:: Sunday, March 20, 2005 ::
King Cwerith of Gwynedd turned the stone over and over in his hand. Its smooth coolness pleased him. It could have come from any of the rocky seashores of Gwynedd, perhaps even the very beach which the balcony of his personal chambers in Caer Mastagg overlooked. Or perhaps it had been worn smooth over centuries at the bottom of one of the mountain streams that welled from the springs in the peaks between Gwynedd and Camyrdin and before winding down to the sea. It could have come from a thousand places -- but it did not. Cwerith had picked it up within the former walls of Caer Camyrdin as he had walked through the city whose destruction he had decreed. He had picked it up at random amidst the bodies and charred rubble, selecting it for no particular reason from the thousands of other stones just like it that paved that city's streets. He wondered as he rubbed its contours with his thumb if Matholyn himself had ever trod upon this stone. The stone was so unremarkable, so ordinary; and yet Cwerith would carry it all the remaining days of his life. It was a token of the conquest that his father had been denied and that his brother -- the strong one, the beautiful one -- had not lived to carry out. Cellamma had been denied the throne by treachery, and Celenast had been denied it by the fever. Cwerith often wondered by whose grace it was that he -- small and sickly Cwerith -- had survived the disease that had ravaged Gwynedd while Celenast ap Cellamma, the fine and strong, had been struck down. Most said it had been the Goddess, but Cassion had scoffed at that. It was another power, the outcast Priest had said.
"It was the servants of the Goddess who denied your father, My Liege," Cassion had said. "And Dona's strength is waning. Give your service to another, and all you desire will be yours."
Thus it had fallen to him, to feeble Cwerith, to seize the destiny of Gwynedd. Cassion had showed him the way, and for that Cwerith would forever be in the outcast Priest's debt. "Will you serve him, Your Grace?" Cassion had asked. "And so doing, take the throne that should have been Gwynedd's long ago?"
"I will," Cwerith had said whilst in the throes of the ecstasy that Cassion had shown him to his delight and everlasting shame though he kept it secret from all, especially Lord Varing.
And now he had begun. One should never wait to accomplish what one desires, his father had once said. Very well. It shall be done. Cwerith gazed at the stone, imagining that he could still smell the smoke from the fires of Caer Camyrdin on its surface. A pleasant thought, even though it was in truth the smoke from his own cookfires.
The air that night was still, and the smoke from hundreds of cookfires hung over the camp in a gray haze. Everywhere the voices of Cwerith's army were raised in the songs of the great heroes of Gwynedd's past and the great lords of Caer Mastagg. His men were proud, and they were right to be. They had, after all, won a great victory three days before, the first for Gwynedd in many years. Of course, there were no songs yet about their wonderful conquest of Camyrdin, and surely the Nine Bards of Prydein would never sing the praises of Gwynedd, sworn as they were to the weakening Goddess and her old, doddering High King. The men had to sing the old songs because there were no new ones...but soon that would change. There would be new songs now, songs about King Cwerith the Great, King Cwerith the Hammer, King Cwerith the Magnificent who raised humble Gwynedd to glory as High King of all Prydein. Oh yes, there would be new songs, sung throughout all the land under which the banner of Prydein flew.
That day they had forded the Severn and swung southeastward. In mere days they would be at the gates of Bedwyn to demand the surrender and fealty of Duke Cunaddyr, who was known to be an ally of Lord Matholyn and a sworn supporter of King Irlaris. Cwerith would have preferred to put Bedwyn to the torch as he had Caer Camyrdin, but in this too Cassion had educated him to higher wisdom.
"You will need allies," Cassion had said. "With Duncan you will have great strength, but with others you will be as unstoppable as the waves. And you are not merely after a throne; you are spreading the word of the forgotten God. You must give the men of Prydein a chance to believe, and believe they will, when they see your strength before them."
"You are wise, Priest," Cwerith had said, just before Cassion had drawn the silver blade across the King's skin for a fresh anointing. And then the outcast Priest had sipped the blood, and turned to the unfortunate crone who had been ensnared by Cassion's underlings. She had been drugged and her teeth had been removed...all the better for what was to follow....
Cunaddyr will have the chance to join us, King Cwerith thought. But I doubt he will bend the knee. He is a fool, and Bedwyn will burn anyhow. The thought of so much death saddened him a little; but thrones were often bought with blood, so why should his be any different? And in any event the rest of Prydein would eventually come to realize that Cwerith had had little choice, that Caer Camyrdin and Bedwyn had chosen their deaths themselves. Finally, in the end, Londia herself would fall. Irlaris would succumb to the weakness that had long gnawed at him, or perhaps the people of Londia would see the banners of Cwerith on the horizon and, recognizing them for the devices of the true King, toss Irlaris's body over the walls and throw open the gates. Cwerith smiled at the thought as he looked out over his camp. Of course, it wouldn't be exactly like that -- King Duncan would reach Londia first, after all -- but he would rule Prydein.
