:: Sunday, June 03, 2007 ::
The Finest Deed, Chapter One
The tiny cottage door opened for the first time in so many centuries that no single history could reckon the years that had passed since the last time, and the lone occupant emerged into sunlight for the first time in a span of equal measure. He stretched his bones again and then leaned on his walking stick as he took in the morning air. The grass covering the cottage’s earthen walls was still green, the only green grass which could be found anywhere in the land the men now called “Prydein”. The branches of the willow tree before him were bare, however, as were the branches of every tree in the forest before him. He sighed and brushed a lock of white hair from his eye. Such a dark time, he mused, but then all times are dark. Darkness is ever ascendant, and now my power can only preserve a tiny patch of grass in the face of the entire realm. But perhaps I can do more than that after all....
He stopped at the well just beside the willow, and filled his waterskin there. Then he slung the skin around his neck, tightened his cloak, and took the first step forward, away from his home where the lore of the ages had been his study matter. He stopped, though, when he heard the familiar screech of a familiar crow behind him.
“No, I had not forgotten,” said the man as he turned back toward his home. The crow stood on the roof of the cottage, eyeing him. It extended its wings and flew to the man's outstretched wrist, where it fixed him with an angled stare. “We must go now,” the man said. “The time has come.”
With his other hand he reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful of seed, which he fed to the ageless bird.
“Ah, old friend,” he said as the crow began snapping up the seed, “you sense my fear, don’t you? You know how difficult it is, and what must be sacrificed by those who would take on the deed. And you know, don’t you, all the things that must end before the deed can be done.” He sighed. “How sorry I feel for you, to have naught to attend but the ramblings of an old man. But now you must feel the air through your feathers again. Go and find him!”
And with that, the man released the crow into the air, where it vanished from sight into the gray sky above the forest, heading north. "And I shall find her," the man said, and struck out onto the path that led from his door and into the world of Men.
Then he swung south.
The window’s shutters rattled in deference to the unceasing wind that howled outside. The candle on Father Damogan’s table flickered suddenly and went out, extinguished by one of the particularly strong gusts that were not completely stopped by those shutters. Damogan, the Lord Priest of Tintagel, sighed as he straightened up from the book he’d been studying and glanced across the table at his assistant, who had fallen asleep on the table an hour before. Sister Dana, just two months past her Trials and induction into Dona’s Priestesshood, had been working with Father Damogan since Brother Malcolm had left just before those trials...along with Gwynwhyfar, who should have been a Sister now herself but was instead now enmeshed in the affairs of Prydein.
Dana had been Gwynwhyfar’s best friend, and probably would still be if and when she ever returned to Tintagel. That, of course, was not likely. The girl who had turned out to be half-Fairy, who had fulfilled Ryannon's prophecy of the Welcomer and who had brought King Arthur back from Avalon and then made it possible for him to traverse the great distance from the Giants’ Dance to Bedwyn in time to win the battle there against King Cwerith, would surely never again be a student or become a Priestess. Damogan had seen something special in the orphan girl from Lyonesse when Malcolm had brought her here those many years ago, although never in the most free of his dreams had he imagined just how special she would be.
Another powerful gust of wind actually caused the shutter to fly open with a loud bang, awakening Sister Dana with a start. “What is it?” she yelped, even as Father Damogan crossed the room to secure the shutter. Dana threw her arms across the table, to keep the papers and scraps of parchment from blowing away. Father Damogan returned to the table from the window, where he held his hand over the smoking candle and whispered a short incantation which sent a lick of flame down from his fingertips to the wick, relighting it. Glancing at Dana and noting her expression, he shrugged.
“That spell is an easy one,” he said.
“The storm is still raging,” she said. “I wonder if it will ever stop.”
“All things end, in time,” Damogan replied. “The only question is, whether they end for good or for ill.” He sighed. “Long may it be before this storm is spent, but I think that for tonight, we are. We have been working too hard on this, and you need rest if you are to lead the morning Vespers.”
