now for an attack – they would have the river, narrow and shallow as it was, barring them on one side, not preventing an escape but not making escape easy, either. But still the signal did not come. What was King Arthur waiting for?
Estren, it turned out, was of similar mind. “I wonder why we are not yet hearing the horns,” he said. “The time seems right for us to strike.”
Sir Baigent nodded. In these last two months he had found little to understand in King Arthur’s strategies, save for the building of the hill-fort on Badon. The King had led attacks against opponents that Sir Baigent would have ignored; and his approach to battle was utterly uncompromising. In some battles the King gave no quarter, while in others he proved merciful beyond that which anyone else thought warranted by the conduct of the enemies. Sir Baigent tried to understand King Arthur, but the man was a riddle made human, in addition to already being a legend made flesh. There was something disquieting about the King that made him hard to approach off the battlefield. And on it? It was as if that sword of his, the blade called Caliburn whose steel gleamed as if reflecting the light of the noon sun even on the days of darkest cloud, brought something forth from deep in King Arthur’s soul each time he pulled it from its scabbard. The King’s eyes always looked haunted, Sir Baigent felt, and that haunted look only gave way to something else when the King rode into battle. And that thing looked for all the world to Sir Baigent like rage. How terribly his first reign must have ended, Sir Baigent thought, for more than the first time.
Now the enemy army below was fording the river. It was indeed shallow, but Sir Baigent found it strange that whoever was leading these men would make his footsoldiers walk though an icy stream like this, no matter how small it was. Did he not realize how cold it was, and the effect that would have—
And a slow smile spread across Sir Baigent’s face. So that was King Arthur’s plan! Duke Balder’s footsoldiers would have wet and cold feet as they squared to fight. “Be ready, men,” he said. “The call will come very soon now, I think.”
He was right. Just as the final portion of the enemy army finished crossing the river, King Arthur’s horns sounded from the wood on the other side of the vale. Sir Baigent watched, fascinated as always, as one hundred horsemen came riding down out of the bordering hills, led by one large and particularly intimidating figure astride a white war horse and whose sword was blinding even from this far away. Behind the King, Sir Baigent could make out Lord Matholyn, close at his side; the former lord of Camyrdin had fought in every major battle since this war had begun. Sir Baigent wished that Sir Jules were here; the sardonic seneschal to Duke Cunaddyr was a passing good warrior himself, but he was a finer scout and was off somewhere putting those talents to good use with his charge, the young Sir Regidan. With the ranks of the Promised King’s army growing with each day, Sir Baigent found it harder and harder to remember all the names of men with whom he fought and whom he led. There were few now that he recognized by name, only by sight alone or by the way they rode. But recognize some of them, he did, and as it had the last time they had fought, six days before, it thrilled him to the core to see those men riding into combat as the horns sounded their approach.
Sir Baigent had seen companies of horsemen who, after years of riding together, had not achieved the level of cohesion that the company King Arthur displayed now. His company moved as one, surging down the shallow hillside, and smashed like a wave into the rear flank of Duke Balder’s army.
The very first men trapped there never had a chance. They barely had time to square and raise their weapons before King Arthur’s cavalry was upon them, and the first lines of men were trampled beneath the hooves of a hundred horse. Then the pace of the King’s assault was slowed, as expected, when Duke Balder’s men ahead of him finally recovered their discipline and squared to receive the attack.
Nevertheless, King Arthur’s cavalry put on a frightening display, led by the King himself, his sword flashing in a lethal dance of light and death. In seconds, the King’s cavalry had cut a swath through the footsoldiers and now reached almost the middle of Balder’s force. A melange of sound echoed up the vale to where Sir Baigent stood, the shouts and screams of men mingled with the ringing of steel and the shrieking of horses and, finally, the blaring of Balder’s horns as the Duke took command of his response to this sudden attack.
Still, even as their progress was stymied, King Arthur’s cavalry refused to be brought to a halt. They continued moving, slower and slower but always moving, now coming parallel to the line of horse that Duke Balder was now arraying to receive them. The King’s purpose was plain – to avoid coming into direct conflict with those horsemen for as long as possible – and it was working. Even from his far-off vantage point, Sir Baigent could see frustration in the way the enemy horsemen carried themselves in their saddles as they waited to be unleashed on these foolish attackers who had thought to take on a clearly superior force. Sir Baigent chuckled, and Estren glanced at him.
“Duke Balder can’t really believe he is being attacked by this small bunch of cavalry and no one else, can he?” Estren said.
“I think he can, and I think he does.” Sir Baigent shifted in his saddle and massaged Arradwen’s neck. “His men have not hazarded a single glance in our direction.”
He picked out Lord Matholyn fairly easily in the midst of the combat. He had served so long at Matholyn’s side, and seen him now in enough battles, that his style was easily identified. Never stop moving for a single second had always been Matholyn’s credo of battle, and even now after so many years of knowing him Sir Baigent was still a bit surprised that Matholyn, a former cleric who had come to his realm by accident of death, could be so fine a fighter. And never indeed did he stop moving, his sword now dark with blood, constantly sweeping from one side to the other. But as strong as Matholyn was, King Arthur was even stronger.
