:: Sunday, May 01, 2005 ::
In deepening twilight they rode, not stopping even for the briefest respite as they tried to outpace the clouds that blackened the sky behind them. Gwyn felt that they were alone, utterly alone, on this road heading for the East. They would never make it to the nearest village before the storm, and there were not even any farmsteads in sight. The moon was rising before them, but even now the clouds were casting a misty veil over its pale light. It would not be long before the moonlight disappeared entirely, and they would be alone in the darkness waiting for the storm.
"I've never seen a storm like this," Gwyn said at one point.
"I have heard of such storms," Brother Llyad said. "The fishermen of my home village speak of them with great fear. They would speak of the water itself turning black, and then...." He shook his head.
"Clerics always know the comforting things to say," Sir Baigent growled. And then he set a faster pace.
Struggling to keep up, Gwyn clutched her reins with whitened knuckles. The wind now sounded like brutal, mocking laughter, and when Gwyn looked up she could see the clouds now circling about them as a black line swept across the dusky sky heralding the storm behind it. The moon's pale light grew dimmer and dimmer, and it already seemed that they were in utter darkness, although that was not to come for a time yet.
And so they rode on, faster still, almost at a gallop: Sir Baigent spared no time for even a single glance upward at the encroaching storm. The wind became even more insistent as it whipped around them, drowning out even the nervous whinnies of the horses, and for a long terrible minute it seemed to Gwyn that the world was now nothing but wind, primal and raw, tearing at them like a hungry beast. It was alive, this wind, and it grabbed at them as if seeking redress for an ancient wrong. Growing up on the lowlands of Lyonesse and later Tintagel, wind had always been a part of Gwyn's world, and she knew so many winds by their sounds alone. There were winds that caressed the land softly and gently; there were winds that sang as balefully as any song of lost love. She remembered winds from the south that were warm and smelled of earth, and she recalled winds from the west that smelled of salt and the sea. And in the winter there were winds from the north that smelled of nothing but ice and cold. This wind, now, was something else, something worse. Gwyn wondered if the Ancients had felt a wind like this before the Cataclysm had come to claim them and take them all, forever, through the Gates of Annwn.
They crested a hillock and were able to see the road that lay before them, but at that very moment there was the sound of the sky ripping itself asunder as a bolt of blazing lightning exploded in the air above them. Blinded by the flash, Gwyn screamed in shock. She felt a strong grip on her arm, and she screamed again before she realized that it was merely the hand of Brother Llyad, who had been likewise blinded and was seeking his own savior. Her eyes quickly readjusted, and she looked to their left, where a tree atop an adjacent hilltop had been blasted by the lightning. The tree's limbs blazed, and for a few moments the tree seemed to have leaves of golden fire.
Estren saw it too. "Light for our way," he yelled. "Perhaps Dona smiles upon us after all, in her own fashion."
But their good fortune was short-lived as first another bolt of lightning struck, and then still another. Each was accompanied by a deafening blast of thunder like a cry torn from the very heart of the earth. Even the insistent howling and wailing of the wind gave way to that terrible roar that surrounded them with a presence that could almost be touched. Gwyn had seen more thunderstorms than she could possibly remember, but never one like this, one so near and seemingly sent for her alone. In that thunder she heard the voice of some Power, ancient and malevolent, calling out for her even as it tried to stop her. She thought of the great silver wolf in the glade by the lake, and she shivered, not entirely because of the cold. And then at last Gwyn felt the first droplet of icy water land upon her forearm, followed by another and another and then finally by hundreds upon thousands of its brethren. The fire-tree was smothered by the torrent, and the moon was completely gone. The storm had caught them.
As the downpour began, Gwyn struggled to see where her companions had gone. She could see nothing at all, and the only sound was the pounding of the rain upon the ground. Suddenly there was no more lightning or thunder -- only the rain, sheeting down and pelting her. She threw her head this way and that, trying to see any of her companions, or the road, or perhaps a tree -- anything at all. But there was nothing but impossible, impenetrable blackness. She was alone, acutely alone, in the heart of the storm.
Icy fear gripped her. She screamed out for Sir Baigent, for Brother Llyad, for anyone -- but she could not even hear her own voice in the face of the driving rain. Had they kept going? Had they fallen along the road? Were her companions lying injured somewhere nearby, or perhaps worse? Again she cried out, and again she heard no reply. Her horse began circling nervously, and it was all she could do merely to control the beast. She imagined things, out there in the darkness, that were coming for her….she imagined wolves, dozens this time, circling her just beyond the black and the rain. She imagined them rearing and leaping through the air, guided by her scent to know where to snap their jaws -- she envisioned terrible, sharp teeth fastening about her and pulling her down. She screamed again, this time frightening her horse, which lurched forward. The jolt caused her to bite her tongue hard, and the sharp pain and taste of blood that filled her mouth snapped her back into the moment.
