:: Sunday, February 06, 2005 ::
Matholyn ap Macholugh, Lord of Camyrdin, dropped the book to the table. He had never been a patient man, and yet here he was -- stuck on Tintagel, waiting to speak with the man to whom he had years ago sworn never to speak again. His realn needed him: war was coming, he was sure of it. The border between Camyrdin and Gwynedd had been restless for many years, and now the animosities between Lord Macholugh and King Cellamma had been passed on to Lord Matholyn and King Cwerith as such animosities are wont to be passed on from father to son. Cwerith had tried to claim disputed territory along the sea, and now the roads into the hills were fraught with bandits and outlaws. Some rumors had Cwerith even forging an alliance with King Duncan of Caledonia. Such an alliance would bring a great deal of pressure on High King Irlaris and on those sworn to him -- such as Lord Matholyn. And now there were the Druids, come forth from Mona....He had so little time to wait for Father Damogan, but he had little choice in the matter. Matholyn he was not a man who was accustomed to having little choice. It had been over half a day since his arrival on Tintagel, half a day since Father Damogan had promised him an audience. Matholyn snorted. Even years before, when Matholyn and Damogan had been Adepts together, Damogan had been a terrible judge of time.
Matholyn rubbed his eyes and rose from the table where he had been reading a book he had not seen since he had left Tintagel many years before. His years as Lord had robbed him of much of his time for reading, especially esoteric works like the Oracles. He would much rather have been reading into Ryannon, but Father Damogan was not about to release those pages to anyone except a fully-sworn Priest or Priestess.
Of all the things that worried him, the Druids were foremost on his mind. Not since the day of Matholyn's father's great-grandfather had the Druids ventured forth from their island. Matholyn's land still had the memory of that time, when it was said that the rivers ran red with the blood of sacrifice and that the stones wept as they were hewn into the shapes of sacrificial altars. Many groves, carefully cultivated by the Druids before being abandoned, still stood, undisturbed by farmer, knight, or Lord. Now the circles of oak stood as silent monuments to a time of death and blood. In the days of High King Prystyl it had been said that they drank the blood of their dead, and yet there was now this Monk who had reacted so vehemently when Matholyn had spoken ill of them. There was also the experience of his seneschal, Sir Baigent, who had actually met a band of Druids that past autumn. What was the truth of the people of Mona?
Matholyn moved closer to the hearth. Despite the blazing fire he couldn't seem to rid himself of the chill he had felt for days now. It was as if all of Prydein itself were in the grip of an evil chill, that penetrated to the very heart of everything and everyone. Outside, a fierce wind had begun since they had come to their quarters. Even though the wind could not be felt through the stone walls of the quarters and the shuttered and latched windows, Matholyn still shivered at the sound. No person who spent even a single day on the island could ever entirely forget the wind of Tintagel.
There was a knocking at his door. As he stood, he cursed his stiff muscles and aching bones; he was probably getting a bit too old to ride the way he had driven his men to ride over the last four days. Opening the door, he was greeted by a young monk.
"What is it? Has Father Damogan sent for me, Brother --?"
"I am Brother Brian, my Lord. I come not from Father Damogan. I have brought you food." He held up a wooden tray, on which sat a plate of food under a woolen cloth and a metal goblet that was full of wine.
Matholyn sighed and took the tray from the boy, lifted the napkin and looked over the food. There was a bowl of grainy porridge, a piece of cheese, and fully half of a loaf of bread. At least the monks still knew how to feed people.
"Thank you, Brother Brian. You may tell the kitchen and scullery workers that their work is much appreciated."
"They shall like to hear that, My Lord." He bowed and went on his way. After closing the door behind him, Matholyn again took his place before the fire. A short while later came another knocking upon his door. It was still not the summons from Father Damogan. It was his seneschal, Sir Baigent.
Not especially tall, his lack of stature in no way made for a less respectable man, for he was powerfully muscled. He kept his blond clipped very short, and his eyes were the color of gray stone, giving him a flinty stare that could be very cold indeed. Sir Baigent had been through difficult times when he had first become Seneschal of Camyrdin, but he had grown into the position and Lord Matholyn trusted him as he trusted no other. They sat down in front of the fireplace, where Matholyn laughed as he noticed that Sir Baigent had brought a jug of wine.
"How did you convince them to part with a jug of wine? Their cellars are guarded constantly, inasmuch as these monks guard anything."
"It seems that the Lord Priest has ordered that our every need is to be accommodated, and our every appetite filled. Perhaps Father Damogan is concerned with us after all." Sir Baigent filled their goblets. "Anyway, I appealed to their sense of hospitality."
"So, what have you and the men been doing? I know this island doesn't offer much by way of pastime."
"We practiced a bit with our weapons behind the main compound," Sir Baigent said. "There isn't nearly enough space, but we made do." He shrugged. "I don't think these Monks like having armed men around very much."
"They don't see too much of it," Matholyn replied. "Lyonesse isn't much of a concern. There hasn't been war here since High King Irlaris first came to power, and even then the battles were won by Irlaris very quickly. Now, the local Barons pay willing allegiance to Duke Cunaddyr. There are regular patrols along the roads here, but I doubt these people see armed men more than twice a year, and certainly not men in full arms on outfitted war horses."