It had begun, of course, on a very cold morning outside the Giants’ Dance, when the King had emerged from the stones and taken on one of the most fearsome opponents Sir Baigent had ever seen. And then it had continued, when they had traveled through the Dance itself to come out onto the fields of Bedwyn. But even then, Sir Baigent had had no idea of this man’s skill with the blade. As the battles had mounted, King Arthur’s skill had only grown, and if Lord Matholyn was a skilled man of motion on the field, King Arthur was a whirlwind. Caliburn’s motion not only never ceased, it never even slowed, and no amount of blood spilled on its blade could ever darken the radiant steel.
Of course, there was only so much that even a warrior of King Arthur’s skill could do against a force that outnumbered his, and Sir Baigent waited for the moment when Duke Balder finally retook control and started pushing his attacker back. That moment was almost at hand. Doubtless Balder was now smiling as he watched his men take on this demon warrior who dared attack men going to Cwerith’s side; doubtless he thrilled to the killing of another enemy. Equally doubtless was that he had little idea of just who the warrior in the silver armor and wielding the shining sword happened to be, and equally doubtless was that he had no idea at all that this was, in fact, a trap – for Sir Baigent was about to sound his own call and lead the rest of King Arthur’s force here into the fight.
“Ready, men!” he said, pitching his voice higher now so his lieutenants would pass it down the line. One hundred more horse, who would be followed by one hundred footsoldiers…this would be a rout. He adjusted his chain-and-boiled-leather armor, slid his helmet over his head, and then drew his own sword, whose blade was not so radiant and no longer shone with the same light as it had when it had been newly forged but was still honed to a keen edge that had tasted a great deal of blood in this war. It was almost time. Duke Balder’s men were starting to respond effectively now, belatedly to be sure, and were moving forward to close around their attackers. King Arthur’s cavalry wheeled about once more, astonishingly quickly and precisely for a unit so surrounded by hostile fighting men, and rode to meet the onrushing counterattack head on. Now, at last, they were completely surrounded; now, at last, it was time.
“To battle!” Sir Baigent shouted. “To battle! Sound the charge!”
Three young boys who stood nearby, and having accompanied this army for exactly this purpose, lifted their great horns to their lips and with a burst of wind from their lungs that belied their stature blew forth in unison the second of King Arthur’s calls to battle that day. Sir Baigent kicked his heels into Arradwen’s flanks, and she sprang forward along with the hundred other horsemen with him. Together they surged down the side of the slope and crashed directly into the exposed right flank of Duke Balder’s force, catching them completely by surprise. The first man to fall under Sir Baigent’s sword never even had a chance to turn his horse and lift his club to face his attacker; he fell with the gaping expression on his face that Sir Baigent had seen on a great many faces lately as on the edge of a blade they had come to regret their choice of sides in this war.
A club-wielding man came swinging at him, and Sir Baigent easily turned Arradwen so that her lashing hooves struck the man down before he could even bring his club around for the blow he intended to deliver. At the same moment Sir Baigent brought his sword back in a savage, forceful motion on his right side, skewering a man behind him. Then, recovering his sword, he squared to face a cavalryman who was now charging him.
Sir Baigent easily maneuvered himself to easily take the main force of the man’s attack with the small buckler shield he wore on his left wrist, and then he brought his own blade around from the right in a countermove that he knew would be parried. The purpose was not now to strike, but to simply draw the man off balance, if he was inexperienced as Sir Baigent assumed he must be, from the awkward way he carried himself in his saddle. It worked to perfection, as the cavalryman tilted too far forward, allowing Sir Baigent to deliver a ringing strike to the back of the man’s head with the flat of his blade, and then swinging around for the killing stroke.
“Come, Baigent! You ride too slow!” someone shouted, and Sir Baigent immediately recognized the voice of Lord Matholyn as he thundered by on his left, leading his charger into the thick of a group of Balder’s men who broke and run as the imposing onetime Lord of Camyrdin smashed into their midst. Sir Baigent grinned and followed him.
From that moment the outcome of this fight was in little doubt. The discipline of Balder’s men, easily broken at first and then slowly restored, was broken anew by the arrival of the second wave of horsemen. Then, when the hundred footsoldiers came streaming down from the hill to make King Arthur’s attack complete, their cohesion and discipline completely fell apart. They had not expected this kind of attack; they had not truly been prepared for any battle at all, expecting instead to become part of a much larger army; and they were weary from their march and cold from the fording of the river. Men began to break for the wood or back up the valley, to be rounded up by the King’s horsemen or picked off by the handful of archers the King had stationed on either side of the vale for just that purpose. Finally, Balder’s men simply began to drop their weapons and lift their arms above their heads in surrender. The entire battle, from first charge to last surrender, had taken less than a single hour.
As Duke Balder’s men were rounded up and as pages and other attendants came down from the safety of the wood to tend to all the horses, Sir Baigent dismounted and came to Lord Matholyn’s side, where he stood with King Arthur and a few other knights whose names Sir Baigent could not just now recall. The King turned and led them on a walk through the battlefield.
“You could have waited a bit longer, you know,” Lord Matholyn said, scowling.. “I’m sure that one of these clods would have eventually found a way to smash one of my knees with a club, or stick a spear through my horse’s gullet. And then you’d be rid of me.”
Sir Baigent shook his head. “And miss the pleasure of attending to your temper, My Lord?”
“Yes, well, you know the silence would gnaw at you in the end.”
