:: Sunday, March 06, 2005 ::
The giant silver wolf stood utterly still, holding Gwyn's gaze, as its lieutenants -- each of them with fur blacker than the night sea -- filed into the clearing and began circling Gwyn and Brother Llyad. The two of them shrank back against the campfire, which had begun to sputter and emit small puffs of flame. Gwyn's eyes were riveted to those of the silver wolf, and suddenly a wave of screaming agony washed over her as if she had been dipped in fire. She screamed and fell over, and then the pain instantly subsided and she looked up at the silver wolf once more. It was then that she heard the voice, a voice that sounded like the grating together of great stones. Gwyn was certain that it was the voice of this great wolf.
"You chose a girl to be the Welcomer?" Laughter then, cruel and mocking. It was answered by another voice, so soft that it seemed to come from the air itself, carried by the light of the moon.
"The choice was made long, long ago," the vaguely feminine voice said. "It is already done, and she will succeed."
The wolf's unspoken voice laughed again. "Another foolish decision by one whose foolish decisions consigned her to near oblivion in the hearts of Men. I will not so be thwarted this time, not by a pathetic King promised to a puny island realm, not by a Goddess who could only barely stay my hand before, and certainly not by a girl only days into womanhood."
"You do not understand," the feminine voice replied. "You never understood, not in the time before and not now."
Again the wolf: "I understand so many things. I know the hearts of men better than you have ever done. I know the thirst for blood that all men carry. I know their appetite for death and their desire for true power over the world. I can give it to them, and you cannot. Thus will they turn to me, as in the end they always do."
Again the feminine voice from the mist and the moon: "You lie, as you always do. Even now your work is being undone. Look on the girl before you, and in her see your damnation."
The silver wolf looked again at Gwyn, and again the silver wolf laughed. "You speak of damnation; in the end you can only speak with my words." The words were shaped by spite, and Gwyn's blood went to ice as she felt the burning hate behind them. Here was a hate older than the earth, older than everything but the Great Wyrm who was himself older than everything. The wolf looked away from Gwyn, up at the sky. Gwyn followed its gaze and saw the moon disappearing behind a black cloud. "Your power weakens each day," the wolf said. "Your light shines dimmer on a world that is more and more beyond your reach."
The feminine voice spoke from the air once more, barely louder than a whisper. "Strength always waxes and wanes, and the waning need not be permanent. She is the Welcomer, and it is done...." And then the voice was gone, as was the moonlight. The wolf turned back to Gwyn.
"Here you will die, sweet little sparrow, and no one will stand to mark your passing. The last barriers will fall and I will again be free to roam the world!" And with that, the band of power connecting her mind to the wolf's snapped free. She jumped with a start when Brother Llyad touched her arm.
"Here, My Lady," he said, handing her something. She tore her gaze from the wolf and saw that he had recovered her bow and quiver and was handing them to her. She took them, but even as she did so she knew that they would be completely inadequate. Her gaze returned to the silver wolf, which lazily pawed the ground. Slowly the smaller black wolves paced around them, five in all. They bared their teeth in lethal snarls, teeth which dully gleamed in the flickering firelight. Llyad picked up a stick and thrust it into the fire, trying to light the other end.
"A flaming stick against six wolves is hardly the weapon I would choose," he grumbled. "Are you all right?"
"I think so," she said. Had he heard the voices as well? There was nothing in his voice or his manner to indicate that he had. Had it all been meant for her?
Behind them the fire was finally beginning to burn brighter, but it was still pitifully small, hardly sufficient for the desperate task at hand. There was no question at all that the black wolves would pounce at any second, despite the now lively fire behind them and the two flaming sticks that Brother Llyad was waving at them. Gwyn slung her quiver over her shoulder and drew forth an arrow. "Be ready," she said, nocking the arrow and lifting the bow into the ready stance. She began to slowly rotate, watching each of the five wolves that was making ready to attack and trying to decide which to shoot. Moving in unison the wolves growled and flattened their stomachs to the ground. Every muscle in Gwyn's body tensed as she awaited the horrible pounce....and then there was a strange whistling sound, followed by a muffled thump. One of the wolves yelped in sudden pain and began leaping about, biting at its hind quarter. In the growing light Gwyn saw a dart of black wood protruding from one of the wolf's rear legs. Her eyes flew to where the dart had come from, and beside her Brother Llyad gasped.
The Druid was somehow there at the edge of the clearing, his blowtube in his hand. In some way only the Goddess knew he had found the strength in his dying body for this one last task, even after his friend had thought him dead. "For the Goddess!" he cried in a strangled voice as he lifted the tube to his lips again, but he was unable to blow another dart before the other four wolves swung toward him and leapt. The Druid who had impossibly staved off death fell at last beneath the jaws of four attacking wolves, while the fifth writhed on the ground in tortured, poisoned spasms. The silver wolf now gave a great snarl that reverberated through the earth itself. The four wolves turned from the task of ripping Llawann's body apart and again faced their original prey.
