:: Sunday, April 03, 2005 ::
"The Promised King?" The Duke's voice trailed off as he considered the implications. All the legends of youth, all the stories told to the children, all the prophecies spoken by the Priests and written in the oldest books -- all of it, he was now being told, all of it true. "But if the Promised King is truly returning," he finally said, "then there must be a need. And that means that High King Irlaris--"
"Soon will be High King no more," Lord Matholyn said. "And with Duncan approaching Londia...."
The Duke shook his head. "I have been sworn to Irlaris all my years as Duke, and all my years before that. I was only six years old when he became King. And now you tell me that his reign is ending?"
"No King's days are without number," Lord Matholyn said. "Even King Prystyl's reign came to an end."
"No one knows what is to be," Brother Malcolm said. "Irlaris is an old man. He may be overrun by his enemies, or he may be merely brought to sleep in the Annwn's Halls as must we all."
"He may be gone already," Sir Jules said. "We've heard less and less from Londia these days."
Duke Cunaddyr glanced at Sir Jules, shook his head and turned instead to his Priest. "What signs have you seen, Terryn?"
The Lord Priest of Bedwyn shrugged. "I cannot be sure that I have seen any signs at all, My Lord. The prophecies of Ryannon speak of warlords rising from the ends of Prydein; this could, I suppose, refer to Cwerith and Duncan. Ryannon also speaks of the dying land, and we are now mired in the latest start of the growing season at any time in memory."
"A 'late start'?" Lord Matholyn was incredulous. "We are near to Midsummer Night! This is no late start, no cold spring. The land is in the grip of something unnatural."
"There must be more," Father Terryn said. "There must be more than this, to make us think that this is the time and not any other time of hardship. Prydein is a hard land, and always has been. There must be more."
"There are the Druids," Lord Matholyn said.
Father Terryn's mouth opened and closed. He had not expected this, not at all. "The Druids have returned," he said at last. "We have heard this, but nothing more than rumors whispered in dark corners. Are you certain that it is so?"
"It is so. I have seen them. I have met them." Gwyn gasped at the words, for they came not from Brother Llyad but from Sir Baigent.
Father Terryn nodded gravely. "Then it is rumor no longer," the Priest said.
"I went to Tintagel to consult the Oracles," Lord Matholyn said. "If the signs are true, and the time is near for the Promised King's return, then it is also time to find the Welcomer -- which a certain Druid may already have done."
He did not need to point to Gwyn; Father Terryn had already turned to face her when Lord Matholyn finished speaking. "This is your claim, then? That this girl is the Welcomer?"
Duke Cunaddyr jumped up to his feet. "What is this? We have gone from the return of the Promised King to the Welcomer, standing here before me? Is that how you come to travel with her?"
Lord Matholyn nodded gravely. "She is, if the Druid lore tells true."
"What Druid lore?" Father Terryn asked as he stepped forward, staring still at Gwyn.
Lord Matholyn spoke then, telling the Duke and the Priest about how Brother Llyad had gone to the Druids, and what he had found on their Isle, and what he had brought back. He told about the journey to the lake -- leaving out, to Gwyn's gratitude, the part where Brother Llyad abducted her in the night. He told how Gwyn met the Fair Folk that night, and how she knew the name of the Promised King.
Father Terryn's eyes gleamed. "And that name--?"
"Arthur Pendragon," Gwyn answered.
Father Terryn blinked as if trying to recover a long-lost memory. "There is power in that name," he said slowly. "But I have never heard it before. It is not mentioned in any of the sacred books."
"And it wouldn't be," Lord Matholyn said. "Ryannon makes clear that the name was lost to all but the Fair Folk after the Cataclysm. Not even the Druids, who bear so much, knew the name until Gwynwhyfar spoke it."
"Gwynwhyfar," the Lord Priest said. "A fair name, it must be said. Tell me, child: what gives you to believe that you are the Welcomer? Surely anyone could invent a name and speak it in the presence of those who wish to believe."
"I have invented nothing," Gwyn said. She had minded her tongue to the best of her ability, but now she was becoming angry. "You are a Lord Priest, and yet you seem unwilling to believe. Why is that?"
