Authors: Katharine Kerr
“My apologies. I thought you were some of Lord Ynydd’s men.”
“Never even heard of him,” Cullyn said. “What have we done, wandered into a feud?”
“Just that. We serve Tieryn Braedd, and these woods are his, by every god!”
“I’d never deny it. Does Lord Ynydd?”
“He does. Here, you’re a silver dagger! Looking for a hire? There’s only four of us against Ynydd’s seven, you see.”
“By the hells!” Cullyn tossed his head. “This must have been a bloody little affair.”
“Well, not truly. You see, there were only five against seven to begin with. But go speak with our lord. The dun’s just two miles down this road. You can’t miss it.”
The rider spoke the truth about that, certainly. Out in the middle of cleared farmland rose a low hill, ringed with the massive stone walls of the tieryn’s dun. Behind them stood a broch that was at least four stories high, with a red-and-gray pennant flying proudly at the top. Yet as they rode up to it, Jill saw that the great iron-bound gates in the walls were only for show. A long time ago the walls had been slighted and breached with three gaps wide enough to drive a wagon through. Ivy grew over the heaped rubble. Inside they found a muddy ward that had once sheltered many buildings, to judge from the circular foundations and the occasional piece of standing wall left amid the tall grass. Round one side of the broch itself, the wall of the top story had been knocked away. Jill could see into little empty chambers.
“What did that, Da?”
“A catapult, no doubt.”
The ward was silent and empty except for a flock of big white geese, poking for snails in the ivy-covered rubble. When Cullyn called out a halloo, a young boy with a dirty red-and-gray tabard over his shirt and brigga ran out of the broch.
“Who are you?”
“Cullyn of Cerrmor. I want to speak with your lord.”
“Well, Da’s talking to him right now, but they won’t mind if you just come in.”
“Now, here! You’re supposed to bow to me and say, ‘I’ll see, good sir, but the great Tieryn Braedd may have important business afoot.’”
“But he doesn’t. He never does anything unless he’s fighting with Lord Ynydd, and he isn’t today.”
Tieryn Braedd’s great hall had once been great indeed, a vast circular room encompassing the entire ground floor of the broch. At either side were two massive stone
hearths, carved with bands of interlacement and lions. In between stretched enough space to hold two hundred men at their feasting. Now, however, the far hearth served as a kitchen, where a slatternly lass stood at a battered table and chopped carrots and turnips while a joint of mutton roasted on a spit. By the nearer hearth were three tables and unsteady-looking benches. Two men were sitting and drinking at one of them: a man of solid years, with a soft black beard, and a tall, pale lad of about seventeen with a long nose that reminded Jill of a rabbit. Since he was wearing plaid brigga and a shirt embroidered with lions, the lad had to be the tieryn. The young page skipped up to the table and tugged on the tieryn’s sleeve.
“Your Grace? There’s a silver dagger here named Cullyn of Cerrmor.”
“Indeed?” Braedd rose from his chair. “Now, this is a handy thing. Come join me.”
Without ceremony Braedd sat Jill and Cullyn down on a bench, sent the boy, Abryn, to fetch more ale all round, and introduced the older man as Glyn, his councillor. When the tieryn sat down again, his chair creaked alarmingly.
“I met a pair of your men in the oak wood, Your Grace,” Cullyn said. “They told me of your feud.”
“Ah, Ynydd, that bastard-born son of a slug!” Braedd took a moody sip of ale. “Truly, I want to offer you a hire, but my treasury matches my dun walls.” He glanced at Glyn. “Could we squeeze out something?”
“A horse, I suppose, my lord. He could always sell it in town for the coin.”
“True.” Braedd suddenly grinned. “Or here, what about cabbages? I’ve got fields and fields of those. Here, silver dagger, think of all the uses cabbages have. You can let them rot, then throw them at enemies in the street, or if you’re courting a wench, you can give her a bouquet of fresh ones, and that’s something she’ll have never seen before, or—”
“Your Grace?” Glyn broke in.
“Well, truly, I ramble a bit.” Braedd had another long
swallow of ale. “But if you’ll take a horse, and your maintenance, and maintenance for your page, of course?”
“I will,” Cullyn said. “Done, Your Grace. I’m on. But this is my daughter, actually, not a page.”
“So she is.” Braedd leaned closer. “Do you honor your father, child?”
“More than any man in the world, except the King, of course, but I’ve never even met him.”
“Well spoken.” Braedd belched profoundly. “What a pity that the pusboil Ynydd doesn’t have the respect for the King that we see in this innocent little lass.”
