:: Sunday, July 01, 2007 ::
The Finest Deed, Chapter Two
It was dawn at Bedwyn, and like so many dawns of late, it was marked not by the brilliance of the rising sun but by a mere slackening of darkness to gray. At a time when boats laden with goods and grain and cattle and meat should have been visible plying the River Test in both directions from where a young woman once from Lyonesse stood overlooking the waters, now only occasional chunks of ice floated by the battlements of Bedwyn, on their way to the sea.
Lady Gwynwhyfar the Welcomer, as she was called by those who did not know her – she was “Gwyn” to those who did – shivered, despite her thick cloak and furs. Even though it was colder each day, these walls were the only place where Gwyn could truly enjoy the clean air and the distance from the city's noise. Even if the scents of the city were not particularly pleasing these days, it was still a nice change from the constant burning of ritual incense in the Temple. As for the sounds of the city, Gwyn found that she needed them. The silence of the Temple was too unnatural to her ears – ears which had grown up with the ever-present sound of wind and the pounding waves.
The first snow had fallen a week ago, and had taken three days to melt. The first snow…and yet, the summer that had just passed had not been summer at all, but really a snowless winter. Gwyn traced with her eye the lines of fields that should have been seeing harvest just now, and instead were dry and dead – and those fields to the immediate north of the city, which had been ruined in the great battle just two months ago. Her stomach rumbled, and she realized how much time she had spent standing walking the walls. Soon she would eat, which was something she could not say for the thousands who had come to Bedwyn seeking shelter in the face of war. Food had become a luxury, even here in Bedwyn – now Prydein's richest city, following the destruction of Londia by King Duncan of Caledonia.
Gwyn thought back to the days before any of this had happened…before Brother Llyad had returned to Tintagel, before she had learned of her heritage, before she had met Lord Matholyn, Sir Baigent, Estren of the Nine Bards, and the Finders. She recalled the days when she had been deeply involved in studies she would now might never finish, and she remembered noticing that spring was colder than usual. She recalled how the wildflowers had been slow to bloom, how the mushrooms in the caves had suffered in the cold, how the storms had come more frequently and fiercely from the sea. But not a one of her fellow clerics of Tintagel – neither Priest nor Priestess nor mere Adept – had suspected that the slow spring had actually been the beginning of an unending winter. None had seen the signs of the darkness that was mustering its power, even as it did so. Of course, now she could look back and see the things she should have seen all along for what they were, but as Agonnar the Elder had written, “Memory’s light shines brightest, but the price that must be paid for such a brilliant beam is that it only shines on where one has already walked.”
Gwyn heard footsteps behind her, and turned to see Davin ap Danach, Steward of Bedwyn, limping toward her. She had come to like this gruff man immensely in the short time she’d known him, not least because he stubbornly refused to allow his half-century old maiming to dissuade him from mounting the city walls or anything else. This was a man who would do well on Tintagel. “Are you well, My Lady?” he asked. “You should not be awake this early.”
“Well enough,” Gwyn replied, smiling. “I am always up this early, especially here. You know this city is infernally quiet.”
“Quiet?” Davin whistled. “This is a city! You could fit a hundred Tintagels within our walls!”
Gwyn chuckled. “Yes, I suppose you could,” she agreed. “But you still wouldn’t have the sea.”
“Bah!” Davin spat. He had never liked the sea, or water in general. Boats made him ill, and he preferred fighting on solid ground. “At least in Bedwyn it doesn’t smell like salt all the time, and we eat more than fish.”
Gwyn smiled again. On Tintagel they did eat a lot of fish. Of course, they had eaten a great deal of fish in Bedwyn, too, since she had come here – the rivers had not lost their bounty yet, as had the fields – but Davin was right. The air hear smelled of earth, not salt. Gwyn had to remind herself what the sea smelled like, and suddenly she sighed, wanting to see her home once again. “Do you see anything interesting this morning? Anything unusual?”
