:: Sunday, June 05, 2005 ::
They passed the hours until sundown in somber quiet. Nothing more was said of the suspicions Estren had raised. Instead, Gwyn joined Brother Llyad in prayer and meditation while Estren spent his time composed his thoughts and experimented with several new melodic subjects. Sir Baigent sharpened his sword and used a stick to draw diagrams of the camp, from memory, in the dirt on the floor, down to the larger gaps in the wall whose location he had marked in his mind. Thus the four or five hours passed, and finally Fflud came to collect them. "There is food," was all he said before he turned and walked out of the tent again, making the companions race to catch up with him.
They followed Fflud out of the tent area and into the wide central common, where most of the men in the camp had gathered around one of the eight or nine blazing cookfires. As before, Gwyn's presence in the midst of these men was met with whistles, lusty shouts, and utterances of the most bawdy and repugnant kind. Fflud said nothing as he led them past all these depravities to the fire where Maxen himself sat. There were three other men with him, but they were enmeshed in some kind of strength contest involving clasped arms and daggers held by the blade; Maxen ignored them and merely gazed into the fire waiting for the scraggly lamb whose carcass turned on a spit above the flame to finish cooking. The lamb was thin and bony; Gwyn could tell at a glance that its flesh would be tough and gamey, but even after just two days of hard riding since Briston the smell of cooking meat was intoxicating. Her stomach began rumbling immediately, and she almost forgot that they were perhaps going to break bread with enemies. They all sat down on the ground, next to Maxen.
"Greetings," he said. "I hope you find the lodging satisfactory."
"It will keep out the rain," Sir Baigent said. Gwyn glanced up at the clear sky.
"That it will," Maxen replied with a laugh. "I only hope that we don't see much more rain like that which came last night. Do you know that some of my men believe that storm was unnatural? That it was sent by the Goddess for some reason known only to her? Do you believe that?"
"Well--" Sir Baigent began.
"Actually," Maxen said, "I think that I would prefer the thoughts of the clerics on this matter." He smiled at Gwyn especially.
Brother Llyad cleared his throat. "The Goddess does not work in this way," he said.
"In what way?" Maxen asked. "She does not manufacture such storms and send them across the land, wreaking havoc and destroying what her worshipers have built? If not the Goddess, then would it not be the work of some other power -- but then the Goddess not be so strong as we would prefer to believe, no?" He looked up at the sky for a moment. Behind them there arose a loud burst of laughter, and one of the three men engaged in the strength contest shouted out in pain and was now rubbing his forearm, the flesh of which had turned a bright crimson. "You should forgive me such talk," Maxen finally said. "I am not as well versed in the matters of the Goddess and her worshipers."
"You say 'her worshipers' as if you are not one of them," Brother Llyad said.
"I don't worship much at all these days," Maxen replied. "Save, of course, that which I can see before me -- that animal on the fire, the walls around this camp, and this flagon of ale." He hoisted his cup then, and Gwyn suddenly realized how red his face was and how much he was actually sweating, despite the cold night. He had apparently consumed a bit more ale than what was just then in his flagon. "These matters have been much on my mind in recent days," he said.
"Such matters have been on everyone's mind recently," Gwyn said.
"Impressive wisdom coming from one so young as yourself," Maxen said. "How amazing! Brother, I know that you were once as young as your Adept here, but I doubt very much that you were as wise."
"Gwyn is a fine student," Brother Llyad said.
"Gwynwhyfar," Gwyn said, adopting a formal tone. "Thank you for your kind words. I value them highly, coming from so august a man as the Captain of Lord Cydric's guard."
