:: Sunday, May 15, 2005 ::
Gwyn waited for Sir Baigent's outburst of rage, but he only closed his eyes and flexed his already-tight grip on the reins. Is this what it had been like at Caer Camyrdin, she wondered? Had there been hundreds of such hanging trees there, their branches sagging under the weight of so many dead? How many bodies there had been mutilated with the device of Caer Mastagg? Probably few, she decided -- the city had been put to the torch -- but still, she could not put from her mind the horrible image of an entire forest of hanging trees.
"Who would do such a thing?" Brother Llyad asked. "And to a Brother of Dona, besides? We are people of peace!"
"Such things are not a concern to the people who would do things like this," Estren replied. "These are clearly the people from the homestead we stayed in last night. Were they taken in flight, or sleeping in their beds, I wonder?"
Gwyn shuddered, not certain which thought she found more horrific. Then something else caught her eye. "I think they tried to flee," she said, pointing to the broken wreckage of two wagons nearby that had been concealed partly by a group of dense bushes. They had fled and been taken, then; their assailants had caught them and hung them from this tree. A pair of crows fluttered past Gwyn very closely, and she waved them away. They cawed loudly as they returned to the bodies on which they fed.
"Let's go," Sir Baigent barked. His mouth was set in a thin line and his jaw was clenched as he turned away from the horrible crows' feast and spurred his horse onward, riding out into the middle of the stream. The others followed, splashing out into the center of the channel. As they left behind the tree of the dead Gwyn said a silent prayer to the Goddess for the souls of those slain so horribly. It would have to be enough, for there was no time to properly perform the Rites of the Dead.
The companions rode down the middle of the stream, splashing their way deeper into a valley that was narrowing into a ravine. The hanging tree fell behind them, eventually passing entirely out of view, but the wind stayed with them, shifting so that the death-stench still descended upon them from behind. Gwyn even thought that she could still hear the crows. Despite the sun, the grayness of the hills about them cast a pall over the company that would have been palpable even if they hadn't found the hanging tree.
They rode with the stream for a mile, during which their feet became wet and cold. Sir Baigent's mood had darkened considerably since the hanging tree, and he said nothing save to point out large rocks beneath the surface of the water, spots where the streambed dipped suddenly, and other such hazards. Finally they came to a place where two other streams joined their own, forming a wider, deeper river. Sir Baigent glanced around the area, which was marked by old trees and huge boulders. Then he looked up at the highest of the hilltops around them, a crag two miles or so distant toward which all of the land seemed to rise. At the top of that hill stood the ruins of an ancient citadel of stone, two walls of which stood behind shattered ramparts. Sir Baigent stared up at those ruins, and then at the new river before them. Then he looked at Estren.
"The Veryn Wash?" he said.
"I think so," Estren replied. "I have not been this way in some time, and never to its source."
"It must be the Veryn," Sir Baigent replied. "I can think of no other river that this can be."
"Is this good or bad?" Gwyn asked.
Sir Baigent shrugged. "It is not as bad as it could be," he said. "And it is good in that now I have the better reckoning that we spoke of earlier. Come." He led them out of the water and onto the north shore of the Veryn Rush, where the ground was relatively dry. Sir Baigent then looked up at the sky and marked the sun. "We have most of the day before us, and we will need it. We are south and west of the plain where the Giants' Dance stands. Our direction is still true. The Veryn flows due eastward for several leagues, and then it swings south toward the sea. We shall follow it until it turns, and then we too shall turn -- away from the Rush, and toward the Dance. And soon we will find roads again, which will allow us to make up some of the time that we lost last night. It appears that the storm did not steer us so wrongly as I had feared." He nodded with satisfaction, and Gwyn smiled at his returning confidence. She had heard that tone in his voice the first night she had met him, when he had bound her wound after the wolf attack in the glen, but it had been gone since Briston and the terrible news of Camyrdin's fall. Now it was back, at least in small measure. For men such as Sir Baigent, movement and action were the only salve for such a wound of loss as he had endured.
They followed the river into a narrow canyon between two hills. Here the way was partially blocked by a series of gigantic square-shaped boulders, and they had to pick their way through the narrow passages between the great rocks where there was no path. As Brother Llyad was steering the horse, Gwyn found herself with nothing to do just then except to study the sharp, regular angles of the boulders.
"These stones were shaped by men, weren't they?" she asked.
"You have a keen eye," Estren replied. "They were indeed. On that distant hill rose the Keep of the Scarlet King, who was High King Prystyl's greatest rival until the High King finally defeated his army at the Battle of the Veryn Vale, which took place just a few miles from here. From that victory, King Prystyl pushed forward and laid siege to the Scarlet King's Keep. After a very long siege indeed -- it is said to have lasted an entire turn of the seasons, although I'm not sure I believe it was that long -- the High King was finally able to breach the walls and throw them down, and thus the Scarlet King was defeated. These are those stones. You are looking at the very handiwork of High King Prystyl."
