:: Sunday, July 03, 2005 ::
On a hilltop stood one of the Nine Bards of Prydein.
His name was Drudwas, and he was not a harper. He had never liked the blistering of his fingertips when he tried to play that instrument, nor had he ever mastered the dexterity of hand to make the strings do his bidding. Thus he had taken up the pipes instead, a decision that suited him even if it vexed some of his fellow Bards. There was something about the pipes that, to some, seemed inferior because one could not sing while playing them. How could he possibly devote the necessary attention to his words and turns of phrase, it was always put to him, when he was so busy working out the abilities of the pipes and exploring their possibilities? Ah, but there are more possibilities than in merely accompanying a singer. Could not music by itself be a force, moving an audience merely through the tones themselves, instead of manipulating with words? Could not the words take on even greater effect, woven in a tapestry with the music instead of being merely accompanied by it? Drudwas would have cheerfully spent the rest of his days exploring these matters, had it not been for the spectacle laid out before him from that hilltop.
To his left, to the northwest, lay the city of Londia. And to his right, to the east, lay the armies of King Duncan of Caledonia.
Drudwas was the newest of the Nine Bards; the next youngest, Estren, was fifteen years his senior. He had never known a time when war raged in Prydein, when a High King was so threatened, and when the land itself seemed to wither as her King withered. May you live during times of light and beauty, the standard curse among the Bards went; no matter how they might wish for peace and well-being throughout the land, they all knew that it was times of darkness that made for the best song and verse.
Drudwas rubbed his horse's neck. It wouldn't be long now.
He knew that as a Bard his duty was to bear witness, but he was also a man of Prydein. This was his High King whose rule was being challenged. And it was his High King who, he now knew as he beheld the size of King Duncan's army, was going to fall.
There would be fires in Londia, and the city would burn to the ground. The people there would flee; the ones who failed would die. It had happened already, at Caer Camyrdin; it had happened already at Corric's Landing in Northumbria. It would happen again and again, until Cwerith and Duncan had brought the land beneath their heels. Anger flared in Drudwas's heart.
His horse whinnied. "Steady, girl," he said. "We will go when it is over. The people to the west will need to hear of what happens here this day."
Drudwas could not say why it was so important that he go to Bedwyn when this was done. He only knew that it was so. Something in his heart, in his soul, told him that there was something important happening in the hills and plains between Londia and the sea. Perhaps it had to do with the Fair Folk, as he had always dreamed.
Drudwas the Piper waited, alone on his hilltop, watching the fall of Londia and marking the details as he saw them. Hours later he mounted his horse and rode down the hill and into the west.
"Do it, damn you!" Maxen screamed at the healer, his right hand clutching the man's collar. "Do it now!"
"We must wait a few minutes for the liquor to take effect," the healer said. "The binding has restricted the bleeding, but the pain--"
"Did I ask you about pain, you dog?" Sweat poured from his brow. "I want it done now! No waiting!"
"Captain, as your healer--"
"Healer? You only bind wounds because you are not fit to wield a sword. Now, do it!"
An hour had passed since his wounding. A cord of leather had been tightened around his left forearm, and the stump of his wrist had been thickly wrapped with scraps of cloth. By now the fires that Gareth's attackers had caused were mostly under control, and Maxen wanted to have done with it. He had seen maimed men who, forced to wait too long, had become delirious and died of fever. That would not happen to him. He still had work to do. He would not be reduced to a life of begging outside castle walls for the charity of travelers, commoners and clerics. That was not for him. From this moment his life would go another direction. He had been shown the way by the one who had come to him in the darkness. Fflud stood nearby, watching in silence. He had suggested that Maxen name another as Captain, but Maxen had refused. "I will be stronger than I was," Maxen had said. It had been promised to him.
The physician gestured for the four huge louts standing nearby to each take one of Maxen's limbs. They bound his wrists and ankles with thick straps of leather which they wrapped around their own arms, and they knelt upon his legs and his right arm. His left arm was held by Lerkk, the biggest and strongest of all of Maxen's men. It was not unknown for men of strength to break free of even these bonds when undergoing the procedure that the healer was about to perform.
"Hold him well," the healer said. He pulled on a thick glove and took the handle of the iron that had been sitting in the hottest coals of his fire. Its end glowed yellow with heat, and smoke sizzled from its tip. Holding the searing iron he approached the table and Maxen's exposed left wrist. The light of the glowing iron reflected off Maxen's sweating skin and the air was filled with the smoky scent of hot metal. One of the louts slid an axe handle into Maxen's mouth. He fastened his teeth around it and bit down as hard as he could.
"Don't let go!" the healer barked as he stepped forward.
Maxen smelled the aroma of burning flesh and for the second time that night he felt white heat on his left wrist. He bit down even harder and screamed as his soul was purified by the exquisite agony. His eyes rolled back as he lapsed again into unconsciousness, and as his world went black he threw his soul out into the Void, an offering of desire and hate for the one who had come to him in this hour of greatest dark.
Somewhere, Fflud thought he heard the baying of wolves.
