:: Sunday, April 17, 2005 ::
Sir Baigent set a brisk pace as they rode into the hilly country east of Briston. The landscape here was quite different from that which Gwyn had known in Lyonesse. The hills were higher and rockier with their sides dotted by small forests, and the valleys were deeper. She also knew that somewhere before them lay Walding Wood, the southernmost of Prydein's deep forests. Woods in Lyonesse were thin and sparse, and Gwyn imagined with apprehension the heart of a dark forest where even at noon the light was like twilight. There were tales, dark tales mostly, of the things that dwelled in the deepest of woods.
What struck Gwyn most about this region, though, was that the smell of the sea had dwindled away completely. She had spent almost all her life within a few miles of the sea, but now the sea was more than a day's ride away, and that distance would only grow. This air was different to her and it filled her with disquiet.
The first day was fairly uneventful. They passed one small group of armed men who were clearly mercenaries going to throw their lot in with King Cwerith, and the leader of those men slowed his horse to a slow walk as the companions rode by. Gwyn tried not to appear fearful as she saw the man flex his hand on the pommel of his sword, but evidently he decided that these pathetic, dirty-looking travelers -- only two of whom were even armed -- were hardly worth even the effort to greet them, much less accost them. There were also groups of farmers and one tinker who appeared to have nothing whatsoever in his cart; to this man Sir Baigent flipped a coin and rode away without waiting for thanks, which the man didn't offer anyhow. The people they saw looked weary and weak. The hardship of the land was writ upon their faces, and Gwyn tried to focus her attention merely on staying warm. They didn't speak much, and Sir Baigent spoke not at all.
When darkness finally fell they made camp at the side of a wide stream. There was a well-worn site under a copse of trees that had seen common use by other travelers on this road. Here Sir Baigent spoke for the first time, if only to give directions. The Knight's silence had bothered Gwyn most of all. She could not read his expressions, and she wanted to say something to comfort him. The one time she ventured to do so, however, he had shot her a look that clearly indicated his desire that she remain silent before she had even opened her mouth. That single glance conveyed more anger than nearly anything he could have said. She ended up saying nothing at all.
After they made camp and built a fire, Sir Baigent opened the provisions and doled out a meal of hard bread and dried meat. "We should have enough to get to the Giants' Dance," he said. "But we should still be careful about how much we use. We don't know how well-provided the Druids will be."
"They will provide," Brother Llyad remarked.
"I do have my bow," Gwyn offered. "There will be game along the roads, and especially if we have to travel across country."
"You are too important to be going off alone on hunting excursions, which would take too much time," Sir Baigent said without looking at her. "And besides, we may have need of your arrows when we encounter Cwerith's men."
Gwyn said nothing in reply. Normally she might have argued the point -- it was no great matter to shoot a rabbit or, if they were very fortunate, a deer if they happened upon one while traveling -- but just now, arguing anything with Sir Baigent was as pointless as it was unwise.
They passed the remainder of the meal in silence. After they finished eating, Estren sang one of the Tales of King Prystyl. Gwyn loved those old stories of heroic deeds by valiant people as they forged a kingdom from the rubble of the Cataclysm. The legends were always welcome, providing certain comfort in uncertain times, and Estren's voice brought the wonderful essences of those tales shining through in a way Gwyn had never known -- the difference between hearing those tales told by a learned Priest or itinerant musician and one of the Nine Bards of Prydein. The world seemed slightly warmer and less dark as Gwyn listened, but during the song Sir Baigent rose and walked a short distance away from the fire, to where the horses were standing. There he sat upon the ground and gazed up at the stars. Gwyn began to go after him, but she was restrained by a hand on her arm. The hand was Brother Llyad's, and he shook his head.
"He needs to be alone now," he said. "The wound in his heart will be a very long time in healing, if such hurts can be said to ever truly heal at all. He has lost so much. Perhaps the best he could ever hope for is a closing of the wound."
Gwyn nodded and sat back down. But does he need to suffer alone?
Estren finally reached a point where he could stop singing, for the tales of King Prystyl all tended to braid into one another so that in a proper telling, a tale begun might become another tale at the ending. Once his voice had faded away the companions settled back on their rolls and went to sleep. Estren and Brother Llyad dropped off to sleep almost immediately, but Gwyn lay awake for a long while listening to Brother Llyad's fitful snoring. A steady breeze stirred the trees, and as the campfire dwindled the air became colder and colder.
Gwyn rolled over. How strange that the course of one's life could change so utterly, in a march of time so short that the previous course, just days before, now seemed as distant a memory as one's very childhood. Just seven days before her only concern had been studying for the Trials so that she could become a Priestess of Tintagel and devote her life both to learning and the Goddess. And now? Dona alone knew if she would ever even see Tintagel again, much less return there as a consecrated Sister. A week ago she had been an Adept. Now she was the Welcomer of the Promised King.
Eventually she became frustrated with awaiting sleep and bored with tracing the constellations that she could see in the spaces framed by the trees, so she sat up. With a start she saw that someone was sitting directly across the campfire, looking at her. She sighed with relief when she saw that it was Sir Baigent. He had come back to the fire, and he actually smiled a little -- albeit without humor -- as she relaxed.