The distraction that Llawann had provided was enough for Gwyn. "Dona walk with you, Druid," she said as she shot one of the wolves. Her arrow sank deep into the wolf's chest, knocking the animal back with a loud yelp but not quite killing it. Brother Llyad grabbed a log from the fire that was burning well and in one motion threw it directly at the wolves, who scattered to avoid the fiery missile. As the wolves scampered away from the flames Gwyn and Brother Llyad jumped to put the fire between themselves and the predators. Gwyn nocked another arrow and shot the wolf she had already hit, this time killing it. She groped for yet another arrow but its four brothers began circling again, and at last they reared for the attack. The great silver wolf grinned as one of the wolves -- the one nearest Gwyn and Brother Llyad -- pounced.
Time seemed to stop, with the wolf hanging in the air. Gwyn saw nothing but its horrible teeth, and she envisioned the beast fastening its jaws around her neck and ripping her flesh apart, sending her blood spraying out and over the cold, hard ground. Beside her she heard Brother Llyad scream, and she didn't know if it was a scream of agony or merely of horror. She opened her eyes to see the great gray beast arcing toward her.
But then there was a terrific clatter as two horsemen smashed through the underbrush and bounded into the clearing with cries of war and battle. Their swords were already drawn, and the first horseman was in between Gwyn and her attacking wolf before the wolf even saw the new threat. The horseman's blade flashed, and the leaping wolf was cloven in two.
"We are saved!" Brother Llyad cried as he mounded his fire together, which was now burning quite brightly.
"No." Gwyn heard the voice in her mind, and she looked to the great silver wolf who was now no longer grinning in hate and anticipation of death.
Three more horsemen burst into the clearing. Gwyn glanced at the man who towered over her, blade brandished. He looked familiar, somehow -- and then she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She just barely saw the next attack coming from the left in time to drop flat to the ground, underneath the wolf as it arced over her, but not quite fast enough to escape its drawn claws as they raked the skin of her left arm. It felt as though her arm had been dipped in fire, and she cried out as the searing pain shot through her body. Enraged, she swung her bow at the wolf and struck it on its rump as it landed in the middle of the fire. The wolf scampered away yelping, and then it was hacked to death by two of the newly-arrived horsemen.
Gwyn climbed back to her feet and looked at her arm. Her sleeve was red with blood, but she could tell that it was hardly a mortal wound. The horsemen were now circling the clearing, keeping the final two snarling wolves at bay. One of the horsemen got close enough to one of the wolves to slice its throat open with his sword; the last wolf darted through the legs of one of the horses and away into the woods.
A sudden wave of anger rushed through Gwyn. Wincing as she did so, she nocked another arrow and loosed it. The arrow tore through the air -- and straight through the empty space where the giant silver wolf had been, landing somewhere amidst the trees and undergrowth. The silver wolf was gone as if it had never really been there at all. Gwyn felt another inward spasm of pain, like before, but more distant, and again the silver wolf's voice resonated within her head:
"It will take more than an arrow from the bow of a scullery-wench. It will take so much more than that." Then there was harsh laughter that died away to silence. Baffled, Gwyn turned and looked at the other horsemen who were now dismounting.
"Let me see your arm," said a voice beside her. She turned to face the horseman, who had dismounted and was now standing beside her, his helmet removed. He took her left arm and pulled back her sleeve, exposing the wound. She suddenly felt very faint at the ordeal, and her knees buckled. "Easy," the man said as he gently lowered her to the ground.
"Who are you?" she gasped. Her head was beginning to ache, her gorge was rising, and her feet were suddenly like lead blocks.
"You don't have a very good memory for faces," the man said with a wry smile.
She looked at his sand-colored hair, cut short, and recognized him. "Lord Matholyn's man," she said, recalling how she had seen him in the square on Tintagel. "His seneschal?"
He nodded. "Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt, and my full title is Seneschal to Matholyn ap Macholugh, Lord of Camyrdin. But then, I don't much care for titles. Perhaps I should give you more credit for memory, since you've only seen me once." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a scrap of fabric, which he used to dab at her wound.
"Twice," she corrected him.
"I was in the Sanctuary when you went with your Lord to meet Father Damogan."
"Twice, then. Your memory is indeed better than I had thought. My apologies for that." He smiled again. "You were hard to track, My Lady. A good thing it wasn't a little bit harder, don't you think?" He glanced at the nearest of the wolf corpses, the blood from which still flowed.
"I had little to do with that," Gwyn said. "It was -- an errand of a different sort."
"All the same, I'm glad we arrived to find more than corpses mangled by wolves."
Lord Matholyn came over then to join them. "How is she?" asked the Lord of Camyrdin.
"A scratch is all," Sir Baigent said as he poured some liquid from a flask into her wound. Gwyn yelped at the sting.
"This is far more than a scratch," Gwyn snapped. Sir Baigent smiled.
"Very well. A series of scratches, then. Let me dress this."
Gwyn sat still while he drew a length of cloth and a flask of water from his saddlebags. Sir Baigent washed her wounds and bound them with a deft hand, working quickly and not causing any undue pain. She glanced over at the fire, and even as she felt its warmth a sudden wave of cold washed over her. She had come so close to dying here tonight -- and why? What interest could the silver wolf possibly have in an Adept of Tintagel? But then, she was no mere Adept of Tintagel. She had learned as much tonight. How close, though -- how close she had been to bloody death; how close these knights had been to coming into the clearing and only finding three shredded corpses....
"Easy!" It was Sir Baigent. The world seemed to spin and then Gwyn found herself looking up into the knight's eyes from a position prone on the ground. "Easy," he said again. "It's over, you're safe now."