Somewhere far away, or not so far, to the north and east, a former Priest of Dona who had lately come to the service of another Power painted a rock with blood from a bronze flask. Normally he would use fresh blood, not old; normally he would have his lesser clerics about him, chanting the words he had taught them, as he used his glass knife to let the blood free from some wayward soul who still prayed to the Goddess. Normally he would do all these things and more, but this was not a normal summoning. He had awoken suddenly, in a cold sweat, having seen…he knew not what, in his dreams. He only knew that something had happened on a hilltop not far away, something involving blood and fire. The Power had come to someone unknown to him. A new servant? the Priest wondered as he inscribed the forgotten letters on the rock, the letters that only he could read because only he had found the book that contained them. Then he chanted the words that he had been taught when the Power had first come to him, words that had last been spoken by the very Druids who had been driven by High King Prystyl into the sea. Not the foolish oak-worshippers of Mona, but the other Druids -- the ones of whom the rumors of blood-soaked rituals were true. For in blood was the real power.
A warm breeze stirred -- warm, not cold, unlike all the other breezes these days -- and then the Power was there.
"Why have you summoned me?" the Power asked.
The Dark Priest asked his questions, and the Power answered them. As he heard the words spoken by the Power, fear began to gnaw at the cleric's heart. Things were coming to pass whose telling he had always dismissed as mere legend. It was impossible that a King long dead could return and fulfill the promise that he had failed so long before. Surely the Book of Ryannon had only been a book of lies…but it was not. Dona's Dark Brother told him so, and told him what must be done. Then the Power was gone, leaving the cleric to consider what he had been told.
He rose and left the grove almost immediately. It was a longer walk than he liked to make, but the King had to be told. He could not wait for the next ceremony, when Cwerith's warm blood would wet the Seeing Stone.
Cassion, the High King's Priest and most trusted counselor, who had shaped so much of what was now transpiring, broke a sweat as he walked despite the cold air. He was not accustomed to this much effort. But this was important. Before the end, this could mean everything.
For the second time in a single day, Davin ap Danach ascended the walls of Bedwyn.
He was not a fearful man. On the battlefield he had never been seen to lose his nerve, or to panic at the sight of a charging enemy. "Fate is either in your hands or in Dona's," he was always telling his men, and he truly believed it. Luck did not exist for him. Misfortune was actually a failure to anticipate every possibility, a view which he applied even to himself, after the mishap in combat forty years before that had left him with a painful limp ever since. It was this very hardness and steely resolve that had led Duke Cunaddyr to name Davin the Steward of Bedwyn. Davin was perhaps the most renowned man in Bedwyn outside of the Duke himself and he conducted himself accordingly. He would do so until the day finally came when he either died or, of his own free choice, handed over the position of Steward to that long-haired whelp Sir Jules. No, Davin was not a fearful man -- but with each passing day his feelings of anxiety grew. They grew because the Duke was away, King Cwerith was coming, and King Duncan of Caledonia was about to attack Londia -- where nothing had been heard from High King Irlaris in months.
So it was that Davin climbed up to the top of the walls that defended the city of Bedwyn, for the second time in a single day. In the past he had only done this during the morning, when his legs were at least partially fresher after a night's rest. He grunted at the pain that throbbed in his left leg as he pulled himself up the stairs and steep ladders to the top of the wall. It didn't help that a storm had come last night -- the harshest storm he had seen in years, leaving twenty-seven dead in its wake -- and that the weather was so damned cold. Winters were hard on Davin; his leg ached with the coming of the cold and only felt better when the warmth returned. But it hadn't returned, and despite the fact that tomorrow or the day after was Midsummer Night it was still as cold as in early winter, and thus his leg continued to ache. Davin suspected that the cold would get worse before it got better. He pushed himself up onto the last deck and turned to look over the city behind him and the harbor in the River Test below.
Bedwyn was one of the largest cities in the south of Prydein, exceeded only by Saltreach in the Kentish Shore and by Londia herself. Thanks to the deep and steady waters of the Test, Bedwyn was a center of trade. Goods from the farms and homesteads of the North and West, as far north as the western reaches of Caledonia and as far west as Lyonesse and Camyrdin, made their way here on the way to Londia, and ships from Armorica even came up the Test to Bedwyn after stopping at Bornmuth. This influence of Bedwyn, and the resulting power wielded by her Dukes and Duchesses, had given Irlaris the power he needed to defeat the warring factions and unite all of Prydein under his own banner as the first High King since Padraic the Younger had died more than one hundred years before.
Davin was not normally concerned with history, but he could not help but think of it now. No sitting High King had been challenged since the disastrous reign of Vellix the Mad. Cwerith's challenge would be momentous enough, but the refusal of winter to relinquish its grip upon the land made everyone wonder if the coming war was actually the work of the Goddess and…the other Power. Davin tried not to think of such matters, choosing instead to focus on the coming battle as best he could. But even he thought occasionally of why Dona was seemingly allowing her world to founder.
He turned to walk along the wall, looking down at the harbor which should have been teeming with ships but was now empty except for three grain-boats that had not left dock since putting in for the winter nine months before. It had been that long, it seemed, since there had even been fresh news from anywhere else -- except, of course, for the news of Caer Camyrdin.