And that pain was what saved her. Without it, she might never have seen the ghostly green light that now enveloped her and her companions, who had never actually left her side. Sitting to her right was the Bard, and in his hands he held a curious shape: spherical, it seemed as glass, but from its depths shone forth a light that was not of this world. He held it cupped in his hands, and his brow was furrowed as he spoke in hushed tones to it. Gwyn could not hear what he was saying, but they must have been words of old and secret power; and in the heart of the storm she stood in wonderment looking on as Estren the Bard revealed a part of his secret lore. When at last he looked up at them, his eyes seemed to be glowing with the same green light that came from the diadem in his hands, although it was only a reflection. He lifted it up and held it aloft for all to see, allowing its light to shine on the land about them. It was barely enough light to see the road by, but somehow it was enough.
"We had best be moving," Estren interjected into the middle of his chanting, his voice cracking under the strain under which his spell had put him. At that moment he seemed to be a completely different person, far from the joking harper that Gwyn had taken him for. Such was her first glimpse into the ancient and new lore of the Bards of Prydein.
"A great task, friend," said Brother Llyad.
Sir Baigent gestured for Estren to join him at the head of the party. They rode again, now able to see the road. The wind slackened, and now the rain came to fall straight down in huge fat drops that actually hurt when they landed. As Gwyn looked around, it seemed that she was peering through a curtain of rain. Wide pools of water collected in the roadway, and they frequently seemed to be galloping through hoof-deep water. Gwyn wondered just how much more of this they could take.
The same thought had obviously occurred to Sir Baigent; he was looking about for any sign that they would be able to get out of this rain as soon as possible. Suddenly he stood up in his saddle and pointed in a new direction. "We will go this way!" he shouted, and with no more announcement than that he whipped his steed about and kicked it into motion, heading up the new road that headed off to the left, upward and between two hills. Gwyn glanced down at the new road, and in the green light of Estren's gem she saw what Sir Baigent had seen: the unmistakable ruts of wagon-wheels. Perhaps there was a farm or homestead nearby, anyplace where they could get out of this rain.
The road wound between the hills and into a new valley, and despite the pounding rain they moved slower, allowing Sir Baigent to follow the wagon ruts which were thankfully deep enough to still be visible even though they were filling with water. With every passing minute the road became muddier and muddier, and Gwyn realized that the light from Estren's gem was very slowly dimming. The strain on his face grew as he continued to chant the words of power that kept the magic light flickering. They needed to get to shelter very soon, and she prayed that Sir Baigent was right, and that these wagon ruts actually led someplace where they could get dry and perhaps have a fire. Oh, to have a warm fire again...to sit by the flames and drink in their heat, to savor it like honey.... Those thoughts made her shivering even worse. She couldn't remember ever being this cold before. Every bit of her clothing was completely soaked, and the weight of her drenched cloak -- certainly at least greater by threefold than when it was dry -- pressed down upon her shoulders.
They came at last to the bottom of the valley and found their way obstructed by a narrow stream, perhaps as wide as two horse-lengths, whose waters were muddy and had already overflowed the banks of what would normally have been a very tiny stream indeed. In the dim green light they could see the wagon ruts run into the stream and up the road on the other side. Sir Baigent stepped his horse right up to the edge of the water. Directly opposite them was an oak tree, its branches leafless and barren.
"This doesn't look too deep," he called out. "Whoever made this trail must cross this stream every day. Wait here while I test it."
He rode forward, carefully guiding his horse into the water. Watching him stare down at the rushing stream and expertly decipher the swirling waters and eddies to decide where the rocks were, Gwyn realized that he had done something like this before. He was obviously a very capable rider.
In the middle of the stream the water became deeper quite abruptly, and with one step the water nearly reached up to the horse's belly, and the tips of Sir Baigent's toes actually dipped in. But after just a few steps the stream abruptly shallowed again on the other side, and Sir Baigent quickly reached the opposite bank. Then he turned around and made the return trip, quicker this time.
"As I thought," he said. "It's an easy crossing. In normal times this stream must be little more than a trickle." He looked at Gwyn. "Can you handle a horse in water?"
"I think so," Gwyn said through chattering teeth. It was so cold in this rain, and as if things weren't bad enough they were now going to ford a stream. How weak the Goddess must be....
"And you, Brother?" Sir Baigent asked.
Llyad, who looked even colder than Gwyn felt, nodded.
Sir Baigent reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a length of rope, which after dismounting he tied between Estren's saddle and his own. "Keep that light alive, Harper," he said. "I will get you across."
