:: Sunday, August 21, 2005 ::
As the company got underway, Gwyn was unsurprised to see that the path they rode did not match what she had walked in her sleeping vision. She wondered to what extent the world of the Fair Folk mirrored that of the mortals.
There was no gently spiraling path that came down to a still pool; instead there was only a normal-looking track that led into the heart of the wood. In her dream the trees had been alive and in full leaf; but now they were bare again, and all around her she heard the creaking as they swayed in the cold breeze. Despite the relative lack of light that reached the forest floor through the dense canopy of wood above them, Gwyn could tell that it was a cold, gray day. This, of course, was no surprise at all -- had there been any other kind of day recently? Warmth was a thing of memory only, as was everything else she had ever known. Every step toward the Druids and her destiny as the Welcomer was a step away from Tintagel and the student she had been.
As they rode deeper into the heart of the wood, the path gradually narrowed. At the outset, the path had been wide enough to ride two-by-two as Sir Baigent had outlined, with himself in the lead position. However, only a short march into the day, the path became narrower until it was a mere track in the leaves weaving its way amongst the trees. Moreover, the trees themselves hung lower and lower until the companions were frequently ducking under particularly low branches.
"We must go single-file," Calloch said.
Sir Baigent scowled. "I don't like going single-file on forest-trails like this. It's too easy for one of us to lose the way, especially if we become spread out."
"Then we must not become spread out," Gareth said.
"Easily said," Sir Baigent said. "Not so easily done." Nevertheless, he guided them into a single-file formation, with Gwyn riding directly behind him.
As they rode on, Gwyn found herself studying the knight. She noticed that he always rode holding his reins in his left hand and with the pommel of his sword under his right. She also heard him occasionally wheeze as he twisted into a position that put pressure on his wound. She thought back to that night at Maxen's camp, and the display of the knight's brutal strength in the duel; at the same time she recalled the tenderness of his touch when he had bound her own wound after the wolfs had attacked her and Brother Llyad. He was a far more complex man than she would ever have guessed originally.
She was snapped out of her reverie by the sharp tugging on her cloak as it became snagged on a bramble-bush. Angrily, she ripped her cloak free, tearing away several scraps of cloth in the process. The thorny cluster of brambles seemed to shrink back to the ground. She glanced up at Brother Llyad, whose features were grim.
"I would swear that the bush reached for you under its own power," he said. "Walding Wood is a dark place indeed."
"Perhaps the Druids made one of their Wards here," remarked Gareth. "It is said that they have power over the living things in the Wood."
"All Mortals have power over the things of the Wood, Gareth." It was Estren speaking. The Bard had ridden close behind them. "Yes, even you. Perhaps it is not the power of which you speak, but you wield it every time you lift an axe toward the trunk of a tree."
"That is not the power I speak of, Harper, but it suffices to make masters of men." Gareth said no more, and now Sir Baigent was glaring impatiently at them. They rode on in silence, and Gwyn kept a tighter grip on her cloak.
They stopped only for the briefest of meals when they came to a tiny stream -- barely one pace in width -- at which the horses watered while the companions ate. Their morning repast had been taken in haste, but now seemed as a feast compared to this meal. "I wonder if the Druids will have food for us," Gwyn said when they were riding again, hoping to break the oppressive silence that fell around them.
"They will indeed," Brother Llyad answered. "They are adept at living off the bounty of the wood, and their supply will be greater than ours. We will not go hungry at their table."
"You know the Oak Brothers to be excellent hosts, it seems," said Gareth. "I hope that your faith applies to all of them."
Brother Llyad fixed Gareth with a frustrated stare. "Do you mistrust them?"
Gareth thought a long moment before answering, a moment that was filled with the sounds of the horses' movements along the trail. Then she spoke.
"No, but I cannot forget what they once were. They were not always the peaceful Oak Brothers, and one can still find their altars in the woods of Prydein. You know the altars of which I speak."
Brother Llyad frowned, nodding. "That time was many years ago, when the Ancients were not so ancient."
"Aye. In those days, when Dona put forth her will again on the Land, she gave her might to the people who would give their lives to see her reign again. And then came the Druids, who thanked the Gods for sending the Cataclysm, for it would allow the forests to grow again. They darkened the forests with their fell rituals, and their Altars still bear the stains from the blood they loosed in their offerings. The skulls of the dead can still be found in those places, and it was well that they were driven to Mona. Peaceful they may be today, but I have been in their groves and I have seen the legacy of their deeds in those days. How have they come to be the benevolent Oak Brothers of whom you claim such knowledge? and how will they stay true to their new, peaceful selves in the days of war to come?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Their history is theirs to know and to reveal. But I know that they do not shed the blood of people, and I know that their ways are peaceful. I cannot deny that there were rituals of blood and death performed in those groves, but I also cannot deny what I myself have seen, on the shores of Mona."