"Lord Varing approaches!" one of his guards called out. Cwerith glanced down the path and saw Varing hiking up the rise toward his tent. Cwerith turned away from the flap and returned to his seat, where he pulled on his cloak before sitting down. Varing entered just as he pulled the cloak over his arms, concealing the scars from Cassion's blood-lettings. The eunuch did not need to know everything.
"A good evening to you, Your Highness," Lord Varing said after bowing.
"And to you, Varing," King Cwerith said without inflection. "What news?"
"A company of men approaches from the northeast," Varing said. They bear the flag of the High King, along with what appears to be a crude copy of your own device."
"Really," King Cwerith said. "How interesting. Do we know who it is?"
"Possibly Baron Gaddamar, one of the local lords. He holds lands five leagues distant, a small holding to be sure. He was sworn of late to Lord Matholyn."
King Cwerith snorted. "An unlieged lordling seeks favor with his liege's conqueror, then? My father used to say that blood, blades and ash are the true coin of loyalty." He shrugged. "I will give them audience. See that they are brought to me."
"Yes, Your Highness." Lord Varing departed, and Cwerith went back to looking over his army, which it seemed was about to gain its first new allies. He could not help but smile.
A short while later Lord Varing returned with the new arrivals. Leading them was an aged man of bent frame, and he was followed by seven younger men who ranged from manhood to the youngest who was barely old enough to fit his feet into his horse's stirrups. Each of these men wore chain armor and cloaks which at first glance appeared very fine, but upon closer inspection were not fine at all. The armor was dull and rusty in spots, and there many links missing from the suits; the cloaks were threadbare and patched. Nevertheless, the old man who led this party walked as straight as his bent frame would permit, his head held as high as was possible.
"Your Highness," Lord Varing said, "may I present Baron Gaddamar ap Gaddrach, Lord of the Lower Severn Valley."
The old man stepped closer to the torchlight and bowed slightly. "Greetings, My Liege," he said in a raspy voice. "It grieves me that the honor of coming before the High King of Prydein is only mine so late in my life. I hope you will forgive me that I do not kneel; I fear that these old bones of mine would never straighten again." He spread his hands in over-elaborate apology and bowed again, clearly exaggerating the pain the motion caused him. "I come to pledge to you my unfailing service and that of my sons."
King Cwerith looked over the man and his sons. They all shared the same black curly hair, the same flat nose, the same wide mouth, and the same air of general simplicity. The only real difference was that the Baron's hair had gone white.
"Handsome men," King Cwerith said. "Do they take after their mother?"
The Baron grinned, and even in the dim torchlight Cwerith could see that at least three of his teeth were rotten. "I should hope not, since the seven were given me by four women."
King Cwerith smiled dryly at that. Gaddamar's sons stood perfectly still, but three of them turned a pleasant shade of crimson at the Baron's words. "Impressive," King Cwerith said as he reached for a cup of wine. "So, you were late a liegeman of Lord Matholyn?"
"In truth, I was," Baron Gaddamar said. "I judged him a decent lord, it must be said. But these are hard times, and his realm appears to have passed." His smile was bland now.
Scum, Cwerith thought. A craven who sits out the battle and then opens his arms for the victor. The only difference between him and a common whore is what is between his legs.
Lord Varing cleared his throat and stepped forward. "Your leave, My Lord?" A rider had just come bearing news. After a curt nod from King Cwerith, Lord Varing took the stepped outside the tent to confer with the man. Cwerith turned back to the Baron.
"I know something about the loyalties Lord Matholyn demanded," he said. "He would have required you to swear fealty to Irlaris as well. What of your oath to him?"
The Baron shrugged. "Irlaris is old."
"So are you." King Cwerith's eyes held the Baron's in an icy gaze.
"That I am," Baron Gaddamar admitted. "But I still have the strength of my sons behind me. Irlaris is growing weaker with each passing day, and now the land itself is having trouble shaking the winter from its bones. Irlaris has had fifty-six years. It is time for a new King, a strong King, and yours is the only strength now showing, My Liege." Again that damned shallow bow.
"And if others show their strength?" King Cwerith asked.
"How can the strength of any other man compare to that of the rightful High King of Prydein? Surely the favor of the Goddess will be yours."
King Cwerith sipped the wine. "Yes, the Goddess...." His voice trailed off as Lord Varing returned from his conference with the rider.
"I beg your pardon, Your Highness," Varing said, "but a group of scouts sent by Duke Cunaddyr has been shadowing our movements."
