:: Sunday, March 01, 2009 ::
The Finest Deed, Chapter Three
Upon her return to the Temple, Gwyn bid farewell to Gareth, who had decided to return to the Finders in their encampment in hill country north of Bedwyn. Gwyn tried to conceal the envy in her voice as she did so. How she wished she could don riding clothes and go out into the hills and woods again, and perhaps bring her bow and find a rabbit or even a deer for the pot, and go into the woods where the Druids now held their rites. She wondered what Brother Llyad was up to, now that he was spending almost all of his time with the Oak Brothers. He had not spent a night in the company of his fellow Priests of Dona in several weeks now, and Gwyn rather suspected that he was planning to do as Hugydd, once Sir Hugydd of Caer Camyrdin, had done and actually join the Druids.
Gwyn took her evening meal with the other clerics of the Temple, a quiet affair that was much less exuberant than the meals at Tintagel had ever been – even under the stern eye of Father Reynold, when Father Damogan’s predecessor had tried for a time to institute a regimen of silence at mealtimes, based on something he had read and very likely misinterpreted from the Oracles. She listened to Father Terryn’s Blessing, she ate her small bowl of soup and one hunk of bread, she sang with the other clerics in the Hymn of Thankfulness, and then she went to the Temple library to read. She had found that by far the finest pleasure of being the Welcomer was that no one tried to restrict or direct her reading choices, and thus she was able to read from any book in the Temple library, including some that Brother Malcolm had ruled out until she had passed the Trials. Of course, there were the select books that no one could read except the Lord Priest, so dangerous were their contents, but even so Gwyn had not lacked at all for reading material. She gravitated toward the histories of the savage days just after the Cataclysm, when it sometimes seemed that the entire land had been one great and constant battlefield.
“May I ask what you are reading, My Lady?”
Gwyn looked up from her table. It was Brother Colla, one of the three newly-arrived Priests from the north. He and his companions had been at the evening meal as well, where three additional places had been set at one of the tables. Now he stood beside her in the library, two books under his arm.
“The Dialogs of the Fiery Age by Deryvach Deddyl,” Gwyn replied. “History appeals to me.”
“I’m sure you were a fine student,” Brother Colla said. “But they do not call you ‘Sister’.”
“No,” Gwyn said, shaking her head. “I was a month away from the Trials when…other events transpired.”
“Ah.” Brother Colla nodded. “I suppost that right now you are unsure as to whether you will ever complete the Trials? I think the Welcomer will always have something of a place. Good evening, My Lady.” He wandered off to a table of his own, and Gwyn returned to her book.
What surprised her so much was the way the written histories bore little, if any, resemblance to the events she had heard about from the Bards Estren and Drudwas, and from the Druids who had kept their own oral tradition alive. The histories told of bloody battles with the Druids themselves committing the foulest of acts, and there were inumerable stories of the dozens of petty Kings who ruled tiny kingdoms, and their constant forming of alliances and the subsequent betrayals of those alliances. She had loved these stories once, but now she saw them for something else – a long and horrible tale of death and war and suffering. Now that she was seeing the same kind of story being written for the histories again, she found the old tales far less appealing, even if they now had more lessons to offer than mere romance. She read for another hour, and then she left with all the other Priests and Priestesses for the evening Vespers. It was quite late when, at long last, she returned to her chamber.
Over the last few weeks the routine had begun to wear upon her, and she had found it difficult to drop off to sleep; but on this night, sleep came surprisingly easy, just minutes after she extinguished her candle and pulled her thick blankets up around her. She could hear clerics milling about in the Temple courtyard that her chamber window overlooked, but even their voices were not enough to keep her awake.
On that night came the first dream-vision she had seen since the night after the Promised King’s return.
Gwynwhyfar led a familiar white horse by the rein down a path that wound through a wood that was unlike any other she had walked in her dreams. This was no verdant, living wood, but a wood that had once been a wood but was now a desolate wasteland. The withered husks of trees rose about her, and the bushes had all turned to dried scrub and thickets of bramble. Some of the dead trees looked like they had burned, others looked like they had perished of disease, and the air was thick with the musty scent of death and decay. The horse made no sound at all as it obediently followed Gwynwhyfar, but even so she could sense its fear, and when she stopped to massage the animal’s neck she saw that its fur had become damp and its ankles and forelegs had darkened with soot and dirt. The same had happened to her samite gown, and tears welled in her eyes for the dead land all around her.