Gwyn imagined the sound these immense stones must have made as they were thrown down the side of the mountain, It must have been like thunder. "How did he do it?" she asked. "Bring the walls down?"
Estren shrugged. "No one knows the truth of the tale," he said. "Those times were so very confused, and even the Bardic lyrics of the time are not to be trusted as history, although the verse of that period is wonderful -- Goroddin of the Seven Pipes wrote some of the best, including this very tale.
"King Prystyl left the battlefield and went alone into a glade deep in the heart of a nearby wood. There he prayed to the Goddess for an entire night. When the moon set he was plunged into total darkness, and it was then that a great boar came. The King did not move, even when the boar charged him; he merely kept intoning the name of the Goddess, over and over again, and the boar's attack was turned aside at the last second by an arrow shot from the bow of Culdarra the Huntress. Then Culdarra gave him a gift: a horn of ivory.
"When the King returned the next morning to the field of battle, he ordered his men to quiet. When total silence had descended on the hill, King Prystyl walked toward the castle until he stood within the easy range of the Scarlet King's archers -- but before they could shoot him, he blew on the horn the first time and a great mist rose from the ground, completely shrouding the battlements and making it impossible for those archers to shoot. Then he blew the horn a second time, and the soil around the base of the Keep yielded the roots of the hundreds of trees the Scarlet King had felled in the building of his fortress. The roots snaked upward, grasped onto the great stones, and pulled. Then King Prystyl blew the horn a third time, and the air parted as a host of ten knights in gray armor rode forth from the sky led by a king who wore black armor and a veil of gray samite. These knights from the sky swung their mighty war hammers and drove the stones of the Keep apart, toppling the fortress and killing everyone within." Estren shrugged. "At least, that is how Goroddin tells the tale."
Gwyn looked at the gigantic monoliths around them, and then up to the ruins of the old citadel. The story had to be untrue; it was well-known that Culdarra the Huntress, wife of the King of Annwn, never bestowed gifts upon mortals.
"The stones are impressive," Brother Llyad said, now sounding more like a cleric of Tintagel than he had at any point since Gwyn had met him. "Despite having been shaped centuries ago, their workmanship is extraordinary. The detail of the carving, the precision of the shaping. You can see their like in many of the oldest citadels of Prydein, such as the lowest levels of the Sanctuary on Tintagel, the High King's palace at Londia, and even at Caer--" His voice suddenly trailed off as he caught himself before he said what he had meant to say in a moment of carelessness. Sir Baigent looked back at him, and Gwyn could see that his ears had turned red.
"It is all right, Brother," Sir Baigent said. "You do not need to soften your words for my ears. Evil exists whether we speak of it openly or not, so let us name it for what it is and thus damn it." He turned his attention back to the road, and Gwyn looked on him with amazement. There were depths of complexity to this man that he was only now allowing them to see. The wind freshened, and the swirling of the air around the immense blocks of stone created an ethereal chorus that wailed in such a way as to make Gwyn imagine the screams of the men who had died when these stones had fallen on the day when King Prystyl had blown his horn.
"Ride carefully," Sir Baigent said. He was pointing to the even larger stones ahead, stones that were themselves as large as some of the buildings in Briston. Here the hillside beside the river became much steeper, and the slope was littered with enough rubble that it would be impossible for the horses to ride over it; their only course lay through a passage that was created by one stone that had fallen atop two others, straddling the space between. Sir Baigent approached the tunnel, patting Arradwen's neck reassuringly as he guided her into the tunnel. Estren followed, and then came Gwyn and Brother Llyad. Their horse whinnied nervously, but still entered the dark passage.
The air inside the strange tunnel was cold and moist; the walls and ceiling dripped steadily, splattering the companions with icy water. Worse, the passage actually bent somehow, making the interior of the passage amazingly dark. It reminded Gwyn of the passages beneath the Sanctuary on Tintagel. They pushed around the bend, and the passage became much lighter as it opened up above them into something like a cave before ending entirely. The walls here were covered with moss and a few mushrooms -- another reminder of home. There had been so many, of all their homes. They moved at last out of the passage between the stones and emerged again into the light of day.
They had come into a glen beside the river. Tall willows surrounded them, and there were flower-bushes as well; it would have been a beautiful place indeed if the rushing river had been clear instead of muddy and swollen, and had those trees and bushes been in leaf and flower instead of being brown and barren. As it was, Gwyn could only be reminded of how cold it was.