Sir Baigent sipped his wine, and scowled. "Their wine isn't very good."
"Their ale isn't much better," Matholyn laughed. "But their mead is decent."
Sir Baigent wrinkled his nose in disgust. He hated mead. "My Lord," he began, "what do you hope to find here? What is in these books? Do you really believe that the Promised King may return now?"
Matholyn glanced at the pile of books, and then back at his friend. "Dona bless me, are you actually curious about a sacred matter?" He chuckled, and then became serious again. "There are signs," he said.
"Signs," Sir Baigent echoed. "What signs?"
"Druids, for one." Matholyn shrugged. "It's been a very long time since I had to think about such things. The Druids are returning, the summer is not blooming even though Midsummer Night is days away, and there is war coming. When we get back to Caer Camyrdin, we must begin fortifying the western towns. I fear that Cwerith will move soon."
"Are you so sure nothing will come of your appeals to the High King?"
"I can't take the chance," Matholyn said. "Irlaris has kept the peace since he took the throne, but he is old now and the pronouncements coming from Londia are fewer and fewer."
"Never a day of quiet for he who wears the crown," Sir Baigent said. He sipped his wine. "So a Druid has come here."
"Yes," Matholyn said. "You may have to tell them of your encounter with the Druids last autumn, and of what happened to Sir Hugydd."
Sir Baigent nodded.
There now came another knocking at the door, and Brother Malcolm entered.
"Greetings, Lord Matholyn," he said. "I have come to bring you to the chambers of Father Damogan. He wishes to see you now."
Gwyn didn't see Brother Malcolm at all after he went off to see to the arrangements for Lord Matholyn and his men. "Continue with your studies," he had said. "After I see to Lord Matholyn, I must go down to Father Damogan's chambers. He will be requiring my services, probably for the rest of today and much of tomorrow." With that he had walked off to see to his responsibilities.
Gwyn returned to her chamber to put away her bow, and then she dutifully went to the library to study until the evening meal. When she arrived at the library she fetched the works she and Malcolm had been studying and began to read. Within minutes her attention began to wander, and she decided to read something else. She returned the books she had to the shelves and instead spent her time reading about the Druids and Druid-lore, which she had never known much about until now. The Druids had never seemed very important before -- merely a reminder of an ugly and distant past - - but now they seemed very real and very important. She opened The Book of Kingly Tales, by Crennes, the first Lord Priest of Tintagel.
The book told of Prydein's early history. In the centuries after the Cataclysm, Prydein had been a land of warring lords, battling factions, and darkness. Eventually one warlord, a man named Prystyl, became very strong, and in a series of bloody battles he forged a single kingdom out of most of the land. He had claimed the title of High King and created the Priesthood of Dona. At that time, Siddyr of the Silver Tongue wrote his songs and became the first of the Bards, eventually founding the Order of the Nine. The dark times were finally ending, except for the Druids.
On farms and in villages, people began to disappear. Travelers who rode alone were snatched from their horses; children who wandered too far from their farmsteads were never seen again. Tales of terror spread about the clerics called Druids who were devoted to worship of the Dark God, the Nameless Brother of Dona. They roamed the countryside, abducting people from their homes and taking them deep into their forest groves. There the victims were tied to altars of granite, and in rituals performed under the dim light of the new moon, out of Dona's watchful eye, the Druids used knives of polished stone to slice open the bellies of their victims....
Those times finally ended when High King Prystyl ordered his armies to scour the forests and kill any Druid found. This was done, and over a period of five years the Druids were forced from Prydein. Some were known to have escaped to the island of Mona, where they were safe; the High King did not have ships or men to follow them across the Sea. Instead, High King Prystyl charged King Castigarn of Gwynedd with the duty of protecting the shores of Prydein from the Druids and paid him with fabulous treasure. King Castigarn used that treasure to build Caer Mastagg, the great fortress on the sea from where the Kings of Gwynedd had ruled ever since. Prystyl's act had had far-reaching consequences, though: even as he bought the safety of Prydein from the Druids, he had created a line of rich, distant Kings who would frequently oppose the High Kings for years to come, all the way down to the wars Irlaris had fought fifty years before.
Gwyn read for hours, until the bell rang for the evening meal. As she walked to the dining hall, her head was ringing with the names of long-dead Kings and Lords and the dates of battles. She had begun to understand, although she still had no idea why Lord Matholyn believed that the signs pointed to the return of the Promised King, or why Brother Llyad was so fierce in his defense of the Druids. These things were on her mind as she sat down across from Dana at one of the tables.
"You look troubled, Gwyn!" Dana laughed. "I don't know what's bothering you. You're not the one who was late for scullery duty."
"I've been reading," Gwyn replied. Dana whistled softly.
"It must have been something if you're this troubled by it," Dana replied.
"The Book of Kingly Tales," Gwyn said.
Dana raised an eyebrow. "Hasn't Malcolm told you not to read that until after the Trials?"
"He doesn't need to know," Gwyn said. Malcolm had told her just that. He didn't want her spending her study-time reading what was not likely to be in her Trials. "I was trying to learn about the Druids."