Now Estren spoke. "Much time has passed since those days, and naught has been heard of the Druids until very recently," he said. "They have only emerged from their Isle in recent years, and the Bards have heard of no new rituals of death. If the Druids were once brutal, it is perhaps no longer their way."
"Have you met the Druids, Harper?" asked Gareth.
"I have not. But I will not stand in judgment of them until such time as I stand in front of them. That is the way of the Bards." Estren's was the last word spoken on the subject.
The path now rose up the side of a hill, circling as it approached the summit. Here the forest became thinner; the top of the knoll bore only small trees, and the cover was light. From there they would be able to see the places from which they had come. As they crossed the top of the knoll, they passed through a circle of worn stones that bore very ancient carvings that were so old that it could not be said if they were letters or mere designs. Those stones, aside from the path itself, were the only sign that people had ever walked the top of this hill. Here Sir Baigent held up one gloved hand, signaling the stop. Gwyn looked around and saw that from this place they could see part of the countryside beyond the forest, in the direction behind them. Before them lay only more forest. They were able now to see the weather. The sun was obscured by clouds, but they were high clouds, and the air was clear. "Before the day is done we shall see snow," Calloch observed.
Brother Llyad sighed. "Snow during summer? Evil times are upon us."
Meanwhile, Sir Baigent stood in his saddle and looked long toward the horizon, peering into the lands beyond the trees. The forest to the west thinned out much quicker than Gwyn would have expected, giving way to empty plains. Dimnur snorted, and Gwyn patted the horse's neck to calm him. As they waited, stopped on that hilltop, the wind began anew, sending a fresh chill through the company. Gwyn shook her long hair out of her eyes, and finally Sir Baigent gave a knowing nod.
"There," he said.
Gwyn tried to see what he saw, peering through the trees, and finally she did see it. A column of men was snaking across the countryside, and it was moving northward.
"Maxen's company, or I miss my guess," Sir Baigent said. "As we expected. They will go around this wood to the north, and that gives us a certain freedom, if not a gift of time." He settled back into his saddle and took up the reins again. "We must quicken our pace now," he said.
The company rode on, down into the wood again. The path dropped down a bit, and then rose again slightly, remaining atop a ridge that bordered a wide valley where lay the very thickest part of Walding Wood. This route must have been beautiful in the summer, when the trees were in leaf, but now the going seemed dreary. A sadness hung on the air around them, the sadness of the Earth at its failure to blossom. Gwyn decided once more to break the silence.
"Brother Llyad, what do you know of the Emrys?" she asked.
Brother Llyad's brow furrowed as he considered the question. "The Emrys was the greatest of all the Druids," he finally said, "and the Druids are the heirs of his lore. He was also called Merlyn, and he had some connection to King Arthur. I had hoped it would be contained in the Finders' book, but I could find nothing of him in its pages. Perhaps his part of the tale was over before that book's beginning…" He mused on that for a moment, and then went on. "Even the Druids could not keep all of his lore alive, and much of it was lost. Legend says that Merlyn Emrys was undone by a witch, and that now he sleeps in a cave, hidden for all time. He was part man, part Fairy -- as are you -- and he left behind many items of secret lore which have passed into the hands of the Druids. They knew not the specific time and place of the Welcomer's birth, but certain signs were given them to await, and they knew those signs when they came. The final test came that night by the lake. Then we knew, and our errand was laid clear."
Gwyn's mind raced. "But Llawann died, without being able to take word that I had been found. Do the Druids even know that we come?"
"They hope." His voice trailed off for a moment. "What troubles me is this talk about the blood flowing in the sacrificial groves again. The Druids I know do not do those things. There is more at work here than we know. The Dark Brother's reach is long, and growing longer."
"I never heard much of the Dark Brother when I was young," Gwyn said.
"There are words about him in the most secret of the Oracles. No Adept would ever be allowed to read those pages, though I have long disagreed with my fellow Priests on this point -- it seems to me that ignorance of Dona's Brother is not a position of strength, but I obey the edicts of the Lord Priests who are wiser than I. There was once a Lord Priest of Tintagel who was defeated by the knowledge in those dark books." A shadow passed over him. "Some of the things I have heard…I wonder if Cwerith has perhaps taken interest in--"
"Silence!" Sir Baigent hissed. He jerked to a stop and looked all around, listening intently to the wood. The company had reached the top of a rise, and the path forked ahead of them, with the left fork proceeding atop the ridge, while the fork on the right dropped down away from them into the dark vale they had seen before. At the center of the fork was another Druid standing stone, but this one was no longer standing. It had been toppled not long before, and a chunk the size of Gwyn's arm had broken off and was lying inches away form the rest of the stone.
