As Sir Baigent walked across the rocks and flattened grass into the middle of the challenge square, he incongruously thought of Murron of the Arrows, the crusty old master archer of Camyrdin, who had taught him many things about life, death and war. He knew exactly what she would say now. "You spent hours carefully planning an escape, and you set it aside for this old-fashioned foolery? Idiot!" He smiled in spite of himself, and then frowned again when he remembered that Murron was dead.
On his way out, he took careful notice of the ground. By this time in summer the grass here should be up to his thighs or even higher, but the stunted spring had put an end to that. Last night's storm had also made the ground soft and wet, so Sir Baigent realized that it would not take long for Maxen and himself to turn this ground into a muddy quagmire -- if the fight went on that long. There were also plenty of rocks and chunks of stone that had once been part of the citadel walls. Most of these rocks were the size of his fist or smaller, but some of them were even larger. Footing here would be tricky to start, and as their feet churned the ground it would become more and more difficult. All the more reason to make this fight as short as possible, he thought. Of course, Maxen had certainly reached the same conclusion. His opponent, Sir Baigent knew, was not a stupid man.
Sir Baigent stopped and faced Maxen from a distance of four paces. His opponent, like himself, only wore boiled-leather vestments for armor. Seeing this, Sir Baigent knew at least that Maxen would fight honorably. This assuaged part of his worries, while the greater portion -- concerning just how good Maxen was with the sword -- would be settled shortly.
Fflud stepped in between them and signaled for silence, which took some time to develop. "This is a Trial by Combat," he announced, pitching his voice to carry even though many of the men had no interest whatsoever in the opening business. "The female cleric"--he refused to say her name--"stands accused of striking a man in the service of His Majesty, Cwerith ap Cellamma, High King of Prydein." This brought a new chorus of boos and jeers, directed at Gwyn. Maxen shrugged, and Sir Baigent only shook his head. Be strong, My Lady, he thought. Fflud went on. "The accused has accepted as her Champion this man, Sir Baigent of Camyrdin"--the mention of Camyrdin brought a fresh round of lusty cheers of derision, making Fflud stop again--"and our own Captain, Maxen ap Mavvyr, has accepted." He was interrupted yet again, this time by loud and raucous cheers, and now annoyed he shouted for silence. "Quiet! Quiet! Quarter will not be given, and only death by blade will suffice as judgement. Begin when ready." With that he walked away to his own viewing position, directly opposite Sir Baigent's companions. An excited murmur began to ripple through the assembled crowd. Sir Baigent and Maxen ignored it.
"I have wondered," Maxen said, "just how you come to travel with two clerics and a harper. What is your business with these people?"
Sir Baigent, unmoving, held Maxen's gaze. A chill wind blew through the camp just then, and neither man appeared to notice it at all. "And I have wondered," Sir Baigent said, "why Cwerith would send such a large detachment of men so far south when he is so near to fighting a very large battle at Bedwyn."
Maxen smiled. "A pity that when this is done neither of us will have received an answer."
"A pity," Sir Baigent agreed.
"My King will reward me greatly when I bring him the head of such an important enemy."
"Then you'd best be about it," Sir Baigent replied just before he moved with startling speed to strike the first blow.
"No shield?" Gwyn asked as she watched Sir Baigent walk, slowly and deliberately, across the field.
"No shield," Estren said. "A Trial by Combat is not an entertainment like a tournament, no matter what these drunken fools may think. And a Trial is not an Honor Challenge, where the matter is settled when one man has been unarmed. A Trial is an ugly business, and as such it is to be decided quickly by the grace of the Goddess."
"You have seen these before?" Brother Llyad asked.
"Twice," Estren said, grimacing. "As I said, an ugly business."
Fflud was shouting now, but Gwyn did not listen. Instead she stared at Sir Baigent, her Champion who stood with his back to her, and whispered a prayer to Dona, the same prayer, over and over again. Fflud finished speaking and walked away, and she saw Sir Baigent and Maxen speaking to one another though she couldn't possibly make out what they were saying. Gwyn barely noticed the cold breeze that stirred just then. Her stomach churned, and the pounding of her heart became faster and stronger until it felt to her like a hammer striking an anvil.
This was no moment from some child's story or some ballad that might be sung by the fire in a tavern's common room, nor was it a story related by the hand of a long-dead cleric in a musty book. This was simply, brutally real. One of these two men was going to die here, tonight. "Dona guide him," she heard Brother Llyad say. She glanced down at Estren, who had sunk to one knee beside her and was turning a stone over and over in his hand as he looked on. At that moment the terrible clash of steel upon steel rang across the field. Sir Baigent had struck first and stepped back, and now the two men were circling each other.
It had begun.
Damnation, Sir Baigent thought as he and Maxen circled each other. That was a good attack.
Rather than bringing his weapon high into the air and letting it fall into the attack, Sir Baigent had brought it up directly from the rest position, spinning it as he did so to gain more speed. It was a good tactic; most swordsmen expected the traditional high attack and were thus caught off-guard for a strike from below. Maxen, though, brought his own blade around in a nearly identical motion but reversed, perfectly parrying the attack. Maxen's speed and reflex astonished Sir Baigent, but he still gave an involuntary grunt as the swords met. He clearly had underestimated Sir Baigent's strength. It was a mistake that many of the knight's opponents had made over the years, leading to many of his victories. But not all men failed to recover from that error. Those were the dangerous ones, and Sir Baigent already suspected Maxen would prove to be one of them.
Now Maxen tested Sir Baigent's quickness and form, with a sweeping attack that even with Maxen's strength and speed could have been parried by any squire with a year's training. Sir Baigent knocked the attack aside almost as an afterthought, wondering as he did so just why his opponent had opened with such an obvious ploy -- when he suddenly realized that the real attack was only now in the offing. Maxen had known exactly where his sword would be when Sir Baigent parried the first stroke, and was able to bring his blade around in a tight circle and lunge forward in a stabbing motion. Sir Baigent recognized what was happening too late for a full parry, and all he could do to avoid the attack was to duck away while he intercepted Maxen's weapon with his own. He barely avoided giving the first blood, but Maxen's sword nonetheless struck him a glancing blow on his right shoulder that put him off-balance. He lurched away from Maxen in order to regain his footing, and a cheer went up from Maxen's men as he did so. Their Champion had already put the escapee from Camyrdin on the run.
