Maxen was not the only one who heard the baying of the wolves. They were also heard by the sole spectator of the combat between the Promised King and the one-handed warrior who fought him.
Gwynwhyfar of Lyonesse watched from behind the great stone, safely within the boundary of the Giants' Dance, as King Arthur and Maxen dismounted and faced one another. As Maxen pressed to the attack, she heard in the distance the voices of those wolves, and she knew then that Maxen was no longer a mere agent of Gwynedd. He had been claimed by Dona's Dark Brother.
The air in the Dance shuddered, and time outside the Dance seemed to slow. Gwyn turned to the larger battle and watched as deaths that should have taken seconds were instead stretched out horribly. One of Maxen's men struck a defender -- some poor peasant wielding only a scythe whose blade was rusty and dull -- with a club, crushing the man's skull and sending blood and pieces of bone flying everywhere with terrible slowness. She saw Estren as well, and Hugydd; both fought with multiple opponents, not yielding at all. Gwyn saw Murron of the Arrows, standing with several peasants also armed with bows; the Chief Archer of Camyrdin was selecting targets and picking them off with astonishing accuracy, while her new comrades tried their best just to hit Maxen's attackers but missed more often than not, and in a few horrible instances actually struck their own fellow defenders. Gwyn wished for her own bow, even though like most of these people she had never used her bow against anything other than a rabbit or pheasant.
Then she saw Sir Baigent, as the gigantic Fflud attacked him from horseback. She screamed, a long and terrible scream, when Fflud's immense axe came down. Even with the slowing of the passage of time, she could not tell if Sir Baigent had dropped before the axe had fallen or after. Gwyn's heart nearly exploded as the baying of the wolves drowned out every other sound.
Standing there inside the Giants' Dance where and when the boundaries between the worlds were at their weakest, Gwyn saw everything transpiring at once: the fighting between the Finders and Maxen's men; the other refugees trying to escape; the battle between Maxen and King Arthur. And more than that: she saw a battle raging miles to the south, on the fields north of Bedwyn. She saw the scavengers moving amidst the ruins of Caer Camyrdin and Londia. She saw the snows coming south from the frozen reaches of Caledonia. She saw the gray waters of the sea rearing in terrible waves to pound the rocks below Tintagel and all along the coast of Lyonesse. In this place, in this moment, all of Prydein was hers to see -- all Prydein and more, for she could also see the Lord of Annwn fighting to withhold his dominion over the dead, and the Fair Folk striving to maintain the light in the face of encroaching shadow. And beyond it all she saw the shadow of the great silver wolf, looming over the world entire, pacing back and forth as if awaiting escape from a cage. As if waiting for the moment to pounce.
She turned her attention back to the battles before her. King Arthur parried Maxen's attacks with astonishing speed, but Maxen's attacks came ever faster, ever stronger, ever fiercer. Though King Arthur was able to parry Maxen's attacks with calmness, he was able to launch no attacks of his own. It was a horrible reprise of the earlier duel, in the Scarlet King's fortress, but this one was for all Prydein.
Elsewhere, the Finders were being pushed back, having lost their advantage of surprise; and Sir Baigent -- where was Sir Baigent?
Your champion will fall.
The voice of the silver wolf sounded in her ears.
All your Champions will fall. I shall make it thus.
Gwyn shivered. Maxen, Fflud, all the men of Gwynedd here and at Bedwyn -- they were all being pushed, powered, by the Dark Brother on this single day when he could reach from beyond and pour upon the world all of his dark strength. He was doing all of this, but there was nothing that the Goddess could do to forestall him. Dona was bound in the same way that her Dark Brother was bound -- she could not reach throught he boundaries to touch the earth, until such time as all the boundaries had fallen. She could only act through earthly agents, as her brother was now doing. But her agents were not as strong as his, and the day was coming when he would be able to touch the world himself.
So you see the truth, foolish girl. You see how it all ends. Dona's power fades more with each passing day, and I shall rise ascendant in the end.
The air in the Dance shimmered around her, and for the briefest of seconds Gwyn was no longer on the Central Plain but in the middle of a deep winter wood, dead and dank. The stones were gone, replaced by lifeless oaks, and the ground about her was littered with bodies -- the bodies of Fair Folk who were being slaughtered by two wolves and a pack of feral dogs. And beyond it all stood the silver wolf, grinning with dripping jaws. She tried to send herself back to the Dance, and for a second she was there -- it seemed that Gwyn, too, had some power here on this day -- but she could not hold on, and she was pulled back to the scene of the murder of the Fair Folk.
You cannot flee. You are mine.
Gwyn turned and, in spite of the silver wolf's words, fled into the wood.