"Which way?" she asked. No one answered. Arradwen grunted as Sir Baigent circled about, trying to hear whatever it was that he thought he had heard. Gwyn shivered, and she pulled her cloak tighter around herself. Up here on this hill, she felt very exposed.
Estren suddenly sat bolt upright, alarm on his face. "I hear it now!" He pointed back the way they had come. "It comes from behind us."
Sir Baigent moved his horse to the rear of the company to stand beside Estren, where he sat still, staring back up the path. A sound came to them then, and it filled Gwyn with fear. Horns were sounding, hunting horns. She could only hear the briefest wisps of their calls. She had often heard horns in Lyonesse as a child; the nearby woods were often used by the local Barons for hunting, and the air often echoed with their jubilant calls back and forth...but these horns were different. Terrible was their call, a snarling sound that seemed to mock them and sounded as much like the growling of some pack of dark beasts as a group of hunting horns. An answering call sounded from somewhere ahead of them, the first group sounded once more…and then, when the echoes of both calls had faded away, there was a new sound: the barking of hounds.
Sir Baigent tightened his grip on his reins as he glanced back and forth between the two paths before them. Gwyn had not seen so much indecision in his eyes at any point in this journey as was there now, and the sound of the horns was heard again. Gwyn was certain they were much, much closer than they had been before. "I cannot believe that Maxen would release his men for a hunt," Sir Baigent said, "and not in a winter wood such as this, when they are marching to war." He spun about and looked at Estren. "Harper, are those horns mortal?" The words made Gwyn shiver.
"No," answered the Bard. "I fear that we are hearing the Horns of Culdarra. The Wild Hunt is riding again."
The Wild Hunt!
Fear filled Gwyn's heart. The Wild Hunt of Culdarra had not been seen in many years, and even then only in legend. It was said that those who heard Culdarra's horns would not see the next full moon, and that those who were hunted by her Hounds could not escape them long. Gwyn remembered the pictures of Culdarra in the books, pictures drawn from no possible source for no one who saw her lived long enough to pass the details to an artisan. Culdarra the Huntress, oldest of Dona's servants and daughter of Arawn the Lord of Annwn, was hunting again. Another of the boundaries had fallen. Gwyn's heart began to race, and she felt a cold sweat lick at her back.
"Does she come for us?" asked Brother Llyad.
"No mortal knows for whom the Hunt rides," Estren said.
Gareth gave a snort. "It could simply be Maxen's men seeking a boar for their cookfires," she said. "Why would the Huntress come for us? What have we done that would attract her attention?"
"The Wild Hunt is not named Wild for nothing," Gwyn countered. Her voice sounded small in her ears, and she looked down at her hands to see that her knuckles were white from clenching the reins as tightly as they could. Again the horns sounded, and the terrible howling of the hounds grew closer.
"It matters not!" Sir Baigent snapped, spinning his horse around to face the lower path. "If those horns are Culdarra's, we are surely lost. If they are Maxen's, we are lost only if we are found. Our only hope is to flee, and pray that those hounds take the scent of better prey!" With that, he spurred his steed forward, and he began to ride down the right path. He gave no opportunity for further debate, and so it was that the company turned right, into the valley, as the horns sounded through the Wood.
It started off being an easy descent, but that was belied by the fact that the path sharply turned this way and that, weaving a baffling course through the thickest part of Walding Wood. Here the trees grew so tightly together that Gwyn could not tell where one tree ended and another began, and as far as she could see it was all one gigantic tree with a thousand trunks. They rode quickly now, trotting if not galloping, into the deepest dark of the forest. As they moved into the valley, the sky vanished behind a canopy that now seemed as solid as the stone ceilings of the buildings on Tintagel. They rode on, into the dark of the gathering wood.
The path at the bottom was mercifully fairly straight, allowing Gwyn to pay mind to keeping her cloak away from the branches and thorny bushes. Each time her cloak snagged on a bush, she was jolted upward in her saddle before tearing her cloak from the grasp of whatever plant had grabbed her. As careful as she was, it kept happening to her and the others, slowing them as if the forest itself was trying to hold her the company back for Culdarra's grasp. The hems of her cloak became tattered and ripped, and she was hardly alone. At this rate, each of their cloaks would be threadbare by the time they reached their destination.