"Because belief is so often led astray," Father Terryn said. "You are far from the first person to claim to be the Welcomer. There was one such claimant just twelve years ago, an old man of the Kentish Shore. He built quite a following and led a number of people to sea from where they were going to return with the Promised King aboard a far greater ship than the one they set out on. The ship was never seen again, until some of its wreckage washed up on the beaches. And before that there were the twins from Caer Oxinach who nearly aroused a rebellion that tore High King Irlaris's young realm apart when they arrived in Londia claiming to bring news of the Promised King. The people were desperate then, and they are perhaps moreso now. We have little to gain, and far more to lose, in placing our hopes in the hands of the false, be they false Kings or false Welcomers."
Lord Matholyn shook his head. "Woe to the man who cannot see what is plain," he said. "Look at her, Terryn. Surely you can see what the rest of us have already marked."
"And what is that? I see a girl with pleasing features. What do you see that makes her the Welcomer, in your eyes? What am I missing, My Lord? What proof do you offer me?"
Brother Llyad stepped forward. "She is marked by the Fair Folk," he said. "She was found by a Druid in the place where the Druid lore predicted she would be! How can you deny this?"
Gwyn closed her eyes. All this was making her head ache and her blood boil.
"I may not be properly attuned to receive the word of Druids as truth," Father Terryn said. Gwyn fumed. She did not like this Priest.
"I am afraid that I must agree with Father Terryn," Duke Cunaddyr said. "I would like to believe that the Promised King is real, and that he is coming back to help us in our time of need. I would like to believe that the Welcomer has already been found. But if proof cannot be offered--"
"My mother was one of the Fair Folk," Gwyn said suddenly, her voice cutting through the Duke's like a sharp axe through the trunk of a sapling. The Duke stopped speaking immediately, his words utterly forgotten in that instant. Father Terryn whirled and stared at her anew, his stern coal-black eyes now opened wide. Even Sir Jules's sardonic grin vanished. Beside Gwyn, Brother Malcolm laid a hand on her shoulder and nodded. Gwyn noted the silence with satisfaction, and went on. "My father was a mortal man, but my mother was one of the Fairies. I have the blood of both worlds, and I have seen both worlds in my dreams. I have seen a golden realm consumed by the sea, and I have seen the opening of the Gates of Annwn. I have spoken with the Lord of the Dead, and I have faced the minions of the Dark Brother."
"What?" Sir Baigent muttered involuntarily.
"The wolves," Lord Matholyn said. A curious smile was on his lips.
"I have seen all these things," Gwyn said. Her gaze now did not waver one iota from that of Father Terryn. "And I have seen the place where the Promised King has waited asleep through all the ages from his day to this. All this I saw because the blood of the Fair Folk runs in me. There is your proof, Father."
Father Terryn had been struck silent by not just the content of her claim but by the force with which she had delivered it. But he was a quick man, and he regained his composure. "I see that sharpness of the tongue is still encouraged on Tintagel," he said as he stepped forward and looked at Gwyn, peering much closer at her now. She wanted to recoil but didn't. "Your mother was a Fairy..."
"They prefer 'hidden people'," Gwyn said. Behind her Brother Llyad chuckled softly. No one paid him any mind.
Father Terryn nodded. "I see the look in your features. Is that what you wanted me to see, Lord Matholyn? That she has the look of the Fair Folk?"
Lord Matholyn folded his arms over his chest. "Do you believe now, Terryn?"
"I do not know," the Priest said. "Perhaps...perhaps I have been too unwilling for belief."
Lord Matholyn only nodded at that. It had been a hard admission.
"Unions between mortals and the Fair Folk are only mentioned in our oldest legends," Father Terryn went on. "And even then, only in the vaguest of terms. Can it be?"
"It is," Brother Llyad said.
It was Duke Cunaddyr who spoke next. "Then the Promised King's return may be coming to pass after all," he said. "And if this is true, then this girl and her appointed task are most important of us all. What must we do?"
He had directed that last question squarely at Gwyn, and she blanched when she realized that. She had spoken out of turn before, out of anger; now one of the most powerful Lords in Prydein was asking her counsel. Gwyn swallowed, gathered her thoughts, and spoke with a slowness that she hoped projected as outward calm.
"I must go to the Giants' Dance," she said. "I must be there in time to meet the Druids for the Midsummer Night. That is when the Promised King may return. That is when I may bring him back."
"Back from where, I wonder?" Father Terryn said.
"I do not know that, Father," Gwyn replied. "I don't have that lore."
"More is the pity," Terryn said. "Ryannon is less than clear on that point."
