Authors: Katharine Kerr
Tieryn Braedd and his men galloped into position beside Cullyn and the others. When Braedd drew his sword, the other men did the same, screaming insults to Lord Ynydd, whose men screamed right back. Cullyn yelled at Jill and Abryn to stay out of the way, then sat quietly on his horse, his sword resting on his saddle peak.
“Lord Ynydd’s a swine himself,” Abryn said. “Bringing all his men just so he can outnumber us.”
“He is, but we’re not truly outnumbered. My da’s worth at least three men.”
Slowly the procession came on. The swine kept breaking ranks, grunting and complaining, forcing the men to wait while the peasants rounded them up again. At last Lord Ynydd pulled his horse up about ten feet in front of Tieryn Braedd. While the two lords glared at each other, the swine milled round. Even from her distance, Jill could smell the big gray boars, with a roach of dark hair down their backs and shiny tusks curling out of their snouts.
“So,” Ynydd called out. “Would you block me from my lawful rights, Braedd?”
“These rights are not yours to take,” Braedd said.
“They are. I will not be blocked this way and dishonored.”
The swine grunted loudly, as if they were cheering him on. Cullyn urged his horse up closer and bowed in his saddle to the lords.
“Your Grace, my lord, both of you,” Cullyn said. “Can’t you see what a pretty picture we make, with the swine to watch our tournament?”
“Hold your tongue, silver dagger,” Ynydd snapped. “I won’t be mocked by a dishonored man.”
“I meant no mockery, my lord. If I may speak, would you claim that you yourself have the right to ride into the grove?”
Braedd grinned at Ynydd’s sullen silence.
“Tell me, my lord,” Cullyn went on. “If these swine weren’t at stake, would you dishonor the High King’s judgment on these woods?”
“Never would I dishonor the High King,” Ynydd said. “But my swine—”
With a whoop, Cullyn kicked his horse to a gallop, dodged around Ynydd and his men, and rode straight for the herd of swine. Yelling a war cry at the top of his lungs, he swung around with the flat of His sword. The swine and their tenders fled in terror, pig and peasant alike grunting and shrieking as they raced across the meadow toward home. Both warbands were laughing too hard at the sight to give chase, much less battle. Only Ynydd was furious, yelling at his men to stop laughing and do something. Finally Cullyn left the pigs and jogged back.
“Good my lord?” Cullyn called out. “Your swine no longer desire passage here.”
Ynydd spurred his horse forward and swung at Cullyn. Cullyn parried, catching the blade on his own and leaning slightly to one side. Ynydd tumbled out of his saddle and onto the ground. In his warband, yells exploded. Chasing
swine was one thing: dishonoring their lord, quite another. The seven men swung their horses round and charged straight for Cullyn, with Braedd’s men in close pursuit. Jill clutched her saddle peak and screamed. Da was out there all alone. She saw Ynydd scrambling back onto his horse just as the warbands closed round them.
The horses were plunging and kicking; the men, swinging and cursing. Dust rose up as thick as smoke. The men were dodging and parrying more than they were honestly trying to strike. Jill wondered if any of them had ever been in battle before. The flash of blades, the horses rearing, men pushing and swinging and yelling—it swirled in a terrifying dance, the clot of horses and men turning slowly round and round, the flashing swords keeping time. At last Jill sighted her father, moving his horse round the edge of the melee.
Cullyn stayed silent, his face impassive, as if he found the battle tedious. Then he began to strike, and he wasn’t dodging like the others. He cut hard, shoved his way into the mob, slashed round, and struck over and over as he made a set course for Lord Ynydd. Ahead of him Ynydd’s warband fell back. One man reeled in the saddle with blood running down his face; Cullyn went on swinging with a bloodied blade and led Braedd’s men through like a wedge. He had almost reached Ynydd’s side when one rider shoved his horse in between. For a moment swords flashed and swung; then the rider screamed and fell over his horse’s neck into the mob. Cullyn tossed his head, but his face showed nothing at all.
With a shout of surrender, Ynydd turned his horse and fled, his warband close after. One riderless horse galloped with them. Braedd and his men chased them, but slowly, and only down to the edge of the meadow. Cullyn stayed behind, dismounted, then knelt by the body of the rider. Without thinking, Jill dismounted and raced over to him.
“Da, are you all right?”
“Get away.” Cullyn rose and slapped her across the face. “Get away, Jill.”