"There they are again!" Brother Llyad cried. They could hear the horns again, and still the baying of the hounds, which seemed to be growing closer as they rode. Estren nodded.
"They have found our trail, and they are coming," said the Bard.
"Will we be safe when we leave the Wood?" asked Gwyn.
Estren shook his head. "I do not know," was all he said. And the ride through the wood went on. Gwyn had absolutely no idea of the time as they continued. The position of the sun in the sky could not be seen, and it little mattered. It was still winter, and despite the work of the ride she was cold to her bones.
The path steepened, and they all had to lean back and grip their reins tightly to keep from falling. Although the horses were sure-footed, the ground beneath them was not as solid. It was already slippery enough, damp as it was from the recent rains and covered as it was in rotting leaves and grass, and each horse slid a bit on the way down. At one point Gwyn was certain that she was about to lose her balance and fall from Dimnur's back, but somehow she regained her composure and reached the bottom still upright. Matt and Estren, bringing up the rear, were not so fortunate.
It happened when Estren rode a bit too close to a bramble-bush, and his cloak caught on its thorns. He twisted to rip his cloak free of the bush, a sudden movement that on any other patch of ground would have been harmless but on this steep slope had the effect of throwing his steed off balance. The animal tumbled, throwing Estren to the ground as the beast rolled over him and slid, uncontrolled, down the remainder of the slope to crash into the rear legs of Matt's horse. Matt fell to one side, landing on the ground just in front of the prone Bard. The two horses ended in a heap at the bottom of the slope, where they regained their footing and became panicked. The two animals bolted down the path, past the companions, as Estren and Matt both slid through the mud to the bottom of the incline. Matt had the further misfortune of sliding head-first into another bramble-bush. His screams pierced the air as the thorns cut into his flesh on his hands, and his face.
"Get the horses!" Calloch shouted as he whirled about to see to the fallen companions. Gwyn and Brother Llyad moved to one side as quickly as they could, allowing the two racing horses to come through. Displaying reflexes that belied her age, Gareth grabbed the reins of Matt's horse and slowed it down, while Estren's plunged on past Sir Baigent, who kicked Arradwen into a gallop to go after it.
Gwyn, Calloch, and Brother Llyad all returned to help their fallen comrades. Calloch dismounted and helped Matt out of the thornbush. His face and hands were extensively scratched, and he picked broken thorns from his vestments and his cloak, but his eyes were uninjured and otherwise he appeared all right. Gwyn helped Estren turn upright. Somehow he was not terribly hurt after falling beneath his horse, although his right shoulder now seemed to hang at an odd angle, and he winced with pain that was obviously very sharp. She probed his shoulder, and he winced with pain as she did so.
"It is not broken," she said, finding some use at last for having grown up as a reckless girl on a rocky island. "But the joint has come apart. We will have to re-set it."
He nodded, and his voice was hoarse with pain. "I rolled to one side to keep from landing directly on my harp." He winced again as he tried to assess any damage to his instrument, which somehow was still slung on his back. Gwyn looked around at the hill they had just descended as the hunting horns echoed again.
"You won't be able to ride like that," Gareth said, who had come up with Matt's horse in tow.
"I can help him," Brother Llyad said as he dismounted. He knelt beside Estren, who was cradling his dislocated arm. "Chew on this for a moment." He handed Estren a leather strap, which the Bard put between his clenched teeth. Taking Estren's right hand in his own, Brother Llyad gestured for Calloch to come near. "Put your foot there, on his collar. Don't let him move."
"Do we have time for this?" Gareth asked. The echoing sound of the hunting hounds was coming ever closer. Suddenly Gwyn felt the almost-irresistible urge to ride again, as fast as she could, whether her companions could keep up with her or not.
"He'll need his arm if he is to ride with us," Brother Llyad replied. "And his shoulder will be harder to put back into place if we wait."
Gareth nodded, and Brother Llyad prepared. "It will be quick," he told Estren.
Gwyn winced, for she knew what was to come, having gone through it herself when she and Dana had done something rather foolish involving a boat, her bow, and a windy day. She turned as Brother Llyad lifted Estren's arm, but she still heard the sickening pop and Estren's agonized cry, muffled by the strap of leather in his mouth. Gwyn scanned the top of the hill they had just descended, trying to spot any movement, any sign that the hounds had arrived. She saw nothing, but their barks and cries were louder, louder, still louder.
