:: Sunday, September 04, 2005 ::
Davin ap Danach looked up, bleary-eyed, from the papers on his table when Amren entered the chamber. He was actually grateful for the interruption. The papers were reports on the city's food stores, and the news was not good. The stores had been depleted, as expected, by the winter -- but winter usually ended, and this one had not, and so they were not being replenished. Davin had never seen them this low, even in the spring following years of poor harvest. Making things even worse was Bedwyn's swelling population. The hundreds bordering on thousands who had fled their homesteads, towns and villages to the north and west in the face of King Cwerith's invading force had come here, and they had to fed as well. Davin had never understood the impulse that told people facing war that it was better to seek refuge behind a wall that was still in war's path rather than getting out of war's path entirely, but fearful times made for strange thoughts in the minds of men, and this was no different. He had already imposed strict rationing for those already within the walls, and he knew that the time was swiftly coming when he would have to close the gates to any more, leaving those still outside in danger's way. That was inevitable, but Davin well knew that things inevitable are in no way less dreaded.
He looked up from the reports and rubbed his eyes. "What is it, Amren?"
"Forgive the intrusion," Amren said. "There is news."
Davin stiffened. He had known this man for many years, and he well knew the tone in Amren's voice. "Poor tidings are the only ones I seem fated to hear these days," he said.
"And mine to deliver," Amren replied. "A group of riders has just arrived from Caer Bonnyr."
Davin's brow furrowed. Caer Bonnyr was a small village on the Test, about half a day's march to the northwest. It was not a large town, but it was well-known for the quality of its ale and the fact that some of the finest potters in Prydein toiled there. It was also generally held to be the place where the sea country ended and the great expanse of Inner Prydein began, starting with the plain on which stood the Giants' Dance.
"A group of riders?" Davin asked.
"The survivors of Caer Bonnyr," Amren replied.
"Survivors," Davin echoed. Survivors. The air went out of him. Davin stared at Amren. "Cwerith?"
Amren nodded. Davin felt his flesh turn cold, even colder than it already was, and his injured leg throbbed suddenly. He looked down at the table, covered with reports on granaries and food-stores that had just become irrelevant to the task of surviving an unending winter and instead relevant to the task of surviving a siege. He shoved the reports aside, looking for the map that lay beneath everything else. Davin knew the lay of the land around Bedwyn better than any man in the city -- moreso, even, than the Duke himself -- and could find his way, blindfolded and seated backwards on a horse, back to the city from any of the valleys or hilltops in the area; he had even done so several times as a result of a bad throw of the dice when he had perhaps quaffed too much ale to be able to make a wise wager. Even so, he still preferred to be able to actually look at the map. Finding it at the bottom of the stack of papers and reports, he traced with his finger the easy route that led from Caer Bonnyr to the main gate of Bedwyn. He considered the state of the road at this time of year, and the speed that an army the size that Cwerith had amassed could maintain. It all added to one certain and terrible conclusion. "Cwerith will be outside our walls by sundown tonight."
"If he drives his men fast enough," Amren said.
"Yes." Amren knew the distance too, and they both knew that even an undisciplined, motley assortment of highwaymen and mercenaries could make the march from Caer Bonnyr to Bedwyn in a single day. Cwerith's army was hardly that.
Davin sighed. "What happened?"
"The accounts are not entirely clear," Amren said. "The survivors amount to five families who lived on homesteads in the hills east of Caer Bonnyr. As near as we can tell, Cwerith's men attacked without warning or parley. They had the village in less than an hour and put it to the flame. They gave the people no chance for surrender."
"He had to do it that way," Davin said. "Had he given them adequate warning, they might have burned the bridge before Cwerith could bring his army across it." There were no bridges over the Test south of Caer Bonnyr. The river became too wide and swift, and all crossings south of that village were by ferry.
Davin rose from his chair and wiped his eyes.
"You have not slept," Amren observed.
"Nor will I," Davin replied. His days of fitful rest were over for now, and perhaps for the rest of his life. It was just as well, for in all the years since his last war he had never truly taken to a night spent entirely in a warm bed. "It is time. I had prayed that this moment would not arrive until after the Duke's return, but that is not to be the way of it. All rations are to be halved, immediately. Our granaries are ill-stocked to see us through a long siege, but we must make them last as long as they can."