As Sir Baigent scrambled to meet the new attack that was already coming, he incongruously thought that perhaps they would have done better with their original plan of escape.
Gwyn, as it happened, had the exact same thought at almost exactly the same time.
A scream nearly escaped her lips when she saw Maxen's blade strike her Champion, but then she felt Brother Llyad's grip on her arm. "No blood," he said, and Gwyn swallowed that scream -- for now. Maxen was already back on the attack. Sir Baigent regained his quickly-lost footing to meet the next blow. The swords rang together again, and the fight began in earnest.
With those first probing attacks out of the way, a rhythm developed in the ringing of the blades as they crashed together. The combatants pushed each other forward and back across the uneven and rocky ground, and Gwyn wondered if perhaps they were paying too much attention to the attacks and not enough to their footing. Both men occasionally slipped, but neither went down and certainly neither dropped his blade, which would have been sheer disaster. The fight never came near the companions, but even so Gwyn could hear their grunts as they swung their weapons. Those swords must be terrifically heavy, Gwyn thought as Maxen parried another of Sir Baigent's attacks. The fight may go to the man who in the end can hold his sword the longest.
I wonder how heavy his sword is, Sir Baigent thought as he followed through on one of his own attacks into a swift countermove that nicely warded a low swing by Maxen. It doesn't look any lighter than mine, but he moves it so fast! His own weapon one of the heavier blades made by Raddys ap Raddyr, chief smith and armorer of Caer Camyrdin, but its weight was offset by its nearly flawless balance in Sir Baigent's hand. This had been his sword for so many years that now in a fight it became an extension of his own hand. The problem just now was that Maxen had the same relationship with his own sword.
Sir Baigent launched two consecutive attacks which, while parried, pushed Maxen back. He tried to step into a third attack, but his right foot landed on a rough spot, a place where a hole had been gouged out of the ground or where a rock had once rested. His ankle turned inward, and he fell. Pain shot through the ankle, but he ignored it. The shouts that came from the crowd told him what he already knew: that Maxen was moving to take advantage of his prone position. The Captain's sword came at him with all of its master's fearsome speed, and Sir Baigent barely blocked a series of blows as he lurched backward to regain his footing. I am moving too much, he thought. He is going to wear me down if this keeps up. It had already begun; his ankle throbbed but he pushed the pain out of his mind.
Then Maxen did something unorthodox. He feinted deep inside, with an exaggerated stabbing motion. Sir Baigent had to twist to one side to bring his sword into position for the countermove, which left him in an awkward, leaning position. Maxen leaped forward to deliver a resounding kick to Sir Baigent's awkwardly planted legs. Sir Baigent only realized his mistake as he tumbled to the ground.
The wild cheers that erupted all around him filled his ears as he hit the ground and rolled onto his back. Maxen was already above him and bringing his sword down with all of his strength. Somehow Sir Baigent had not landed on top of his sword -- only the Goddess could explain that -- and thus he was able to intercept the attack when it was only inches from cleaving his neck. The strength behind the attack was such that Sir Baigent felt a bone in his wrist nearly break. Nevertheless he was able to throw his own counterattack, forcing Maxen to leap backward to evade it. That gave Sir Baigent the heartbeat or two that he needed to rise to one knee, and with his other foot he kicked a nearby stone into Maxen's path. It was a desperate ploy, but desperate ploys have a tendency to work once in a very great while -- and this one did. Maxen did not see the rock, and his foot came down upon it. He stumbled without going down as Sir Baigent had hoped, but it was still enough. Sir Baigent brought his sword upward in a slashing move, with Maxen parried -- but in precisely the way that Sir Baigent had hoped for. He spun around, letting his sword's new arc gather even more speed, and the weapon found its mark. The sword ripped open a long gash in Maxen's jerkin and sliced into the skin beneath. Sir Baigent spun away as he heard Maxen's sharp inward breath, and blood dripped from the tip of his sword.
Even to an untrained observer like Gwyn the difference between the combatants was easy to see. Sir Baigent was a man of imposing strength whose every attack could be lethal, while Maxen's key was his amazing speed which he now put on display. While Sir Baigent worked to find good spots for his attacks, Maxen's never seemed to stop. Every parry by Sir Baigent only seemed to leave Maxen in position for another strike. The man's moves were impossibly fluid, and his objective was obvious: he planned to wear Sir Baigent down, to force the knight to expend all of his strength on harmless parries and evasions. Gwyn's stomach clenched in cold fear as he heard the laughter from Maxen's men as her own Champion scrambled to evade the deadly pace that Maxen was setting. Those cheers abated somewhat when Sir Baigent was finally able to stand his ground and execute two attacks of his own, forcing his opponent to back up ever so slightly. The respite was only momentary, though, and a fresh round of raucous cheers rose when Sir Baigent's foot landed in a bad spot and turned, sending him to the ground. Somehow he got up, even in the face of Maxen's oncoming attacks, and Gwyn took heart -- and then he was down again.
Gwyn's breath left her, and Brother Llyad's grip on her arm tightened sharply, but even though it hurt she ignored it completely. Maxen was stepping up for the killing blow, and his sword flashed in an attack that only one with the will of the Goddess behind him could possibly have turned aside.
And somehow, Sir Baigent turned it aside.
Tears ran hot down Gwyn's cheeks. She saw Maxen stumble -- Sir Baigent had kicked a rock into his path, and he had stepped upon it -- and then her heart soared as the knight finally rose to his feet again and landed the first blow of the duel. A collective gasp came from the crowd, and now Brother Llyad shouted an invocation.
"For Camyrdin! First blood to the Champion!"
Gwyn felt no such jubilation. Maxen was staggering, but still alive. And now she heard two voices that she had heard before, whispering to one another from within the cold wind. They were the voices of the silver wolf and the other voice that had spoken to him on that night beside the lake:
This will avail you nothing, the first voice said.
We shall see, came the reply.
The wind stirred again, and the voices were gone. Gwyn wondered if she had heard them at all.
Sir Baigent hazarded one glance at the ground, to take notice of any rocks or holes on which he might stumble. This was when the duel would become harder, harsher. It was one the first rules of swordplay that his father had taught him, and one of the first that he always taught his own squires and men-in-training: A good swordsman will become more dangerous, not less, after his blood has spilled.