Maxen smiled at that, the tribute clearly pleasing him. Gwyn suspected that it pleased him more coming from a woman than it did coming from a cleric. "I must say," Maxen mused as he ran his finger around the edge of his cup, "that you are quite unlike any cleric that I have ever known. Most are men, to be sure, but even the women I have met who have sworn themselves to the Goddess I have always suspected of doing so because they could not possibly hope to find a man who would swear himself to them. I've never met one so pleasing to the eye." He glanced at Sir Baigent. "Tell me, mercenary, how is it that you travel with so lovely a blossom and resist the urge to pluck it?" Gwyn gasped, and anger flashed in Sir Baigent's eyes. "I should think," he went on, "that such temptation would be impossible to resist."
Brother Llyad, utterly aghast, rose to his feet. "You would harbor such thoughts toward one who is sworn to the Goddess?"
"Brother!" Sir Baigent said, half rising himself. Brother Llyad had spoken a bit too loudly. Everyone in earshot was now watching and trying to figure out what was going on.
"Have care, Brother," Maxen said. "Many of my men are full of drink and may well misinterpret your stance just now."
Brother Llyad swallowed hard and sat back down.
"As for your question," Maxen went on, "she is an Adept, and not properly sworn to anything yet. Isn't that true? Well, Mercenary? What say you?"
Gwyn glanced over at Sir Baigent, who had recovered his cool demeanor.
"I don't make a habit of entertaining such thoughts about those who pay me for services rendered," said the knight.
"Indeed," Maxen replied. "Interesting to hear you say that. So few mercenaries are men of honor -- it is what drives them to turn mercenary in the first place. You are more than that, I think." In that moment, Maxen suddenly seemed far less at the mercy of his ale than he had been at first. In fact, he seemed now to be quite sober. Gwyn shivered, but Sir Baigent only smiled.
"And you seem more than a mere Captain of the Guard," the knight replied.
Maxen held his gaze for just a moment, and then he threw back his head and laughed. Then he turned to Fflud. "You dolt!" he said. "Your manners are disastrous! Dinner is about to be served, and still our guests have no ale!" He clapped his hands to signal a passing servant, whom he directed to bring four flagons. "You clerics do drink ale, do you not?" he asked Gwyn.
"More often mead or wine, if possible," she replied, avoiding his direct gaze.
"Wine is hard to come by, in Caer Mastagg," Maxen said as they were served. "And I've never cared for mead." Maxen lifted his mug. "Whose health should we propose tonight?" he asked.
Sir Baigent raised his flagon. "To High King Irlaris," he said.
Something flashed in Maxen's eyes, something dark, but he only smiled thinly and nodded. Fflud made an audible grunt of some displeasure.
"To the High King of Prydein," he said.
Not the same thing, Gwyn realized. Not at all the same thing. If Sir Baigent likewise realized it, he nevertheless showed nothing. They all drank. Gwyn had never been particularly fond of ale, but this was especially not to her liking -- thick and grainy and strong. As she swallowed the bitter libation she heard a chorus of shouts and cheers behind her that moved through the camp.
"Ah," Maxen said as he lowered his flagon. "Our dinner is ready, or I miss my guess."
It was indeed. Servants came around bearing loaves of bread which they distributed before turning to the task of lifting the roasted lamb from the fire. They cut great hunks of meat from the cooked carcass and handed them out on tin plates. Because the meat was still very hot, Gwyn bit from the bread first. It was thick, heavy, hard and stale; Gwyn supposed that it was at least several days old. Another day or two and it would probably be moldy, although the cold air would help in that regard. The meat, though, was better than Gwyn expected. It was indeed fairly tough and gamy, but even so it was a wonderful alternative to the cold, dried meat that she had eaten at every meal since leaving Briston. Gwyn ate with relish, her appetite winning out over her still-lingering doubts as to just where Maxen and his men had found these sheep in the first place.
"Fresh meat is hard to come by these days," Maxen said as he picked a bone clean.
Sir Baigent cleared his throat. "Since you mention that," he said, "I've been wondering how you came by these sheep. Killing fresh livestock for meat seems unlikely in these times."