“Nothing unusual,” Gwyn said. The docks below were mostly abandoned, except for the beggars and derelicts who wandered about such places, looking for any scrap they could find, be it food or cloth or perhaps even a coin that someone had dropped. They all looked the same, man and woman alike: frames bent from so many years of stooping to pore over the dead and soon-to-be. One of these people was not quite so bent, but looked far more ancient than any of the others with his wispy white hair and long beard, and Gwyn’s eye followed this one as he made his way along the docks. Then he chanced to look up and meet her gaze, and something in his eyes – something other than the haunted and hungry look she saw so often these days – made her shudder. She turned away and faced Davin. “Is there any word?” she asked.
“Nothing yet today,” Davin said. “Although it is early, and thus to be expected. I would be very surprised if we don’t have a rider before the sun goes down.”
Gwyn nodded. A month had past since the King had taken the bulk of his army north and east, seeking a better place to establish a base from which he would confront King Cwerith and King Duncan – the “Traitor Kings”. In the wake of the Battle of Bedwyn, King Arthur had pursued Cwerith, diverting him even farther north and keeping him from moving to an easy rendezvous with Duncan, but then he had fallen back, not wishing to overextend his own force even as its ranks were swelled by people who had come from far across the land to fight for the Promised King. Even now, more and more came to Bedwyn, though the King himself had led his march northward. And they had come not just to see King Arthur, but to see the Welcomer who had brought him back.
They had come, partly, to see her.
“The presentation is in one hour,” Davin said. “You should get ready.”
Gwyn nodded. In the days just after she had fulfilled her duty as the Welcomer, she had wondered what her role would be in the Prydein to follow. Would she return to Tintagel and complete her studies, or would she serve some other role. She had even wondered, although she would never say so out loud, if she was to have the same role as the Gwynwhyfar the King had known in the time before: if she was to be his Queen. Nothing had been said of that by the King or by anyone else, and she was not about to bring up the possibility herself.
Davin escorted her back to the Gatehouse, where he led her down into the tunnels beneath the city. Brother Malcolm had told her how he had been taken through these very tunnels himself, when he had been escorted outside the walls to help the healers during the Battle, and for that reason she shuddered every time she walked through them – and also because the tunnels reminded her of the passages on Tintagel that led from the Sanctuary down to the Lord Priest’s chambers. These passages were much longer, though, and they seemed to delve much deeper.
They came to a junction of five such passages, each coming from a different place in the city, and turned into the one that led up to the Temple. Finally they arrived at that heavy door, where Davin lit the candle that sat in a holder beside the portal. Then he rang the nearby bell, and almost immediately the door swung inward, to reveal the two Adepts who stood sentry within.
“Greetings, Lord Davin,” said one of the Adepts. “Be welcome, Lady Welcomer.”
“Greetings,” Davin replied.
“Thank you, Davin,” she said.
“I am at your service, My Lady,” Davin replied. “May you walk in Dona’s light.” He bowed, and then he turned to leave. Even as Steward of Bedwyn, Davin was not allowed into this particular door; it led to places meant only for members of Dona’s Priesthood. Gwyn stepped inside, and the Adepts pushed the door shut and barred it. Then one of them – a boy named Essym, if Gwyn remembered correctly – escorted her through the winding hallways of the circular Temple, tracing a path that Gwyn had only in the last few days begun to piece together, so convoluted was the interior of this particular building. Gwyn had always been gifted with maps and direction, but the spiraling about of these passages flummoxed her, and she was always glad for the guidance.
Leading her up two sets of stairs, into the public level and then past it onto the private, Essym brought her to the comfortable chamber that had almost now become her home. This chamber was slightly larger than the one in which she had lived on Tintagel, and she did not have to share this one with another Adept, even one who was her best friend, as Dana was. Ah, Dana, Gwyn thought. If you could see what has become of me, you would laugh…you alone, of everyone. She would, too. Gwyn knew that much. Dana knew her too well to be overly impressed with her trappings as the Welcomer. She would especially laugh at the two Adepts who had been appointed as her personal attendants. “You have your own attendants?” she would say. “You, who just weeks ago were helping Sister Eylwen sweep out the stables!” Here she was met by Llara and Gerdeddwy, those very attendants, who helped her don her ceremonial robes for the presentation, even though the robes were not particularly complicated and by now Gwyn could put them on herself in half the time it took these two to help her.
