:: Sunday, July 10, 2005 ::
King Cwerith sat upright, the stone from Caer Camyrdin forgotten in his hand, as Cassion finished telling him what he had come to say. Dead silence hung in the air, and Lord Varing shifted on his feet. When Cwerith glanced up at Varing, he noted the expression of incredulity on his Steward's face. He turned back to Cassion.
"You came all the way into camp -- which you never do -- to tell me foolish children's tales," Cwerith said finally.
"You have never found my tidings foolish before," Cassion said. "I have been given this to know by the Brother, the God we serve. My dear King of Gwynedd, if you ignore my tidings now then it is you who are being the fool." He spoke, as he always did, with the calm of a man who knew that he was in control of those to whom he spoke.
King Cwerith's brow furrowed, but he made no reply. Instead he dismissed Varing from the tent with a single, curt gesture.
"I am uncertain that he will hold his tongue," Cassion said when Varing had gone.
"He will hold it," Cwerith replied. "Varing will under no circumstances betray anything that I have told him."
"I don't trust him, Cwerith."
" 'Your Majesty'," Cwerith corrected, and Cassion nodded with exaggerated humility. "Varing doesn't trust you, Cassion. I do not share his concerns, but I must still honor the fact that his service to me has been unwavering and long -- longer, even, than yours."
Cassion spread his hands, conceding the point or more likely choosing not to pursue the matter any farther. "Of course, Your Majesty. I only express my concern on such matters as may affect your rule. Being King is a dangerous business, especially since as King you will be anointed by Powers not of this earth." He said it calmly, reasonably -- and yet with a definite hint of a threat. Cwerith reached for his cup, but did not lift it to his lips.
"I have not forgotten," he said.
"I hope not," Cassion replied. "Otherwise, I would fear that like all the other craven fools throughout this land, you have turned back to the Goddess for the help that is beyond her power to give." He laughed then, a laugh which had chilled Cwerith when he had first heard it and still chilled him to this day. "I must admit, the expression on that Baron Gaddamar's face when he came to his first Benediction of the Brother...well, perhaps I should not draw amusement from the weaknesses of your new allies."
Cwerith frowned, remembering the moment. Baron Gaddamar had obviously thought it would be such a simple matter, to pledge his fealty to a new King in hopes of keeping that tiny bit of Prydein that was his. But while loyalties to Lords and Kings are easily set aside, loyalties to the Goddess are not. It had never occurred to Gaddamar, not once, that such a thing would be asked of him. How could it? Dona's Brother had not been celebrated in Prydein in centuries, since High King Prystyl had cast out the last of the Brother's worshippers. So it had been that when Cwerith had brought him that night to look on as Cassion spilled new blood in the Brother's name, he had paled and then fainted. It had been utterly disgraceful -- and yet Cwerith needed this man, and more like him.
He sighed. "So they think to do this thing? Partake in some Druid ritual and bring back a King?"
Cassion nodded. "They have been misled, of course -- by their own faith and by the Book of Ryannon. Would that all the copies had been burned, or her heart removed and her body cast out to sea before she could have written such nonsense."
Cwerith rose from his chair and began to pace. "Let them read their books and sing to the Moon," he said. "Let them fill their hearts with the thought that Blessed Dona still has any power to affect the affairs of the world. Let them believe that she can still keep the Gates of Annwn closed and the dead beneath the ground. Let them believe all that, and hang them for it." He turned to face the Priest. "Well, Cassion, should we not allow them to do this? This mission of theirs is folly, the last desperate grasp by people who cannot yet see that they have been forsaken by the Goddess. Let them, then! Let them play with the Druids and do what they will at the Giants' Dance. It cannot be of any concern to me. I am the High King."
"You are the High King," Cassion agreed. "And there is nothing that they can find at the Giants' Dance that will change that or make it any less true."
Cwerith nodded, satisfied.
"But, Your Majesty, consider this: while they will not find a King, they may find something. And in a land where there are so many men like that Baron Gaddamar, what they find may nevertheless be dangerous to you -- because men will believe in it, in him."
"The man they find there, waiting for them."
Cwerith stared at the Priest. "You believe they will actually find someone."
Cassion nodded. "I only said that they will not find a King. But there will be someone there, waiting. Someone sent by the Goddess, to do her bidding. Perhaps even a great warrior, given back to her by the Lord of the Dead in recompense for…well, who can know what debts the Powers must pay."
"You believe they will find someone." Cwerith sat back down, amazed at what he had just heard. "Did the God tell you this, as well?"
"I am his servant, and through me his bidding is done on Earth. As it is through you, Your Majesty." Cassion leaned forward. "In time, this man they find will be seen as the Promised King. The legend is powerful, and it will command the imaginations of men throughout Prydein. Even an impostor, a pretender, can be dangerous. He will pose a challenge and a threat to you, merely because he exists."
Cwerith gnashed his teeth. "You told me that I was the Promised King," he said.