"It is a rare indulgence," Maxen admitted. "Sometimes a Captain must think of the pleasures of his men. As for the finding of them, that was by the best of luck, I assure you." He dropped the subject, instead turning and holding up his flagon to be filled by a passing servant. Then, he turned to Estren. "Now that our meal is done, I wonder if the harper would favor us with some entertainment? Games of dice are well enough, but I've become bored with them lately, especially as we pass the same winnings around each night. And our own voices raised in song would waken those who dwell in Annwn." He gave a chuckle. "I'm afraid, though, that I have little coin to offer you."
"That is of no concern," Estren said. "I am accustomed to performing in return for lodging and food. It would honor me to perform for your men."
"Excellent!" Maxen said, and then he rose and shouted for the attention of his men. Fflud joined him, bellowing at the top of his considerable voice. Even so, with many of the men were already feeling the effects of drink it took some time for them to get the camp quiet enough for Estren to perform. During that time the Bard -- whom Maxen did not know was a Bard, instead thinking him a mere traveling harper -- leaned over and whispered something in Sir Baigent's ear. Gwyn saw Sir Baigent nod, although his expression was grim. Finally, when Maxen was satisfied that the men were going to listen, he gestured for Estren, who rose to his feet.
"Don't you need your harp?" Gwyn asked. The harp had been left in the tent, along with the rest of their belongings.
"Not for this song," Estren replied, and then he began. That was all the warning Gwyn -- or any of them -- had for what happened next.
He could have chosen from any of a hundred songs that he knew, the ones that would not suffer from being sung unaccompanied by any instrument: humorous tales of errant Knights, sad stories of doomed lovers, thrilling accounts of great warriors and their deeds. He chose none of them. He began singing in his clear voice, and before he even reached the end of the first verse Gwyn heard grunts of displeasure coming from the men around her. Finally she recognized the tune that they had all placed almost immediately. Estren had chosen the most famous work of Hamish the Younger, the Lay of Macholugh.
This work told of the great Lord of Camyrdin who, by choosing not to fight, brought the last of the unconquered Lords -- Gwynedd's King Cellamma -- under the banner of High King Irlaris. This one song, more than any other, had spread the legend of the Unfought Battle, showing everyone throughout the land that Irlaris had been ordained by Dona herself, and that Lord Macholugh, by virtue of his courage in refusing to ally himself with Caer Mastagg, had been the bravest of Lords. Hamish's Lay of Macholugh was known and revered across all the land -- except in Gwynedd, where it was remembered as a song of treachery and deceit and cowardice, and where to sing it was to risk offending everyone in earshot.
When Estren closed the song with the traditional paean to Lord Macholugh, later added by Hamish after Macholugh's passing, he bowed before Maxen and returned to his seat. The whole camp had fallen utterly silent. A hard look was frozen on Maxen's face, and his lips were curled in a tight frown. "An interesting choice of songs, harper."
Estren nodded. "I thought it might give comfort to men set at war," he said.
Gwyn saw Maxen shake his head once, hard, and she followed his gaze to Fflud, just in time to see the big man remove his hand from the hilt of the dagger he wore stuck in his belt.
Sir Baigent saw this too. "Did he give offense?" the knight asked. "Surely it was only a harmless verse about something that happened fifty years ago."
" 'A harmless verse'?" Real anger -- not veiled, not concealed, but raw and visceral -- was in Maxen's voice now. "That work is nothing more than disgusting doggerel. It is slanderous and sings the praises of a cowardly traitor." He glared at Estren, who spread his arms in feigned reproach.
"I only meant--" the Bard began, before he was cut off by Sir Baigent.
"Has Lord Cydric come to reject the Lords of Camyrdin?" he asked, not troubling at all to hide the edge that was in his own voice now.
"Lord Cydric?" Maxen laughed, harshly this time. "If you were truly perceptive, you would have realized by now that I am no servant of Lord Cydric. I personally killed that miserable wretch and left his body for the carrion-birds."