The Duke cleared his throat, and everyone looked back to him. "Do I hear you correctly, Terryn? Have you come to believe this tale?"
"I cannot say," Terryn replied with a shrug. "How odd that belief and faith are so hard for a Priest to find, but I am an old man and such things no longer come easily."
"That is not the answer that I was seeking," Duke Cunaddyr said.
"It is the only answer I have, Your Grace."
There was a long silence as Duke Cunaddyr looked at Gwyn while rubbing his chin in thought. His brow furrowed, and he finally looked at Lord Matholyn. "Do you believe?" he asked his fellow Lord.
"I believe something," Matholyn replied. "I saw the signs as well as my own clerics. But in any event, whether you or I or Terryn or anyone else believes is not the question. Gwynwhyfar believes, and if these tidings are true...."
"Then it will be our folly to ignore them," the Duke finished the thought. He sighed heavily and took a sip of cold water from his cup. "Would that I had lived at any other time," he whispered. Then, to Gwyn, louder: "Why the Giants' Dance, then? It's only a group of very old rocks."
Brother Llyad cleared his throat. "The Giants' Dance is a very sacred place in some traditions, Your Grace. It may have been built by the Emrys himself. It is a place of very ancient power that even the Goddess does not know, power that worships no one. The Dance existed even before the Ancients. It is sacred to the Druids, and they have long held that it is there that the Welcomer must come."
"The Fairy said that the boundary between the worlds is weakest at the Giants' Dance," Gwyn said. "It has to be there."
"And if it is not there?" the Duke asked. "Or if you are not there for Midsummer Night?"
Gwyn glanced at Brother Llyad, who said nothing. Neither had any answer to that.
The Duke sighed. "I figured so. Look at the map. My scouts' tidings have grave bearing on this matter."
They all clustered around the table to get a better look at the map. The Giants' Dance stood about three days distant, or maybe four, due east from Briston. It was just off the Lyonesse Road, which ran from Londia all the way to Land's End. In normal times it would be a hard march to cover the distance between Briston and the Dance in just four days, and these were not normal times. In normal times it would not still be winter, and in normal times there would not be an enemy army in control of the very territory through which they would have to travel. "What you propose fraught with peril," the Duke said. "There will be scouting parties about, and no doubt there will be spies amongst the locals who will attempt to gain favor with their new Lord by selling word of travelers ripe for the picking."
"A simple band of travelers, perhaps," Brother Llyad said. "But an armed escort, and the whole party on the fastest horses you can spare might--"
"Nonsense!" Sir Jules said with a laugh that was overly harsh. "A company of armed men riding eastward? Cwerith would know of you before you travel ten leagues, and he would want to know who these travelers are. Every one of you would likely end up dead with the girl being taken to Cwerith himself for service to a different Lord."
Brother Llyad swallowed and turned red. Gwyn placed a consoling hand on his arm. He had spoken without thinking, something she was accustomed to doing herself.
"This is too much to risk," Duke Cunaddyr said. "I cannot spare the men or the horses. I cannot even claim to believe what I have been told here today."
"I will go alone, then," Gwyn announced. "I will travel with Brother Llyad. We will simply be two pilgrims traveling the roads to provide Dona's ministry. Such things are common enough. There will be no reason for his men to accost us."
Sir Jules laughed again. "So in addition to placing our trust in some old prophecies and in the Druids -- who have been banished from Prydein for centuries -- now you propose that we place our trust in the manners of Cwerith's men? We might as well decide our fate by a throw of dice, even if they are weighted. This is too much uncertainty by far. Better that our fates be decided by the edges of blades."
"A typical view of a soldier," Gwyn snapped. This arrogant knight had said too much. "Will your swords turn back the winter? Will all your sharpened blades restore the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead? Swords break, Sir Jules. Remember the tale of High King Levilor." Levilor had been the eldest of High King Prystyl's three sons, and had assumed the throne when his father had died. He had also been as terrible a King as his father had been a great one, overtaxing his subjects and subjecting the realm to ruthless oppression. Eventually, High King Levilor had been challenged by his other two brothers, and all three met on the fields of the Carkin Lowlands. Levilor personally killed the first of his brothers and pursued the other, who was also the youngest. But when he met his other brother in combat his sword broke in half, allowing his youngest brother to deliver the killing stroke. His tale was frequently told as a warning against over-reliance on strength and force to accomplish one's ends. And in this case, it had the even more desired effect of leaving Sir Jules momentarily dumbfounded at having been corrected so forcefully by a woman.