"I...I just...." Did I just faint? Gwyn's cheeks turned hot and she looked around hastily, wondering who else had seen her fall.
"It's not a sign of weakness, My Lady," the knight said. "I've seen it happen to grown men who are wearing better armor than an old cloak. And as it happens, you did fairly well against those wolves." He helped her sit back up, and she rubbed her forehead.
"You sound surprised," she said.
He smiled and pointed to the body of the wolf she had shot. "That kind of competence is not usually found in clerics," he said. "At least, not the ones that I've known."
Gwyn only nodded at that. Of course a warrior wouldn't expect skill at arms from an Adept of Tintagel. She flexed her arm and cradled the wound.
She looked up and smiled. "Brother Malcolm!" she exclaimed as she embraced him.
"Dona smile on us all! I am glad you were not harmed--" He stopped short when he saw her wounded arm.
"It appears to be a series of scratches," she said, glancing at Sir Baigent. "It will be fine. Brother, there are things--" She was cut off by Lord Matholyn's sudden shouting.
"Bind that man in irons! He is an abductor, and I will have him taken to the nearest Baron and thrown in the dungeon!" He was pointing at Brother Llyad, who had gone to see to Llawann's body. His men rushed to obey, grabbing the Monk and dragging him forcibly back to the campsite.
"Please!" Brother Llyad pleaded. "I am no abductor! I had no choice! You don't understand! Gwyn, tell them, please!"
"Quiet!" Lord Matholyn roared. "One more word and I'll have you dragged behind a horse all the way back to Tintagel!" Matholyn looked wrathful, and Brother Llyad shrank away from him, fearing that Matholyn would not hesitate to do precisely that. One of the other knights returned from his horse carrying a set of iron manacles. "Make them good and tight," Lord Matholyn said. "I will not give this abductor of women any more freedom than he needs to walk without falling to the ground."
"Yes, my Lord," the Knight said.
"Stop it," Gwyn said. "My Lord, stop!"
Lord Matholyn ignored her. Instead he glared at Brother Llyad. "Cleric, if these realms were under my rule and not Duke Cunaddyr's, you would already be swinging from one of these trees. I do not kill you only out of allegiance to Tintagel--"
"My Lord, STOP!" Gwyn shouted.
Everyone turned to look at her, and she shifted nervously on her feet.
"He did not abduct me," she said. "I came willingly."
"Gwyn!" Brother Malcolm gasped. Lord Matholyn spat on the ground.
"What nonsense is this?" Lord Matholyn said. "Some friend of yours, another Adept, saw what happened. She saw you carried away by this man and put on the back of that horse like so much grain in a bag. Did you willingly consent for him to use whatever potion he did on you?"
Dana, Gwyn thought. Brother Llyad spoke the truth when he said he wasn't particularly good at this type of thing. "Not entirely," Gwyn admitted. Brother Llyad audibly groaned.
"So he did abduct you, didn't he? And you think to defend him? By Dona's silvery light, does the salt air of Tintagel have such a withering effect on the wits of all who live there?"
"You lived there for a time yourself, My Lord," Gwyn said. Oh, careful, she thought. This was not a moment for such flippery. Lord Matholyn's temper was well-known throughout Prydein, and even more so on Tintagel. His eyes narrowed and he ground his teeth together. Clearly he had never been so addressed by a mere Adept, no matter how headstrong she might be. Luckily, there was laughter then -- Sir Baigent's laughter.
"She speaks rightly," the knight said. "And Camyrdin breathes the same salt air. Are we not on the same coast, My Lord?"
Matholyn glared at the Knight and let out a long breath. "Doubtless it was the same affliction that led me to name you as my Seneschal," he said, scowling. Sir Baigent laughed again, and Lord Matholyn turned back to Gwyn. "Do I understand you, girl? Do I have your meaning correct? Do you actually mean for this man to walk free?"
"I do, My Lord." She glanced at Brother Malcolm and swallowed. The monk was looking at her with the same expression he used whenever she spoke out of turn, a habit she had never truly broken. "Brother Llyad brought me here, to this place, for a reason. He brought me unwillingly, that is true; but he did so with good cause. I know that now."
Brother Malcolm stepped forward. "Gwyn, what has happened?" he asked.
"I met one of the Fair Folk tonight," Gwyn said, and waited for the gasps of disbelief. To her surprise, there were none. Lord Matholyn simply opened his mouth and closed it, and Sir Baigent lifted his eyebrows. Gwyn continued. "My Lord, you came to Tintagel speaking of the Promised King. I learned something here, tonight, about that. When Brother Llyad went to the Isle of the Druids, he simply hoped to learn more about them and their lore. But when he arrived there he learned so much more, so much that he could never have expected. He learned that the time was near for the return of the Promised King. The Druids saw the same signs that you did -- and many more besides."
Lord Matholyn waved a hand dismissively. "Come to the point, girl. What has this to do with wayward Monks stealing young women in the dead of night?"
"When you came to Tintagel you said that you needed to consult the Oracles and hold council with Father Damogan because it was time to find the Welcomer. What you don't know, My Lord, is that Brother Llyad brought Llawann to Tintagel for the same reason. That is why they brought me here, to meet with the Fair Folk."