When Maxen's next attacks came, Sir Baigent did not have to retreat as much. He was able to stand his ground, even as his wrists began to ache anew. Gradually Maxen slackened his speed a bit and put more strength into his attacks. Several more times the swords sparked when they rang together, and again Sir Baigent's right wrist flared in pain. Maxen's shift in tactic allowed Sir Baigent to make several attacks of his own, into which he put all of his strength. In his opponent's grunts he now heard not only exertion but also pain, and he allowed himself the small satisfaction that he had survived this long. It was a very small satisfaction indeed.
Now that neither man was pushing the other as much, the ground beneath them shifted from grass and stone to churned mud. Sir Baigent slowed his own attacks now, not only to preserve his own footing but in hopes that Maxen would see this as weakening strength and thus return to his original tactic of speed, which would only make Maxen more subject to the worsening footing. Of course, Maxen was too smart for this, and he refused to rise to the bait. The fight ground on, both men becoming increasingly mud-spattered and filthy as time passed. To Sir Baigent there were no sounds save for the ringing of the blades, his own grunts and those of his opponent, and the falls of their heavy feet. There was nothing else in the world, except his enemy and the sword in his enemy's hand. Nothing else at all.
He and Maxen began to slip around as the ground became worse and worse. Sir Baigent's sword felt heavier and heavier, and cold beads of sweat began to drip into his eyes. Maxen seemed to be having the same difficulties, and Sir Baigent realized that his own attacks were not being parried with the same speed and strength as before. He stepped into his blows even more, hoping -- praying -- to finally land another attack. He very nearly did. Maxen parried one of his strikes, but in so doing he made a crucial mistake and left both of his arms spread wide, with his sword in an unbalanced position. Sir Baigent realized his chance and brought his blade around hard around, toward Maxen's chest and heart. A howl of exertion exploded from his throat as he brought his sword home.
One man there, two perhaps, who saw the fight that night and lived to tell about it later, claimed that Maxen's footing was solid at that moment and that he could neither have seen nor avoided the attack that came at him now. There was no reason at all that he should fall at that precise moment: he neither stepped onto a rock or patch of loose grass, nor did the ground give way beneath him. This man, two perhaps, would insist that somehow the Captain had been knocked by some unseen force to the ground. Of course, this man -- and his friend, perhaps -- were terribly drunk that night, and their word could not be taken seriously. But Maxen did fall, tumbling to the ground and landing in the mud just as the knight's sword flashed by where his torso had just been.
Sir Baigent's body twisted as his attack met nothing but empty air, the force of his momentum unchecked by the planned entry of his sword into the side of a living body carrying him horribly off balance. His own footing betrayed him, as had Maxen's -- though, in truth, Maxen would now be dead but for that betrayal -- and Sir Baigent landed in the mud. Even as he sprawled on the ground, with mud and sweat in his eyes, his keen warrior's instinct screamed for him to move, and move he did. He twisted hard to evade the attack that he sensed but did not see. He twisted with as much speed as he could summon despite his soaking clothes and his heavy sword. It was almost enough to evade Maxen's sword before the weapon sliced into his left side.
Gwyn strained her neck, trying to see if Maxen was favoring his wound or if he had lost much of his strength. It looked as though that he was in serious pain, but she couldn't be certain if it was true or if she only wished it so. He had reduced his speed, but she wondered if that had more to do with the treacherous footing on which they fought than with the wound in his side.
"In Dona's name!" Brother Llyad blurted out. "Why doesn't Sir Baigent push him to dryer ground?"
"He does not wish to yield any advantage," Gwyn said.
"That is no advantage," the monk replied. "I can't imagine--"
"Brother!" Gwyn snapped, silencing him. His inability at times to remain silent was truly maddening.
Gwyn wondered if the fight would ever end. It had nothing, truly, to do with her -- neither as a woman nor as the Welcomer. It didn't even have anything to do with the fact that she had struck a King's Man. It was purely about the pride of Camyrdin against the enemy of Camyrdin. Gwyn felt a rush of sudden anger toward Sir Baigent. He had brought them to this, even as he fought for their freedom. She wondered if he would have been so quick to fight had these men actually been from Lord Cydric, instead of coming from Gwynedd. Would he have done this thing if these men had turned out to be simple bandits or highwaymen? He had challenged the very idea of this mission of theirs, of hers, more than once -- and just that very afternoon. Some part of her wondered if perhaps he blamed what had befallen Caer Camyrdin not just on King Cwerith, but in some measure on her.
And yet there he was, fighting to the death. She was angry at him, and she hated herself for it.
That was when Maxen landed a devastating blow.
Hot pain, white pain, searing pain burned in Sir Baigent's side, and he gasped scream was heard by everyone there and cheered by all but three. He pushed himself back up to his feet and wiped the mud and water from his eyes with the back of his hand. He did not look down at the wound; he knew already how long and how deep it was. He knew that it was bad. It had been a terrible blow, and the man who had dealt it was coming again. Sir Baigent weakly parried two attacks and threw one of his own, which Maxen knocked aside with ease. He allowed himself a single glimpse at Gwynwhyfar. Again he imagined what Murron would say: All this for a wisp of a girl? Fool!
Perhaps, Murron, he thought. But perhaps so much more.
Sir Baigent swallowed and pushed the pain, the fiery and horrible pain, down deep. With no choice other than to die, he fought on.
"No," Gwynwhyfar said. Beside her, Brother Llyad and Estren both shook their heads.
Her Champion was staggering away from Maxen, who was pressing again to the attack, slowly but relentlessly. Sir Baigent kept backing up, his parries barely adequate and his attacks listless.
Dona, is this how it ends? Gwyn asked inwardly. She expected no answer and received none, although she did see in her mind the grinning visage of the silver wolf. Oh, Goddess....
Gwyn sniffed the air, which smelled of mud, smoke and blood. This, she knew now, was the stench of war writ small -- for what was a battlefield but the combat square for a thousand such Trials? She wept anew as she beheld the growing dark stain on the torso of her brave Champion.