Davin adjusted his cloak and rubbed his bearded chin as he approached four soldiers who were supposed to have been keeping watch, but were actually huddled over a game of dice and not expecting Davin to be walking the walls for a second time. They didn't notice him until he was close enough to have seen what they were doing for his last ten steps or so. Nevertheless, they jumped to their feet and tried to look as though they had never left their duties. Davin only shook his head.
"If I can approach you unnoticed from this short distance," Davin said, "then I suppose you boys will not sound the alarm for the arrival of Cwerith's army until his rope-men are already scaling the walls."
"The guard duty is still manned," one of the guards said, pointing to the two nearby guard towers, each of which did in fact carry a single man. "We played to see who would have to stand up there and freeze their arses off. They lost."
"Interesting," Davin said. "Is it no longer our protocol to maintain watches by pairs?" He glanced up at the guard towers. Both of the men there, one in each tower, had now seen Davin and were trying to look dutiful -- which was itself an absurd thing to try standing atop a tiny watchtower. The men under Davin's stare shifted on their feet. It was always mildly amusing -- only mildly amusing, no more than that -- to see big, strong lads turning a sheepish red. "So," Davin continued, "you can imagine my surprise at finding the four of you together. Or, by your helpful admission, the six of you. And since there are only the two guard towers, exactly what were the rest of you playing for?"
The men looked back and forth at each other. "Ale rations," one of them finally admitted, looking quite miserable as he did so.
"I see," Davin said. Fools! Bet your cloaks, your best pair of boots, the ceremonial dagger your father gave you when you entered the Guard, but NEVER bet your ale rations! "Well, carry on."
The men stood there, exchanging quizzical glances.
"With your patrols!" Davin snapped. The men scrambled to get about their duties, and Davin resumed his.
After a while he came to the section that overlooked the city's main gate. Looking down, he shook his head. Inside the wall at this point was a marketplace that should have been teeming with activity in summer; now it was packed with listless people who had fled their own towns and villages in the face of war to take refuge within the city. There were so many now, almost more than could safely fit inside the walls, and there were more coming each day. On the other side of the gate, outside the city walls, more and more displaced people from the surrounding regions were gathering. Some of Bedwyn's healers mingled through the throng, trying to soothe the pains of the sick and infirm. Most grimly, there was a new burial mound in the distance -- and it was growing. Davin had seen this spectacle before, in the wars of his youth, and he had long since learned that during wars it was not only soldiers whose bodies filled the mounds. Sometimes soldiers did not even make up the greater portion of the dead.
"Here you are!" The voice came from behind him. He turned to greet his old friend Amren, Captain of the City Guard. Amren was very tall and thin man, and his skin was mottled by some disease he had suffered as a child. Amren was as old and experienced as Davin, and Duke Cunaddyr was counted fortunate indeed to be able to leave his city in such capable hands. "I was surprised that you had come up here again."
"So were the men on patrol," Davin said. "You have news, I assume?"
"One of my riders has returned," Amren said.
"How long do we have?" Davin asked.
Amren swallowed. "Two days, at most. By this time tomorrow, we may be able to see the lights of Cwerith's cookfires on the horizon."
"I feared as much," Davin said. "And we are prepared as well as we will ever be."
"Cwerith will find this place harder to take than he did Caer Camyrdin," Amren said.
Davin sighed and thought of the great burial mounds that lay to the southeast of the city, where the dead of Bedwyn had for centuries been taken to rest. The gate that led out through the walls toward those mounds was called the Widow's Gate. Davin wondered how accurate that name was soon to become…if, in fact, when all was done the gate was still standing.
"You look tired, Matholyn," Duke Cunaddyr said as he filled the other man's cup with mead.
"I am not accustomed to marching," Lord Matholyn replied. "I haven't done so since…well, in all honesty, I've never done so."
"It is brutal business," Cunaddyr said.
"It will get worse," Matholyn said.
Cunaddyr cocked an eyebrow and swirled his own mead around in his cup. "Even if the Promised King returns to save us all?"
Lord Matholyn scowled, but made no other reply. Instead he sipped his mead and chewed at what was left of his stale bread. Matholyn was no palace-bound Lord who never set foot outside his keep; he had often led his own hunting parties, trading expeditions, and he had even once taken an entourage, for reasons he could not now recall, to pay tribute to King Cwerith at Caer Mastagg. Nothing, though, had ever been so grueling as the two days of hard march since they had left Briston. His entire body was sore, his backside especially so. And it had been worse for Brother Malcolm, whose discomfort had been such to make even Lord Matholyn wince in sympathy.
"You have nothing to say to that, I take it?" Cunaddyr said.
"Do you mean to mock me, Cunaddyr?"
"No." Cunaddyr set down his cup. "But I have been wondering: if the Promised King does return, where does that leave High King Irlaris? We cannot merely set aside our sworn loyalty to him."
"I think you already know the answer to that," Matholyn said. "Surely the Promised King would not return if..."
"...if the land already had a King," Cunaddyr said, finishing the thought. "You think that Irlaris will not survive this."
Lord Matholyn shrugged. He sipped his mead, swallowed, and changed the subject. "How much longer to Bornmuth?"