King Cwerith grimaced. "Who discovered them?" he asked, though he already knew the answer to that question by the expression of distaste on Lord Varing's face before he answered.
"It was Cassion's men," Lord Varing said. "Three escaped, but two were taken. Will you want them questioned?"
"They are scouts? Nothing more?"
"It seems so, Your Highness."
"Then we will not question them," King Cwerith said. "Mere scouts are not likely to have any information that would be useful. We already know where Duke Cunaddyr is, and we know that he will find it very difficult reaching Bedwyn before we do. Nothing else these men can tell us is likely to be of any import. Cassion may do with them as he wills."
"I believe he expected that you would be of such mind," Lord Varing said, his foul expression becoming deeper. "He is now preparing the men for use as an offering."
Cwerith snorted. "I hope he doesn't get too much blood on his robes, unlike the last offering he made." He chuckled at the memory. The last offering had been unusually messy, and the sight of Cassion covered in the blood of his offering had given Cwerith his first true laugh in quite some time.
Baron Gaddamar cleared his throat. "Forgive me, Your Highness," he said. "Who is this Cassion?"
"He is my Priest," King Cwerith replied.
"A Priest?" The Baron blinked. "What manner of offering is he preparing? The Goddess does not--" His voice trailed off in bewilderment. No Priest of Dona would do such a thing. Dona was the Mother of Life. Blood offerings were unheard of in centuries -- except for the Druids, of course.
King Cwerith turned away from the Baron and looked down into his cup of wine. "The Goddess is not the only power, Baron Gaddamar. Some are as old as she, and some are even older. And some are stronger."
Now the Baron paled visibly. "My Liege….you can't mean--"
"Why not?" King Cwerith snapped. "The land withers and Kings die. Should we take the Goddess's strength to be permanent, if the fruits of her power are not?"
"This is blasphemous!" one of Gaddamar's sons blurted out. The Baron, at an utter loss for words, looked from King Cwerith to Lord Varing, and back again.
"Have care, boy." King Cwerith's smile was tight and cold. "I do not lightly tolerate impudence." He stood and clasped his hands behind his back. "Our allegiance to Gods and Goddesses is no different from the fealty we swear to Kings and Lords. We go where the strength lies. Isn't that true, my good Baron?"
Baron Gaddamar could only give one slack-jawed nod in reply.
"Perhaps," King Cwerith said, "it would do you well to see the celebrations first-hand. Varing, bring my horse. I will take the Baron and his sons to see what Cassion can buy with freshly offered blood."
"Yes, Your Highness." Varing left, and King Cwerith turned back to the Baron.
"I assume you have a Priest in your service," he said.
"A Priestess, actually," the Baron said weakly. "She ministered the First Blessing to each of my sons. She has been with me for many years."
"Dismiss her," King Cwerith said. "She will be of no further use to you."
King Cwerith cut him off with a single gesture, holding up his hand. Then he glanced at the Baron's sons. "Have I said how the God prefers handsome blood?" he asked.
Baron Gaddamar opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. The easy strength, the conniving assurance, was gone. "I will dismiss her," he said. "It shall be as you command, My Liege." And he sank to one knee, his limbs having suddenly found new suppleness.
"I welcome you to my service, Baron Gaddamar. May your loyalty be unwavering and true." He held out his hand, and the Baron kissed his ring.
It was all Cwerith could do not to order this man's execution on the spot. It is as I thought. He is a craven dog who will dance to any piper's tune. He turned and, donning his cloak, felt the same sense of thrill that he always felt when he went to watch one of Cassion's bloodlettings. And perhaps, as was occasionally the case, the blood would be his own....
Every spare bed, cot, or bench in Briston had been claimed by one or more members of Duke Cunaddyr's army, so Gwyn, Brother Malcolm, and Brother Llyad were forced to lodge that evening in the Innkeeper's personal stableyard. Space had been found for Lord Matholyn and his men, since one did not make a habit of placing a fellow ruler in a stableyard for the evening, but there was simply no room for the others. Sir Baigent, though, was uneasy with the three others having to sleep alone in the stables, and so he took his blanket and roll and joined them. Gwyn felt much more at ease knowing that the knight was quartered with them. Duke Cunaddyr had promised them that they would be undisturbed, but she knew of the tendencies of men-at-arms to become aroused and she did not wish to experience those tendencies firsthand.