Dana sighed, not wanting to be reminded of that. She’d been nervous enough about her first turn leading Vespers without Damogan speaking of it at every opportunity. She pushed herself up from the table. “Sleep well, Father,” she said. “It will be--”
She was interrupted by a furious pounding at the doors of Father Damogan’s chambers.
“Odd,” Damogan said. “No one should be bothering me this late. See to it, will you?”
Dana was already striding for the door, and when she opened it she found a young Adept standing there. He was terribly wet, he was shivering, and he was somewhat out of breath.
“Grufydd!” Dana exclaimed. “What is it?”
Father Damogan joined them, alarm in his eyes. Grufydd was Sister Moyra’s assistant, in the Chambers of Healing. He would only disturb the Lord Priest in his private chambers for a small set of reasons, none of them pleasant. “What is it, Gruffyd?” Damogam asked. “Is someone hurt?”
“Yes, Father,” Gruffydd replied.
“Can Brother Denys not handle it, in Brother Malcolm’s absence?”
“Father, it is Brother Malcolm.”
Dana felt suddenly ill, and she could see the color drain from Father Damogan’s face even in the dim candlelight of the anteroom. “Father, did you know--”
“No,” Damogan said. “I have received no word of his coming. That is unlike him; he would have sent a message of some kind. How could I not have foreseen it?”
Brother Malcolm had been gone from Tintagel for months -- since the very night Gwyn herself had been abducted by Brother Llyad (even though a letter in her own hand that had come afterward had absolved Llyad of guilt on that score). Malcolm had gone with Lord Matholyn and his men, and though he had sent word on his own several times, he had sent none at all that he was coming back.
“You must come quickly,” Gruffyd said. “Sister Moyra is unsure that Brother Malcolm will survive the night.”
Father Damogan grabbed his cloak and staff as Dana pulled on her own cloak and extinguished the candles. Then they followed Gruffyd out into the corridor and up the passage to the Sanctuary.
The Chamber of Healing had always filled Dana with a sense of mystery. Strange and powerful lore was at work here, but she had never been able to truly fathom it. Though Dana was at least familiar enough with the healing arts that she would not be utterly hopeless in the face of illness or injury, the greater part of the powers that Sister Moyra wielded against hurt and harm were as magic to her. As Gruffyd brought them through the outer chambers into the inner rooms, Dana wondered if she should even be coming along at all – surely this was not her place, even though she was no longer an Adept -- but Father Damogan did not dismiss her.
They came into the room where Sister Moyra stood over a bed, attending the sick person who lay there. A fire roared in the hearth, with a pot of boiling water hanging above it. The shelves sagged under the weight of jars of dried herbs, colored liquids, powders, mushrooms, and nearly every other medicine known and some that weren’t. Sister Moyra drew a square of cloth from the boiling pot, using a pair of metal tongs, and when it cooled enough for her to touch, she folded it and pressed it to the patient’s bare chest. Stepping closer, Dana gasped.
Brother Malcolm had never looked like this, in all the time she had known him. His body was limp and his flesh pallid, and there were both a large gash on the left side of his forehead and a deep wound, still oozing blood, in his left side, just below his ribs. His skin was covered with fine sweat, and his breath was shallow.
“How is he?” Father Damogan asked.
Sister Moyra grunted with displeasure. “That gash on his head isn’t nearly as bad as it looks,” she said. “Gruffyd here has worse when he tripped on wet stone and fell face-down in the stables. It’s the wound in his side that may send him to Annwn.”
“The wound is deep?”
Moyra shook her head. “It’s not how deep it is that worries me. It’s the poison that was on the blade.”
“Poison!” Dana gasped, and Father Damogan turned white for the second time. Poisoned weapons were the tools of brigands, bandits and other criminals. They weren’t even used on the fields of war, yet another part of the legacy of High King Prystyl.
“Has he awakened at all?” Damogan asked.
“Only for moments at a time,” Sister Moyra replied. “His fever is among the worst I have seen, and few of those have survived.” Sister Moyra was not one to soften unpleasant tidings. Dana brushed away a tear.
“Malcolm has always been strong,” Damogan said.