Also awaiting her was the one person for whom Gwyn had been able to secure permission to enter this place. “You look tired,” said Gareth of the Finders.
“I am,” Gwyn replied as she picked at the sleeves of her gown. This was the eleventh time she had attended one of these presentations since King Arthur had come to Bedwyn, and the third one this week and still she felt absurd doing this. It was the duty of...a Queen, a Princess, or even a Lord Priestess. Not a onetime Adept who had still not taken the Trials, and who had done nothing but play a ceremonial role since the completion of her mission to the Giants’ Dance. “I awoke too early this morning.”
“You have awoken too early every morning,” Gareth said as she handed Gwyn a cup of wine mixed with water before settling into a chair. “This life does not suit you.”
“Should it?” Gwyn said as she felt an old anger rising. Not so old an anger, actually – but one still sharp when she allowed it to show, which was not very often. It was the anger of inaction. She sipped from the cup, enjoying the cold liquid even though she didn’t normally care for diluted wine.
“No,” said Gareth. “Being put on display for the people of Prydein would not suit me, either. I share your boredom. We have been here too long, I think.”
Gwyn stopped what she was doing and looked at her friend. Gareth had been the ally she and her companions had so desperately needed on their journey to the Giants’ Dance, and she had been the one to remain a month ago when all the others had left with King Arthur to take the war north, including even Estren and Drudwas, since it was the duty of the Nine Bards – those few who were left – to be where the history of Prydein was bring shaped. The Druids too had gone north, for reasons of their own, taking Brother Llyad with them. Of Gwyn’s companions, only Gareth and the Finders had remained near Bedwyn.
“Are you thinking of leaving?” Gwyn asked.
“It is not in the nature of the Finders to remain still for so long,” Gareth said. “We will not find Seren Goleuad by sitting in one place. It is only by seeking that one finds, and we have done far too little seeking lately.” She sighed. “But then, I doubt very much if the Son is to be found while the land is being consumed by this war.”
Gwyn nodded, but said nothing. As deeply as she had come to love Gareth and her people in the last two months, she still found their quest for the lost son of Dona and the Sun difficult to understand. Their beliefs were not reflected by any of the texts she had ever studied in her preparation to enter Dona’s Priesthood, and the idea of a union between the Sun and Moon was not one that had ever found favor amongst the learned clerics of Prydein. Even so, Gwyn had wondered occasionally when the Finders’ nature as a wandering people would win out over their current settlement in the hills just east of the city. Now it appeared that it might be coming to pass. “How soon would you be leaving?”
Gareth shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “This isn’t a good time for the Finders, anymore than it is a good time for anyone else. We are skilled at living off the land, but even the skills we have honed over our years of seeking are being taxed now. And this is a time of war…” She trailed off for a moment, and then suddenly shook her head again. “This is idle talk, of course. I am simply growing uneasy after living for two months so near a city, and actually being in one. The Finders do not normally spend much time within city walls, but that is the way of it now. Our die is cast, and it cannot be unthrown. Forgive my ramblings.”
Gwyn smiled mischievously. “Haven’t I done just that, too many times?”
Gareth scowled, and changed the subject. “What news from the King?”
“None,” Gwyn said. “Although Davin does expect a rider today, though. I suppose that is something.”
“We are too much in the dark here,” Gareth said. “How can we help the King in his war if he will not tell us what is going on? We have waited too long to hear. For all we know, he could be marching into battle even as we speak.”
Gwyn shuddered. She preferred not to consider that possibility. The thought of all those men she knew, riding directly into battle, filled her with fear and disquiet – especially as they would be riding to war against the combined forces of both Cwerith and Duncan, and this time they would not be able to surprise them with a sudden attack by riding through the Giants’ Dance and striking from behind. The next battles would be on single fields, for all to see.