"And so you are," Cassion said, rubbing his fat hands together. "It is you who will come to Prydein in her hour of need. You will show them a new way, My Liege. You will unite all of Prydein, and bring the land together under a new banner and a new Power." He paused for a moment. "But there will be an impostor, a pretender to your throne, who will make the same claims. He will whisper sweet things in the ear of the people; he will tell them that the Goddess is still with them, that the land will be whole only when he sits on the throne. And they will be desperate enough to believe him, because the road you offer is the harder one. It will be easier for the weak to believe in a man sent to them by Druid magic than a man who carves his destiny from the heart of the land itself."
"They will find an impostor, and they will rally behind him to deny me what is mine. Always an impostor, a usurper, rising to take the throne that should have belonged to Gwynedd years ago." In a fit of anger, Cwerith slapped his cup from the table, sending the water in it splashing across the tent wall. "I cannot turn aside from the march now to go to the Giants' Dance and deal with whatever threat is coming there. It would take us a day's march, and then another, just to get back to this point -- and we must reach Bedwyn before Duke Cunaddyr is able to return. Time is not on our side this time, Cassion."
Cassion smiled. "It need not be, for the task is not ours. The God has foreseen what needs to be done, and selected a Champion for the task. A man has been found whose heart has recently been tempered by fire and pain to the purpose of stopping this…Welcomer. He is one of your own captains. I will observe what transpires, in my own way."
Cwerith leaned forward. "You will tell me what you learn," he said.
"Of course, Your Majesty. I am always in your service." He rose from his seat. "But I will need more from you to do it properly."
Cwerith frowned, and his body tensed. "More?"
Cassion nodded and reached into the folds of his robe and pulled out two small vials of obsidian glass, which he offered to King Cwerith. "There are prices to be paid for power, Your Majesty, even for Kings. It is no less than what you would ask of the men who fight for you."
"There are always prices to be paid," Cwerith said softly as he lifted his sleeve, revealing a series of short, dark scars. Then he opened one of the vials and picked up his knife, which was freshly sharpened -- the better for the drawing of his own blood. As he laid the knife to his arm, he saw the quiver of excitement in Cassion's lip that was always there when he did this.
Gwyn awoke from a sleep that was dreamless and not at all restful, coming as it did riding on the back of a strange horse while wearing a sack of rough cloth tied over her head. She could see nothing of where they were riding, save that it was morning -- that much light came through the holes and gaps in the cloth, at least. It was still cold, despite her hopes that one morning she would awaken to a restored summer. She could smell the rider who sat behind her, she could smell the horse, and she could smell the apples that the bag over her eyes had certainly once contained. When she awoke she could tell that they were riding downhill, and they rode downhill for quite some time, until they finally stopped near a stream that she could hear rushing nearby.
"Are you sure it's safe?" she heard one of the other men say.
"We've been riding for three hours with no sign of them coming after us," the man behind Gwyn replied. "We're as safe as we can be, I suppose. If they've followed us this far, it won't matter if we stop."
Gwyn took that to mean that they were near to their destination, as useful as that might be.
"What do we do with them?" the third man said, to Gwyn's left. She realized they were talking about her and her companions.
"The danger is past," Gwyn's rider said. And with that she felt him untying the twine that held the bag closed over her head. "Go ahead, take it off. We've come far enough that you wouldn't be able to retrace our path, and certainly not with you sleeping much of the way."
Gwyn scowled as she reached up and pulled the sack from her head. The morning was not particularly bright -- not completely overcast, but not completely clear either -- but it was still blinding all the same. She blinked for a minute or two, and then looked to her companions. Brother Llyad looked well enough, as did Estren, although both looked very tired. Seeing that they were all right, she looked at her surroundings. They were at the bottom of a wooded valley, with a rocky stream before them. Gwyn thought of how long they had ridden, and where they had been the night before, and finally of the maps she had studied for years. This was likely the edge of Walding Wood, the great forest that lay to the south of the Giants' Dance and west of Bedwyn. And somewhere north of them, on the other side of this forest, would be King Cwerith's army. The leafless trees around them swayed in the cold breeze, the branches eerily creeking.
"Come and get some water," the man who was Gwyn's rider said. He had removed his mask, and Gwyn studied him. Somehow the voice had not sounded as old as the man who possessed it now looked. His face was lined heavily, and his eyes were dark and deep-set. His hair was white and unevenly cropped. This was a man who had seen, and probably done, a great deal. He beckoned for her to dismount, and she did.
"Is there food?" she asked.
"Not now, but another short while of riding and we will be home. There will be food there." Once she was down he took the reins of the horse and led the animal to the water. Gwyn joined Brother Llyad and Estren, both of whom had also dismounted and were blinking at the sudden brightness as well.
"Are you well, My Lady?" Brother Llyad asked.
"I'm fine," Gwyn replied. "I don't think they mean to harm us."
"Nor do I," Estren said. "There were a number of times when we were riding downhill that they moved at a slow pace to keep us from falling from the saddles. If we were prisoners, they would have bound us and carried us like sacks of grain."