Pain must yield to necessity, Pelegaunt ap Prynn had taught his two sons, Baigent and Peryn. For if necessity ever yields, only death can fill its void. Florid words, so unlike his usual manner of speech. He had got them from somewhere else, but it mattered little. They were absolutely true, and not just in war and battle.
More attacks were exchanged, more countermoves launched, more ground chewed and trampled into mud, more blood spilled. A high strike by Maxen left a cut on Sir Baigent's cheek, while Sir Baigent drew blood from Maxen's right thigh. And there were blows that did not cut flesh but were still felt, deeply and painfully, like the strikes of a hammer. Each new flash of pain Sir Baigent ignored as well as he could. He spared no thought at all for anything but his opponent. He couldn't think of anything else, even though every bone and muscle in his body ached and throbbed, and the wound in his side continued to bleed. This needed to end. Soon.
And yet it went on. The two men fought with strength that should have long faded, leaving one or both victim to the other. Sir Baigent moved his blade to intercept one of Maxen's attacks, wondering even as he did so just how much longer this could possibly continue.
As long as is required, Sir Knight.
The voice was not his own, nor was it his father's. It was not Lord Matholyn's, nor was it Gwyn's; it came neither from Estren nor the never-silent Brother Llyad. It was not Murron of the Arrows, and it was not his brother. He had never heard this voice before, but it somehow sounded familiar -- as if he should know it. He parried another blow by Maxen.
You will fight on.
He threw another attack.
You MUST fight on.
Do you even know why you fight, Baigent ap Pelegaunt?
Another inside feint, another parry on the backswing.
Do you know who she is?
Another stab, another sidestep, another breath.
Do you know whose Champion you are?
Do you know the part you are to play?
Another another another another.
The blade of his sword now shone with the reflected light of the moon. Had there been a moon before? And why should his mud-spattered and blood-stained blade reflect its light now? He pushed those questions from his mind -- if they even occurred to him -- and struck again, and again, and again. Maxen retreated, and Sir Baigent pressed on. He felt his opponent weakening under the onslaught of strength that was not his own. His sword never stopped, not once, not ever. It couldn't stop, for if it did he would surely die. It must move, never ceasing, never yielding. And move it did, looking like a shard of the moon itself as its dance continued.
What is happening? Sir Baigent thought.
He pushed Maxen back until the Captain, unable to watch his footing, stumbled and fell for the second time.
What is happening to me?
Sir Baigent saw Maxen lift his blade to parry, and new strength filled him. He made no sound at all as he struck a blow that shattered Maxen's sword, leaving his opponent gripping nothing more than a broken pommel.
Sir Baigent spun on his foot, turning a complete circle in no more time than it takes a thrush to flap its wings a single time, mustering his speed and his strength for this. His weapon arced with terrible light, whistling toward Maxen's sword hand, which still flailed in the air brandishing the broken hilt. A scream that came from the depths of his soul tore from Sir Baigent's lips as his sword struck home, sending Maxen's hand flying from its wrist. Then his scream died away to be replaced by Maxen's horrible wail. His strength ebbed, and as Sir Baigent looked at his maimed opponent, his sword suddenly became terribly, terribly heavy again. His shoulders slumped and his knees nearly buckled.
He only noticed then that his sword reflected no moonlight at all.
Two screams that Gwyn would never forget in all her days came across the field. The first came from Sir Baigent as he severed Maxen's hand, and the second came from Maxen himself as he stared at the bloody stump of his right wrist in stunned disbelief.
Oh, Goddess, Gwyn thought. How had he done it? In one instant Sir Baigent had become a whirl of motion wielding a silvery blade, terrible to behold; and now he was small again, so small and so tired as he stood near Maxen, his chest heaving and his legs looking like they would collapse at any time. He turned to look at her, and their eyes met for only a second. Then he turned again to face his opponent who had clutched his handless wrist between his legs.
"We are free!" Brother Llyad exclaimed. Gwyn said nothing. She saw Maxen say something to the knight, and she saw him reply. Then she saw him lift his blade one last time.
"O the terrors of this world," she whispered. Words written in some history by a monk whose name she could not even care to remember. Sir Baigent, her Champion, was going to kill this man now. O the terrors of this world, that we should catch our breath to behold a single blossom in a lonely field. But, Gwyn knew all too well, she was no blossom.
Then she heard horses behind her.
And there was fire.
All of his strength was gone, vanished in that single violent moment -- if indeed it had ever been his strength at all.
Sir Baigent's sword arm was dead, a lifeless weight of flesh that hung from his side. His other arm, too, was like a stone. His legs have never felt this weak before. He looked to the crowd and sought her out, the one whose face was the only face he cared to see right now. There she was, standing with that fool Monk on one side and the harper on the other. His company, such as it was.
He turned back to his pitiful opponent, who knelt on the ground pressing his maimed wrist between his legs. Maxen's entire front was covered with blood, and Sir Baigent knew that he was very pale just then even if he couldn't tell for all the dirt on his face. There were sounds all around him, but he couldn't tell what they were.
"Is Caer Camyrdin avenged?" Maxen rasped, his voice nearly inaudible.
"All the blood in Gwynedd will wash into the sea before that account is settled," Sir Baigent replied.
"Then do it and be on with you," Maxen said. "And may my blood be the only that you take before my King Cwerith takes yours."
Sir Baigent only nodded. This was the way it had to be. They had both known it. He stepped forward and lifted his blade for the final time--
He whirled in the direction of the sound he had heard, the incongruous sound of horses, but saw instead a brilliant flash of white light, followed a heartbeat later by a deafening boom and a wave of heat that knocked him to the ground. When he looked up again he saw that a gigantic fire had begun in the midst of the camp area. Then there was another blast, from the center of a particularly large cluster of Maxen's men. Another boom, and bodies were thrown in all directions. Then he finally spotted the horses: four of them, ridden by figures in dark cloaks with their faces covered by masks of wood. One of them threw something, out into the middle of the combat square. The object landed ten paces or so from where Sir Baigent stood. It was, so far as he could tell, a cylinder of clay or some other earthenware -- but one end of it was burning. A stream of thick, black smoke issued from the thing's burning end, and already Sir Baigent could smell it.