Behind them, Estren laughed. Before them, King Arthur held up a hand, silencing them. He was not a man given to this kind of post-battle banter, even after the easiest of battles as this one had been. Their own dead numbered less than thirty out of their original three hundred who had actually come into the fighting, while fewer than two hundred of Duke Balder’s original six hundred still drew breath. They had won many of these small skirmishes since Bedwyn, but this one had been the most successful rout yet. The King participated in the feasts – such as they were, in these lean times – after battles, but he did not allow celebrations to begin while the blood was still oozing from the dead. In this, Sir Baigent thought he was quite wise.
“You did well, Sir Baigent,” King Arthur said, turning to face the knight. “Very well indeed. The tactic worked as I hoped.”
“Thank you, My Liege,” Sir Baigent replied, lowering his head. King Arthur’s praise was not precisely rare, but it was still precious to a fighting man.
The King nodded once, and then turned forward again. He led them to where a young enemy knight sat on the ground, cradling an older man in his lap as tears rolled down his cheeks. The young knight, who was clearly barely old enough to be called anything other than a “boy”, lifted his head and met the King’s gaze.
“This was Duke Balder?” King Arthur asked. The young knight nodded, and King Arthur sighed. “I have seen this same look on the face of too many a young man in my time. You are his son?”
Again the youth nodded as he looked back down at the former Duke’s face.
“Then that makes you the new Duke,” King Arthur said. “Why did this man go to fight under the banner of the Traitor Kings?”
At this the youth looked up sharply. “Better to serve the King who made his own realm than the one who expects to have it given to him,” he snapped through grated teeth. His eyes held their anger for a second, and then the sadness returned. “That’s what my father said,” he added.
Sir Baigent expected King Arthur to rise to anger at that, but he did nothing of the sort. Instead, he sighed. “That is a sentiment I have heard many a time, from many a lord who did not think an anointed King worthy of what another King had taken by force,” he said. His voice was surprisingly soft, devoid of any anger at all. He had indeed heard this claim, each time from the lips of Cwerith’s defenders; and he had heard it in the time before, when he had built his first realm in the time before the Ancients. Many things remained the same, even as the years went by until they could no longer be numbered. “Do you truly think that I do not earn my realm in battle?”
The boy looked up at King Arthur again, and now there was something new in his gaze; it was a look that Sir Baigent had seen in a great many faces since King Arthur’s return, including at first, his own. “You are he,” the young man finally said. “You are King Arthur.”
“I am,” Arthur replied. “And I have seen many men die on either side of the battlefield, some standing for me when they fell and some standing against. What is your name, young sir?”
“Brinan,” the youth replied. “Sir Brinan ap Balder.”
“Not so,” said King Arthur. “Now you are Duke Brinan. Your father the Duke is dead, and the authority that was his now resides in you.”
The boy suddenly looked even younger as he considered that. Sir Baigent glanced sidelong at Lord Matholyn, who knew something of young men coming too early to their thrones. So, he thought, did Cwerith, although he would not react in quite the same way.
“And as Duke," King Arthur went on, "the decision that I came now to offer to your father is now yours to make. Will you and your men go free from this field, or in irons?”
Duke Brinan’s eyes narrowed. “How much fealty would we have to swear before you will let us go free?”
“No more than you would willingly swear,” King Arthur said. “I do not ask you to put aside any loyalties formerly sworn. When my scouts spotted your father leading this company, they also learned that it was his intention to swear allegiance with King Cwerith of Caer Mastagg.”
“He is the High King,” Brinan said quickly.
“Is he?” King Arthur said, even more softly. “Since your father meant to bend the knee to Cwerith, that means that he did not bend the knee to anyone else; and that means that his realm, small as it is, right now lies beyond any bounds of sworn loyalty. I cannot allow you to go on from this place if your aim is still to go to Cwerith’s side, but even if you would refuse to swear to me, I will allow you to go if you will refuse to swear to him.”
There was silence as Brinan grappled with what was being said to him. This was not what he had expected. “You do not demand that I swear to you?”
“I believe that you will, in time,” King Arthur said. “Cwerith is not High King, I am. I was chosen by the Goddess once before, and at the moment of my death she interceded and brought me to a place where I would rest until I was needed again. That time is now, and once more I fight for the throne of Prydein against those who believe that I have no claim to it. But what claim could be greater than the choice of Dona herself, no matter how much blood is spilt in the laying of that claim? No, my young Duke. I will fight for my throne, as I fought here today, but I will not kill without need.”
Brinan looked down at the face of his dead father. “Was there need for my father to die?” he asked.
“As much need as there ever would be in war,” King Arthur said. “So, young Duke, what will you do?”
“I will take my father home and bury him beside his father,” said Duke Brinan. “And then, I shall wait for war to come to my lands again before I choose a side.”
Now Matholyn spoke. “You know, from what you have heard here, that when that happens, it will be Cwerith that brings the war to you, and that you will end fighting against him.”
“It may be so, my lord,” Brinan replied. “But I cannot so easily bend the knee to the man who has killed my father in the last hour, either.”
“Then go,” King Arthur said. “Go, and see to your lands and bury your father. And trouble yourself with things other than allegiances and Kings and wars.”