"That is how it is usually done," Gwyn said, with a sidelong glance at Brother Llyad. He blinked, took her meaning, and turned crimson. She would have laughed had she not thought then of the missing member of their company. "I wonder what has become of Sir Baigent," she said.
"We are in no position to help him," Estren said. "But he is a strong man. He may well be coming behind us."
"Come and drink," Gwyn's rider called out. "We must ride again in a minute."
The three walked down to the side of the stream, which ran a bit cloudy and quite cold. Gwyn's muscles ached everywhere from the ride and the lack of rest, and the water tasted strongly of earth and minerals, but still it was quite refreshing. She lifted five or six handfuls of water to her lips, and then she rubbed some of the cold water on her face and through her hair, which was now quite a tangled mess. She would be best off having it cut short entirely, she realized -- and when it was done, she would have shorter hair than Sir Baigent. That thought made her both chuckle and shudder.
Minutes later they were riding again, following the stream up the valley until they reached the long, oval-shaped lake that fed it. The water was clear and looked very cold, colder even than the stream. The path they followed was very narrow, and as it came close to the spot where the lake emptied into the stream Gwyn saw a tiny wooden bridge before them, which was barely wide enough for a small wagon. They crossed the bridge, the horses' hooves making a clattering on the wood that somehow reminded Gwyn of the bridge at Tintagel, and then they came through a particularly thick stand of trees and into a wider, open area that had been invisible from the path.
Around the perimeter of this area were ten buildings whose walls were made of earth and whose roofs were made of wood and thatch. At the farthest point away from them was a larger building that looked as if it had some kind of ceremonial function. As they rode into the center of this place, people began to emerge from the woods around them or the buildings before them. In minutes the square had filled with nearly a hundred people, all of them simple, rugged types not unlike the fisherfolk of Lyonesse Gwyn had known as a child. The faces around them were all careworn, but most were smiling, and there was even laughter as their men had returned. There were also children, but not as many as Gwyn might have expected in a settlement of this size. She only saw three women suckling babes. The riders dismounted and then the companions followed. As Gwyn looked around, she saw that her rider was now embracing a woman who was clearly his age, probably his wife. The other two men had joined several of their own friends, who were laughing and clapping them on the back.
These people had not brought the companions to an armed camp. They had brought them home.
"They aren't soldiers," Gwyn said to Estren and Brother Llyad. "And they aren't bandits. They are people. Commoners. Like us."
"Why would they do such a thing?" Brother Llyad said. "It's very reckless of them to attack an armed camp like that."
"Maybe we'll find out now," Estren said as he pointed to the ceremonial building. "That looks like a leader."
Approaching them was the tallest woman Gwyn had ever seen. She was dressed in plain farming clothes: a pale shirt under a blue jerkin, black pants, and dark boots, well-worn. Her black hair fell in thick curls about her shoulders. She carried a walking stick, but Gwyn could see that this was by choice rather than by necessity; the woman's strides were long and sure.
"Gareth?" Gwyn said.
The woman moved through the gathered group and joined the returned riders, whereupon she hugged each one in turn. "Thank the Son," she said. Her voice was surprisingly soft. "I was not at all certain this last strike was such a good idea. I'm glad to have you back, Jonn."
"I'm glad to be back," said Jonn -- the man Gwyn had ridden with. "Although, matters became more complicated." He gestured to the companions, and Gareth turned to face them. She studied each of their faces, long enough for Gwyn to see that her eyes were a vibrant green. Then she shook her head and sighed.
"Maxen had prisoners, did he?"
"We didn't actually free them," Jonn said. "They freed themselves, and our paths crossed outside Maxen's camp."
"Really?" Gareth raised her eyebrows and gave a low whistle of interest. "Then these people may be more interesting than they look."
"More interesting than we look?" Estren said.
"Two clerics and a harper?" Gareth said. "Not a combination that immediately commands my attention. But knowing that Maxen took an interest in you, and that you avoided such interest? That interests me." She looked them over again, and then she turned back to Jonn. "But where are Matt and Calloch? I sent five of you, not three."
A shadow passed over Jonn's features. "I do not know," Jonn said. "They were not at the appointed place, at the appointed time. We could wait for them no longer."
Gareth sighed heavily and leaned on her walking stick. "Not good news," she finally said. "Not good news by far. I knew that this attack was ill conceived, and still I sent you anyway. If I've lost two men--"
"We accepted that possibility," Jonn said, a bit forcefully. "All of us did, Gareth. The fault is not yours, if they are dead."
Gareth looked at him for long moment, her lips pursed. Gwyn wondered what relationship these two shared. Gareth was clearly the leader here, but Jonn was a leader as well -- a subordinate to the woman, but also something of a mentor.
"The fault is mine, if the mission was foolishly given to the men who accepted it," Gareth said. "It will not be long until Maxen finds us, and each attack will make it easier. Perhaps it is time to stop, and to move again."
A chorus of groans rose from the people around them. Gareth lifted her stick and used it to signal for silence.
"No, listen to me! Each time we strike we leave a trail, even as good as we are at concealing it. And now he will want to come after us even more, since we have taken three people he apparently found valuable, and he may have the means to find us if the two men we have possibly lost are not dead."