Dana whistled softly. "There are strange things afoot, Gwyn, and you seem to be in the middle of them without even trying to be. I'm almost jealous!" She grinned, and Gwyn smiled.
"I just want to know what is happening."
"Well, just wait, then. Things usually become plain sooner or later."
Their attention turned then to eating, but Gwyn's thoughts lingered on the Druid in the Chambers of Healing. Things usually become plain, she thought. But sometimes, they don't.
"Do you still travel as much as you used to?" Lord Matholyn asked Brother Malcolm. "I seem to recall you were very rarely here."
"True enough," Brother Malcolm replied. He was leading Lord Matholyn and Sir Baigent through the main nave of the Sanctuary to the passage that led down to the Lord Priest's chambers. "But I decided some years ago that I was getting too old for all of that, and I settled. Now I am Priest Prime. I have always considered it a pity that you left. You might have become Lord Priest yourself."
"We don't always choose our duties," Matholyn said. "Sometimes the duties choose us."
They came to the iron-barred gate and the oaken door that led to the passage, and before opening them Brother Malcolm turned to Lord Matholyn. "I don't know if your Knight will be welcomed by Father Damogan," he warned.
"Sir Baigent is my Seneschal and most trusted knight. He goes where I go."
"Very well," Brother Malcolm said as he pulled open the gate and pushed open the heavy door. Both sets of hinges squealed loudly, echoing through the nave. The three men stepped through.
The passage was cold, much colder than the nave. Very quickly they came to a stair that descended down into the earth. The only light came from a torch that Brother Malcolm held, casting eerie shadows on the stone walls. Gone were the lines of masonry; this corridor was hewn from the rock itself, and it spiraled down into the earth. As they descended the dull roar of the sea became louder and louder, until suddenly they entered a huge darkness as they rounded a bend. They had come to a cave carved into the side of Tintagel by the surf, and the water boiled below them. During the day this place would have been ablaze with reflected sunlight from the sea, but now it was almost as black as pitch. A bridge of oak spanned the cave to the door of the Lord Priest's chambers. They crossed the bridge and passed through the door into the dark and sparsely furnished anteroom. Brother Malcolm led them through yet another door, and they finally came into the sanctum of the Lord Priest of Tintagel.
This was the largest of his chambers. In the center of the room was a large stone table which had been hewn from the same rock as the chamber itself, and piled atop this table were books, parchments, iron cups and candles, glass tubes, sheepskin bladders, and all manner of other paraphernalia that was known only to the Lord Priest. Shelves packed full with books and parchments fully lined two of the walls. There was a cabinet which contained various herbs and mushroom extracts and other ingredients which were used for magical purposes, and along the wall to their right was a series of shuttered windows which opened up to overlook the sea. Father Damogan himself sat at the table, waiting for them.
"Greetings, Lord Matholyn," Father Damogan said. "Do these chambers look the way you remember?"
"Not quite," Lord Matholyn replied. "Father Reynold was organized."
Father Damogan merely chuckled. "Yes, he was. Clutter has been a longtime failing of mine, as I'm sure you remember. Will you not introduce your companion?"
Matholyn frowned. He hated that Damogan felt it necessary to remind him of manners. "Father Damogan, I present the Seneschal of Camyrdin, Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt."
"Welcome, Sir Baigent," Father Damogan said. "The Knights of Camyrdin have always been men of valor; I have no doubt you stand in that tradition. Now, if you will come with me into the council chamber, we shall have more comfortable surroundings in which to speak." He rose and beckoned for them to follow him through the next door, into his council chamber. This was a smaller room, dominated by a round wooden table. In here there were more books along the walls, and one great tome sat atop a pedestal: the Book of Ryannon. A copy of this book resided in each of the largest of Dona's Temples in Prydein, but this was the one that Ryannon had written in her own hand. The men took their seats around the council table.
"I regret that you had to wait so long for this audience," Father Damogan began. "The matters you came to discuss cannot be taken lightly. I have spent every moment -- save for a brief interval to eat -- reading what Ryannon has to say about the return of the Promised King." He pulled the book toward him, flipped a number of pages to the exact passage he was looking for, and read:
" 'All things come and pass again, even the dark; but in the end there shall finally come a time of greatest Dark. And the Dark shall drive the Light from the land, the seas will fill with ice and fire, and the fruitful land shall stand in the midst of winter even as the longest days of summer dawn. The People in Hiding shall come forth, and many will be slain; the rivers will run with blood and the trees will suffer the tongues of fire. The finger of Darkness shall touch the earth itself, and death shall bloom like the flowers in spring.
"'Then there shall be a King, and he shall lead the people against the Dark. Before the last of all endings the place that saw battle before shall see battle again, the Wolf shall summon the Dragon, and all will hail the Coming of the King. And the King will rule over a Kingdom of Summer, and those long Kingless will have a standard once more.'" He looked up from the book, and Matholyn shook his head.
"Would that a prophecy would just once be clear," he said. "Once I might have enjoyed spending great amounts of time poring over words like those, trying to divine their meaning. Now, though, my duties as Lord require me to be of more practical mind."