"For what crime?" Sir Baigent asked.
"For failing to pledge his loyalty to Cwerith ap Cellamma, the true High King of Prydein."
Gwyn felt the blood drain from her face. Their fears had been realized.
"Then this is part of Cwerith's army?" Sir Baigent asked quietly.
Maxen nodded. "I am a Captain in his southern flank," he said. "What say you to that, mercenary?"
"You are apparently an even more impressive man than I had first thought," Sir Baigent replied. "I suppose that you were looking for travelers this morning. And the families that lived in that homestead?"
Maxen shrugged. "They had the opportunity to bend the knee for King Cwerith -- the same opportunity that I afforded Lord Cydric. It was such a simple request. All they had to do was pledge their loyalty, and offer some small pittance as a token of their new allegiance."
"These sheep," Maxen echoed. Gwyn felt sick. So the people in the hanging tree had been murdered for their sheep.
"They had their opportunity to live and to serve their High King," Maxen went on. "Instead, they chose to fight. One of them shouted some nonsense about Camyrdin and then they took up what arms they had -- against my trained men. Their arms turned out to be shovels and ploughshares."
"You slaughtered them all?" Sir Baigent asked.
"To raise a hand against a King's Man is to raise a hand against the King himself," Maxen said. "It was my duty."
"Duty," Brother Llyad echoed. "There was a Brother of Dona among them."
"He was the one who shouted the nonsense about Camyrdin," Maxen replied. "Clerics are not exempt from serving their King, lest they share the fate of those who refuse. Like the homesteaders. Like Camyrdin." He turned quickly to face Sir Baigent. "That is the third time you have flinched at the mention of Camyrdin, Sir Mercenary. It occurs to me that I do not have your name."
"You never asked it," Sir Baigent said.
"I ask it now," Maxen said. "You see, despite your clumsy efforts to conceal it, I did note the device of Camyrdin on the pommel of your sword."
"My name is Peryn," Sir Baigent said. Gwyn winced inwardly. He was using the name of his dead brother.
"So, Peryn, you travel as a mercenary bearing a weapon of Camyrdin," Maxen said. "I am curious: what was your crime?"
Sir Baigent blinked. "My crime?"
"You were exiled, were you not? For what crime were you sent from Camyrdin?"
He thinks that Baigent is an exile! Gwyn thought. We have hope yet.
Sir Baigent shook his head. "Some things in a man's life should not be discussed," he said softly. "My leaving Camyrdin is not something of which I am proud."
"Ah," Maxen said. "A matter of honor. And thus, you have taken service as a mercenary, working your way toward Bedwyn. Duke Cunaddyr is a known supporter of Irlaris and an ally of Camyrdin. I suppose you hoped to regain something of the honor that you lost in earning your exile?" He shook his head. "You may wish to reconsider if your choice of destination is wise."
Sir Baigent looked up sharply. "It was not my choice of destination." He indicated Gwyn and Brother Llyad.
"I see," Maxen said as he took a sip of ale. "But still, it fits in with your desires, does it not? The opportunity to restore lost honor, and all of that?"
"Cunaddyr is a rich man," Sir Baigent said. "He will pay well."
"Your thinking is flawed," Maxen said. "He is certain to lose this war, and if he refuses to accept that Irlaris is done and that Cwerith is the true High King, then Cunaddyr will fare no better than Lord Matholyn did. You should know that the winning side in a war pays its mercenaries better."
Sir Baigent took a long sip of his own ale. "Is that an offer, Captain?" he asked.
"A thought to consider," Maxen said. "The High King will win this war, that much is certain. But he will always welcome strong men who are skilled at arms. A former Knight of Camyrdin may be useful, and once he has taken the throne, there will be spoils to be doled out. You could end up with lands of your own. Perhaps you could succeed Lord Cydric -- his keep was entirely too drafty for my tastes, and this region is too far from the sea, but for a man like you, it might be the perfect opportunity."