Aside from a single nod Estren gave no sign at all that he was aware of anything apart from his effort to keep the green gem aglow. "Ride slowly," Sir Baigent called back after he had remounted. "Let the horses to find their own footing. Step where I step." With that he took up his reins and clicked his tongue. His horse stepped forward, and Estren's obediently followed. Gwyn followed Estren, and Brother Llyad brought up the rear. In this way they crossed the stream, moving very slowly and deliberately. Gwyn stared down at the swirling, muddy water and prayed for her horse's good footing. Soon she reached the drop in the middle of the stream, and with one more step she was in the deepest section. Water splashed up onto her feet and legs, and she gasped at the coldness. This was the water of winter.
As she reached the center of the stream Gwyn could feel her horse's struggle against the current. For such a small stream there was a great deal of power in that rush, and she leaned upstream to compensate. Ahead of her, Sir Baigent had already moved out of the water, and Estren's horse was stepping up behind him. The knight dismounted then and walked back to the edge of the water where he waited to help Gwyn to shore. As Gwyn stepped up onto the ground again, her shivering became much worse. If she had been cold before, now she was positively frozen.
"Come on," Sir Baigent said. "We must keep moving if we are to find shelter."
Gwyn only nodded, praying that he was right and that there was in fact shelter somewhere nearby. She guided her horse back onto the muddy land and stopped for a second to breathe in relief following the crossing -- but the rain kept coming, kept pounding. Goddess, will this never end? She turned to watch Sir Baigent help Brother Llyad ashore.
The knight reached out to take the bridle of Brother Llyad's horse. Just as he did so there was a very loud sound, like a sudden rush of air. Gwyn looked in the direction from which that sound had come and only realized that that direction was upstream when she saw what looked like a giant wall of water bearing down upon them. She whipped around and stared at Estren, who still chanted away at the green gem. "MOVE!" she shouted as she leaped forward on her horse and reached down for his reins.
"Dona's damnation!" Sir Baigent shouted as he jumped with both feet into the water and grabbed at the monk's reins. With one motion he was able to seize the bridle and he turned to pull the beast onto the ground by sheer strength. It might have worked, it should have worked, had a rock beneath one of the beast's hooves not shifted at that exact moment. The horse slipped violently, and in sudden panic Brother Llyad lost his grip on the reins and tumbled from the saddle and into the water. Sir Baigent shouted another curse as he let the horse go and went after Llyad who had, in the course of being washed downstream, somehow managed to grab hold of a small tree that in normal days stood beside the stream but was now immersed halfway up its trunk. The flood was nearly upon them as Sir Baigent thrashed his way through the stream toward that tree and as Brother Llyad fought to keep his head above the water. To make matters worse, large chunks of wood and rock were being swept along ahead of the flood, debris which Sir Baigent had to avoid as he pushed toward the tree.
"We have to help them!" Gwyn shouted, and beside her Estren somehow began to chant louder and faster. As he did so, the light from the green gem became brighter and more intense; it allowed Gwyn to see clearly the stream, the oncoming rush of flood water, and -- most horribly -- Brother Llyad's horse, now riderless, which screamed as it desperately tried to climb out of the stream. The beast almost succeeded, but then a large rock pushed by the flood struck it, knocking it down to its knees. Then the flood water arrived, sweeping the shrieking animal away. Gwyn looked to the tree, where Sir Baigent was pushing himself and Brother Llyad as far up the trunk as they could manage. And then they too disappeared as the tree was struck squarely by the flood.
Gwyn's heart stopped. The tree bent under the pressure of the oncoming water, and for a long moment it seemed an absolute certainty that it would snap loose from its roots and be swept away downstream, taking the knight and the monk with it -- if they had not been ripped from their precarious grip on its trunk already. Gwyn grabbed a length of rope from her own saddlebag and then scrambled along the bank to stand directly beside the tree. It was close, actually, maddeningly close; her original thought had been to tie the rope to an arrow and then shoot it into the trunk of the tree, but she now saw that she would be easily able to simply toss it -- if there were anyone to catch it. "Sir Baigent!" she screamed. "Sir Baigent! Brother Llyad!" But there was no reply; only the roar of the rushing water which was even now settling somewhat. The flood had been amazingly brief and devastatingly powerful. As she stared at the muddy water she thought that she heard, somewhere in the midst of all the rain and the water and the wind, the baying of a single wolf.
And then Brother Llyad's head thrust up from under the water and into the air under the tree where he drew a long, gasping breath.