"You'll find that particular wish not unheard of amongst the Priests who deal in prophecy," Father Damogan said. "And now, I must hear your concerns. Something has clearly given you cause to leave your realm to come down here."
"The Druids are back in Prydein," Lord Matholyn said. "We have known this in Camyrdin for some time, and now you know it here, as well. This cleric of yours who went to Mona is not the only one to have met them." Father Damogan nodded, and Lord Matholyn continued. "Sir Baigent here has also encountered the Druids, and he did not leave Prydein to do so."
Father Damogan considered those words, and he looked over at Brother Malcolm. "That passage from Ryannon refers to the People In Hiding. Could that be the Druids? Is Ryannon forecasting their return from their two-hundred year exile?"
"She may," Brother Malcolm said. "But the passage could also refer to the Fair Folk."
"I have spoken with Brother Llyad," Father Damogan went on. "While Crennes and Ryannon write of Druids who venerate dark powers through rituals of sacrifice and blood, Brother Llyad speaks of Druids who worship Dona and venerrate the earth in ancient ceremonies they hold in the heart of the woods. Two accounts of Druids -- one dark, and one not. Sir Baigent, which Druids did you meet?"
Sir Baigent glanced at Lord Matholyn, who nodded.
"I was not in their company long enough to truly say," Sir Baigent said. "But they did not impress to me as a people devoted to blood. They did not avail themselves of the opportunity to spill all of ours."
Father Damogan leaned forward. "Will you tell us your tale?"
Sir Baigent nodded, and then he told Father Damogan and Brother Malcolm how he had come to meet a band of Druids.
A very cold wind began to blow as the evening hours settled over Tintagel. After the evening meal, Gwyn headed for the Sanctuary to perform her nightly prayers. As she crossed the compound, she saw Gruffydd, Sister Moyra's Adept, returning from the caves with a supply of freshly picked mushrooms. The Druid must still be very ill, she thought as she entered the Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary was a circular building, in the center of which stood a standing stone. There were no other furnishings or decorations here, and the place was used exclusively for the persons of Tintagel to pray to Dona in private. The actual rituals of worship were practiced, as always, outside during the night, when the moon was in the sky and the stars shone from above. This place was meant for reflection and private communion with the Goddess, and Gwyn loved its simplicity and serenity. There were a number of people here now -- some Priests and Priestesses, and several Adepts -- all kneeling and facing the stone in the center. She found a spot of her own and began to whisper the Devotion.
"Dearest Goddess, hear my words this night and grant me audience in your holy realm…." She prayed for the spirit of her father and the mother she had never known, both gone to Annwn, Land of the Dead; she prayed for the restored bounty of the land; she prayed for the survival of the Druid. She prayed for many things, and then she meditated without design, allowing her spirit to roam and to see things, to drink down deeply the earth and sky and wind that were all a part of this place. Most nights the silence shrouded her like a blanket, but on this night she saw something else…something very like a dream, but far more vivid…
She walked through a land of gently rolling hills which were covered with green grass and wildflowers. The sun hung low in the eastern sky, shining from behind the distant haze. The path she walked led toward a great mound at the top of which stood a cairn of stones. She ascended the mound until she stood over the cairn, and as she waited there the hillside parted and a horseman in black armor rode through the opening out onto the path. His steed was tall and black, and his features were concealed by a great helmet in the shape of a skull with horns that looked like the antlers of a stag. At his heels ran a group of black hounds. The man looked up at the cairn and saw Gwyn standing there beside it, and he rode up the side of the hill until he towered above her.
"Who stands upon the Mound of Annwn?" he demanded.
She gave her name.
"You stand upon sacred ground, Gwynwhyfar, for beneath this mound is the gate to the Land of the Dead. Beyond that gate lies Annwn, and I am its King. Why have you summoned me?"
"I summon no one," she said. "I come here unbidden."
"No person comes here unbidden," he replied. "This place is forbidden to all until the moment when they die; only then may they approach and pass beneath into my realm. The Gate has been forced open, and my power to hold Annwn separate from the mortal world is weakening."
"I do not understand these things," Gwyn said.
"Then behold the coming of the Dead!"
He lifted his arms high, and the Gate yawned wide. Gwyn gasped as the dead began to rise and come forth. They numbered more than the stars in the moonless sky, and they came forth with empty stares from eyeless sockets. Some were fleshless, only bones; there were severed heads that rolled across the land under the power of their own jaws. Gwyn looked on in sadness and horror.
"Do you understand now, Gwynwhyfar?" the Death King asked. "The boundary between the worlds falling. Soon the dead will rise, and no more will the mortal world stand apart. It comes, like the wave upon the sea; it cannot be stopped, it cannot be stayed. We witness the unwriting of the Song of the Dead, that song whose final word can never be written!"
And there was thunder.
Gwyn's attention snapped back to the Sanctuary as the door to Lord Priest's chambers was opened with a loud clang. Brother Malcolm was there, escorting Lord Matholyn and his Seneschal to see Father Damogan. She wished she could be down there to hear what was being discussed; something very important going on, and it galled her to be left out of it after she had found Brother Llyad and the Druid. But she was left out of it, and she'd best get used to it; she was, after all, only an Adept. She watched them disappear into the passage, and then she finished her prayers and headed to her chamber to dress for the Evening Rites and then a long night of study.