Later, when Duke Brinan had left with what remained of his men – less than half of what his father had set out with – King Arthur gathered his own men and set out for the return march to Badon Hill. Sir Baigent’s thoughts kept returning to the young man who had been so quickly elevated to a Lordship. He was not certain if King Arthur had made the right decision in allowing this boy to go free, just after killing his father. But perhaps it was the right choice indeed, he thought; perhaps that boy would recall in the future the deeds of the King who had refused to take a single life more than was necessary to win the day. And perhaps the boy would compare that knowledge with the tidings he had received of the deeds of the other King who now vied for the loyalty of lordlings such as he, and perhaps he would judge Cwerith – the King who burned entire cities to the ground and slew every one of their citizens he could find – in a harsher light than Duke Balder had been prepared to do. Perhaps the King had allowed an enemy to live this day, but perhaps he had instead planted the seeds of an ally.
As they rode away from the battlefield, the crows could be heard behind them, already gathering to feast at the dead. It seemed to Sir Baigent that the crows or Prydein were becoming fatter and fatter, with such constant meat to feed them as was littered on fields all across the land. And for some reason he could not guess, the thought of crows feasting upon the fallen bodies made him think of Lady Gwynwhyfar. He shuddered, and suddenly reined Arradwen to a stop.
“Does something vex you, Baigent?” It was Lord Matholyn, who had likewise stopped and looked back at his friend.
“I do not know,” Sir Baigent replied truthfully. He did not know why he should feel suddenly fearful, nor could he fathom why thinking of the Welcomer should make him feel so.
Brother Llyad’s shout as he awoke from his Dreamslumber somehow disturbed none of the Druids around him, each of them still deep in their own states of reverie. He used a corner of his robe to wipe the sweat from his brow, sweat that should not have been there given how cold it was. Looking around at the ten meditating Druids who sat in a circle near him, he wondered what it was that they were seeing just now, and why it was that he had been given a vision that was so disturbing as to throw him out of Dreamslumber entirely. He glanced at the ceremonial fire in the middle of the ring, and saw that it had burned down almost to embers. He had been here for quite a long time indeed. Thank the Goddess, he thought as he decided that he had not disturbed any of the other Druids, for his presence here had not been requested or sanctioned. He had crept down here quietly, just after they had begun, meaning to attempt his own Dreamslumber. It had not been the wisest course of action, but Llyad was a man whose ability to resist curiosity and temptation had never been strong. And now he had indeed seen something. Something dark, something fell.
Come to me when the Goddess’s gift of vision has wended its way to completeness, Horius had said before he had left the Druids here alone. Horius was the Chieftain of the Druids, and was thus a man of special reverence to the Oak Brothers. But Brother Llyad felt an additional love for Horius, born of his deep friendship with Horius’s son. Llawann had been Llyad’s companion on the journey from Mona, when they had braved stormy seas to come to Tintagel in search of the Welcomer, but Llawann had been terribly injured when their tiny boat crashed against the rocks and he had later died under the crushing weight of the wolves in that grove where the Fairy had come. But they had found her. They had found the Welcomer.
And now Llyad had seen her again – in a vision marked by darkness and despair.
He rose from his place beneath a tree and beside the circle, and made his way for the path back to the Druid encampment, wondering at the magic of the Dreamslumber as he did so. Many centuries before, so many they could not possibly be counted since they numbered all the way back to almost the beginning of measured history itself, the Druids had crafted lore that allowed them to penetrate into the very mind and heart of the Goddess, if she willed it. In such moments, often the Druids were granted visions – glimpses of things that had once been, things that were now, or perhaps things that might yet come to pass. But the visions were dangerous things, and often given to incorrect interpretation or, as dreams sometimes are, forgotten entirely. The lore of the Dreamslumber had been lost, though, before the rise of the Ancients, and had only been rediscovered in the days after the Cataclysm had wiped the world clean of all that the Ancients had built, when the old lore of the Emrys had at last been found again. It had partially been through the Dreamslumber that the Druids on Mona had begun to suspect that the time for their return to Prydein had come. And now Llyad of Tintagel was the first person who was not sworn to the Druidic tradition to attempt a Dreamslumber, albeit a forbidden one, in many centuries. Perhaps that is why my vision was so disquieting, he thought as he left the tiny grove where the slumber had taken place. Perhaps. But perhaps not.
Llyad came to a stream and followed its course until he came to the larger grove where Horius and some of the others waited. There were several thousand Druids, actually, scattered throughout these forests. But all were within miles of this place, which was in turn just a few hours’ ride from the hill-fort that the Promised King had built and named Badon after the hill were, in the time before, he had won his greatest victory and secured the throne of the land he called Britain. The time would come when the Druids would again scatter across the entire land, but that time had not yet come. Not with the Druids still not trusted by the people, and not with the fell clerics – sometimes called the “Dark Druids” – in the service of King Cwerith. Here, in this spot where the stream spilled over a short waterfall into a wide pool, Horius led the Druids in a hymn to the Goddess and the woods themselves. Brother Llyad waited for the hymn to end, but instead, Horius left the ring of singing Druids and came to join him, with Hugydd – the big man who had once been a knight of Camyrdin but had been taken by the Druids and made one of their own a year before – coming slightly behind him. The others went on singing, the chorus of Druids shifting their tone to accommodate the sudden absence of two voices. Brother Llyad bowed before the Druid chieftain.
“I come to you in peace, Horius,” he said.
“And I accept you in same, Llyad of Tintagel,” Horius replied. “What has brought you hence?”
“I was in the grove,” Llyad said. He knew well of Horius’s disdain for evasion or circumlocution. Still, he fixed his eyes penitently on the ground, unwilling to meet what he was certain would be Horius’s stare of anger.