"Goddess," Gwyn whispered as she watched Brother Llyad pull himself up the trunk of the tree and grasp one of the lower branches. And then Sir Baigent appeared beneath him, pushing the Priest up from below. Somehow they had survived. Somehow, impossibly, they were still alive. "Sir Baigent!" Gwyn shouted. He turned his head as he followed Llyad up into the branches and saw her standing there, the rope in her hands. Behind her the green light grew even brighter; Estren was shouting his words of power as loudly as he could. Gwyn drew a deep breath and cast the rope toward the tree. It was a perfect throw, hooking around a branch near Sir Baigent. He took the rope, lashed it around the branches and braced it with both hands. Gwyn braced her feet against a fairly large rock and stiffened her back, and then Brother Llyad released his grip on the tree and began to pull himself along the rope. Gwyn dug her feet into the ground and leaned back against his weight and the force with which the water was pushing him. Brother Llyad seemed to be taking a terribly long time in getting to the side of the stream, and as her arms and shoulders burned Gwyn wondered how she would be able to do this twice. But there was no other choice; they could not spare the light that Estren was providing in order for him to help her. Fortunately the stream was still not all that wide, and the monk finally reached the ground and pulled himself up and out of the water. Gwyn slumped her shoulders, took several deep breaths, and braced herself anew for Sir Baigent as he grabbed the rope and similarly pulled himself across the water toward the bank. Gwyn groaned as he released from the tree; he was much heavier than Brother Llyad. The rope slipped several inches, scorching her fingers as if she had placed her hand on a burning candle, but she held on despite the pain. Sir Baigent was heavy, very heavy, but he made up for that with his considerable strength as he crossed the distance between the tree and the ground much faster than Brother Llyad had done. He finally pulled himself up beside the monk, who was now kneeling and retching. Gwyn dropped the rope and blew on her reddened palms. Sir Baigent just sat there on the ground for a minute or two, regaining his breath. When at last he stood he was unsteady on his feet, and in the green light Gwyn saw a wound on his forehead that would be a fresh bruise by morning. His eyes met hers, and he nodded.
"We must move," he said in a raspy voice as he helped Brother Llyad back up and led them back to the horses, of which there were now only three. Estren's voice had faded somewhat, and the green gem's light flickered.
Gwyn coiled her rope and put it back in her saddlebag. Then she mounted her horse and took up the reins again, somehow getting her fingers wrapped around them. Then Sir Baigent helped Brother Llyad mount the same horse directly behind her. "Don't let him fall," he said, and she nodded. The knight headed back for his own horse, stopping to touch the Bard on the shoulder and say something that Gwyn couldn't hear. A minute later he had remounted and they were riding again, up a long hillside, still following the trail of wagon ruts. As they rode Brother Llyad slumped against Gwyn's body, and she realized how weak he was from the stream. Sir Baigent, of course, being a knight would be much more able to survive such an ordeal; but even his strength had limits. She prayed yet again for shelter somewhere nearby, and at last the prayer was answered. "This way!" Sir Baigent called back, his voice barely audible above the rain. He was pointing toward a structure of some sort, off the main path.
Its outline gradually became clear as it came into the field of Estren's green light. It was the outbuilding of a nearby homestead, a large barn or stable of some sort. They sped up, trotting through the mud up to the doors of the barn. Sir Baigent dismounted and pushed them open with a terrific squeaking of rusted hinges, revealing a cavernous space within. Then he came back.
"Come!" he shouted, and then he led his horse by the reins into the barn, followed by the companions.
Gwyn heaved a great sigh as the pounding of the rain on her head and body was finally stopped. The sound of the storm receded to a grateful distance, and for the first time in a long while Gwyn could actually hear her own breathing. She looked around at their shelter.
It was both barn and stable, with horse stalls along one wall, feedbins and plowslots along the other. But there were no horses, and the plowshares had all been stacked in a disheveled pile in one corner. The feedbins had been broken, and a water trough had been toppled. Hay was strewn all over the floor, but there was still one good-sized hay pile in one corner. At least there was something left for their horses to eat. The barn's sideboards creaked and groaned in the breeze, which outside had freshened. The entire place looked like it had been abandoned, and quickly at that.
"This will do well enough," Sir Baigent said as he swung down from his saddle. "There is our second bit of luck. We will have a fire." Gwyn looked where he pointed, and saw the immense hearth built into the side of the barn, leading up into a stone chimney that towered above them. Beside the hearth was an untidy stack of firewood and kindling. Reaching into his saddlebag and pulling out his flint and steel, he glanced up at Estren, whose chanting had fallen to a hoarse and ragged whisper. "Only a moment or two more, my friend," the knight said before he turned and walked to the hearth to build the fire. The wood and kindling, it turned out, were well-seasoned; it only took Sir Baigent a few sparks to get a tiny flame, and in minutes he had a small but bright fire burning in the hearth. He quickly stacked firewood around it, and the air was filled with the wonderful scent of burning wood and the unearthly green light of Estren's gem was replaced by the warm yellow light of the flickering fire. Gwyn laid a hand on Estren's shoulder, and the Bard finally stopped chanting and allowed the stone to go out. Estren's shoulders slumped under the oppressive weight of the exhaustion that keeping the gem alight had brought on, and Sir Baigent helped him to dismount and guided him over to the side of the hearth where he sank to his knees. Gwyn helped Brother Llyad down and then dismounted herself, trying all the while not to stare at Estren who just then looked more frail than the oldest of all the monks on Tintagel.