"Even so, My Lady," Duke Cunaddyr said, "you have come here asking us to believe that the Promised King is returning when the same claim has been made many times before and been false each time. You are asking us to forsake our High King, who has held the throne for more than fifty years and to whom we have sworn fealty. You are asking us to place our faith in the Druids, who have not been seen in Prydein in centuries. It is too much, too much by far."
"Merciful Goddess, they do not see," Brother Llyad said. Gwyn bowed her head.
"It cannot end here, Cunaddyr." It was Lord Matholyn. "This cannot be where it is decided, where the fates of so many are shaped. We don't have that right." He leaned over the table, closer to the Duke. "These signs have been coming for longer than you think. We have seen things in Camyrdin, living nearer the sea and the wilds, nearer the Druids. We have seen them. Some of us"--he gestured at Sir Baigent--"have met them. If it is true -- if the Promised King is returning, if this woman is the Welcomer -- and we do nothing, then we are thwarting the will of the Goddess as surely as if we swore to do the Dark Brother's bidding himself. We will have forsaken not one King, but two. I, for one, have forsaken too much."
Gwyn winced. How hard that must have been.
"She must go to the Giants' Dance," Lord Matholyn said. "If this cause is false, then we have lost nothing. But if it is true and we do not do our part, then we have lost everything."
Duke Cunaddyr nodded slowly. "So, it comes down to a wager, does it not? It is as Sir Jules said: our fates on little more than a throw of dice."
"My people were not given any throw of any dice, weighted or no." Lord Matholyn's voice was almost a whisper.
"As I have said, I cannot spare men or horses to see her to the Giants' Dance in proper safety or speed." He leaned forward. "But a smaller party -- one adept at travel through the wilds -- might have success. Don't you think?"
"It may be so," Lord Matholyn said, nodding slowly. Gwyn's brow furrowed as she tried to follow whatever was going on between these two men. A look was being exchanged there as though they were reading each other's thoughts. Finally Duke Cunaddyr sighed.
"The legends tell of the Promised King returning in the time of greatest need. If these are such times, then I tremble for what awaits us in the days ahead. We may have more to fear than a war with Cwerith and a late growing season." He rose from the table. "I have been in here too long. I must go see to the preparations. Lord Matholyn, I would consider it a high honor if you rode with me."
"And my men?"
"They, too, will have honored places. Especially if they are skilled at arms."
"We will ride with you," Lord Matholyn replied. "I thank you for the honor."
Gwyn's heart sank. Like that, it had been decided. To forsake is often the easiest of paths, someone had written. She couldn't remember who, and at that moment she could not possibly have cared.
Duke Cunaddyr, now standing, threw his cloak over his shoulders. "I assume that you wish to exchange some words with your companions here," he said. "We shall leave you alone to do so. Join me in my personal guard when you are ready."
Lord Matholyn nodded in reply, and Duke Cunaddyr left the room, taking Father Terryn with him. Now, they were alone: Gwyn, Lord Matholyn, Sir Baigent, and the two clerics. But the first words spoken came from the Bard, Estren, who had remained so silent sitting in his corner that Gwyn had totally forgotten that he was there at all.
"So," Estren said, "how small a party shall you send?"
"Four, I think," Lord Matholyn replied.
"Four," Estren echoed. "A good number. Not overly large so as to draw undue attention, but not so small as to be indefensible."
"What are you saying?" Gwyn asked, her heart quickening.
"You strike me as being more perceptive than that, my lady."
"I am going," she said.
"Of course," Lord Matholyn said. "What you have just seen is the good Duke attempting to guarantee some positive outcome from whatever action he takes. In this he has trusted me, for what that may be worth. You are going, Gwynwhyfar. You will travel with the Abductor Priest here."
"Dona be praised!" Brother Llyad exclaimed.
"Don't be so quick to invoke the Goddess," Lord Matholyn said. "You may still fail. Cunaddyr spoke true of the dangers between here and the Dance -- and when the Dark Brother is involved, who knows what perils there might be."
"Is Malcolm coming?" Gwyn asked.
"No," Lord Matholyn replied. "He comes with us. This army will have need of more blessings than even Father Terryn can give; and he and I can at least exchange tales of Tintagel. But I believe that the Bard would be an excellent companion. He shall go with you."