"Sir Baigent! Get down!" The voice, to his immense surprise, was Estren's. Sir Baigent heeded the warning and threw himself to the ground, covering his head with his arms a heartbeat before the strange clay cylinder exploded. His ears rang from the blast, and his body was racked with pain as he was thrown at least five feet by the force of the explosion. He felt himself being showered with mud, and the ridiculous thought that perhaps he was dead flashed through his mind before he lifted his head again and opened his eyes. He saw nothing but smoke and fire, although all around him he could hear men shouting and scrambling, and in the distance he heard yet another explosion. One voice -- Fflud's -- could be discerned over the din, shouting orders. Sir Baigent's eyes burned with smoke as he searched the ground for his sword, which he found when the edge of his hand raked across the blade. He swore a single time at the new wound, and then he found the sword's pommel and recovered it. The smoke about him obscured nearly everything; he couldn't even see if Maxen had been killed by the blast and he certainly couldn't tell which direction he was facing. He thought once more of finding Maxen and finishing the deed, but he rejected the thought as quickly as it came. His companions were more important by far than any blood-grudge he might have with some knight of Gwynedd.
The smoke cleared enough for him to figure which way he was facing. He turned in the direction his companions had been standing. It did not surprise him that they were not there. They will try to escape, he thought. They'd damned well better, if they have any sense at all. He knew that they would. That Priest was devoted enough to this whole mission to the Druids that he would leap at a chance to get away from these captors, and the Bard certainly had some survival wits about him. As for her...Sir Baigent couldn't be sure about her, which was as always the most maddening thing of all.
There was another explosion, somewhere, as he ran across the square after the way he prayed that the companions had gone. The ground before him was littered with bodies. Two of Maxen's men suddenly came at him with clubs, but they were no match for him. He killed them both, finding a tiny bit of pleasure in meeting two opponents who had no idea of how to fight a man who carried a sword and knew how to use it. The action sent pain shooting through the wound in his left side, and for one second spots appeared in his vision. Maxen may win that duel yet, he thought as he staggered over the dead men between him and what he hoped was freedom.
Gwyn barely had time to register the masked horseman at all before the explosion knocked her to the ground.
Smoke filled the air, burning her lungs. There were shouts all around, and she felt herself being pushed and prodded as Maxen's men rushed to drunkenly respond to whatever attack this was. A booted foot fell upon her right hand, but her yelp of pain was choked off by someone heavy falling on top of her. This turned out to be Brother Llyad. He rolled off, and she flexed her throbbing fingers, thanking the Goddess that her hand had been on soft ground as opposed to something like a rock, which would have left the bones in her hand shattered when the man had stepped upon it.
"Are you hurt, My Lady?" Brother Llyad asked.
"I don't think so," she said. Two more explosions sounded, one quite nearby. "What is happening?"
"An attack," Estren said. "It appears that Maxen was not lying about the fire-wielding bandits -- Sir Baigent! Get down!"
Gwyn's gaze shot to the knight, who was still in the combat square. She saw him fall to the ground and cover his head just before the explosion. Gwyn covered her own eyes too late, and the blast blinded her as it knocked her back down.
"We have to get out of here!" Estren's voice rang out. Gwyn's eyesight returned in a heartbeat or two, and she saw nothing before her but smoke, fire and running men. There were more explosions somewhere, and she realized that the tents behind her were on fire and the flames were spreading. Maxen's men were drunk and torn between fighting off an attack and salvaging their camp. Somewhere she could hear Fflud shouting. Bodies littered the ground before her, men who had been struck dead by the first blast and whose corpses smoldered and oozed steaming blood over the cold ground. Her gorge rose, but she swallowed it back down. Nearby a section of the citadel's stone wall collapsed with a grinding rumble. Is this what the Scarlet King saw and heard, when he finally fell?
"Come!" Estren shouted again. "We have to go, before one of these men realizes that we are still their captives. We will recover our belongings, get our horses, and get out of this place."
"But Sir Baigent!" Gwyn exclaimed.
"He will find us," Estren said.
"We can't just leave him here!" Gwyn protested.
"We aren't leaving him here! This attack won't last long, and the fire will last longer but the men will recover soon enough. Our chance is now! We must go!"
Gwyn still hesitated, looking back into what was left of the combat square. A cloud of smoke hung over the field. She could not see her Champion anywhere.
"My Lady, please." Estren grabbed her arm. "If Fflud finds us I promise you that he will not be bound by Maxen's pledge!"
Gwyn remembered that this had been Sir Baigent's original concern, before the Trial had even started. She envisioned briefly what would happen if they were recaptured now.
"Let's go," she said.
They picked their way over the dead and unconscious men, stopping once for Estren to grab a dagger from one of the bodies. Then they scrambled between the tents and the wall of the old fortress which now seemed far less stable than it had before. This seemed to take an agonizingly long time, but it was only a few minutes before they reached the storage tent where they had been quartered that afternoon. Gwyn took solace in holding her bow again, even though it was not strung. Estren recovered his harp and his own sword.
"There haven't been any of those explosions for a few minutes," Brother Llyad said. "I suspect the attackers have already gone."
"Duration was never the purpose of the attack," Estren replied. "These masked bandits strike quickly and then run away in the confusion. In an earlier day such a tactic might have been considered cowardly."
"Cowardly or no, they have given us our only chance," Gwyn said. "Let's not lose it now!"
They left the tent and entered the utter chaos outside. The bandits had done their task well, setting several fires that now threatened the entire camp, and the men were struggling not to extinguish the flames but to salvage what they could before the flames consumed everything. The three companions were forced to take a long way around, keeping to the edge of the tent area -- but to their surprise, they found that they were completely ignored by the still-drunk men staggering about under the weight of the armloads they carried out of harm's way. One man who was trying to cut a tent's support ropes with his dagger succeeded in cutting his own hand, and other men who were overcome by the smoke and heat were dragged away by their equally drunken comrades. The ones who were partially sober tried, with little effect, to direct the efforts of those who were not. None of these men cared one whit for the three former prisoners who moved past them with unsettling ease.
"We will be there soon," Estren said.
"Won't the horses be guarded?" Brother Llyad asked.
Estren shrugged. They would confront that problem when it was before them.
They came around a corner and saw the main gate before them, with the wagon area, the forges, and the livery beyond.
"They've moved the horses to the farthest point from the camp," Gwyn said. "And look! The gate is guarded already."