"Give me your cloak," Sir Baigent said. He had already removed his and held Estren's along with it in his hand. "There are hooks there, near the hearth. Apparently they are for just this purpose."
Gwyn saw the hooks, which were lined up across the upper lip of the giant hearth. Obviously, as the stones grew warm the cloaks hung there would likewise warm and dry. She was terribly glad to remove her cloak, even though the air in the barn was icy cold away from the fire. When she and Brother Llyad had handed the knight their cloaks they sat down before the hearth, next to Estren, and drank in the fire's heat as though it were a gift of the Goddess herself.
"This place was built for the farmhands. They would spend their nights here at harvest-time," Sir Baigent said. "This must be a fairly large homestead indeed, perhaps even a collection of homesteads."
"I wonder where the owners are," Gwyn said. "This place looks like they abandoned it quickly."
"That it does," the knight agreed. "I only hope our own food is not ruined. I fear that storm was too much even for saddlebags made from boiled Camyrdin leather." He knelt close to the fire and put two more large logs onto it. It was already a nice-sized fire, but more would certainly not be unwelcome after what they had just come through. Then he straightened and looked around. "We were fortunate to find this place."
"Dona is merciful," Brother Llyad said. "She guided us here, to this place of safety."
Sir Baigent looked at the monk for a moment. Gwyn saw the anger in his eyes; it was utterly unmistakable. It passed quickly, though, and Sir Baigent gave a noncommittal shrug.
"Dona is merciful, I suppose," the knight said. "And perhaps it was her hand that guided us here. But we have possibly lost a great deal of time in riding through that storm; in the morning I will have to get my reckoning anew and for all I know we may have spent the last hours riding in the wrong direction, and thus be off our course by several leagues. And if there is distance to be made up, it will be that much harder to do so on three horses instead of four." He sighed. "And that is to say nothing at all of losing a full share of our provisions. In all due consideration, cleric, I think we could do with a bit less of the Goddess's bounty."
Brother Llyad glared at the knight. "Are you blaming Dona for the storm?" he said. "Is that what you believe?"
"What interest do you have in what I believe, cleric? I am not schooled in such things."
"You cannot forever hide behind your sword, Sir Baigent."
Sir Baigent stared hard at Llyad, a furious retort clearly on his lips. But he said nothing, and finally he turned to walk away. "I should tend to the horses and check our provisions to see what is still usable. Spread your bedrolls as close to the fire as you can, so they dry; and help the Bard get comfortable. His work today is done." He glanced at Estren, who was still showing no signs of engagement in the conversation at all. Then he turned to walk off to where the horses were, but before he did he stopped and looked back over his shoulder. "No, Llyad," he said. "I do not believe that." With that he walked away.
Gwyn spread Estren's roll on the floor close to the hearth, the stones of which were now beginning to heat up. Then she helped him onto the roll and eased him onto his back. "It's all right," she said. "Rest now. You did a great thing tonight." She had never seen anyone look so drained. Estren made no reply; he only rolled over onto his side facing the fire. To Gwyn's relief, though, he did sip strongly at the waterskin that she held to his lips. When he was done she took several long draughts herself, only now realizing just how thirsty she was. Then she passed the skin to Brother Llyad, who likewise slaked his thirst. When he was done, he looked at her and shook his head.
"You may have noticed I have a tendency sometimes to say things I shouldn't," he said.
"I'm glad I'm not the only one with that particular failing," Gwyn said. "Perhaps Lord Matholyn was right about the salt air on Tintagel." She looked at the fire, which was now burning with the kind of bright yellow light she had earlier feared she might never see again. "Sir Baigent is a good man, Brother."
"I'm not very experienced with soldiers," Brother Llyad admitted.
"And he's unaccustomed to dealing with clerics," she said. "We are a strange company, aren't we?"
"That we are," the monk agreed. "That we are."
They were silent for a bit, enjoying the light and warmth of the fire and the popping sounds as the newer logs took to the flame. After a short while Sir Baigent rejoined them and spread their spare cloaks and blankets in front of the fire and around the stones of the hearth. "It is about as I feared, though thankfully no worse. We've lost half of our food, but perhaps that won't be a problem if we can avoid any more storms like that one. And my mail shirt will be very rusty by the time I can get it cleaned and oiled properly again. But for now, we should eat -- such as it is."