A grim silence settled over the crowd. Gareth rubbed her forehead in a sorrowful gesture. A crow cried, somewhere in the woods.
Gwyn decided to break the silence. "Maxen may not be coming quite as soon as you fear," she said. Everyone turned to look at her.
"You don't need to talk right now," Brother Llyad muttered.
"Oh, but she does," Gareth said, having heard the monk's remark. She took two steps toward Gwyn. "What do you mean, girl? Why would Maxen's hand be delayed in striking us?"
"Because his hand is somewhere in the mud on that hill," Gwyn said. "One of them, anyway. And you are not the only one missing someone. Our party numbered four before last night."
Gareth studied the faces of the three companions again, lingering particularly on Gwyn's. "Who are you?" she asked.
Gwyn sipped again from the cup of herb tea that Gareth had made for her as she completed telling her part of the tale and listened to Estren fill in the remaining parts but leaving out the reason for their journey. Jonn also spoke, filling in the parts and telling Gareth about how the attack had gone. Gareth sat on the floor, her legs crossed beneath her, the walking stick laid across her lap and a cup of the strong and fragrant tea cupped in both hands. She displayed little reaction to their description of the events, instead taking it all in calmly and quietly.
After Gwyn's interruption of the reunion, Gareth had brought them to this, her own abode. It was a small, low house tucked behind the ceremonial building, and likewise made of mud and thatch. The smoke from the fire, in the middle of the floor, rose through a hole in the roof. The room was sparsely furnished. There were several straw-filled pallets for sitting and sleeping, a stack of neatly-folded clothing, a set of cookpots and jars containing herbs, a sheathed dagger and a small throwing axe. This abode had been built quickly and recently; these people had moved here from somewhere else.
Gwyn drained her cup of tea. It tasted the way wildflowers smelled, and Gareth had also added a few pinches of herbs and a few chunks of dried apple into each cup. The effect of the tea was marvelously soothing, and Gwyn felt the aches in her muscles and in the wolf-scratch on her arm melting away as she sipped the hot drink.
"Ale and mead have their place," Gareth said, "but never so much as a pot of that tea. The growing of those leaves has been forgotten everywhere in Prydein, except for here. My people remember, as we remember a great many things. And I expect you are also hungry, so...."
She rose and left the hut, returning a minute or two later with the food that Jonn had promised earlier: two kinds of bread, one dark and one light; two kinds of cheese, both hard and tangy; and more of the dried apples. It was a simple meal, but still each of the companions ate their fill. It occurred to her that she may be supping with an enemy for the second time in as many days, but she didn't think so although she could not explain why. Finally she sat back and relaxed, her tea cup having been refilled by Gareth. Then the tall woman resumed her listening position on the floor, opposite the companions.
"So you were traveling on the road, and you happened upon Maxen and his search parties," Gareth said, summarizing what she had heard thus far. "Who were looking for us. And this swordsman you traveled with may have done Maxen more harm personally than we have been able to do in all our attacks on his camps, and he may have paid for the trouble with his life -- as well as that of Matt and Calloch, my missing men." She looked at Jonn. "The pattern that the Son weaves is ever a complex one," she said softly.
"It is always that," Jonn replied. Gwyn glanced at Brother Llyad, wondering again at this "Son" business, but also sensing that this was not a good time to ask.
Gareth laid another small log on the fire. "There is something I am wondering," she said. "Why were you traveling on that road to begin with? These are not safe times for travel."
Gwyn had expected this. "We were making for Bedwyn," she said. "The Brother and I are on pilgrimage."
Gareth shook her head. "Forgive me for this," she said, "but it is not looked upon kindly to repay hospitality with lies."
Gwyn felt her cheeks go red. Beside her, Brother Llyad sighed. Only Estren remained calm, sipping his tea.
"I don't blame you for being wary," Gareth said. "After all, you have fallen out of the hands of one villain into the hands of someone who may yet be a villain, for all that you are aware. Were I sitting where you are now, I would feel the same -- particularly in times as dark as these. So, I ask again: why are you traveling?"
There was really no reason at all to trust this woman, for they knew no more about her and her people than they had about Maxen and his men. Wariness had been the rule then, and surely it should be so now -- except that Gwyn felt differently about Gareth. She couldn't explain it, and had Sir Baigent been with them he would have certainly challenged her right to know anything about them at all. But he was not here, and thus the decision could not be deferred safely for the knight to make. Even in the short time of this journey, Gwyn had become used to relying on Sir Baigent's judgment. She glanced at Estren and Brother Llyad, both of whom nodded.
"We are not going to Bedwyn," she said. "We are going to the Giants' Dance."
Gareth leaned forward. "Why would you do this?"
"Because the Druids are meeting there to greet the Promised King, and I am his Welcomer."
Gwyn expected the burst of incredulity that had been nearly everyone else's reaction upon hearing this but Gareth's eyes merely widened. "I have not heard your name," Gareth said.
"Gwynwhyfar," said Gwyn.