Estren actually laughed. "And had you not sent me on this journey, I might have followed behind," he said. "If the other Bards ever learned that I had opportunity to be witness to the return of the Promised King and failed to seize it, they would all remove the strings from my harp and use them to bind me to a rock and leave me for the Goddess."
"I thought it would be so," Matholyn said.
Gwyn smiled at the bard, and then turned back to Lord Matholyn. "You said there would be four," she said.
"That I did." And with that, Lord Matholyn turned to face Sir Baigent.
The knight stiffened as he realized what was about to be asked of him. His eyes flicked to meet Gwyn's, and she was not at all sure she liked what she saw in that brief gaze before he faced again his Lord. To ask this much of him, how much can be bear?
"You will travel with them, Sir Baigent," Lord Matholyn said. "You will be their protector."
Sir Baigent worked his jaw as he stared at Matholyn before speaking. When he did, the anger in his voice was raw, primal. It cut through the room like a knife, and Gwyn recoiled to hear it. "You have claimed the right of vengeance for what Cwerith did to Camyrdin," he said. "Do I not have that right as well? If you go to war against him, how can my place be anywhere but at your side? I am your seneschal."
"Not so, Sir Baigent," Lord Matholyn said. "Camyrdin is gone, and her onetime Lord now has no seneschal. There are only two men who do what they must to repair a world torn asunder."
Sir Baigent shook his head. "Your words ring false, my Lord. Camyrdin still lives. Not everyone will forget what was done to our land, and not everyone will gladly accept Cwerith on the throne. When the word goes forth that you are still alive, the name of Camyrdin will be a battle cry like none other. You are still a Lord, and I am still your seneschal. I swore oaths of service to you, before the Goddess; I swore them by moonlight at the altar of our Temple. Those oaths cannot be unsaid. Camyrdin lives as long as we live, and I fight by your side as long as I live."
For a moment Gwyn feared that Lord Matholyn's temper would flare, and that he and Sir Baigent would come to blows. Instead, Lord Matholyn merely sighed and sank into a chair by the table.
"Dona forgive me for selecting an intelligent man to be my steward! I had hoped you would accept my words and be done with it." He looked up. "Sir Baigent, your service to me has been as constant as the coming of the tides, the rising of the moon, and the arrival of the winter ice. I can ask this of no other man." He stood again and paced a bit, clearly gathering his words. A clatter arose from outside, in the common room; they could hear the innkeeper's wife bellowing angrily. The world went on as ever, even as the matters of powers and kings and usurpers were discussed in the next room. At last Lord Matholyn spoke.
"Kings live and die, wars come and go. Realms are built and lost and built again. But perhaps something lasting can be gained on the plain of the Giants' Dance. The return of the Promised King will define this moment in all the ages to come. Nine Bards ages hence will still sing of it. What happens on the fields of battle near Bedwyn, whose blade finally strikes Cwerith down -- none of that will ever be anything more than details to be written in books by monks and kept safe in Tintagel's rooms of stone. But this, Sir Baigent, this thing I ask of you -- it is the finest thing that could ever be asked of anyone." He swung around to face his knight one more time. "Don't you see, Baigent? I can't ask this of anyone else but you. To do so would demean it, and make it less than what it is."
Gwyn's eyes filled with tears. What manner of age was this, that Lords were reduced to begging the men in their service. Gwyn stepped back silently, away from the drama playing out now between these two men who now seemed totally alone in the room, as if there were no one else there to hear them.
"I am no cleric," Sir Baigent finally said. "I share the feeling of Sir Jules. All this talk of prophecies fulfilled, Druid magic, Kings returning -- it is all nothing to me. I forge fate by the edge of a sword, because it is all I have. I have seen none of your signs. This deed should be yours. You brought her this far; you should be the one to see it done."
"Were I a younger man I might do so," Lord Matholyn replied. "But as we have seen from the maps, the journey will be hard. I have not been at this sort of thing in many years. My sense of reckoning is duller than yours, as is my ability to survive in the wild. This is a task for a younger man, not one who has grown soft in his elder years. It must be you, Sir Baigent."
Now the knight stepped forward, toward his Lord. "You should have been there," he said.
Lord Matholyn stiffened, and his face turned crimson as Sir Baigent stared him directly in the eye. "Do not say such things," he said.
