Authors: Katharine Kerr
“Here, Gerro,” Galrion said. “I’ll ride a little way with you after all.”
“Well and good.” Gerraent shot him a glance that said the exact opposite. “Page, run and saddle the prince’s horse.”
Preceded by a pack of hounds and followed by a pair of servants, Galrion and Gerraent rode to the woods. The Falcon clan lay lonely on the edge of the kingdom. To the north, the clan’s farmlands stretched out until they met those of the Boar, their only near neighbor. To the east and south was nothing but unclaimed land, meadow, and primeval forest. It occurred to Galrion that Brangwen was doubtless looking forward to the splendid life at court that he could no longer give her.
“Well, young brother,” Galrion said at last. “There’s something I wanted to talk with you about. My lady Brangwen tells me that you’ve won the favor of Ysolla of the Boar. She’d make any man a fine wife.”
Gerraent stared straight ahead at the road.
“You’re a man now,” Galrion said. “It’s time you married for your clan’s sake. The head of a clan needs heirs.”
“True spoken. I know my duty to my clan.”
“Well, then? Blaen’s your sworn friend. It would be a fine match.”
“Did Gwennie put you up to this talk?”
Gerraent glanced his way with bitter eyes.
“My sister knows her duty to the clan, as well.”
As they rode on, Gerraent was lost in thought, his hand on his sword hilt. Galrion wondered how this proud man was going to take it when Galrion swept his sister off to a hut in the forest instead of the palace. The prince was vexed all over again at his stupidity in getting himself betrothed just as he had found the dweomer.
“Does Gwennie think Ysolla would have me?” Gerraent said.
“She does. She’d bring a fine dowry, too.”
They rode in silence for some minutes while Gerraent considered, his mouth working this way and that as if the thought of marrying a rich, pretty wife pained him. Finally he shrugged as if throwing off a weight from his shoulders.
“Grant me a boon, elder brother,” Gerraent said. “Will you ride to Blaen with me as my second in the betrothal?”
“Gladly. Shall we ride soon?”
“Why not? The soonest done, the best.”
That evening, dinner marked a celebration. While the Falcon’s demesne stretched broad and prosperous, there had been few sons born to the clan over the past generation. If Gerraent should die without an heir, the clan would die with him, its lands reverting back to the High King for reassignment. Every now and then, Galrion noticed Gerraent looking at the blade of his table dagger, where a falcon mark was graved, the clan’s symbol, and his whole life, his duty, and power.
After Brangwen escorted her father from the table, Galrion had a chance at a private word with Gerraent.
“My lady Brangwen was teasing me the other night,” Galrion said. “Saying Blaen’s jealous of me. Is that just a maid’s chatter?”
“It’s true enough.” Gerraent made the admission unwillingly. “But she’s dwelling on the thing to please her vanity. Blaen will forget her soon enough. Men in our position marry where we have to, not to please ourselves.”
Galrion felt a cold touch like a hand down his back, the dweomer-warning of danger. Never had that warning failed to be true, not since he’d felt it first as a little lad, climbing a tree and knowing without knowing how he knew that the branch was about to break under him.
The dun of the Boar clan lay a full day’s ride to the north. A stone broch rose three floors above a cobbled ward and proper wooden round houses for the important servants. Off to one side were the stables that also doubled
as a barracks for the warband of twelve men. Lord Blaen’s great hall was fully forty feet across with a dressed stone floor. Two tapestries hung on either side of the honor hearth, and fine furniture stood round in profusion. As he walked in, Galrion had the thought that Brangwen would be far happier in that dun than she would be in a wilderness.
Blaen himself greeted them and took them to the table of honor. He was a slender man, sandy haired, good-looking in a rather bland way with blue eyes that always seemed to be smiling at a jest.
“Good morrow, my prince,” Blaen said. “What brings me the honor of having you in my hall?”
“My brother and I have come to beg an enormous favor. My brother has decided that it’s time for him to marry.”
“Oh, have you, now?” Blaen shot Gerraent a smile. “A wise decision, with no heirs for your clan.”
“If it’s so wise,” Gerraent snapped, “why haven’t you made one like it?”
Blaen went as stiff as a stag who sees the hunting pack.
“I have two brothers.”
The moment hung there. Gerraent stared into the hearth; Blaen stared at the prince; Galrion hardly knew where to look.