Now a look of sheer amazement spread across Gareth's face. She looked at Jonn. "Can it be?" she said. "Jonn, do you know what you have found?"
"I begin to suspect," Jonn replied.
"Fate is so often shaped by those unknown and unseen," Gareth said, obviously quoting something although Gwyn did not recognize the reference. She gazed at Gwyn for a long moment, and then she pushed herself to her feet, using the walking stick for leverage. "You should come with me," she said. "I have something that will interest you." With that she headed briskly for the door, and the companions had to scramble to keep up with her.
Gareth took her into the larger, ceremonial building. It was dark at first, but Gareth lit a torch and then used it to light a ceremonial fire in the center of the building. Gwyn looked around. This was obviously a sanctuary of some kind, although very different from what Gwyn knew on Tintagel and other places. For one thing, there was no altar or standing stone etched with the symbols of the Moon and the Goddess. Also, the room inside the building was not circularly arranged. The focal point of the room was not the fire, which merely existed for lighting; it was instead the wall opposite the entrance, where a very old tapestry hung suspended from three iron hooks set in the ceiling. Gwyn heard Brother Llyad exhale a long breath, and she walked toward the tapestry. It was woven in intricate fashion, and it showed the Moon and the Sun in the same sky, although the sky was dark, and the earth below. Also in the sky was a blazing star, or what Gwyn took to be a star, but this one was different: a very long tail of light extended backward from it, and the star appeared to be falling toward the earth.
"What is this?" Gwyn asked.
"I didn't know that anyone still believed that legend," Brother Llyad said.
"It is no legend," Gareth said. "He will be found."
Gwyn gaped as she finally realized who these people were and what the references to "the Son" had meant. Brother Malcolm had once told her a story, a very ancient one whose origins no one knew, that the Moon had once taken the Sun for her mate, and a child had been conceived of that union -- a child of mixed parentage, who carried the blood of the stars and of the earth. His parents loved him and doted on him, and named him Seren Goleuad, the Luminary Star, and thought to keep him with them in the sky forever.
But the Goddess's dark Brother, long before banished from the sky and chained beyond the Land of the Dead and forbidden to touch the world, despised the child for the love he received; and his hatred grew through the centuries until the dark Brother could stand it no more, and he whispered in the ears of the stars that the child, this Seren Goleuad, had come to usurp their own beauty forever. The stars set upon poor Seren Goleuad, and did him grievous harm. Wanting only to shine in the sky above the world with his loving parents Seren Goleuad ran to his father the Sun, but his father's embrace only set his flesh aflame. No longer able to avoid the wrath of the stars in the sky, Seren Goleuad leaped out of the sky and fell to earth, the flames from his flesh bringing false dawn to all the lands below as he tumbled down, down, at last down into the sea where he was never seen again. The Moon and the Sun were heartbroken at the loss of their only child, and in their heartbreak they knew that the same fate awaited any other children they would ever have. And so the Moon and the Sun parted forever. The Moon salved her pain by taking new interest in the fates of those in the world; but the Sun, in his agony at losing his only son, had turned dead to the world and to everything but the sky itself as he moved through it, creating day after day after day.
Seren Goleuad was mourned by the people of the earth, but some believed that he had survived the fall, and that in time he would be found and restored to his proper place in the sky. These people paced the length of Prydein, looking for the one who was both star and earth -- or so they had, centuries before. "The story is still known," Malcolm had said in that lesson long ago, "but none actually believe it."
Except that some, apparently, did.
"I see you have heard the tale," Gareth said. "There are so very few of us now -- in fact, we are now the only ones. We are the Finders, although we have found little that we have sought and much that we haven't. We travel across this land, listening to the wind and the earth and the waters for signs that he has been somewhere seen, that he has left a trail for us. He will be alone when we find him, terribly alone." She looked so sad just then, for only a moment until she smiled. "We can discuss that another time. What I wish you to see is over here." She walked up to the tapestry of Seren Goleuad's fall and bent down over a wooden chest that Gwyn had not noticed before. Gareth lifted the chest and placed it again on the floor nearer the fire, where the light shone brighter on its dark wood. Then she undid the latches, lifted the lid, and pulled something out. It was a book, or what was left of one. She closed the lid of the chest and laid the book on top of it. "Tell me, Gwynwhyfar, what do you know of the Promised King?"
"I know that he is to return to Prydein in the land's greatest hour of need," Gwyn said. "And I know that that time is now, and that the Druids--"
"No," Gareth interrupted her. "What do you know of the Promised King? of the man himself?"
Gwyn thought the question was odd. What did they need to know of him? Surely it was enough to know that a King was coming who would heal the land, who would defeat the Traitor Kings, restore peace, and create a kingdom of greatness. And yet, considering it, Gwyn realized that Gareth was right: they did not truly know anything about the man who awaited them somewhere beyond the Giants' Dance. "We know nothing save his name," Gwyn finally admitted. "Arthur Pendragon."
"Yes," Gareth said. "Arthur Pendragon. And why do you know so little about this man?"