"Someone has been here before us," Sir Baigent said as he dismounted and knelt beside an abandoned fire-ring that Gwyn hadn't noticed before. He touched the stones and then the ashes. "Cold," he said. "They have been gone for some time." He rubbed the soot from his hand onto his cloak.
"Were they the people who--" Gwyn's voice trailed off. She did not wish to speak aloud of the hanging tree.
"No," Sir Baigent said after a moment's thought. "People who do that sort of thing do not build ceremonial fire-rings in groves. And I have seen a fire-ring like this before." He looked up at Brother Llyad. "Haven't I?"
"Yes," the monk replied as he guided the horse over to the fire-ring. "It is a Druid ring. They were here."
"How do you know?" Gwyn asked.
"Look at it," Brother Llyad said. "Use the powers of observation that Brother Denys was always speaking about."
She thought back to Brother Denys and his oft-repeated words: Books contain truth, but not all of it. See the world for what it is, not for what you want it to be. He had always chided the Adepts to look at the world with perception uncolored by what they had read in the library. Gwyn looked down at the fire-ring. It looked like a normal fire-ring to her, the kind anyone would build in a campsite; perhaps it was more carefully rounded into its circular shape, and perhaps its stones were of surprisingly uniform shape and color, and perhaps the ashes had been more carefully smoothed out than might have been expected. And perhaps the ring was set almost perfectly in the center of the nearly-circular clearing.
"So the Oak Brothers do not totally eschew fire," Estren remarked. "Some of the older songs will need correcting."
"Fire is as necessary to the forest as the winter is to the land," Brother Llyad said. "The Druids know this."
"Can you tell when they were here?" Gwyn asked.
Sir Baigent shook his head. "Not precisely, though it was fairly recently -- say, the last four days or so. More than that, I do not know." He stood and looked up at Gwyn. She saw the smallest hint of a self-satisfied smile on his lips. "This would seem to indicate, My Lady, that we are still moving in the right direction."
Still a proud man, she thought as he remounted Arradwen and led the companions out of the clearing, still following the path close to the river. As they moved along, excitement began to build in Gwyn's heart. They were nearer, ever ever nearer, to their ultimate goal. It was true: the Druids were gathering for this, the moment their lore had foretold for so long. They had taken to the sea in their wooden boats and crossed the water to walk on shores they had left centuries before, chased by the sword of High King Prystyl. Gwyn felt as if she were riding into the pages of the history books themselves, into the very pages of legend -- but this was not legend, it was real. It was all real.
They swung onto the main path, once again surrounded by a jumble of giant boulders from the fortress of the Scarlet King. The view up the hill toward the remains of the shattered fortress was the best yet, and the worn ramparts caught the uncertain sunlight that shone through breaks in the clouds. Gwyn imagined how in earlier days those ramparts must have gleamed in the bright sunlight, casting the light of defiance on the gathered armies of King Prystyl in the valley below where she and her companions now rode. Gwyn's imagination filled in the spots where the walls had fallen, and she saw -- for the briefest moment before she turned her attention back upon the road -- the fortress as it had been, tall and proud with the smoke of cookfires rising from the chimneys. And then with a sigh she pushed her imagination aside and turned back to glance about the road. That was when the realization came to her, and her blood went cold. She had not, after all, imagined the smoke of the cookfires. The smoke was real.
And so were the two men who stood on horseback in the middle of the road before them.
"Hullo!" the one on the left called out, lifting a hand in greeting. Sir Baigent gestured for the companions to stop as the man who had greeted them returned the map he had been studying to its pouch and beckoned his hulking companion to join him. The two men came cantering over to Sir Baigent and the others.
The man on the right was the biggest man she had ever seen, bigger even than Brother Ethgun, Tintagel's scullery chief. This man's face was buried beneath a thick and dirty brown beard. His cloak was filthy and his boiled-leather vestments looked ready to burst, so tightly were they stretched on his enormous frame. Slung on his back was a gigantic battle ax, its blade notched and bent. This man looked terrifying, but despite his foreboding appearance it was still clear that he was subordinate to the smaller man on the left, the man who had greeted them.
He was not nearly as tall and not remotely as fat, but he looked every bit as strong. He too wore unmarked leather clothing under a plain brown cloak, but his cloak was not as dirty or as worn as his companion's. His cheeks bore a day or two's growth of beard, and his brown hair was only shoulder length. Instead of a battle ax, he wore a longsword girded on his back. He glanced over all of the companions, his gaze lingering on Gwyn for just a moment or two longer than on the others. His eyes were cold gray, like stone, and his gaze was piercing.
"There, Fflud, you see? I told you there were travelers about." He glanced at the man beside him. "That's another wager you've lost."