"Yes," Amren said.
"Cwerith will be coming from the north. Send word to the men in the relay towers that they are to desert their posts as soon as their fires are lit. Assign all archers in the city to the north walls, and put out the word that we will accept the aid of anyone new to the city who can shoot a bow."
"It will be done," Amren said.
Davin grabbed his cloak for his morning survey of the walls. "As for the people still approaching the city, dispatch the city guard to send them east, until the signal fires are lit. Tell the Guard that all men are to return as soon as the fires are seen, whether there are still people coming or not. There will be no further refuge given in Bedwyn. This is now a place of war. Tell the people coming to go to Londia, the Kentish Shore, around the city and on to Bornmuth -- anywhere but here."
Amren nodded. "And the gates?" he asked.
"Close them," Davin said. "All of them."
The morning air was surprisingly still as King Cwerith arose and dressed himself. The scent of the smoke from the burning of the town called Caer Bonnyr still hung in the air, but Cwerith barely noticed it if he noticed it at all. The scent of a town's burning was as constant to him now as the salty air of Caer Mastagg, on the edge of the sea, had been before he had led the men of Gwynedd far enough inland that the sea was no longer in the air. So familiar, indeed, had the smell of smoke become that he could barely remember what the sea's salt spray smelled like.
He finished dressing slowly, stifling a yawn as he pulled his cloak over his shoulders. Cwerith had risen before the sun nearly every day of his life, but for some reason on this particular morning he was still very tired. He thought it strange that it should be so, on this day of all days, when he would lay siege to Bedwyn, the largest city in Prydein except for Londia herself -- at least until he received the tidings that he knew were coming from the east. Today, the final reckoning would begin. He would confront the last of Irlaris's powerful allies; after he had brought Bedwyn down and either forced Cunaddyr to his knee or killed him outright, the remaining lordlings who still opposed him would quickly fall into line or into the grave. Soon he would truly be High King of Prydein. Caer Camyrdin had been retribution -- the retribution of the rightful King, but mere retribution nonetheless -- but Bedwyn would be different. Like the Battle of the Scarlet King that had confirmed High King Prystyl, and the Unfought Battle which had confirmed High King Irlaris, the Battle of Bedwyn would confirm High King Cwerith. Let the Nine Bards sing about that, Cwerith thought as he walked outside to where Lord Varing waited.
"Good morning, Your Majesty," Varing said. "Your horse stands ready." He gestured to the page who stood at attention nearby, with King Cwerith's horse saddled and ready to ride. Several paces behind him stood the four knights who would accompany him.
"Thank you," Cwerith replied as he pulled on a pair of gloves. The air this morning was as cold as any of the winter winds that blew so often at Caer Mastagg. If it is this cold, Cwerith thought, the blood will steam on the stone. "The men are still to be roused at dawn," he said.
"It will be as you command," Lord Varing said. "I must report that some of the people from this village survived and fled before we could take them. They will, no doubt, bring the news of what happened here to Bedwyn."
"Let them," Cwerith said. "Bedwyn will still fall just as Caer Camyrdin did."
"I know it will," Varing said, quietly.
Cwerith stopped for a moment. He did not like the tone that had entered his steward's voice. "Are you vexed by something, Lord Varing?"
"No, Your Highness," Varing replied. "I merely wonder if this…ritual that you go now to attend is as important as Cassion would have you believe. Surely the throne cannot be denied you now."
"Think you so?" Cwerith said. "Do you question the judgment of your King?" His voice was like a slap. The page audibly gasped, and Lord Varing swallowed and shifted backward by a single step.
"Never, my liege," he said.
"Good," Cwerith said. "Cassion is a far wiser man than you, Varing. He understands power. And I am sure that there are any number of men who would suffer themselves to be gelded if I were to offer them the position you now hold."
"But none of them would serve you more gratefully than I, Your Majesty," Lord Varing said with a deep bow, which King Cwerith ignored as he turned and mounted his horse. Then he rode away, accompanied by the four knights as he headed out away from the camp to the place where Cassion and his fellow priests awaited him. He swore under his breath as he left the camp. Varing was the perfect servant: loyal, obedient, and never offering his opinion unless it was asked of him, which in fact Cwerith had just done. But still, Varing did not understand. None of them did.