The candles burned low as Sir Baigent finished his tale, and there was silence except for the cracking of the fire and the constant dull sounding of the sea. Finally Father Damogan spoke. "We know so little of these Druids," he said. "Are they truly honorable, as your experience suggests? And if they are, why the persistent rumors of sacrifices?"
"The rumors could merely spring from fear of the unknown," Brother Malcolm observed. "We also have Brother Llyad's insistence that they do not practice sacrifice, and he should know even better than we. He has been to Mona, after all."
Lord Matholyn leaned forward. "Why would this Monk have gone there?"
"Because Father Reynold asked him to," Father Damogan said. Brother Malcolm and Lord Matholyn both stared at him. "Before Reynold died, he had a vision, brought on by a Red-cap. He saw the Druids returning, and he saw ships of gold at sea. He saw many things that he wrote down in his final days, things I have not been able to understand. You see, Reynold was the first to suspect the return of the Promised King, and he knew that the Druids would be key to any such thing coming to pass. He also knew that Brother Llyad grew up in a family of fisherman, and could handle a boat. So he asked him to go to Mona and learn if the Druids were evil, or not. Brother Llyad left here at roughly the same time that you, Sir Baigent, left on your own journey to the Druids."
Lord Matholyn blinked, trying to follow. "So we now are to believe that we have nothing to fear from the Druids?"
"We may, or we may not," Damogan said. "I have had visions as well, visions of Druids worshipping the Goddess, but also visions of Druids worshipping…other powers. And finally I had a vision, just three nights ago, of a tiny boat on a storm-tossed sea, with Brother Llyad and a Druid at the oars and the tiller. I had to have clarity, so I sent Brother Malcolm and his Adept for a Red-cap, which was the first one I have ever used."
"But you didn't get the Red-cap until after Llyad actually got here," Brother Malcolm said.
"True. But I still had need of it, and last night I used it. I saw fire -- fire on Tintagel, fire in Caer Camyrdin, fire in Londia, fire upon the sea. The vision vexed me so that I spent most of my day today trying to learn its significance. That is why I made you wait so long, Lord Matholyn. For that you have my apologies."
Lord Matholyn wasn't sure how to react to that, and he was trying to come up with an adequate response when there was a sudden pounding on the door.
"What is this?" Father Damogan said, as he rose from his chair and crossed the room to open the door. Standing there was Brother Denys, a tall and thin Monk. With him was one of the Adepts, an older woman who was near to the age of the Trials.
"Forgive the intrusion, Father, but this Adept has a matter of some urgency."
"Yes," Father Damogan said, turning toward the young woman. "Your name is Dana, is that correct? What is the matter?"
Dana was near tears as she blurted out, "Brother Llyad and the Druid have left Tintagel -- and they have Gwyn with them!"
Gwyn wanted to walk a bit before returning to her chamber, though, so she headed for the rear entrance to the scullery, where Dana was just then finishing her detail. She would have been done earlier, but she had been assigned extra duties for being late that day. Brother Ethgun hated tardiness, and he ran his scullery like a warship. Dana was rubbing her hands with an herbal wash when Gwyn arrived down there behind the building.
"I take it Brother Ethgun was hard on you?" Gwyn asked sweetly. Dana snorted.
"Ach, that man should be a jailer rather than a Monk. He had me scrub out every pan and measure out all of the flour for tomorrow's bread, plus a little extra. It seems he found some kind of recipe in one of the Oracles."
"Dona preserve us!" Gwyn laughed. "That last one had everyone going to Sister Moyra for laxative herbs."
"He swears on Dona's Moonlit Throne that that will not be happening this time," Dana said as she pulled on her cloak. "For myself, I plan to eat a heavier than normal noontime meal tomorrow."
"I think I may join you."
The deep tolling of the Santuary bell was heard just then, signaling those on Tintagel to gather in the field beyond the sanctuary for the evening Rites of Dona.
"We should go," Gwyn said. Dana shook her head.
"Not without first going to my chamber to change," she said. "I won't worship Dona smelling like a scullery. I have just enough time to visit the baths; and you need to put on your devotional robe as well."
"All right, all right!" Gwyn laughed. "I'll meet you there."
While Dana headed for the baths, Gwyn returned to her chamber. The hallways were full as the Priests, Priestesses and Adepts all headed for the field to participate in the Rites. By the time she reached the upper floor, there was no one up there at all, and the hall was eerily quiet. Gwyn arrived quickly at her own door, which swung open easily as soon as she touched the latch.
I know I latched this door, she thought. Maybe Brother Malcolm needed to use one of the manuscripts I have just now. If that were the case, Malcolm would have left a note on her desk explaining his needs and apologizing for entering her chamber without her leave. She walked in and reached for the candle that she knew was on her table -- but it wasn't there. It was always there. Something was very odd here. That was when something in the darkness, on the other side of her table, shifted.
She gasped and snatched her hand back, but she was not quick enough. A second hand -- a man's hand -- snapped down and fastened a grip of iron around her wrist. As she drew breath to scream the intruder was beside her, and a cloth was pressed over her nose and mouth. She inhaled vapors from the cloth; it had been treated with something. She felt her strength ebb almost instantly, and she began to sag in the intruder's arms.