"Because nothing about him survived the Cataclysm," Gwyn replied. "All that we have are legends begun by the Druids and kept by the Priests and Priestesses of Dona. All we have is the Book of Ryannon."
"Now you have more," Gareth said. And she gestured to the book that lay on the chest.
Gwyn, Brother Llyad, and Estren crowded around the book. It was a tattered thing whose pages smelled of must and mold. The pages were bound in cured sheepskin, and when Gareth opened the book they saw that the pages were covered with tiny, regular script -- amazingly regular, every letter perfectly proportioned to the others. Gwyn had never seen a book in so perfect a hand, and she had certainly never seen script that small and yet so perfectly regular. Whatever scribe had done this work, in whatever cloister he had done it, must have had the sureest hand of any scribe, Adept, Monk or Priest who had ever lived. Gwyn gazed at the lettering in astonishment, only realizing after a moment or two that she could not read the language in which the book was written.
"I cannot read these words," she said.
"I have seen some of it before," Brother Llyad said. "A very small bit of it. Books in this language are more rare than the eggs of dragons."
"Indeed," Gareth said. "One never knows where treasures will be found, if one even recognizes the treasure when one finds it. Before last winter began in earnest, we were crossing the Pennyn Mountains, from Northumbria to Serick Wood, when we came upon a cave. My husband -- who was as fine a mushroom-hunter as has ever lived -- went inside. He found that the cave was not really a cave at all, but the ruined cellar of some long-fallen building. There were a number of items there, all shattered and destroyed, but somehow this book had come to rest beneath a large rock that protected it from the elements and the rodents who like to eat such things. He brought the book out, and we studied it occasionally on our travels. One of our Elders was a schooled man, and he was able to decipher part of this language, before he died. There is much in it that we don't understand -- the greater portion of it, actually -- but we were able to read enough to know that this book is about the Promised King. It is about King Arthur."
Gwyn and Brother Llyad looked at each other. They were afraid even to breathe. Here, in this unlikeliest of places in a part of Prydein where the path of history had never been shaped by anyone, was a book that was perhaps more important than any of the Oracles or any other work in the library at Tintagel. Here was a direct link to the Promised King and the legend that had brought them this far, and would take them to the Giants' Dance for a meeting with the Druids.
"Magnificent," Brother Llyad whispered.
"But what has this to do with my name?" Gwyn asked.
"What indeed," Gareth said as she turned a series of ancient pages to a passage near the back of the book. "As I said, we cannot read all of this -- but here we find that King Arthur's peaceful kingdom was undone by the secret, illicit love shared by his most trusted knight, named Lancelot, and his wife the Queen. Her name was Guinevere, which is a form of gwynwhyfar." She pointed to the word on the page.
Gwyn paled. "Are...are you saying that...."
"Who better to welcome him back to his realm than one bearing the name of she who helped undo his realm in the time before?"
"Gwynwhyfar is not an uncommon name," Gwyn said. This idea, that she might be Queen to the Promised King, was an ugly one -- although she could not say why. What place a Welcomer, though, after the King's return?
"No, it is not," Gareth said. "But you are not common. You bear her name, and you come from Tintagel, one of the most ancient of places in all Prydein. We have often thought that the key to finding Seren Goleuad would be found at Tintagel, and you may be that key. Events do not join as one so easily. The existence of the Wild Hunt guarantees that. What seems later to be a rich tapestry of history only appears so because we look at the events long after they have faded into memory. But the hands of the Goddess can still be felt on the world, even as her power is weakened and the world itself begins to feel the approach of the time when the last barriers shall fall and the dead ride forth from Annwn. Don't you see, Gwynwhyfar? Can you not realize the awesome part that is yours to play?"
Gareth's words were dizzying, and Gwyn said nothing. Everything to this point had been an answer, of sorts, to some question she had never been able to fully ask. But this? Riding alongside Arthur Pendragon, not as his Welcomer but as his Queen? This was no answer she had ever sought, and the very thought filled her with fear and disquiet. She told herself that it would all be well, that Arthur Pendragon would turn out to be a kindly and just man, that being his Queen would be the greatest of honors for a farmgirl from Lyonesse. She told herself these things and more…and yet her disquiet only grew. And she did not know why. There was something else that made it wrong to her, and she couldn't tell what. Outside, the cawing of a crow could be heard. Three times.
Jonn became rigid. "Alarm," he said. "Someone comes."
"Go," Gareth said. He strode out of the sanctuary, and Gareth led the companions to the door, where she gestured for them to stay back, out of sight. Gwyn craned her neck to see what was going on outside, but she only caught glimpses of Gareth's people moving quickly for cover, some of them ascending rapidly into the trees on ropes that were pulled up behind them.
"Maxen?" Estren said.
"We won't know for a few moments yet," Gareth said. "But if so, I will take you out the back of this sanctuary and to a nearby cave which they will have a very hard time finding."
"And then?" Gwyn asked.
"Some questions should not be answered until they have actually arisen," Gareth said. "If it is Maxen, we will know as much before he is within sight of our camp and he will know our fire again." Her words were confident, but her voice was grim. Gareth was clearly far less confident in their abilities to fight now, in the broad daylight, than she was when her people were striking out of darkness when fire and smoke yielded cover as well as delivering damage.