"It got a bit cold over by the horses," he said.
"It's cold everywhere," she replied.
"Yes, it is," he said, and he placed two logs on the fire. "The day before we left Caer Camyrdin for Tintagel I was speaking with Yliane. She is one of the finest fisherfolk we've ever known -- we even called her "The Fish Queen". They say that the tiller of a fishing boat should not be steered by weak women, but Yliane is stronger than many men of arms that I know."
Gwyn stifled a shiver and wrapped her arms around her knees, which she had gathered before her. She did not want to disturb Sir Baigent, now that he was speaking at last.
"Yliane has led our boats to sea for almost as many years as Lord Matholyn has led our city and realm," he went on. "And she has weathered the worst of all the storms. She came to me because she had noticed lately a decline in the catch. The fishermen were bringing back nets that were half-empty. She told me that the spring sea hadn't come; that with each dawn they were sailing out to winter waters still. Everyone speaks of signs, and Yliane saw signs in the fish." He shook his head. "I suppose she couldn't weather the last storm that came while her boat was still tied to the pier." He fell silent for a moment, and then he looked up at her. "Do you believe that the Promised King is really coming back?"
The sudden nature of the question took her by surprise, and she groped for words. "I do," she finally said. "But it is not an easy thing to believe."
"No more so than that you are half-Fairy," he said.
Gwyn picked up a stick and began absently stirring the coals of the campfire. "What about you, Sir Baigent? Do you believe?"
He gazed into the fire a while before answering. "I don't know what to believe anymore," he said. "I wouldn't have believed that Cwerith was capable of attacking Camyrdin at dusk without so much as a parley. I wouldn't have believed that I would be traveling with a Bard and two clerics, or that this journey is more important than the war that my lord is going to fight. I wouldn't have believed a great many things." He let out a sigh. "The Promised King? I don't know. Perhaps it doesn't matter. I haven't been given much choice." He looked up at her. "It always seemed a nice enough little legend to me - the King who would return in the land's darkest days, when he would vanquish the Dark and restore the Kingdom. But if we are to sit and wait for him to save us, then I wonder what place men have to choose their own fates. Lord Matholyn and I left Camyrdin's borders to find you, it seems. And while we were gone...." His voice trailed off.
"Unfair, Sir Knight," she said. "Why do men of arms only define what is good by who is dead afterwards?" She saw him stiffen, and she realized that her tone had been sharper than she intended. Or perhaps it had not, after all; she was so tired of men and their insistence on battles and blood and death.
"Have you known many men of arms, to be able to make such a judgment of us?" he asked.
Gwyn felt her face redden, and she finally had to shake her head. "Judgment seems to come easy to me," she said. "Brother Malcolm has held it as one of my faults." She leaned forward. "I did not ask for this any more than you did, or anyone. The burden was put upon me, for good or ill. We do not always choose our duties. Sometimes we are chosen for them."
"That is an easy sentiment for a cleric," Sir Baigent said. "Or a cleric-in-training, as the case may be. But then, I've never thought highly of clerics. They try to find meaning in the words on a page."
"Is that a less worthy place to find meaning than on the edge of a sword?" Gwyn asked, now intending every bit of her sharp tone.
Sir Baigent gave a half-smile. "Now which of us is unfair, my Lady?"
She bit her lip. "I am not known on Tintagel for self-restraint."
"I was afraid that I was not seeing the real Lady Gwynwhyfar," he said. "I suspect Brother Malcolm has his hands full, with you."
She scowled at the jibe, and he leaned back against a rock and sipped water from a skin.
"The edge of a sword is what I have been given," he continued. "That is less a gift than the power of the Fair Folk, isn't it?" He shrugged and flipped a stone over his shoulder. "It appears that we are both unfair."
"Many things are unfair," Gwyn said. "Perhaps it is folly to seek fairness at all. If I could not choose the duty itself, then at least I can choose to see it done as best I can. I owe the Goddess that much." She looked at him now and spoke with a much softer tone. "None of us go through life with only one duty, from birth to grave. If your duty to Camyrdin is over, perhaps that is because there is another duty awaiting you."
"Another fine clerical sentiment," Sir Baigent said. "They have taught you well on that island of yours."
Gwyn flushed. She had not meant to sound trite at all; he was belittling her nonetheless. She opened her mouth to deliver a hasty retort, but then she decided not to deliver it. There had been enough such things.
Sir Baigent chuckled."It seems that the time you have devoted to your self-restraint has been well-spent at least in part, my Lady." His tone was no longer mocking, and she smiled.
"I was called 'Crow' when I first came to Tintagel."
"'Crow'? That seems hardly accurate, unless there are crows with red feathers."
"My father called me 'Little Sparrow'," she said.
"Mine called me 'Bear'," he replied. He looked up at the stars again, and when he spoke again his voice was very soft. "The rising of the stars brings me to the road again," he said.