“He will need that strength,” Moyra said as she turned away to change the water in the pot. “I have given him an extract of goldspot. We shall see if that proves as strong an antivenom as the poison which now runs in his veins.”
“Goldspot!” Damogan exclaimed. “How did you come by goldspot? It doesn’t grow in our caves.” From this, Dana surmised that goldspot was a kind of mushroom, although she had never heard of it before.
“You are not the only one with secret knowledge, Damogan,” Moyra said. “I have studied the magic of toadstools for longer than you, and while you have no doubt relied on them for their scrying and knowledge-seeking abilities, I have concentrated on them as part of healing.”
“Of course,” Damogan said. Dana would have found his admission of ignorance on a particular topic surprising had it not come over Brother Malcolm’s weakening body. Then Malcolm drew an audible breath, and his body shifted slightly.
“What is it?” Dana asked as Moyra again drew near.
“It is one of his awakenings,” she said.
“Will he awaken enough to speak?” Father Damogan asked, but Sister Moyra gave no response. Instead she lifted the poultice closer to Malcolm’s nose, allowing him to breathe in its vapors. A second or two later, he drew another breath, sharper this time, and stirred again. His lips moved, although no sound that Dana could detect issued from them.
Father Damogan leaned very closely now, over Malcolm’s face, as the poisoned cleric mumbled. After too brief a time, Malcolm’s lips ceased moving and his body relaxed again as he slipped back into fevered sleep. Damogan sat back on the stool, looking very old in that moment.
“Did he say something?” Dana asked.
Father Damogan nodded. “Dark Druids, he said. Dark Druids.”
Dana shivered, suddenly fearful although she could not know what exactly that meant. Outside, the wind howled louder -- or perhaps it only seemed so.
On a field at the eastern end of the great vale of Cul Calladan, King Cwerith ap Cellamma sat atop his destrier, waiting as his trumpeters played the ceremonial call of the Kings of Caledonia, and then he waited for the trumpeters on the opposite side of the field to respond with the ceremonial call of Gwynedd. The banners above him snapped to and fro, blown by a cold and vigorous wind –- the only kind that blew in Prydein these days. His entire army was arrayed behind him, and across this great field, fifty paces away, waited that of his ally, King Duncan of Caledonia. About him was gathered the retinue that he had made in the last several months, consisting of lords who had sworn their allegiance to him, but none of them mattered so much as the man he now waited to meet.
“We’ve come far, Lord Varing,” Cwerith said to his steward, who stood beside him on his own horse.
“We have indeed, sire,” Lord Varing responded.
Cwerith nodded. This was indeed a proud moment, although it was not nearly as sweet as the moment that still awaited him, when he would assume his rightful place as High King of Prydein. And now he would have the strength to do just that, the strength that had eluded him at the Battle of Bedwyn. Gwynedd’s time had come, and all else was mere delay.
Cwerith’s herald stepped forward and shouted his greeting to the other side. “His Majesty, High King Cwerith ap Cellamma, greets the King of Caledonia in friendship! Will King Duncan of Caledonia come forth to parley?”
Cwerith sighed inwardly. In truth, he hated all these ceremonial trappings of Kingship. He found them boring, mere theater for the common folk that had little, if anything, to do with the actual wielding of power. What was important was not the sounding of trumpet calls and the parleys and the pomp of it all; what was important was the power. Cwerith did not crave the love of the people; he craved the power over them that only the High King could wield. But even so, he knew that these ceremonies and rituals were important to remind the people of that power. And thus he went through with it, even though he hated it, for he needed every honor and ceremony that was possible. Too many of the people of Prydein -- his subjects –- were flocking to the banner of this pretender, this...Arthur. Cwerith’s throat clenched as he even thought of the name. The warrior from beyond, sent by the weakening Goddess even as the Dark Brother worked to stop him…the warrior who now claimed to be the Promised King, but who couldn’t possibly be. This Arthur appealed to fools and charlatans and weaklings, not to the men who were the true strength of Prydein.
The true High King should not have to remind people of his Kingship.
