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Authors: J.D. Oswald

The Golden Cage

BOOK: The Golden Cage
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J D Oswald
 
THE GOLDEN CAGE
The Ballad of Sir Benfro ~ Volume Three

PENGUIN BOOKS

THE GOLDEN CAGE

J D Oswald is the author of the epic fantasy series The Ballad of Sir Benfro. Currently,
Dreamwalker, The Rose Cord
and
The Golden Cage
are all available as Penguin ebooks. He is also the author of the Detective Inspector McLean series of crime novels under the name James Oswald.

In his spare time James runs a 350-acre livestock farm in north-east Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney sheep.

www.jamesoswald.co.uk

Twitter
@SirBenfro

By the same author

The Ballad of Sir Benfro

Dreamwalker

The Rose Cord

The Golden Cage

The Inspector McLean Novels

Natural Causes

The Book of Souls

The Hangman's Song

Dead Men's Bones

This one's for Juliet, who made it all happen.

1

Cuckoo-child in a nest of thieves

Bastard heir to mage's line

Stealer of souls, taker of lives

Harbinger of the death of worlds

The Prophecies of Mad Goronwy

Silence blanketed the world like an invisible fog. Even the trees gave off no sound, though they waved and flexed in the stiff breeze. Underfoot, the grass was wet with dew, but he could feel nothing of its texture on the soles of his bare feet. A shiver ran through him, but it wasn't the chill of the wind on his face, rather an aching leaching cold that he instinctively tried to get away from.

Not knowing how he had got there, Errol hunkered down between two large tree roots, pulling his cloak around himself and shivering. He was tired, but somehow sleep eluded him. Was he waiting for someone? He couldn't be sure, but he felt like he had been here before. His ankles ached at the thought of moving; he had no desire to stand up, no desire to do anything but huddle in his frozen hollow and try to sleep.

If only he could sleep.

She came to him as a scent. He could still hear nothing, not even the beating of his own heart, but the aroma
plunged him back into happy memories of sun and warmth, holding hands, a lingering kiss. Everything was tinged with a deep comforting green, and for a moment he even forgot the cold and the pain.

From his dark hiding place Errol watched the path as it wound its way through the sparse ancient trees. He saw her first a good distance off, moving carefully, sticking to the shadows.

Closer now and he was sure. It was Martha as he had last seen her: serious eyes concentrating on the task ahead, dark shoulder-length hair pulled back and tied simply at her neck, still wearing her boot-length forest-green travelling cloak. She picked her way along the edge of the path, keeping as much as possible beneath the wind-swirled canopies of the great trees. Every so often she would look up at the sky, scanning the grey undersides of the clouds as if something terrible lurked there.

Errol tried to call out to her. Martha. But his voice was silent, echoing only in his head. Somehow he wasn't surprised. Neither did it alarm him that he couldn't move. He knew what was going to happen next.

For about two hundred paces she had to cross open ground, a natural clearing in the forest where a rocky outcrop rose out of the ground. She paused at the edge, glanced once more at the sky, then stepped boldly into the light. She didn't run; that might have drawn too much attention. Instead she seemed to draw in on herself until she almost disappeared. Almost, but not quite. Errol could still see her, shrinking as she moved steadily across the clearing. And others could see her too.

In the silence they were impossible creatures. They
appeared from nowhere, four great beasts with wings a dozen paces from shoulder to tip. Their landing should have shaken the earth, but they sank on to huge taloned feet without a tremor, surrounding her. Trapping her.

Errol could only watch, paralysed by something beyond fear. But Martha was not afraid. She stood among the dragons as if they were no more than placid cattle in a summer field. She looked at them each in turn, her mouth voicing words that had no sound. She held out her hand and a tiny sphere of light blazed forth, hovering above her palm. One of the dragons took an involuntary step back at this, slumping on to his tail as if in astonishment.

Martha must have taken this as permission to pass, for she boldly stepped out of their circle as if to continue to the other side of the clearing. Errol watched in astonishment and hope as she moved one step, two steps away while the four dragons merely looked at each other. Maybe this time she was going to make it.

This time?