Sir Baigent had, in all his years, never once moved as fast as he did at the moment Fflud swung that axe of his. Strangely enough, to him it did not feel fast -- it felt slow, terribly slow, as he dropped to the ground. He waited for the moment when the axe would cleave his skull in two, but the moment did not come and he felt a swish of air, soft as a maiden's kiss in the springtime, as the axe flashed through where his head had been.
Then the horse itself was upon him, and with no thought at all Sir Baigent thrust his blade straight up, into the animal's unprotected belly. His wrists nearly snapped, his arms were almost ripped from their sockets, and the sword was torn from his grip as the beast landed beyond him and tumbled to the ground. The air filled with the stench of entrails and the poor animal's shrieking drowned out all other sounds as Sir Baigent pushed himself back up and moved to recover his sword from the dead horse's guts even as Fflud rose from where he had fallen and turned to face the knight. The look in Fflud's eyes was one of total wrath, and Sir Baigent sighed as he planted his feet and squared his stance to face the giant man. Nearly every joint and muscle in his body was dead with pain, and yet he still had to fight the toughest combat yet.
And as Fflud came at him with that awful double-edged axe, Sir Baigent imagined -- for just the march of a single heartbeat -- the sound of howling wolves.
Gwynwhyfar fled through the strange wood, following no path because there was none to follow. She could only throw herself around the trees and over the bushes, all the while trying to ignore the sound behind her of the pursuing wolves. She spared no thought for where she was or what this place might be; the only thought she could muster was to wonder why the snarling, chasing wolves hadn't yet caught her and ripped her flesh from her bones.
Ahead of her she made out what appeared to be a clearing, and she ran even faster, as hard as she could. She pushed her way through the suddenly thick underbrush, thorns and brambles snagging her cloak and robe and tearing at her skin beneath. Bursting into the clearing, she discovered another Giants' Dance, but this one not for giants: it was much smaller, its stones only man-sized, and they were arranged not around some kind of mystical altar but around a cairn. Gwyn ran for this second Dance, but before she could get there the silver wolf's lieutenants exploded from the wood and bounded, snarling, into her path. She stopped, and froze. From behind her came the breaking of branches and the crashing of leaves as the silver wolf himself entered the clearing, and she turned to face him.
Foolish girl, he said in her mind. Had you remained where you were my power would still be bound. But I tricked you into the realm of the Powers, where I can touch you and where I can slay you.
Gwyn flinched. Of course it was true: the Dark Brother's abilities in the world were still limited, so he could only act through agents like Maxen and Cwerith. So he had lured her here -- tricked her here -- where he could kill her, further weakening the Goddess. Gwyn felt stupid and angry. Dona's Dark Brother had Kings and warriors as his agents on earth; Dona had…a girl from Lyonesse.
The wolf stepped forward, and Gwyn braced herself for its attack. But then there came the sound of hunting horns, very near and all around them, followed by the barking of hounds. Gwyn recognized them even as they smashed through the underbrush and into the clearing, for she had heard these hunting horns and the barking of these hounds before. The hounds of Culdarra came forth and stood between Gwyn and the wolves, and then the Goddess of the Wild Hunt herself came into the clearing, riding her great horse and holding her bow at the ready, with an arrow already nocked.
"This form is ill-chosen, Nameless One," said Culdarra. "I have hunted many wolves, and you'll not be the last. You have leave neither to enter this place nor to touch this girl."
The silver wolf only laughed. It is you who are without leave here, Huntress, and this form suits me. This girl has come here unwelcomed and unbidden, and thus I deem her life forfeit. Not even you may deny this, and you may not mark her now that I have claimed her. Not even my dear fading sister has that right.
"Blind as ever, Dark One," Culdarra flung back, "and twice as foolish. Think you that I have come to mark her now? I have already done so!"
Gwyn felt a sudden hotness then, near her neck. It was the brooch that the Huntress had given her. She pulled down her cloak and the neckline of her robe to reveal the brooch, and the silver wolf howled as if pained by the very sight of it.
This betrayal means nothing, Huntress, the Dark Brother said. My will still holds sway here. I have naught to fear from you or the lapdogs you have sworn to my dear sister.
Culdarra smiled -- and with no more warning than that she gave a short, sharp whistle and her dogs snapped to the attack. Instantly the clearing erupted into conflict between the hounds of the Huntress and the lieutenants of the Dark Brother. Culdarra looked to Gwyn. "Flee, child!" she yelled. "Flee to the circle!"