"You should have been there," Sir Baigent repeated. "You should never have left Camyrdin, and neither should I. It was our duty to be there, with Sir Trincemore and Murron of the Arrows; with Father Halddon and Yliane the Fish-Queen; with Dongorth and with Sir Peryn. It was our duty."
Lord Matholyn smashed his fist down upon the table. The impact toppled the jug of wine, spilling its contents across the table. "Do not speak to me of duty!" Lord Matholyn shouted. His voice was thunderous with rage, rage that filled the room and seemed to actually make the candles flicker. Everyone there recoiled -- everyone, that is, but Sir Baigent, who stood perfectly still. "I have thought of nothing else since Cunaddyr told me what happened," Matholyn continued. "Do you think I have not, you poisonous dog? Do you think to accuse me of abandoning my people? Do you?" He waited for no answer; instead he took one look at Sir Baigent and delivered a powerful backhanded blow to the knight's cheek. Sir Baigent's head snapped around and he staggered backward, but then he simply turned back to face his Lord.
"We were not there, My Lord." He poured as much biting sarcasm as he could into those last two words. His cheek was already bright red from where Lord Matholyn had struck him. He ignored it. "No matter what the reason, you and I were not there. When Cwerith and his armies came we were not there. We were on Tintagel, indulging some mystery-lore and chasing after a legend. We still live, because we were not there."
"Yes, we do," Lord Matholyn said. "And had we been there, we would be dead or the prisoners of Cwerith. He would be drinking the foul ale of Gwynedd from a cup fashioned from my skull, and he would have used your blade to strike Peryn's head from his shoulders."
"Then so it should have been," Sir Baigent said. "It was our duty to be there. There will never be absolution for what we have done."
"You stubborn fool!" Lord Matholyn shook his head. "That is the problem with men of arms: they think that dying at battle is always preferable to living. Do you understand nothing of what has been said here? We have been given something, Baigent. We have been given opportunity to avenge those who need avenging, to save all of Prydein from the same fate." He stepped forward, just inches away from Sir Baigent. "I do not seek absolution, and neither should you. Dona will give it to us only if our actions from this day be just. We must make what we can of what we have been given -- and what we are to be given in the days to come. In the end, what more power can any man claim, be he Lord or servant?"
Sir Baigent bowed his head, and Lord Matholyn, calm again as quick as he had been to anger, laid a hand on the knight's shoulder. "Peryn would have done this thing," Lord Matholyn said. Sir Baigent glanced up sharply.
"You would now invoke the dead in your cause?" he said. "Why not, then? You lost no brother."
And there it was. A brother had died in the pyres of Camyrdin; another was questioning how to live. Gwyn bowed her head, and tears fell free to the floor.
"I lost thousands of brothers," Lord Matholyn said. "And sisters, and sons and daughters. Your claim to grief is no greater than mine. We carry our losses with us, but they are only the first losses. There will be so many more. There will be more Camyrdins, and the blood of a thousand Sir Peryns will redden the fields of Prydein -- the fields where nothing grows. I do not invoke Peryn's name lightly, Baigent. Do this for me, and for him."
Sir Baigent turned away then from his lord and looked directly on Gwyn. She held his gaze a long time without moving, and she wondered what he saw there, and what she could find in his eyes. Was he searching for some hint of whatever the others -- Brother Llyad, Llawann -- had seen in her? Or was he merely looking on the person for whom he was being asked to forsake the war which was as rightly his as anyone's?
Still staring at Gwyn, Sir Baigent rubbed his cheek. "It shall be as you command, Lord Matholyn," he said. "I will see her to the Giants' Dance before Midsummer Night."
Two hours later the tiny company gathered at Briston's eastern gate. Brother Llyad and Gwyn both mounted their steeds. Already sitting on his horse, Sir Baigent wore a simple cloak over his mail shirt. He had removed from his garments all devices that would identify him as a man of Camyrdin, but had refused to take a different blade even though his own sword bore the device of Camyrdin on the pommel. "I will not trust my life to an untested weapon," he said when Brother Llyad asked him about it. "If we are to ride into danger, it will be with a blade whose handle I know and whose edge I trust."
Brother Malcolm stood on the ground by Gwyn's horse. "You have extra strings for your bow?"
"Yes," Gwyn replied. "The Duke was able to provide us with that much, even though he thinks we go on an errand of foolery."
"He wants to believe, Gwyn."
She looked down at him and saw something new in his eyes. "I have not asked you if you believed, Brother."