“You were attempting the Dreamslumber,” Horius said. “Brother Llyad, you are known to me as a man of impulse. Nevertheless, that was particularly unwise.” He sighed. “Come with me, Brother.”
He led Llyad away then, down a different path up a short rise to where three large boulders sat on the ground beside an immense and gnarled oak. The three boulders and the oak’s trunk formed the boundaries of Horius’s home, a tent-like structure that was made of sticks, logs, patches of moss, vines, and brambles tightly woven together to form the walls of the structure. The Druids had seemingly always known of this type of building, and Llyad had become so accustomed to sleeping in such quarters in his days on Mona that he now found the stone buildings of cities uncomfortable. These buildings, crafted from the living materials of Prydein’s ancient forests themselves and allowed to be eventually reclaimed by those same forests, were warm but airy, open and yet comfortable. Nevertheless, Llyad felt some trepidation as he entered Horius’s own hut. It was the same kind of trepidation as he had felt on Tintagel when summoned alone to the Lord Priest’s chambers, he realized, but this was not so much fear for the consequences of a transgression committed as it was anxiety that what he had seen in his ritual dreams might mean what he already feared it would mean.
“Please wait here, Hugydd,” Horius said, and Hugydd obeyed, remaining outside.
The inside of Horius’s home bore little decoration, for the Druids had little use for such things. Living as they did in the wood, and devoted as they were to the service and protection of those woods, they eschewed traditional kinds of adornments for their homes, preferring instead to seek beauty in the natural order of things. Thus, to Llyad, coming into one of Horius’s hut made him feel as if he were entering the very heart of the wood itself. Horius knelt upon the floor, the dirt of which would have been covered over with soft heather in a proper summer but now was bare, and gestured for Llyad to do the same. Then Horius made a gesture and whispered an incantation over a small pile of twigs and small logs in the exact middle of the floor, between the two of them, and on cue a wisp of smoke appeared above them, swirling down from the smoke-hole in the ceiling to the top of the woodpile where the smoke incorporated into flame.
“We thank the Goddess and the wood for allowing the presence of the flame,” Horius said, “for the flame is both the giver and taker of life.”
He and Llyad both bowed before the tiny fire, whose warmth was still welcome to Llyad’s bones.
“Now, Llyad,” Horius said as he laid his hands on his lap, “you would not have come to quickly to confess your transgression had your attempt to join the Dreamslumber not brought something to command your attention. Is that the way of it?”
“It is.” Brother Llyad drew a deep breath, gathering his thoughts for he did not know where to begin, strangely enough for a man who was so often accused of being unable to stop speaking for any length of time. “I don’t know what I saw, Horius. It was so…it was like looking through a dirty and old bit of glass onto a gray and windy day. Like a day when the seas toss and heave, and you cannot tell where the water ends and where the sky begins. I cannot…I do not know what I saw.”
Horius smiled. “And yet, you remember enough that you have come to interrupt my singing of the Veneration,” he said. “Tell me what little you can recall, what little you can describe, no matter how small it may seem. And know that it is often thus for those who descend into the Dreamslumber. That is why our course of action is so often hard to find.”
Brother Llyad nodded. “There was a great deal that even now is disappearing from my memory,” he began. “Images and feelings that I cannot begin to describe. I remember that I felt great fear through much of it…not the fear of confronting the unknown, but the fear of confronting death and the loss of all things. I saw…the dead. And I saw blood.”
Horius bowed his head. “To see blood in the Dreamslumber is never a good omen,” he said. “That you have dreamed of death is troubling. But there is something, somewhere, that you are not telling me.” He raised his eyes and fixed his piercing gaze on Brother Llyad. “You cannot hold it back, Llyad. I must know what it is that you have seen.”
Brother Llyad could not turn his eyes away from Horius’s. His heart began to pound, and the blood rushed in his ears. There was one image, one image only, that he remembered with perfect clarity from the Dreamslumber, and he still saw it each time he closed his eyes. “I saw the Welcomer. I saw Gwynwhyfar. She was…she…” His voice cracked, but he swallowed and forced himself to continue. “I saw her, tied to the stump of a freshly-hewn oak. She was dead, and her blood ran down onto the stump and onto the ground. The Goddess was there, crying over her body, and somewhere else, there was laughter. I saw the Welcomer’s death.”
Horius paled visibly, and he seemed to shudder as if struck. He braced himself on the ground, and gazed up at the ceiling. “Why would you visit this upon us, O Goddess….” He pushed himself back upright, and rubbed his forehead. “I had prayed that this would not come to pass, but it appears that my hopes – as has been so often the case recently – are to be denied.”
“I do not understand,” Brother Llyad said. “What has happened? Do you understand this?”
Horius shook his head. “Not in all of the particulars, my friend,” he said. “This is but one of a thousand ways in which this could have transpired. But it appears that it has done so. In the days after the return of the Promised King and the completion of the Welcomer’s task, I spent a great deal of time in private meditation and communion with the Goddess. I wished to know what role Lady Gwynwhyfar would play once the King had come back, and the deed at the Giants’ Dance was finished. Dona would not simply anoint one to be the Welcomer, and then dispose of that person once the Welcoming was finished…or so I believed.”
“The Finders believe that she may be Arthur’s Queen,” Llyad said.