Cullyn turned to address his questions to Councillor Glyn.
“What’s this feud about, good sir? The riders only told me that the woods were in dispute.”
“Well, more or less.” Glyn stroked his beard thoughtfully. “The feud goes back a long time, when Lord Ynydd’s grandfather declared war on His Grace’s grandfather. In those days, they were fighting over who should be tieryn, and many other grave matters, but bit by bit, the thing’s gotten itself settled. The woods, you see, lie on the border of two demesnes. They’re the last thing left to squabble over.”
“So Ynydd thinks.” Braedd slammed his hand onto the table. “A councillor from the High King himself judged the matter and awarded the claim to me.”
“Now, Your Grace,” Glyn said soothingly. “Ynydd’s only disputing part of the judgment. He’s ceded you the trees.”
“But the bastard! Insisting he has ancient and prior claim to swine rights.”
“Swine rights?” Cullyn said.
“Swine rights,” Glyn said. “In the fall, you see, the peasants take the swine into the woods to eat the acorns. Now, there’s only enough acorns for one herd of swine—his or ours.”
“And the withered testicle of a sterile donkey says it’s his,” Braedd broke in. “His men killed one of my riders
when the lad turned Ynydd’s hogs out of the woods last fall.”
Cullyn sighed and had a very long swallow of ale.
“Da, I don’t understand,” Jill broke in. “You mean someone was killed over pig food?”
“It’s the honor of the thing!” Braedd slammed his tankard on the table so hard that the ale jumped out and spilled. “Never will I let a man take what’s rightfully mine. The honor of my warband calls out for vengeance! We’ll fight to the last man.”
“Pity we can’t arm the swine,” Cullyn said. “Everyone will fight for their own food.”
“Now, splendid!” Braedd gave him a delighted grin. “They shall have little helms, with their tusks for swords, and we shall teach them to trot at the sound of a horn.”
“Your Grace?” Glyn moaned.
“Well, truly, I ramble again.”
Glyn and Abryn, the councillor’s son as it turned out, took Jill and Cullyn out to the last building standing in the ward, the barracks. As was usually the case, the warband slept directly above the stables. In the winter, the body heat from the horses helped keep the men warm, but now, on this warm summer day, the smell of horse was overwhelming. Glyn showed Cullyn a pair of unoccupied bunks, then lingered to watch as Cullyn began to stow away their gear.
“You know, silver dagger, I don’t mind admitting that it gladdens my heart to have a man of your experience joining the warband.”
“My thanks. Have you served the tieryn long, good sir?”
“All his life. I served his father first, you see, and truly, he was a great man. He’s the one who settled the war, and more by law than the sword. I fear me that Tieryn Braedd takes more after his grandfather.” Glyn paused, turning to Abryn. “Now, Abryn, Jill is our guest, so be courteous to her and take her outside to play.”
“That means you’re going to say somewhat interesting,” Abryn whined.
“Jill,” Cullyn said. “Out.”
Jill grabbed Abryn’s arm and hustled him out of the barracks fast. They lingered by the stables and watched the geese waddling through the rubble.
“Do those geese bite?” Jill said.
“They do. Huh, I bet you’re scared.”
“Oh, do you, now?”
“You’re a lass. Lasses are always scared.”
“We are not.”
“You are, too. And you’ve got a funny name. Jill’s not a real name. It’s a bondwoman’s name.”
“What do you mean, so what? It’s the worst thing, being one of the bondfolk. You shouldn’t be wearing those brigga, either.”
“I am not a bondwoman! And my da gave me these brigga.”
“Your da’s a silver dagger, and they’re all scum.”
Jill hauled back and hit him in the face as hard as she could. Abryn shrieked and hit back, but she dodged and punched him on the ear. With a howl, he leapt for her and knocked her down. But she shoved her elbow into his stomach until he let go. They wrestled, kicking, punching, and writhing, until Jill heard Cullyn and Glyn yelling at them to stop. Suddenly Cullyn grabbed Jill by the shoulders and pulled her off the helpless Abryn.
“Now, what’s all this?”
“He said silver daggers were all scum. So I hit him.”
Abryn sat up sniveling and wiping his bloody nose. Cullyn gave Jill a broad grin, then hastily looked stern again.
“Now, here, Abryn!” Glyn grabbed the boy. “That’s a nasty way to treat a guest! If you don’t learn courtesy, how can you serve a great lord someday?”