The others would be there: Baron Gaddamar and his sons; Lord Clastor and Lord Relimach, the most recent defectors to his cause; others whose names Cwerith could trouble to remember -- cowards, all of them, who had sold their loyalties for the promise of lands and power in the new Realm. Cwerith hated these men who would buy what they were too weak or fearful to take or make for themselves, who would march under any banner at all so long as there was a place for them at the victor's table. He hated them, almost as much as he hated men like Matholyn and Cunaddyr and Irlaris -- men who would never bend the knee for the one, rightful King. But Cwerith knew that the cowards of the world were necessary to defeat the brave fools. That was the way of it.
As he rode up and over a small knoll, so that he was no longer in sight of his army, he wondered -- as he had wondered so many times since he had come to know Cassion -- if his father would be proud of what Cwerith had made of his kingdom, or if he would he angered by Cwerith's turning away from Dona. Surely he would have approved, Cwerith told himself -- after all, his father had spoken all of the familiar words to the Goddess, he had said all of the correct prayers, he had observed the Festivals for the Moon -- but after the Unfought Battle, his tone on those days had become pallid, devoid of passion. Cwerith had long wondered if his father had tried to set the Goddess aside, only to fail because the Goddess had been so constant in his life and because he had lacked someone to show him the way to a new Power, as Cassion had shown Cwerith. Gwynedd and Caer Mastagg had never been favored by the Goddess, but it had taken that rogue Druid to show King Cwerith the way to new power. That was what Cassion was, after all: the descendant of the Druids who had been slaughtered and driven away by High King Prystyl. A few of them had survived and kept their dark teachings alive, in the mountains of Gwynedd and the far-flung islands beyond the northernmost reaches of Caledonia. They were the true Druids, not those weak-willed fools from Mona who sang to the trees and babbled about ancient prophecies and Kings promised to people who were barely worthy of the kings they had. No, the Goddess did not favor them -- and if she did not favor them, they would not favor her.
The gathering took place near a stream that flowed down from the shallow hills into the Test. The three ceremonial fires burned in their newly-dug pits, and the priests stood in their central circle. Beyond that circle were gathered the Lords who had joined Cwerith rather than die, the cowards he so needed and so despised. Each of them sank to one knee as he rode up and dismounted; he acknowledged them with a curt nod and moved into the circle where Cassion and his Druids stood -- "Dark Druids", Cwerith sometimes thought of them.
They were chanting in some language Cwerith neither understood nor wish to understand. Cassion spread his arms wide in a gesture of welcome for the King. Cwerith focused his gaze on his high priest, ignoring the unconscious form -- man or woman, it mattered not -- splayed and tied to the ceremonial stone.
"Now among us comes the Majesty of Prydein," Cassion said, shifting to the normal tongue. It mattered little; Cwerith ignored the words Cassion spoke. Instead his thoughts kept turning to the siege and battle that lay ahead, perhaps before this day was out. He thought of the throne that would soon be his, and the crown he would order shaped from gold taken from all the palaces and keeps he had defeated. He imagined the weight of that crown upon his brow, a crown that would be his by the taking and by the making, as all crowns should be.
Cwerith did not think, though, of the blood with which he would water the fields of his new realm -- neither the blood already shed, nor the blood that would be spilled on the fields of Bedwyn on the morrow, nor even the blood that now ran across the ceremonial stone as Cassion drew the knife across the stomach of the offering to the Brother of the Goddess. A King could not be concerned with such things. The only blood that concerned him was his own, which he would soon offer to that God who had come in the dark when the Goddess had not.
Later, when the blood of the living King had mixed with the blood of the dead in payment for the favor of Dona's Brother, Cwerith returned to his army where Lord Varing had done well in his absence: the army was ready to march. There were new tidings, as well: a rider had come from the east, from beyond Bedwyn, from the army of Cwerith's ally, Duncan of Caledonia. As Cwerith heard the rider's news, he realized that his blood had been well-spent indeed. He had prayed to the God for just this news, and his prayers were fulfilled.