After that initial burst of activity outside, there was silence that lasted for three, four, five excruciating minutes. Gwyn strained to hear the sounds of approaching riders, the clattering of their weapons and the pounding of their mounts' hooves, but all she could hear was her own breath. The crow's call came again, and she started at the sudden breaking of the silence. Gareth tensed, and then she relaxed again when the crow's call sounded twice more in rapid succession. She lifted her walking stick and smiled.
"It is no attack," she said. "Come. Unless I miss my guess, this will be the return of my missing men. Praise Dona that they live!"
The companions followed her outside, where Gareth's people were already coming out from under piles of leaves and down from the trees. The approaching riders could now be heard, and Gwyn joined in everyone's general relief when she heard that this was certainly no war party. The two riders came around the last bend into the camp, and Gwyn felt her stomach twist as she recognized the third horse trotting behind the first two, led by a rope tied to the saddle of one of other steeds, and her own rider slumped unconscious in the saddle. It was Arradwen, and the unconscious rider was Sir Baigent.
The companions rushed forward to join him. "Give them room!" Gareth called, beckoning with her walking stick to keep the people from clustering around the new arrivals. Gwyn feared at first that Sir Baigent was dead, but she quickly saw that it was not so. His cloak and clothing were torn and blood-stained and his face was filthy, but Gwyn noticed relief that the wound in his side had been dressed after a fashion, although it would need further attention if he was to avoid fever. The two riders -- one very tall, with wispy black hair and one almost as tall, fatter, with no hair whatsoever -- dismounted and then came back to help Sir Baigent slide down from his saddle.
"Easy," one of them said. "We have reached our home, and you will find rest here."
"Where...where is this...." Sir Baigent's voice was little more than a mumble.
"Sir Baigent!" Gwyn pushed through the crowd until she stood before her Champion. She placed her hands on his cheeks and looked into his weary, bloodshot eyes. "Praise to Dona, you are still alive...I had feared..."
The weakened knight actually managed something of a smile. "What manner...of Champion...could I be...if I were dead?" He looked at each of his companions. "It pleases me to see you, My Lady...and I'm even glad to see Llyad. Was he wounded? He is not...talking...."
Gwyn laughed at that, the first laugh she could remember in days. Certainly the first since they had heard of Camyrdin.
Gareth moved closer, standing next to Gwyn and looking at Sir Baigent.
"This is the companion you lost?" she asked. "The one who took Maxen's hand off?"
"He is," Estren said.
Gareth nodded. "Then we owe him some thanks…and some attention to his wounds, I see. That dressing needs changed. Matt, Calloch, bring him into my chambers."
The tall rider, the one named Matt, laughed. "No joy at our return?"
"None at all," Gareth said with a scowl. "And certainly none for lateness."
"Well," said Calloch, the fat man. "I'm certainly glad we rode as fast as we could back here. Nothing like a warm welcome."
The two men lifted Sir Baigent and carried him toward Gareth's chamber.
Matt and Calloch laid Sir Baigent on one of the straw pallets by Gareth's fire, and Gareth knelt beside him and worked as she questioned her two wayward riders on the details of their journey. It had been pure chance that had kept them from the meeting point. A group of Maxen's men had broken from the main group and chased them into the farthest corner of the camp within the walls of the Scarlet King's fortress, were their only chance for escape was to use two of their fire-globes to bring down a section of wall. By the time they finally reached the meeting point, Jonn and the others were already gone -- with their own new companions -- but before they could follow, the wounded knight from Camyrdin had happened upon them.
"A good thing," Gareth said as she used a knife to cut through Sir Baigent's jerkin. "Damned boiled leather," she said. "We'll have to give him a new one once I'm done." She pulled the garment away, exposing his shirt beneath. Once tan, it was now brown and scarlet with dirt and blood. Gareth cut that shirt away as well, exposing Sir Baigent's bare torso. Gwyn had never realized how thickly muscled he was until that moment. His body bore more scars than she had expected, and the wound itself looked even worse than it had when he had been clothed. The knight moaned slightly as Gareth probed at the wound in his left side, examining the dressing that Matt and Calloch had provided. Then she looked up at them and nodded with approval.
"You did a passable job," she said. "It's been kept clean and the bleeding has been stopped. This man will owe the two of you his life, for if you hadn't done this he would likely be suffering the onset of fever right now, and tomorrow he would be dead."
"I...have survived...worse wounds than this," Sir Baigent said. Gareth shook her head.
"Never has there walked a man on this earth who didn't make that same claim," she said. "Yet in the end they all end up in the meadhall of Annwn. Now hold still; I am going to remove this dressing. Then I will clean the wound again, and place some herbs and salve on it." She looked up at Gwyn. "Gwynwhyfar, please hand me that jar there, on the shelf -- the one with the bluestem in it. You know what bluestem is?"