Now Duncan’s herald was giving some long-winded reply. “We, the sons and princes of Caledonia, come now to align ourselves with the High King of Prydein! Not since the days long gone by, when King Maccon ruled the cold and hardy lands to the north, has there been such friendship and allegiance between the nations of Prydein and Caledonia. Now at last, the King of Caledonia proudly marches to battle against the enemies of the High King of Prydein. May the banner of Gwynedd long fly proudly above the cities of all our land, and may it long inspire the hearts of men....”
Get on with it, Cwerith thought. His horse, evidently of like mind, stamped the ground and snorted haughtily. Cwerith glanced around at the new lords and allies in his retinue – Gaddamar, who had been first; Lord Paleri of the central wood; and others whose names he could barely recall even now that they had ridden beside him for more than a month. He liked these men very little, and trusted them even less. Sworn allies to a King are as the dandelions in the spring, the saying went, but his truest friends number fewer than the winter robins. How true that was. Irlaris himself had only learned it when Duncan’s banners had appeared on his horizon. The same banners that Cwerith gazed upon now.
At last Duncan’s herald fell silent, and Lord Varing turned toward Cwerith. “My Lord?”
Cwerith nodded, and Varing gestured for the trumpeters to sound the Call of Acceptance. As the echoes from that call died out, Duncan’s party came forward, and Cwerith’s rode out to join them. All the foolish ceremony and staging, just to bring these two men together as Cwerith finally came face-to-face with his truest ally.
“Greetings, King of Caledonia,” Cwerith said. “Be welcome in Prydein.”
“Thank you, My Liege,” Duncan said in a voice that was somehow both loud and mumbling. “I find it hard to believe that not until now have I set foot this far south.” He was a large man, his face pink and his complexion ruddy even in the unending cold. He wore no badge of office on his furs, save for a brooch fastened to his collar almost as an afterthought. Duncan’s helm was dull iron, and the pommel of the sword he wore on his back likewise bore no ornament. King Duncan, Cwerith noted approvingly, was not a man wedded to the trappings of being King.
“No more surprising than my failure to ever travel to Caledonia,” Cwerith replied.
Duncan laughed. “According to the poets, there is much in common between our lands,” he said. “Gwynedd and Caledonia have both long suffered the inattention of Londia." He grinned. "But no longer, I think.”
“No longer,” Cwerith agreed.
King Duncan cleared his throat. “Well, I’d best be on with it, I suppose,” he said as he swung down from his horse with a thud as his large frame hit the ground. He handed the reins to a page who came running up for just this reason, and then he drew his sword and held it on the ground in front on him as he sank to one knee. “I am Duncan ap Darrmot, King of Caledonia. I pledge all my strength, and all the strength of my lands and the men within them, to Cwerith ap Cellamma, High King of Prydein. His allies shall be my allies, his foes shall be my foes, his wars are my wars, and his peace shall be my peace. I shall serve him as long as he or I draw breath.”
Cwerith nodded. “Rise, Duncan ap Darmot,” he said. “I accept your fealty with pride and gratitude. Together we shall forge a new Prydein.” He offered his right hand, and Duncan clasped it as he rose. Then Cwerith said, “Now dine with me, my friend. I would not turn a man away from my table when there is meat to be torn.”
“These are not good days for meat,” Duncan said. “I will welcome such.”
The two men departed then, leaving Lord Varing and the other lords and barons to see to the joining of the armies. They went to Cwerith’s tent to discuss strategy and war, and how they would now move to defeat the menace of the pretender to the south who called himself the Promised King.
In a grove in a wood, not too far away from where the armies of Cwerith and Duncan faced each other while their respective lords forged their new alliance, some poor diseased wretch was dragged to the freshly-hewn trunk of a great tree and tied down by Priests in dark robes while another Priest, tall and fat and sweating despite the cold, wiped the silver knife in his hand with a square of blue cloth. Cassion had not performed such a rite in some time – not since the Battle of Bedwyn had turned badly. The King had been angry, of course – how could he not be, since the victory that had been so close to being his had eluded him – but he was still beholden to Cassion and the wisdom and tidings he brought. Cwerith had come too far now, and earned too much, by the light of the Goddess’s brother to turn back. Even if the blood for the summoning had not been Cwerith’s since that day, even if Cassion’s knife had not been pressed to the flesh of the royal forearm in nearly two months, it mattered not. Cwerith was still with him, and the time would come. The boundaries between the worlds were still weakening, and Dona was still on the wane.