Davin leaned up against the railing of the battlement, looking down on the chaos that had erupted outside the main gate of Bedwyn in the hour that had barely passed since the gate's closing. He had seen this sight before, or one much like it, years before when he had fought as a young soldier for King Irlaris, and therefore he had known what he would see here; but still he insisted on watching. A man who had to give the command that would bring so much more suffering to so many more people should have the courage to watch them go to their fates.
The area outside the main gate had been a scene of hectic activity before, when the thousands of people fleeing the oncoming enemy had been seeking entrance into Bedwyn, but now it was total chaos as the refuge they had sought was now denied them. Worst of all, Davin could offer no answer to the question these poor souls asked: "Where are we to go now?" They could not go east, for that way lay Cwerith's Caledonian ally and fellow traitor, King Duncan; they could perhaps go south, toward the sea -- but what then, when the war went that way as well, and it surely would?
Davin looked up from the din below -- from the mothers screaming for lost children and the fathers trying to control the horses and the farmers begging entry to trade for food, disbelieving that a city as rich as Bedwyn could now have nothing for the trading -- to the barren farmlands north of the city. Those fields, which on a normal Midsummer's Day should have been worked by the skilled farmers whose toil fed all of Bedwyn, would soon be churned by the feet of soldiers, the hooves of cavalry horses, the wheels of wagons and siege engines -- and after that, the unnaturally fallow soil would be watered by the blood of the bodies that fell there. Years would pass before those fields ever yielded as they had in their best summers gone by. Davin knew of farmfields turned battlefields that had never returned to their original vitality, even forty or fifty years after the last body had fallen. He had fought on a few such fields himself. Some of the blood spilt on them had been his.
Irlaris, where are you? he suddenly thought, as a breeze stirred from the east. The High King for whom he had fought in his younger years, sacrificing the proper use of his leg -- a far lesser price than that paid by many others, to be sure, but a price paid nonetheless -- was now doing nothing to defend his throne and the realm itself from these Traitor Kings. He had sent no one to help Bedwyn, even after the unthinkable fate of Caer Camyrdin.
Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to see Amren approaching with a fair-haired man whose unkempt appearance indicated that he had just completed a journey of some distance and whose set of pipes, hung round his neck, marked him as some kind of musician.
"Is this a good time for a tune, Amren?" Davin asked. "You know that even in the happiest of times I am not given to dance."
"My name is Drudwas," the man said as he sketched a deep bow. "I arrived just as the Widow's Gate was being closed."
Davin's heart quickened, and yet another feeling of nebulous dread sprang up in his heart. "The Widow's Gate," he echoed. "You came from the east."
"I came from Londia," Drudwas said. His voice had become soft, and grim. "I have tidings."
"Which do you need?" Dana asked.
"The blue-stem," Father Damogan replied. "There, toward the back. Do you see them? There are only three."
"I think so," Dana replied as she stepped over a wide pool to get at the tiny patch in the very rear of the cave. It was hard to see, terribly hard. The wind whipped through the cave, lashing at her cloak and Father Damogan's torch flicker wildly. Her initial flash of pride -- when, in the absence of Gwyn and Brother Malcolm, he had asked for her assistance in the caves -- had vanished, and as she tried to keep her footing on the uneven rock in this dank cave, she wished that Father Damogan had chosen someone else for this honor. She found the blue-stems, amidst the red-caps and blacktips and a dozen other kinds that all looked the same and whose names Dana had long since forgotten, and picked one with a flick of her wrist. Father Damogan raised the torch higher as Dana clambered back across the rocks to join him. There she handed him the blue-stem. He held it up and studied it in the dim light.
"They aren't growing nearly as well as they used to," he said. "I fear the enchantments here may be weakening." He put the mushroom into one of his pockets. "We are finished here for today."
Dana followed him back up the cave and outside, into the light of midday. The winds this day were actually calmer than normal, despite the way they had felt in the cave, so out here in the open there was less spray in the air as Dana and Father Damogan walked up the steep path back to the monastery of Tintagel. Just before they reached the top Dana glimpsed over the edge of the path, at the rocks below where just eight days before a boat carrying Brother Llyad and a Druid had come to rest.
Father Damogan led Dana into the Sanctuary and then down the long stairs to his personal chambers. Once they were inside, he removed his heavy cloak and stirred the fire in the hearth. "Each day grows ever colder," he said. "I am not the man I once was. I feel the cold in my bones."