"We should make it there the day after tomorrow," Cunaddyr said. "As long as we do not encounter any more storms like the one last night."
Matholyn nodded. He had known such storms before, but those had always been sea storms. He had never seen one so far inland before. They had lost a good number of tents and a substantial amount of provision, along with eight horses before it had ended. He and Brother Malcolm had both prayed for the safety of the tiny band they had sent, alone and nearly unarmed, into the wilderness on a journey to the Giants' Dance.
The two men sat in silence a while more, until the silence was broken by shouts outside the tent. Sir Jules and the man who had gone with him, young Sir Regidan, had returned. And they had done so earlier than expected: Duke Cunaddyr had expected them to meet at Bornmuth, two days hence. Something was amiss.
"Easy there, lad!" It was Sir Jules's voice. Lord Matholyn could hear him now, calling out to the pages who had come to tend his horse. "That saddle alone would fetch a price to restore your mother's virtue." That brought laughter from everyone in earshot, and a minute later Sir Jules entered with Sir Regidan behind him. Regidan was a very young knight, having been elevated just two months before. Sir Jules had taken a liking to the young man and had taken him on this, his first mission. Regidan looked every bit as young as he was, with his hair still neatly cropped, the stitching on his badge of office still tidy, and his sword still looking as if he'd never drawn it except in practice -- which was, in fact, the way of it. Looking at the young man and admiring the eager gleam in his eyes, Lord Matholyn wondered if he had ever himself been that young.
Both men knelt before the Duke, and he bid them to rise. Their cloaks and boots were mud-spattered; Sir Jules's long braid was rough and untidy. They had ridden a good distance in quite a short time.
"Is there wine?" Sir Jules asked when he rose back to his feet.
"Mead only," the Duke answered. "We drained the last casks of wine last night."
"How horrible," Jules said as he filled a cup from the flask. "Necessity though, I suppose. Find your own cup, Regidan! I'm not doing it for you." He settled down next to the Duke's tiny fire and was joined by Sir Regidan, once the other man had filled his own cup.
"You couldn't have ridden all the way to Londia and back in the time you've been gone," Duke Cunaddyr said.
Sir Jules shook his head. "There was no need to go all the way to Londia -- and even if we had, we probably wouldn't even have been able to enter the city. The gates have been closed, and they are waiting out the attack by King Duncan."
Lord Matholyn felt the air go out of his chest. "Duncan attacks? So soon?"
"So soon," Sir Jules said with a nod.
"And the High King has not even raised his army!" Sir Regidan said.
"What?" Duke Cunaddyr exclaimed. "What madness is this? Of course he has an army!"
"It won't do him much good," Sir Jules said. "Once we got to the Southern Londia Road, we went from outpost to outpost. Most of them have been deserted. We finally found one that was still manned. It was the sixth one."
"Seventh," Sir Regidan said.
"Learn to count, boy. It was the sixth. And there were only two men there."
"Two?" Lord Matholyn said. "Not eight?" Along the four Great Londia Roads -- the Northern, Eastern, Western and Southern -- there was an outpost of the High King's soldiery every two leagues, to provide for the safety of travelers approaching Prydein's greatest city. Each of those outposts was always manned by eight soldiers, who rotated from one outpost to the next each year until they had served in all four; at that time they were allowed to return to the city itself and join the City Guard. But now, if even the outposts were being abandoned....
"Two," Sir Jules said. "One old man and one whelp that makes Regidan here look like a crone by comparison. And the only reason they had stayed behind was because they were given the choice to do so."
"The choice? The High King's men are never given any choices!" Lord Matholyn could not believe what he was hearing. It was impossible, unheard of. It could not be. Service to the High King was coveted, and when one entered his service one forsook the right to make virtually any decision at all. That discipline had been a key reason why Irlaris had been able to forge his kingdom in the first place and become the strongest High King since Prystyl himself.
"These were," Sir Jules said with a disgusted nod. "They were tidings bad enough, just seeing those two wretches wearing the emblem of the High King. But what they had to say was far worse." He drained his cup and poured another before looking up at the Duke.
"Your Grace, we shall receive no help at all from the High King. Not one single soldier will be sent to aid us as we fight Cwerith. The city of Londia is preparing not for war, but for siege. The gates are closed, the walls manned -- and that is all. King Duncan will have to burn Londia to the ground to get it. He won't find any battle on the field."
"The High King has grown soft," Lord Matholyn said. The very idea that Irlaris would refuse to fight for his throne was unthinkable. He was an old King, but he was still the King -- and while Kings occasionally fight for things that are not their own, they always fight for the things that are. Or so, they always had.
"It's worse than that," Sir Regidan said.
"What is it?" the Duke asked.
"All of this is being done under the command of Lord Radderch." Lord Radderch was High King Irlaris's seneschal. He was not a well-known man, having ascended to that high post upon the unexpected death of the High King's previous seneschal, Lord Gwyra. Gwyra had been well-loved and long-served; Radderch, on the other hand, had been a surprising choice by Irlaris. Neither Lord Matholyn nor Duke Cunaddyr had ever met the man, who prior to being named seneschal had been a Captain of the Londia Guard, but they had heard that he was a hard and uncompromising man. That might be what was needed as King Duncan approached Londia with the biggest army to march on that city since the wars between High King Prystyl's three sons. It might also, though, be completely disastrous. It would not be known which until the battle was over. Now a new thought began to stir in Matholyn's mind.