It was true. There were armed men already standing at the gate. That wasn't what occupied Estren's attention, however.
"It is worse than that," he said. "Look." He pointed to their left, where three great wells stood. These wells, all in a row, had been the Scarlet King's source of water and his secret of surviving for so long up on this lonely hilltop. Several dozen men were drawing water from the wells into buckets, helmets, wineskins, and anything that could hold it to be taken to the tent fires. Supervising these men was Fflud. His booming voice could be heard above all, shouting orders and directing the waterbearers to the fires. "We will never get by here, on horseback or no," Estren said.
"It doesn't matter," Gwyn said. "Look. They are moving the horses out of the camp until they can put the fire out." She pointed, and they saw that it was so: the livery workers were guiding the horses, two at a time, through one of the gaps in the wall to the relative safety outside -- at least as safe as could be, given that they were at the top of a fairly steep hill.
"Can we sneak through the gate?" Brother Llyad asked.
"Certainly not!" Estren said. "We will have to find another way. Perhaps--"
"The prisoners! They are escaping!"
It was the poorest of fortunes that they had been spotted at precisely that moment by one of the few members of Maxen's camp who had remained sober this evening, and that his shouts were loud enough to be heard by Fflud.
"Get them!" Fflud shouted, and the men nearest him all dropped their buckets and water receptacles to come after the companions. Some of these men were still drunk, but some were not.
"Go back!" Estren cried.
It was their only chance, but Gwyn quailed at the thought of going back into the fire. They stayed to the outer ring of tents, where the flames were not yet all-consuming, but still the smoke choked them and the heat -- Gwyn had never known heat like this, not even when she worked with Brother Ethgun's bread ovens during the hottest days of summer. Her eyes ran freely, and she had to stop every ten steps or so just to wipe them. At one point she felt searing heat against her calves, and she realized that her cloak had actually taken to flame; with a scream she stopped to put it out and then kept running. They had no way of knowing, through the fire and ask and smoke, if the pursuers were actually behind them or if they had chosen not to brave the flames. A feeling of light airiness came over Gwyn, and she felt a hand grabbing her arm -- was it Brother Llyad's? -- but she paid it little mind. A soft moan escaped her lips, and she wanted nothing more at that moment than to give up, to surrender to these men and beg the Goddess's forgiveness for her failure before she died -- and then they reached a spot where a new gap in the wall had been opened by one of the masked attackers' strange fire-weapons. Estren helped Gwyn and Brother Llyad through the opening into the clear and cold air beyond. They were now outside the citadel.
Gwyn fell to her knees, coughing and gasping for huge breaths of clear air.
"Come," Estren said. "We can't stop yet. Not until we have our horses."
"I can't see anything," Gwyn said. It was true. Moving from the brightness of the burning camp to the darkness outside the citadel was totally blinding. The only light was an orange glow that colored the clear sky above the citadel. It was hardly enough for them to see by, especially if they were going to pick their way around the rocks to wherever the horses had been taken. "Where will we go now?" she asked.
"We should go down into the valley and hide somewhere near the opening to the main road," Estren said. "That's the best place that Sir Baigent will be able to reach -- if he comes through."
He didn't need to say that last, Gwyn thought.
"It is too dark just now," the bard went on. "Perhaps some light, if only for a moment...." He reached into his cloak and pulled out the green gem. Holding it aloft, he chanted softly in his secret Bardic tongue. The gem began to glow, illuminating the crumbling wall of the citadel to their left, the rocky ground that sloped away to their right -- and the three horsemen who wore dark cloaks and masks of wood. Two of them held bows with arrows at the ready, aimed right at them.
"Put that damned thing out, fool!" one of them said. "They will see it!"
Gwyn and Brother Llyad gasped in unison.
"Put it out!"
Estren immediately stopped chanting, and the stone went dark again. There was the sound of flint being struck, and then one of the men was holding a lighted lantern -- a candle enclosed in a tube of thick glass, which hung from a length of rope. "This will give us enough light to see as we ride down this damned hill," the man said. His voice was deep and commanding. "And it's not as noticeable as that damned bauble you're carrying. Have you Bards no sense?"
"Who are you?" Estren asked.
"No sense at all," the man snapped. "This is hardly the time to be asking questions. There will be plenty of time for that once we've brought you to Gareth."
Gareth. Gwyn's skin went cold. They had escaped being Maxen's prisoners, and were now prisoners again -- to the very band of mysterious , fire-wielding masked bandits Maxen had spoken of.
"You're taking us?" Brother Llyad said.
"Oh, wonderful. A Bard and two clerics, and not a stitch of sense between them. Do you think we will leave you to be captured by these ruffians, so that you can tell them which way we escaped after they torture you a bit? No, you're coming with us. It's the only way I can guarantee our safety."
"And what of our own?" Estren asked.
"That will be decided by Gareth. Now we must move. It won't take these men long to begin searching the outer perimeter of this castle."
"But our horses--" Estren said.
"By the Son's blood, man! Forget your horses! We haven't time for this nonsense. Will you come willingly, or shall we strike you unconscious and carry you like sacks of grain?"
" 'By the Son's blood,'" Brother Llyad whispered. The expression struck Gwyn oddly as well, though she had no idea what to make of it. Estren turned to the companions and nodded. One by one, they each mounted one of the horses behind one of the riders. Gwyn rode behind the leader.
"And enjoy the scenery for now," the man said. "As soon as we reach the bottom of this hill, we will blindfold you. It is necessary."
"Maxen didn't blindfold us," Estren said.
The man made no reply to that. They started to ride, very slowly making their way down the side of the hill and carefully avoiding the main road.
One of the other men spoke then. "What if Matt and Calloch aren't at the meeting place?"
"Then we go home," the leader said. "They know the way."
When they had ridden down a fair portion of the hill, and with no sign of pursuit, Gwyn glanced backward. The ruined citadel of the Scarlet King was illuminated from within by the orange and yellow fires, and she could occasionally hear a particularly loud shout. Goddess, protect Sir Baigent and allow him to find us. She tried to assure herself that this was far from the worst thing that could have happened, but she didn't find herself very convincing.