At length the path came down out of the hills and to the side of a gray motionless sea. Here Gwynwhyfar stopped and waited as the moon rose from the horizon before her – but it was not any moon she had seen before. This moon was much larger, and its color was not brilliant silver but a dull mix of red and pewter, and in the half-light of twilight the moon cast little light of its own. The horse whinnied nervously, and Gwynwhyfar laid a hand on its neck to calm it. When the moon had risen completely, Gwynwhyfar heard the voice from the waters.
“No, child. I am not the Lady of the Lake. I am much older than she, and I think you know to whom you now speak.”
The woman whose voice this was now appeared, walking down from the sky to stand upon the water. Her features were shadowy, as if her body were shrouded by a patch of mist or fog, and Gwynwhyfar could not tell if she was a maiden or a crone, or perhaps both or neither. The lady seemed made of the same stuff as the red moon that hung low in the sky above them, and Gwynwhyfar supposed that she was – for she was Dona herself.
“My Goddess,” Gwynwhyfar said, her voice even less than a bare whisper. She felt like she should bow, or kneel; and yet she only stood still.
“You must stop him, Gwynwhyfar. You must complete the Finest Deed.”
“I do not understand,” Gwynwhyfar said.
“She speaks of me, My Lady.”
Gwynwhyfar turned in the direction from which the deep, male voice had come. Approaching her, along the side of the sea, was a man. He was naked, and his body seemed sculpted like a statue. His golden hair fell in loose curls about his shoulders. In his hands he carried a sword from whose blade dripped a constant stream of blood that darkened the ground on which it spilled. “An interesting weapon, is it not?” he said. “The blood is that of Prydein, and it will continue to flow until the land has no more blood to give. But perhaps just now you wish to gaze upon my other weapon, and perhaps you would like to feels its stab.”
Revulsed, Gwynwhyfar looked away. The man laughed.
“Is it the form that bothers you?” he asked. “I assure you, I can appear to you however you might desire. Is this more to your liking?” His body changed shape then, to that of a giant silver wolf that bared its teeth and gave a single, low snarl. The horse edged away, and Gwyn shuddered. The wolf’s form shifted back to the naked blond man, who laughed.
“I know you, Dark Brother,” Gwynwhyfar finally said. “And I know you for the nameless evil that you are.”
“Nameless?” Dona’s Dark Brother smiled. “I have had many names in all the ages since the beginning of all things. Some of those names are known, far more are forgotten. But you are correct, my lovely plaything: it is time for me to take a name again, and to allow that name to be spoken with fear as well as due reverence. I shall claim another name before all is done, but for now, you will call me, Evnissyen.”
“That name was not yours,” the Goddess said.
“And yet it suits me, does it not?” The Dark Brother laughed. “With him it all began: my first touching of the world.”
“You have inspired many,” Dona said. “And yet, all those who have felt your inspiration have failed.”
“All past events have led to what is now coming,” the man said. They were now speaking of things unknown to Gwyn, of angers and sadnesses inflicted upon the world and suffered by her people in days so long gone by that not even their histories had survived.
“You wonder why you are here, child,” Dona suddenly said to Gwynwhyfar. “You wonder what purpose you are to serve, now that you have fulfilled your journey as the Welcomer. You long to know what place you will serve in the world. Know now, child, that you have walked but one road of the many that lie before you, and that the greatest of all roads still awaits you. The greatest road, and the most perilous. You will need strength, and you will have it.”
“Have done, sister!” The Dark Brother who had taken the name Evnissyen laughed. “This is futile foolishness, and well you know it. This frail blossom will no more withstand the winds that are to come than any of the others whose seeds you scattered into the breeze to take root wherever they might land. Your power is fading with each dawn that rises over Prydein, and my own strength grows with each sunset. You can not even bar me from this place. This child will no more have the strength to restore you than any other of the hopeful saviors you have chosen. How many have walked that road in your name? How many have failed?"
“This girl is different, brother,” Dona said. “And she has Culdarra’s favor. Why must you hate beauty so? Why is all that is good in the world so hateful in your eyes?”
“Because all things that are good in the world fade in time. Only the darkness is permanent.” Evnissyen moved forward and stood so close to Gwynwhyfar that the drips of blood from his sword spattered on the folds of her gown. “Such a lovely creature, thus union of mortal and Fairy. How terrible that she will not live to see the end, when the Wyrm awakens for the third and final time and bears his judgment for all.”