A minute later Sir Baigent returned, having recaptured Estren's wayward horse. The bard was clearly favoring his arm, although it was at least in the correct position. "Can you ride?"
"I don't have much choice," Estren replied. With Calloch's and Matt's help he got back up into the saddle, and although he favored his right arm he was still able to take up the reins again, and again the company rode.
This was now the very darkest part of the wood, and it was all Gwyn could do just to see her companions around her and to stay on the path. Almost no light reached the valley floor, her companions were little more than dark shapes in front of her and behind, and in the darkness Gwyn saw all kinds of small things that she imagined to be snarling hounds, their sharp teeth snapping at Dimnur's hooves…but whenever she glanced back, she still saw no hounds. Yet. She knew they would come.
It was when they reached the bottom of the valley that the trees thinned at a bit, allowing more light. It was gloomy, cloud-cast light, but it was light nonetheless, and Gwyn felt some cheer in being able to clearly see the faces of her companions. Something icy touched her cheek, and she looked up to see that the tree branches were dripping rainwater or dew, she wasn't sure which. The sounding of the horns began anew, even closer. Then they heard the hounds again, so close that now nothing would drown out their cries, barks and snarls. They came at last to the banks of the river that flowed through the valley. Sir Baigent turned around to study the terrain they had covered.
"The hounds will be with us until we cross this river, and we do not have much time to do so," he said.
Matt nodded in agreement. "So much for them taking another scent. Are there no deer or boar in this wood?"
"If those horns are truly the Huntress's, then we offer the meat that is best to her liking," Sir Baigent said. "We must cross the water."
Gwyn took a closer look at the river. It flowed swiftly past banks that would have been grassy in a proper summer but were now bound by mud. The river was wider than three horses end-to-end, and even Gwyn could see that the muddy waters rushed by too fast for their beasts to swim across while bearing riders. She thought of the swollen stream that had killed one of their horses and almost done the same to Sir Baigent and Brother Llyad just two nights before. There appeared to be no way across. "Will this river be enough to keep the Huntress from following us, even if we are able to cross it?" she asked.
Sir Baigent scowled. "I see you still have the habit of asking questions none of us can answer," he said. Gwyn's cheeks reddened, and she bit back an angry retort.
"The Druids were here," Brother Llyad said suddenly. "Look." He pointed to a rock at the side of the river, a perfectly normal rock that had been here since the world began -- except that a pattern had been painted on the rock in white ink, the pattern of the Druid spiral. "They came through here, at this very spot."
"Why would the Druids leave a path to the side of the river with no way across?" asked Gareth. "It makes little sense."
"They must have had a way across," Brother Llyad said. "We must find it."
"Unless they took it with them," Gwyn heard Calloch mutter. She gazed at the spiraling eddies in the water, noticing for the first time how similar they were to the Druidic spirals from the rock and the standing stones. Then she looked to Sir Baigent, who had dismounted and was now probing the river with a long stick he had cut from a nearby tree. He gave no sign that he heard the horns, which were now sounding again. He leaned as far out over the river surface as he could, testing the depth of the water. To his surprise he found that the river bottom dropped sharply just inches from the shore. There was no crossing at this place.
Brother Llyad, meanwhile, had also dismounted and was probing the wood that surrounded the river. There was a strange expression on his face, as though he were trying to remember a name long forgotten. He kept looking up at the trees that were gathered around them. He walked all round them, placing his hands in turn on each of six particularly tall oaks. He then turned back to face the company.
"There is Druid magic here," he announced. "I can feel it."
Now the hounds were baying much louder, Estren was wheezing in pain from his arm, and Gwyn thought she could see dark shapes moving in the hazy distance. Sir Baigent stepped forward. "Whatever you have discovered, monk, I think you had better let us know now before we are at the teeth of those hounds."
"Where we slept last night was only a place on entry to the Wood. This place is their Sacred Grove. Look!" He pointed to the trees. "You can see how the trees in this place have been carefully tended so that only these six, in the pattern of a circle, would grow to their full height. There is a matching pattern on the bank opposite us." Gwyn looked across the river and saw that it was true.
"I have heard of places like this," said Estren. "Have we not known the Druids to worship at the side of the water?"
"This grove is not well-tended," Brother Llyad said. "The Druids have not been able to maintain it -- but we can still see that they--"
"Why are you discussing this, you fools?" Sir Baigent barked. His patience had ended. "Do you know some Druid incantation that will allow us to ford this river? or is there some talisman that might conjure up a bridge?"
