Authors: Kim Iverson Headlee Kim Headlee
Tags: #Arthurian Legends, #Historical, #King Arthur, #Knights and Knighthood, #Roman Britain, #Celts, #Celtic, #Scotland, #Morning's Journey, #short story, #Fiction
Talya and Gwydion, he learned to his horror as he gently turned his wife over, had perished, throats slashed.
Forgive me, dearest ones!
Dwras struggled to his feet, swiping at furious tears and fighting acrid nausea as his senses reported the surrounding carnage. All thoughts of burying his wife and son fled. If his wound didn’t kill him, the first raider to find him lingering here surely would.
Chieftain Loth had to be told! If Loth would give him a spear, he, Dwras map Gwyn, gladly would use it to spit these murderers over a slow fire—though that fate seemed far too kind. For Talya and Gwydion and the others, vengeance remained the only burial gift he could bestow.
Clutching his useless arm to his chest, breaths birthing gray ghosts, he lurched toward the dun hills.
RENCHER BALANCED ACROSS his good forearm, Dwras map Gwyn returned to the eating area of Dunpeldyr’s Great Hall to find another man seated on his bench. Empty seats abounded, but Dwras was sick unto death of having things stolen from him, especially by arrogant warriors who wielded their status as an excuse to abuse decent, honest, hardworking folk.
He jabbed the offending warrior on the shoulder. With a grunt, the man swung his head around to fix narrow eyes upon him.
“What d’ye want?”
“My seat. I want it back.” Dwras lowered his eyebrows. “Now!”
“You—what?” The Lothian warrior’s laughter nearly made him choke. A grinning companion slapped his back.
“Oho, Farmer Dwras thinks he’s one of us, lads,” chortled another warrior, making a shooing motion. “Be off with you! Back to your pigs, farmer boy.”
They burst into cackles, hoots, and hog calls. Dwras felt his cheeks flush.
The warrior in Dwras’s seat found himself buried under sops and ale.
“My mistake, sir.” He grinned devilishly. “I thought this was the sty.”
Bellowing, the warrior shot to his feet. Soggy bread flew everywhere. Dwras ducked the blow. Upon connecting with a bony chin, he sent the man sprawling across the cluttered table. The warrior’s humiliation more than balanced the pain lancing Dwras’s healing shoulder. The audience’s jeers redoubled with vicious glee.
The warrior stood, ale-streaked face darkened with rage and fist cocked. “You filthy whore’s son, I’ll—”
Trailed by a detachment of guards, Chieftain Loth strode across the hall, toppling benches and shoving servants from his path. Fists lowering, the adversaries stepped apart.
Dwras bowed his head to accept the chieftain’s harsh judgment. From the corner of his eye, he saw the warrior reacting in much the same manner, and it gave him a perverse surge of satisfaction.
“You.” Loth thrust a finger close to Dwras’s face. “Your doing?”
The truth died in his throat. Surely Chieftain Loth would believe his own warrior over a mere farmer.
He sighed. “Aye, my lord.” Perchance the end would come quick and painless. On the other hand, he’d never been that lucky.
“Hmph.” The chieftain turned to address someone behind him. “This is the farmer who brought me word of the raid. I told you he’s too much trouble to keep here.”
Here it comes, Dwras mused, banishment. Mayhap the chance to join his wife and son sooner, a fate for which he dared not hope. He certainly had nothing left on this side of eternity.
The man Chieftain Loth had addressed stepped to the forefront of the gathering. Dwras felt his jaw go slack.
If any woman’s son had ever claimed divine descent, this one ought. To call him fair of face would be a gross injustice when his countenance radiated strength, confidence, and intelligence in equally great measures. His face seemed both young and old at once, accustomed to receiving instant respect and obedience: the face of a god.
“I think he has more to tell.” Even the man’s voice resounded godlike in its commanding yet compassionate authority. Profound sympathy shone from his intense blue eyes. “Don’t you, lad?”
“What’s to tell, Arthur? Dwras was causing trouble.” Loth nailed Dwras with his stare. “Again.”
“I want his story.”
As he loosened his tongue to describe the brawl, his head reeled like a drunkard’s. What name had Chieftain Loth given this man? Arthur? Loth’s brother-by-marriage, the Pendragon himself, here in remote Dunpeldyr? In the dead of winter?
This warrior came dressed for the part, aye, sporting more finely spun linen, well-tooled leather, and freshly polished bronze than Dwras had seen in his entire score of years. Scars adorned those hard-muscled arms and legs, too, thin white ribbons left by only the sharpest blades.
The Pendragon, indeed.
He couldn’t believe his fortune. Rather, his misfortune, for he felt utterly foolish for boring Arthur with such a trivial matter. He dropped his gaze to the floor rushes.
“Dwras, I commend your courage for alerting Chieftain Loth, as badly wounded as you were.” Arthur’s hand rested lightly upon Dwras’s uninjured shoulder. “This may be cold comfort, but you helped spare many more villages. And I like your spirit. Even if it’s a bit—misdirected.” Dwras dared to meet those unwavering eyes. Their fire branded his soul. “I would like to put that spirit to better use.”
For the second time in as many minutes, he thanked God that his jaw was hinged to his head, else it surely would have hit the floor. Had he heard aright? Was the Pendragon asking him to trade his pitchfork for a spear? Giving him a chance to avenge his loved ones? A chance his own chieftain had denied him?