"I do," she said. Bluestem was a particular kind of mushroom, which they had cultivated in Tintagel's mushroom caves for use in the Chambers of Healing for Sister Moyra. It was a powerful mushroom indeed, with great healing powers. She handed the jar to Gareth, who had now removed the old dressing from Sir Baigent's wound and now was about to pour some kind of elixir over it. "This will sting," she said, and judging by Sir Baigent's hissing reaction, it did indeed. Gareth worked with a swift and deft hand as she cleaned out the wound and the surrounding skin, treated it, and redressed it. Gwyn gave Sir Baigent a swallow or two of the special liquor that he carried, and then he was asleep. He had not looked so peaceful on this entire journey as he did at that moment.
Gareth laid a hand on Gwyn's shoulder. "He will need rest," she said. "You should clean yourself and get refreshment. And we should replace those clothes of yours."
Gwyn nodded, realizing just how dirty she was. "As long as you promise to burn these ones," she said. She followed Gareth, leaving the sleeping Sir Baigent behind.
Several hours later, Gwyn had bathed and donned new clothes, grateful to be rid of the filthy things she had been wearing since leaving Tintagel. She passed the remainder of her time at Sir Baigent's side as he slept. Estren was off somewhere, both singing for Gareth's people and listening to their tales of the long search for Seren Goleuad, and Brother Llyad spent his time reading the Book of Arthur, as Gareth called it. Gwyn, though, maintained her vigil beside the knight. At one point Gareth came in to look at the wound and the dressing, and to Gwyn's amazement the wound already looked better than it had before. "We have lore of our own," Gareth said. "Not so much as the Bards, and not remotely so much as the Druids -- but we are not without our abilities." When Gareth left the chamber again, Gwyn found herself becoming drowsy, and she lapsed into sleep as well. Her dreams were hazy, and she could not remember them. They disappeared entirely when she was awakened by Sir Baigent's hand on her arm.
"My Lady," he said.
She blinked her eyes as she awakened, and then she smiled at the knight. "My Champion," she said.
"I'm afraid my strength was not quite adequate in that regard," he said.
"It was enough. We are alive."
"There is that," Sir Baigent said. He sighed. Gwyn rose to fetch a pot and some herbs. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"Gareth said I should make you some tea when you awoke," she replied. "We were given this same tea when we arrived. It will warm you and help you."
"That would take some doing," he said as he pushed himself up to a sitting position, wincing as he did so. Gwyn put the pot and herbs down and rushed back to his side to help him.
"Are you sure you should be sitting up just yet?" she asked.
"I have to rise sometime," he said. "Tomorrow night is Midsummer, is it not?"
"It is," she confirmed.
"And the time now?"
"Mid-day," she said. A quiet moment passed between them as Sir Baigent looked down at the binding on his wound. "Does it hurt much?"
"Not as much as I expected," he replied.
"I hoped it would be so," she said. "Gareth has good healing skills. She and Sister Moyra would have much to discuss." She stirred the tea, releasing some of its pungent aroma into the air. "Is it true, what you said before? About suffering worse wounds?"
"One wound, actually." He twisted around a bit, showing her a very nasty scar on his back. "Two years ago I took a company of six knights and their squires into the mountains northwest of Caer Camyrdin, to find a group of bandits that had been harassing the travelers and trade caravans that passed the mountain roads. The camp was easy to find, and the men there were fools, unequipped to do battle with six fully armed knights. They had been overwhelming their victims by sheer number and nothing else. It was a slaughter, really -- but slaughters are where it's easiest to make a bad mistake. I let the bandit leader to put the fire between me and himself, and then he did what I should have been expecting. He kicked some embers and ashes into my face. I had my visor down, but it was still enough to blind me for a moment. Long enough for him to come around and stick me with his blade, right in the back.
"Did you kill him?"
He raised his eyebrows. "Of course I killed him! But even so, I had to spent a month in our Chambers of Healing." He fingered the scar. "They did a good job, they kept me from dying. But still, they could learn something from these Finders." He drew a deep breath, held it a moment, and let it out.
Gwyn handed him the cup of tea, and he took a long sip. "Your beard is coming in," she said.
He chuckled as he rubbed the whiskers on his chin, which were in fact now becoming substantial. "Yes, it is. Somehow, trimming it doesn't seem very important just now. So, have these people told you where we are?"
"Gareth tells me that we are only half a day's ride from the Giants' Dance."
"Gareth," Sir Baigent echoed, and then he stared for a while at the tea in his cup. "My Lady -- I have said things to you, on this journey, that I have come to regret. Will you accept my taking of your Challenge as amends?"
Gwyn looked at Sir Baigent, surprised by the earnest tone in his voice. "No one should make amends for speaking what is truly in their heart," she said. "Doubly so, for one who has lost as much as you. I could not ask you to do one thing more than you have already done."
"And yet there is more to do," he said, although he returned her smile as he said it. He drained his tea and laid back down on the pallet. "Before I rise again, I would like to hear what became of you after we were forced apart, and just who our new friends are."
As Gwyn waited for the water to boil and the tea to steep, she told him.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::