"I know," he said, returning to the gently chiding tone she knew so well. "I had wondered if you would ever think to ask me that -- but then, a thinking Adept would already know the answer, wouldn't she?" He smiled, and she returned it. It was her first true smile since leaving Tintagel. In just those few days sadness had come to the forefront of everything. "Will you send word to Father Damogan?"
"I don't know," he replied. "I have no more of Mother Parsint's birds to send back to Tintagel, and I would feel odd putting word of such events on paper for a simple messenger to bear. But tidings have their way of reaching him that we do not know."
Gwyn nodded. It was true, that; Father Damogan did indeed tend to know things that had happened before word could possibly have reached him. She had often wondered how it was so, but it was not the place of an Adept to ask such questions.
He reached up and took her hand. "Be well, Gwynwhyfar. May Dona guide you with a true hand."
"And may her light shine upon your path, Brother Malcolm." She leaned down and kissed his cheek. She thought she saw tears in his eyes, but he turned away too quickly for her to be sure.
They could now hear a rider approaching. From around the bend Estren appeared, completely packed and ready for the journey. He sat upon his dappled mare, harp slung behind his back and his own sword -- a plain, unadorned blade -- fastened to his saddle.
"Forgive my tardiness, my friends," he said. "My horse was unwilling to take the saddle this morning." He took a deep breath and let it out. "This is truly a morning made for travel: the sun is high, the air is cold, the horse is restless, and my harp is strung. The road cries out for us, my friends!"
"I hope you are as skilled with that blade as you are with your harp," Sir Baigent said.
"I am no warrior, but I have had cause to defend myself in the past," Estren said. "And there are many songs that tell of deeds of gallantry done by men who are not knights. Fear not, Sir Baigent: you will find my blade sharp and my arm strong."
"Very well," Sir Baigent said. "Though you might also consider not constantly speaking like a poet." He swung his steed around to face Lord Matholyn, who sat still on his own horse. Somehow, Gwyn thought, the onetime Lord of Camyrdin looked smaller than he had when he had come to Tintagel.
"Cunaddyr has sent no one to see us off?" Sir Baigent said sardonically.
"He has sent me," Lord Matholyn replied. "He is a good man. He will be a fine ally. He will never bend the knee to King Cwerith." He gestured to the large red mark on Sir Baigent's cheek. "You might find that bruise of use after all. It makes you look like you have recently been in a fight."
"I am likely to look that way soon enough, bruise or no," Sir Baigent replied. He rubbed the mark again. "You might be interested to know that it stings still. For a man grown old and feeble in his hall and council chamber, you still deliver a good blow."
Lord Matholyn gave a wry chuckle. "Would that I have given it to a man more deserving," he said. "I hope you will not judge me for what I did in a moment of anger."
"How could I, since such moments are so many?" Sir Baigent said. Lord Matholyn blinked at him, and only then realized that the knight had made a jape. Such as it was.
Sir Baigent held out his hand. Lord Matholyn sidled over and clasped it.
"Go with speed, Sir Baigent. Follow Dona's light and you will succeed."
Sir Baigent only nodded at that. Lord Matholyn looked then at Gwyn. To her utter amazement, he bowed to her. She blushed almost immediately, not having any idea how to respond.
"May her light shine upon your path, my Lady. I pray that you are the Welcomer. The need is great."
"And may her light guide you, Lord Matholyn," she found herself replying. "I will pray for a great many things, not the least of which will be you and your people." The words come easier each day, she thought. I might have made a fine Sister, after all. Now I wonder, now, if I ever will.
Lord Matholyn turned and cantered away, without another word. Sir Baigent watched his Lord disappear around the bend and then turned to face his new companions.
"The pace will be difficult, and we cannot often stop to rest," he said. "I hope you are prepared for a hard journey, My Lady. And you, Brother. As for you, Estren -- I would prefer no songs for a while." With that he swung his horse around and led them through the East Briston Gate and onto the road.
Gwyn reached up to her left arm and massaged the wound there, under the fresh bandage. The pain had lessened a great deal, and in her bags she had a small pot of herbal salve one of the Duke's healers had been able to spare. She prayed that no more blood would be shed on this journey, but even as she said the prayer she realized how unlikely that was. There would be blood. She knew it as surely as she knew anything at all.
No one but the gatekeeper was there to watch them as the company headed into the east.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::