Culdarra's voice shocked Gwyn into action, and she ran for the small stone circle. When she was inside, time slowed again and the air shimmered so that, just as before, she could see all the battles that were being waged at once: at Bedwyn, where Cwerith's armies were even now pushing Duke Cunaddyr's forces back against the city walls; at the Giants' Dance where King Arthur Pendragon fought a one-handed warrior enhanced by the Dark Brother's power, and where Sir Baigent squared to confront another; and finally in this clearing in the place of the Gods where the Huntress battled Dona's Dark Brother. Two of her hounds were slaughtered, then another, and then still another. Would Culdarra herself die so that Gwyn might escape this place? And even if she did escape, breaking through to Prydein again, would any of it matter with the Dark Brother taking advantage of the weakness between the worlds to flood his power into his agents?
Then Gwyn felt something nearby, something powerful. Something within the nearby cairn was calling to her. Something was there, something important. Culdarra had bought her time to find whatever was there, and the Dark Brother had been about to slay her to keep her from finding it. Her death was not important to him just because she had been Dona's agent; he did not want her to find whatever was buried here. Thus she ran to the side of the cairn and began moving the smooth, white stones aside.
The silver wolf's roar was louder than anything Gwyn had ever heard before -- louder than the thunder of the summer storms, louder than the sea at Tintagel as its pounding of the rocks echoed in the mushroom caves. She ignored it and continued throwing the stones aside, as quickly as she could. She had to find what was here.
Sir Baigent was wondering where the damned wolves had come from as he parried Fflud's attack. The impact of the axe upon his blade made him shudder with a series of new pains: his shoulders and wrists flared, his ankle throbbed from where he'd turned it before, and there were more, not even considering the wound in his side that Maxen had inflicted during their duel. He knew that if he survived this war he would carry these scars and some of these pains, echoing in his bones, through all the rest of his days. Survival, though, looked more doubtful now than it had at any point in this entire affair. He ducked another of Fflud's attacks, but not soon enough to completely avoid the flat of the axe striking his back as Fflud moved by. He had hoped to strike on his own, but the force of even a glancing blow by the huge man pushed all the air from Sir Baigent's body, and he was only able to dodge another blow as he gasped for air.
Goddess have mercy, he thought. He had never seen a warrior move in the way that Fflud was moving now; this once-immovable object had been transformed into a terrifying blend of strength and speed that belied his immense size. Sir Baigent could only hope to last in this fight, hoping and praying that the other man's strength would fade over time even as it appeared to do the exact opposite.
He parried another attack, and as he did so the howling of these wolves -- as horrible a sound as Sir Baigent had ever heard -- became louder and wilder. These wolves were not natural, in the same way that Fflud's strength -- as well as Maxen's and that of his men -- was not natural. He made a quick inside feint and somehow managed to give Fflud a nick in the leg, but it was not enough to bring him down. As he circled away and turned to face the new attack that was already on the way, he realized that this battle was not Camyrdin against Gwynedd; it was the Goddess against her Dark Brother. He dodged another attack and jumped beyond the range of Fflud's backswing, and as he did so he hazarded a glance to King Arthur, still about thirty paces away. The King, still battling Maxen, was being pushed back -- just as Sir Baigent was.
His body burned with pain as he met yet another attack.
Gwyn kept tossing the stones aside, trying to unearth whatever was buried in this cairn; but the stones were heavy, and it seemed as if new stones were appearing atop the cairn to replace the ones she had displaced. "Goddess let me succeed in this," she whispered. A single tear fell from her eye, dropped down to the stones....
...and then the stones, obeying the tear shed for their sake, vanished utterly, disappearing like a puff of smoke in the wind. The cairn lay exposed before her, and in it lay a corpse garbed in tattered, moldering clothes. Gwyn peered at the corpse's rotting face, and then she gasped and retched at the same time. Even though the man in the grave had been dead for many years, she recognized him.
It was her father.
She covered her mouth and looked away, even as the coins on his eyes slid away revealing empty eye-sockets, the eyes long since rotted away. And then the corpse's mouth opened, and it spoke.
"Little Sparrow...do not dig me up...."
Gwyn longed to beg his forgiveness, for this and for so much…but then she realized that the voice had not been his. Her father had not sounded like this. And he had not been buried, but pushed out to sea in a boat with the ebbing tide. This was not him; this was an illusion.
She closed her eyes, swallowed, and reached into the grave. As she expected, the body disappeared just as the stones had, leaving behind a hollowed-out barrow in which lay two items, each wrapped in black cloth. Lifting the wrappings aside, she found a chalice so tarnished it was almost black, and a spear whose shaft was rotting and whose head was rusted away to almost nothing. Gwyn glanced up at the battles -- all of them, raging in all the worlds, but finally on that between the silver wolf and Culdarra the Huntress -- and she made her decision. She picked up the spear.