“Ach!” Gareth swallowed the rest of her wine in a single gulp. “I hate thinking of such matters. There is a reason we Finders go to war so rarely: we are bad at it.” She drained her own cup. “I thought I saw some anger there, a moment ago. You really are tired of this, aren’t you?”
“Being put on display, almost as a thing?” Gwyn said. “To be held up for the people to stare at, without any ability to lead the rituals, or even to say anything at all? To have nothing at all to do, even if it is studying the Oracles until my eyes hurt and my back feels like it will never move again? No, I’m not tired of that at all.” She sat down on her bed and glowered at Gareth, who burst out laughing.
“I’m sorry, My Lady,” Gareth said. “Scowling does not become you.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t,” Gwyn replied. “And yet, I still have absolutely nothing to do. I rise in the morning, I walk the city walls just to get a breath of fresh air that isn’t scented with ritual perfumes, I attend ceremonies and sit in with the ladies and meditate and…that’s all. That’s what I have done for two months.”
“You weren’t this confident, just two months ago,” Gareth said.
Gwyn smiled. “There are many things that I wasn’t, two months ago.” She finished her own cup of wine. “I once asked you what place I would have, since I was no longer the Welcomer. You didn’t have an answer then. No one does, still.”
“King Arthur may have an answer to that,” Gareth said. “Have you ever asked him?”
Gwyn shook her head. King Arthur was…she could not say, really, what King Arthur was. She had no idea what she saw when she looked into his eyes. She had no idea what it was that he felt, what it was that he thought, what it was that moved him and stirred his soul. She had spent that first month at his side, always at his side, and yet he said as little to her as he did to anyone else. He was a total mystery, and she had actually felt some relief when he had led the armies north. In truth, she missed Sir Baigent and Brother Malcolm far more. Perhaps, though, the King should be a mystery. How could she claim understanding of a man who had spent centuries asleep on the magical isle of Avalon, awaiting his return to a land where all of the people he had once known would be long dead?
And then there was the Book of the Finders.
The book they had discovered at some point in their travels was the most complete version of the story of King Arthur’s earlier reign ever found. In the pages of that book, Arthur’s onetime Queen had been named: Gwynwhyfar. And the way he had recoiled when she had told him her name…it was as if he'd seen in her a connection to a memory and a sadness that he wanted so dearly to forget. All of that conspired to create a barrier between herself and King Arthur that she was not sure she could surmount.
There came a knocking at the door then, and it swung open to admit two Adepts, followed by Father Terryn himself. Terryn was the Lord Priest of Bedwyn, and as such he presided over all of the ceremonies that took place in the great Sanctuary – like the one that was going to take place now. “It is time, My Lady,” Father Terryn said. “The people are gathered.”
Gwyn sighed. “Then let us go,” she said, and she followed him out into the hallways. Gareth came along as well, and they walked down to the main floor. The halls now became much wider, and the walls were adorned with occasional tapestries and painted murals depicting legendary events from Dona’s lore. Gwyn found these paintings fascinating; they had nothing like them on Tintagel. One of them, in particular, always captivated her when she came to stand before it. It depicted the very first days following the Cataclysm, as three figures – a man, a woman, and a child, clothed in mere tatters and their flesh blackened by soot – emerged from a cavern onto a scorched wasteland, the trees reduced to blackened stumps, the water of a nearby stream gray with ash, and the skies dank and cloud-covered. What struck Gwyn most about this particular painting was two things: first, the features of the three figures in the picture, which were ever-so-slightly touched with the look of the Fair; and second, the orange coloring that tinged the painting’s outer regions, depicting a fire that had not yet gone out, far at sea. It was surely a trick of the light, but each time she came on the painting she thought she could see three spots of gold within the far-flung orange of the distant flames. Three spots of gold, perhaps for the three Golden Ships on which the Fair Folk had come to Prydein from their home which had been swallowed by a sea driven to anger by Dona’s Dark Brother. This painting was to Gwyn both a reminder of the danger they faced, and a powerful emblem of hope in the face of that danger – for even the fires of the Cataclysm had not been enough to scour the earth clean. Life continued, and the land had been rebuilt. Surely that meant for something.