Horius nodded. “That could indeed be the way of it. She bears the same name, roughly, as his first Queen did; but though the story is lost to us in its entirety, we know it for a tale of surpassing sadness. It may be that the King is unwilling to take a Queen, although the time will come when he will have little choice. Much of the suffering of this day might well have been evaded had King Irlaris’s wife survived the fever and lived to bear him an heir. Alas…it was not the Goddess’s will.”
“Or perhaps it was another power’s,” Llyad suggested. Horius looked at him, and then nodded.
“Yes...but that has little to do with what we now discuss. Lady Gwynwhyfar’s place has vexed me, as it has anyone sworn in direct service to the Goddess. She must have some further role to play, but there is still so much lore that is lost to us, and we have not found any new knowledge even as we complete the tasks laid out for us by the Goddess and outlined by Merlyn Emrys. I had no way of learning what she was to do, or where she was to go. So I waited, alone in my trepidation, saying nothing of my fears to anyone.”
Brother Llyad cocked his eyebrow at something Horius had said. “Your fears?”
Horius nodded. Outside, a breeze freshened, setting a group of wood-chimes Horius had carved from fallen sticks and hung from a nearby tree to knocking. The tiny fire between them flickered, and yet Brother Llyad felt no breeze. Instead, he held Horius’s gaze.
“I have not entered the Dreamslumber in more than two full moons,” he said. Llyad gasped. As Chieftain, Horius was to spend more time in the Dreamslumber than anyone else...but now he had not, in quite some time. “I have not done so because I have feared what I would see.”
“You saw it too!” Llyad exclaimed. “You saw her. You saw the same thing that I saw.”
Horius shook her head. “Not quite,” he said. “And even if I did, we would have no way of knowing that. The Dreamslumber yields a different vision for every person who enters it, and even if it did offer the same vision, there would be the matter of how it is seen – for two people may witness the same event, and still come away with two entirely different senses of what has transpired. Nevertheless, I did see her. She was being taken someplace by force, by whom I know not. She was being brought into the hands of the Dark Druids.”
Brother Llyad shuddered. The Dark Druids were the onetime Priests of Dona who had deserted her and begun to serve her Dark Brother. It had been the Dark Druids, centuries before, whose dark rituals in the forest groves all over Prydein had prompted High King Prystyl to go to war to drive them all away, a war in which no one judged any difference between the truly evil Dark Druids and the benign Oak Brothers. At least the Oak Brothers, though, had been able to flee to Mona; the Dark Druids had been completely wiped out. Until now, that is, for it was said that King Cwerith’s Lord Priest was one of these Dark Druids, and that Cwerith himself actually gave blood at their rituals – rituals where that Lord Priest received visitations from a God in the shape of a great silver wolf.
Horius cleared his throat. “And if the Dark Druids had interest in the Welcomer, then she must indeed still have a great part to play in this war. There is something left for her to do, something crucial, if they desire her death. They would not risk such actions if there were not great reason behind them. And that means that the Welcomer may be in more grave danger than we have ever thought. Curse me for a fool! I waited too long…too great was my insecurity, and too powerful was my indecision. I nursed my fears, and kept them hidden; I waited for more clarity in a time when the only clarity we ever receive is murky indeed. And now, if you have had a Dreamslumber similar to mine, it may be too late. Dona forgive me!” And, with tears flowing from his eyes, he lowered his head into his hands.
“Is there nothing we might do?”
“We are too far away from her,” Horius said. “Her fate will have to rest in the hands of the Goddess. Would that Dona still had the strength to protect her…and now, I fear that other things may be stirring. Dark things that must be avoided.” He lifted his head and rubbed his eyes. “We must make preparations, Llyad of Tintagel. I fear that if the Dark Druids are willing to strike at the Welcomer, they will soon desire to strike at others as well.”
“I do not understand,” Llyad said.
“I am speaking of war,” Horius replied. “I fear that war may be coming to the Druids, in the form of those who dip their hands in blood and so doing seek to shape the fates of men for ill purposes. War, Brother Llyad. Once the Oak Brothers were at war with the Dark Druids, a war in which King Prystyl made no distinctions when he came to it, but a war nonetheless. We must be ready. Come.”
He made a gesture at the fire, and the flames instantly vanished, chilled and extinguished by a puff of very cold air that burst in from the smoke-hole and smothered them. Then he grabbed his cloak and staff and led Brother Llyad outside, where he suddenly stopped and looked around.
“Where is Hugydd?” he asked.
Llyad looked around. The big man, a knight-turned-Druid, was nowhere to be seen.
Daylight was fading fast when King Arthur at least signaled the stop and ordered the setting of camp. They had made fairly good time after leaving the valley from where they had sent the new Duke home with his men, albeit disarmed. With luck, they would make Badon by sundown, the day after tomorrow. As it was, the army made camp beside a wide and swift-moving river that flowed down from the hills and dense forests farther to the north. The discipline that had impressed Sir Baigent in battle was also evident in the making of camp as the tents were very quickly pitched, the fires built, the trenches dug and the sentries posted. Though they had marched later than Sir Baigent would have liked, they still had camp made while there was still a bit of light. Horses were fed and rubbed down, food was prepared, and at last there was a meal of dried meat and thick, heavy bread; and then the soldiers settled in to sleep. Estren wandered through the company, performing songs for the benefit of the men, but mostly everyone was tired and wanted to sleep. Battle was exhausting, even in the wake of victory.