"And the moon's light carries me home," Gwyn said, finishing the lyric.
"I always loved that song," he said, and put another log on the fire. "'We do not choose our duties; sometimes we are chosen for them.' Was it Camyrdin's duty to die? And who, I wonder, did the choosing?"
She had no answer for that, and she suddenly found his gaze uncomfortable. She looked down into the fire, where the newest logs were beginning to hiss and pop. She pulled her cloak and blanket tighter about her shoulders. "It is getting colder each day," she said.
He nodded. "I may not be a cleric and in tune with such things, but I do know that this cold is unnatural. It is the will of some Power."
"You shouldn't name it," Gwyn said.
"I name it Evil," he replied.
They fell silent again for a long while, and Gwyn was thankful for the silence. All day he had seemed so utterly resentful of her and of the mission on which he had been sent, but now -- now, she wasn't certain. When she had first seen this man on Tintagel she had thought him a simple man-of-arms, and she had even gone so far as to speak to him as such. But it was clear that he was far more than that. I am glad he is with us, she finally decided. When the Promised King arrives, he will need allies like Sir Baigent. With that thought she looked up into the sky and picked out, in the small patch of sky visible through the trees, one of the summer constellations that she should have been viewing on a warm summer night. The cold was the work of Evil. She knew it as surely as anything.
"You'd best be to sleep, my Lady," Sir Baigent said. "Tomorrow will not be an easy day."
"I wonder how long it will be before there is ever an easy day again," she replied. "Good night, Sir Baigent." She returned to her bedroll and was asleep almost immediately, her earlier wakefulness now mercifully gone. She did not dream at all that night, nor did she hear the voice of the knight when he said "Good night, my Lady."
The sun was just rising when they set out eastward again. The road in these parts was much more frequently traveled, and they encountered several parties that day. Most were farmers who had been forced to sell not their harvest from the year before, but the precious seed grain that they would have used to plant their fields this spring. Their wagons were never more than half-full with provisions from market; even by selling seed grain these people found it impossible to stock their larders. Soon the people would be starving, and probably sooner than Gwyn wanted to believe.
Very few people gave them a second glance after a customary greeting. Gwyn supposed that this was because of the difficult times; perhaps these people had more to think about than the strangeness of Monks of Tintagel so far from home, or of a Bard accompanying them, or of the strong, silent man who rode at the head of their column. But then, she realized, Estren wore no markings to indicate that he was anything but some harper on his way to the next village to earn a few coppers playing for some inn-guests; and of course there was nothing about either herself or Brother Llyad that marked them as being specifically from Tintagel. They did look unremarkable, and this was a good thing.
At noontime they came to a crossroads marked by a dead oak tree from which hung a sign indicating what lay in just one of the three directions: a town named Maddurch, of which Gwyn had never heard. Behind them lay the road they had just traveled, back to Briston; and the road to the left was unmarked, though it wound toward more hilly country to the east.
"I don't know this town," Gwyn said.
"Neither do I," Sir Baigent said. "But it doesn't matter: we are not going there. The road has swung south, and we must turn back to the east."
With no more explanation than that he led the companions onto the unmarked road. On this part of the journey they encountered no other travelers, save a single old man leading two oxen. This road ran alongside a series of small woods and followed a stream that came and went beside them, meandering occasionally away into the nearby hills and back again. Along this road the companions spread out slightly, no longer riding in as close quarters as before, with Estren and Brother Llyad falling half a furlong back. Gwyn found this relieving in a way, and welcomed the extra space.
At one point, after several hours of riding, the sun vanished behind a cloud and the land darkened. Feeling suddenly colder, Gwyn kicked her horse into a trot and caught up with Sir Baigent, who offered her a drink of water from a wineskin.
"I admire you one thing, my Lady," he said suddenly.
Gwyn looked at him and smiled mischievously. "One thing only?"
"One thing for now," he said. "Most people would be afraid to go to the Druids at all, and far fewer would be willing to trust them with what you are going to trust them. There have been many stories about the things they do."
"I have been with one Druid already," she said, thinking of Llawann with a sadness that surprised her given that she had not known him for more than a few days -- or even a few hours, depending on the reckoning. "And besides, Brother Llyad speaks well of them."
Sir Baigent shook his head. "I don't know if that would soothe me. Brother Llyad doesn't seem right in the head."
She stifled a laugh and glanced back to see if Llyad had heard, but he was too far back and -- as she should have expected -- he was too busy chatting away with Estren. "Why would you say that?" she asked.
"I doubt the wits of anyone who would take to the Sea of Eire alone in a tiny boat in hopes of going to see the Druids."
"It was an impressive bit of sea-reckoning," she said.
"That one doesn't end up dead in the course of doing something foolish hardly means that the original something was a good idea," Sir Baigent said. His horse snorted, and he added, "My father told me that. On too many occasions, I must admit."
Gwyn only smiled, not quite sure of how to respond to his remembrance. Then something occurred to her. "You said 'most people'," she said.