"This is all very interesting," Lord Matholyn said as he turned away. "We should get ready to ride now Perhaps we can reach Tintagel again by dawn."
Gwyn ignored him. "My Lord, I am the Welcomer."
That made Lord Matholyn turn back. He stared at Gwyn now, long and hard. The only sound was the popping of the logs on the fire.
"You? A simple loose-tongued girl of Lyonesse?"
"I am not merely of Lyonesse," Gwyn said. "I am also Fair Folk, by blood."
Brother Malcolm stepped forward. "Can it be?" he whispered. "Your mother was unknown...."
"Father never spoke of her," Gwyn said softly.
Lord Matholyn crouched down and stared thoughtfully into the flames. It was the calmest Gwyn had seen him yet. "A man...and a Fair Folk woman? This girl has the look of just such a union, if the tales of what the Fair look like speak true." He looked up at Gwyn. "Tell us what happened here tonight."
"Llawann performed a Druid ritual," Gwyn said. "They are the keepers of the Fair Folk lore in this world." She told them of the ritual Llawann had performed, and the vision given to her by the Fairy.
"And his name?" Lord Matholyn asked.
"Arthur Pendragon," Gwyn said.
There was dead silence in the grove as the name Gwyn had spoken sank in to those who had heard it. At last Lord Matholyn spoke. "If you are the Welcomer, then what are we to do now?"
"She must be seen to the Giants' Dance," Brother Llyad said. "Only there can she perform the duty that the Goddess has set for her."
Lord Matholyn turned to Brother Malcolm. "It seems that I finally have learned something that Damogan doesn't know," he said. "Why the Giant's Dance, Monk?"
Brother Llyad cleared his throat. "That is where the boundary between the worlds will be opened, My Lord. Then the Promised King to return. The Emrys built the Dance for that purpose."
"And that's what your Druid friend was hoping to do," Lord Matholyn said. "You weren't just bringing the girl here; you were taking her to the Giant's Dance." He sighed. "What wonderment we behold, to live in such times as these," he said.
Tareth of the Kentish Shore, Gwyn thought, wondering at the same time why she should remember that work of all the others with which she had struggled.
"There is more," Brother Llyad said. "She must be there by Midsummer's Night. The Druids are gathering there for the rites that will bring the Promised King back. On that night alone can he return."
Lord Matholyn wearily rubbed his neck. "So that gives us one week," he said. "And I suppose that is why the Druids have been returning from Mona. That explains much, including what happened to you, Sir Baigent."
"It does indeed," Sir Baigent said. Gwyn wondered what that could have meant. The Knight went on: "My Lord, I am yours to command as always; but you are now discussing things beyond my knowledge. The Promised King is less a concern to me than King Cwerith, a real man who can do us real harm."
"You don't believe in the Promised King?" Gwyn said. It was unthinkable to her, as if Sir Baigent had denied the Goddess herself.
"There are people whose duty it is to consider such things. I am not a cleric." He looked at Lord Matholyn. "My Lord, we must return to Camyrdin. We know that a harsh growing season is in store for us, if there is a growing season at all. King Cwerith has formed an alliance with King Duncan of Caledonia, and we have heard nothing from High King Irlaris. I cannot say if these are truly signs that the Promised King is returning or not, but I can say that these are signs that our place is at Camyrdin."
Lord Matholyn considered that for a long moment. "If we are away at first light tomorrow, we can reach Camyrdin by the day after. The Giants' Dance is three days east...the timing would be too close."
"Perhaps Brother Llyad and I should head east alone," Gwyn said.
"We live in dangerous times, but that does not mean that we should wantonly seek danger," Lord Matholyn said. "In any event, we must rest now and make our decisions tomorrow. By next sundown we should be able to reach Briston; they wil have news there and we will better be able to make our decision on what to do. Would that the Goddess would make our path more clear. Sir Baigent, see to the setting of camp. Brother Llyad, come with me. We must raise a barrow for your friend."
Brother Llyad had not expected any such kindness, and could only stammer out his thanks as he and Lord Matholyn went to bury Llawann. The other knights returned having found no other wolves in the area, and Sir Baigent finished dressing Gwyn's wound as the other Knights made camp. Through it all, Gwyn tried not to think on the suddenness of what had transpired here tonight -- the things she had seen, learned and done.
The next morning they broke camp and headed east toward Briston. Before they left camp Brother Llyad led them in a prayer to Dona for the soul of his friend, and Brother Malcolm released a pigeon into the air with a message tied to its foot.
The Old East Road had been supplanted years before by the Sea Road as the main east-west route into Lyonesse, but today the road seemed unusually deserted. Only three times the entire day did they come upon other travelers, each time farmers returning from Briston with empty wagons. These farming parties rode past in silence, taking little notice of the company heading eastward, except for one old woman who looked upon them with a forlorn expression. "Strange things are afoot, my lords," she said. "The Oak Brothers are at play, and we are becoming starved. The land is not giving us its gifts. Beware." With that, she was off with the remainder of her party.
"The foolish musings of an old woman," scoffed Lord Matholyn. "Pay her no mind." But Gwyn could see that he was troubled.
The sky was becoming cloudy, but the sun still shone down upon them, and they rode mostly in silence. Occasionally a gull would screech in the air above them, but other than that and the breeze the only sounds came from their horses' hooves. Gwyn noticed that the trees, which by this time should have been in full leaf, had not even blossomed.