"Could Irlaris already be dead?" Lord Matholyn said. Cunaddyr stared at him; Sir Regidan's eyes went wide, and Sir Jules merely shrugged and took another sip of mead.
"Why would you think such a thing?" Cunaddyr asked.
"Because it is possible," Matholyn replied. "We were speaking before of why the Promised King would return now, if there was already a King in place. Perhaps that is our answer: perhaps Irlaris is already dead."
"And what does that make Radderch, then? A usurper, hoping to defeat the Traitor Kings who are already challenging him for the throne?"
"Or perhaps a hero," Lord Matholyn said. "Trying to fill a void left behind by a High King who died without heir."
"Forgive me, Matholyn," Sir Jules said. "Something confuses me, and I am not a man who normally holds with these matters of prophecy and legend. High King Irlaris has been growing weak for some time, and we would as well admit that we are blind if we deny it. He took the throne by force, and he held it by guile -- but that very guile has left him in his recent years. Like all Kings who rise through hard times and grow old in easy ones, he has become too easily distracted by a warm bed and a feast in his hall to notice the failings of his kingdom."
"Have care," Duke Cunaddyr said. "Words such as those could be taken by some as treason."
"Are not Kings capable of treason, my lord? If war spreads across his kingdom, and he does nothing to stop it? If a man like Cwerith can destroy Caer Camyrdin and move on Bedwyn after, and still the High King sends no help, is that not treason?" He paused for that to sink in. Duke Cunaddyr said nothing, and Sir Jules went on. "And if he is dead, then is this not a war of succession?"
"It is not," Lord Matholyn said. Sir Jules looked at him, his eyes questioning. "It is not a war of succession, Sir Jules. We still fight for the High King -- the Promised King. You must not forget that."
"I haven't," Sir Jules said. "But there have been other wars for the throne. Other High Kings have died without heir. Why is this one important? Why is the Promised King coming now?"
There was silence for a long time as Matholyn thought. A fresh breeze stirred outside, and some men could be heard trying to share a song but not having much luck in remembering the words. No great insight sprang into Matholyn's mind, and he knew that none would. In truth, he had no answer for Sir Jules's question. No one did, so far as he could tell -- although there had to be a reason. The High King's retreat from the sight of the world, the slow freezing death of the land -- it was all part of something, but Lord Matholyn knew not what. It was not for him to know, and there was no truth for him other than that. An honest man to the end, he admitted as much.
"It is written in the Book of Ryannon," Matholyn said. "The land and its King are one, such that the death of one must bring about the death of the other until the Goddess anoints a new King. Some once believed that Irlaris was the Promised King, but he denied it and the belief never truly took root. The signs were not there. And now, one way or another, his reign is ending. Irlaris must be dead, else he soon will be -- for if he is still strong, then what need for a Promised King?"
"Unless we are wrong about the Promised King," Sir Jules said. "Unless the whole thing really is a bed-story for children, and we have sent that girl and your knight to their deaths."
"We may have done that in any event," Lord Matholyn said. "But war is coming to Londia, and the High King may already be dead. It matters little, as far as he is concerned. If he is alive, he cannot remain High King. Alive or not, his time is over. All that remains to be seen is if the signs tell true, and if the mission to the Giants' Dance is our best hope or yet another in a long series of follies."
"Grim words, Matholyn," Cunaddyr said.
Lord Matholyn sighed. "Grim words appear to be all that I have left."
Would that I had a book with me, Brother Malcolm thought, and then ruefully chuckled. Not that I could read in this dim light, anyhow. My eyes are not so young anymore, and I have become attuned to the glow of a bright candle on the page. The moon and stars are no longer enough.
He rolled over on his pallet of straw and gazed up into the stars. Not many were visible tonight, between the patchy clouds and the smoke and light from the cookfires of the army. It didn't really matter, anyway; the stars had never been one of Brother Malcolm's better subjects, and their cycles were a mystery to him. He could pick out the more famous constellations -- The Well, The Weeping Mother, The Hero Chasing the Beast -- and he could use them to mark his direction, but that was about all he could do. He spotted The Chalice, the constellation that crowned the summer sky, and found some comfort in that, before a cloud moved across the upper half of the star-picture. At least the skies were not ruled by the frozen seasons of the world.
He realized that he was not going to find sleeping easy. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, accustomed to the rigors of the march; despite the dull ache that filled his bones from the long hours in the saddle, it was only with difficulty that he could fall asleep. It had been harder each night since leaving Tintagel. Each morning he awoke to the certain belief that he had only been asleep for mere minutes, and he found his mental faculties slackening. More than once he had cursed himself for a fool for coming on this journey when he should have gone back to Tintagel, where he belonged. A cleric and a scholar, he had no place in the middle of a war for the throne of Prydein -- especially not a war that had been foretold since the earliest days. A man like Brother Malcolm did not belong on the fields where everything would be decided.
