Authors: John Gwynne
She looked at the bodies strewn about her, remembered falling with Conall but could not see him amongst the dead. Her mam and da’s faces flashed through her mind, Corban, then Gar’s.
Where was everyone?
She left the courtyard unchallenged and drifted slowly through the streets, following the trail of the dead. They were littered everywhere, sometimes in mounds where the fighting had raged
fiercer, some still locked together in a macabre embrace. The smell of smoke and fire grew thicker the deeper she walked into the fortress. Her feet took her to the stables. There were more
warriors here, red-cloaked men tending wild-eyed horses. She glimpsed Corban’s stallion Shield in the paddock, then he was gone, lost amongst the herd gathered there.
Where is Gar?
As if in a dream she walked on, peering at the faces of the dead, searching for her family, relieved every time a lifeless face was not one of them. Her search continued, becoming more frantic
until she found herself in the courtyard before the feast-hall.
Another pile of the dead was heaped here, greater even than the one before Stonegate. Warriors were everywhere, wounded, covered in ash and blood. In one corner Cywen saw the grey-cloaks of
Ardan, the defeated warriors gathered together, many injured. They were guarded by a cohort of Owain’s men.
A great ululation came from the feast-hall. Something – a board, a tabletop – was being carried from the entranceway. As Cywen watched, it was hoisted upright and leaned with a thud
against one of the columns that supported the entrance. A body was fixed to the board, covered in blood but still recognizable. Cywen’s stomach lurched.
Brenin. His head was lolling, arms twisted, wrists and ankles nailed to the tabletop. A great bloom of blood surrounding the wound in his chest. Cywen spat bile onto the stained cobblestones,
motes of ash falling softly about her like black snow.
She wiped her mouth and stumbled towards the hall’s doors, eyes fixed on Brenin’s corpse.
‘Please, Elyon, All-Father,’ she prayed, ‘let my kin still live.’ She stopped before Brenin, stood staring up at him until a warrior bumped into her and told her to get
out of the way. She glared at him.
Noise from the feast-hall leaked out into the courtyard, some kind of commotion – men shouting, a deep growling.
Then she was dashing through the open doors, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Everything was chaos in here, tables and chairs overturned, timbers blackened and charred with fire,
clouds of smoke still clinging to the rafters where the flames had only recently been doused. There were many people gathered in here. She saw Owain talking with Nathair, a cluster of the
black-clothed warriors that had stormed the gates gathered about him. Evnis was amongst them, and Conall. Anger flashed in her gut and her hand instinctively reached for her knife-belt. She scowled
as she remembered she’d used all the blades last night on the wall.
Then her eyes were drawn back to the commotion that had first caught her attention. A group of warriors were circling something, a snapping, snarling something.
‘Just kill it,’ she heard one of the warriors say and saw a flash of sharp white teeth, a flat muzzle, brindle fur.
‘Buddai,’ she whispered and ran forwards, elbowing through the line of warriors.
They were grouped in a half-circle about Buddai, the great hound standing with his head lowered, teeth bared.
Cywen stumbled to a halt and Buddai’s big head swung round to face her, teeth snapping. Then, suddenly, he knew her. He whined, his tail wagging hesitantly at seeing someone familiar in
this place of death, someone that was
. She threw herself upon him, arms wrapped about his neck, and buried her face in his fur. She stayed like that long moments, tears spilling into
Buddai’s fur. In time she leaned back, got a lick on the face and looked down.
‘That’s why you’re here,’ she mumbled. Her da lay sprawled on the ground, eyes glassy, flat, wounds all over his body, blood crusting black. With a deep sob she knelt
beside Thannon’s corpse and gently brushed her fingertips across his cheek.
Are they all slain, then?
She laid her head upon Thannon’s chest. Buddai snuggled in close to her and
nudged Thannon’s hand with his muzzle. It flopped on the ground.
‘Girl,’ a voice said and a spear butt dug into her back.
‘You need to move,’ the man said, an older warrior, silver streaks in his red beard.
‘No,’ she said, squeezing her da tighter.
‘We have to clear the hall, lass, an’ that hound won’t let us near him.’ He prodded Thannon’s boot with his spear butt. Buddai growled. ‘If you can get that
hound to go with you all the better, otherwise we’ve no choice but t’kill it.’
Kill Buddai. No more death
‘I . . . yes,’ Cywen said, wiping her eyes and nose. She knelt before Buddai, running her hands over him. Blood crusted the fur on his front shoulder and he whined when she probed
the wound. ‘Come with me, Buds,’ she whispered, ‘else they’ll kill you too.’ He just cocked his head and stared at her with uncomprehending eyes.