"I am sorry, my dear," a voice whispered in her ear. "I did not wish it to be this way, but I fear that time is very, very short. You must come with me, and I cannot chance your refusal."
As she felt consciousness slip away entirely, the voice came to her. She tried to speak, but couldn't.
And then, darkness.
Brother Malcolm sprang to his feet. "Where has Gwyn gone? What has happened to her?"
"Who is Gwyn?" Lord Matholyn asked.
"Gwynwhyfar," Father Damogan replied. "One of our Adepts." He turned to Dana, who was frantic. She was breathing heavily and she was sweating; her hair was wet and tangled, her cloak was torn and dirty around the hemline and her shoes were tattered. "Come, child, sit by the fire." He took Dana by the arm and led her to a stool near the hearth, and he threw another large log onto the fire. "What has happened, Denys?"
"I was walking the path when I noticed that the bridge had been extended," Brother Denys said as Dana collected herself. Father Damogan and Brother Malcolm exchanged concerned glances. "I went to see what was happening, and I found Adept Dana coming back across from the mainland."
"I went after her," Dana said. "We were going to meet at the Rites of Dona, but Gwyn never came. That's not like her, so I left before the Hymn and went to our chamber. The door was open but she wasn't there. I went back outside to look for her, but I didn't know where to start until I heard the bridge being extended. I was the only one to hear it, with everyone else off at the Rites, so I went to see what was happening, just in case it had anything to do with Gwyn. When I got to the bridge, I hid behind the entrance stones. Someone was in the wheelhouse extending the bridge, and there were two horses standing there with two people on the second horse. They were slumped together as if they had no strength. Then the person who was extending the bridge finished the task and he came back and mounted the lead horse. He had a torch, and I saw him. It was Brother Llyad." Father Damogan's expression became darker, and Brother Malcolm went pale.
"Llyad?" Malcolm breathed. "What madness has taken you?"
"The weak rider," Father Damogan said. "It was the Druid, wasn't it?" Dana nodded. "And the unconscious person--?"
"How did he get the Druid?" Lord Matholyn interjected.
"I checked the Chambers of Healing before I brought her here," Brother Denys said. "Gruffydd was in a very deep sleep, and I know he would not have been in that state normally. I believe Brother Llyad bewitched him somehow."
Father Damogan looked back down at Dana. "You followed them, didn't you?"
She nodded. "I couldn't keep up for long, though. I didn't have a torch and I would not have been able to find my way back. They were riding on the Old East Road."
"Why would they take that road?" Brother Malcolm asked. The Old East Road followed an inland path, as opposed to the Sea Road, which followed the sea to the mouth of the Severn.
"Because that road goes into the hills, where there is the occasional wood," Lord Matholyn replied. "And where there are woods, there are groves." Lord Matholyn looked at Father Damogan. "Why would they abduct an Adept?"
"Would that I knew the answer to that," the Lord Priest replied grimly. "Even though the Druids are now an unknown factor in all this, I cannot believe that Brother Llyad would allow her to come to harm. He cannot have changed that much in his time on Mona."
"Men can change far more rapidly than in a single winter, Damogan," Lord Matholyn said. "And they can change in ways far, far deeper than you might suppose."
"You need not tell me of the nature of men," Damogan snapped. The he wearily rubbed his forehead. "Your words, though, are well taken: Gwynwhyfar may be in grave danger. We certainly do not know enough about the Druids to surmise what they may want with her, if they want anything with her at all. She may have stumbled onto them mistakenly. In any event, we cannot leave her to them without knowing more of what they plan." He met his former rival's gaze. "Lord Matholyn, would you and your Knights go after them?"
"We'll leave immediately. And if we find these Druids--"
"Find out what their intentions are," Father Damogan cautioned them. "Brother Llyad spoke of very ancient lore in the brief time I had to confer with him. The Druids may have returned for many of the same reasons that bring you here, Matholyn. You must not take them lightly, but also not too quickly for an enemy."
"I rarely take anyone lightly, Damogan." Matholyn turned to Sir Baigent. "Go and wake the men, and get the horses ready. Are you up to tracking them in the night?"
"We'll find out, My Lord." Sir Baigent left as quickly as the order had been given.
"I will ride with you," Brother Malcolm announced. "Gwyn is my Adept; her safety is my responsibility."
Lord Matholyn shook his head. "This is not an expedition for mushrooms, Brother," he growled. "This will be hard riding, and there may be trouble."
"I've done my share of that in my time," Malcolm replied harshly. "You need not worry about me." He headed for the door.
"That," Lord Matholyn grumbled, "gives me great relief."
"Wait, Malcolm," Father Damogan suddenly said as he headed into his private chamber. They could hear him rustling about for something in the inner room, and then he came back out again. In his hands he held a young pigeon. The bird cooed as he stroked its feathers.
Lord Matholyn lifted his eyebrows. "One of Mother Parsint's birds?"