Later on, as the sun began to slip beneath the Western horizon, they came into Briston Vale. Briston was commonly taken to be the dividing line between Lyonesse and the mainland proper. It was also the westernmost outpost of Cunaddyr, the Duke of Bedwyn. With Lyonesse itself a land of minor lordlings, Briston was where the central part of Prydein -- where lived the men and women of power -- truly began.
Gwyn studied the landscape as they rode down into the shallow valley. The outlying regions of the town were mostly farmland, but as they descended into Briston Vale they could see the lights of the town itself. The entire town was lit with warm light that stood in contrast to the bleakness of their travel that day. How strange, Gwyn thought, to find this pocket of prosperity amidst the decay and deepening famine of the surrounding regions.
Evidently Lord Matholyn found this strange as well. He reined suddenly to a stop, and the company halted. Sir Baigent moved forward.
"What troubles you, My Lord?" he asked.
Lord Matholyn rubbed his jaw for a moment before replying. "There are too many people here," he said. "And it looks more prosperous than the farmland we have seen today would indicate."
"Perhaps they have purchased goods from the Southern Shires, instead of from Lyonesse," Sir Baigent offered. "Those lands are far more temperate, and have probably tasted spring two months now."
"But this many cookfires and lights?" Lord Matholyn said, that possible explanation clearly not satisfying him. "Let us go down and find out."
Lord Matholyn gestured, and the company resumed the ride. Soon they were at the bottom of the valley riding alongside the small river on which Briston was built. The road crossed the river four times in approaching the town, over a series of wooden bridges of increasing size. As they approached the last bridge, however, Lord Matholyn held up a hand signaling another halt.
"Why are we stopping?" Gwyn asked.
"Something is amiss," Brother Malcolm replied.
Gwyn sidestepped to get a better look. The last bridge into Briston, it seemed, was a mechanical draw-bridge of very similar design to the one at Tintagel. The bridge was withdrawn, however, and the gate was closed. Standing guard over the entrance to Briston was a cadre of four armored men, each wearing the White Rose -- the device of Bedwyn. One of the guards, a tall man holding a long spear, took two steps forward and peered at the party.
"The sun has set and the bridge is closed, good sir," said the guard. "You may seek admittance on the morrow."
Lord Matholyn gaped at the man. "What is this? Has hospitality been so forgotten in Cunaddyr's lands? Open the gate and extend the bridge!"
The guard made no move to obey the command. Instead, he shifted so that he now held his spear with both hands. Two of the other guards stepped forward, trying to appear menacing.
"As I have said, the gates are closed. You are not to be allowed admittance. There are villages in the hills nearby; perhaps an inn can be found in one of them. A good night to you."
Lord Matholyn's cheeks turned red, the same way they had when Brother Malcolm had denied him entrance to see Father Damogan two days before. He visibly stiffened and laid his hand on the pommel of his sword. "This is absurd," he said. "We are weary travelers, two days out of Tintagel and headed for Camyrdin. We need lodging. Never before have I heard of a town's gates being closed at dusk, except in times of war!"
"These are times of war," answered the guard. "If you have been at Tintagel, then you have not received word of happenings abroad. The Mayor ordered the closing of the gates on the personal authority of the Duke. I cannot open the gates to you, sir."
"What Duke?" Sir Baigent asked.
"Duke Cunaddyr of Bedwyn," the guard replied.
Gwyn choked back a gasp, and looking at Lord Matholyn she saw that the angry expression on his face had been replaced by one of confusion.
"Cunaddyr is here?" he asked. "Now? Why has he left his court at Bedwyn?"
"I don't understand," Gwyn said in a low voice.
Sir Baigent turned his head halfway to answer her in a low voice. "Duke Cunaddyr has never considered Lyonesse to be a place of import. If he is here, at Briston, then dark doings must be at hand."
Gwyn nodded, electing not to point out that she had figured as much.
Lord Matholyn turned back to the guard. He drew himself up and spoke in his most regal manner. "Sir Guard, if the Duke is truly here then I must see him. I hereby demand admission to the town and immediate audience with Duke Cunaddyr. Open the gates."
The man sighed. "Are you deaf, Sir Traveler? The Duke is in council, and he will not receive audience with commoners at this time. You will leave now." He freshened his grip on his spear, and his friends tried to appear menacing by putting their hands on the pommels of their swords.
After several seconds of gnashing his teeth Lord Matholyn finally decided that he had had quite enough of this. He flung back his cloak to show the White Stag on his breast. "Do not take me for a mere commoner, Sir Guard. You are not speaking to some simple mercenary. I am Matholyn ap Macholugh, Lord of Camyrdin, and this is Sir Baigent, my seneschal. These are three of my best knights, and three travelers to whose safety I am pledged. I am bound for Camyrdin -- my kingdom -- and I demand immediate audience with Duke Cunaddyr!"
His voice rang into the night, and no one in earshot could help but be cowed by the authority in his voice. His temper may be dreadful, Gwyn thought, but his manner is that of a King.
"About time," Sir Baigent muttered.
The guard blinked several times, looked at his men, and then back at Lord Matholyn. In the fading light he appeared to have paled a bit.