Brother Llyad, taken aback, bit his lower lip as he shook his head. Sir Baigent took one last look around, and then drew his blade. "Then we will make our stand here. Form a circle. My Lady, you should string your bow."
Gwyn's blood ran cold, for there would be no escape from the hounds and the hunt that had now found them. Obeying the knight, she dismounted and strung her bow and opened her quiver. The company moved into a rough semicircle, with their backs to the river.
And then the hounds arrived.
Gwyn lost her breath as she looked upon the terrible hounds. Very large they were, their size nearer to that of ponies than any hunting dogs she had ever known. Their lips were curled in snarls, and their eyes gleamed with the look of the kill. Their fur was also unlike any hound Gwyn had ever seen: they were black hounds, but they seemed to possess a silvery sheen, as though they had bathed in moonlight. Slowly the hounds formed a great circle around the company, and a terrible baying began as the hounds gave their own call to arms. Steam rose from the spots where their spittle dropped to the ground. Teeth were bared, horrible teeth, sharper than the sharpest needles. And more and more hounds came, until the forest seemed full of them, all of their ghostly eyes focused on the prey that huddled with their backs to the unpassable river. Gwyn thought, briefly, of wolves beside a lake as she nocked an arrow for her stand against hounds beside a river. Is my journey destined to end between the jaws of some terrible beast? she thought -- and then she saw what was coming up behind the hounds, and all thoughts were driven from her mind.
It appeared to be a horse, although it was huge, larger by far than any steed Gwyn had ever seen. So large was it, in fact, that the trees themselves had to be bent out of the way to let the thing by. The snorts of this great beast were such that they could be heard even over the snarl of the giant hounds. Its fur was of the same color of the hounds, except for a streak of silver that ran up its nose and into its mane, which was itself the color of fire. The chains in the bridle were shaped of silver that gleamed impossibly bright in the dim light of this dark day. But as fearsome as the horse was, more fearsome by far was the figure that rode it.
Unquestionably feminine, the rider was clad in shining armor fashioned of interlocking metal plates. At each joint was a sharp, curving spike, much like the teeth of the hounds. The rider wore a gigantic helm, and long, long hair spilled out from underneath it to encircle her body, almost as a living thing in itself. The helm itself was topped by a set of antlers the like of which could have come from no hart on earth. At her back was a quiver of silver tipped arrows, and she now reached back to draw one and nock it in the terrible bow of thick, black wood that she wielded. So it was that the members of the Company beheld Culdarra, the Goddess of the Wild Hunt.
The Huntress rode nearer and turned her gaze, in turn, on each member of the company. At last she gazed upon Gwyn, and then she lifted the faceguard of her helm. Never before had Gwyn imagined a face so severe, so stern, so angry and so beautiful. Her icy stare, from eyes that seemed as deep as the deepest sea, bore into Gwyn's heart. The young woman desperately yearned to turn her gaze away, but she could not: there was something in the Goddess' eyes that held her and forced her to return the stare. Gwyn lost herself in the deep pools of Culdarra's eyes, as if she were floating in bottomless waters under a black and moonless sky without even the stars, the comforting stars, to offer solace. For an eternity they stood, and as they did, the hounds fell silent. No sound was heard: not the breathing of Gwyn's companions, nor even the grunting of their horses.
Culdarra continued to stare into Gwyn's soul, and Gwyn knew that the Huntress was searching for something, but she knew not what. Even though a distance of twenty footfalls separated the two of them, Gwyn felt Culdarra's touch as surely as if the Goddess were using her fingers. She knew that her soul was laid bare, and she waited. Every secret that was hers, every thought she had ever kept for herself, every wish and longing, every dream -- they were all open for the Huntress's reading. In those few moments she saw the entire content of her life transpire again, but as though she were outside it; and then she suddenly felt something inside her give way, like a dam giving way to the waters held behind it. In that instant, Culdarra was gone from her mind.
The hounds began to bay again as the Huntress lowered her faceguard. The Wild Huntress lifted her bow and drew back the string. The bow thrummed, the arrow flew -- and with a hiss of air and a ringing thump, the arrow embedded itself in the soft soil at Gwyn's feet, its fletched end quivering to and fro. Gwyn gasped as she saw that there was something tied to the shaft of the arrow. And then Culdarra lowered the bow, took up the reins of her great horse, and turned away from the Company. In one great bound the beast carried the Huntress away, and the hounds followed, one by one. Then, at last, the Company was alone again.
It was some time before anyone spoke. "May Dona's favor be upon us always," whispered Brother Llyad.