"Yes," Father Damogan said. "She was right. Some breeds of pigeon have an extraordinary sense for direction." Parsint had been Lord Priestess when Damogan and Matholyn had both been Adepts, and birds had been her particular fascination. She had been trying to train certain pigeons to return to Tintagel when released in the wild when she had died of a sudden malady. Father Reynold, her successor, had a known aversion to birds and never pursued that particular line of inquiry, but Damogan had, and he had begun that work again when he found Parsint's journals. "When you have tidings, Malcolm, write a message and tie it to Grayfeather's leg. She will bring it to me."
"Yes, Father," Brother Malcolm said as he took the bird from Father Damogan's hand and concealed it within his cloak.
"May Dona shine on your path when it is darkest," Father Damogan said.
"And may she be with you in your vigil," Lord Matholyn replied, giving the response before Brother Malcolm could. Damogan and Matholyn looked into each other's eyes for the briefest of seconds, and then Matholyn and Malcolm left Father Damogan alone.
In the courtyard above, Lord Matholyn and Brother Malcolm emerged from the Sanctuary to find the horses saddled -- except for Brother Malcolm's. Sir Baigent cast a suspicious eye on the Monk as he rushed into the stables to saddle his own horse.
"This can't be a good idea, My Lord," the Knight said. Lord Matholyn shrugged as he mounted.
"I don't have the time to talk him out of it, and I'm sure that if I tried I would end up beheading him out of sheer frustration."
"He'd better be a decent rider," Sir Baigent replied.
"I suspect he may be a stronger man than he looks," Lord Matholyn replied softly. "I was a Monk here, once." Brother Malcolm emerged from the stable a minute or two later, leading a horse by the rein. He swung himself up into the saddle, looked inside his cloak to make sure that Grayfeather was secure, and nodded to Lord Matholyn. The six men -- the Lord of Camyrdin, four of his Knights, and a Priest of Tintagel -- rode toward the bridge to the mainland.
The most pungent odor she'd ever smelled flooded Gwyn's nose, starting her awake. She focused her eyes on Brother Llyad, who was kneeling before her. In his fingers was a seed pod which he had broken in two, but this was no normal seed pod. It contained some kind of powder which stank horribly and burned in her nose. She coughed on the aroma and blinked her eyes.
"Breathe easy, My Lady," Brother Llyad said. "The smell will be out of your head in a moment or two."
"Where are we?" Gwyn demanded. She was suddenly quite angry and she allowed her voice to rise. "Why have you taken me?" Brother Llyad winced and held his hands up in a quieting motion.
"Please hold your voice down, My Lady!" he said. "We are camping very near the road, and I don't want to attract attention."
She stared at him, incredulous. They were in fact in a campsite beside a small lake; a number of birch trees rose around them and a tiny campfire, so small as to yield very little heat, burned a small distance away. The two horses were tied to one of the trees, and the Druid was slumped on the ground beside her. He was unconscious still, and Gwyn could tell just from his face that he was still in a fever. "If you didn't want to attract attention, then why did you choose to camp so near the road?"
Llyad blinked, confused by the question. For a moment Gwyn thought he might actually burst into tears.
"I don't know," he stammered. "This place seemed right. I've never done anything like this before."
"I'm your first abduction, then?" she said impatiently. "I've never done anything like this either, but I think even I might have planned the details better."
"Please, My Lady, you don't understand." He seemed to be genuinely pleading with her. "Abducting you was not my plan. I wanted you to come voluntarily. You don't know how important you may be."
"You drugged me!" she exclaimed. He flinched and looked about, searching for any sign that her voice had carried.
"My Lady, please--"
"If you wanted me to come voluntarily," she went on, ignoring him, "why didn't you simply ask me?"
"The potion I made was stronger than I expected. I'm still not good at mixing them. Llawann was supposed to do it, but he can't do anything now. It's all up to me."
"Llawann." Brother Llyad indicated the Druid. "That is his name. I do apologize for the way I have handled this, My Lady. You are not my captive. You see?" He pulled out a stone knife and cut the ropes around her ankles and wrists. "I only bound you to make it easier to put you on the horse. I didn't tighten the knots too harshly, did I?" Gwyn noted the real pleading in his voice, and as she rubbed her wrists she realized that she had never really lost circulation.
"No, you didn't," she said. An expression of relief came over him, and he nodded.
"I also brought your bow and your arrows," he said, pointing to the ground by the horses where, sure enough, her bow and quiver lay. "I knew they would be useful. I am truly sorry, My Lady. This had to be done. Time is too short. Our errand is very pressing." He glanced sadly at the Druid. "He wanted to die in the woods."
Gwyn felt her anger begin to subside, especially after Brother Llyad handed her part of a loaf of bread. She had no idea what the hour was, but it was dark and she was very hungry.
"Sister Moyra was unable to break his fever," he continued. He shook his head sadly. "Llawann knew this might come to pass. He is my friend."
Gwyn swallowed a bit of bread and studied the face of her abductor, who was appearing more benign than malicious. There was something in his eyes, something far from the shores of Prydein, far beyond the edge of a tiny island where a community of clerics studied the long lost heritage from before the Cataclysm. He had gone to the Isle of Mona, where the Druids ruled. He had seen their lore and their rituals. Gwyn was now in the company of the only man in Prydein who had ever seen the things the Druids did in the darkness, in groves lit by torches and ceremonial fires under the starry sky.