“How do you think Cwerith will receive the news of what we have denied him this day?” Lord Matholyn asked.
“No more than a day or two,” King Arthur replied. “Bad tidings, even those which we consider good, have a way of traveling faster than can the tongues that carry them.”
“He will attack soon,” Matholyn said. “We have pushed him too far, and we have denied him and harassed him too much.”
King Arthur nodded. “That is the way of it,” he said. “That is why we have been building the fort at Badon. King Cwerith will very soon seek to bring the war to me. It was this way before.”
“How was it?” Sir Baigent asked, suddenly. King Arthur looked at him, and immediately Sir Baigent regretted having asked the question. But it was something he had wanted to know, something he had wanted so much to hear. King Arthur was such a sad and noble man, but there was still something…something like a wall around him, which sometimes made it seem as though he was merely moving through Prydein, and not really being touched or involved in what happened here. How must it be, for a King torn from his own Kingdom once before, and then brought back to reforge it from remnants so long tattered that not even the smallest memory remained of what had gone before?
“It was very like this, Sir Baigent.” King Arthur shrugged and stirred at the coals of his fire with a stick. “It was very like this indeed, except that I was very young when I became King. The fates are not so different, for a King returned from Avalon or for an unknown boy, barely old enough to serve as squire to the man he has always taken for an older brother, to take an old and fractured land and make it his own.
“There were many battles. Even though the Goddess had given me the sword, and thus had anointed me as King, there were many lords who had spent their entire lives fighting and warring for one king or another, hoping to position themselves with the eventual winner. That was the way things were done, in those times: Kings were made in battle, not chosen by the Goddess. It scared them, to think that a boy should be given what they had not been able to take – and that much of it had been shaped by the hand of a wizard they all feared. Ah, Merlyn…you never told me of this…” He cleared his throat, and went on.
“Some lords swore to me from the first, and those first allies were the most loyal I would ever see. Allegiances given freely are often more solid than allegiances forced in war, although that is not always true, either. But we were strong, and gradually we forced more and more of those lords to bend the knee. Even King Lot, the strongest of them all, finally lowered his banner to mine after the Battle of Badon Hill. And he married my sister, Morgause…but she turned out to be wickeder, by far, than even Merlyn could have imagined. Poor Lot! How it must have hurt, to see his proud and strong sons so easily turned from the path of the Goddess by the machinations of my own bastard son…and how much might have been different, had I not succumbed to darkness for a time and attempted to…” At this point something very dark indeed passed through his eyes. Sir Baigent exchanged glances with Lord Matholyn, who shook his head lightly. King Arthur’s story was such a sad one, it seemed, and now he was here, bound for yet more sadness and pain. And he had said nothing at all of the story of his Queen, whose name was Gwynwhyfar.
Estren finally returned from his tour of the camp a short while later, and he performed for the King and his party The Song of Pastures and Honey by Taryn of Land’s End, a song which was usually sung by mothers to sleepless children but in the Bard’s voice became a loving serenade to more peaceful days. Then, at least, they slept. All of their dreams were touched with the thoughts of the larger battles certain to come, all of theirs except for the King’s.
No one could touch the dreams that passed before the King’s sleeping eye.
Baigent leaned back against the thwart of the wooden boat and drove his arms backward and forward, up and down, backward and forward, up and down, underneath the light of a cold, white sun. The salt spray stung his face, but he did not care. The air was bracing, but made him feel strong. He was free: free of war, free of vengeance, free of the cares that had haunted him for months.
The wave he'd been watching finally arrived, taking hold of the boat and propelling it forward. He dug in with the oars, grabbing as much speed as he could. Any second now he would feel the crunch on the hull and the sudden slowing as the boat ran aground on the shores of the beach outside Caer Camyrdin. He grinned in anticipation. He was nearly home.
But the boat didn't run aground, and it should have by now. The waves slowed, and then stopped entirely. The salt spray was gone, and now Baigent realized that he no longer heard the cry of gulls, either. Shipping his oars, he turned to look behind him, to see where the shore actually was. And nothing was there. He was alone in the boat, out in the middle of the sea, or so it appeared: in every direction he saw nothing at all but glass-smooth water. The land was gone, the gulls who always haunted the beaches of Camyrdin were gone, everything was gone.
Baigent rowed for a while, aimlessly, with no clear notion of which direction he should go or even what direction he was going at all. He rowed for a few minutes at first, and then he rowed some more, this time for a few hours. And still he came nowhere, as he moved across a featureless and blank sea. He rowed until his muscles could row no more, and then at last he gave up, shipping his oars and slumping to the bottom of his boat. He allowed himself a single sip from his water flask, and then as night fell around him and as the stars began to shine through the deepening sky, he felt himself falling asleep.
And that was when his boat thumped against the shore.
But the shore of where? That, he did not know. In the darkness, he could not recognize the land that rose before him. It was an island, he supposed, and in the fading light he could see a line of forest that began less than fifty paces from the white-sand beach. He wasn't sure how, since the darkness was shrouding everything in the distance, but Baigent felt strongly that somewhere before him rose mountains, high ones. This was no small island, unknown on an unexplored sea. This was...someplace else.
