Authors: Katharine Kerr
“I’m the curse,” Gerraent said to Samoryc. “I’m the curse the gods sent to our clan.”
He sat down on the ground and wept.
The days passed slowly, long days of torment, until Gerraent fled his sister’s presence and rode to Blaen on the pretense of seeing his new betrothed. He and Blaen were more than friends; the year before, when they’d ridden to war together, they’d sworn an oath that they would fight at each other’s side until both were dead or both victorious, and they had sealed that oath with drops of their own blood.
In his blood-sworn friend’s soothing company Gerraent spent a pleasant pair of days, drinking at Blaen’s hearth, hunting out in his forest preserve, or riding aimlessly across his lands with the warband behind them. Gerraent
envied Blaen for having a warband. He was determined to get one of his own; the ten horses that he’d receive in Ysolla’s dowry would be a splendid start, and soon Brangwen’s royal marriage would bring wealth to the Falcon, a lwdd, a blood price of sorts—but too small a compensation for the losing of her.
On the third day, late in the afternoon, Gerraent and Blaen rode out alone. Enjoying each other’s silent company, they ambled through the fields until they reached a low rise that overlooked meadowlands. Tended by a pair of boys and a dog, Blaen’s herd of white cattle with rusty-red ears grazed below.
“Let’s hope there’s no war this summer,” Blaen said.
“What? What are you doing, turning into an old woman?”
“I’m not ready to start sucking eggs yet, but I’ll tell you somewhat I’d never tell any other man. There are times when I wish I’d been born a bard, singing about wars instead of fighting them.”
Thinking it a jest, Gerraent started to laugh, then stopped at the quiet seriousness in Blaen’s eyes. All the way home, he puzzled over it, remembering Blaen’s calm courage in battle and wondering how any man would want to be a bard rather than a warrior. They returned to the dun at sunset. As he dismounted, Gerraent saw Brythu running out of the broch.
“My lord!” the boy panted out. “I just got here. Your father’s dying.”
“Take the best horse in my stable,” Blaen said. “Break him if you have to.”
When he rode out, Gerraent left the page behind so that he could make good speed. He galloped through the twilight, alternately trotted and galloped even when dark fell, though the road lay treacherous in the pale moonlight. Not for one moment did it occur to him that he might be thrown. All he could think of was his father, dying without a last sight of his son, and of Brangwen, tending the dying alone. Whenever the horse stumbled, he would let it walk to rest, then spur it on again. At last he reached the small village
on the edge of his lands. He banged on the tavern door until the tavernman came hurrying down in his nightshirt with a candle lantern in his hand.
“Can you change my horse?” Gerraent said.
“Lady Brangwen had the gray brought here to wait for you.”
The gray was the fastest horse in the Falcon’s stable. Gerraent switched saddle and bridle, flung the tavernman a coin, then kicked the gray to a gallop, plunging out of the candlelight and into the night-shrouded road. At last he saw the dun rising, the palisade dark against the starry sky. He spurred one last burst of speed out of the gray and galloped through the open gates. As he dismounted, the chamberlain ran out of the broch.
“He still lives,” Draudd called out. “I’ll tend the horse.”
Gerraent ran up the spiral staircase and down the hall to his father’s chamber. Propped up on pillows, Dwen was lying in bed, his face gray, his mouth slack as he fought for every breath. Brangwen sat beside him and clutched his hand in both of hers.
“He’s home, Da,” she said. “Gerro’s here.”
As Gerraent walked over, Dwen raised his head and searched for him with rheumy eyes. Dwen tried to speak, then coughed, spitting up a slime of blood-tinged phlegm, slipping and glistening as his head fell back. He was dead. Gerraent wiped the spittle off his father’s mouth with the edge of the blanket, then closed his eyes and folded his arms across his chest. The chamberlain came in, glanced at the bed, then flung himself down to kneel at Gerraent’s feet—at the feet of the new Falcon, head of the clan and its only hope.
“My lord, I’d best send a page to the King straightaway. We’ve got to catch the wedding party before it leaves.”
“So we do. Get him on the way at dawn.”
It would take three days to get the message to Dun Deverry that Brangwen’s wedding would have to wait for
a time of mourning. All at once, as he looked at his father’s face, Gerraent turned sick with self-loathing. He would have given anything to stop that marriage, anything but this. He threw his head back and keened, cry after wordless cry, as if he could drive his thoughts away with the sound.