It was a three-walled building, with the horses tied to railings against the rear wall of the enclosure. The only steeds quartered here, other than their own, were those of Duke Cunaddyr himself and his highest entourage: very fine horses indeed. There was plenty of room to be found amongst the piles of hay, and even though the night was cold, there was a certain coziness to the place. Now they were smoothing down the stall in which they would rest, moving some of the hay to one side so that there would be enough room. They spread their blankets out on the hay, and in minutes the two clerics all asleep. Gwyn, though, couldn't sleep at all. As she laid down on the hay and pulled her blanket up over her she realized how amazingly exhausted she was, and still she could not sleep. It was not the quartering that bothered her. Too much had happened, to many strange thoughts were running through her mind. Just two nights before she had settled in to bed in her chamber on Tintagel, and just two nights before the affairs of Kings and Lords and the Fair Folk and the Goddess had seemed a world away.
Sir Baigent also remained awake a while after the others had dropped off, sitting with his back against the side of the stall in which they were sleeping. Gwyn's heart ached for him. Losing her father had been terribly painful, a loss which in many ways she still felt to this very day, nearly ten years later. Today Sir Baigent had lost everyone he knew, and Gwyn could barely guess at the pain in his heart for such a loss. He shed no tears; he merely sat still, listening for a time to the distant sounds of Cunaddyr's men passing the time in their camp: drunken songs, laughter, arguments, snoring, and the shifting of the horses. The world marched on, even as people and cities died. Gwyn wished that there was something that she could say, but even as she wished it she knew that there were no words she could offer that might address what was in Sir Baigent's heart. She ended up saying a silent prayer to Dona to bring him peace. Finally, she too put down her head and went to sleep.
Gwyn stood in a field, surrounded by a dense fog; but even so she knew where she was. She was on her father's homestead, and in the distance she heard the familiar sea.
"Father!" she called out. Her voice vanished into the fog, with no echo -- as if she had said nothing at all.
As she stood rooted to that one spot the fog began to dissipate into the morning sky. But there was still no sun -- just low-hanging gray clouds that cast a ghostly pall on the world. Gwyn was between the cottage and the sea, watching as her father emerged from the front door and walk onto the path that led from the door to the sea where his boat was beached. He carried a large bundle in his arms.
"Father!" Gwyn cried - but he gave no indication at all that he had heard her. She ran to the path but he only walked on without so much as glancing at her. He was young again -- younger than she ever remembered seeing him -- but he was sad, and Gwyn saw now that the bundle in his arms was a woman wrapped in a woolen blanket. He walked on by, down to the sea.
"Father!" she cried again. "Father, please!" But still he could not hear her, and down he went to the side of the sea. She took a few steps after him, but then the fog closed about her again and she felt the distance between her and her father become as wide as a gulf - no, wider than that: as wide as the sea itself. And for the briefest of seconds, before the world was gone behind the fog, Gwyn heard from behind, back at the cottage, the crying of a babe.
After a very long time during which all she could hear was the wind and the waves, the fog lifted again. She turned again toward the cottage and saw that it was now rundown and decaying, as though it had not been lived in for many years. Gwyn stepped toward it, but she could not bring herself to come within twenty or so paces of what had been her home before her father had died and Brother Malcolm had come to take her to Tintagel. Instead she turned and walked down toward the sea, but again she had to stop. There was the spot on the beach where she and Brother Malcolm had watched as three strong men pushed a wooden boat into the water, with her father's sleeping body aboard. The tide had carried it out quickly and she had watched it until it had disappeared completely from view and some time after. She stood for a long time, pondering the great gray expanse of the sea; and then the fog returned - but before it closed about her completely, she thought she saw a woman emerging from beneath the surface of the water.
Gwyn woke with a start and sat up. When she rubbed her eyes she saw that the meadow by the sea was gone, replaced by the walls of a horse-stall in Briston, and around her were sleeping animals and three men. A chill ran through her as she recalled the dream. She had never dreamed of her mother before.
She wondered how many hours had gone by. Sir Baigent had finally fallen asleep and the torch in the wall-sconce above had burned down to that point where it simply blew forth a single, lonely wisp of smoke. She listened to the sounds outside where some of the Duke's men were still carousing. Even now, two drunken soldiers were stumbling past the stable entrance, no doubt heading for some other game or bottle. These two men raised their voices in the most horrid song she had ever heard, and only after they had stammered through a complete verse did she recognize the tune as "I'll Be Coming Home My Lady", one of the more popular songs of the day.