There was no time just now to look on these paintings, though. Father Terryn brought Gwyn into the Great Hall, which led in turn to the largest of the Temple’s four Sanctuaries. This great circular chamber seemed to Gwyn almost as large as all of Tintagel itself, and as was usual for these ceremonies, it was filled with several hundred citizens of Prydein who had newly come to Bedwyn. Even in the chill of winter, so many bodies in one place warmed the air, even before Gwyn felt the heat of the ceremonial fire that burned in the hearth at the exact center of the cavernous room; and even as much incense and scented oils as were being used right now could not totally cover the scent of so many unbathed bodies. As they drew near the entrance to the Sanctuary, a line of twenty Priests and Priestesses emerged from a side alcove to precede them inside. They took up a hymn of thanks to the Goddess as Gwyn and Father Terryn crossed the threshold and made their way along the aisle toward the granite altarstone before the fire in the center. Once Gwyn might have been impressed at the size of that altarstone – but she had been inside the Giants’ Dance. Beside the memory of those titanic megaliths, this stone seemed as a mere pebble.
Upon their reaching the altarstone, the gathered worshipers all sank to their knees. There were no seats or benches in this place; all ceremonies were either held standing or kneeling. It had been thus in Tintagel’s Sanctuary as well, although Gwyn had to get used to the fact that rites were not held outside here. There was not enough room, and they could not require everyone to travel the mile or two beyond the gates to make it so. And that did not take into account the fact of war.
Father Terryn held his staff aloft as the singing clerics reached the high point of their hymn, and then he slowly dipped its tip into the fire. Gwyn had seen this many times now, and she did not watch as the staff became enveloped in fire even though its wood did not actually burn; nor did she watch as the flame at the end of the staff turned from the familiar bright yellow of normal flame to the haunting silver of moonlight. She stood there, calmly, passively, gazing upon the downturned faces before her. All of them, ordinary people who had come from places torn by war or devastated by the winter that had never ended. All of them looking for hope, and who had come now to seek it in her.
“Be welcome in this place, people of Prydein!” Father Terryn did not pitch his voice to carry; he didn’t need to. The Sanctuary was worked in such a shape, with its stone walls perfectly aligned, to magnify and reflect his voice around the great chamber so that even the person farthest away behind him could discern his words as if he spoke into their ears alone. The Sanctuary was, in many ways, a marvel. “Come now into the Goddess’s light, and witness what she has done for her followers. Come and bear witness to the fulfillment of prophecy set down centuries ago, passed first as songs sung by the night’s fire, and then written down a hundred years ago by Ryannon of Tintagel. Hear now her words:
“All things come and pass again, even the dark; but in the end there shall finally come a time of greatest Dark. And the Dark shall drive the Light from the land, the seas will fill with ice and fire, and the fruitful land shall stand in the midst of winter even as the longest days of summer dawn. The People in Hiding shall come forth, and many will be slain; the rivers will run with blood and the trees will suffer the tongues of fire. The finger of Darkness shall touch the earth itself, and death shall bloom like the flowers in spring.
“ ‘Then there shall be a King, and he shall lead the people against the Dark. Before the last of all endings the place that saw battle before shall see battle again, the Wolf shall summon the Dragon, and all will hail the Coming of the King. And the King will rule over a Kingdom of Summer, and those long Kingless will have a standard once more.
“ ‘And this King shall be welcomed by one mortal and Fairy-born, one who walks with the light of both worlds. As the King went into the West after his time before, look to the West for his Welcomer, and be glad of heart when she stands before you.”
He fell silent for just the briefest moment, allowing the words to die away. Then he spoke again, now most definitely pitching his voice to carry: “Behold Lady Gwynwhyfar the Welcomer!”