He spent an hour lying there, watching the stars and listening to the sounds of the camp around him. He had insisted on sleeping in the open tonight; last night he had slept in a tent with a number of other men and found the stench from their sweat and bodies overwhelming. Father Terryn had offered him a place in his tent, but Malcolm had demurred. His hope had been that fresh air might help him drop off, but thus far it was having no effect at all. A shooting star flashed through the sky above him; had he been more conversant in the matters of the sky he might have been able to at least partially determine the meaning of its portent. As it was, he had no reliable idea at all.
The mood throughout the camp this night was very subdued. The winners of the various dice games didn't crow or gloat; they simply gathered their winnings and went on to the next throw of the dice. The talk at the meals had been sparse, and Malcolm heard whispers throughout both days that some of the men did not expect to find Bedwyn standing when they sailed into its harbor. What had happened at Caer Camyrdin was on the hearts and minds of everyone in this army, from the Duke himself down to the lowliest pikeman.
With a heavy sigh he finally conceded that sleep was not coming any time soon, and so he arose from his pallet and began walking toward the outer perimeter of the camp, thinking to walk off some of his saddle-soreness. He threaded a path through the tents and rows of soldiers sleeping in the open and soldiers who were not yet asleep. He nodded at a few familiar faces, but it was a large army -- even after two days riding with these men the vast majority of them were still unfamiliar.
He came now to the ring of tents that formed the outer edge of the camp area; beyond here were makeshift liveries and the armories. He wound his way through this area, to the very outer edge of the entire camp itself. Here he was greeted almost immediately by a stern-faced soldier who was standing sentry.
"Greetings, there!" the man called. He was an older man who kept one hand sturdily fastened to the handle of the axe that hung from his belt. "I am Vinn, Third Captain of the Guard. It is a cold night, sir, and I wonder what brings you out here, so far from the fires."
"I am finding it hard to sleep tonight," Brother Malcolm answered through chattering teeth. The sentry guard was right: this was a cold night, the coldest yet. "I am Brother Malcolm. I came with Lord Matholyn. I often walk a bit on sleepless nights at Tintagel."
"A walk in the dark, beyond the confines of the camp?" Vinn spat on the ground. "Unwise, cleric. There are evil times, and I'm sure you've heard that our army is shadowed by men who would sell their wives for the right price."
"I am only a humble monk," Brother Malcolm said, bowing slightly. "Surely I would not present myself as a target."
Vinn sighed. "Not so," he said. "Just yesterday some foolish brigand loosed a bow at us, hoping to get one of our companies to turn from the march. He might have succeeded at that, had he been a better shot. Unfortunately for him, our bowmen were better, and he had selected a position that left him very open. Foolish, really."
Brother Malcolm shook his head. "I can't believe that even this far south we would find some of Cwerith's men," he said. "We are still within the boundaries of Duke Cunaddyr's realm."
"By the Goddess, how long has it been since you were last off that rock of yours? No Lord commands the loyalty of all within his borders, no matter how much he may deserve it. There is always some fool who can't refuse the money that he thinks he may get if he turns against his liege, and these are exactly the kind of times when such men are most wont to put their loyalties aside if they think a bit of coin might be in the offing." He shook his head and laughed. "Goddess knows that clerics tend to be a foolish lot, but you Tintagel monks are in a more desperate state than most."
Brother Malcolm might have taken offense at that remark, but there was something he liked about this man. "You're hardly the first man to tell me that in the last few days," he said.
"Oh, then you're used to it! There may be hope for you, if--" He stopped abruptly and turned to stare into the darkness out away from the camp. He took several steps away from Brother Malcolm and sniffed at the air, and after a moment or two he returned. His face had the expression of something foul, but Brother Malcolm couldn't smell anything.
"Is there something there?" asked Malcolm.
"Oh, there is indeed," Vinn replied. "I smell something, and it isn't a smell that belongs here."
Brother Malcolm sniffed the air as Vinn pulled an unlit torch from his pouch and used to chips of flint to light it. Then he held it up, high over his head, and waved it back and forth three times in a wide arc before shoving the torch into the cold, muddy ground. The only smells that Malcolm detected were of earth and grass. He glanced in the direction that Vinn had waved his torch, and now he saw the sentry's signal returned from a distance. A minute later there was the sound of footsteps, coming from the camp, and then four armed men arrived.
"Vinn," one the men said, "one of these days I'm going to stuff your nose with cotton. I was winning at dice for once."
"And thanks to the Goddess for that," Vinn snapped, "because you still owe me money from the last time you and I played."
"So you smell our friends again?"
"Who else? They smell worse than usual. They've probably been wallowing in their own dung."
The armed man who had spoken walked out away from the camp, about twenty paces or so. Then he came back, a sour look on his face. "They're out there, all right. Once again, there's no questioning Vinn's nose. And they're a lot closer this time, so they've obviously got something in mind. Cleric, perhaps you would be safer back in the camp."