"Before, you said 'most people' would be afraid of the Druids. You didn't say that you would be afraid of them." She was remembering something else now. "And you haven't said anything about them one way or the other. Why are you not afraid of the Druids?"
"Because he has some experience with them, my Lady." It was Estren, who along with Brother Llyad had caught up to hear the last part of the conversation. "That is where he was headed when we first met, that night as the Crossroads."
"You mentioned them before," Brother Llyad said, his eyes wide in admiration. "In the Duke's war-room. How did you meet them?"
"I don't know any Druids. I have merely encountered them, and I lost two men to them -- so, my Lady, I would not say that I am not afraid of them. Not totally, anyway."
"What happened?" Gwyn asked.
"Can you avoid interrupting for a time?" Sir Baigent said with a half-smile. Then he began. "There is a town called Llanet, a tiny village actually, that lies on the sea. I only know of it because of how close it is to the border of Gwynedd. In the various wars between Gwynedd and Camyrdin over the years, this town has frequently found itself under a different flag -- why, I don't know, because the place has little to offer by way of strategy. Its harbor is very small and not particularly deep, its fields are rocky and the whole damned place is very remote to begin with.
"One autumn day -- last autumn, actually -- the town's Priestess came to Caer Camyrdin. We knew that she must have grim tidings indeed if she herself had undertaken the journey, without escort and only with provisions enough for one, and leaving her people without their Priestess at harvest time. How she survived on those bandit-infested roads is beyond my imagination; the badges of priesthood are not always honored by those who have willingly gone beyond the Goddess's touch. And to make matters worse, the days she had traveled were marked by unnaturally cold autumn rains." He stopped for a moment and cocked his head. "Unnaturally cold rains," he repeated sotto voce before continuing. "When she arrived she was exhausted and feverish, and she was taken straight to our Healers. Her fever finally broke after four days, and only then could she tell us what she had come to say.
" 'The groves no longer stand empty,' she said. " 'Their masters have returned from their island exile and begun their rituals again. We have seen the fires in the groves, and our fishermen have seen their boats riding the inwards waves by the moonlight. The hills at night have sounded with their chanting, and the land itself has recoiled at the touch of their feet. Three of our children have gone missing, and their bones were found still tied to the altars.' That was all she could tell us before she lapsed to sleep again.
"Lord Matholyn considered her words for several days. He consulted with Mother Derrych -- the Lord Priestess of Camyrdin -- and I could tell that he was deeply troubled by this news. He finally made his decision on the third day after her arrival. He ordered me to take four men and go to Llanett to learn the truth.
"We left Caer Camyrdin on a morning that was sunny but cold. Rather like this one. With me were Sir Meddvyl, Sir Loras, Sir Trincemore, and Sir Hugydd. Good men, all of them." He trailed off for a moment, and Gwyn supposed that each of these men was now dead. Everything was a reminder of some loss or other. "We first took the North Road, into the Grey Mountains, and as the day ended we came to the Crossroads where the North Road meets the Western Mountain Road, which would take us through the mountains to the western part of Camyrdin. We camped there that night, along with a band of travelers -- our friend Estren here, who was riding with a couple of traveling merchants.
"I was heading back east from Caer Mastagg," Estren put in. "It has always been said, amongst the Nine, that all that salt-air and the pounding of the sea has left the Lords of Caer Mastagg with ears of bronze. I had decided to test that wisdom for myself. Sadly, it was true. When it comes to song, Cwerith's ear is little more than wax, and his tastes in verse run to tales of bloodletting and the conquest of women. I do not sing many such songs or tell many such tales, and thus my welcome wore away very quickly." He looked at Sir Baigent. "You did not tell us that you were seeking the Druids, though."
"We were unsure of what we were seeking," Sir Baigent said. "I did not want those merchants you were with to start spreading rumors based on anything we said." He sipped more water from his wineskin and then passed the skin to Gwyn before continuing. "At the end of the fifth day out of Caer Camyrdin we reached Commot Craddoc, a tiny hamlet near where the Northern Sea Road begins. We lodged at the Inn there, before heading north the next day to Llanet and the Sea Country. We found the inn full of people, which surprised us after we had encountered next to no one on the road for five days. There were farmers going to market after Harvest, several sea merchants who were heading back to their ships, and a number of locals. The talk was the usual kind of rumor that one hears in common-rooms: which King is going to war, whether this prince would marry that princess, and the like. At one point I mentioned that we had heard something about the Druid groves, and when I said that the mood there became much darker. Every farmer there had lost a cow or lamb to the Druids, and there were even rumors about invalid old women or young children wandering too far afield being taken. The next morning, we broke fast with the dawn, and within the hour we were again in our saddles, riding north.
"That day was thankfully dry, and we made good time, arriving in Llanet shortly after the mid-afternoon. The people of Llanet were very tense, since so much time had passed since last they had seen their Priestess, but they were glad when I told them that she lived and would return with escort when she was strong enough. I was taken to Morgant, the leader of the town council, but he was loath to discuss the matter of the Druids. It took a number of threats, all made in the name of Matholyn Lord of Camyrdin, to loosen his tongue.