Although Jill ran back, it was already too late. She’d
seen what Cullyn didn’t want her to see—the rider lying face down in the grass with a pool of blood spreading from his throat and soaking into his soft blond hair. Blood smelled warm, sticky, and unexpectedly sweet. Abryn ran to meet her.
“Did you see?” His face was dead white.
Jill fell to her knees and began to vomit, kept it up until her stomach was sore. Abryn grabbed her shoulders when she was done and helped her stand. She felt as cold as if it were snowing. They walked back to the two ponies and sat down to watch the warband come back, laughing and crowing at the victory. Jill was so tired that she closed her eyes, but she could see the dead man like a picture, the blood spreading round him. Hastily she opened her eyes again. Cullyn left the warband and walked over.
“I told you to stay away,” he said.
“I just forgot. I couldn’t think.”
“I suppose not. What’s that on your mouth? Did you throw up?”
Jill wiped her face on her sleeve. He was still her da, her handsome, wonderful da, but she had just seen him kill a man. When he laid his hand on her shoulder, she flinched.
“I’m not going to slap you,” Cullyn said, misunderstanding. “I threw up myself the first time I saw a man killed. Ah, by the hells, another man dead over pig food! I hope our driveling fool ends this here.”
“Ynydd, you mean?” Abryn said.
The warband took the dead man’s body back to the dun for the tieryn to send to Ynydd in honorable return. Since the dead man’s horse had fled in the rout, Abryn had to give up his pony and ride behind Cullyn. When the riders tied the corpse to the saddle, Jill made herself look at it, flopping like her rag doll, not a man any more at all. She felt sicker than before. When they reached the dun, Glyn and the servants ran out to meet them. In the confusion, Jill slipped away, going around behind the broch and finding a quiet spot to sit in the shade of the ruined wall. She
knew that Abryn would run to his mother, and she envied him bitterly.
She’d been there for some time before Cullyn found her. When he sat down next to her on the ground, she could hardly look at him.
“The herald’s riding out now to take that poor lad home. This corpse should end the thing. The honor of Braedd’s piss-poor warband has been avenged, and Ynydd’s had all the gas scared out of both ends of him.”
Jill looked at Cullyn’s hands, resting on his thighs. Without his heavy gauntlets, they looked like his hands again, the ones that gave her food and combed her hair and patted her on the shoulder. She wondered why she’d thought that they would have changed. He’s killed lots of men, she thought, that’s why he has all that glory.
“Still feel sick?” Cullyn said.
“I don’t. I didn’t think blood would smell like that.”
“Well, it does, and it runs like that, too. Why do you think I didn’t want you riding with us?”
“Did you know someone would get killed?”
“I was hoping I could stop it, but I was ready for it. I always am, because I have to be. I truly did think those lads would break sooner than they did, you see, but there was one young wolf in the pack of rabbits. Poor bastard. That’s what he gets for his honor.”
“Da? Are you sorry for him?”
“I am. I’ll tell you something, my sweet, that no other man in Deverry would admit: I’m sorry for every man I ever killed, somewhere deep in my heart. But it was his Wyrd, and there’s nothing a man can do about his own Wyrd, much less someone else’s. Someday my own Wyrd will take me, and I’ve no doubt it’ll be the same one I’ve brought to many a man. It’s like a bargain with the gods. Every warrior makes it. Do you understand?”
“Sort of. Your life for theirs, you mean?”
“Just that. There’s nothing else a man can do.”
Jill began to feel better. Thinking of it as Wyrd made it seem clean again.
“It’s the only honor left to me, my bargain with my
Wyrd,” Cullyn went on. “I told you once, never dishonor yourself. If ever you’re tempted to do the slightest bit of a dishonorable thing, you remember your father, and what one dishonor brought him—the long road and shame in the eyes of every honest man.”
“But wasn’t it your Wyrd to have the dagger?”
“It wasn’t.” Cullyn allowed himself a brief smile. “A man can’t make his Wyrd better, but it’s in his hands to make it worse.”
“Do the gods make a man’s Wyrd?”
“They don’t. Wyrd rules the gods, too. They can’t turn aside a man’s Wyrd no matter how much he prays and carries on. Do you remember the story of Gwindyc, back in the Dawntime? The Goddess Epona tried to save his life, but his Wyrd was upon him. She sent a spear at the cursed Rhwmanes, but Gwindyc turned and took the spear in his own side.”
“So he did, and he didn’t even complain. But that lad you killed screamed.”