Baigent waited there, fearing to leave his boat, for a long while. Gradually the moon rose behind him, bright and full, casting its silver light across first the sea and then the beach and then what he could make of the island before him. He could now see the forest before him, and he now realized that it was no forest at all, but an empty city, devoid of all life. The buildings were wrecked, tumbled, fallen. A city that came so near down to the sea, but stopped short of wharf or quay: what manner of strange place was this? Baigent's curiosity allowed him to find his courage once again, and he jumped out of the boat onto the white sand.
The voice came from somewhere before him. Baigent strained his eyes to make it out, but soon he saw a tall figure moving toward him with a shuddering gait. Whoever this was, he walked with painful effort, dragging one foot behind him and leaning with each step on a stick of some sort. Baigent could not yet make out the person's features, but somehow the voice sounded in his ears familiar.
"You cannot be here! This place is not for you! This place is for no one, until the dark times end and those who left can at last return!"
Yes, the voice was very familiar, but who could it possibly be? Baigent waited by his boat, wishing he had a weapon with him. A fishhook, perhaps – but he had none. Why had he set to sea without so much as a fishhook?
"Go! Go, Baigent! You must leave this place!"
The shadowy figure had used Baigent's name. How could that be-
"Go, boy! You cannot be here!"
And Baigent suddenly felt his entire body go to ice. Only one man had ever called him 'Boy'. But how could this be? How could Baigent's father be here? Where was he, that Pelegaunt was marching toward him?
"Do you totally lack the wits I tried to pass onto you, boy? Away from here! Back to the sea, and back to Prydein! This is no land for you!"
Baigent felt tears on his cheeks. His father, coming toward him, shouting for him to leave this place he didn't know he'd come to: what was this?
And now Pelegaunt stood before him. His features were familiar, although cast in shadow and somehow blurred, as though Baigent were seeing him through a fog, even though he stood just a few paces away. He looked, Baigent suddenly realized, the way he had looked at the moment he had breathed his last.
"This place is not for you, Baigent. This place is for no one, now. The Goddess's dark brother saw to that. This place is not for you."
Baigent felt himself backing up already, toward the boat, in spite of himself. "You speak like a cleric," he said. "In death and in dreams you are as full of riddles as anyone."
"This is no riddle, boy," his father said. "In life I never held with riddling talk, and neither do I do so now. If I speak not clearly, it is because I cannot speak of that which I do not know. But these things are given me, here in this place that awaits the return of those who once dwelt here: You must go back, and you must find her. The Finest Deed awaits you, boy! You do not realize that you have been chosen? That it has fallen to you, after all the ages of the world? You do not see?"
"I do not understand," Baigent said.
"Of course you do not," his father replied. "Go now, Baigent. You cannot remain here, and you know that you cannot. I am dead, and the living need you more than I. Go now! Return from whence you came!"
And with that, Pelegaunt turned and began to walk away, back toward the shattered city whose citizens had gone somewhere that Sir Baigent did not know. Baigent climbed back into his boat and pushed back out to sea, where the ebbing tide began pulling him away. In the moonlight he could now barely make out his father's shadowy form, but nevertheless, one last time he called out: "Father! What am I to do?"
On the shore, Pelegaunt turned back toward his son, and when he replied, he pitched his voice to carry: "You must find your way, boy, and know this: it does not lie with the one you call King, nor at the side of he whom you once called Lord before your lands were stripped from you."
Baigent sat silent in his boat for a moment, thinking on the awful implication of these words. Then, once more, he lifted his voice to his father: "You command me to leave King Arthur? To walk from the side of Lord Matholyn? Why would I do this? With whom will I go?"
Pelegaunt was already turning away from him. "It is not for the dead to command the living, Baigent," came the voice, ever softer until it was little more than a whisper above the lapping of the waters. "With whom will you go? Whom, indeed?"
And then he was gone, and Baigent was again alone on the sea. Again he rowed, away from the island and through the night, until dawn was approaching and again his boat ran ashore, this time on the blood-soaked ruins of the city he had once called home--
Sir Baigent snapped awake to discover that he was being shaken.
“Come,” Estren said. “Someone has come whom you will wish to see.”
Sir Baigent looked around the tent and the other sleeping knights and cavalrymen. It was still late, still dark. There were no sounds outside of a stirring camp, although when he had pulled on his cloak and followed the Bard outside, he saw that there soon would be. The eastern sky was beginning to turn the purple of the hour before dawn, and there were men already coming awake to prepare the morning meal and get the horses ready for the day’s ride. But most of the men were still asleep, which should have included Sir Baigent; it was still to early for him to be aroused. Something had happened, clearly enough. “Is it Sir Jules?” he asked as Estren led him through the tents to the King’s. “Have he and Sir Regidan brought scouting news?”
“No,” Estren said. “It is a Druid."
Sir Baigent stopped short, for just a second, before continuing to move. Druids…they were a strange lot, and little ever happened around them that was normal or expected. Estren led Sir Baigent across the camp to a low area, toward the rear, where the horses were kept. All around them were the sounds of grunting beasts and their snoring masters. They came to the very edge of the camp, below which the side of Badon Hill dropped away sharply. Here, waiting for him, holding his steed by the rein, was Hugydd, who had once been Sir Baigent's man but was now one of the Oak Brothers.
"Hugydd! Why have you come here?"
"Tidings of ill, Sir Baigent," Hugydd replied. "The Welcomer may be in peril."
Sir Baigent felt his flesh go cold, very cold, as he braced himself to hear whatever Hugydd had come to say.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::