Authors: Katharine Kerr
“I will. And my apologies.”
Her talk with the prince seemed to have spoiled the Queen’s pleasure in her hawking, because she called her servants to her and announced that they were returning to the city.
At that time, Dun Deverry was confined to a low rise about a mile from the marshy shores of Loc Gwerconydd. Ringed with stone walls, it lay on both sides of a rushing river, which was spanned by two stone bridges as well as two defensible arches in the city walls. Clustered inside were round stone houses, scattered along randomly curving streets, that sheltered about twenty thousand people. At either end of the city rose two small hills. The southern one bore the great temple of Bel, the palace of the high priest of the kingdom, and an oak grove. The northern hill held the royal compound, which had stood there in one form or another for six hundred years.
Galrion’s clan, the Wyvern, had been living on the royal hill for only forty-eight years. Galrion’s grandfather, Adoryc the First, had ended a long period of anarchy by finally winning a war among the great clans over the kingship. Although the Wyvern was descended from a member of King Bran’s original warband and thus was entitled to be called a great clan, Adoryc the First had forged an alliance among the lesser clans, the merchants, and anyone else who’d support his claim to the throne. Although he’d been scorned for stooping so low, he’d also taken the victory.
As the Queen’s party rode through the streets, the townsfolk bowed and cheered her. No matter what they might have thought of her husband in private, they honestly loved Ylaena, who’d endowed many a temple to give aid to the poor and who spoke up often for a poor man to
make the King show him mercy. For all his thick-headedness, the King did know what a treasure he had in his wife. She was the only person whose advice he would take and trust—at least, when it suited him to do so. Galrion’s main hope lay in getting her to advise the King to let his third son leave court for the dweomer. Soon, he knew, he would have to tell his mother the truth.
A stone wall with iron-bound gates ringed the bottom of the royal hill. Beyond was a grassy parkland, where white, red-eared cattle grazed along with the royal horses. Near the crest stood a second ring of walls, sheltering a village within the city—the royal compound, the huts for servants, sheds, stables, barracks, and the like. In the middle of this clutter and bustle rose the great broch of the Wyvern clan.
The main building was a six-story tower; around it clustered three two-story half towers like chicks nestling around a hen. In case of fighting, the broch would become a slaughterhouse for the baffled enemy, because the only way into the half towers lay through the main one. Besides the King and his family, the broch complex housed all the noble-born retainers of the court in a virtual rabbit warren of corridors and small wedge-shaped chambers, where constant intrigues and scheming over power and the King’s favor were a way of life not only for the retainers, but for the various princes and their wives. Getting out of that broch had always been the consummate goal of Galrion’s life.
As befitted a prince, Galrion had a suite of rooms on the second floor of the main tower. His reception chamber took up a generous wedge of the round floor plan, with a high, beamed ceiling, a stone hearth, and a polished wooden floor. On the wood-paneled walls hung fine tapes-tries from the far-off land of Bardek, gifts from various traders who hoped that the prince would speak of them to the King. Since he was honorable in his bribe taking, Galrion always dutifully spoke. The chamber was richly furnished with carved chests, a cushioned chair, and a table, where stood, between bronze wyverns, his greatest
treasure: seven books. When Galrion had first learned to read, the King was furious, raging that letters were no fit thing for a man, but in his usual stubborn way, Galrion had persevered until now, after some four years of study, he could read almost as well as a scribe.
To avoid the bustle and clamor of the formal dinner in the great hall, Galrion dined privately in his chamber that night. He did, however, receive a guest after the meal to share a silver goblet of mead: Gwerbret Madoc of Glasloc, in whose jurisdiction lay the lands of the Falcon and the Boar. Although below members of the royal family, of course, the rank of gwerbret was the highest in the kingdom, and the title went back to ancient times. In the Gaulish homeland, the Dawntime tribes elected magistrates called vergobreti to administer their laws and to speak for the wartime assemblies. Generally the vergobreti were chosen from the noble-born, and at about the time that word became gwerbret in their new land of Deverry, the position began to pass from father to son. Since a man who made judgments and distributed booty was in a good position to build up his power, in time the gwerbrets became great, wealthy, and in possession of small armies to enforce their legal rulings on the tieryns and lords beneath them. One last remnant of the Dawntime survived, however, in the council of electors who, if a gwerbret’s line died out, would choose the noble clan to succeed it.