As the two drunkards moved along, away from the stable, Gwyn became aware of a new sound: a rustling through the hay in the stall next to theirs. Someone was in the stable with them. She froze, but the rustling next door came no closer and became no louder. As she listened for many minutes, she became a little less afraid and decided to see who had decided to take lodging with them. She pulled on her boots as silently as she could and then stood up, taking care to keep her head down, below the wall of the stall which only came up to her shoulders. Moving slowly, very slowly, she stepped across the hay, past the sleeping Sir Baigent and then onto the wooden floor of the stable where there was no hay. Once there she stopped in her tracks and listened. After a moment there was more rustling, and she then began to creep down the corridor to the entrance to the stall next door. Very carefully she placed one toe after another, trying to keep from making any sound at all. The rustling in the hay was nearly drowned out by the rushing blood in her ears. At one point she stepped on a husk of wheat or a few grains of oat, and the resulting crunch was perhaps the loudest sound she had ever heard in her life. She held still for as long as she dared before her legs began to ache, so hard was she straining for complete silence. Moving again, she took one step and then another and then still another -- when the board underneath her foot let out a long, slow creeeeek. In a heartbeat she felt her blood rush to her cheeks and she froze in place, now listening hard for any sign that whoever was in the stall next door had heard. Finally she heard the rustling start again, and she resumed her careful movement toward the entrance which was just three steps away. She was close, very close.
Someone else, though, was closer. As she was lifting her foot from the floor in another step, there was the rasp of a steel blade being ripped from its scabbard. Before she knew what was happening, Sir Baigent had bounded over the wall into the stall next door. She could hear him shouting at whoever it was.
"You make too much noise, fool!" he was hollering. "What are you doing in here with us? Into the light! Let us have a look at you!" As she watched, the intruder lurched right past her and slammed into the wall opposite the door, and with a grunt dropped to the floor. Now Sir Baigent emerged from the stall, sword in one hand and a freshly lit torch in the other. "Get up, lout! Show your face!"
"Forgive me, Sir Knight," the intruder said. "I meant no trespass." He lifted his face, and Sir Baigent's jaw dropped.
"You remember my name," the man said with a grateful smile. "I am surprised; it was only one night that we were camped together at the Crossroads."
"You'll find I have a far better memory than most," Sir Baigent said. "I doubt I will soon forget you skulking about in these stables." Nevertheless, he lowered his blade.
Brother Malcolm and Brother Llyad had awoken at last and came now, having lit two torches; in the fresh light Gwyn could now get a good look at the man who stood before them. He was taller than she, and slightly taller even than Sir Baigent, but he was nowhere near as powerfully muscled as the knight. His features were fine and his long sandy hair was braided into a thin knot which he wore looped over his left shoulder. Gwyn glanced down at his cloak and saw that it was made of a very distinctive patchwork coloring -- a coloring that most in Prydein knew well and revered. She gaped as she realized that standing here before her, in this dirty stable, was one of the Nine Bards of Prydein. He shrugged at the companions.
"My name is Estren," he said. "I am a harper, and I came in here to get some sleep after providing some diversion for the men here. Had I realized that you were already here, I would have made quieter entry. Forgive me my restlessness."
"You're not any mere harper," Brother Malcolm said as his wits returned, as they were always slow to do after a hasty awakening. "Your cloak gives that much away. You are one of the Nine."
"That he is," Sir Baigent said as he returned his blade to its scabbard.
"Aye," Estren said. "Though I would never call any harper a mere harper; it is, after all, the noblest of the Bardic instruments. Of course, should you ever meet Drudwas -- that sad, deluded piper -- you might hear an argument on that point."
"Surely the Duke would provide you with accomodation befitting a Bard of Prydein," Sir Baigent said. "What are you doing creeping about in these stables?"
"I am a Bard, Sir Knight," he replied. He dusted himself off and rubbing his jaw, which was sporting a mark that would be a nasty bruise come morning. "I have slept so long in straw and hay that a mattress or cot seems as a luxury to me. Even when I lodge with a King, I always request quartering in the stables. A Bard must never become accustomed to fine trappings, lest the wish to wander become instead the wish for permanence, and that part of the soul that makes him or her a Bard die, never to be reborn."
Gwyn raised her eyebrows. Clearly Estren had given that very answer to that very question many times.
The bard stood up, still rubbing his jaw. "This was a longer night for me than most," he said. "Any later and I fear you would have ended all of my nights without giving me benefit of questioning."
Gwyn turned to Sir Baigent. "How do you know one of the Bards of Prydein?" she asked. The closest she had ever come to seeing a Bard was her ill-fated expedition with Dana when she had been younger and more foolish.
"I have met five of the Nine over the years," Sir Baigent said. "Being seneschal to a Lord has that benefit, although two of those have died since then. As for this one, some months ago I led an expedition to the Sea Country." A clouded look passed over him. "On our first night out we encountered this man at the Crossroads. There, while we camped, he sang for us."
"That is among the greatest of fortunes," Brother Malcolm said. "No Bard has visited Tintagel in twelve years -- although there was one in a nearby village some time ago." He glanced at Gwyn, and she turned red at the reminder of the escapade.