Gwyn was the first person who was willing to move after that. She leaned forward and pulled Culdarra's arrow from the ground. To her surprise, there was nothing extraordinary about it: a shaft of dark wood, a sharpened head of metal, normal-looking fletching in the arrow's tail. "I don't understand," she said. "It is just a normal arrow. But this...." Her voice trailed off as she untied the object attached to the shaft. It was wrapped in a scrap of black cloth that shimmered like samite. Unfolding the cloth, she found inside a silver brooch that was also in the shape of an arrow. She held it up for everyone to see.
"A gift from the Huntress," Brother Llyad whispered. "She has marked you, My Lady."
"But for what?" Gwyn said. "What does this mean?"
"And why did they not slay us?" asked Gareth. "No person living has witnessed what we have seen this day."
Sir Baigent walked to the edge of the grove and looked after the Hunt, which had left no path. His blade was still in his hand. "They might still return," said the Knight. "We would be fools to remain in this Wood any longer than we must."
"They will not return!"
The companions all spun in the direction of the unfamiliar voice, and in seeing it Gwyn caught her breath in wonder, and Brother Llyad laughed. On the river's opposite bank stood a single Druid, his arms clasped over his chest and the silver pendant of the Druids hanging around his neck. He was garbed in simple breeches and shirt of homespun cloth under a brown cloak, the hood cast over his face. "The Hunt will not return to this Wood this night, and it seems that you have been spared," said the Druid. He was joined then by two more Druids who emerged from behind nearby trees, and the three Druids walked down to the very edge of the water. "Your coming is well-told, and we are well-met this hour. We have awaited you, My Lady Welcomer. It is forever to my honor that I am the one to meet you and, in the end, bring you to the Giants' Dance." He paused for a moment. "And you, Sir Baigent, are also well-met."
Sir Baigent stared at the Druid.
"How is it that you know my name?" he demanded.
"I have learned many things," the Druid replied. "Many things indeed: I have learned the Lore of the Moon, and of the Words that are spoken in the moonlight by the trees. I have learned of the languages of the squirrels, and the tongue spoken by the salmon. I know of the stars, and the names of the Kings who lie beneath the Mound of Annwn. But I have not forgotten things I knew in my life before." With that he drew back his hood, and in shock Sir Baigent stared at him, for this Druid was known to him.
The Druid nodded, smiling. "I was Sir Hugydd, though the title now seems as meaningless as seeking the Wyrm's First Name. I have passed beyond your realm, Sir Baigent, though I remember and hold dear your friendship. When I learned of Camyrdin's destruction, my heart wept. Though my home no longer, it was once home to me, and thus shall always be dear to my heart." He made a beckoning gesture. "It is time for you to come," he said. "Cross the water now. In this place the water does our bidding, and it will bear your weight."
Sir Baigent looked askance at this, and he glanced at the other companions. Brother Llyad was less reluctant, and he stepped forward to the river's brink. He reached outward with his foot, and found that it did not penetrate the surface of the water. Where his foot rested the waters flowed on beneath it. He stepped forward now, out onto the surface of the water.
"I told you there was Druid magic here!" He beamed as he stepped back onto the riverbank, took his horse by the reins, and led the animal across the water to the other side. "You see!" he called, beaming, from the other side. "Their power is strong here! Cross the water!"
Sir Baigent scowled. "Of course, this particular bit of magic would have been much more useful two nights ago," he said, under his breath. But Gwyn heard, and she swallowed a laugh. Now the others followed Brother Llyad, one by one, although the horses nickered nervously while walking on the surface of water.
Sir Baigent stood at the side of the river watching as the companions one by one traversed the river. Gwyn was next to last, and as she waited she gazed at the silver brooch. What could it mean, this object in the shape of an arrow? and what powers did it hold, if it held any powers at all? Surely it must have some power. A goddess such as Culdarra the Huntress would hardly give away a piece of jewelry if it was meant merely to be worn as an ornament.
"It is your turn, My Lady," Sir Baigent said.
Gwyn nodded. Leading her steed by the reins, she followed her companions across the river to the other side, followed by the Knight. Then at last they were gathered on the opposite bank, and Sir Baigent stood face to face with his former knight, who stepped before Gwyn and bowed low.
"This is a finer moment for me than you can know," Hugydd said. "We had no way of knowing from what direction you would come, and there are Druids awaiting you everywhere around here. I and my two Apprentices have attended this wood, in case the path of the Welcomer brought her through here. It was we who laid the Wards which stayed the hand of the Wild Huntress."
"I believed that we were spared because of Gwynwhyfar's presence," Brother Llyad said.