Dana said nothing. She had never really felt comfortable in the presence of the Lord Priest of Tintagel, be it Damogan now or Reynald before.
"Do you think often of Gwynwhyfar?" Father Damogan asked suddenly.
Dana swallowed. He had not mentioned Gwyn to her since Brother Malcolm and the men from Caer Camyrdin had gone after Brother Llyad.
"Yes," she finally said. "I worry for her."
"She is your friend," Father Damogan said. "It is right that you should do so." He began to walk around the room, lighting his many candles. The shutters on his casements began rattled slightly, as they always did. "Brother Malcolm sent back word that she is safe. Did you not find his word comforting?"
Dana tried to think of something to say, something other than "No". If Gwyn was truly safe, she would have been returned here. Instead she has gone on, somewhere else. She wanted to say that...but instead she said nothing at all. Father Damogan smiled.
"My dear, I am told by the Brothers and Sisters here that you are not normally given to silence. So much so, in fact, that your tongue has brought you more trouble than any other Adept here -- possibly excepting Gwynwhyfar herself, of course. And yet, you barely utter more than one word during each hour you are in my presence. Am I that terrifying to the young, even those who are on the cusp of maturity?"
Dana blushed. "When Wisdom's Words are unclear, the wise hold Silence dear." Quoting the Oracles was always appropriate.
"But the heart whose words are not spoken is the saddest heart of all," Father Damogan replied. "You have wondered, of course, why she has not returned to Tintagel -- why she has gone on, perhaps into more danger."
"Her place is here," Dana said.
"Her place?" Father Damogan lifted an eyebrow. "We never knew her true place. We may not know it, even now." He gazed into the flames of one of his many candles. "These are times of terrible uncertainty, Dana -- uncertainty such as I hoped never to see. In time, we may come to understand why things have unfolded as they have -- why these events have transpired, and Gwynwhyfar's place within them.
Dana remained silent. She had no idea at all what he was talking about. Gwyn's place within the recent events? What could that possibly mean? Gwyn was a cleric-in-training -- what other place could she have? Dana looked at Father Damogan. He looked old in the candlelight, really and truly old. He had never looked old to her before.
Someone knocked on the outer door then, and Dana went to answer it. In the corridor stood Brother Brian.
"I'm sorry to intrude," he said. "I have the reports the Lord Priest wanted." He held forward several sheets of parchment.
"Thank you," Dana said, accepting them.
"Are the reports accurate, Brother?" Father Damogan asked, coming over to the door.
"I'm sure they are," Damogan said, smiling kindly. "Your work is always exacting. Return to your studies now -- I'm sure your Adept will have questions for you."
"I hope so," Brother Brian said. "He was boasting about the ease with which he has completed his recent assignments, so I started him translating Eddylraed's Protocols." He grinned, and then he took his leave. Dana smiled inwardly as she handed the reports to Father Damogan. The Protocols by Eddylraed of Snowdon were so impenetrable that there was no established clerical view as to their true meaning, and some commentators had made a fairly strong case that their author had actually been mad. Father Damogan opened the reports and quickly scanned their contents. His expression became grim as he did so.
"Father?" Dana said.
"The state of our food stores," he said. "I wanted to know how difficult things are like to become. Now that I know, part of me would have preferred to remain ignorant."
"We've all seen the dark times ahead," Dana said. "We often speak of it at the table and between lessons. Some of us fear that the winter will destroy us."
Father Damogan looked sharply at her, and then he sighed and nodded his head. "I should not be surprised that such thoughts occur to others besides myself," he said. "Being Lord Priest does not mean that I have sole claim to wisdom or insight on Tintagel. I fear that the darkest tidings yet will soon be reaching us."
Now Dana felt a new, icy sensation in her heart. Father Damogan, like all the Lord Priests, was somehow privy to events that no one else could know had happened -- or, in some cases, were to happen. "What tidings?" she asked, not really expecting an answer. It was to her great surprise, and greater fear, that he gave one.
"Londia has fallen," he said. "High King Irlaris has been cast aside, and a war is now waging for his throne." He paused. "The war in which Gwynwhyfar now goes to play a part."
The icy feeling in Dana's heart became even colder -- like she had gone to stone. She wanted to ask anew what part Gwyn could have in what was likely to be the bloodiest conflict yet fought on the soil of Prydein, but for once -- for just this once -- Dana's quick tongue failed her, and she had no words.