Maxen pulled himself across the combat square to where Fflud was shouting orders, even as his orderly camp dissolved behind him into fiery chaos. His chin and shirt were covered with blood, vomit, and mud; his face was pale from the loss of blood. He stared down once or twice at the stump where his hand had been and retched anew in revulsion and rage, even though he had already emptied his stomach and now brought up only spit abd bile. Through sheer force of will he pushed himself up onto his knees with his remaining hand and clutched the handless wrist under his right shoulder, seeking to choke off the pain.
"Help him," Fflud said. Two men came rushing to Maxen's side and helped support him. "Captain, you need attention--"
"You need to find these attackers, idiot." Maxen's voice was raspy, sick. "Find them and kill them all."
"Captain, we have to save the camp! The fires will burn everything!"
"Damn you!" Maxen tried to grab Fflud's collar -- with the hand that was no longer there. A fresh wave of pain racked his body, and he stumbled. One of the men beside him grabbed his arm and held him up. "Let go, you fornicating dog! I am still the Captain of this army!"
Fflud grabbed Maxen by the shoulders. "Captain," he said, "you are not fit for this right now. You have been maimed, and you must be seen by the healer."
"Healer? The healer?" Maxen laughed maniacally. He was already feeling light-headed. "Can he heal this?" He waved the bloody stump in Fflud's face. Still laughing, he fell to his knees.
"Take him someplace safe, and find something to bind that wound of his," Fflud ordered the men at Maxen's side. "He is not strong enough right now."
"Not...strong...enough...." Maxen chuckled at the words. The pain in his maimed wrist was gone, replaced by a feeling of contented warmth. "I wasn't...strong enough....but next...time...." He slumped onto the ground again and this time barely noticed when the two men lifted him, one by the shoulders and one by the feet. His head lolled to one side, and he caught a glimpse of something on the ground that might have been a hand but was really a piece of wood.
The strange warm feeling spread through him, but there was a certain icy coldness at its core. Images began to flash through his mind -- Caer Mastagg rising above the stormy winter seas, the gray mountains of Gwynedd, the deep forest where he had slain his first boar. That last image stayed with him. He saw the spot with clarity, down to every blade of grass and every pine cone on the forest floor. He saw a man there, kneeling and wearing armor of gleaming black metal, and he knew that he was looking upon himself. And even here, in this forest of his youth, he had only one hand. Then the trees parted and something came into the clearing to stand before him, towering above him. He saw himself bowing deeply before what had come.
You were not strong enough, said a voice that he had never heard before and yet somehow knew as well as if it were his own, a voice that spoke to his soul and brought comfort to the blackness in his heart. You will be. You will be strong enough by far.
The image faded, swiftly and suddenly. Unconsciousness came so quickly that Maxen had no time to wonder why he had seen himself bowing before a great silver wolf.
Sir Baigent burst into the tent where he and his companions had spent the afternoon. Of course they were not here, but neither were their possessions, so at least they had been here. Their next goal will be the horses, he thought. He stopped to grab a scrap of cloth to wipe the blood from his side -- That will need binding before long, he noted -- and then he ran out, hopefully after the girl and the monk and the Harper.
Fire was spreading very quickly now through the camp, and he smiled grimly as he considered the damage the masked attackers had wrought. Maxen's camp, comprising an entire company of Cwerith's army, was going up in smoke. It was a welcome beginning.
Sir Baigent glanced both directions, trying to gauge what would be the best way to reach the horses. There would be more men along the path to his right that went behind the tents and along the wall past the main gate; the other way -- to his left, back through the Combat Square and the common area -- would take far longer. And that way, he realized, would take him to the wells where the men would surely be drawing water to fight the fires. Time was his most pressing concern now; he had no idea of where his companions were and he knew that the livery workers, if they were in any way competent, would already be moving the horses outside the citadel walls until the fires were put out. And in both directions, the right and the left, he would find nothing but hostile men to fight his way through. Thus he realized that he would have to go straight ahead, through the heart of the flames. Goddess protect me from this foolery, but there are times when the Fool's Path is the only one available. His father had taught him that prayer. "It sounds absurd, Baigent, but you may someday find yourself in just such a position," Pelegaunt had said.
Sir Baigent sheathed his blade and pulled out his dagger. Climbing around the back of the tent, he found that it was still fairly damp -- it had not received nearly enough light to dry out completely from the rains the night before. Using his dagger he cut a large section of the tent away and wrapped himself in it. Then he tucked his head down and ran.
He got only ten steps or so before he realized how unbelievably foolish this was. He could barely keep his eyes open in the heat enough to see where he was running, which was even worse given his incomplete knowledge of the camp's layout. All he could do was trust his sense of direction, which had rarely failed him. The wet fabric with which he had covered himself offered protection for a brief time, but then he stumbled on a piece of burning wood that had fallen in front of him, and the makeshift cloak flapped away from him and partly caught fire. He made no effort to preserve it; he only shrugged it off the rest of the way and kept running. Surely it was only a little way more, the camp wasn't that big, the flames would soon recede behind him...and they did. He was beyond the fires. The hem of his cloak was burning, and he tore it from his shoulders and threw it into a nearby tent that had not yet caught fire. His boiled leather clothes were singed, as was his scabbard -- but the sword was still intact.
"Gods, man, get out of there!" It was one of Maxen's men, a burly fellow who had mistaken Sir Baigent for one of his own. At least the night's events had served to soil him enough to mask his appearance; he couldn't imagine how filthy his hair and body must be.
"All is well," Sir Baigent said. "But the fire is spreading to those tents there." He pointed to the tent where he had thrown his burning cloak, which had indeed started to blaze.
"Water here!" the man shouted, running off to divert some of the water-bearers. Sir Baigent overcame another burst of pain from the wound in his side to run again. No one took the slightest notice of him as he did so. Nevertheless, when he heard the voice of Fflud bellowing orders, he quickly ducked behind one of the wagons and, keeping low, crept the rest of the way.
Now he was past the wagons and into the livery, where most of the horses had already been shepherded through a small gap in the wall. He was about to run for that gap when he heard the very familiar scream of a particular horse. Spinning about, he saw two of the livery workers -- a fat man who was covered with hair and an even fatter man who was bald as a river-smooth stone -- trying to subdue his horse. Arradwen reared and screamed while one of the workers tugged at her reins and the other lashed at her with a whip.