“Ah, curse it!”’ Blaen snapped. “Can’t we dispense with all this mincing around? Gerro, do you want my sister or not?”
“I do. And my apologies.”
When Galrion let his eyes meet Blaen’s he saw only a man who wanted to be his friend—against great odds, perhaps, but he did. Yet the dweomer-warning slid down his back like snow.
In his role as a courting man’s second, Galrion went to the woman’s hall, a half-round of a room above the great hall. On the floor lay Bardek carpets in the clan colors of blue, green, and gold; silver candlesticks stood on an elaborately carved table. In a cushioned chair, Rodda, dowager of the clan, sat by the windows while Ysolla perched on a footstool at her mother’s side. All around them lay wisps
of wool from the spinning that must have been tidied away at the prince’s approach. Rodda was a stout woman with deep-set gray eyes and a firm but pleasant little smile; Galrion had always liked her when they’d met at court. Ysolla was a pretty lass of sixteen, all slender and golden with large eager eyes.
“I come as a supplicant, my lady,” Galrion knelt before the two women. “Lord Gerraent of the Falcon would have the Lady Ysolla marry him.”
When Ysolla caught her breath with a gasp, Rodda shot her a sharp look.
“This is a grave matter,” Rodda pronounced. “My daughter and I must consider this carefully.”
“My lady?” Galrion said to Rodda. “Do you have any objections to Lord Gerraent?”
“None, but I have my objections to my daughter acting like a starving puppy grabbing a bone. You may tell Gerraent that we are considering the matter, but my son may start discussing the dowry if he wants—just in case Ysolla agrees.”
Blaen was expansive about the dowry. Ysolla, of course, had been filling her dower chest for years with embroidered coverlets, sets of dresses, and the embroidered shirt her husband would wear at his wedding. To go with it, Blaen offered ten geldings, five white cows, and a palfrey for Ysolla.
“Gerro?” Galrion said. “That’s splendidly generous.”
“What?” Gerraent looked up with a start. “Oh, whatever you think best.”
Yet that evening Gerraent acted the perfect suitor, happy to have his lady within his reach at last. At table, he and Ysolla shared a trencher, and Gerraent cut her tidbits of meat and fed her with his fingers as if they were already married, a gesture that made Ysolla beam with happiness. Galrion and Rodda, who were seated next to each other, found themselves watching the couple and occasionally turning to each other to share a thoughtful glance. Since the bard was singing, and Blaen laughing
with his brother, Camlann, Galrion and Rodda could whisper in private.
“Tell me,” Rodda said. “Do you think Gerraent will come to love my daughter someday?”
“He’d be a fool not to.”
“Who knows what you men will do?”
Galrion broke a slice of bread in half and offered her one portion.
“Is this better than no bread at all?”
“You’re a wise one for someone so young, my prince.” Rodda accepted the bread. “Does that come from living at court?”
“It does, because if you want to live to be an old prince, you’d best keep your eyes on every little wave of everyone’s hand and your ears on every word they speak.”
“So I’ve been telling your little Gwennie. Life at court is going to be difficult for her at first. She’s lucky to have a man like you to watch over her interests.”
Galrion felt a stab of guilt. I’m as bad as Gerro, he thought. I’ll have to offer Gwennie at least the half a piece of bread—unless I find her a man who’d give her the whole loaf.
Courtesy demanded that Galrion and Gerraent take the Boar’s hospitality for several days. The more Galrion saw of Blaen, the more he liked him, a cultured man as well as a generous one, with a fine ear for the songs of his bard and a proper knowledge of the traditional tales and lore. Even more, Galrion came to admire Rodda, who carried out her dowager role with perfect tact. She would make Brangwen a splendid mother-in-law. At times, Galrion remembered Rhegor’s insistence that she choose freely, but he doubted if Gwennie, poor little innocent Gwennie, was capable of making such an important decision on her own.
Late on the second day, the prince escorted the dowager to the garden for a stroll. The spring sun lay warm on the glossy leaves and the first shy buds of the roses.
“I’m much impressed with your son,” Galrion said. “He should feel more at home at my court.”
“My thanks, my prince.” Rodda hesitated, wondering,
no doubt, how to turn this unexpected honor to her son’s advantage. “I’m most grateful that you favor him.”
“There’s only one slight thing. You’ll forgive my blunt-ness, and I’ll swear an honest answer will do Blaen no harm. Just how much does he hold Gwennie against me?”