Now the eyes of all the people gathered in that Sanctuary lifted, and they all focused on her. Gwyn glanced from person to person, and yet their faces made little impression on her. By now they had all begun to look the same, whether man or woman, boy or girl, old and infirm or young and hale. And the expressions were all the same, too, with the same mixture of reverence and awe and disbelief and every other emotion Gwyn could think to name. Thankfully, she did not have to do anything, for the ceremony was not hers to lead. The other clerics began a new hymn, the Song of Thanks to Dona written by Varra of the Northern Forests, one of the oldest and most reverential of all the Goddess’s hymns. This song was known to everyone in Prydein, and one by one the assembled people lifted their voices to join the Priests and Priestesses. Finally Gwyn joined in as well for the final three verses, and at last she was escorted out of the great Sanctuary again by Father Terryn. The voices in the Sanctuary that were still raised in song still echoed through the corridors, giving Gwyn a haunting reminder of life on Tintagel. She had loved dearly to be in the library there, early in the morning, while the sworn Priests and Priestesses attended vespers in the Sanctuary below.
“I’m glad that is over,” Father Terryn said when they were out of earshot of anyone except his and her personal attendants. “It would be easier if we simply paid some artisan to carve your likeness from oak or stone, and be done with it.” Gwyn glanced at him, surprised to hear him say such a thing, and he shrugged. “Forgive me, child, but this sort of thing is grating upon me. The Welcomer you may be, but you are also a person, not an idol. The way you are looked upon troubles me.”
“I suppose it is mostly harmless,” Gwyn said.
“Perhaps,” Terryn replied. “And perhaps I am not truly worthy to decide such things. I did, after all, doubt you as the Welcomer in the first place. This war of ours is making me doubt my own judgment.”
“Father Terryn! Hold!”
They turned to see Amren, Captain of the City Guard, scrambling after them.
“What is it, Captain?”
“A rider,” Amren said. “News from the north!”
After changing from ceremonial robes into more useful garb, Gwyn and Gareth joined Father Terryn and Amren for the ride from the Temple to the Keep. Despite the bother of waiting for the guards to arrive to provide their official escort, and despite the way the crowds thronging the city streets mustered as they realized the Welcomer was passing among them, Gwyn was glad they weren’t merely using the tunnels to go to the Keep. “Sometimes,” Father Terryn had once said, “we have to appear where we can be seen. It gives the people pleasure to know that things are still the same, and that we are still here.” Gwyn enjoyed the air despite the cold, she had had enough of the cold and dank tunnels for this day, and the carriage in which they rode was mostly enclosed and private, enough so as to mostly shield her from the shouts and cheers of the crowds that ran to catch a glimpse of her. None could actually touch her, though – that much she knew. Amren’s City Guard was good, for which she was thankful. At one point, she thought she saw amongst the crowd the same white-haired beggar she had glimpsed upon the docks that morning, but the face was gone as quickly as she saw it, and all these hungry faces had long since begun to blend into one.
When they arrived at the Keep, they were brought quickly into the Duke’s Hall. Even now, Gwyn felt a bit of surprise as she walked across the floor of the stark and chill hall, where the only decoration remaining in evidence were the tile patterns inlaid in the floor and two windows of stained glass by Annlaw, the great glasswright who had created wonderful illustrated windows for the greatest citadels in Prydein during the reign of High King Prystyl – of which these two, now that Caer Camyrdin and Londia had both been destroyed, were the only remaining examples. The tapestries and paintings here had been removed to storage for safekeeping, as had the Duke’s throne, which Gwyn was told the Duke never used, anyway. Now the Hall was basically a large chamber, dominated by four stone pillars and torch-sconces and nothing much else. The dais at the end was empty, and Davin had made his own workspace off to one side, against the left wall as one entered. Here was his table, piled high with maps and papers, and several chairs. There was also the walking stick which Davin only used when his knee was too sore to go without. This was where Davin stood near the Duke’s vacant seat with four other men, three of whom were clearly Priests, who bowed before Father Terryn.