"You'll learn obedience," the one with the whip shouted, "or you will end up in our soup-pots!"
"Horses make good soup," the other one snarled. "Especially the bad ones."
Sir Baigent had heard enough. He looked around and found a wooden staff that would do quite nicely. He walked up behind the livery worker with the whip and drove the staff's blunt end into the small of the man's back. The man grunted, twisted backward with pain and dropped to the ground. The whip fell from his hand.
"One way to know a good horse is that they don't respond well to the whip," he said as he swung the staff around, breaking the man's jaw and knocking him unconscious. The other man let the reins go and faced Sir Baigent, pulling a dagger from his belt.
"You can attack a man from the back," the man said. "Can you fight me to my face?"
Sir Baigent gave one laugh as he drew his sword. "You decide," he said. The other man's eyes went wide, and he tried to run away, but Sir Baigent quickly grabbed the whip from the ground and lashed it around the man's ankles, sending him face-first into the ground. Then he grabbed the man and wound the whip tightly around his wrists behind him. "You should learn the difference between a swordsman and a stable-worker with a knife," he said. Then he grabbed the man's dagger and tucked it into his own belt. "You should also leave the toys to the children who know what to do with them." He clubbed the man into unconsciousness with the pommel of his sword, and then he rose and turned to his horse. "Easy, Arradwen," he said, calming the beast with a hand to her neck. "We have riding to do, girl." It took him only a minute to find his saddle and to put it on her back. Then he climbed up onto her back and rode through the gap into the small, flat area beyond the citadel walls where the horses had been moved. Here he looked around and saw two familiar-looking animals.
They were unable to get their horses, he realized. That means they went on foot. He rode through the horses until he came to the rope boundaries which had been hastily erected to keep the horses from wandering. These he cut with his sword, not only to get through himself but also in hopes that the camp's horses would scatter, further hampering their ability to do anything. He rode through the darkness until he came to the road, just a short distance away from the main gate to the camp. Here he considered what to do now. If they have any sense at all they will hide near the bottom of this road for a time, hoping to meet me. He knew that he was counting a great deal on sense he wasn't sure that they had, but there were no other options. He looked up at the citadel, its walls outlined by the orange glow from the burning camp within.
First, I will need light. He turned and rode back up the road, right up to the main gate. Two guards stood there, holding spears. Torches had been set in the wall beside them. Sir Baigent drew his sword as he approached. The men stepped forward, still not holding their spears in any kind of defensive stance. Idiots, thought the Knight as he swung his sword and beheaded one of the two guards and then whirled about to face the other, who only now realized what was happening. The man lifted his spear, but Sir Baigent sidestepped out of his range, slid his sword back into its scabbard, and in one smooth motion threw the dagger he had taken from the livery worker. The dagger buried itself in the guard's shoulder, forcing him to drop his spear. Sir Baigent stayed only long enough to grab one of the torches, and then he headed down the hill as fast as he dared ride. When he had come about halfway down he stopped and stared down at the ground. To his surprise, he did not need to dismount to see the trail; equally to his surprise, it was the trail of three horses, not three footprints. Did they find different horses? he wondered. If this is their trail, then at least we'll have Gwynwhyfar and Brother Llyad off the same horse.
Sir Baigent rode on, eventually coming to the bottom of the hill. There was no pursuit behind him whatsoever, and when he looked back up at the ruined citadel of the Scarlet King he saw only a diffuse red glow that was already dimming. They must have the fires under control by now. It won't be long until they realize that we've gone. But will they bother with the pursuit? He searched about for the trail, and quickly found it again: the same three horse-tracks he had discovered above. But this was odd: they had kept riding. He shook his head. They were making this harder than necessary. He followed the trail a short while, and then the trail left the road altogether and headed straight for the river. A feeling of disquiet came over him. They couldn't have crossed the river, he thought. If they did I will never find their trail again before daylight. Fools! But it was so: the trail vanished in the waters of the river. Sir Baigent swore. Perhaps they had only ridden for a short while in the water; perhaps they had come out on this side, downstream...he rode on, praying that this was the case. And the dull ache in his side was becoming worse. He needed to find his companions, and soon.
Then he came upon another trail. His heart soared for just a moment, until he realized that this trail was only two horses, and that it had come not from the water but from the road. From the looks of it, whoever these two riders were had come to this spot from the road, milled about for quite a while, and then moved...behind the two gigantic boulders in front of him....
The rock caught him in the middle of his chest, knocking his breath away and sending him headlong from his horse. He tried to roll upright and to draw his sword, but he felt something drop over him -- it was a net, a damned fishing net. He struggled against it in rage that he had failed to recognize the most perfect spot for an ambush that he had ever seen, and rage that now his companions were most likely gone. He struggled against the pair of astonishingly strong hands that now grasped him and bound his arms behind him and his legs together. They took his sword and dagger and wrapped him tightly in the very net with which they had subdued him. He became aware of Arradwen screaming. His own strength began at last to falter.
"She's a spirited one," he heard one of the men say.
"Well, calm her down!" the other one, who was still kneeling on top of Sir Baigent, said. "We'll need her to carry this one with us."
"We're taking him with us?"
"What did you think, fool? That we'd show up and present this fine animal to Gareth, without the rider? You know what Gareth would say. She'd be incredibly angry."
She? Sir Baigent thought. Maxen's fearful opponent is a woman?
"We could tell her that it was one of Maxen's men, and that we had no choice--"
"Except that his sword bears the mark of Camyrdin. We would know the truth. No, he's coming with us, I'm afraid."
"Oh, fine. But it will take longer."
"I know that. Do you have that horse calmed yet?"
"I think so...."
Sir Baigent found his consciousness beginning to falter. He was unsure of how much time elapsed, but he felt himself at one point being lifted and placed on Arradwen's back. Then he heard one of his captors gasp.
"He's got himself a nasty wound here," the man said. "We should dress that for him."
"When it's light, and when we are far away from here. Let's go."
Sir Baigent felt his horse being jerked into motion. Gwyn's face, sad and strong, appeared in his mind. "Forgive me, My Lady," he mouthed soundlessly. His strength was gone, and unconsciousness overcame him. Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt, seneschal of Camyrdin and champion of Gwynwhyfar the Welcomer, heard and felt no more.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::