“You tried to kill me before,” Gwynwhyfar said.
Evnissyen laughed. “There will be time for all things in the end,” he said. “For now, I would show you the forces in the face of which you think to make your stand.” He turned toward the sea and made a sweeping gesture with his left hand. Almost immediately the water began to boil.
“Brother!” the Goddess shouted. “Do not do this!”
If he heard her speak, he gave no sign at all. Instead he lifted his hands high and his eyes gleamed.. Gwynwhyfar looked on, helpless and rapt, as the sea roiled and heaved. A bolt of white-hot lightning ripped the air in half and touched down in the middle of the water before them. Gwynwhyfar felt the heat from the lightning on her face, and she blinked her eyes clear as the blast of thunder shook the entire world. The horse screamed, but Gwynwhyfar kept her grip on the rein and tried to calm the terrified beast. And then she, too, felt raw, numbing fear, for something was glowing beneath the waters, and that glow – a red that was redder than blood – became brighter and brighter, and larger and larger. More lightning flashed in the sky above them, and the red glow began to throb and pulsate like a great, beating heart. Gwynwhyfar realized that something was rising from the waters. Evnissyen the Dark Brother stepped out into the water and walked out until it was up past his knees. “COME!” he wailed. “COME!”
And come it did, bringing fire and death with it. The Wyrm of the World rose from the depths of the deepest sea, and it focused its terrible eye directly upon her. Gwynwhyfar had never beheld anything so vast, so terrible before. It was as if all the dark things from all the dreams she had ever had were blended together into this one awful thing that towered before her. The Wyrm looked upon her, and then its mouth yawned wide…and from that mouth came fire, the fire of Cataclysm unleashed anew upon all that they had ever built. Gwynwhyfar’s screams echoed along with Evnissyen’s shouts of glory as the world ended….
Gwyn awoke then, gasping as she did so. It had been a long time since she had had one of these “visions” in place of her normal dreams – glimpses into the other world from which part of her came. They had begun on the night of Brother Llyad’s return from Tintagel, they had continued until after the Battle of Bedwyn, when she had said her last farewell to her father…and then, nothing aside from the usual, nearly impossible to remember dreams that came along every night and vanished with each opening of her eyes the next morning. Gwyn lay in the darkness for a long moment, wondering what the return of these visions could possibly mean. Like before, it had been so vivid and real. She could even still smell the smoke of the Wyrm’s fire…
She sat bolt upright. It was not part of her dream at all; she really was smelling smoke. Distant smoke, to be sure, but smoke which should never have been here, in her chamber. Now she could also hear shouts in the distance, and glass breaking. She moved to her window, threw aside the sash, and saw outside the glow of flames. The Temple was on fire.
In the half-light she threw on her breeches, shirt, boots and cloak – this was no time to worry about donning her clerical robes, after all – and moved to the door. Feeling it and finding it cool to the touch, she cracked it open, to discover the corridor beyond full of smoke and her two guards nowhere to be seen. She shut the door and ran back to her window, trying to see if she could get out that way…but the casement was frozen in place, the window was too small to allow her to climb through, the drop to the ground was too far, and in any case she would still have to make her way through the Temple if she got out that way. But why had she heard nothing until now?
Looking further out the window, she saw that the fire was limited to only a handful of windows, all on her level of the Temple. Surely the clerics and City Guard were already fighting the flames. Of course they’d be fighting the flames, girl! she thought. They won’t let the place burn to the ground! But still, she easily imagined the flames moving in the direction of her chamber, as far as she could tell by looking out her tiny window, and smoke was already entering her chamber in a tiny stream from around her door. She looked again, down into the courtyard, with its gravel paths circling a standing stone…and the Priest standing there, unmoving. How strange, she thought – one of the Temple clerics was in meditation in the courtyard while fires burned in the upper parts of the building! Then the Priest lifted his head to meet her eyes, and Gwyn gasped. It was no Priest at all, but the white-haired beggar she had seen that morning, on the docks. Even in the half-light of the moon and the fires, she recognized him. She drew backward sharply, and jumped as there came a pounding at her door, accompanied by a shouting voice: “My Lady! My Lady, come!”
Gwyn ran to the door and threw it open. Standing there, with a scrap of cloth pressed over his nose and mouth, was Brother Colla.