"Forgive me, Lord Matholyn," the man said. "I shall send word of your coming to Duke Cunaddyr. Be welcome here." He turned and stared at his men, not one of whom had moved. "Are you deaf, you dogs? Open the gate and get that bridge moved!" The men scurried to obey.
Sir Baigent turned to Lord Matholyn. "This is not normal," he commented. "What would bring Cunaddyr all the way here? I don't recall him ever traveling this far west."
"That guard spoke of war," Matholyn replied. "I don't like the sound of any of this. Even with Cunaddyr here, that is no reason to close the entrances to the town."
Sir Baigent shrugged. "We'll find out soon enough, I suppose. But at least your threats and your temper still carry some weight. After Tintagel I had feared otherwise."
Gwyn tried to stifle her laughter at that, but she was not entirely successful. Lord Matholyn gave her and Brother Malcolm a quick scowl and then turned forward again. The guards had now extended the drawbridge and were opening the gates. Their leader climbed onto his own horse, which had been tethered to a nearby tree.
"Come, My Lord," he said, gesturing for the company to follow him. "My name is Gavin. I am a Chief of the Briston Guard."
"Lead on then, Sir Gavin," Lord Matholyn replied.
Gavin straightened in his saddle as he swung around, and Gwyn saw a small smile tugging at his lips. She supposed that he had never been called "Sir" before.
The company cantered over the bridge and then rode the remainder of the way into the center of Briston. As they neared the center of town itself, they rode passed several large encampments of soldiers, each carrying the device of one or another of the local barons. Brother Malcolm pointed to one such banner. "There is the device of Baron Eddar," he said. "Then they did come here. I wonder why...."
Briston was not a particularly large town, but it was the largest Gwyn had ever entered. They rode past livery stables which were overflowing with the war horses of Duke Cunaddyr, and then the home of a cobbler, and then past the home of the village sage. Next door to the sage was the town smithy. It was the largest smithy Gwyn had ever seen, far larger than the small one on Tintagel where Brother Caledon made nails and horseshoes. This smithy was an immense stone building topped with three great chimneys. Even now the smoke was pouring in great gouts from the chimneys, and Gwyn could hear the roar of the forges and the pounding of the hammers inside. The intense heat from inside washed over her when she rode past the open doors.
"There is prosperity in this region," Gwyn said. "Look at the size of that smithy!"
"A smithy should not see that much work unless there is war afoot," Lord Matholyn said. "I fear we have been away from Camyrdin for too long, even if mere days."
Gwyn noticed that the torch sconces set into the buildings displayed banners emblazoned with the device of Duke Cunaddyr, and they presently rode past a group of the Duke's soldiers who were sitting on a doorstep playing dice. One of the soldiers was having a particularly rough night; he had nearly lost all of his money to the others, who were laughing at his expense.
"Ho, travelers!" one of them shouted. "You wouldn't have any money for our out-of-luck friend here, would you?" They all laughed at that, except of course the man who had lost all his money.
"If your friend isn't smart enough to know a pair of weighted dice when he sees them, then he doesn't deserve any loans from us," Sir Baigent said. As they moved on they could all hear a loud argument beginning where there had previously been a friendly game of dice. Lord Matholyn chuckled.
"How many men can the Duke have here?" Sir Baigent wondered when they had ridden past the gambling men. "Briston is not this big."
"We'll soon find out," Lord Matholyn said. The sounds of much activity came from up ahead, around the next bend in the street which they now approached.
"This is the town square," Gavin announced. They emerged from the tightly-quartered main road into the square, which was framed by the largest buildings Gwyn had ever seen. She reminded herself that this was still a small town as towns went, and she wondered at how huge places like Caer Camyrdin, Bedwyn and Londia must be. Every one of these huge buildings had been converted to an inn of sorts, even though there were only two actual inns. When Gwyn looked to the grassy area in the middle of the square, she saw why.
Dozens of horses had been tethered to hastily constructed wooden railings. Duke Cunaddyr's soldiers and cavalry were all around, carousing with the locals and with each other. More than a few of them seemed to be drunk, but the general mood was hardly one of frivolity. Gwyn felt the stares of Duke Cunaddyr's men, many of whom were happy to see a woman even though there were quite a few of the Briston locals around. A number of less than savory comments were directed at her, and she blushed. When Sir Baigent heard these comments and cat-calls, he turned and made a tiny gesture to the three knights who were bringing up the rear, and these men quickly closwed around Gwyn. She gave him a small smile, and he replied with a single nod before turning back to the road.
They arrived then at the larger of Briston's actual inns. It was a huge wooden building with a wide porch along the front which was filled to capacity by soldiers and liverymen. Bright yellow light glowed from within, and a wooden sign above the door read "Lodge By Water", which seemed to Gwyn a strange name as there was no water visible anywhere around. Gavin stopped here.
"The Duke is staying here," he said. "Here comes his steward."
"Ah," said Lord Matholyn. "Sir Jules the Unshorn himself? I count myself truly fortunate."