"'We have been told of the coming of the Druids. What has happened?' I asked.
"'For months now, we have heard things in the Groves, but we dared not look,' he said. 'We could only pray that they had not returned. But one of our fishermen went out late one night to tend his nets, and he watched as the boats came ashore, four of them, each bringing three of the unholy men from Mona. He turned and ran, not stopping until he was safe within my doors. Had the Druids known he was there, surely they would have carved his heart from his chest on the spot.'
"Morgant further told us that travelers going to and from Gwynedd had brought news of something happening again in the groves. The fires had again been lit. This news was sweeping across the countryside. I decided that we would go to one of the groves, to see what was happening. We were near to Kassoc Wood; we could be there the next day.
"When we left the next morning, Sir Hugydd had taken a chill and developed a bad cough, but he swore upon his shield that he was able to ride. If I could undo one decision I made on the entire journey, the decision to allow Hugydd to ride that day would be the one." He fell silent for a moment as a shadow passed over his face, and then he went on.
"We rode into the hills above the sea, through the farm country around Llanet. Soon we passed the last farm, and we were amidst the low rolling hills of the Sea country. The wind was cold that day, and Hugydd's coughing became worse. At times I wondered how much longer he could sit upright in the saddle, but he pushed away all attempts to help him.
"We came around a bend in the trail, which was now barely even a worn track through the grass, and before us lay Kassoc Wood. The trail here was marked with standing stones, on which the Druidic runes had been scratched out and new sigils to the Goddess had been carved.
"They need not have done that," Brother Llyad said suddenly. "The Druids serve the Goddess."
"And how many know that?" Sir Baigent countered. "The Wood was very dark and the sun barely seemed to shine into it. I don't have the words to describe that place. It went beyond the quietest, darkest, and oldest places I can ever remember. The silence was almost something you could touch, and not even Hugydd's coughing could dispel it. Our mounts made no sound, no whinny or whimper; they merely kept their eyes on the ground beneath their hooves. None of us dared speak, and we rode on in silence.
"The trail went down into what I suppose was a valley. We found ourselves on the bank of a black stream, whose waters ran fast but silent. We tried to cross, but every one of our steeds refused to cross the water -- even Arradwen here." He patted his horse on the neck.
Arradwen, Gwyn thought. The name of Gorlon Great-Sword's steed. This man knows more of the great tales than he lets on.
Sir Baigent continued. "We had to force our way upstream, now diverging from the trail. Our only guide was the water that rushed from some place before us to.
"All the while Hugydd became worse and worse. He was a big man, big and strong; I remember one time in particular when he was so drunk that he tried lifting a nearly-adult cow. He actually got that beast off the ground before it kicked him and broke two of his ribs." He chuckled at the memory. "But now his strength was gone, and he could no longer ride. We used our ropes to tie him to his saddle, and we tied his mount to mine. Trincemore and Loras rode on either side of him, with Meddvyl riding behind. It was now getting dark, and soon I actually had to light a torch to see my way. We needed to find a place to camp, so we pushed on and on, searching for even a tiny patch of ground beside the stream on which we could rest, but there was nothing to be found.
"At the time, I thought it was because I was growing weary, but I began to see things -- flashes of light, pinpricks of flame in the distance. But each time I turned to look directly on them, they were gone. My men were seeing things too, and our nerves were stretching themselves out. Finally we came upon a bramble which we had to cut our way through. I drew my blade and began to work on the task, but I could only accomplish one slice before we were surrounded by Druids.
"There were probably twenty of them, men and women, some carrying torches of bone. They wore robes of all different colors underneath their brown wool cloaks. The men all wore beards, and each woman had hair down to her waist. Around their necks they wore the silver moon pendant, and their arms bore a mark in the shape of an oak tree."
"You did meet them," Brother Llyad said.
"I said as much, didn't I?" Sir Baigent said sardonically. "In the darkness we had not seen that we were in fact in the middle of a fairly large clearing, bordered by the stream on one side and forest on the other. We were all nervous -- except Hugydd, who I don't even think noticed them -- but Meddvyl was far worse. As they approached, he drew his blade. He was staring at their torches, the torches of bone. 'Murderers!' he shouted. 'They perform sacrifices of people and use the bones for torches!' He began circling about and looking for a way out." Sir Baigent closed his eyes for several seconds before resuming.
"Trincemore and Loras were unsure of what to do. They too unsheathed their blades, but they were still holding Hugydd up, and their weapons remained at defensive stance. Meddvyl, however, swung his blade round, threatening the Druids. I knew that in just a minute or two he would kill one or more of them, and that they would outnumber us in a fight. I could also tell the damned difference between human bone and that of a stag. 'Those are not human bones!' I yelled. 'They're the bones of a stag! Lower your blade!' But Meddvyl wouldn't listen. I think that maybe he had some of the same fever that had robbed Hugydd of his senses; or maybe it was the day of riding in these accursed woods. It doesn't matter. I yelled, over and over again, for him to lower his blade, but to this day I don't know if he even realized I was speaking. 'They are going to kill us and drink our blood!' he screamed. Oh, Dona, would that I had never taken so young a knight on such a journey -- but I had no inkling that he would prove so weak." He shook his head in remorseful reminisce. "Finally it happened: one of the Druid women came too close. She has holding up a branch of holly, which any damned fool could see - any, that is, but Meddvyl. Where the rest of us saw a peace offering, he saw a blade, and with one swing he struck the woman's head from her shoulders. Her body fell to the ground, spewing blood all over Meddvyl and his steed. Her head rolled into the stream. I stepped forward and held my own weapon at Meddvyl's neck. It took my steel, held against his neck, to make him listen to me. I acted too late, as it turned out.