“My Lady! Come!”
“There…there is someone in the courtyard—” Had he set the fire?
The Brother ignored her and grabbed her arm. “Come, My Lady! We must flee!”
Gwyn hesitated, blinked, and glanced around. “But—my guards—”
“I don’t know where they are,” Colla said. “I only thought to look in on you because my own guest chamber is four doors down from yours. The Temple is on fire. We must go!”
“Which way is safe?” Gwyn asked.
“This way.” Colla pointed to the left, which made sense to Gwyn, for that was the way to the great stair and the main corridor to the Temple’s entrance. Pointing to the right, he said, “The flames began that way, but I do not know more than that.”
In the distance Gwyn heard more shouts, probably from guards and clerics fighting the fire. She hesitated once more. “Where are your travel-mates?” she asked.
“They are awaiting us in safety. My Lady, please!”
Gwyn relented. She grabbed an old shirt from her cabinet and held it over her nose and mouth as Brother Colla led her by the hand directly into the smoke-filled corridor.
After they had moved twenty steps or so down the hall, the smoke began to thin considerably, and they came to the first set of stairs down to the next level. Gwyn turned toward them, but Colla pulled on her arm to keep going in their original direction.
“We can’t be sure of those stairs, My Lady,” he said. Gwyn looked askance at him, for there seemed to be no smoke at all rising from this particular set of stairs. Nevertheless, she followed him onward. They moved quickly, almost running, until they came to an iron door that Gwyn knew led into a smaller, lesser-used stair that spiraled downward all the way to the lowest level of the Temple. “This stair will be safe,” Brother Colla said as he pushed open the door. “It will bring us to the bottom level, below the fire. Come!”
Strange that this door isn’t barred like it usually is, Gwyn thought. Brother Colla grabbed a torch from the wall-sconce outside the door, for that would be their only light in this stair. He allowed a slower pace now, and they walked carefully down the stairs. As Gwyn followed him, something stirred in her mind, some small patch of doubt about something she could not bring into sharp focus. She followed Brother Colla down the tightly winding stair, which did in fact lead all the way down to the Temple cellar, where they were met by the two men Colla had accompanied to Bedwyn. The clerics – Brothers Wil and Haddon, Gwyn remembered – had packs on their shoulders.
“Come,” Brother Colla said. “We must get out of the Temple!”
Now Gwyn stopped and stared at the men. There was no smoke down here, and there were no shouts; further, the way Colla was gesturing was down a corridor she knew did not lead to the main gate but to one of the tunnels out of the Temple.
“No,” Gwyn said, backing away. “This is not right—”
“My Lady, surely you already suspect what is the case,” Brother Colla said. “You know why the fire was set. Someone wishes to strike at the Welcomer – perhaps the very person you saw beneath your window. There are dark folk about in Prydein these days, folk who would do anything they could to earn favor with certain powers. I would count myself no servant of Dona if I did not pledge you my service. We are taking you to safety.”
Gwyn shook her head. “Father Terryn would not allow harm to come to me,” she said.
“He already has,” Colla said. “Think, Lady Welcomer. He only allowed two guards to be posted outside your door, guards who were easily overcome. He did not believe in you from the start. Terryn may not be as strong a man as you believe.”
Gwyn shook her head again. This could not be true. Father Terryn had doubted her in the beginning, when they had met at Briston, but not since then. And certainly not now. His doubts in the beginning, when she had met him in that tavern in Briston, had been natural doubts, understandable ones…
And how would this cleric from a tiny village far to the north know any of that?
Gwyn spun and bolted for the stair. She might have made it, had the stair been lit by more than a single torch, but after the first few steps she could not see anything ahead of her, and the constant twisting of the stair combined with the lack of light made her stumble and fall. Seconds later she felt Brother Colla’s hand fasten around her ankle, in a grip that was deceptively strong.
“No, My Lady,” he said. “I cannot allow you to go back up there and into danger. You must come with me. Would you perish in the blaze, burned until your hair was gone and your fair skin was blackened like a lamb left too long on the spit?” Reasonable words, but spoken in nothing resembling a reasonable tone. Colla shifted his grip to her arm and pulled her upright. He was much stronger than she had given him credit for, and in the torchlight his eyes took on a malevolence that she had not seen in any eyes since Maxen’s, that night in the Scarlet King’s fortress. When Sir Baigent had maimed him after he had decided to maim her… “Come now, My Lady. Your escort awaits.”