Gwyn had to crane her neck to catch a glimpse of the approaching man. Sir Jules was not a large man; he was probably only slightly taller than Gwyn herself. He turned his head to nod at Gavin, and it was then that Gwyn saw why Lord Matholyn had referred to him as "the Unshorn". His sand-colored hair was terrifically long, hanging down to his waist and tied behind his neck in a careful, thick braid. His face was narrow and he wore a mustache that curled slightly around his lips. His simple clothes were unadorned with any device or symbol at all, as was the blade he wore on his back. There was nothing to mark him as a Steward to anyone, much less the Duke of Bedwyn. Nevertheless he was clearly a formidable man.
"What have you brought us, Gavin? Refugees from Tintagel?" He was looking not at Gavin but at Lord Matholyn, whose eyes narrowed.
"You know damned well who stands before you, Jules," Matholyn barked. "I have come to speak with your master. Now go and fetch him. I am not inclined just now to speak with his lackeys."
"By your temper I see it is you, Lord Matholyn," Sir Jules said. "We had wondered who might be playing a joke on us. Circumstances being what they are, you were not expected here."
"Of course not," Lord Matholyn said. "I should be back at Caer Camyrdin, and indeed I plan to be there two days hence. But I would still speak with Cunaddyr; there are important matters to discuss, not the least of which is why he is so far west in the first place."
"What? You don't--" Sir Jules's brow furrowed and a shadow passed over his face. "You are correct, Lord Matholyn -- there are very important matters to discuss. As for why Duke Cunaddyr has come, you should hear it from him. Come; my people shall see to your horses." In a lower voice, he added: "The Duke shall be grateful to see you alive."
This last remark sent a chill racing through Gwyn, and Lord Matholyn exchanged a sharp glance with Sir Baigent. With a grim expression he handed the reigns of his beast to the squire who had come rushing over. When the company had dismounted Sir Jules looked over the two monks, and finally at Gwyn.
"Two Monks and a woman?" he said. "Strange traveling companions, I must say."
Lord Matholyn shrugged. "That may be so, but nevertheless they ride at my side, under my protection. How they came to travel with me is a matter that will concern him." He glanced at Gwyn. "It will concern all of us, in truth."
Jules nodded. Again the shadow passed over him, and Gwyn wondered what he knew that they did not. But they were not about to learn from him. He gestured for them to follow him inside.
They went up the steps and through the front door of the inn, into the smoke-filled common room. There were wooden tables and benches, and a long bar along one wall, behind which was a free-swinging door leading to the kitchen and scullery. Each table was crowded by at least a dozen of the Duke's men, so many altogether that Gwyn marveled that the room could contain so many people at all. All of those bodies combined with the immense fire in the hearth made the room stiflingly hot. The din of the room was deafening; Gwyn could hear nothing at all from the three minstrel musicians who were attempting to perform in one of the room's corners. The innkeeper, a short balding man with gigantic ears, was filling flagons with mead and ale; the wine casks had probably been emptied a long time before. The serving wenches -- who, having large ears as well must have been the innkeeper's three daughters -- moved very quickly, weaving in and out of the crowd with surprising ease and rhythm that was almost dancelike, but even they were not enough to serve adequately the number of people crowded into the common room, and thus the innkeeper had put his two clumsy sons to work serving the patrons as well. And then there was his wife, a stout woman who carried huge trays of roast pork, cheese and bread into the common room from the kitchen, shouting orders all the while to her children and cautions to the drunk men with groping hands. There was little doubt, Gwyn quickly saw, that the innkeeper's wife was the true ruler of this particular domain.
Jules looked around, and then leaned back to shout in Lord Matholyn's ear. Gwyn could not make a word of it out, but she saw Lord Matholyn nod, and then Jules began leading them toward another doorway. Gwyn tried to follow, but she was pushed and pulled in every direction, and her sleeve was grabbed by a drunken soldier who had mistaken her for one of the serving girls. The man was covered in sweat, was drooling uncontrollably, and stank of garlic.
"More ale!" he shouted as he thrust three flagons at her, only one of which was actually empty. Warm ale splashed onto Gwyn's midriff. She shook her head and backed away, but the man maintained his grip while his free hand snapped forward and grabbed the front of her cloak. "I said, more ale! Do you need a man to teach you some manners?" His friends laughed at that, except for one who wasn't quite as drunk as the others.
"I don't think this one's a serving wench!" that man yelled, but the lout with his hand on Gwyn spat in derision.
"A wench is a wench, and seein' as how this wench is the wench right here, I'm takin' a fancy to her." He pulled Gwyn closer, overcoming her efforts to tear herself away. "Kiss me, my lovely--" and then he gurgled as his nose erupted in blood.
Gwyn fell back as he suddenly released her, slipping on some spilt beer and landing on the floor. Her right hand throbbed; the man's nose had been harder than she had expected. She began pushing her way through the crowd while he was screaming every obscenity that he could muster. Gwyn could still hear him shouting, "More ale!" even as she scrambled for the door through which the company had just passed. She ducked through and into the safety of the innkeeper's private rooms As the door closed behind her the din outside decreased to a dull rumble. She stood there for a moment simply breathing.
"You handled that nicely," someone said. She realized it was Sir Jules, who stood nearby. "You seem to have some bite to you."
"I -- I -- I fear that I broke his nose," Gwyn said.
Sir Jules grinned. "Pay that no mind," he said. "I'm sure that one has had his nose broken before."