"Why do you keep calling me 'My Lady'?" she asked.
"We are going to join the Druids at the Giants' Dance," he said. "They have been returning to Prydein for many months, because they know that the time is very near. The Rites of Midsummer will herald the coming of the Promised King." He saw her expression, and nodded. "It is true, My Lady. The signs that Lord Matholyn has seen are real. Prydein is entering a very dark time. Have you not heard the whispers of war in the land, that has known peace for over fifty years? Have you not noticed the summer that refuses to come?"
"There have been cold summers before," Gwyn said.
"But have you ever seen a cold summer like this?" he retorted. "When the crops are not merely slow to grow, but to even sprout? When there is still ice to be found in the hills and the mountains to the north, across the sea? Have you ever known it to be this cold, this close to Midsummer Eve? This is not normal, My Lady. Dark times are in bloom and Dona's power is weakening. Her Dark Brother is mustering his minions."
The air suddenly felt much, much colder to Gwyn. Dona's Dark Brother, the eternal murderer and bringer of ruin and damnation, was never spoken of. His name had long since been forgotten. He was said to have brought on the Cataclysm, in which the world of the Ancients had been bathed in fire, burning all of their works away. The Dark Brother was sung by those who hungered for hatred and fed on destruction, by those who inhabited the nightmares of children.
"I cannot tell you all of the Druid lore that you would ask of me," Brother Llyad continued. "I only spent nine months with them. I would have to spend my life with them to understand, to give myself to them and to their traditions. You see, they were there before, when the Promised King first ruled this land, when he forged a realm of splendor from a patchwork of war, with the greatest of the Druids at his side. He was called Merlyn, the Emrys, and it is his lore that the Druids have preserved for so long." At last he fell silent.
"Why do you call me 'My Lady'?" she asked again. This time he answered directly.
"Because we believe you are the Welcomer," he said.
The Welcomer. If the air had felt colder before, now it felt as ice. The legend was known to everyone in Prydein, and actually it was more than legend: it was prophecy, passed down from a time before the written recording of the events of men and women. It was written in the pages of Ryannon, but the legend had come to her from the farthest reaches of time before even the Cataclysm. The words were well known to all: Into a time of deepest dark, when the land itself begins to die and the sea turns to fire, there shall come a King and one to Welcome him. Those words were followed by tellings of signs and portents that no one seemed to be able to interpret, but it was known that the King would one day come from a realm beyond time itself, and at the place of the King's return there would be the Welcomer, the person who would bridge the world of men and the world of the King's absence. This was the oldest of prophecies, part of the lore that with the Druids had survived the immolation of the world. Brother Llyad was saying that the Druids were the stewards of the Promising of the King, and that Gwyn was to bring that Promise about.
It was ludicrous.
"I think the air on that isle has addled your brain," she said. "The Welcomer? Me? What would make you think such a thing?"
"There is lore at work here, My Lady, lore that I have only seen in the smallest measure. It begins with Tintagel." Now he took on the air of a Priest, teaching his Adept. "You see, Tintagel is a place of great power. It is one of the places around which the skeins of Prydein's fate are woven. It has long been known to the Druids that the Welcomer would be found there, and that she would bear a name known to the Emrys, a name shared by the Welcomer and a Queen whose actions in part destroyed the Kingdom once before. That name is written in the most ancient pages of lore that are still read on the Druid isle; the name is still whispered in rites that only those in the Innermost Circle attend. I should not even know it, but it was given me by Llawann. The name is Gwynwhyfar."
"It is not an uncommon name, Brother," Gwyn pointed out. "Can that be all you have?" Two impulses dueled within her: to laughter at the idea that she could be the Welcomer, and to anger that she had been abducted for such foolishness.
"I must ask for your forgiveness in the manner that I have handled this matter, My Lady," Llyad said. "I concede I am not adequate to the task of bearing this message, but how many bearers are suited to the message given them by the Goddess?" He gazed out onto the still waters of the lake that reflected the pale moonlight. Gwyn looked around and saw that they were at the bottom of a bowl-shaped valley. There were dark shapes around the lake which must have been copses of trees. The place must be lovely in the sunlight, in summer -- the real summer. Llyad sighed. "There may well be more than your mere name, Gwynwhyfar. But I am not able to see it."
"I am." The voice belonged to Llawann. His voice was a hoarse whisper, barely audible over the movement of the trees in the wind. He had rolled onto his side to look at them, and even in the dim moon and firelight Gwyn could see that he was deathly pale, his skin gleaming with perspiration. His left arm had been set by Sister Moyra, and the wound on his forehead had not healed at all, but rather had become infected. It was clear that he was near death.
"Llawann, no!" Brother Llyad exclaimed. "We may still be able to..." He was cut off by a shake of the Druid's head.
"You know the journey is too far, Llyad." He groaned with sudden pain, and then relaxed again. "I must perform a Summoning."
"It will kill you," Brother Llyad said.
"It must be done," Llawann replied.
"Summon one of who?" Gwyn asked.
"The Fair Folk," Llawann told her.
For the second time Gwyn felt the world turn to ice.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::