He did not wait for a reply; he simply fastened his fingers around her wrist and pulled her down the stairs behind him, roughly now, with no pretense toward being gentle. His grip was frighteningly strong, and his fingers were chill. Gwyn’s mind flashed back to her last night on Tintagel, when another cleric had taken her against her will, but that had turned out to be a case of poor planning by Brother Llyad, not malice. Gwyn saw little reason to suspect that this abduction would be the same as that. She tried to resist, to pull away from Colla, but she could not loosen his grip in the slightest degree. He was too strong.
“You are no Priest of Dona at all,” she said. He only laughed.
Now she could hear shouts echoing from up above them, in the stair. They were being followed, which was confirmed when Brother Colla calmly picked up his pace, nearly pulling her off her feet entirely before they again reached the bottom.
“We are here!” Gwyn screamed. “Help me! Help—” That was all she could get out before Colla stuffed a wad of cloth into her mouth, nearly choking her before she could gasp in a snatch of breath through her nose. The scrap tasted horribly unpleasant, but that was the least of Gwyn’s concerns now.
“They come,” said Brother Wil as he bound Gwyn’s hands with a length of cord.
“It won’t matter,” Colla replied. “Bring her.”
Haddon and Wil closed in on either side of her, each dragging her along by an arm as Colla led the way to the entrance to the tunnels. Gwyn nearly wretched, and her eyes filled with tears, when she saw the two Adepts lying there on the cold stone floor, with their necks twisted into impossible angles. Two poor students, serving their duties to the Goddess, now cruelly murdered by these pretenders who had so easily worked their way into the trust of the Temple through subterfuge. How stupid they had been! How foolish, to take these men at their word as soon as they so much as entered the city!
Colla strode past the dead students and shoved open the door to the tunnel beyond, and the two false priests to her either side brought Gwyn through and into the darkness. Colla shoved the door shut behind them, and the iron clang echoed terribly through the dark passage.
“There is no way to bar the door from this side,” Wil remarked.
“You worry too much,” Colla replied.
They strode very quickly now, quickly and confidently, undaunted and undeterred in the slightest by Gwyn’s struggles. Their footsteps echoed on the cold stone, and the only light came from the torch in Colla’s hand. Save your strength, Gwyn told herself. You will need it before long. She wondered just who these men really were…but more than that, she wondered if she would get the opportunity to escape.
They arrived at the junction of all six tunnels. Gwyn recognized the one they now turned and followed: the one that Gwyn knew led to the docks on the Test. This was also the longest of the tunnels, and Gwyn began to falter a bit as she found herself unable to quite keep the same pace as the two men who dragged her between them. She stumbled several times, and once she actually fell to the floor and was dragged back to her feet before she could push herself up on her own. What do they want with me? she wondered, over and over again until the tunnel finally sloped sharply upward again and they came to the end, a great metal gate that led into a dark alley amidst the Bedwyn docks. Here Colla stopped and threw dark cloaks over each of them – they had prepared, they had planned this well – and led them out, into the night.
The outside air was slightly warmer than that of the tunnel, and redolent of water and earth. Somewhere behind them, within the city, Gwyn could hear the clanging of alarm bells, for the fire in the Temple – a distraction first for these men to abduct her from the Temple, and now for them to get her out of Bedwyn entirely.
Her captors dragged her out of the alley, across the street that should have been choked with wagons both empty and laden but was now devoid of traffic entirely, and out onto one of the docks. Here Colla glanced once at the city walls that overlooked the docks, and seeing no one he turned back to the river. Then he lifted his torch and swung it high over his head, describing two great arcs before tossing it into the swirling eddies of the Test where it vanished with a splash and a hiss. As Gwyn watched, another light appeared from across the river – someone over there had struck another torch and waved it in similar fashion before also extinguishing it. Then they waited. And waited.
“This is taking too long,” hissed Wil.
“We have little choice,” Colla said.
“It won’t take the City Guard long to figure out where we’ve gone! We should have set a bigger fire!”
“It will take them long enough,” Colla replied. “They do not patrol the docks as much now, and in any event they will instead suspect that we fled to the entrance beyond the gates. It will take them quite long, indeed, before they think that we made our escape this way.”
“And what of the men on the walls?”
“They will think us starving wretches out to pluck dead fish from the water, if they see us at all,” Colla said. “Silence, now.”