Gwyn shook her head and looked around at what was the innkeeper's storeroom. Great oaken barrels were stacked in the corners alongside wooden shelves that were densely packed with bags of flour and meal. In the center of the room was a plain wooden table, and three people were seated around the end of the table opposite them. One of them was obviously one of the Duke's knights; the other was an elderly Priest of Dona who fixed his coal-black eyes on Dona. At the head of the table sat Duke Cunaddyr himself. He rose as the company entered and came around the table. "Welcome to Briston, My Lord," he said in a voice that was deep and resonant.
Duke Cunaddyr was a thin man, and quite tall. His face was dominated by a very large nose, and his eyes were lined and careworn. He was bald except for a sparse band of white hair around the back of his head. He was probably of the same age as Lord Matholyn. Over his left breast he wore a brooch in the shape of a white rose.
The Duke embraced Lord Matholyn. "I regret that our meeting cannot come at Bedwyn, during better times," the Duke said. His voice was deep and resonant.
"I am grateful for your reception, Duke Cunaddyr," Lord Matholyn replied. "I am honored to come now to your table." He bowed deeply, and the Duke reciprocated.
"It is my honor to give you such audience as I am able, given these surroundings. Sadly, they are more of necessity than of choice."
"And what of that?" Lord Matholyn asked. "If I may be so bold as to greet you with questions, why are you here? Has Lyonesse suddenly become a place of concern when it has never been so before?"
Duke Cunaddyr blinked. "Why would you ask this? Surely it must be obvious why I am here. War requires my presence, as I would think it requires yours. I had to march, but now it seems that I have misjudged our enemy's desire and recklessness. Now my realm is under the same threat that yours faced. Nevertheless, it is good that you are here; perhaps the Goddess has not totally deserted those who serve her and act in her name. I am grateful that you are alive, Matholyn. Your loss would have been a blow almost too heavy to bear."
Gwyn shivered, feeling that the room had suddenly become very cold. Lord Matholyn visibly stiffened.
"That is too many comments like that for one to hear in one hour," he announced. "You thought me dead, didn't you? Why would you think that? Cunaddyr, what has happened? "
The Duke glanced at Jules. "He does not know?" he asked.
Sir Jules shook his head. The Duke sighed, and his shoulders slumped. "You were not there," he said softly. The remark sent ice through Gwyn's veins. She glanced at Sir Baigent and saw that he was very, very tense.
"You have heard the same rumors as I, Matholyn -- the alliance between King Cwerith and King Duncan. With the strength of the Caledonians behind him, Cwerith has laid challenge to the rule of High King Irlaris."
"Cwerith has always had designs on the throne," Lord Matholyn said. "He inherited them from his father, after the Unfought Battle. But he has always lacked the strength to act on his dreams -- until now, it seems. He's actually marched, hasn't he?"
The Duke held his gaze. "It wasn't only his alliance with King Duncan that has allowed him to become so brazen. It seems that he has been culling favor with the Lords of the Western Shore."
"The Western Shore?" Lord Matholyn echoed with alarm. "Those suckling pigs have never been able to rise above their own squabbling."
"King Cwerith has somehow got them to do just that," the Duke said. "Perhaps he has promised them better realms than those which they rule now, should he win; or it may be that he has cultivated their fear and mistrust of the Druids. But in any event, he has become stronger than his father ever was." The Duke swallowed then, before continuing. "He has invaded your realm with a force the strength of which has not been seen in centuries. He moved too quickly for your forces to overcome him. In mere days, which must have been the days you were gone to Tintagel, Cwerith has taken almost all of your domain. His banner now flies above almost all of that which was once yours."
All the blood drained from Lord Matholyn's face, and his jaw quivered uncertainly. He turned a shocked gaze toward Sir Baigent, who mirrored his expression of disbelief. For a long moment the two men stared at each other, and then Lord Matholyn turned back toward the Duke.
"Does Cwerith now lay siege to Caer Camyrdin?" he asked, in a small voice, with none of his usual bluster. The Duke's expression became even sadder, and a sick feeling formed in the pit of Gwyn's stomach. She knew what had happened, before Duke Cunaddyr even spoke the words.
"Matholyn." The Duke's voice became very soft and filled with pain, "King Cwerith is a man of singular purpose, and Caer Camyrdin had nothing to do with that purpose save as an obstacle to be overcome. He wasted no time on siege, nor did he even fortify his position when he was done -- he simply did what he had come there to do, and moved on. Now he has turned toward Bedwyn, and that is why I am here -- except even after I knew what had happened I mistook his recklessness, his devotion to a crown that in his mind should have been his father's. I fear that I have made the same mistake that--" He stopped abruptly, remembering who he was addressing. He lowered his voice and went on. "Cwerith's strength of numbers was such that he overwhelmed your city. They slew the messenger sent to parley and the four knights who rode alongside him; they surged the field at dusk and threw themselves against defenses not prepared for what had come. They tore down the walls and stormed the city, putting to the flame or the sword anyone they saw. When they departed, they left the city a burning husk. Caer Camyrdin is no more."
Lord Matholyn closed his eyes and leaned over the table, bracing himself with his hands and looking suddenly very old. For a moment it appeared that he might fall to the floor, collapsing under the weight of what he had just been told. Sir Baigent moved to the wall and sat down heavily upon an ale cask.
"Dona preserve us," Brother Malcolm whispered.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::