As she lifted the spear from the cairn, the wood of the shaft became firm and brown again, and the spearhead became sharp and clean even as the chalice dissolved as though it had never been there at all. Hefting the spear, Gwyn turned to face the battle before her. Culdarra looked at her and smiled, and Gwyn lifted the spear. She had never thrown one before, and she would have only one chance. She waited for Culdarra to maneuver the silver wolf so that its back was to Gwyn, even as one of the lieutenants broke free of the hounds and surged directly at her. There was only time for Gwyn to shout "Camyrdin!" as she hurled the spear with all of the strength she could summon. The weapon arced over the gray wolf that pounced upon her even now, and Gwyn fell back, toward the empty cairn. She glimpsed the spear burying itself in the left haunch of the silver wolf, and as the cairn closed around her the wolf's scream -- which was very like a man's -- filled the air. And instead of coming under the jaws of the lieutenant, Gwyn fell into blackness.
The next attack was the strongest yet, and it was all Sir Baigent could do to avoid being cleft in two as he dodged the flashing axe. He would not be able to parry another attack like that, or probably even evade one. It was almost over, the dark certainty of it forming in his mind as he saw the faces of his father and brother and the lady whose Champion he had been one last time...
...when the howling of the wolves suddenly stopped, as if it had never been.
And before him, Fflud lurched, ever so slightly, as he came about for his new attack. It was only the tiniest of changes in his manner, the smallest of differences in the big man's stance. A less experienced warrior might not have seen it at all; certainly none of these townsfolk or farmers would have, perhaps not even Estren or the Finders. But Sir Baigent was an experienced warrior, and he did see it: that Fflud's unnatural strength had deserted him. Sir Baigent ignored all of the pain in his body as he leapt forward, his cry of rage and determination being wordless as he gave voice to something that came from even deeper recesses of his soul than the name of Camyrdin.
Fflud was still strong, and he was still a skilled warrior, and he squared his axe to fend off the knight's blow. But his reaction, though fast enough, was directed to stopping the blow that he expected, not the one that the knight delivered. Fflud braced to turn aside the certain thrust of Sir Baigent's sword toward his stomach, but Sir Baigent instead dropped his blade down and brought it about, using the flat of the blade to smash against Fflud's knuckles where they gripped the handle of his axe. The axe dipped slightly -- a few inches, perhaps a hand's width -- giving Sir Baigent the opening he needed. He swung the sword around, and now he thrust the blade past Fflud's axe and into the huge man's belly, all the way up to the hilt. Fflud's eyes went wide, and his immediate gasp was quickly followed by the spitting up of blood and bile as he staggered backward. Sir Baigent stepped forward and pulled his weapon free and, for good measure, struck Fflud's head from his shoulders before the big man could fall.
Maxen launched another attack, then another, and then still another. He would wear this Promised King down, minute by minute, until the time came to strike the last blow. How could this man hope to rally Prydein, when he was so easily defeated? How could this weakling be the hope of the Goddess? What foolery! Maxen drank in the power of the Dark God, rejoicing in the voices of the wolves--
Which suddenly were not there.
It was as though something deep within him, at the very center of his soul, had snapped in two. His newfound strength, that had been given to him in a moment of fire and agony, was utterly gone. And worse was that this man he fought, this Promised King, had seen it too. Now came the Promised King's sword, blazing white with the light of the sun.
Maxen parried the attacks as best he could, but he could already see that it was hopeless, and despair filled him. He had been so close to victory, but now the day was lost. And moments later, so was he.
Maxen watched as the flames engulfing his sword, the flames of war loosed upon the world by the Goddess's brother, flickered out entirely, leaving behind a strip of blackened steel that shattered the next time it met the Promised King's sunlit blade. Maxen let the useless hilt fall, and it clattered to the ground. Then he closed his eyes, and whatever thoughts were in Maxen's soul at that moment, they went unspoken as the Promised King's blade flashed horribly and plunged forward, stilling his heart forever.
Sir Baigent had cleared less than half the distance to the Promised King, intending to aid him in his fight, when he saw Maxen falter and his sword stop burning. He stopped in place as Maxen was struck down, and the Promised King turned to face him. Almost unaware that he was doing it, Sir Baigent sank to one knee before this man; and thus did Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt, once seneschal to Lord Matholyn of Camyrdin, become the first man of Prydein to pay homage to King Arthur Pendragon upon his return from Avalon.
"Rise," said the King, and Sir Baigent did so, meeting the King's gaze. Sir Baigent wanted to weep, for all the words written by all the Bards and poets could never express the nobility that he saw in this man's eyes.