He handed out tiny portions of dried meat and berries and what was left of their cheese. The bread had been ruined by the storm, and the other food was soggy and unappetizing; but Sir Baigent still had his flask of the warming liquor. As soon as she had eaten and imbibed a few sips of the liquor, Gwyn fell away to sleep very quickly. The last thing she remembered of the waking world was the realization that the rain outside had ended, replaced by a howling wind.
The white stones that lined the path were icy cold beneath Gwynwhyfar's bare feet, and something was out there ahead of her, out beyond the trees, but she knew not what. She came to a fork in the path where a gnarled, at the center of which stood an ancient oak from which a crow stared at her from its perch. Then it gave a very loud squawk and then flew away down the left path. Gwynwhyfar considered that dark and foreboding path, and then she followed the crow.
The path wound back and forth across the valley until Gwynwhyfar had no more idea of in what direction she was headed. At length she came to a wide area between two sheer cliffs of gray stone. A stream of black water splashed over dark rocks into another wood before her, fed by a very deep pool. She knelt beside this pool and gazed down into the waters. Soon a huge salmon appeared, swimming up and out of the depths to behold her with large, timeworn eyes. And then the fish slowly turned and swam back down into the black water of the pool.
A chill wind came then, blowing up the canyon and swirling around her, but she did not shiver; the wind somehow could not touch her. Gwynwhyfar walked on, following the stream away from the pool and farther into the canyon. After passing through a second dark wood she came to a wide field bound on two sides by the cliffs. In the center of this field rose a low mound, and on that mound there lay a white horse. Gwynwhyfar approached the horse, expecting it to awaken and look at her, but it did not, for it was dead. Thick red blood oozed from deep, slashing wounds in the horse's neck that could only have been inflicted by the claws of some horrible, ravenous beast. She gazed upon the face of the dead horse and saw something else that she had missed before: from the horse's forehead grew a single white horn. Gwynwhyfar wept, quietly and softly, for the slain animal. Then, hearing someone something behind her, she turned and saw the Knight.
He was tall, so very tall, sitting atop a great black stallion that snorted and stamped. He wore armor of gold that shone in the midday sun. His visor was lowered, concealing every aspect of his face, and the helm itself was strangely wrought and misshapen somehow in a way that almost looked distorted. As she looked up at the golden Knight she knew that he was returning her stare, even though she could not see his eyes.
She heard the voice in her mind, knowing somehow that it was the voice of the unicorn even though it was dead.
"Flee, Gwynwhyfar! You know not who stands before you!"
She glanced back at the golden Knight, who turned slightly to one side. The sun reflecting off his armor was blinding, and she lifted a hand to shield her eyes. Who was this Knight? He lifted a gauntleted hand and held it out to her. Was she to join him? He looked so strong and powerful -- but why was his helm shaped like that?
Why was his helm shaped like the head of a wolf?
And she did, running as fast as her legs would carry her toward the distant wood. She heard from behind her the angry snarl of the gold Knight's stallion, and its pounding hoofbeats as it came after her. She ran and ran, but the trees came no closer. The hoofbeats behind her were so close, so terribly close...and then she heard the rasp of steel being drawn from a scabbard.
Her scream was cut short by a thick hand that clamped down over her mouth. She struggled in the darkness against the man holding her.
"In Dona's name, girl, be quiet!" It was Sir Baigent's voice, and it was his hand over her mouth.
Quieting, Gwyn blinked the dream away, and looked about. The knight was kneeling behind her, his left hand holding her mouth shut and his sword in his right. The rasp of steel, Gwyn thought.
"What is happening?" she asked when he uncovered her mouth. Brother Llyad and Estren were awakening as well. The fire in the hearth still burned, but was down to a pile of brightly glowing embers.
"There are men about," Sir Baigent said. "Fortunately there is still a decent wind outside, and they may be far enough away to have not heard you."
"I had a dream," she said weakly.
"I've had my share of dreams the last few days," he said, nodding. "There are at least ten men, all on horse except the two who are on a wagon. I heard them approaching."
"The owners of this homestead?" she asked.
"No," he replied. "I know men-at-arms when I see them, and I would rather not be here when they arrive. No doubt they will want to know what is in this barn for the taking. Gather your things. We will leave through the back door."
Gwyn rose from her spot and quickly rolled up her bedroll and cloak, which was now quite dry. As she packed her things into her saddlebags along with Brother Llyad's, she realized that sunlight was coming into the barn through the tiny gaps in the sideboards.
"What is the hour?" she asked.
"Mid-morning," said Estren, who looked to have regained much if not all of his strength. "We rested longer than perhaps was wise."
"It was necessary," she said. "You were very weak."
"A Bard, weak? I question the very notion." He grinned, but his jest did not entirely cover the tension in his voice. Behind them Sir Baigent stood at the barn door, peering outside through one of the wider gaps between the slats. After a minute of that he came back to the companions and took his horse by the reins.