Brother Malcolm made no argument at all; he nodded in assent and turned to head back to relative safety. He was glad to be out of the way, if there was to be some excitement tonight. It certainly wasn't his place to be out here. It is a good thing that Gwyn is away, he thought as he approached the line of covered siege engines. She would try to insist on staying to watch those men in action. He was chuckling at the thought when he heard the whistling sound in the air. He had heard a sound like that only once before in his life, when he had been a boy living in Saltreach, on a night when the marauders had come from the sea. The sound was that of a flaming arrow, shot through the air. He dropped to the ground and rolled away, the instinct still strong even after almost sixty years. The arrow struck the ground just three or four paces from where he had been standing.
The sight of the arrow made Brother Malcolm freeze in place. There was a rush of air in his ears, and he felt an icy sensation in his limbs. He had never before seen combat, and the fear took control of his body and refused to let him go.
More of the flaming arrows came, launched from some point in the darkness beyond the perimeter of the camp. They arced over the spot where Malcolm lay cowering and landed amidst the covered siege engines and supply stores. He buried his head under his arms as the flaming missiles whistled by. One of them struck very close by, close enough for him to feel the heat from the burning pitch on the arrowhead. The nearness of that strike was finally enough to jolt him into action, and he got up to his knees and crawled away from the general area where the arrows were seemingly aimed. When he judged himself to be safely far enough away, he looked back at the action. Some of the arrows -- most of them, actually -- landed harmlessly in the ground while others set fire to the siege engines. Shouts of alarm now came from the main body of the camp, and Brother Malcolm saw many torches lit as the camp mobilized for the possibility of battle. He glanced back to the sentries, and saw that they, too, had lowered themselves to the ground -- but rather than cowering as a frightened old cleric had done, they simply knelt with their swords drawn, waiting for the attackers to run out of arrows.
And finally, the attackers did just that. The brief rain of arrows ended as quickly as it had begun. Malcolm heard the call of a bird from a spot where he knew a copse of trees stood a short distance from the camp, and he instantly realized that the bird call was no bird but rather a man giving the signal to his companions to flee. He heard Vinn shout, "Now!", and in an instant the sentries and armed guards sprang forward and ran full-force into the darkness. Malcolm rose and walked back a bit toward the spot where he had spoken with Vinn and peered out into the darkness, trying to see what was going on. He could hear men shouting and crashing through the underbrush, and he could hear the sounds of weapons being drawn. There came the unmistakable scream and choking sound of a man being run through on a sword, and he closed his eyes despite the fact that he really couldn't see anything at all except shifting shadows in the distance.
Now there were more torches. More shouts were heard from behind him, and the pounding of hooves: the sentries were being joined in force by armed men on horseback who carried torches. A number of other men stopped near where Malcolm stood and merely watched the action.
"Well, this will be over in a minute or two," one of them said.
Brother Malcolm glanced back at the siege engines and supply stores, and saw that the fires which had been briefly set were now almost entirely out. Whoever these attackers were, their effort had failed completely. Minutes later the sentries returned, all of them more or less intact. None had suffered anything more than a nasty-looking but shallow cut or a bump that would on the morrow be a handsome bruise. They were even laughing.
"Did you see them tuck tail and run?" one of them laughed. "We should get some horses and go after them. If they fight like they ride--"
"They ride better than you, Will," Vinn said. "It's a good day if you can tell a horse's head from its arse."
"I can't tell your head from your arse either, Vinn!" There was much laughter at this, and Malcolm found himself smiling despite his brush with danger, however brief it may have been.
The horsemen were coming back now as well, and two of them were dragging prisoners behind them. "Are they giving you any trouble, boys?" Vinn called out.
"This one's got some struggle left in him," one of the horsemen said. It was true, Malcolm saw: the man was fighting against the bonds around his wrists even as he was pulled along behind the horse. "Must be you hit him, Vinn." More laughter.
"I only wanted to get his attention," Vinn replied. "Have care; the Captain will want to see them."
"As will I," came a voice calling out from the camp. Heads turned, and Brother Malcolm saw Lord Matholyn himself approaching. Sir Jules was right behind him. Matholyn's shirt was unfastened, and he was carrying his sword in his left hand, still in its scabbard but ungirded to his belt. He was awakened to this, Malcolm realized. As he approached, the sentries stood aside and lightly bowed their heads in deference to the Lord of Camyrdin. Lord Matholyn stopped and waited as the horsemen stopped in front of him and shoved the two prisoners forward. Now Malcolm got his first look at them. They were young, clearly brothers, and very poor. They were filthy, their clothes little more than rags, and they smelled truly foul.
"What happened here?" Lord Matholyn asked.
"They attacked us," a soldier replied. "Flaming arrows from that thicket out yonder at our siege engines. There were five of them. We killed two, one escaped, and these two remain. All the fires are out. They did no lasting damage."
"No damage," Lord Matholyn repeated. "Attacking the siege engines of an army that won't be laying siege to anyone." He stepped forward and studied the two prisoners. One, the one who was still struggling, was much better for the wear than his brother, who was something of a bloody mess and was barely able to stand. Matholyn shook his head.
"You look young to me," he said. "How old are you?"
"Fifteen," the more awake prisoner said. "Six weeks from my manhood."
"And this is how you chose to demonstrate your age?"
"We are starving," the boy said, stuttering on a sudden cough. "He promised us meat and if we caused you harm."