In the morning, the priests of Bel came from the temple to preside over the burial. Under their direction, Brangwen and her serving maid washed the body, dressed it in Dwen’s best court clothes, and laid it on a litter. While the servants dug the grave, Gerraent groomed and saddled his father’s best horse. The procession assembled out in the ward, servants carrying the litter, the priests just behind, then Gerraent, leading the horse. Supported by her maid and the chamberlain, Brangwen brought up the rear. The head priest gave Gerraent a cold smile, then pointed to the lintel of the door.
“That head comes down today, or I won’t bury your father.”
Since he refused to order a servant to do such a hideous task, Gerraent climbed the broch, working his way up the rough stone while the priest waited below with a basket. When Gerraent reached the door, he clung to the lintel and examined the head. There was little left, a stretch of blackening skin over a skull, shreds of hair, a few cracked teeth.
“Well and good, Samoryc. Both you and your old enemy are going to be buried today.”
Gerraent pulled his dagger and pried out the crumbling nails until the head dropped into the priest’s basket with a sickening little thud. The maidservant screamed; then the ward was silent except for the stamp and snort of the restless horse.
The priests led the procession out and down around the hill to the small grove, the burial ground of the Falcon clan. At the sight of their mother’s grave, Brangwen began to weep. The fresh grave lay beside it, a deep trench, some eight feet wide and ten long. When Gerraent let the horse up, it pulled at the reins and danced in fear, as if it knew
the Wyrd in store for it. Gerraent threw the reins to a waiting servant. As the horse tossed up its head, Gerraent drew his sword and struck, killing it cleanly with one blow to the throat. With a gush of blood, the horse staggered forward, its legs buckling, and fell headlong into the grave. Gerraent stepped back and unthinkingly wiped the sword blade clean on his brigga. For the rest of the ceremony, he stood there with the sword in his hand, because he never thought to sheathe it.
At first Gerraent managed to cling to his warrior’s calm, even when a sobbing Brangwen poured milk and honey over their father’s body. But the first spadeful of earth, the dark mud settling over his father’s face, broke him. Keening, he fell to his knees, tossed his head back and sobbed that high strange note over and over. Dimly he felt Brangwen’s hands on his shoulders.
“Gerro! Gerro, Gerro, please stop, please.”
Gerraent let her lead him away, leaning on her as if she were the warrior and he the lass. She took him back to the hall and shoved him into a chair by the hearth. He saw the priests come back, saw them fussing around Brangwen and talking in low voices. She came over to him with a tankard of ale in her hand. Reflexively Gerraent took it, sipped from it, then nearly threw it in her face. It reeked of medicinal herbs.
“Drink it,” Brangwen snapped. “Drink it down, Gerro. You’ve got to sleep.”
For her sake Gerraent choked the bitter stuff down. She took the empty tankard from his hands just as he fell asleep in his chair, drowning, or so he felt, in the warm sunlight. When he woke, he was lying on his bed with a torch burning in an iron sconce on the wall. Blaen was sitting on the floor and watching him.
“Ah, ye gods,” Gerraent said. “How long did I sleep?”
“It’s just past sunset. We all rode in an hour or so ago. My mother and your betrothed wanted to be with Gwennie.”
Blaen got up and poured water from the clay pitcher on
the windowsill. Gerraent drank greedily to wash the bitter aftertaste of the drug out of his mouth.
“How long will you set the period of mourning?” Blaen said.
“For my sake I’d say a year, but that would be cruel to our sisters, wouldn’t it? I can go on mourning after they’re both married.”
“Say to the turning of the fall, then?”
Gerraent nodded in agreement, thinking that Gwennie would be his for one more summer. Then he remembered why he would have the summer. Keening, he threw the clay cup against the wall so hard that it shattered. Blaen sat down beside him and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Here, here, he’s gone,” Blaen said. “There’s naught more to do or say.”
Gerraent rested his head against Blaen’s chest and wept. I love him like a brother, he thought. I’ll thank all the gods that Gwennie’s not marrying him.