"Do you fight for me?" asked the King.
"I fight for you," Sir Baigent replied. "And for all Prydein."
"What is your name?"
"Baigent ap Pelegaunt."
King Arthur nodded. "Then fight with me, Sir Baigent."
And fight they did.
"I am here, child."
"Nimue? Where am I?"
"You are between the worlds, and thus being, you can see them all. Look now, on what you have wrought this day."
The air shimmered, and Gwynwhyfar saw the battle at the Giants' Dance. She saw that Maxen and Fflud were dead, and she saw King Arthur wading into battle with Sir Baigent at his side. The tide was turning; without their Captain and his second, Maxen's men lost their discipline and were now being pushed back.
"The day is won," said Nimue. "King Arthur wins his first battle, just as he did when the Kings of what he knew as Britain gathered to oppose the young boy who alone had pulled the sword from the stone."
Gwynwhyfar tried to take comfort in the victory, but even though it had been hard achieved and hard won, she could not. Instead, she looked to the other great battle that was taking place at that same time, leagues to the south. This battle was not going as well -- not nearly as well. It was clear that Cwerith's armies were going to win the day. There were simply too many of them, and their last push now across the field was unrelenting, unyielding.
Gwynwhyfar searched through the crowds of war and found the faces she knew. There was Matholyn ap Macholugh, fighting almost alone in the midst of a throng of Gwynedd men, and even though his cloak was tattered and his armor was soaked in blood and filth and exhaustion was writ upon his face, he still fought as if all the souls lost at Caer Camyrdin had found their expression at last in their onetime Lord. Elsewhere there was Sir Jules, whose swordplay was fast, spare and lethal -- not at all like the wry humor he had displayed on that night in Briston. There, standing upon the rise just outside the main gates, was Duke Cunaddyr, hiskeen eyes following the progress of the battle even though lurking in their corners was the knowledge that this battle was a losing one.
Gwynwhyfar's gaze, shaped and focused by the ancient magic of the Giants' Dance, took it all in. She looked upon a thousand faces both within the walls of the city and without: the old and infirm, dying of disease and starvation, and the young and strong, dying on the battlefield of unspeakable injury. Finally she found Brother Malcolm, tending the wounded. His robes were filthy, his eyes sunken and exhausted. She watched as he wrapped a length of cloth around the wound of a man who would be dead within hours, if not minutes, anyhow. Malcolm said no prayer over this man, because there was no time for him to do so. He could only whisper the briefest of blessings before moving on to tend another young warrior, whose years numbered the same as Gwynwhyfar's but because of his wounds would number no more than that.
"You must not look on this," said Nimue. "It will bring you naught by despair."
But Gwynwhyfar refused to avert her gaze. "All these people fight for the Promised King," she replied. "How will he forge a kingdom if all those who would fill the ranks of his army are dead? Must all these people die, never knowing that their King has returned? There must be a way, My Lady. A way that they can bridge the worlds, as I have." And she looked again to King Arthur, fighting outside the Giants' Dance.
"This thing you wish to do can be done. Merlyn Emrys built this place with such power as can only be shaped and wielded by one such as he, born of both the worlds of the Mortals and of the Fair. One such as you. But to control such power may destroy you. The Dance will consume your soul and scattering it beyond all the worlds. Think well, Gwynwhyfar: will you do this thing?"
Gwyn did not hesitate. "I will," she said. No other answer was possible. She could already sense the power of the Giants' Dance at Midsummer fading as the day wore on. It had to be now. "I am ready, Lady of the Lake."
"Then hold strong," said Nimue. "You alone can work this thing."
And so did Gwynwhyfar of Lyonesse, born of a man of Prydein and a woman of the Fair Folk, Welcomer of the Promised King, reopen the portal between the worlds that existed on this one day and in this one place.
"Behold!" someone cried.
Sir Baigent turned toward the Giants' Dance, and gasped at what he saw there: through the great stones he was seeing Bedwyn and its fields of battle. "How is this possible?" he said.
"It matters not," said King Arthur as he whistled for his horse. "Merlyn once told me of such things. Come, men of Prydein: we ride!"
And as Sir Baigent ran to get his own horse, he heard another voice, feminine and familiar:
"Come, King Arthur!"
Power coursed through Gwynwhyfar's body, the power of the earth and of the Goddess and of the Fair Folk. She made of her body and soul a vessel for such power as had not touched the world in days uncounted except by legend. The pain was beyond anything she had ever felt before. The power was consuming her, as Nimue had said it would.
"Come, King Arthur!"