Thus, every gwerbret in the kingdom was a force to be reckoned with, and Galrion fussed over Madoc as if he were a prince himself, offering him the cushioned chair, pouring him mead with his own hands, and sending the page away so that they could speak privately. The object of these attentions merely smiled benignly. A solid man with a thick streak of gray in his raven-dark hair, Madoc cared more for fine horses than honors and for a good battle more than rank. That night he was in a jesting mood, pledging the prince with his goblet of mead in mock solemnity.
“To your wedding, my prince!” Madoc said. “For a man
who doesn’t say much, you’re a sly one. Fancy you nipping in and getting the most beautiful lass in the kingdom.”
“I was rather surprised she accepted me. No one could ever call me the most beautiful lad.”
“Oh, don’t give yourself short value. Brangwen sees beyond a lad’s face, which is more than many a lass does.” Madoc had a swallow of mead, long enough to burn an ordinary drinker’s throat. “I don’t mind saying that every man in the kingdom is going to envy you your wedding night. Or have you already claimed your rights as her betrothed?”
“I haven’t. I had no desire to set her brother against me just for one night in her bed.”
Although Galrion was merely speaking casually, Madoc turned troubled, watching him over the rim of his goblet.
“Well?” Galrion went on. “How do you think Gerraent would have taken it, if I’d bedded his sister under his roof?”
“He’s a strange lad.” Madoc looked idly away. “He’s been out there alone on the edge of that cursed forest too much, but he’s a good lad withal. I rode with him in that last rebellion against your father. By the hell ice itself, our Gerro can fight. I’ve never seen a man swing a sword as well as he does, and that’s not idle praise, my prince, but my considered judgment.”
“Then coming from you, that’s high praise indeed.”
Madoc nodded absently and had another sip of mead. When he spoke again, it was to change the subject to the legal doings of his gwerbretrhyn—and he kept it there.
It was late, and Madoc long gone, when a page came with a summons from the King. Since the King scorned luxury as unfit for a fighting man, even a regal one, his large chamber was perfectly plain, with the torches in their iron sconces the only decoration on the stone walls. Near the hearth, where a small fire burned to ward off the spring chill, King Adoryc was sitting on a plain wooden chair, with Ylaena beside him on a footstool. When Galrion came in, the King stood up, setting his hands on his hips. Adoryc the Second was a massive man, broad
shouldered, tall, with a bull’s neck and a perpetually ruddy face. His gray hair and thick mustache were still touched with blond.
“So, you young cub! I’ve got somewhat to say to you.”
“Indeed, my liege?”
“Indeed. What by all the hells have you been doing out in the forest with that daft old man?”
Caught off guard, Galrion could only stare at him.
“Don’t you think I have you followed?” Adoryc went on. “You may be fool enough to ride alone, but I’m not fool enough to let you.”
“Curse your very soul!” Galrion snapped. “Spying on me.”
“Listen to your insolent little hound!” Adoryc glanced at Ylaena. “Cursing his own father. But answer me, lad. What have you been doing? The village folk tell my men that this Rhegor’s a daft old herbman. I can get you an apothecary if the prince has royal boils or suchlike.”
Galrion knew that the moment had come for truth, even though he had never been less willing to tell it in his life.
“He earns his living with his herbs, sure enough, but he’s a dweomermaster.”
Ylaena caught her breath in an audible gasp.
“Horsedung!” Adoryc snarled. “Do you truly think I’ll believe such babble? I want to know what you’re doing, spending so much time with him when you tell me you’re at the Falcon dun.”
“Studying with him. Why shouldn’t a prince study the dweomer?”
“Ah, ye gods!” Ylaena burst out. “I’ve always known you’d leave me for that!”
Adoryc turned to stare his wife into silence.
“Why not?” the King said. “Why not? Because I forbid it.”
“Oh, here, you just called it horsedung. Why are you raging now?”
Swinging too fast to be dodged, Adoryc slapped him
hard across the face. When Ylaena cried out, Adoryc turned on her.
“Get out of here, woman! Now.”