Prince Galrion’s first week back at court was one long frustration, with never a chance to speak to his father except in full, formal court. He knew that he was holding back, too, letting slip a chance here and there, because his heart worried like a terrier with a rat at the question of marrying Brangwen or letting Blaen have her. Finally, he decided to enlist the aid of the one ally he could always trust: his mother. On an afternoon so warm and balmy that it reminded him Beltane was close at hand, Galrion left the city and rode out to find the Queens hawking party down by Loc Gwerconydd, the vast lake where three rivers came together west of Dun Deverry.
The Queen and her attendants were having their noon meal at the southern shore. In their bright dresses, the serving women and maidservants looked like flowers scattered through the grass. Queen Ylaena sat in their midst; a young page, dressed in white, stood behind her with the Queen’s favorite little merlin on his wrist. Off to one side menservants tended the horses and other hawks. When
Galrion dismounted, the Queen waved him over with an impatient flick of her hand.
“I’ve hardly seen you since you rode home,” Ylaena said. “Are you well?”
“By all means. What makes you think I’m not?”
“You’ve been brooding over somewhat. I can always tell.” The Queen turned to her women. “Go down to the lakeshore or suchlike, all of you. Leave us.”
The women sprang up like birds taking flight and ran off, laughing and calling to one another. The page followed more slowly, chirruping to the hawk to keep it calm. Ylaena watched them go with a small satisfied nod. For all that she had four grown sons, she was a beautiful woman still, with large, dark eyes, a slender face, and only a few streaks of gray in her chestnut hair. She reached into the basket beside her, brought out a piece of sweet bread, and handed it to Galrion.
“My thanks. Tell me somewhat, Mother. When you first came to court, did the other women envy your beauty?”
“Of course. Are you thinking about your betrothed?”
“Just that. I’m beginning to think you were right to doubt my choice.”
“Now’s a fine time for that, when you’ve already pledged your vow to the poor child.”
“What son ever listens to his mother until it’s too late?”
Ylaena gave him an indulgent smile. Galrion nibbled on the sweet bread and considered strategies.
“You know,” Ylaena said. “There’s not a lass alive who wouldn’t want to be known as the most beautiful woman in all Deverry, but it’s a harsh Wyrd in its own way. Your little Gwennie never had the education I had, either. She’s such a trusting little soul.”
“Just that. I spoke with Lady Rodda of the Boar about the matter, too, when I went with Gerraent for his betrothal. Lord Blaen of the Boar is much enamoured of the lass.”
“Indeed? And does that mean trouble coming?”
“It doesn’t, but only because Blaen is an honorable man. It’s odd, truly. Most lords care naught about their wives one way or another, just so long as they bear sons.”
“Great beauty can act on the roughest lord like dweomer.” Ylaena smiled briefly. “Or on a prince.”
Galrion winced at her unfortunate choice of imagery.
“What are you scheming?” Ylaena went on. “Leaving Gwennie to Blaen and finding another wife?”
“Well, somewhat like that. There’s one small difficulty to that plan. I still love her, in my way.”
“Love may be a luxury that a prince can’t afford. I don’t remember Blaen well from his few visits to court. Is he like his father?”
“As different as mead from mud.”
“Then that’s one blessing. I’m sure that if his father hadn’t been killed in that hunting accident, he’d be plotting against the king right now.”
Ylaena glanced away, sincerely troubled. The Deverry kingship was a risky thing. The lords and tieryns remembered well that in the old days of the Dawntime, kings were elected from among their fellow nobles, and families held the throne only as long as their heirs held the respect of the lords. Under the pressures of colonizing the new kingdom, that custom had died away hundreds of years before, but it was far from unknown for the nobility to organize a rebellion against an unpopular king in order to replace him with a better one.
“Lady Rodda assures me that Blaen will hold loyal,” Galrion said.
“Indeed? Well, I respect her opinion. You truly don’t want to give Brangwen up, do you?”
“I don’t know.” Galrion tossed the remains of the bread into the grass. “I truly don’t know.”
“Here’s somewhat else you might think about. Your eldest brother has always been far too fond of the lasses as it is.”
All at once Galrion found himself standing, his hand on his sword hilt.
“I’d kill him if he laid one hand on my Gwennie. My apologies, Mother, but I’d kill him.”
Her face pale, Ylaena rose and caught his arm. Galrion let go of the hilt and calmed himself.
“Think about this marriage carefully,” Ylaena said, her voice shaking. “I beg you—think carefully.”