"There was a terrible moment of silence. I wondered what the Druids were waiting for; surely they would kill us for this transgression against them. One of the men began wailing, cradling the body of she who had been his wife. The rest of the Druids simply stared at us. I heard Hugydd fall out of his saddle, to a dead heap on the ground, where he lay writhing and coughing. Sir Meddvyl looked at me, and I could see in his eyes that he had finally realized what he had done. Tears were coming to his eyes, and he was moving his blade to its sheathe when I heard a quick whistle, followed by the sound an apple makes when dropped on the ground. Sir Meddvyl choked, and I could see the dart in his neck. There were tiny drops of his blood on the wound, and I could see the thick poison on the shaft of the dart. It took only seconds for Sir Meddvyl to die."
Gwyn glanced at Brother Llyad, and saw that he too was thinking of another clearing and another Druid armed with darts and a blowtube. Sir Baigent went on.
"Before I could respond to the murder by poison of one of my knights, one of the Druids stepped forward. He was clearly the leader of this group. For some reason it surprised me when he spoke in our language, although I'm not sure why that should have been.
"'Strike not!' he commanded. 'You have come to a sacred place without invitation, and you have killed one of my number without provocation. Now you would raise your blade against us? Your weapon will never find its mark. Our darts are aimed at you even now.'
"Since that was certainly true, I decided to introduce myself. 'I am Sir Baigent, seneschal of the Lord Matholyn of Camyrdin whose realm this is. Why have you come forth from Mona? Your sacrifices shall not begin again!'
"'You know nothing of us, foolish knight,' he said. 'The Druids of Mona are not killers, nor have we ever been We are the keepers of a tradition far older than any realm or kingdom on this island. Before your people spread across this Isle, there were the Druids. After the fall of the Ancients and the fires of the Cataclysm, there were the Druids. Before the rise of the Ancients, there were the Druids. The time has come for us to return to the land of our age-old stewardship. We herald the coming of he who sleeps until the need. I am Horius - leader of these Druids. We are home.'"
"Horius!" Brother Llyad said. "I know him! In fact, I stood on the beach of Mona when he set out in his boat for Prydein. He is a man of great importance amongst the Druids."
"That much I was able to realize," Sir Baigent said. "As I considered Horius's words, another Druid was looking over Hugydd. She spoke to Horius in a language which I had never before heard. He replied to her, and she began mixing herbs together from some pouches she had within her cloak. I looked at Horius and demanded an explanation.
"'Your comrade is gravely ill. If you attempt to travel with him, he will not survive long. I am sure that you are unwilling to bury two of your knights in the same day.'
"'Can you heal him?' I asked.
"'We will do what we can for him, but you can not remain here. What happens within these woods, amongst the Druids, is not for your eyes.'
"'I will not leave without my entire party, Druid,' I said.
"'The choice is not yours, good knight,' was his reply. 'You come unbidden and unwelcomed into our midst, and shed blood in the process. This man is the price that we claim for that; be grateful that we claim no more as would be our right. You will leave now and you will not come back. You companion shall not die, if such lies within our power. That is all you may ask for.' He said no more after that. He turned and walked away. Three Druids came forth and lifted Hugydd up, carrying him with them as they disappeared into the forest. In minutes we were again alone, with only the sound of the steeds breathing and the running of the black waters beside us. Trincemore looked at me and asked, 'What shall we do?'
"'We shall do as we are bid,' I said. 'We shall go back to Camyrdin.'
"'What of Meddvyl's body?' asked Loras.
"'We will not carry a body all the way back to Caer Camyrdin. Bring his blade -- his father will want it back.' And without further word, we mounted or steeds and began the long journey back to Camyrdin." Sir Baigent finally fell silent.
"You learned no more than that?" Gwyn asked.
"I was only able to tell Lord Matholyn that the Druids had returned; I didn't learn anything about the sacrifices in the groves or why the Druids were back. But I did tell him that the Druids I met did not impress me as murderers." He shifted in his saddle.
"Horius's band was the first of the Druids to return to Prydein," Brother Llyad said. "They came to begin the work of restoring the groves for when the others came, after the winter."
"After the winter," Sir Baigent echoed. "Who knows when that will be."