“Bind him still,” Cassion said. The wretch, some ancient and withered hermit who would likely break his arms in the course of struggling against the bonds now being fastened around his wrists, would provide no challenge – but blood was still blood, and the God would taste it and approve of it. This, too, Cassion knew beyond all doubt.
At last the wretch was bound to the stump, with his bare chest exposed. Of course, this summoning would require more than blood let from an arm and collected in a blessed flask; this would require blood directly from the chest, still pushed out as the heart beat its last. The freshest blood is the sweetest to the Brother, it was written in the book whose only existing copy now lay in Cassion’s private chamber back at Caer Mastagg. He no longer needed it. He had learned every word in its pages years ago.
“It is done,” said one of his attendants. Cassion nodded and stepped forward, the knife gleaming in the light of the ritual fires. The man on the stump was blubbering and quivering with terror and delirium in his eyes. Once Cassion might have said something to calm him, something to assure him that it would soon be over. Once, but not now. It did not matter in the slightest. He lifted the knife and prepared to receive the power he craved so dearly. Even as Cwerith was making final his alliance with Duncan, there were things to be done…and Cassion needed to know what they were. There was more to do, so much more....
And when the knife had flashed, and the running blood had darkened the fresh-cut stump, and the God had come as he always did, Cassion knew what had to be done. He beckoned to his most trusted servant, a once-rich scion who had forsaken his father’s wealth for true power.
“Do you serve the Brother truthfully, my son?”
“I do,” said the young man.
“Then gather your flock,” Cassion said. “You will perform a great deed. There is one whose blood the Brother still requires.”
“I told you I saw a camp here,” said the old man as he pointed across the snow-covered land to the remnants of tents and tentframes. “I told you I saw people.”
“Yes you did,” the crone replied. “And you also said that if we came far enough south we’d find a land of where the streams ran with honey and where the trees were so heavy with apples their branches would almost touch the ground. So where are the apples and honey, love?”
“Do you see this snow, woman? You think there’s honey in the snow?”
“You said there wouldn’t be no snow,” she said. “You said there’d be warmth. I didn’t think you’d mean a half-burned camp that’s already been picked over by the buzzards.”
The old man shrugged. He had said all those things. Now he wished he hadn’t – not because she was disappointed, but because now she’d never be quiet. “Well, we can have a look anyway. I’m sure there’s something of value left.”
The crone stopped short.
“Are you sure about this? We’ve heard bad things about that place. Maybe we shouldn’t go closer than this.”
“Pagh!” The man spat. “They’re just rocks. If there was really magic here, it would have struck us down already.”
The crone looked askance. She did not find this logic very convincing. Everyone knew that there was deep, deep magic in these stones. And the rumors that had reached even their ears, in their cabin deep in the forest far to the north of what had come from...someplace beyond, in this place…a King....
“This is no set of standing stones,” she said. “This is the Giants’ Dance.”
“Pagh!” The man spat again and stalked through the ankle-deep snow toward the abandoned camp just north of the Giants’ Dance. Surely there’d be something good here, something useful – something they could barter for food or goods. The unending winter was an inconvenience, certainly, but this was still a fine time to be a scavenger. Fields freshly bloodied in battle had been a rare thing during Irlaris's years on the throne, but now he was dead and there were two claimants fighting for his throne. What a wonderful time to be a scavenger, even if the battlefield was like this one: small and confined. The battle that had taken place here had not been a gigantic one, as the battle at Bedwyn had been rumored to be. But it was still a battle.
“Near as I can tell,” the man said, “the people camping here were attacked and then they fled, but after winning. I’m not sure why they would leave if they won, but there it is. They put their camp to the torch.”