She knew not if the voice was hers, or perhaps Nimue's. Every ounce of her being was given to keeping open the portal which she had forced. And when at last the men had ridden through and out the other side, she finally released the power and felt herself falling through the air as if from a great height.
"Nimue?" she tried to cry out, but she did not even have enough strength to force the word from her lips. She went limp, having nothing else to give. She felt the presence of hard earth, rushing up to embrace her.
"Make ready," she heard someone say.
It was the last thing she thought before her fall came to an end.
Lord Matholyn dismounted and handed the reins of his wounded mount to one page and the hilt of his broken sword to another. "Keep this well," he said. "I will want this blade reforged after today." The page nodded and handed Lord Matholyn a new sword, this one bearing the device of Bedwyn upon the hilt. The Matholyn ducked as a fresh volley of arrows soared overhead. Cwerith's men were pushing forward again, his damned archers were exacting a heavy toll, and behind the archers were the men bringing the great ladders which Cwerith's soldiers would scale to storm the walls. Soon those archers would be sending flaming arrows over the walls and into the city, and soon there would be siege engines.
"Well, Matholyn? Coming back to fight?" It was Sir Jules, who likewise had come back for a new horse.
"We have to do something about those archers," Matholyn replied. "We can't mount any push of our own with them down there."
"I'm leading a charge against that hillock," Sir Jules replied, pointing. "Then we'll be able to move some of our own archers up there."
Lord Matholyn frowned. "We won't be able to hold that position for long."
Sir Jules shrugged. "Goddess willing, we won't have to."
But it turned out to be too difficult a task. The hillock was fiercely defended by Cwerith's men, and too many of their own fell in the hillock's taking. Matholyn and Sir Jules had to call the retreat before any of their archers could even arrive. And this was the way of it elsewhere, in every place where Cunaddyr's forces tried to advance or, failing that, merely defend a tiny parcel of land. Lord Matholyn fought on, knowing all the while that victory was impossible and defeat all but certain. He found himself beside Sir Jules again, and the two of them exchanged grim glances. Cwerith's horns rang across the field yet again, and yet again his archers advanced.
"Fall back!" Matholyn shouted.
As he and Sir Jules led what was to be the last retreat, Lord Matholyn barely registered the strange wind that had begun to howl.
"The men push forward again," Lord Varing observed.
"I see it," King Cwerith replied. Within the hour his archers would be in shooting distance of Bedwyn's walls, and soon thereafter his men would be able to storm the walls and bring forth the siege engines. Soon, Bedwyn would burn.
He looked to the rise where Duke Cunaddyr's banner flapped in the breeze. He could not make out the Duke himself, but Cwerith knew he was there. You should have surrendered, Cunaddyr. A place at my table might have been yours, a place beside a King. Instead, the blood of your people will swell the banks of the Test.
The thought made him smile, but only for a moment before something happened.
Brother Malcolm lifted the man's doublet and gave a single, matter-of-fact shake of his head when he saw the wound beneath. He was past wincing by now, and where once he would have questioned the providence of the Goddess that a man so wounded could still draw breath, now he merely accepted such ill fortune and moved on. To seek the Goddess on the field of battle, he now knew, was folly. He lowered the doublet and moved on to another victim of sword, or axe, or arrow, or club, or lance…it mattered not. He hoped, as he did each time, that the next man would not be so doomed to die quickly and in agony. That hope had gone unrequited too many times this day.
Then he heard the shouting: "Move! Move these men!" It was a Captain of the Bedwyn guard, whose name Malcolm had been told but which he had forgotten in the hours since. This Captain had six guardsmen with him, and they were exhorting those tending to wounded and fallen to retreat. "Move! Move! Move!" they shouted, over and over and over again.
"What is happening?" Malcolm asked when the Captain was near him.
"Archers," the man replied. "The Gwynedd archers are moving into range. It is too dangerous to remain here."
Malcolm shook his head. "They would not shoot on the wounded--" he began, but he was cut off by the Captain's harsh and biting laughter.
"Stand here, then, if you believe that," said the Captain. And just then, as if to reinforce the point, the air above Brother Malcolm's head whistled and the ground nearby thudded as an arrow struck. One of the guardsmen suddenly made a gurgling sound and fell to his knees, an arrow having struck him in the back of his neck and its bloody head now protruding from the front of it.
"MOVE!" the Captain shouted.
Brother Malcolm grabbed the knife he had been using to cut fabric and ran, following the others as arrows fell about them, faster and faster. He did not hazard a glimpse back to see how near they were, but he knew that if they were this close, they would soon be able to loose arrows over the walls and into the city. Behind him, the wounded screamed anew as they were hit, for the tenders of the wounded could not move them all. More and more blood, and more and more death.