Hugydd shook his head. "You were all marked the moment her hounds took your scent. She would have slain all of you save the Welcomer, who is marked with the favor of the Lady of the Lake, and thus with the favor of Dona. But the Wild Huntress will not hunt within the boundaries set by the Oak Brothers. That lore has never been lost to us. It is to your great fortune that you were able to find your way here, and that we had not yet left this wood for the Rites of Summer. Even now my apprentices here are sending the word to the other Druids waiting in places near to this one and far, telling them to return to the Dance for the Welcomer has come."
Gwyn glanced at the two apprentices in time to see them each release a pigeon into the air, a pigeon with a scrap of parchment tied around one leg. She laughed to see the messenger birds fly off into the gray sky. This, too, had been a bit of Druid lore and it had never been known as such.
"You really are one of them now, aren't you?" Sir Baigent asked.
"I am," Hugydd replied. "They healed me, and they taught me. Horius is as fine a master as I could ever have wished."
"Finer than me?" Sir Baigent said.
Hugydd shook his head. "You were a fine master, but we both know that I was a poor student, ill-equipped to be a knight. I well remember the hours we spent studying swordplay and archery and all the rest of it, and I well remember that I was by far the least of Lord Matholyn's knights. I only attained the title by your insistence that I not abandon the training. This is where I belong."
"In any case," Sir Baigent said, "I have lost a man."
"And gained an ally," Hugydd replied. "Come, we must go. Night will fall soon enough, and the Rites must begin."
"Then we are near to the Giant's Dance?" asked Sir Baigent.
"We are near indeed," answered Hugydd. "We must ride with all the speed our mounts may muster, for the last hours are passing and the time for our gathering is almost at hand. We have no time to spare." As the Druid finished speaking, there was suddenly a very strange sound from Sir Baigent. It took Gwyn a moment to realize that he was laughing. For the first time since she had met him, and certainly since they had learned of Camyrdin, the stoic Knight was actually laughing. "Have I said something funny, Sir Baigent?" Hugydd asked.
Sir Baigent mimicked his former man's tone just now: " 'We must ride with all the speed our mounts may muster...'" Again he laughed, and Hugydd joined in with a shrug. "I still know quite well what you used to be like, Hugydd," Sir Baigent said, still chuckling. "If you couldn't say it in fewer than six words, you didn't say it at all. Now, listen to you!"
"This way of speaking is valued by Druids," he said. "It took a long time for me to get used to it. But we should move."
"Surely there is time for some food, at least?" Gareth interjected. "We have been under hard march for several days now, and we have just fled the grasp of Culdarra's Hunt."
"We may only take as much time as is required for a brief meal, and no more," consented Hugydd. "We have only apples, but perhaps they may suffice to nourish you until we arrive."
The apples were like no other Gwyn had ever seen: somehow they were fresh, even despite the unending winter. Their skin was a bright orange, and her mouth filled with the sparkling juice with every bite.
"May I see what the Huntress gave you, My Lady?" Hugydd asked.
Gwyn nodded, and handed him the silver brooch. He turned it over in his hand, examining it. "No markings or lettering," he said. "It does not appear to bear any particular message; nor can I feel any special power within it except for the power that resides in all things. To my hand, it feels like ordinary silver. But the first thing that Horius taught me is that Druid lore is never complete. This token may be of great power after all, or it may simply be a way for Culdarra to claim you as her own. In either case, keep it well." He returned the brooch, and Gwyn used it to fasten her cloak. Its clasp was good and strong. To claim you as her own… Gwyn preferred not to think much on what that might mean.
The company finished eating in silence, and then Hugydd's apprentices brought their horses. "It is time to go, my friends," he said. "To the Giant's Dance!" And with those parting words from Hugydd the Oak Brother, the companions again mounted their horses.
Gwyn glanced over at Sir Baigent just before getting underway. The knight had a strange look on his face -- almost wistful. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"No," he replied. "I'm just remembering Sir Hugydd, the way I knew him. He's right, you know -- I had to work harder with him than I ever did with anyone else. To this day I don't know how he passed our Trials."
"He must have learned something," Gwyn said. "He couldn't be the man he is now without the things he learned from you. And something else -- it turns out that you only lost one man on that expedition last autumn."
Sir Baigent smiled at that.
The company rode forward, toward the edge of the forest and the plain beyond, on which rose the great stones of the Giant's Dance. And when they were long gone from that place, the trees whispered to one another, in that tongue that no mortal had ever heard, of the great deeds they had witnessed in that sacred grove by the swift running waters.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::