"Greetings," Sir Baigent said, his pleasant tone not entirely masking the careful appraisal that was in his voice.
"A fine and fair day, is it not?" the man said. He was smiling as would a person out for a leisurely ride on a summer's day.
"A bit cold," Sir Baigent said.
"Ah," the man replied. He edged a bit closer to the companions. "As I said, I thought there were travelers about. I didn't expect two pilgrims and a harper with a single man-of-arms, though."
"Why were you expecting anything at all?" Sir Baigent asked.
The man shrugged. "Because I saw you leaving that homestead an hour or two ago," he said. "You were lucky to find that place, given the weather last night."
"We were hoping to pay for the lodging that we took," Sir Baigent said. "But the families that lived there were nowhere to be found."
"I should think not," the man said. "I expect they left that place for...someplace better. These are hard times for such people -- wars, unyielding weather, and other unpleasant things."
Gwyn shuddered, thinking of the hanging tree.
"These are hard times for travelers too," the man went on. "The roads are beset with thieves, bandits and undesirables of all manner. In fact, there is one particularly dangerous band at large in these parts even now."
"We have encountered no one," Sir Baigent said. "Not since noontime yesterday." He paused, and then added: "I hope that you are not thieves or bandits."
The other man was silent for just a moment. A look of anger flashed over the face of the big man named Fflud, but then the smaller man laughed. "Hardly," he said. "Though a fair suspicion, given these dark times. We serve Lord Cydric, actually. I am the Captain of his guard. My name is Maxen."
"I once performed for Lord Cydric," Estren said. "He was quite old then, and that was some time ago. Is he still alive?"
Maxen nodded. "He is quite old, and he has been in ill health for some time."
"You are the Captain of his guard," Sir Baigent said slowly, "and yet you do not wear his device."
"And whose device do you wear, mercenary?" Maxen snapped, his voice suddenly stern and impatient. Sir Baigent did not so much as flinch. Maxen calmed again almost immediately and straightened his pose in his saddle. "As I said, we are seeking after a certain band of vermin that preys on innocent travelers and weak landholders. This particular band is uncommonly troublesome, and there are times when it is wise to set aside badges of office while seeking such lawbreakers. But then, I suppose it is a waste of time to explain such things to a mere sword-for-hire, isn't it?" He fixed his cold gray stare on Sir Baigent, who made no reply whatsoever. His horse snorted and stamped at the ground; Sir Baigent calmed it with a pat on the neck. "All we know of this particular band of thieves is their leader's name -- 'Gareth'. They would find a party like yours an especially tempting target."
"I find that hard to believe," Sir Baigent said. "As you can see, we are too poor to merit the attention of any bandit worth the name. And if they did try to take us, they would find it more difficult than they might think." He gestured to the sword slung on his back.
"Interesting," Maxen said, "that such a small and poor group of commoners -- two clerics and a harper -- could afford to pay a mercenary of your evident worth. That is a particularly fine-looking weapon that you have there. I wonder what part of a mercenary's pay you spent in acquiring it?" He shrugged. "And you are quite mistaken in any event. Gareth's bandits attack whomever they wish. They come at dusk or shortly after. There are never more than four of them at any time. They are highly skilled riders -- much like the ones that entertain at fairs and tournaments -- and they wear masks of painted wood."
"Never more than four?" Sir Baigent said. "How is it that you cannot best a mere four bandits, no matter how skilled they may be in the saddle?"
Fflud emitted an angry grunt at that, but Maxen only smiled thinly. "When we find them, there will be a fair reckoning. They have other weapons besides blades or bows. They have fire and smoke, and they use it both to kill and to conceal their escape."
"Fire and smoke!" Sir Baigent exclaimed, with a whistle of amazement. "They must be sorcerers, to have such weapons."
"Now perhaps you understand, Mercenary." Maxen was perfectly serious. "They are very dangerous, and they are somewhere nearby. And that is why I must know who you are and to where you travel. I would be most remiss in my duties to….Lord Cydric, if I did not seek to protect you as you journeyed through his lands. As skilled as you may be -- and I have no proof of that, save your word -- these brigands of Gareth's would make short work of you. Swords are of no use against their fire."
"Then I wonder how you plan to deal with them when you find them," Sir Baigent said.
Maxen's lips tightened. "I am not accustomed to having my questions unanswered. I will ask again: who are you, and where are you going?"
"Bedwyn," Gwyn blurted out. Sir Baigent hissed at her to be quiet, but Maxen held up a hand.
"Now, then, Sir Mercenary, you have had your turn. Allow the girl to speak. You go to Bedwyn, is that right?"