Ylaena fled through the curtained archway that led to the women’s hall. Adoryc drew his dagger, then stabbed it into the back of a chair so hard that when he took his hand away, the dagger quivered for a moment. Galrion held his ground and stared steadily at him.
“I want a vow out of you,” Adoryc said. “A solemn vow that you’ll never touch this nonsense again.”
“Never could I lie to my own father. So I can’t swear it.”
Adoryc slapped him backhanded.
“By the names of the gods, Father! What do you hold so much against it?”
“What any man would hold. Whose stomach wouldn’t turn at somewhat unclean?”
“It’s not unclean. That’s a tale the priests make up to frighten women away from witchcraft.”
The barb hit its mark. Adoryc made a visible effort to be calm.
“I can’t give it up,” Galrion went on. “It’s too late. I know too much already for it to let me rest.”
When Adoryc took a sharp step back, Galrion finally realized that his father was afraid, and him a man who would ride straight into a hopeless battle and take no quarter from man or god.
“Just what do you know?” the King whispered.
Galrion had Rhegor’s permission to display one small trick to persuade his father. He raised his hand and imagined that it was glowing with blue fire. Only when the image lived no matter where he turned his mind did he call upon the Wildfolk of Aethyr, who rushed to do his bidding and bring the blue light through to the physical plane, where it flared up and raged round his fingers. Adoryc flung himself back, his arm over his face as if to ward a blow.
“Stop it!” Adoryc bellowed out. “I say stop it!”
Galrion forced the fire away just as the King’s guard
flung open the door and rushed into the chamber with drawn swords. Adoryc pulled himself together with a will almost as strong as his son’s.
“You can all go.” Adoryc smiled impartially all round. “My thanks, but I’m only arguing with the stubbornest whelp in the litter.”
The captain of the guard bowed, glancing Galrion’s way with a wink. As soon as the men were gone and the door shut, Adoryc pulled the dagger free of the chair back.
“I’m half minded to slit your throat and put a clean end to this,” Adoryc remarked, in a casual tone of voice. “Don’t you ever do that round me again.”
“I won’t, then, but it makes a handy thing on a dark night when you’ve dropped your torch.”
“Hold your tongue!” Adoryc clutched the dagger tight. “To think a son of mine—and as cold as ice about it!”
“But ye gods, Father, can’t you see? It’s too late to go back. I want to leave the court and study. There’s no other road open to me.”
Adoryc held the dagger so that the blade caught the torchlight.
“Get out,” Adoryc whispered. “Get out of my presence before I do a dishonorable thing.”
Galrion turned and walked slowly toward the door. The flesh on his back prickled. Once he was safely out, Galrion allowed himself one long sigh of relief that the dagger was still in his father’s hand, not in his back.
On the morrow, Galrion went early in search of his mother only to find her talking urgently with her serving women. To pass the time until he could speak with her, he decided to go for a walk through the parkland. As he walked down the hill to the first gate, he was thinking that it should have come as no surprise that the King would fear a prince with dweomer—Adoryc feared every possible rival to his throne. If Galrion had been a schemer, there was no doubt that magic would have given him a powerful edge. At the gate, two guards stepped forward and blocked his path.
“My humble apologies, my prince. The King’s given orders that you not be allowed to pass by.”
“Oh, has he, now? And would you raise your hand to stop me?”
“My apologies, my prince.” The guard licked nervous lips. “But at the King’s orders, I would.”
Galrion stalked back to the broch, determined to have it out with his father over this insult no matter what it cost him. As he strode down the corridors, servants scattered in front of him like frightened birds. Galrion slammed into the council chamber, knocked aside a page who tried to stop him, and found the King standing by the window and talking with a dusty, travel-stained lad kneeling at his feet.
“Well and good,” Adoryc was saying. “Tomorrow you can take back the message of condolences to Lord Gerraent. Our heart sorrows for the Falcon.”
Only then did Galrion recognize one of the pages from the Falcon dun. Ah, ye gods, he thought, Dwen is dead! All at once, he felt his subtle plans slipping away from him, just as when a child builds a tower out of bits of wood only to see it tumble down at the first breath of wind.
“And here is the prince,” Adoryc said. “Does your lord have any message of import for him?”