The companions rode in silence for a while after that. Estren lazily hummed some unfinished tune, but other than that none of them said anything for several hours. The sun was dipping toward the western horizon when they rode into a shallow valley that would have been lovely had the trees been in leaf. When they reached the valley bottom they found another stream, and after a few minutes of riding beside that stream they came to a wide grassy area beside it. "We should take rest here," Sir Baigent said. Gwyn shifted uncomfortably in her saddle; the knight's decision to stop had made her all the more aware of her discomfort from long hours of riding. Brother Llyad was likewise relieved for a few moments out of the saddle; Sir Baigent and Estren, of course, showed no sign of discomfort at all.
A quarter of an hour later they were standing about beside the road as their horses sipped from the cold water of the stream. Gwyn rubbed her backside and squatted several times in hopes of restoring circulation and fliexibility, and then she walked over to the stream to fill her water skin. The water was shockingly cold and it had a strong mineral taste, but still she splashed some of it on her face, which was less refreshing than she had hoped. Beside her Estren walked barefoot in the water gasping at the icy water upon his skin.
"Is that wise?" she asked.
He laughed and shrugged. "I've done things that were less wise," he said. "Too many, it seems. But for now it feels good."
Suddenly Brother Llyad came running from a copse of trees across the road. "Do you hear that?" he called. "Someone is coming!" The other three turned their ears to the air and listened, and each heard it: the rattling of wagon-wheels, coming closer.
Almost as soon as they had heard it, the wagon came around the bend in the road. It was, in fact, a rickety old farming wagon, traveling by itself. Sitting on the wagon's seat were a man, his wife, and their young daughter. Their faces were worn with winter and hardship; their clothes of homespun cloth had seen better days. The wagon itself held several barrels and two crates -- probably all the food they had been able to buy at market.
"Greetings!" the farmer called as he reined to a stop, the cheer in his voice belying his careworn expression. "Is there room here for us to water?"
"More than enough room and more than enough water," Sir Baigent said. "It is clean water, too, if very cold."
"Everything is cold these days," the farmer said as he jumped down from his seat and helped his wife and daughter down. "We have been to market at Wainbrow, stocking up on provisions -- such as we could find -- and now we are going home. Where are you headed?"
"East," Sir Baigent said.
"East?" The farmer shook his head and sighed. "There will be war in the east, and very soon."
Gwyn turned and wandered away from the conversation, moving to stand near the side of the water. A short distance away the farmer's wife was filling waterskins, and the little girl was playing on a series of larger rocks that extended out into the stream. Listening to the girl's laughter and delighted shouts, Gwyn wondered if her life had ever been filled with wonder at rocks in a stream and clouds in the sky. She supposed that it must have been, and yet it took her some effort to remember it. Some memories were so easy to summon, some others so hard, and it always seemed that the most pleasant ones were hardest to recall. At last she remembered the warm summer days of Lyonesse, and how she had run down to the beach to search for shells, with her father walking behind her. The game was to pretend that the most beautiful shells were treasures from the wonderful bed-time stories of the night before. "Look, father!" she would call out, holding up a particularly fine shell for him to see. "The jewel from Queen Ileyn's crown!" And her father would take it in his rough and yet so gentle hands and hold it up to the morning sunlight, smile, and say, "Why, so it is, Little Sparrow. Keep it safe! When the Queen wants it again she will want to know where to find it." And yet, always in the end even the finest shells disappeared, forgotten in favor of newer and finer things. It was the same way with memories, Gwyn found.
"Are you a fairy?"
Gwyn blinked and looked down at the little girl, who now stood directly in front of her.
"Gamonwy!" her mother exclaimed. "Is that any kind of question to ask a stranger?" The mother looked at Gwyn and shrugged sheepishly. "I'm sorry, Sister. I have been telling her stories of the Fair Folk lately, and she is always trying to see them."
"It's all right," Gwyn said, smiling. "Are you telling her the good stories, or the scary ones?"
"The good ones," the mother replied. "Although they are so often one and the same."
"That they are," Gwyn said. Then she knelt before the girl and looked her in the eye, and the girl giggled nervously and retreated until she was standing right up against her mother. Gwyn smiled again. "What do you think, little one?"
"You look real," the girl said. "Fairies aren't real. My father says so. He says that I shouldn't look for them, because I'll never find them. But my mother says I might see them if I look hard enough." She leaned forward and whispered as children do: "I think my father really believes in them too, but he won't say so."
Gwyn laughed at that, and so did the mother, who had heard. Gwyn glanced over her shoulder, looking to see if the girl's father could hear in an exaggerated gesture that made the little girl laugh. Then she leaned closer to the girl and spoke very, very softly. "Would you like to know where to look for them?"
The girl giggled and nodded.
"Look for them in the shadows under the trees, when the sun is just rising over the hills and the grass still has dew on it. Look for them in the reflections on water -- but it has to be the cleanest water you can find. And when the wind blows and your house rattles and you're scared at the storm, listen for them. You might hear their singing then. It will comfort you."
The little girl's eyes were wide. Gwyn laid a hand on her shoulder.
"There is magic in this world," Gwyn said. "It was made by the Goddess. Never stop looking for it."