Everything came crashing together. The dragon who had stepped back whipped around, grabbing Martha around her waist with one massive claw. Errol tried to wrench himself out of his hiding place even as he knew that there was nothing he could do. The dragons launched themselves into the air, the one carrying Martha clutched to his scaly breast struggling hard to clear the treetops. With a final wasted effort, Errol wrenched himself free, tripped over a root and plunged headlong.

He hit the ground much sooner than he expected, and with the impact, sound washed over him: the echo of running water over rocks, the chatter of early-morning birds.
His nose filled with a dusty spicy smell, making him sneeze then scramble to his feet. Pain shot through both ankles and he fell back on to the low bed of grass and heather that he had rolled out of in his sleep, his dream. Martha.

Errol rubbed the grit from his eyes and shivered at the cold. The ragged cloak that was all he had for a blanket lay twisted at the end of the bed, as if he had fought demons as he slept. Instinctively, he reached out for the lines, drawing enough warmth from them to push the chill from his bones. As they warmed his chest, he felt a moment's tightening at the scar where Beulah had stabbed him to the heart. Where Martha had healed him. Then he shifted his focus down to his ankles, trying to wash the pain out of them, wishing them to heal faster.

‘They will get better. Give them time.' Errol didn't need to look up to know that the old dragon Corwen had joined him in the cave. Instead he leaned down and massaged first one ankle then the next, feeling the flow of the Grym through his fingertips. Finally, when he thought he might be able to cope with the pain, he slowly stood up, crossed to the fire and put some twigs on the ashen coals.

‘You're up early, Errol. Bad dreams again?'

‘Not dreams, just a single dream.' Errol shuffled towards the cave mouth and glanced out across the clearing. It was still, and the dawn light lit the scene only dimly. ‘It's always the same.'

‘Then it's likely she's trying to tell you something important.' Corwen was by his side, a presence, but also nothing at all. ‘You must concentrate, try harder to communicate with her. Perhaps if you were to ask—'

‘Benfro? He doesn't like me. Why should he? My kind
murdered his whole family.' Errol looked across the track to the small stone corral with its makeshift roof of branches, bracken and dried grass. It was so desolate he could almost taste the misery of the dragon who slept within.

‘Besides, he's got trouble enough with his own dreams.'

‘Your Majesty, you're not well. You should stay in bed.'

Queen Beulah looked up at her chambermaid with a mixture of contempt and weary resignation. Yet another sleepless night, and now she felt like her head was going to explode, shortly after her stomach had done so. At least this girl had some spine, unlike the other simpering maids, who stood in the doorway ready to flee from her wrath. Useless women, what did she need them for, anyway? She'd learned how to dress herself when she was two.

‘I'm not my father. I won't rule the Twin Kingdoms from my bed.' Beulah hauled herself out of her pillows, wincing as the pain stabbed through her head right between the eyes.

‘May I at least send for a physician?'

Beulah was surprised by the question; it was as if the woman was actually concerned.

‘Very well,' she said, unsure what good it would do to be poked and prodded by the palace quacks. ‘But find me a coenobite of the Ram. I don't want one of Padraig's useless bureaucrats treating me like a textbook.'

The chambermaid curtsied and left the room, taking the others with her. Beulah settled her head back into the pillows, wiping cold sweat from her forehead. It had been days now, maybe weeks, since this strange ailment had hit her. It came and went; sometimes she would be as fit as
ever, the next day barely able to drag herself out of bed. It was difficult to keep food down, and what she did manage to eat left her feeling bloated. She would have suspected a poisoning attempt, but Clun, noble Clun, insisted on tasting all her food before she ate, and he was as fit as a fiddle.

Anger gave her a little strength, and Beulah used it to drag herself out of bed. She ached in her hips and back as she made her way to the bathroom. Warm scented steam swirled in the air, rising off the bath her chambermaids had already drawn. It was at once inviting and stomach-churning, and with a terrible sense of helplessness Beulah turned as fast as she could to the basin. She had not eaten much the evening before, but what was left of it came up in great heaves.