"Are they coming?" Gwyn asked.
"Not yet," Sir Baigent replied. "But they will. Douse the fire."
Brother Llyad poured a bucket of water over what was left of the fire in the hearth. Then the companions led their horses to the back door, a narrow entrance that was just barely wide enough to allow the horses to get through at all. Gwyn's horse whinnied nervously as she led it through, but other than that they were able to get outside fairly quietly.
Gwyn blinked as she stepped into daylight. All of the storm clouds had gone; the sky was a brilliant icy blue, the morning sun hung in the sky before them and the nearby trees swayed in an appreciable breeze from the north. It was a cold day, but not quite so cold as the night before. Gwyn's clothes, now dry, were good proof against the wind.
"We are fortunate that these men didn't come from the east," Estren said. "At least this way we can flee in the right direction."
"These are truly dark times when we measure our luck in terms of our degree of misfortune," Brother Llyad said.
Sir Baigent looked at him and actually laughed. "That, Brother, is the first thing you've said that I have agreed with. We may end up good allies after all!"
Moving slowly, they walked down a long slope toward the gray hills in the east. Patches of mist hung about the landscape before them, and the chill air was redolent of damp earth. Gwyn's feet became wet and muddy in the first few moments, but Sir Baigent would not let them mount until they reached the first of the sparse woods that dotted the next rise. Gwyn glanced back at the tracks they had left in the mud.
"When they discover that we were there, our trail will be easy to find," she said.
"That cannot be helped," Sir Baigent said. "Our hope now is in distance, not concealment."
"There will be streams," Estren put in. "Streams are friendly to those who wish to hide their trails."
At the bottom of the present valley they did find a stream, but it was little more than a wash of rainwater barely two paces wide -- utterly useless for concealing their path. Neverhteless, they finally mounted here and crossed the water to head up the next rise toward a small copse of trees. The splashing of their horses' hooves was very loud in Gwyn's ears, and she glanced backward at the now distant barn, along with two other nearby outbuildings that she had not seen in the stormy darkness of the night before. Between the barn and the outbuildings stood a group of men on horseback. Their figures were very small, at least a mile distant, and still Gwyn felt a chill as she looked at them; for no reason she could express she was certain that these were not friends.
"Sir Baigent!" she said.
The knight spun around and looked back in that same direction, her tone having been utterly clear in what it had been communicating. They all gazed at the distant figures for a moment or two, and as they did so it appeared that one of those distant unknown men pointed in their direction.
"It won't be long now," Sir Baigent said. "We must ride." He took up the reins, but then another thought occurred to him, and he glanced back at Gwyn. "My Lady, you should let Brother Llyad take over the reins."
Stung by the cold remark, Gwyn glared at the knight even though he had already turned away. "I can handle a horse," she said. He turned back to her, and he actually gave an amused smile for the tiniest moment.
"I have little doubt of that," he said. "After all, you guided the beast through that storm last night. But right now I am more concerned with how you handle your bow."
Gwyn felt her face turn red as she dismounted and allowed Brother Llyad to move up in the saddle and take the reins. Blessed Goddess, she thought as she strung her bow and slung her quiver of arrows on her back, could I have sounded more the fool just now?
The companions headed straight up the hill, a low rise that culminated in a long ridge that was covered by sparse wood. Sir Baigent stopped there and briefly looked back the way they had come before he resumed riding down the other side of the hill alongside Estren, Gwyn and Brother Llyad.
"They are following our trail," he said. "Fortunately they are not following it too quickly. They may not realize just how fresh the track is."
They rode down into yet another shallow valley, moving through empty woods and skirting the occasional dense thicket. At times this hill became suddenly more steep, and its surprisingly rocky terrain combined with the dampness from the storm made for slippery riding. The companions picked their way down the hillside, moving much more slowly than Gwyn would have liked. She kept looking back, each time expecting to see an armed party riding down the hill after them, but each time there was no one there and all she could do was nervously finger her bowstring. She also watched Sir Baigent, and saw that whenever the ride did not require both of his hands on the reins he dropped his right hand to the pommel of his sword.
At the bottom of the vale they found another tiny stream much like the first except for the presence of a well-worn path beside it. Sir Baigent spent a minute considering the stream, and then made his decision.
"This one isn't large enough to hide our track, either; however, it does flow in the same direction as the last one. They must lead to a larger flow, which will obscure our path. Come!"