Berating him all the while, Glyn hauled Abryn off into the broch. Cullyn began brushing the dirt off Jill’s clothes.
“By the asses of the gods, my sweet, how did you learn to fight like that?”
“Back in Bobyr, you know? All the children always
called me a bastard, and they said I had a bondwoman’s name, and so I’d hit them. And then I learned how to win.”
“Well, so you did. Ye gods, you’re Cullyn of Cerrmor’s daughter, sure enough.”
For the rest of the day, Jill and Abryn scrupulously avoided each other, but on the morrow morning Abryn came up to her. He looked at the ground near her feet and kicked a lump of dirt with the toe of his clog.
“I’m sorry I said your da was scum, and my da said you can have any name you want to, and you can wear brigga if you want to, and I’m sorry about all of it.”
“My thanks. And I’m sorry I made your nose bleed. I didn’t mean to hit you that hard.”
Abryn looked up grinning.
“Want to play warrior? I’ve got two wooden swords.”
For the next couple of days, life went on quietly in Tieryn Braedd’s dun. In the mornings, Cullyn and two of the riders rode out to patrol the oak wood; in the afternoons, the tieryn and the other two riders relieved them. Jill helped Abryn with his tasks round the dun, which left them plenty of time to play at swords or with Abryn’s leather ball. Jill’s only problem was Abryn’s mother, who believed Jill should be learning needlework instead of playing outside. Jill grew quite clever at avoiding her. At meals, the warband ate at one table in the great hall, while the tieryn and Glyn’s family ate at another. Once the councillor retired to his chambers, however, Braedd would come drink with the riders. He always talked about the feud, which he knew year by year, from the events that had happened long before he was born down to the most recent insult.
Finally, after about a week of this pleasant routine, Braedd hurried over to the warband’s table one evening with his pale eyes gleaming. He had news: a servant had been to the local village and overheard gossip about Ynydd’s plans.
“The baseborn pusboil! He’s claiming that since the swine rights are his, he can send in his swine any time he
likes, summer or fall. They say he’s planning on sending a few pigs in under armed guard.”
Except for Cullyn, the warband began cursing and slamming their tankards on the table.
“And I say he won’t set one trotter in my woods,” Braedd went on. “From now on, the full warband’s going to ride on patrol.”
The warband cheered.
“Your Grace?” Cullyn broke in. “If I may speak?”
“By all means. I value your experience in the field highly.”
“My thanks, Your Grace. Well, here, the woods are a bit long for only one patrol. The warband might be down at one end while Ynydd’s making his entry at the other. We’d best split into two patrols and ride a crisscross route. We can use the page and a servant to send messages and suchlike.”
“Well spoken! We’ll do that, and take Abryn along with us.”
“Can I go, Your Grace?” Jill burst out. “I’ve got my own pony.”
“Jill, hush!” Cullyn snapped.
“Now, there’s a lass with her father’s spirit,” Braedd said with a grin. “You may come indeed.”
Since Braedd was the tieryn and he the silver dagger, Cullyn could say nothing more, but he gave Jill a good slap later when he got her alone.
After two days of riding with the patrol, Jill regretted pressing the issue, because she found herself bored. With Cullyn and two riders, she trotted up to one end of the wood, then turned and trotted back to meet the tieryn and the rest of the warband—back and forth, from dawn to dusk. Her one solace was that she got to carry a beautiful silver horn slung over her shoulder on a leather strap. Finally, on the third day, when they’d been out on patrol no more than an hour, Jill heard a strange noise a good ways from them on the edge of the woods. She slowed her pony and fell back to listen: a clattering, grunting, snorfling sound.
“Da!” Jill called out. “I hear pigs and horses!”
The three men swung their horses around and rode back.
“So it is.” Cullyn drew his sword with a flourish. “Ride for the tieryn. We’ll hold them off.”
As she galloped, Jill blew her horn. At last she heard Abryn’s horn close at hand. Tieryn Braedd burst out of the trees to meet her.
“Your Grace!” Jill screamed. “They’re here.”
She turned her pony and raced back ahead of them, for fear of missing a single thing. As she burst out of the forest, she could hear the swine clearly, grunting their way along. There was a path crossing a wide green meadow, and Cullyn and the others were sitting on their horses to block it. Down across the meadow came a strange procession. At its head rode a lord who had to be Ynydd, carrying a green-blazoned shield with a gold boss. Seven riders, also armed and ready, rode behind him. At the rear came a herd of ten swine, accompanied by two terrified peasants poking the pigs with sticks to keep them moving.