Gwyn shuddered to have Maxen's attention focused directly upon her; there was something fearsome about this man but she could not locate that fear. But she also felt a flash of anger to be referred to as a "girl". "I am Adept of the Goddess, the Merciful Dona, blessed be her Name," she said formally. "My name is Gwynwhyfar. This is my teacher, Brother Llyad. We are on a pilgrimage to the Temple at Bedwyn. We have come from Tintagel."
"Tintagel...then you must have encountered...." He shook his head, dismissing the thought. "Why Bedwyn, of all places?"
"The Temple there has Oracles that we do not have at Tintagel," Brother Llyad said after clearing his throat. "It is a valuable part of my Adept's training."
"We encountered this harper in a village outside Tintagel," Gwyn said. "He wanted companionship on his own journey east. A day later we met this mercenary."
"And somehow you had enough gold in your purse to tempt a man of arms," Maxen said. "Or perhaps there was another price?" He smiled briefly; Fflud actually laughed. Gwyn felt her cheeks go red. This was not what she had intended. She opened her mouth to reply and closed it again when Sir Baigent gave a single, sharp shake of his head. "So," Maxen continued, "you go to Bedwyn. I know that Tintagel is far away and that tidings are slow in reaching it, but you cannot be unaware of the war going on? There are armies marching on Bedwyn even now."
"You know clerics," Sir Baigent said with a laugh that seemed forced. "They are often given to foolish quests."
"This seems more foolish than most," Maxen said. "I suppose, mercenary, that once you are there you will sell your services to the Bedwyn Guard?"
"I'm sure the pay will be decent," Sir Baigent replied.
"For a swordsman of your value, how could it be anything else?" Maxen smiled as he said it. "How interesting it must be, to have no convictions and to be sworn to no lord at all. I wouldn't be able to do it."
Sir Baigent couldn't hide the look of pain that flashed over his face just then; all he could do was look down and hope it went unnoticed.
Just then a horn sounded from quite nearby -- two low-pitched blasts. Startled, Gwyn jumped. Estren's horse whinnied. "Ah," said Maxen. "The men return."
Gwyn's muscles tensed. The sound of feet trampling through the brush rose around and then twelve men emerged from the copse of trees that stood between the road and the river. These men had been searching the riverbank, and were filthy and mud-spattered. Most carried clubs or spears, except one who held a ratty-looking bow. Each looked at the companions, and each finally settled his gaze on Gwyn. She shivered and turned away from them, focusing instead on Maxen's back.
"Did you find anything?" Maxen asked.
"No, Captain," one of the men replied. "No trace that they came this way."
"I told you," Fflud said. "You're not going to find them down here. They came from the east, I said--"
Maxen cut him off. "Fflud! Enough. The failure here means nothing. That storm last night would have cleared any trace of them."
Fflud shifted in his saddle. "Then why," he said with a look of impatience, "did we bother with this entire exercise? If you didn't mean to find them--"
"I said, enough." Maxen glared at the huge man behind him. Fflud returned the glare, but only for a second or two before relenting with a curt nod.
"Your masked bandits?" Sir Baigent asked.
Maxen nodded. "They have been even more brazen lately. They struck us just last night, before the storm hit. It was almost as if they knew it was coming."
"A glance at the sky would have told them that," Sir Baigent remarked.
"A glance at one's surroundings will tell one many things," he said, nodding to one of his men. Almost immediately the men formed a perimeter around the companions.
"What is this?" Sir Baigent demanded. "Are you making us into prisoners?"
"Hardly," Maxen said. "I am expressing my deepest concern for your safety on this road. I could not count myself any kind of guardian of these roads if I allowed you to travel on while this band of thieves and killers is about."
Gwyn's heart began to race. He made it sound so benign. "But Bedwyn--" she began.
"My Lord," Brother Llyad said, trying to speak with authority and only partially pushing the fear from his voice, "as servants of the Goddess we are prepared to meet whatever fate she has for us. Our mission to Bedwyn must not--"
"Your mission to Bedwyn will wait," Maxen said. "The city and its people will still be there...at least, we can only hope so." Some of the men laughed at that.
"This is not in keeping with the High King's Law," Sir Baigent said, referring to High King Irlaris's proclamation that all roads were to be free to travelers in his domain. Maxen glanced sharply at Sir Baigent.
"The High King's Law is not a thing of permanence," he said. "Nor is the High King himself." There was a new tone of darkness in his voice. Then, in the same assuring tone he had used before, he said: "Do not fear, my friends. My men will want to receive spiritual guidance. Consider it a new mission." He gestured to his men, who tightened up the perimeter around the companions. "Now, I will see you to my camp."