Malcolm had almost reached safety -- relative safety -- when the hissing of the air suddenly became much louder and much closer, and his left shoulder exploded into searing pain. The arrow had only grazed him, opening a wound several fingers long that bled profusely. He cried out and tried to press the cleanest part of his sleeve over it. A cleaning and binding, perhaps even a poultice if it could be managed, would suffice -- but in conditions such as these, they might not, if they could even be done in the first place. His own blood, he realized, had just been spilled in battle. He was thinking of that when the strongest gust of wind blasted across the battlefield, nearly knocking him down. Turning to see what was happening, he looked across the field at last. A great flash of light nearly blinded him, and as his sight cleared he heard cheers -- cheers, of all things, and from his own side, the side of Bedwyn. Then there was another sound, not unlike the booming of thunder. With his good hand he rubbed his eyes and looked again.
A great tumult was erupting at the rear of Cwerith's army, and a literal explosion of flame and smoke blasted in the middle of one of the Gwynedd companies, sending bodies through the air along with a cloud of dirt and debris.
"What is it?" someone cried out. Malcolm was about to shake his head, reply that he did not know...
...when he saw, even from this great distance, an armored warrior leading a newly arrived company of men into battle with Cwerith's rear guard, and this warrior fought with a sword that shone with the wondrous light of the noontime sun.
"The Promised King!" Malcolm shouted, caring little if those who heard him thought him mad. "The Promised King is come!"
The air shimmered as Sir Baigent spurred Arradwen into the Giants' Dance, just behind King Arthur and with Estren and Hugydd flanking him. He felt the world falling away behind him, and for a second or two it felt like there was no ground beneath them at all. The air shimmered again, and he found himself, along with the entire company -- a small company, but a deadly one -- closing on the rear guard of King Cwerith's army on the fields north of Bedwyn.
Behind him, Jonn hurled two fire-globes, and several of the Finders joined him. When they exploded, bodies and dirt were sent everywhere, and King Arthur led them into the heart of confusion and fray. The pain from Sir Baigent's wounds was forgotten -- still there, but pushed down into a dark place he could not feel. He could not afford pain right now, as he rode into the heart of the armies that had brought the flames and death to his home and people. He shouted Camyrdin! over and over and over again, until his voice gave out. Arradwen, who had carried him on such a hard journey, had never given him surer footing than that which she gave him now. The pools of mud and collected blood, the fallen men beneath her hooves -- none of it made the slightest difference. Sir Baigent controlled her with one hand on the reins, and the two moved as one as Sir Baigent rode behind the Promised King.
If Sir Baigent fought well, the Promised King fought like no other warrior who had ever set foot upon the soil of Prydein. No man there, on either side, was like to ever forget the sight of that great lord, armored and terrible, atop his white steed and wielding the sword that danced with death and light. The orderly ranks of Cwerith's army broke before this tiny company, and like a wave far away at sea the cheers began within the men of Bedwyn -- small at first, but gathering force until all the horns of Gwynedd were drowned out.
On the rise where he stood, Duke Cunaddyr bellowed for his own horns to sound the countercharge, and his army surged forward one last time, led by Lord Matholyn ap Macholugh and Sir Jules. First they swept over the archers who had turned to fire upon the attackers from behind, and then they pushed on, eventually meeting at the center where the Promised King took the lead of the next push, directly into the thickest part of Cwerith's infantry. But here, too, there was time enough for two warriors to greet one another:
"Well met, My Lord," Sir Baigent called, and Lord Matholyn laughed.
"Well met, my friend," Matholyn replied with gladness in his heart that he had not felt in what seemed like so, so long. Even on a blood-soaked field of war there could still be moments of joy.
Sir Jules fell in beside Sir Baigent. "Your hair looks longer," he said.
"I even welcome the sight of yours," Sir Baigent replied.
"To me, men of Prydein!" It was the voice of the Promised King as he led them all to war once again.
King Cwerith ap Cellamma had always been quick to rage. It was a trait common to the Kings of Gwynedd, born of living in a cold, wet castle by the side of the sea. Thus it was to Lord Varing's great surprise that he did not react with furious temper to the sudden decay of his army from disciplined host to bedraggled bedlam.
Cwerith's voice became cold, his commands clipped and harsh. The orders came faster and faster as he worked to direct his armies together again. He sent this company forward, and ordered that one back; he tried to reform his archers and muster his cavalry. But though he saw what needed to be done and gave the orders as quickly as he saw that need, the execution was another matter. The discipline had been broken, and it appalled him how easily it had happened. This warrior with the shining sword was only one warrior, one man, and the company he had led into his rear guard was a small one, even though they had those exploding missiles. But they fought as men possessed, and their arrival -- unseen by anyone, and accompanied by a fierce wind -- frightened him. Something had happened, of that there was no doubt. Cwerith absently fingered the scabbed-over wounds on his forearm, and he realized the truth: this was no mere warrior. This was the Goddess's warrior.