“I heard him.” Cullyn’s face went dead calm, just as it had in the battle. “But don’t hold it against him. I don’t.”
Jill thought for a moment, then leaned against his shoulder. Cullyn put his arm around her and pulled her close. He was still her father—and all she had in the world.
Close to nightfall, the herald returned. After conferring with the tieryn and the herald, Councillor Glyn sought Cullyn out.
“Lord Ynydd will sue for peace in the morning,” Glyn said. “And Tieryn Braedd will grant it.”
“Thanks be to the gods of our people! Here, Jill and I will be riding on in the morning.”
That night Cullyn let Jill sleep in the same bunk with him. She cuddled up to his broad back and tried to think of things other than the battle, but she dreamt about it. All over again she ran up to Cullyn and saw the dead rider, but when she looked up, Cullyn was gone, and Aiva stood there, just as Jill had always imagined her, tall and strong, with golden braids coiled about her head and a
long spear in her hand. She was carrying a shield with a device of the moon in its dark phase. Jill knew that she couldn’t see the moon if it was dark, but in the dream she could. Since she refused to disgrace herself in front of Aiva, Jill made herself look at the rider. As she watched, his whole body turned to blood and soaked into the earth until there was naught but grass, growing thick and green. When she looked up, Aiva was smiling at her, and the moon on her shield was full.
Jill woke and listened to the comfortable sound of Cullyn snoring beside her. She thought over the dream to make sure that she remembered all of it. Although she wasn’t sure why, she knew it was very important.
For seven long years, ever since the lark omen down on the Eldidd coast, Nevyn had been wandering the kingdom and searching for the child who held his Wyrd in her soul. For all the power of dweomer, it has limits, and no dweomermaster can ever scry out a person whom he hasn’t seen at least once in the flesh. Trusting the luck that’s more than luck, Nevyn had taken his riding horse and his pack mule, laden with herbs and medicines, and lived by tending the ills of the poor folk as he traveled endlessly from place to place. Now, with another summer coming to an end, he was on the road to Cantrae, a city in the northeast corner of the kingdom. He had a good friend there, Lidyn the apothecary, with whom he could spend the winter in comfort.
The Cantrae road ran through endless grassy hills stippled with white birches in the little valleys. One particularly fine afternoon, he was traveling slowly, letting his horse pick its own pace while the mule plodded behind. He was lost in thought that was close to being a trance, musing over the woman he would always think of as Brangwen, even though she was now a child with another name. All at once he was startled out of his reverie by the clatter and pounding of a mounted warband trotting
straight downhill toward him, about twenty men with the silver dragon of Aberwyn blazoned on the shields slung beside each saddle. They rode behind a young lad. One of the men screamed at Nevyn to get off the road and out of the way. Nevyn hurriedly swung his horse’s head to the right, but the lad rose up in his stirrups and yelled at the warband to halt.
Swearing aloud, with a clatter of hooves and the jingle of tack, the men did as they were told. As Nevyn rode toward them, he realized with a sense of absolute amazement that the young lord at their head was ordering them to get off the road and let the aged herbman pass by. The lad, some ten summers old, wore the blue, silver, and green plaid of Aberwyn. He was easily one of the most beautiful children Nevyn had ever seen, with raven-dark wavy hair, large cornflower blue eyes, and perfect features, his mouth so soft and well formed that it was almost girlish. Nevyn stopped his horse beside him and made him a bow from the saddle.
“My humble thanks, my lord,” Nevyn said. “You honor me too highly.”
“Any man with hair as white as yours, good sir, deserves some courtesy.” The young lord shot his men a haughty glance. “It’s easier for us to handle our horses than it must be for you.”
“Well, true spoken. Would his lordship honor me by telling me his name?”
“Lord Rhodry Maelwaedd of Aberwyn.” The lad gave him a charming smile. “And I’ll wager you wonder what Eldidd men are doing so far from home.”
“I did have a thought that way.”
“Well, I was a page at my uncle’s, Yvmur of Cantrae, but my father sent part of his warband to fetch me home. My brother Aedry just got killed.”
“That saddens my heart, my lord.”
“It saddens mine, too.” Lord Rhodry looked at the reins in his hand and blinked back tears. “I loved Aedry. He wasn’t like Rhys. Rhys is my eldest brother, I mean, and
he can be a true hound.” He looked back up with a sheepish smile. “I shouldn’t be saying that to a stranger.”