With no more word than that he turned and began riding away, with Fflud close behind. One of the men grunted, and Sir Baigent nodded to his companions. Having no choice at all in the matter, they followed Maxen and Fflud, accompanied by the escort of ugly armed men. The path turned sharply up the hill itself, leading to the wrecked fortress of the Scarlet King. So it was Maxen's own cookfires that I saw, Gwyn realized. It struck her as odd that he would make camp in such a place, if his duty was to patrol the roads; but then, if his tale of fire-wielding bandits was true, then perhaps he had taken shelter in this place for defensive purposes. Still, she felt that something about his story didn't fit -- that he was either lying or omitting some crucial part of the truth, and that soon enough they would find out which.
"All will be well," Sir Baigent said. He had moved closer to the horse on which she rode with Brother Llyad, and spoke in a low voice so their escorts couldn't hear. "Perhaps we can buy our freedom -- or, when a good time comes, make our escape."
Gwyn said nothing. Were they captives, or not? Their weapons had not been taken, which might have been a hopeful sign -- even though it was perfectly clear that they could not possibly fight their way out of this situation. Not yet. All Gwyn knew is that they were so near to Midsummer Night, which was less than three days distant. Three days until fulfilling her role as the Welcomer…if she was there.
"Do you believe his story?" she head Estren saying. "Do you believe this business about 'Gareth' and the bandits who fight with fire?"
"I believe," said Sir Baigent, "that we should address one difficulty at a time."
If the men around them cared about what they were talking about, they did not show it in any way; the men trundled along beside them, completely ignoring the companions. Nevertheless, they said no more.
Now the road swung onto its steepest stretch, with the broken ramparts of the Scarlet King's citadel looming directly above them. Little wonder that King Prystyl had had such a hard time in conquering this place. Gwyn imagined his rage as his armies surged up this hard hill and were beaten back, time and again, by a hailstorm of arrows and rocks, by rivulets of boiling oil, by thunderous rolling logs set aflame. She imagined the Scarlet King, secure in his Great Hall, laughing at his rival in the valley below and reveling in his unmatched security and strength. What had he felt when those horrible horn blasts echoed across the world, when the sky ripped asunder and a host came from beyond to lay waste to the place he had built, throwing it down stone by stone? Had he cowered in the end as the earth shook, as the great stones tumbled down the side of the hill? Was his fear then anything like the fear that Gwyn felt now as she came within his long-toppled walls?
They did not come through the citadel's main gate. Instead, they followed a precarious trail halfway around the base of the outermost wall to a great gap that had been opened up by a catapult or some other means. Now that they were very close, Gwyn was ever more amazed by this place and by King Prystyl's feat -- whether Goroddin had told it rightly or no -- in destroying it. The stones that still formed part of the ruins were staggeringly gigantic, much larger than any of the ones that had been thrown into the valley, much larger by far than any of the stones that formed the building foundations on Tintagel -- foundations that had weathered the sea's fury for centuries. For the briefest of moments Gwyn felt her sense of scholarly wonder rise up again. But the feeling vanished just as quickly as they came into the wide space that was now Maxen's camp.
The surprisingly large courtyard was ringed by broken walls with gaps wide enough for a man to ride through without touching, and it was dominated by the accouterments of a large armed camp. Gwyn paled. This was not the camp of a small band patrolling a few roads. This was a small army.
To their left was an area filled with tents, all of them arranged in as close to a series of rows as was possible, given the rubble at the bottom of the fallen walls. To their right was the livery area, little more than a wide space bound by ropes and pikes where the horses and wagons were kept, several dozen of each. Directly before them, past the tents and the livery, was the remainder of the courtyard: a pitted, scarred field where some of Maxen's men were practicing at arms, playing at dice, or singing a tune with bawdy lyrics and tortured rhymes that made Estren wince. Judging by the size of this camp, Lord Cydric was no minor lordling.
Word had spread about Maxen's return, and soon the companions were surrounded by several dozen men who had come to see if their captain had captured the bandits. They all looked disappointed when they saw that he had not -- but those looks of disappointment turned to something else when they saw that their Captain had brought a woman into their midst. Gwyn stared straight ahead, into the middle of Brother Llyad's back, to avoid their leering. She could not, though, shut out the unsavory comments shouted in her direction.
"Clear aside!" Maxen shouted. "These are guests, not food or bounty. You!" He beckoned to a tall, young lad who was clearly a mere page. "What word from…our Lord?"
"A rider came an hour or so ago," the page reported. "He has tidings about--"
Maxen held up a hand, cutting him off. "I will hear his tidings myself." He swung down from his horse and handed his reins to the page. "See to the animal. Fflud, escort our guests to their lodging." Fflud only nodded. He said nothing else to the companions; he only walked off toward the tents.