"We are the keepers of the history of Prydein," Estren said. "We have to be where the history is being shaped, if we are to properly bear witness to its passing. Lyonesse has been dormant for many years, many more than twelve." He sighed. "For my part, though, I admit that we have been lax in attending to all the peoples of Prydein. I have always said that our purpose is also to share the history with the people, perhaps even more so now that dark times are coming. And it has always been that the people that shape history to its greatest tend to arrive from precisely the places we tend to ignore."
Moreso than you know, Gwyn thought.
"The Bardic commitment is difficult," Estren went on. "And even though we might not come often enough to demonstrate our admiration in person, Tintagel has no greater ally in purpose than the Nine Bards, for your mission is, in its way, the same as ours."
And I thought Brother Denys had a silver tongue, Gwyn thought.
Estren turned to Sir Baigent. "I sang for you, that night at the Crossroads; and you said afterward that if our paths ever crossed again you would give me leave to sing again. Do you still hold that offer open?"
Sir Baigent stiffened, and a pained expression came to his face. "Have you written a new lyric?" he asked, his voice now raw and soft.
Estren nodded. "Its writing taxed my heart and wrung tears from eyes that I thought had no more tears to give. But I saw what transpired, and thus writing fell to me."
Sir Baigent glanced at the others, his gaze lingering on Gwyn, before replying. "Estren of the Nine Bards, I would hear your song." The formal words were the standard ones for requesting song from one of the Nine. Estren nodded and fetched his harp and a milking stool from his stall. The others settled onto beds of straw to listen to the Bard's offering.
"I was in the hills above Caer Camyrdin when Cwerith's armies came. This is the way that I saw it."
He plucked out a simple melody on the harp and then repeated it, adding lush harmony on that second time the like of which Gwyn had never before heard. His fingers floated across the strings, never appearing to actually touch them, as he played a tune of terrible sadness. And yet there was no despair in that sadness, only the melancholy of things lost. Finally Estren lifted his voice above the tones of the harp, singing in his strong clear tenor of the fall of Caer Camyrdin. Sir Baigent bowed his head.
The song told of how the armies came with the setting of the sun, and how Caer Camyrdin looked as if it were bathed in fire from Estren's vantage point in the hills, overlooking the city and the Severn and the sea beyond. He sang of how the city sent a party of riders to parley with King Cwerith, and then the song took a dark turn as he sang of how Cwerith's men set upon the messengers and slew them. Then he sang of horns, terrible horns that rang across the field as the King of Caer Mastagg gave the order for the charge. The song became darker and darker as it told of the fall, one by one, of the towers of Caer Camyrdin and the setting of the fires that eventually swept across the city. Each time Gwyn thought that the song could not become more hard to bear, it did. Passion left Estren's voice when he sang about the way Cwerith's men hunted down the survivors and killed them all. He sang of the refugees that escaped, so terribly few in number. The song sounded very old, as Bardic songs usually do; Gwyn had to remind herself more than once that the events Estren was describing had happened just days before. It was, in the end, the saddest lament Gwyn had ever heard. Estren ended the song on an unresolved chord, the notes of which hung in the air. When they had at last faded away he set the harp aside and said to no one in particular, "I somehow have the sense that the song is unfinished."
Sir Baigent stood and gave the formal response to a Bardic performance. "You do us honor with your words and tones," he said. Then he turned and went alone back to their horse-stall. The others slept in Estren's stall for that night, leaving the knight alone. Gwyn thought that he should not be alone just now, but still she couldn't bring herself to go to him. She would not know what to say, and certainly he would find no comfort in the words of an Adept of Tintagel anyway. She rolled over and dropped off to sleep, and when she awoke the next morning she remembered none of her dreams.
She awoke to a gentle shaking, and she pushed the hand away. "It's too early," she muttered.
"It is not early enough." It was Brother Malcolm's voice, whispering directly into her ear. "It is time to ask for the Morning Blessing."
The Morning Blessing? Am I back on Tintagel? Was it all a dream? As Gwyn rolled over a sharp piece of straw dug into her backside, and she realized that it was quite real. Brother Malcolm stood above her, and next to him was Brother Llyad. She rose and brushed straw from her clothes. The Bard was still asleep, and Sir Baigent's snoring could be heard in the stall next door. Gwyn shuddered to think of what his dreams that night must have been like.
"Come," Brother Malcolm said, gesturing for her to follow. He led them to the stall nearest the front of the stable, where they knelt amidst the straw and two horses to recite the Morning Blessing. Gwyn could hear horns and great activity outside, and she realized that last night there had been six horses here, not two.
"What is happening?" she asked.