“My son knows his duty to the throne, no matter where his heart lies.”
“Never did I think otherwise. I was merely wondering how fine his honor might be in matters of the heart. Let me be blunt again. Suppose Brangwen was no longer betrothed to me. Would he spurn her as a cast-off woman?”
Briefly Rodda stared, as openmouthed as a farm lass, before she recovered her polished reserve.
“I think my prince is troubled at heart to speak this way.”
“He is, but he’ll beg you never to ask why. He’ll tell you this much: he’s troubled by the life ahead of Brangwen. Flatterers at court will come around her like flies to spilled mead.”
“Not just flies, my prince. Wasps come to spilled mead, and Gwennie is very beautiful.”
“She is.” Suddenly torn, Galrion wondered if he could truly let her go. “And I loved her once.”
“Once and not now?” Rodda raise a doubting eyebrow.
Galrion walked a little ways ahead, letting her catch up with him in the shade of the linden tree. He caught a low branch and stripped the leaves off a twig, to rub them between his fingers before he let them fall.
“My prince is deeply troubled,” Rodda said.
“The prince’s troubles are his own, my lady. But you never answered me. Would Blaen marry Gwennie if he could?”
“Oh, in a moment! My poor lad, I swear he’s been ensorcled by Gwennie’s blue eyes. He put off marrying until she came of age, and then, well—”
“The prince stepped in, giving the Boar another reason to chafe under the High King’s rule. How would the Boar take it if his mother hinted that the prince was yielding to a prior claim?”
“I’ve no doubt he’d honor the prince always.”
Smiling, Galrion made her a deep bow. It could work out well, he told himself. Yet at the thought of Brangwen lying in another man’s arms, his heart flared rage.
When the day came for Prince Galrion to ride back to court, Gerraent accompanied him for a few miles simply because he was expected to. The prince smiled and chattered until Gerraent wanted to murder him and leave his body in a ditch by the road. At last they reached the turning, and Gerraent sat on his horse and watched the prince’s scarlet-and-white plaid cloak disappear into the distance. Three more weeks, only three more weeks, and the prince would return from Dun Deverry to take Brangwen away. With her, Gerraent’s heart would go, breaking.
When he rode back to the dun, Gerraent found Brangwen sitting outside in the sun and sewing. He gave his horse to Brythu, his page, and sat down at her feet like a dog. Her golden hair shone in the sun like finespun thread, wisping around the soft skin of her cheeks. When she smiled at him, Gerraent felt stabbed to the heart.
“What are you sewing?” Gerraent said. “Somewhat for your dower chest?”
“It’s not, but a shirt for you. The last one I’ll ever make, but don’t worry, Ysolla does splendid needlework. I’ll wager that your wedding shirt is ever so much nicer than my poor Galrion’s.”
Gerraent rose to his feet, hesitated, then sat again, trapped in his old torment, that his beautiful sister, the one beautiful thing in his world, would turn him into something ugly and unclean, despised by the gods and men alike, if ever they knew of his secret fault. All at once she cried out. He jumped to his feet before he knew what he was doing.
“I just pricked my finger on the beastly needle,” Brangwen said, grinning at him. “Don’t look so alarmed, Gerro. But, oh, here, I’ve gotten a drop of blood on your shirt. Blast it!”
The little red smear lay in the midst of red interlaced bands of spirals.
“No one’s ever going to notice it,” Gerraent said.
“As long as it’s not a bad omen, you’re right enough. Doubtless you’ll get more gore on it than this. You do get so filthy when you hunt, Gerro.”
“I won’t wear it hunting until it starts to wear out. It’ll be my best shirt, the last one you ever sewed for me.” Gerraent caught her hand and kissed the drop of blood away.
Late that night, Gerraent went out to the dark, silent ward and paced restlessly back and forth. In the moonlight, he could see the severed head of old Samoryc glaring down at him with empty eye sockets. Once every dun and warrior’s home would have been graced with such trophies, but some years past, the priests had seen visions stating that taking heads had come to displease great Bel. Of all the lords round about, Dwen was the last to defy the change. Gerraent remembered the day when the priests came to implore him to take the trophy down. A tiny lad, then, Gerraent hid behind his mother’s skirts as Dwen refused, roaring with laughter, saying that if the gods truly wanted it down, they’d make it rot soon enough. Chanting a ritual curse, the priests left defeated.