In this manner they followed the rivulet downstream, riding along the smooth path that was almost as well-groomed as the roads they had been following up until last night. The woods thickened around them, and would absorb some of the noise their horses made in case their pursuers were close enough to hear. Still, Gwyn looked back occasionally and saw no one yet. She told herself that all would be well, that they would find the stream that Sir Baigent desired and would be able to use it to conceal their trail long enough to get away. But there was something else in the air that heightened Gwyn's apprehension, something almost palpable, like a scent that she couldn't be certain was real or not. She might have passed it off as something she'd imagined, except that she could see the same expression on the faces of the knight and the bard, and she could feel Brother Llyad's tension merely in the way he sat in the saddle. The cold, the ever-present aroma of the saturated earth over which they rode, the breeze stirring the still-leafless branches of the trees, the pall that hung over the company -- all of that played into her fears.
"Do you think we are still being followed?" Estren asked.
"I don't know," Sir Baigent replied. "Perhaps they will judge us harmless intruders and give up the trail once they have followed it far enough. But I would not throw the dice with such being the stakes; I will breathe easier once we've ridden for a time in the water and made it harder for them to find us."
Gwyn listened to his words, and suddenly a series of doubts crystallized in her mind. "Have you had a chance to find your reckoning?" she asked. Sir Baigent glanced back at her. "We rode for so long in darkness and storm last night, and we didn't care what direction we went in. How can we even know if east is the right direction now? For all we know, we could have ridden a league or two north last night, and now we would still be headed the wrong way."
Sir Baigent nodded. "Those men came before I had a chance to mark our location," he said. "After we have lost our pursuers, we must head to higher ground so I can get a better reckoning. But I do not think that we are….too…far….off…." His voice trailed off then, and he reined to a sudden stop, gesturing for the companions to do likewise. Then he turned about, looking up at the trees with an odd expression on his face.
"What is it?" Brother Llyad asked, but Sir Baigent only held up a hand for silence. He was listening for something -- but what? Gwyn strained her ears trying to hear whatever Sir Baigent was listening for: the bells of riders' feet in their stirrups, perhaps? or the pounding of hoofbeats? or maybe the hiss of an arrow in flight, the scrape of steel being drawn, or a signal horn being blown? Gwyn suddenly realized Sir Baigent was listening for none of those. She heard the rush of the rivulet beside them, the wind stirring the tree branches, and--
"Crows," she said.
Sir Baigent nodded. Somewhere up ahead of them could be heard the cries of dozens of crows. She had heard the sound of that many crows before, when she had been just a girl and their cow had fallen in a storm, broken its leg, and died overnight. Her eyes met Sir Baigent's, and he looked back at her with a grim expression.
"There are dead nearby," he said. "Someone has fed the crows."
"Perhaps livestock," Estren offered. "Or a wild boar, dead of age and cold."
Sir Baigent only gestured for them to resume their ride. The breeze shifted, now blowing straight up the valley and into their faces. The new breeze carried an unpleasant smell, which as they rode deepened into an awful stench of rot. Gwyn pulled her collar and cloak up over her nose, but that didn't help. It took a good deal of her willpower just to keep from retching. She had never smelled anything at all like this, and she knew without asking that it was the stench of death. The cold aroma could be nothing else.
The wood toward the bottom of the valley became thickest, and they rode through it in hushed silence. From ahead could be heard the sound of rushing water, much louder than the rivulet they had been following. They emerged then, quite suddenly, from the wood to find themselves standing at the confluence of three of the rivulets and one larger stream, which gained quite a bit in size as it took on the flow of the rivulets. Another well-worn path wound up the side of the hill opposite them and across the water, and at the foot of that hill stood an immense oak tree.
That tree was the source of the crows. A hundred of them were there, in that tree, feasting on the twenty or so bodies that had been hung from its branches.
"Merciful Dona!" Brother Llyad whispered.
"Don't look!" Sir Baigent barked, but Gwyn had already done so. She tried to tear her eyes away, but couldn't. Her mouth went dry, her head suddenly felt horribly light, and her stomach heaved.
The bodies were young and old, men and women, even a few children. They had been stripped nude, their throats slashed, and hung by their feet for the crows. Some of their eyes were open, forming a ghastly chorus of staring death. The rains had caused the bodies to bloat. And there, flitting amidst them, were the hundred or so crows who gorging themselves upon the dead. Gwyn gagged violently as one crow thrust its beak deep into one body's open eye, but somehow she kept herself from vomiting though her mouth filled with the taste of acid and bile.
"We should get away from here," Estren said.
"Yes, we should," Sir Baigent said. "Come. We ride in the stream."
"Sir Baigent," Gwyn said.
"What?" the knight asked. Gwyn pointed, and the knight's gaze followed hers.
One body was still garbed in the robes of the Priesthood, though his waistcord was gone and thus his rank could not be known. Whoever had killed this man had carved a symbol of sorts into the very flesh of the man's stomach, a symbol which, though crude, was clearly recognizable as the device of King Cwerith of Gwynedd.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::