"It sounds like the Duke is preparing to march," Brother Malcolm answered.
"With Camyrdin taken," Brother Llyad said, "Cwerith's next target will be Bedwyn."
"Such things are not our concern," Brother Malcolm replied. "Not at this moment, anyway. Let us say the Blessing." He lifted his head to the ceiling, and Gwyn followed suit along with Brother Llyad. "Merciful Goddess, hear us this day...." Thus they recited the Morning Blessing. When they were finished they returned to the stalls to find that Sir Baigent and Estren were awake.
"Good morning, friends," Brother Malcolm said. "I hope your sleep was restful."
"Sleep will not be restful for some time," Sir Baigent said gruffly. Gwyn could see in the knight none of the confidence and humor of before, when he had attacked the wolves in the glen and bound her wound which suddenly ached anew this morning. His eyes were almost lifeless now, and he seemed to have aged overnight. Which, in truth, he had.
"I see the Duke is getting ready to return to Bedwyn," Estren observed.
"That he is," Sir Baigent said as he fastened his swordbelt. "We should go before we are sent for."
With that, he turned and walked briskly out of the stable, clearly expecting them to follow although he did not so much as look back to see if they had done so. The companions had to walk very quickly to avoid losing him in the crowd.
As they exited the stable, Gwyn now saw more of what was happening within the town. The center square was now a loading area where dozens of wagons were being loaded with supplies: barrels of food and water, blankets, tent-poles, and then weapons: swords, spears, pikes, clubs, hammers, flails, scythes; there was one wagon filled to capacity with nothing but thousands of arrows. Any implement of war imaginable could be found there, many freshly forged. That smithy had been busy indeed. When each wagon was fully loaded its driver would put the whip to his team of draft-horses and the wagon would pull away, heading for the road and making way for the next in line. There were also hundreds of soldiers about preparing for march, and in the morning light Gwyn could look through the spaces between the buildings to the fields beyond the town's edge where thousands of men were breaking camp.
"Is the Duke's entire army here?" Gwyn asked.
"A good portion of it is," Sir Baigent replied. "What he has been able to amass in the time allowed him, in any event. There are still many of his liegemen, mostly to the east and south of Bedwyn, who are not here. And with Duncan coming from the east, who knows if those lords will ever come to the Duke's banner."
He led them to the inn and into the storeroom-turned-council chamber, where the Duke was holding heated tactical discussions with Sir Jules and four others over a number of maps spread across the table. Lord Matholyn was also there, standing silently in the background. One of the other men was the coal-eyed cleric who had been there the night before; the others were new arrivals who were obviously scouts freshly returned with news: they had not bothered to change from the clothes which they had worn to ride into town with, their boots were muddy, their hair unkempt, and their faces bore three days' growth of beard. As they entered, the Duke and his minions looked up.
"Good morning to you all," Duke Cunaddyr said. "Did you rest well?"
"Well enough," Sir Baigent answered. "It turns out that we had a stable-mate. He gave us entertainment." He indicated Estren, who had settled down onto a stool in the corner. There was not even the slightest trace of a smile on Sir Baigent's face. Lord Matholyn lowered his eyes, and the Duke nodded.
"I see," said the Duke. "I think I know what song he performed. I grieve that he had to compose it."
There was a brief and uncomfortable silence then, which was broken when Lord Matholyn stepped forward and indicated the three riders.
"The Duke sent five men to scout Cwerith's movements. These three returned last night after you quit our company."
"The other two?" Sir Baigent asked.
Matholyn shook his head. "Captured. There is little question that they are dead now. They would have had little information for Cwerith to torture out of them."
He brought them to the table and gestured to the maps, the sight of which suddenly reminded Gwyn of Dana and the long nights she had spent helping her friend with map-lore while her friend helped her with herbistry. How could memories mere days old seem so far away, so distant?
Lord Matholyn selected a map and pointed at it. "Cwerith has forded the Severn," he said. "He is moving southeast into Duke Cunaddyr's realm. There is little doubt: Cwerith is making for Bedwyn, and he has taken much of the land between us and Duke Cunaddyr's city."
"Taken?" Sir Jules snorted. "Had given to him, more likely. The promise of gold and lands will turn the loyalties of most piddling lords, and the lords of that particular region are more piddling than most."
"Not all of them, Jules," Duke Cunaddyr said. "More than a few are still here, ready to bleed and die."
"And what of those who are not?" Sir Jules asked. Gwyn saw he was not a man who backed away from a quarrel.
"They will be treated accordingly, when next we meet." The Duke looked up at the three exhausted scouts. "Go, men, and find what refreshment you can. I regret that I can only reward your efforts with march and war."