And they waited for a time, in agonizing silence on the docks of the river Test. Gwyn prayed for someone, anyone, to come along, but of course no one did aside from some detestable wretch who shuffled by without paying them any mind whatsoever. Gwyn tried to control her shivering. After what seemed like a terribly brief while, during which not one member of the City Guard came along the walls to see them, a wooden boat emerged from the darkness, angling straight toward them. The two men aboard, one rowing and one at the tiller, might have been twins, so similar was their look: they were both huge men with thick torsos, arms, legs and necks; both wore filthy clothes and cloaks, and both looked like hard, hard men. They pulled up alongside the dock where one of the men tossed a rope up and over one of the pilings.
“Come, My Lady,” Colla said. “Our transport awaits.”
They brought her forward to the end of the dock. Gwyn briefly considered attempting another break for freedom, but she rejected the idea just as quickly, for she would not be able to shout for help with this rag stuffed in her mouth, nor would she be able to reopen the door to the tunnels beneath the city with her wrists bound. Colla started to lower himself down into the boat.
“Stop,” the man at the tiller said. “Payment first.”
Colla stared at the man. “You are late,” he said.
The man shrugged and spat into the water. “If you think you can get this boat across this water by yourself, with those weakling arms of yours, you’re welcome to make the attempt. The Test is a harder river than she looks.” The oarsman grunted in agreement.
Colla sighed and tossed the man a bag of coins. Then he climbed down into the boat, where he stood and received Gwyn as Wil and Haddon handed her down to him as if she were no more than a sack of grain. She sat on the floor of the boat, just in front of the tillerman, leaning up against one of the thwarts. Then the two other false priests descended into the boat, and the oarsman grabbed the rope and thus cast them loose from the dock. At once Gwyn felt the boat bob with the current, and the two men took up the oars and tiller again, guiding the boat hard and fast out of the eddies of the Bedwyn harbor and toward the main channel of the Test. The lights and noises of the city receded behind her, and her heart filled with despair. Had her arms been free, she might well have thrown herself into the water and tried to swim for the shore, but she doubted she could survive the frigid water. Then she felt the sudden shift in the boat’s position as they entered the main current, and the oarsman now worked even harder to keep the prow angled upstream for the ferrying motion across the water. There was no sound except for their hard breaths as they rowed, and the occasional thump as a chunk of ice or wood bumped up against the side of the craft.
Out here, in the middle of the river Test on a moonless night, it was very cold and became even colder when the breeze freshened from the north. Gwyn shivered and tried to shrug her cloak up about her shoulders higher, with limited success. The men surrounding her were obviously likewise cold, pulling their own cloaks on very tightly, but none of them spared a single thought for Gwyn’s comfort, which struck her as an ill omen. As if you have any more need for ill omens, she thought.
Eventually Gwyn felt the current shift again, and she realized that they had arrived at the shallows on the opposite side. There was the grating noise of gravel rubbing against the hull, and the boat lurched a bit as the keel ran aground in the muddy bank. The oarsman in front jumped out and, taking up the rope, pulled the boat even further aground, and then Colla disembarked as well. Will and Haddon rose and pulled Gywn with them as they climbed out on to the bank. The ground here was both soft and hard, being comprised of mud that had been firmed by days of cold and nights of frost, and the only light came from the now-distant city that lay across the river. Gwyn saw that even with the men’s strong rowing, they had been pushed a fair distance downstream.
“Where are the horses?” Colla asked.
“There,” said the tillerman, pointing to a tree that could just barely be made out in the darkness where three horses stood tied to the trunk.
Colla frowned. “Those are the boniest nags you could find, I see.”
The man spat. “I told you that more gold might produce better horses.”
“So you did.”
The oarsman cleared his throat, and his friend shrugged. “Well, if there’s no more need for us, we should be on our way.”
“Yes, you should,” said Colla, and with that he produced a knife from his belt and in one swift, sudden stroke plunged it into the man’s exposed neck. Gwyn gasped, choking as she did so for the rag was still stuffed deep in her mouth. The oarsman sputtered as dark blood fountained from his neck, and his hands reflexively groped at the wound. The sounds he made were wordless and horrible. The other oarsman stood in the boat and brandished a club, but as soon as he reached his feet something whistled past Gwyn’s ear. She did not need to look to know that it was a dart, much like one of the Druids’. The other oarsman’s hand shot to his neck, and he staggered forward before dropping to his knees. Beside Gwyn, Haddon put the blowtube back in his pouch.