Now the farmer came over, and Gwyn straightened. "I think the horses will be fine now," he said. "We should be riding again."
"And so should we," Sir Baigent called to Gwyn, who nodded. She gave a tiny wave, and the little girl waved back as her mother gathered her up in her arms and carried her back to the wagon. The farmer turned back to Sir Baigent.
"You might want to leave this road soon, if you're truly heading east," he said.
"What news?" Sir Baigent asked.
"It may be safe by now, but I wouldn't risk it. Past Wainbrow there was recently a skirmish between Lord Chyen's holdfast -- he is a local lord -- and a company of King Cwerith's men."
"Cwerith's men are this far east already?" Sir Baigent was unable to mask his concern.
"He has a number of companies about, one of which is particularly ill-reputed. This particular company destroyed Lord Chyen's holdfast, and Chyen himself was killed when his horse was toppled with him riding it." He shook his head and spat on the ground as he glanced at his family. His daughter was happily jabbering to her mother from the seat of the wagon. "Luckily we will soon be turning south. Cwerith isn't concerned with the Seaward Cantrevs yet."
Sir Baigent scowled. "Eventually he will be."
"Yes, I suppose he will," the farmer said. "Well, we'd best be on our way. I hope to be home by midday tomorrow and find out how many of my ale-kegs my sons have opened while they 'defended' the farm."
"I'll wring their necks!" the farmer's wife called out, having heard that last remark.
The farmer chuckled. "Men always have more to fear from their mother than they do from their father. After all, our fates are shaped by the Goddess." He glanced again at his family and lowered his voice. "I think it will be a long time before it will be safe for me to travel alone with them again. There were other whisperings at Wainbrow. Some think that the Goddess's power is fading. Dark times will give men dark thoughts. But others spoke of other things. Some even mentioned the Promised King." He gave a bemused smile. "We must seek out what light we can, but that is a little too much to ask for."
"Like all things, that would be in the hands of the Goddess."
"Like all things," the farmer echoed. "And may the Goddess go with you on your journey. We really must be going!" He nodded at the companions again and then he turned and climbed up onto the seat of the wagon and got the horses moving. The little girl stared at Gwyn the entire way, waving goodbye just as the wagon rolled around a bend and disappeared into the hills. They were again alone.
"We'd best be moving ourselves," Sir Baigent said. "This news of Cwerith's roving bands troubles me."
Without any more talk the companions again mounted and took to the road. For a long time Gwyn's thoughts were on the family they had just met and, to some extent, on the hardships that lay ahead for such people all across Prydein. But Gwyn thought more about that little girl, and how much she reminded Gwyn of another little girl from an earlier time who had also loved the tales of the Fair Folk. She hoped that her father would not mind her giving the same answer that he had offered her, when she herself had asked him where to look for Fair Folk. She hoped that the little girl would one day use the same words to answer the same question when her own children asked it anew, as all such questions are.
Hours later they were riding through a hilly countryside, with higher hills before them. The land should have been a lush green but instead the fields only bore the dried husks of last year's grasses. The trees should have been turning forth their leaves in offering to Dona; instead, they bleakly held in their blossoms, refusing to even greet the sun that shone through the cold air. The only sound was the whistling and moaning wind as it coursed through the hollows and the barren dells as if crying out for a lover long departed. Only the occasional cry of the crow broke the baleful monotone of the winter wind which blew in the midst of summer. And as the travelers pressed on eastward, toward their hopeful meeting with the Druids, a deep and somber mood settled over them and not a one of them spoke -- none of them save Estren, who for a time sang a lyric of sadness to himself as if there were no one listening in all the world. The song he had chosen brought the companions little comfort, and Gwyn wondered why he had selected it; as if sensing her question, he said: "The Bard does not always choose the song. Sometimes the song chooses to be sung." No one replied, except the wind, which blew even colder and harsher.
For the briefest moment Gwyn thought that she could smell on the wind the Sea of Eire, that scent that carried forth each new day onto Tintagel. But that moment was quickly gone: this wind was something else, something older and more malevolent. She realized that this wind came not from Eire but from the Great Western Water, the vast ocean across which no ships sailed and below which dwelt the Great Wyrm, slumbering in his unfathomable depths around the very roots of the world itself. Gwyn remembered the smell of that wind, a memory which crystallized almost immediately. She remembered the night, just days before, when she and Brother Malcolm had gone to the mushroom caves and on the way back had found a broken boat and its two passengers amongst the rocks. The memory went farther than that, though, to a dream she had had -- a dream in which she had been a bird watching a beautiful island be swallowed by an angry sea and the storm that had come from its very heart.
Sir Baigent confirmed their fears when, while they had ridden to the top of a rounded hillock, he turned to look back westward. His eyes were grim as he studied the black clouds gathering and moving toward them.
"Woe to us if we are still on the road when those clouds arrive," he said to no one in particular. The wind whipped at his cloak, and he had to hold his hood tightly at the neck lest it blow off. Without another word, he turned forward and urged Arradwen ahead, down into the next shallow valley. The others followed, with the storm mustering behind them.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::