"I will have to consider that," Sir Baigent said.
"I hope that you will do more than that," Maxen said. "You should also consider this: with the winning side, you are much less likely to be dead afterwards." He laughed at that, as did Fflud. Sir Baigent waited a moment before laughing himself.
"And what of my companions?" the knight asked.
"Well, I cannot allow them to travel alone on to Bedwyn, knowing as I do that they may end up dead after the battle there," Maxen said. "But I don't particularly wish to keep them here, either. I have little use for clerics and a harper -- especially a harper who shows such appalling taste in music as this one has."
Estren hung his head in feigned embarrassment.
"Perhaps if you let them go from here," Sir Baigent said, "they may rethink their choice of destination and go instead someplace where they will be less likely to come to harm."
"Perhaps," Maxen mused.
Gwyn's attention to the conversation was suddenly diverted by the presence of warm breath on her neck, breath that when she turned toward its source stank of liquor.
"You're a pretty thing," the man said. He was a particularly dirty member of Maxen's force, a greasy little man with stringy hair, a hooked nose, and a horrible smile that displayed what misshapen teeth he had left.
"Thank you," Gwyn replied, trying to sound polite while at the same time making little effort to hide her revulsion. She shifted away slightly, glancing at Sir Baigent who was still talking with Maxen.
"We don't get much women, if you take my meaning." The man grinned again, and his meaning was quite plain. Gwyn wanted to throw up -- both from his disgusting intent and the unbelievable stench that arose from his long-unbathed body. Gwyn could not remember smelling any person as foul as this in her life, and she had known many farmers. "Oh come now, lovely!" he said. "Give us a little pleasure!"
"Sir," Brother Llyad said. "She is not--"
"I didn't ask you for pleasure," the man said, "but there may be a few of us here more desperate than me." He giggled at his own joke, his wheezing laugh spraying Gwyn with spittle.
Sir Baigent had finally noticed what was happening. "Captain, are your men in the habit of accosting clerics?"
Maxen turned, looked, and shook his head. "Blonn, that will be enough from you."
"I only want a little peck, Captain!" the man whose name was Blonn protested. He grabbed Gwyn in a rough embrace and planted a slobbering kiss on her lips.
"No!" Sir Baigent shouted, jumping to his feet.
Gwyn nearly retched at the ruffian's kiss, and in his drunken lurching the contents of his flagon of ale spilled out all over her chest and lap. She pushed him away.
"Don't," she said.
"I can give you what these other men can't," he said, pointing to Brother Llyad and Estren.
"Blonn, go play dice or something." Maxen's voice was bored.
Blonn ignored Maxen and grabbed Gwyn again for a second kiss. Somehow -- surely it was no accident -- his hand found her breast.
"Enough!" Gwyn heard Maxen yell. The disgusting man pulled back a bit, perhaps to obey -- but Gwyn did not wait to find out. She shoved him with as much strength as she had. His drunkenness worked against him, and his grip easily broke as he tumbled away from her. Then he shrieked in agony, as she had shoved him directly onto the fire.
Blonn wailed terribly as he pushed himself out of the fire, planting his hands directly into the hot coals to do so. He rolled aside, onto the ground. His ale-spattered shirt was on fire and his skin was already terribly burned.
"Water!" Fflud yelled as he fell on top of Blonn and smothered out the flames on the man's shirt with his own cloak. Blonn whimpered in agony and delirium. Water was brought, which Fflud poured over the man. Gwyn turned away from the scene and fell to her knees, now unable to resist the bile that rose in her throat. She vomited all over the ground. Brother Llyad knelt beside her and took her in his arms. Estren handed her a cup of water, which she managed to choke down. Finally she regained control and rose back to her feet.
"It will be all right, child," Brother Llyad said. "You had no choice."