“Now, my fine boatmen, I hope you will enjoy your final voyage on the Test,” said Colla as he shoved the man he’d stabbed back into the boat, along with the man who was dying as the poison from the dart worked its way through his body. Colla bent to retake his bag of coins, and then with Wil’s help shoved the boat out into the water where the current took hold of it and pulled it away, down eventually to Bornmuth and the sea. Then Colla and Wil pulled Gwyn to the waiting horses.
“You no longer need this,” Colla said as he pulled the rag from Gwyn’s mouth. She gasped and then took in a deep breath. “We have nothing to fear by you screaming. There is no one to hear you.”
He stood back as Haddon and Wil shoved her up onto one of the horses while Colla tied this animal’s saddle to his own. They would lead her, then, for which Gwyn was somewhat thankful; that was better than being struck unconscious and carried like so much chattel slung on a horse’s back. But they also did not blindfold her, which told her that these men had little fear of her marking the way. Clearly this was meant to be a journey from which she would not be returning. Finally the three men mounted their horses, and then they rode away to the north.
As the night went on, they followed the side of the Test fairly closely, until dawn neared and they came to the first town north of Bedwyn along the river. This, Gwyn remembered from the maps, was a small farming and fishing village called Caer Navvin. It was a small town, not only smaller than Bedwyn but smaller also than Briston had been, and it had avoided being sacked by Cwerith when the Traitor King had marched on Bedwyn by virtue of not having a bridge across the Test. Strangely, the men did not put the rag back into Gwyn’s mouth, even though it looked like they were riding straight into the middle of the town. Surely they would worry about her speaking to someone they saw, or screaming, or doing anything to raise a ruckus that might give her chance to escape, but they did nothing to forestall any such action – except for when Gwyn glanced over at Haddon and saw his eyes fixed on hers and the blowtube in his hand, dart at the ready. So that was to be the way of it.
They approached the wooden wall that surrounded the town, at which point Colla went right up to the gate and pounded on it, twice. The small shutter in the middle of the gate popped open, and the man within peered through and then stuck out his hand, into which Colla put the same bag of coins from before. Gwyn shook her head as she wondered just how many passages would be bought with this same set of coins. With a terrific creak of iron hinges, the gate swung open, allowing them entry. In they rode, with Gwyn following Colla and Wil, and with Haddon directly behind her. The gatekeeper glanced at her, and laughed.
“So this is your game, eh?” he said. “Nabbing the Welcomer herself? Now that I know what you’re up to, I am thinking of upping my price.”
“And you might find that my knife on your throat is more cheaply bought that that,” Colla said.
The gatekeeper grunted as he grabbed a hooded lamp, hooked it to the end of a pole, and gestured for them to follow him. He led them through deserted streets until they came to an equally deserted livery which was occupied by a single wagon hitched to a team of mules. Here the false priests dismounted and forced Gwyn to do the same. Gwyn numbly went along with them, obediently climbing into the back of the wagon while Haddon and Wil saw to the mule team and while Colla gave the gatekeeper more money, leaving him alive. Minutes later they were trundling north again, looking like poor farmers, with Caer Navvin behind them.
Gwyn lay in the wagon, helpless and afraid and exhausted. She had at first expected them to kill the gatekeeper, but of course his presence would be missed far more in Caer Navvin than those two boatmen anywhere else, and obviously they did not mean to risk word of a murder in that small village reaching Bedwyn when the city was already frantic with the disappearance of the Welcomer. Colla was playing this part well. As the wagon bumped along the pitted and rutted roads, neither Haddon nor Wil gave Gwyn a second glance. Colla, though, turned toward her from his seat.
“You should rest, My Lady Welcomer,” he said. “This journey will be long.”
Gwyn stared at him, wondering if he really thought she would be able to sleep just now, given that she was the captive of a trio of murderers. It turned out that he believed no such thing, because he reached into his pocket, and drew forth a small pouch whose contents – some kind of powder – he emptied into his palm and then blew into her face. She coughed as she involuntarily breathed the powder in, and she recognized the smell: it was dried drowsingstem, a kind of mushroom used in healing for its ability to put a person into a very long sleep. She resisted, uselessly, and in seconds she had fallen into a long and dreamless slumber.
::..permanent link to this chapter..::