"Who made you that promise?"
"A Captain in High King Cwerith's army," the boy replied.
"Is Cunaddyr of Bedwyn no longer your Lord? and do you now set aside your loyalty to High King Irlaris?"
"They are traitors to Prydein," the boy said. Brother Malcolm shook his head. All of the men in earshot, being the Duke's men, growled at the comment. But Lord Matholyn smiled.
"To say such things in this camp is foolishness, boy."
"Cunaddyr supports Irlaris, who has turned his back on all Prydein. We starve because he will not open his food stores to the people! When Cwerith is King he will not hoard the food in Londia, and the land will be reborn because it will have a strong King again."
"And perhaps the fields can be fertilized with Cwerith's own dung," Lord Matholyn said. "His lies are full enough of it. There are no overflowing food stores in Londia, and Cwerith cares no more for your people than he did for the people of Camyrdin."
"Caer Camyrdin deserved to die!" the boy said defiantly. "They were practicing Druid blood rituals within their walls, and--"
With a heavy fist, Lord Matholyn struck the boy into unconsciousness, probably breaking his nose in the process. The boy never saw the blow coming.
"Put them in irons," he said. The sentries rushed to carry out his command, hurriedly dragging the two prisoners away. Sir Jules laughed.
"That," said Sir Jules, "was as handsome a blow as I have ever seen struck to a whelp who knew not when to hold his tongue." He chuckled and headed off himself. Now Lord Matholyn and Brother Malcolm were alone.
"Well, Brother, now you see why I wasn't meant for Tintagel. Father Reynald did not approve of my temper."
"That boy could not have known what he was saying," Brother Malcolm said. "Are the young to be treated so harshly for the foolish things that spring to their lips?"
"The young are not to be treated so," Lord Matholyn replied. "These were not young, they merely looked it. They are either paid mercenaries or actual members of Cwerith's army, sent on this idiotic mission precisely because they look like foolish young men, a trait which might have come in useful. I promise you this: when those two are put to the knife they will be far less youthful in their words."
"I don't understand," Malcolm said. Those prisoners had looked like nothing more than farmboys whose business should be to tend cattle or grain, and who would only out of sheer desperation turn to shooting arrows at their own lord's army.
"They overplayed their part, for one thing. Hunger may be widespread, but as yet starvation is not, though it may well come to that. And, there were their boots."
Lord Matholyn nodded. "Their boots. Cut in the Gwynedd fashion, out of black leather. Unless I am completely mistaken, in no other place will you find the men wearing boots cut so high." He sighed. "These men were instructed on how to act in the event of capture, but they didn't play their part well."
"It hardly seems worthwhile to trouble with such a foolish mission," Brother Malcolm said. "Surely they had to have known that they couldn't possibly do any serious harm to the Duke's army. Why do such a thing?"
Lord Matholyn shrugged. "They might have managed to burn a few of the siege engines, and more importantly they may have succeeded in planting a few seeds of discontent within the ranks. Cwerith knows as well as anyone that destinies can be shaped by the actions of a single man. He learned that when his father lost the Unfought Battle. Any advantage he thought to gain here would have been well worth the few coppers it cost him." He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. "Some of the men will be worshipping now. Would you go with me to hear the blessing?"
Brother Malcolm was a bit surprised by the request, although he was unsure why, considering that Matholyn was himself a former cleric. The two men followed the perimeter of the camp until they came to the edge of a wide grassy field where two trees stood by themselves. A ceremonial fire blazed between the two trees, and gathered around the fire was a motley collection of footsoldiers, cavalrymen, pages, squires and knights. They had all sunk to their knees to hear the words of Father Terryn as he delivered the blessing. Brother Malcolm found himself saying the words along with Father Terryn, under his breath, and to his surprise he realized that Lord Matholyn was doing the same. When the blessing was done Lord Matholyn turned to face Brother Malcolm.
"I still remember some of the words," he said with a shrug. "Others have escaped me through the years. Tell me, Brother -- do you think it a failure of mine, that I left Tintagel?"
"You are far from the first man to make that decision," Brother Malcolm replied. "Most leave because they are ill suited to the commitment of serving the Goddess. But you had other duties to fulfill, and in your own way you still serve the Goddess."
Lord Matholyn chuckled. "That is charitable of you, especially after my bluster when I came to Tintagel the other day."
Malcolm smiled a bit. "I may not have known you well, before, but your bluster is the stuff of legend."
"When I left, Father Reynald assured me that my temper would be legendary," Matholyn said. "I gained that trait from my mother. Had I been in my father's place, I suspect that the Unfought Battle might have been fought after all."
Brother Malcolm shivered; a new breeze had stirred, just as cold as all the others. He wanted to ask about the bad feeling between Lord Matholyn and Father Damogan, but something made him hold his tongue. Instead he waited for Matholyn to speak again.
"We should get back. We will be at the march early tomorrow."
"That is the greatest of my fears," Brother Malcolm replied. "I was not born to do so much riding. Not at such grueling pace and with an army, anyway."
"You will grow accustomed to it," Lord Matholyn said. Brother Malcolm found that thought an ugly one, but didn't say so. They walked back to the camp in silence.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::