Cwerith was looking upon the Promised King.
This was the man whose return had been made possible, which meant that the Dark Power's mission to the Giants' Dance had failed. I will speak with Cassion before this day is out, Cwerith thought. Then he gave one last command.
"Sound the full charge," he said. "All men are to advance. We will drown them in a sea of blood."
Lord Varing and his councilors looked askance. Varing, in particular, turned pale.
"What is it?" Cwerith snapped.
"My Liege," Varing began. "We might be able to drive them from the field, but--"
"Say nothing more!" Cwerith shouted as he glared not at his seneschal but at the battlefield. It had to be possible, the day could still be won -- and yet, it was not possible, it could not be won. "We might win the field, but we will not have enough strength remaining to take the city. We may win the battle, but the siege will fail. Is that what you mean to say, Varing?"
Lord Varing slowly nodded. "Your Majesty, we still outnumber them, and when the armies of Duncan merge with yours, they won't be able to withstand you. We must withdraw."
To his credit, Varing held his King's gaze -- unlike this craven coward Gaddamar, who shifted about and looked at the ground as his the tips of his ears turned crimson.
Cwerith shook his head with disgust as he closed his fist around the stone from Caer Camyrdin in his pocket. Allowing this warrior to win the day would embolden those who would challenge and resist his own claim to the throne of Prydein. He remembered the face of stern King Cellamma, cheated out of that which should have been his. He envisioned his father's anger at his son's failure to bring Gwynedd to the High Throne, and he heard his father's voice, echoing through the ages: Do not fail, or our entire line -- all of our fathers, all the way back to the Cataclysm -- will judge your failure. To leave the field when victory for Gwynedd was in your grasp is the foulest of failures.
But then Cwerith's anger rose again, and he answered the voices he heard within him: No. This need not be treachery. You left the field too, Father, and you did it without loosing a single arrow or swinging a single blade. I have dealt the blow that you could never strike, and though I lost this battle as you lost yours, I will fight again.
Unlike you, Father, I will never bend the knee to a lesser man.
And in that moment Cwerith banished his father forever from his soul. From this moment on, no longer would Cwerith fight to right the wrongs of Cellamma's destiny. He would fight to secure his own.
Drawing himself up in his saddle, the King of Gwynedd turned to Lord Varing and said, "Sound the retreat."
"Where did everyone go?" Brother Llyad asked as he and Gareth walked through the desolation of what had been the Druid camp. Bodies, broken and dead, were everywhere, and the smoke from the fires had at last begun to clear.
"Tracks," said Gareth. "Many of them, leading right up to the Dance. It looks like they charged in, and through."
"Should we follow?"
"Not yet," Gareth replied. She knelt beside the body of a man she had known -- Padrec, a father whose two sons were with the rest of the company, wherever they had gone. And there were other Finders here amongst the dead. Jonn had brought them into this battle. That's it, then, Gareth thought as she brushed a tear from her eye. I have truly led the Finders to war. She kept moving through the dead, seeking out friends both dead and living. They would need to move on soon. Maxen's men had been driven off, but there was no guarantee that they would not return. But at least their Captain was dead. Matt had found the body of the one-handed warrior, lying beside a broken, scorched blade.
"Gareth! Come!" It was Brother Llyad, shouting to her from the edge of the Giants' Dance, where he stood looking in. Gareth ran to his side, and he pointed into the Dance. "Look," he said.
There was a man there. Standing near the center of the Dance, his back was turned toward Gareth and Brother Llyad as he bent over to put something -- no, someone -- gently down upon the ground behind one of the stones. Then he turned to face the two who watched him. He appeared to be of immense age, with white hair in loose curls, a long white beard, and deep-set, black eyes, and he was garbed in shining robes of white; however, despite his apparent age he also looked very strong and wise. This man gave a single nod of his head that somehow spoke of comfort and wisdom, and then Gareth and Brother Llyad watched as he turned and walked away. And when he went he seemed to vanish into the earth and the air. Silence fell, and he was gone.
Gareth was the first to speak. "Was that--"
"One of the Fair Folk," Brother Llyad replied. He moved forward, Gareth following closely behind, to the side of the person the Fairy had placed on the ground. When they arrived and peered around the stone, they gasped.
It was Gwynwhyfar.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::