She leaned over the basin, catching her breath and fighting the waves of nausea that swept over her. How long had it really been like this? Had she felt this way before the debacle in the Neuadd when that strange young woman had run rings around a dozen highly trained warrior priests? When both she and the boy Errol had mysteriously disappeared in front of her eyes? It seemed to her that her symptoms had begun shortly after that. Perhaps she was suffering from some dark magical attack. And yet Beulah felt certain she would have known if that were the case. She was skilled in magic, after all. And she had the power of the Obsidian Throne to help her. Perhaps Melyn would have been able to divine what the problem was, but as ever when she needed him, he was elsewhere. She doubted she had the energy to try and contact him through the aethereal.

The
raw burning pain in her throat seemed to counter her queasiness a little, and Beulah felt able to bathe. Warm water soothed her aches, and the perfumed soap washed away her night sweat, so that by the time she walked through into her dressing chamber, wrapped in a long white silk robe, she was beginning to feel almost human. In the mirror her face was gaunt, thin and drawn. Her freckles stood out like some disfiguring plague against skin as pale as a bloodless corpse. Her hair was straggly and matted, still damp from her bath, more scalp showing through than was healthy. She looked awful and was glad of the distraction when the reflected image of the chambermaid appeared behind her.

‘I have summoned a physician, ma'am. A Ram, as requested. He awaits in your outer chamber.'

‘Well, he's no use to me there, is he? Send him in.'

The chambermaid bobbed a curtsy and scurried out of the room. After a few moments there was a quiet knock at the door.

‘Come,' Beulah said, not bothering to turn round. To her surprise, the figure who appeared in the doorway was not some road-weary travelling coenobite but Archimandrite Cassters himself. She remembered him as a chubby man, white-haired and slightly eccentric, but old age was catching up with him now.

‘Your Majesty. I was told you weren't feeling well. Please, how may I help you?' The archimandrite made to bow, but Beulah stopped him. If he made it down on to one knee, he'd never get back up again.

‘Come, Your Grace, sit. If I'd known the silly girl would fetch you I'd never have sent her. I only meant for her to
find me a coenobite.' She steered the old man to one of the chairs arranged by the large window which overlooked an empty courtyard, settling herself down into the other.

‘And why would you seek our help? Aren't Padraig's palace physicians to your liking?'

‘They've used my blood to grow their leeches fat, and they've made my back sore with their cupping. I don't think they know the first thing about medicine.'

Cassters smiled, creases forming at the edges of his small clear eyes. ‘So tell me, my queen. How long have you been suffering this malaise?'

‘Perhaps three weeks now,' Beulah said. ‘It comes and goes. Mornings are always worst. If I could just get a decent night's sleep. But I feel drained all the time.'

‘If I may, ma'am?' Cassters reached out and took her wrist, feeling for a pulse. His touch was warm and dry against her skin as he felt her forehead and peered into her eyes. It seemed strange to be so close to someone, so intimate. Only Clun would dare to touch her face that way, and she had not had the strength to visit his chamber in weeks now. Dear Clun, so unlike his traitorous stepbrother Errol. But then Errol wasn't really Clun's stepbrother at all, was he?

‘Did you know about Lleyn's child?' Beulah asked.

‘Ma'am?'

‘When she died, what was it, sixteen years ago now? She was with child. I assume you knew about that.'

Cassters looked her straight in the eyes. ‘Only after she had died,' he said. ‘Father Gideon was her physician. He told me afterwards what had happened. That Llanwennog prince, Balch, was the father, apparently.'

Beulah
summoned up her strength. It was difficult with the headache pounding away between her temples and her stomach churning acid, but she could skim the edges of the archimandrite's thoughts and she saw no subterfuge in them.

‘And the child died with its mother.'

‘That's what I was told. It was a tragedy, but some might say a blessing too. A half-breed heir to the throne. There would have been civil war. Or worse.'

‘So you believe the prophecies then.'

‘What, Mad Goronwy? Not really, no. But for better or worse the people of the Twin Kingdoms wouldn't have taken kindly to a son of Ballah on the Obsidian Throne. Oh, there are some who would have welcomed it, true. Abervenn has always been close to the Llanwennogs. But others would have taken up arms against them: in Castell Glas and the west, not to mention Inquisitor Melyn and his warrior priests. No, it would have been a busy time for us Rams had that happened. Very complicated.'

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