More to the point, was he, Dwras map Gwyn, a simple son of the earth, truly capable of doing such a thing?
If grief for his family and friends had begun to ebb, hatred for their Angli murderers would smolder as long as blood flooded his veins. Now, icy conviction tempered the molten hatred.
Thrusting out his chin, he raked the astounded Clan Lothian warriors with a defiant glare.
“When do we leave, Lord Pendragon?”
“Can you ride?” Arthur asked.
Placid farm beasts, aye, not the fearsome dervishes warriors favored, but no power in heaven or on earth could force him to confess that to Arthur. “Aye, my lord.”
Arthur nodded slowly, as if pondering the truth of the claim. For one terrifying moment, he believed the Pendragon could read his thoughts and discover the lie.
“Pack your gear. We depart at dawn.”
Dwras felt smitten by an intense wave of unworthiness. Who was he that the mighty Pendragon would take a personal interest in him?
One glance into those intense yet compassionate eyes told him all he needed to know. Mimicking the Pendragon’s warriors, he squared his shoulders and raised his fist to his chest in an unspoken pledge to devote himself to Arthur’s service to the very best of his ability.
RIGHT AS DAY, the moon lit the ice-crusted rocks and brush where Prince Badulf and his band hid in shivering misery. The valley stretched below in an endless swath of white, broken only by the stone huts, byres, sheds, and pens of the Brædan village. The stillness, the snow and ice, the cold, the full moon—alone, any of these factors would challenge the hardiest war-band. Together, they added up to one conclusion.
He’d chosen an evil night for a raid.
These factors could be overcome by courage, skill, self-discipline, and luck. The first three, Badulf’s men owned in abundance. He hoped luck wouldn’t prove to be in short supply.
For the past fortnight, a host of omens had fueled Badulf’s foreboding: a rope coiled like a striking snake, a raven-shaped puddle of spilled ale, a cloud piercing the heart of the moon like a spear, the sky blackened by an enormous flock of crows, a pack of starving dogs devouring each other in bloody desperation.
Badulf pulled his cloak tighter about him, a thin shield against the cold.
Nothing could shield him from his dread.
For his men’s sake, he buried his feelings behind a brave mask. None of them had seen the omens, as if the gods had penned their message for him alone.
His death he could face. The possibility of leading his friends to theirs made his gut writhe, as if he’d downed a vat of poison.
He glanced skyward and spat a curse; the moon seemed determined to stay above the ridge. Instead of cutting across the meadows under cover of darkness, his band would have to hug the tree line, a much longer distance, to be sure, but much safer.
Badulf signaled his men, and they began the tedious process of moving from tree to rock to bush. Sometimes running, sometimes crawling, sometimes slithering, always trying to keep something between themselves and the village. At least it kept them warmer.
The famine that had sprouted from the stubble of the ruined harvest had begun to gnaw at the bellies of even the thriftiest Eingels. The success of Badulf’s mission—indeed, the success of all Colgrim’s war-bands—was crucial.
DWRAS MAP Gwyn chafed his arms beneath the wolfskin wrap and stomped his feet, but nothing could dispel this blasted cold.
Life in the Pendragon’s service bore no resemblance to what he had expected.
He’d expected action. At the very least, he’d hoped to be trained by the other warriors to one day send the accursed Angli raiders to their gods.
Expectations held no truck with reality.
Reality meant being posted with a handful of Arthur’s men to guard another Lothian village, one so deep in Brytoni territory that the Angli threat had to be slim at best. Reality meant enduring the endless pitying glances of the villagers, who knew he’d witnessed his family’s slaughter. Reality meant helping with their winter chores—chopping wood, tending livestock, mending tools—not from a sense of duty or kinship, but to combat mind-murdering boredom.
Reality meant knowing the Angli never would raid this God-forsaken village.
Occasionally, the guard captain deigned to show him a few tricks with sword or spear. Spear, mostly, as if he didn’t believe Dwras capable of mastering the art of swordsmanship. Usually, Dwras cleaned armor and weapons, fetching this and hauling that and doing whatever chores the soldiers deemed unworthy of their station.
Including nightwatch sentry duty. The others took their turns, true enough, but it seemed he stood at this post much more often.
A warning prickle froze his mental complaints.
The moon-bathed meadows gleamed serenely before him. Not even a stray leaf stirred. Abruptly, the night seemed eerily quiet. Something had invaded the valley. A wolf?
He studied the frost-bound birches and pines at the valley’s fringes. No movement there—wait. That tumble of boulders and broom far off to his left…somehow didn’t seem…right. Nothing he could describe, exactly, just a feeling that refused to abate.
The shadows shifted and stopped. After a handful of breaths, another shifting—a bit closer—then stillness again.
His fingers curled around his horn. If he blew it now, the soldiers and villagers would have time aplenty to respond. The thrice-cursed Angli whores’ sons wouldn’t set one bloody foot in this village!
But if he acted too soon, the raiders might flee, and he wanted nothing more than to take his spear and spit as many as he could. If the raiders escaped unseen, he’d be rebuked for sounding a “false” alarm. Imagining the taunts, he groaned softly. The soldiers would never let him live it down.