“May the Goddess bring us to your table under her shining light, Father,” one of them said. “My name is Colla. I come from the village of Caer Vaelle.” He looked at Father Terryn, who blinked and shook his head. “It lies in the mountains, very near the border of Caledonia,” Brother Colla went on. “These men – Brother Wil, and Brother Haddon – serve the Goddess is villages very near mine. We came south because we have heard of the Welcomer and the coming of the Promised King. Is this she?” He pointed to Gwyn, his eyes wide.
“It is,” Father Terryn said. “Her name is Gwynwhyfar of Lyonesse. But just now, we would rather hear your tidings. We have received little word of the war in recent days, and our patience grows thin.”
“Indeed,” said Davin, turning to the rider. “Have you men any particular news of the war?”
Brother Colla shook his head. “None that would come as any news at all to My Lord Steward, unfortunately. Only to tell you that the people in the far settlements, the smallest villages, are now suffering horribly. Starvation is rampant. The bounty of the streams and rivers is beginning to fade, the animals in the woods cannot be found, and of course the ground has yielded nothing in almost a year. I have said the Rites of Passing too many times as of late, and I fear that when at last I travel north again, it will be to find a dead village.”
Davin nodded slowly. “You are right, Brother,” he said. “That did not come as news. But, ill tidings are no easier to hear merely because they are expected.” He nodded to Father Terryn, who cleared his throat.
“Brothers, if you would go with my Adepts, they will see you to the Temple and the lodging therein. I must remain here. Lord Steward Davin and I have matters to discuss, and this rider’s tidings may not be for your ears, I am afraid.”
“We understand, Father,” said Brother Colla. He and the other two clerics bowed one final time, and then they exited the hall, following Terryn’s Adepts as he had indicated. When the doors had slammed shut again, they all turned to the rider.
“Very well then,” said Davin. “What word, Donaddan?”
Donaddan, the rider, nodded. “Thank you, My Lord,” he said. “I encountered those clerics half a day’s ride from here, and they said they were making their way to Bedwyn to pay tribute to the Welcomer. Thus I gave them escort on the last part of my own ride.”
“Understood,” Davin said. “Now, what of the King?”
“He is near Oxishdown,” Donaddan said. Gwyn searched her memory of all the maps she had studied, and she recalled almost immediately that Oxishdown was a fairly large city located four or five days north and slightly east of Bedwyn, at the western end of the great Vale of Cul Calladan. It was the last city that far inland, before the Wilder Country – the mountains and deep forests north of Cul Calladan that dominated the center of Prydein – began. All of the other large cities and towns north of that region, the few there were, were located either on the sea or very near it.
Davin’s eyebrows lifted, and he whistled. “He pushed Cwerith that far north?” Davin said.
“Aye,” Donaddan confirmed with a nod. “He has taken to encampment on a high hill, the largest encampment I have ever seen. In truth, it is like to be the largest encampment since the days of High King Prystyl. It is a good hill, large and clear with good distance visible in each direction. The King has named it ‘Badon Hill’, for a battle he once fought…before. We also know that King Cwerith and King Duncan have at last joined together, at Cul Calladan's eastern end. A full day’s march now separates King Arthur from the Traitor Kings.”
“Then there has been no battle?” Gwyn asked suddenly.
“Naught but a few skirmishes,” Donaddan replied. “Some blood has been spilt – companies of men found trying to circumvent Badon on their way to join Cwerith, bandits on the loose seeking to prey on the roads during war, and the like. Nothing yet. Nothing large. Nothing like Bedwyn or Caer Camyrdin.”
Gwyn let out a breath, unsure if she should find that news relieving or not. It meant, of course, that the men she knew up there were still alive…but to draw too much hope from that would be folly.
“How soon does the King expect battle?”
Donaddan waited a moment before replying. “I think,” he finally said, “that the King expects battle each day. He does not tell me.”
“Very well,” Davin said. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes, Lord Steward. I am bid by Sir Baigent ap Pelegaunt to give his personal greetings to the Lady Welcomer.”