“Maybe they only beat off their attackers,” said the woman. “Maybe they didn’t defeat them totally. Or maybe this was no permanent camp at all. Maybe they meant to leave all along.”
“Maybe.” The man shrugged. He didn’t care, actually. All he wanted was to find something here of value.
They moved through the burned tents and the wreckage of the place. To their great good luck, the bodies were still here, even though it had been almost two months since this had all happened. The dead were mostly frozen, and thus they had not yet begun to really rot; their frozen eyes still stared from frozen skulls, and their frozen blood still oozed from frozen wounds. It was a bounty the likes of which these two scavengers had never seen. There were daggers still in their sheathes, axes and spears and lances they’d be able to sell, leathers, saddles on the dead horses…it was amazing. As the man filled his arms with more bounty than he’d ever seen from a single battlefield (but less than he’d ever be able to carry), his eyes became wider and wider. Until he bumped into his crone wife again, who was standing over a single corpse.
“This is amazing!” he said. “I’ve never seen a battlefield like this! It was a small battle, yes, but no one has disturbed it! No one’s even walked on it since the snow started falling! The body I just saw, the man was gigantic--”
“We have to leave,” the woman said.
"We have to leave. Now."
The man couldn’t believe what he'd heard. She’d never been squeamish before. “Is it the ‘magic’ of that Giants’ Dance? I’m telling you, the magic here is so dead asleep it’ll never come back.”
“There is a reason no one has been here,” she said. Her voice was low. "There is a reason this battlefield has not been disturbed."
The man gawked at her. Something was bothering her, that much was certain. But what? Was it something about the body at her feet? He stepped forward for a better look.
The body at her feet was unremarkable. The snow and the cold had frozen this man’s features, but his most notable aspect was his lack of a left hand. The wrist there ended in a stump that was still bound...his hand had been taken shortly before he had fallen here....
“It’s just a dead warrior,” the man said.
And that was when they both heard it: the baying of wolves.
“We’ll be safe here,” the man said. “We will light a fire—-”
“No,” she interrupted. “We won’t be safe. Not from these wolves.”
The baying came again, echoing across the lonely, snow-covered field which should have been covered with the grasses and flowers of harvest season. The breeze freshened, coming anew from the only direction in which the breeze ever seemed to come these days: the north. They had known the north wind well, these two; it had driven them from their home when finally they had been unable to further resist the unending winter and the lure of possible warmer places to the south. That, and the word of battles and fields that would need scavenging.
“What wolves are these?” the man asked.
His crone wife sighed. He had never taken matters like this seriously enough. Never. “They are not of this world,” she said. “We have disturbed this place. They have claimed it.”
The man shuddered. The crying of the wolves began again, much closer this time. So close, in fact, that it seemed they were baying from inside the Dance itself. They could see shadows moving within the great ring of stones, shadows amongst the gray monoliths that stood stark against a grayer sky.
“We should not have come,” she said again.
“Come on!” he suddenly shouted. “We can run! We can’t just let them catch us!” He grabbed at her arm, but she refused to move.
“It won’t matter,” she said. The shadows loomed larger, and now their shapes were more definite. The north wind howled all the more.
“Maybe not to you,” the man growled, “but I’m not staying here.” He clutched his bounty from the dead to his chest and ran off across the snow, leaving his crone wife behind. She simply stood there, beside the body of the one-handed warrior. They would come soon. She prayed to the Goddess – her first prayer since childhood –- that they would be quick about it.
And then the wolves came: two gray lieutenants, followed by one silver.
The silver one watched, his eyes impassive, as one of the lieutenants pounced on the woman and made the prayer she'd just uttered come true. The other bounded across the snow after the other fool who had dared violate this place. And then the lieutenants returned and bowed before their master, who stared at the dead, one-armed warrior upon the ground.
It was not yet time. He would have to wait...but waiting is easy for the dead. The time would come, when that Priest in the north got hold of the blood of the girl.
The three wolves, two gray and one silver, turned and walked back into the confines of the Giants’ Dance as the north wind brought new snow to cover the fresh blood on the old.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::