"As you command, Your Grace," one of them said. The others muttered the same, and then the three men dragged themselves out of the room. When they were gone, Lord Matholyn spoke.
"We have been cut off from Bedwyn and any aid from High King Irlaris. After Bedwyn, Cwerith will move on Londia and Irlaris himself where he will be met by that Caledonian whoreson Duncan." He straightened and squared his shoulders. "Tomorrow we march for Bedwyn ourselves."
"I don't understand," Gwyn blurted out. "Why won't the High King go to battle?"
"He is old and weak," Sir Jules said.
"Have a care, Jules," the Duke said severely. "He is still High King."
"Until he dies, and he has no sons to take his place. It is well-known that his wife our Queen was barren, and he refused to take another."
"What are you saying?" Lord Matholyn asked.
"Merely that this war would have happened anyway when the High King died," Sir Jules said. "I'm not a learned monk -- nor am I a pretty Adept -- but I know enough history to know what happens when a King dies without heir."
Lord Matholyn looked at Gwyn. "The answer to that concern might well surprise you, Jules," Matholyn said.
Gwyn's eyes widened. She glanced at the Priest, whose black eyes were narrowly studying her. He suspects.
"Excuse me," Brother Llyad interjected. "Did you not just say that we are cut off from Bedwyn? If we march there, how will we do so without directly confronting King Cwerith?"
"The sea," Gwyn said. She already knew the answer without looking at the map. It was the only answer that sufficed.
"Don't lose this one, Brothers," the Duke said, pointing at Gwyn. "She is more perceptive than most, and she has the right of it. We will march south and east until we reach the sea, and then on to Bornmuth. Once there we will board ships and sail up the River Test into Bedwyn." He nodded in satisfaction at the plan and smiled at Sir Jules. "And even if we reach Bedwyn after Cwerith does, at least he will not--" and then he stopped suddenly, his face turning red.
"He will not find it so easily taken as Caer Camyrdin," Lord Matholyn finished the thought. "Bedwyn will have warning. Your city knows that Cwerith is coming, and your city will have her Lord there when her citizens need him."
"What happened at Camyrdin was not your fault, Matholyn ap Macholugh." The Duke's voice was soft. "Had you been there, we would have sung your laments in truth instead of in fear of truth."
"It was my place and my duty to be there," Lord Matholyn replied.
Gwyn glanced at Sir Baigent, whose expression was like stone. To survive a war is not always a blessing, it was written in the Intonations of Orrynne. Gwyn had never understood that saying. Not until now.
It was Brother Llyad who stepped forward and broke the silence. "Do not be so quick to take unfair blame, My Lord," he said. "You had reason to come to Tintagel."
Lord Matholyn again looked at Gwyn, and as a lump formed in her throat she was surprised to see a grim smile on his face. "Yes, Brother, I suppose I did. And that reason may be the most important of all."
"What do I not know?" Duke Cunaddyr asked. "Why were you are Tintagel? You surely didn't go there out of a sense of longing for the grounds of your childhood days."
"No one relishes their childhood days on Tintagel, unless their wits are dulled by the salt air," Matholyn said. "No, I went there because there have been signs."
Gwyn heard a sharp, in-drawn breath from the coal-eyed cleric.
"Signs," the Duke echoed.
"Have care, Your Grace," the cleric said, finally speaking for the first time in a voice that was falsely commanding. "I fear that Lord Matholyn's thinking may have been influenced by some of the more mystical of Dona's followers."
Lord Matholyn scowled. "You have always been a practical man, Terryn."
"Father Terryn," the Priest corrected. "I have achieved the Order of the Staff since we last spoke." The Order of the Staff was the highest rank within Dona's Priesthood; Father Damogan was also one of its members. Strangely, this man -- Father Terryn -- did not have his staff of office with him, nor was it even visible anywhere in the room. She heard Brother Malcolm clear his throat beside her, and she hastily joined him and Brother Llyad in bowing before this new Lord Priest.
"May you walk your path with the blessing of Dona, Father," Brother Malcolm said.
"And may her light shine your way," Father Terryn replied. "I have never been to Tintagel, alas. But I am familiar with the thinking that transpires there."
"Then perhaps you might illuminate me, Terryn," Duke Cunaddyr said. "You know that I have not made any true effort to study into the clerical matters."
"And your refusal thus has gone against all of my counsel," Father Terryn said, making no effort at all to soften his chiding of his lord. "I have heard other Priests mention the same 'signs' to which Lord Matholyn now refers. He clearly believes that these events herald the arrival of the Promised King."
Gwyn expected an outburst of some kind, but none followed. Duke Cunaddyr gaped at Father Terryn's words, and even Sir Jules -- who might have been counted on to give a clever witticism -- remained silent.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::