"I was already moving to intercede, cleric." It was Maxen. "She most certainly had choice. She was in no danger of….violation, and certainly not by this man. He is a horseman, not a soldier. I have known children that could best this man."
"He tried to force himself on her!" Brother Llyad protested. Maxen shook his head.
"He would have gained nothing more than the two kisses that he stole," Maxen said. "Had he attempted anything more than that, I have doubts that he would have even known what to do -- unless his knowledge of horses is easily applied to women, which I somehow doubt. She had a choice. Regrettably, now I do not."
"What?" Sir Baigent asked, having recognized where this was going.
"I believe that I made it clear before," Maxen replied. "To raise a hand against a King's man is to raise a hand against the King himself." He gestured to the two other men nearby. "You and you, see to Blonn here. See that his burns are salved. Fflud, the girl."
Fflud stepped away from Blonn as the two men knelt down and lifted the burned man between them. Then Fflud roughly grabbed Gwyn away from Brother Llyad and twisted her around to face Maxen. She gasped.
"No," she said in a strangled voice. Fflud held her hands twisted behind her back with just one of his own, and with his other hand he held her head immobile by a thick cord of her own hair. Her wrists and arms throbbed, and her scalp burned with pain. And then she saw Maxen pull his dagger from its sheath. She opened her mouth, but she could not breath enough to scream.
"No!" Brother Llyad shouted. "She travels under Dona's Protection! The King's Law--"
"You refer to Cwerith's law, no doubt," Maxen said. "And not even clerics are to be granted freedom from his laws. Blonn will suffer some disfigurement, and thus, so will she. One eye and one ear."
"Please no," Gwyn said, her voice so small that she wasn't even sure if she had actually spoken aloud. The agony in her arms and in her scalp from Fflud's grip would be nothing compared to what was about to happen. Maxen's dagger would slice her flesh with appalling ease. He stepped toward her, and her bladder loosened.
"Stop!" Sir Baigent shouted. His voice rang out. "Does Cwerith's Law give her the right of a Champion?"
Maxen stopped in midstride, and sudden silence fell. He turned and gazed at the knight.
"A Champion?" Maxen repeated, as if uncertain whether he had heard correctly. "Are you asking for Trial by Combat?"
Sir Baigent glanced at Gwyn, and then back at Maxen.
"I ask for precisely that," he said. "An alternative to marring the face of a woman who only struck in retaliation a man who brought his injuries upon himself."
Maxen shook his head. "Why would you do this? Surely the coin in this girl's purse isn't enough to purchase such loyalty."
"She defended herself," Sir Baigent said. "Injuring her is not a proper response."
"That, sir mercenary, is my decision to make." Maxen's voice became hard. "You would do well to be silent -- especially as I have already offered you far more money for your services that these clerics could possibly afford, as well as the chance to fight for High King Cwerith."
"The right to Trial by Combat has been affirmed by every High King since Prystyl," Sir Baigent pressed. "Will Cwerith no longer--"
"Silence!" Maxen snapped. "She will be punished, and I will not allow some exiled Knight turned mercenary to claim any right for her at all. Have done, sir. If you persist in this you will find my offer for your services retracted and, perhaps, yourself in a worse situation than being my guest. I can still make you prisoner, and take you with me to war -- in irons."
Maxen turned back toward Gwyn, but her gaze remained riveted to Sir Baigent's. A long moment seemed to pass between them, although it could not have been more than a fraction of a second. With the sigh of a man who had no other option, he spoke again.
"If you will not allow a mercenary to claim her right of Champion," Sir Baigent said, pitching his voice to carry, "will you allow it of the seneschal to Matholyn ap Macholugh, Lord of Camyrdin?"
Again Maxen stopped, and again there was silence. Sir Baigent drew himself up straight as Maxen turned and gaped at him.
"I seem to have piqued your interest." Sir Baigent spoke this time without any hint of a smile.
"You….are Matholyn's seneschal?" Maxen finally said. "This is what you expect me to believe?"