"Take their animals," Fflud commanded three nearby livery workers. Then he beckoned the companions to follow him.
Sir Baigent shrugged and obeyed, sliding down from his horse. The others joined him, at which point their horses were led away. Too late, Gwyn realized that while she still had her bow on her back, her quiver was still in one of the saddlepouches. "Out of the way, you dogs!" Fflud shouted, making the men clustering around them disperse. He led the companions through the rows of tents, from many of which came the smell of sweat among other unpleasant odors. They finally arrived at a particularly dirty tent in the very rear of the camp, the back of which was pitched right up against one of the ruined keep's stone walls. Inside, it turned out to be a storage place for a miscellany of items: bolts of coarse cloth for cloaks and such, strips of metal for the forging into weapons, bags of arrowheads, leather for saddle repair, and a host of other items. There would be just enough room for the four of them to sleep.
"Best we can offer right now," Fflud said. "You may be guests, but watch where you try to go. Not all of us are friendly." He gave a kind of chuckle. "The evening meal is at sundown. Follow the shouts." And then he left. Sir Baigent stood at the tent's entrance, watching him go. When was gone and out of earshot, the knight turned around and, suddenly, delivered a strong and angry kick to a barrel of meal that stood on the ground.
"Damnation!" he shouted. The barrel tipped over and spilled its contents across the ground.
"Sir Baigent," Gwyn began, but stopped again when he turned his glare upon her.
"So here we are," he said, his voice low and calm again but filled with deadly anger. "Made prisoner. My home is in ashes, the entire city is dead, my Lord marches to war in someone else's army because his own has been slain, and what of his seneschal? He rots in the camp of some piddling Lord's Captain of the Guard!" He grabbed a spearshaft from a stack of them on the floor and hurled it against the tent's back wall. "Lord Matholyn rides to fight against the man who took Caer Camyrdin and burned it to the ground, and what is my task? To ride with a harper and two clerics to the Giants' Dance, where we will meet with the Druids and bring back the Promised King! I turned my back on my people and my home and my Lord to chase after legends and bedtime tales for children!"
Silence fell. Estren distracted himself in the task of restringing his harp, while Brother Llyad simply stared at Sir Baigent. Gwyn clutched her arms over her chest, as she did whenever she felt defensive. She certainly felt that way now, having born the brunt of the knight's outburst. Her eyes filled with angry tears, and she turned away from Sir Baigent to keep him from seeing them.
"That was not worthy of you," she heard Brother Llyad say.
"Do not presume to speak to me of what is worthy," Sir Baigent shot back. "I see little worth in where we are now. And I see even less worth in how we came to be here."
Gwyn faced him then, tears or no. This was too much.
"You still do not believe," she said. "All that we have seen, all that we have done, and you still do not believe!"
"What have we seen, My Lady? A meeting of fairies beside a lake? I did not see that. I only saw the wolves."
Gwyn looked down at the ground as once more she heard the terrifying voice of the great silver wolf in her mind. I will not so be thwarted this time, not by a pathetic King promised to a puny island realm, not by a Goddess who could only barely stay my hand before, and certainly not by a girl only days into womanhood. Gwyn shuddered. Those words had haunted her each minute since she had first heard them spoken. "I have not told you everything about those wolves," she said.
"There is so much that I do not know," Sir Baigent said. "For me, this is a quest of ignorance."
"Then you give up?" Brother Llyad asked. "Are you abandoning the duty that you swore? Would you turn craven now?"
Sir Baigent looked up at the monk, who didn't flinch from the knight's stare.
"I have more than once suggested that you choose your words more carefully," Sir Baigent said. "And I have never abandoned a sworn task in my life. "He looked again at Gwyn. "Until a week ago you were just one of many Adepts throughout Prydein, studying for the Order of the Goddess. Now you believe yourself that you will fulfill Prydein's oldest prophecy -- a prophecy so old that many do not see it as prophecy at all, but pleasant legend." He rose to his feet. "How can you be so certain?"
Gwyn opened and closed her mouth. Brother Llyad tried to answer for her. "The Druids said--"
"I asked her, Brother," Sir Baigent said. "It couldn't have been just the word of a single Druid." He looked back at Gwyn.
"I don't know," she finally said. "It wasn't just Llawann. And it wasn't just the Fairy that I met by the lake. It is...something more." She thought, then, of her father. Some part of him had always been looking away, to the horizon and to the sea. Gwyn had always wondered what he had been looking for. Was it her mother? or was it something more? "Sir Baigent," she began slowly, "you always knew you were to be a knight. Anything else was unthinkable. It is a who you are. It was the same way with all of the other Brothers and Sisters and Adepts I knew at Tintagel. For Brother Malcolm, there was never any question that he would be anything else. He was always a learner, a scholar, devoted to the Goddess. But me? I never knew who I was." The words came slowly and awkwardly. She had never expressed these feelings before, not even to Dana or to Brother Malcolm. How could she say these things to a man-of-arms she had only known for mere days? "I used to ask my father who I was, and he would only say, You are my daughter. I used to ask him what was to become of me, and he would only say, No father can ever know what path his child's life will take." She was crying now, but still she went on.