Gwyn felt her cheeks go red, and she smiled in spite of herself. In truth, it was Sir Baigent, her former Champion, whose fate most concerned her. She admitted this to no one, of course, although she suspected that Gareth was not at all surprised to hear it, given the low breathing noise the other woman made such that only Gwyn could hear.
Davin turned to his table, the one he had placed against the wall after the Duke had left and which was now covered with maps and papers. He dug about for one map in particular. “Oxishdown,” he said. “Oxishdown…let me see…”
Gwyn recalled the maps and the tales of the Bards and in the Oracles and the Histories of that region. War in that part of Prydein would be difficult, and it was amazing that King Arthur had pushed the Traitor Kings so far.
“The King must be planning some kind of attack,” Davin said. “If he has pushed the Traitors back that far, he must be thinking to defeat them altogether in one great battle, and he is offering the same incentive as bait for Cwerith and Duncan.”
“What makes you say that?” Father Terryn asked.
“Because of the lay of the land up in that country, and because he has purposely pushed Cwerith as far from his home as possible. He is also offering himself. He knows that Cwerith views him as a pretender, and that Cwerith will want nothing more than to defeat him in battle and take the throne in a manner beyond questioning. The only vexing matter now is: Why is King Arthur waiting to attack?” He sighed. “Have you any other news, Donaddan?”
“Not from the King,” Donaddan replied. “But there is word from Duke Cunaddyr. He wishes for you to gather able-bodied men and form a protection force to keep the peace. He wrote the orders himself.” He reached into his pouch and pulled out a folded and sealed sheaf of parchment. “He told me to deliver these dispatches directly into your hand.”
“I’m sure he did.” Davin accepted the parchment, broke the seal, and scanned the contents. “Yes, I expected as much. I have already begun.” He dropped the parchment to his table, where it became just one more piece of parchment or paper among many. “The Duke is not so confident as is the King, apparently. He believes that there will be groups of bandits, common criminals trying to curry favor with Cwerith, by harassing Bedwyn and our commerce.” He scowled as he said that last word, and added, “Such as it is.” He glanced up at Amren. “A good thing that we have already started, eh?”
Amren laughed, but without much humor behind it. They had indeed been selecting the strongest looking men amongst the refugees who had been flocking to Bedwyn, and employing them in a kind of militia. It was generally little better than the ragtag group that had fought off the attackers at the Giants’ Dance, since all the truly able-bodied men were sent in companies northward to join the King’s army if they hadn’t gone there already, but as in all things it would have to do.
“Cunaddyr also authorizes me to restrict rationing further when that time comes,” Davin said with a sigh. “That may be sooner than he hopes.”
“I suspect that he knows that,” Father Terryn said. “It is probably as close to a certainty as we can have in these dark times.”
“Certainty is a luxury we have little enjoyed lately,” Davin agreed. He glanced at Amren, and Gwyn could not miss the foreboding in that look. “You may go now, Donaddan. Amren will see to your quarter for the night, and you shall have a fresh horse for your return ride in the morning.”
“Thank you, Lord Steward,” Donaddan said, and Amren escorted him out of the hall. When the doors had again slammed shut, Davin let out a heavy sigh and rubbed his forehead.
“What is it?” Gwyn asked.
"When the Promised King arrived, we all thought that victory would come quickly, that the Goddess would be restored, that the land would blossom again. And yet it was not so. My old bones can still tell that something is amiss in the land, and I begin to wonder if it will still be more than a single King to set right – even one sent to us by the Goddess herself."
Gwyn said nothing to this. There was nothing she could say, really. The same fear had been at work in her heart as well. Instead, she merely took her leave.
The sun-cast shadows were growing long as they rode back to the Temple. The days were becoming shorter. Soon true winter would come, and there had not even been a summer. Even though it had been little more than an hour since she had seen these faces, these people of Bedwyn, somehow they looked hungrier, wearier. And there was nothing she, as the Welcomer, could do about that.
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