"I am and I do," Sir Baigent replied.
"Then your name is not Peryn," Maxen said.
"No, Sir Peryn was my brother, and he deserves better than for his brother to use his name to deceive those who murdered him." He paused to let that sink in, just for a moment. "I am Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt. Lord Matholyn and I were at Tintagel when your craven King attacked our undefended city."
Maxen's eyes gleamed. "Then Matholyn lives--?" He thought for a moment. "An intriguing claim, Sir 'Baigent', but not one that I can believe without proof. At least, more proof than a device on the hilt of your sword."
Sir Baigent pulled down his shirt by the collar, revealing a silver chain around his neck that Gwyn had not seen before. He drew forth the chain and displayed the pendant that hung there, in the shape of the stag of Camyrdin. "My badge of office," he said. "Silver, by tradition the metal of the badge of seneschal -- even a coward like Cwerith would not set that tradition aside -- and marked on the back with the personal mark of Lord Matholyn. Is that proof enough for you?"
Maxen grated his teeth together. "So these wayward clerics end up in the guardianship of Matholyn's seneschal? And why are you not at his side, as any seneschal should be?"
Now it was Sir Baigent's turn to laugh harshly. "I've wondered that myself," he said. "My Lord sent me with them. Why, I don't know -- out of sentiment, I suppose. Lord Matholyn was himself a Monk of Tintagel before he rose to the Lordship."
"And why, then, were you not at Caer Camyrdin when the attack came? What business could be so important--"
"We didn't know that Cwerith the Craven was on the march," Sir Baigent snapped. "How could we expect such treachery?"
"In much the same way that King Cellamma expected the treachery of Lord Macholugh," Maxen shot back. "And challenge or no, if you speak ill of King Cwerith again in my presence I shall have my archers fill your body with arrows and turn this girl over to my men for their pleasure."
Sir Baigent snorted. "Leave the job to someone else? When you could take more pleasure in doing it yourself?"
Maxen glared at the knight, gnashing his teeth. Fflud relaxed his grip on Gwyn, just a little.
"If I grant you this," Maxen said, "what condition will you name?"
"Our freedom," Sir Baigent immediately replied. "We will be allowed to leave this camp unchallenged."
Maxen laughed. "And with a fourth horse and saddlebags filled with provisions besides," he said. Then he considered the whole idea for a moment. "You, then, fighting for the freedom of yourself and these three." He thought a minute more, and then he sheathed his dagger. "Granted," he said.
"Captain!" Fflud exclaimed.
"Relax, Fflud," Maxen said. "I have only promised that I will let them leave this camp if he bests our own Champion. I have not promised that we will not pursue them. And besides, it matters little. He will not win."
"Let me fight him, Captain," Fflud said, again tightening his grip on Gwyn in his excitement. "He won't best me."
"No, Fflud," Maxen replied. "The seneschal of Camyrdin requires no lesser foe than the Captain of this army. I will fight him." He gestured to a servant. "Bring this man his blade," he said.
A square was hastily created wherein the Challenge would be fought, back beyond the tents and bonfires. It was bordered on two sides by the stone walls of the onetime citadel, on another by the last row of tents, and on the last by a rope and a wall of Maxen's men, most of whom were now quite drunk. At least that part of their original plan had come to pass -- though now it was unlikely to be of any use. The companions stood, under guard, near the tents.
Sir Baigent unsheathed his sword and examined the blade. "I didn't think that I would be taking up my weapon against Cwerith's men so soon as this," he said. "Lord Matholyn would be envious. It's a good thing I honed the blade earlier."
Estren coughed. "I suppose that you have me to partly blame for this. It appears that my choice of songs was not so wise after all."
Sir Baigent shrugged. "We needed to know the truth about these men, and we learned it. I suspect that our chances this way are really about the same."