"When he died, I fled to town and the Shrine there. The Priest took me in, and he had another guest at the time: Brother Malcolm. He offered to bring me to Tintagel, to see if I had the gift to be an Adept.
"But even as I began my studies, I was never certain that this was the correct path. There were nights when I would wake to the sound of the sea -- there is no place on Tintagel where you cannot hear it -- and I would wonder what it was my father always looked for, when he looked out into the waters." She wiped her eyes and shook her head. "This must all seem so absurd to you, Sir Baigent. You are a man who deals very little with uncertainty -- but it has been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember -- until the night at the lake, when I was touched by the Fair Folk and saw my true road. This is who I am." She gave a light laugh then as she wiped her nose and eyes. "I suppose this all still sounds like the ravings of a silly cleric."
"It does," Sir Baigent admitted. "But then, it was the raving of a cleric that sent me to meet the Druids myself, and she was far from silly." He sighed. "Perhaps at the end of this journey, when the Promised King stands before me, I shall feel differently. I hope you will forgive me if I don't share your certainty, My Lady. In the same time that you have been given all the answers you have ever sought, I seem to have been given nothing but questions."
"I haven't found all of my answers," Gwyn said. "And some of your questions are mine as well."
He looked at her for a long moment. Then he rose from where he sat and walked over to one of the piles of clutter along the back of the tent. "Ah," he said as he drew something from the pile, "I thought I saw one of these. My own is in Arradwen's saddlebag." When he turned back to his companions, they saw that the object was a whetstone. He sat down and began the task of sharpening his sword.
"Do you think that it will come to that?" Brother Llyad asked.
"It might," Sir Baigent replied. "When we arrived, I noticed a wagon that was newly arrived -- the mud on the wheels and on the horse team's hooves was still wet. The wagon was laden with a dozen or so ale casks, probably sent by Lord Cydric. Maxen strikes me as a man who can hold his ale, but that is a not so common a quality as many men would have you believe. I expect that in the course of the evening, the better number of men in this camp will become drunk. That should make our escape somewhat easier." He looked up at Gwyn. "You may wish to look through those piles for some bowstrings."
"Do you mean to just ride out the main gate, the way we came in?" Gwyn asked. "Surely those guards will be sober."
"I have no intention of going anywhere near the main gate," Sir Baigent replied. "We will go through one of the holes in the wall, and straight down the hill."
"Madness!" Brother Llyad exclaimed. "We can't possibly ride down that hill at night! Our horses will stumble, and we will be thrown on the rocks!"
Sir Baigent gave a smile that was not particularly humorous. "I should think that you, cleric, would be eager to demonstrate your horsemanship after what happened last night." Brother Llyad's cheeks reddened. "It will be dangerous," Sir Baigent continued. "But we have little choice, and if we ride at a disadvantage with one animal carrying two down a treacherous and steep hillside, the match will be even because those pursuing us will have bellies full of ale. If the clear skies hold, then we should have moonlight to aid us."
"What do we do when we get to the bottom of the hill?" Gwyn asked.
Sir Baigent shrugged. "I will make that decision when that time comes," he said. Then he looked over at Estren, who had begun tuning his harp and plucking out a small tune. "You have said nothing in some time, harper. What troubles you?"
Estren let the melody he was playing die out on an unresolved note. "I am thinking of Lord Cydric," he said. "I performed for his court a year or so ago, I think -- after I met you at the Crossroads. He did not impress me as a man not terribly interested in acquiring other lands beyond his own borders. He was content to pay his tribute to Duke Cunaddyr and let that suffice. He did, though, enjoy a good tune." He began plucking the strings again, this time sounding a melody that Gwyn found strangely familiar. It was a simplistic, repetitive tune with little of the complexity and none of the lilt that Estren had favored in the songs he had sung in the brief time she'd known him. Then she placed it: the very song that had been on the lips of Maxen's men out in the camp, the one with the clumsy and bawdy rhymes that had made Estren wince. "I have heard this song only in one place, until today. It was not at Lord Cydric's keep, but rather at Caer Mastagg. That bit of doggerel was very popular there."
Palpable gloom settled over the companions as Estren continued tuning his harp and Sir Baigent continued sharpening his sword.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::