"How many men do you make them to be?" Amren asked.
"Ten thousand," Davin replied. He had marched in an army of that size before; now he would have to hold a city against one.
Again he stood atop the battlement overlooking the main gate. This time there was silence, utter silence, from below. The people had fled, all of them. But war -- whether fighting it or fleeing it -- always exacts a heavy price on the old and infirm. The fields just beyond Bedwyn were dotted with fallen bodies, left where they had died for lack of time to bury them. The usual scavengers, then -- some people, some not -- rushed from body to body, looking for any trinket that might be salvaged from the chilling flesh and later used for barter. And beyond that space lay the farmlands which had gone dark under a moving, roiling mass: the armies of King Cwerith.
"I didn't know there were that many people in all of Gwynedd," Amren said. "And that's counting women and children. How could Cwerith put so large a force together?"
Davin shook his head. "It is to our woe that we have taken Gwynedd less seriously than we should have, in many a year. There is strength in that land. We see it before us."
"How long until they get here?" Drudwas asked.
"They are here, Bard," Davin said. "The remaining distance matters not. Bedwyn is now under siege." He glanced up at the darkening sky. At least there would not be battle tonight. Cwerith would certainly not try to storm the city by darkness without first attempting to learn what defenses that city had mounted against him. At least I pray that he does not, Davin thought. There was little doubting that the citizens of Caer Camyrdin had not feared the storming of their city, either. Davin turned to Drudwas. "Tell me, Bard -- have you begun writing your lyric for the fall of Londia?"
"Some lines have come to me," Drudwas replied.
"Was the city taken by treachery?"
"No more treachery than it took for Duncan to march in the first place," Drudwas said. "Londia was taken by force. Duncan simply threw his men against the walls and brought fire to them until they burned. The death of his own men mattered less to him than the city's destruction."
"That is what I fear from Cwerith," Davin said.
The men fell silent for a while. Away beside them, on the next battlement, a burst of laughter from men playing dice -- perhaps the same men Davin had chastised the day before for that very offense. Now, he let them play. The hours before battle were the worst for a soldier, hours that were full of both fear and boredom. Anything to pass the time -- a game of dice between comrades, say -- could only be a good thing.
At some point in the last few hours, a deep rumbling had begun to throb throughout the valley of the River Test. No one could say when it had begun, a no one needed to ask what it was. It could only be the sound of a thousand wagons and three thousand horses pulling them. They watched that army for a time as it slowly came into view, becoming larger and blackening the northern fields like some terrible blight. It was Davin who finally spoke:
"When days of battle come O Lord,
Do not fear and do not cry;
For when the battle's day is done
Your soul will walk with mine
Across the star-lit sky."
"I've always liked that one," Amren said. "Who wrote it?"
"Pyrion the Blade-singer," Drudwas and Davin answered in unison, and then both men laughed. Davin shrugged. "I do know some verses, at least."
That was when a horn of alarm was sounded, somewhere behind them. All along the walls around the city of Bedwyn, that same horn call was answered.
"Odd," Amren said. "That's coming from the river-post."
Hobbling all the while, Davin led the way along the walls toward the river-post, where the walls ended on the bank of the Test and overlooked the harbor of Bedwyn. Halfway there they were met by another soldier, who bowed.
"Sir Steward!" the soldier said. He was short of breath and very agitated. "They said you might be up here."
"I am," Davin snapped. "What is it? Why the alarm?"
"Sir, the harbor is closed as you ordered." He snatched a few breaths before continuing. "And yet, they are coming up the river and are almost here."
Davin took a step forward. "Who?" he asked.
"Ships, Sir Steward! Ships! Fifteen of 'em, fifteen ships, big ones, each one big enough to carry five hundred men. And sir, they are flying the banner of Bedwyn!" Tears welled in the man's eyes, so excited was he. Davin laid a calming hand on his shoulder, though he felt the same thrill.
"Ease, man, ease," he said. "We shall need to keep our wits about us, now most of all." He looked at Amren, and he barely noticed the fact that the pain in his knee had almost totally vanished. "Get the docks ready," he ordered. "The Duke returns."
::..permanent link to this chapter..::