Gwyn had no idea how he could be so calm about this whole business. She had read of trials by combat in the Oracles and in the Histories; never, though, had she ever suspected that one might someday be fought in her name. It was as if she had become a character in one of the very stories that had so enthralled her in her younger years. She might have even laughed at the incongruity except for the sight of Maxen warming up with his own blade across the square. He brandished his sword with strength and grace, the blade flashing in the light of the nearby bonfires. Of course, Gwyn could not truly judge his skill by watching him spar at the air, but it was obvious that at the very least he knew what to do with the weapon.
Brother Llyad had drawn the same conclusion. "He looks strong," he said. "Do you think that he will keep his word if--" He caught himself then, before he finished saying "if you win".
Sir Baigent glanced at the monk, and then he laughed and shook his head. "Brother, if I win we won't have to worry about Maxen keeping his word. We will have to worry about Fflud keeping Maxen's word."
A new rush of fear came over Gwyn. Of course that was the way of it: the Trial would only end with the death of one of the combatants. If it was Maxen, then it would fall to Fflud to grant what Maxen had promised. He won't hesitate to kill us all, Gwyn realized. She didn't know yet if Maxen was truly a man of honor -- she had her suspicions on that score -- but she was absolutely sure that his lieutenant was not.
Sir Baigent spun his arms in a wide motion, loosening his shoulders. "I suppose that you will write a song about this," he said to Estren.
"A verse at the very least," the Bard replied. "A great deal of what I have seen lately will make for good song. I hope I remember it all."
Sir Baigent executed a few strokes and parries with his own sword. His motions were slower and less exaggerated than the ones Maxen was using to get limber for the battle. Gwyn prayed that this was no omen of what was to come.
"Sir Baigent of Camyrdin! The time for Trial is at hand!" It was Fflud, who had moved to the center of the square. There were guffaws and snorts of laughter all around at the spectacle of the earthy Fflud speaking in so formal a manner. He paused to dispense several scowls to the crowd of men, and then he resumed. "Sir Baigent, do you still take the role of Champion for this cleric?"
"I do," the knight called out.
"Then come to the center," Fflud said.
It was time. Gwyn's heart sped up. Sir Baigent took one last great swing with his sword, and then he took a step toward the center where Fflud waited.
"Sir Baigent!" Brother Llyad exclaimed. "Before you do this, shouldn't you accept Dona's Blessing?"
The knight stopped in midstep and turned back to face his companions. "Yes," he said. "If I do the Goddess's bidding, I should have her Blessing -- but not from you, Brother. With all respect, I must ask the Lady Gwynwhyfar to say it for me." He came back then and sank to one knee before Gwyn.
Tears sprang to Gwyn's eyes. She ignored the shouts of derision that were directed at Sir Baigent's kneeling before her. "I cannot," she said. "I have not...the Trials of the Priesthood...." She could say no more than that. Sir Baigent looked up at her, and to her surprise he smiled.
"This whole journey is your trial, My Lady," he said. "I don't know if you will ever return to Tintagel to become a Priestess, but I don't think that the Goddess would begrudge you this." With that he bowed his head.
Gwyn nodded and laid her right hand upon the crown of his head. The traditional words now seemed terribly inadequate for the task at hand. "Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt, late of Camyrdin," she haltingly began, searching for the words -- the words which now came from deep inside of her, from some part of her soul that she had always known was there but she had only begun to know in these last few days. "Yours is the hand of courage, of honor, and of love. These things are as dear to your soul as they are to the soul of Prydein. Fight now with the strength of the land and the home which is gone to you but for memory. May Dona's fortune be upon you, and may the light of the moon, her seat amongst the stars which shines upon all the roads in all the worlds, guide your hand."
She opened her eyes and lifted her hand away from Sir Baigent's head. He lifted his gaze to meet hers, and rose to his feet.
"Thank you, My Lady." That was all he said before he bowed and, turning, walked out into the square where his enemy stood waiting for him, sword in hand.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::