Cywen stood, took a few steps away from the hound and called him. He took a hesitant step towards her, then looked back at his fallen master and whined pitifully.
‘Come on, Buds. Come.’ Cywen slapped her hand against her leg, and this time he came to her. The red-bearded warrior nodded and continued with his work.
No one was taking any notice of Cywen; she was just another blood-stained survivor of the night’s dark work. All of the warriors in the room seemed to be busy clearing the floors, tending
to wounded comrades. Owain and Nathair were still deep in conversation, though Cywen saw that the King of Tenebral’s shieldman – the black-clad warrior called Sumur – was staring
back at her.
‘Come on, Buddai,’ Cywen said. ‘Best be getting out of here.’ She turned towards the feast-hall doors and with a thud crashed into someone.
,’ the man grunted. ‘Watch where you’re—
Cywen stood frozen, staring at the person she had collided with. It was Rafe.
The huntsman’s son glared at her. Buddai growled and Rafe took a step backwards.
His fair hair was dank, ash stained, his eyes red veined with dark hollow rings. He had been crying. There was a gash in one leg of his breeches, just above the knee, and drying blood soaked
down to his boots. A ragged bandage was tied tight above the wound.
‘Your brother did that to me,’ he said, following her gaze to his wounded leg. ‘One more thing I owe him for.’
‘Ban,’ Cywen gasped, her heart twisting at the mention of her brother. ‘He lives, then?’ She was almost too scared to speak the thought out loud.
‘Maybe, but not for long. We’ll catch him, catch all of them.’
of them? Who else? My mam, Gar?’
Rafe just looked at her, then smiled slowly. ‘All on your own, little girl? Best be getting used to that.’
She felt a swell of rage, hated Rafe at that moment as much as she’d hated anyone. She reached for her knives again, cursed silently when she remembered they were all gone.
‘Traitor,’ she hissed at him.
‘Depends where you’re looking from,’ Rafe said, but frowned nevertheless. ‘Way I see it, Evnis is my lord. I do as I’m bid. And it seems to me he’s on the
winning side, at least.’
‘For now,’ Cywen muttered.
‘Things have changed around here.’ Rafe wagged a finger at her. ‘And if you don’t realize that quick, you’ll end up sorry. You’d best be minding your manners
from now on. All your protectors have left you. Not so special are you, eh? Why’d they leave you?’ He grinned. ‘Think about that.’
Cywen wanted to hit him. His words were sharp, cutting deep like one of her knives. She clenched her fists, knowing attacking anyone right now was not a good idea.
Rafe looked over her shoulder and she followed his gaze. Evnis was beckoning to the huntsman’s son, Conall still beside him. ‘I’ll be seeing you,’ Rafe said. ‘And
don’t worry, we’ll find your kin for you.’ He grinned, an unpleasant twist of his mouth, and drew a finger slowly across his throat, from ear to ear. Before she knew it, Cywen was
stepping forwards, ramming her knee into Rafe’s groin.
He crumpled forwards, folding in upon himself and curled up into a ball on the ground, whimpering.
‘Best you keep away from me and my kin,’ she snarled at him, then heard a chuckling behind her. The red-bearded warrior was watching her, along with a handful of others.
‘You’n that hound, you’re a good match,’ the warrior said. He grinned and she flushed red, biting back angry words, thought she’d best be making herself scarce.
Lowering her gaze, she headed for the feast-hall’s open doors, Buddai following. She glanced back as she stepped out into the daylight to see Rafe pushing himself up from the ground. Sumur
was still staring at her.
Consumed with an urge to go home, she ran through the streets, Buddai limping along beside her.
When she opened the door and stepped into the kitchen she almost expected to see her mam standing there, bustling about by the ovens, her da sitting at the table, eating something. She even
called out, hoping to hear someone. She searched every room until she found herself back in the kitchen. Her home was empty, as cold and lifeless as her da’s gaze.
Where are they?
‘Gone,’ she whispered. A sob bubbled out of her and she swayed, steadying herself against the kitchen table.
All gone. And they’ve left me behind
. Rafe’s words rang loud in her memory.
How could they just leave me?
She looked at Buddai and the hound stared trustingly back at
her. An image of her da flooded her mind, crusted blood all over him, those terrible, empty eyes. She wished her mam was there to hold her, comfort her. And Ban, her brother, her best friend. Why
had he abandoned her? Another sob burst out of her and she sank to the floor, wrapped her arms about Buddai and began to cry in great, racking waves. The brindle hound licked Cywen’s
tear-stained cheek and curled himself protectively about her.
Veradis drank from a water skin, pouring some over his head and neck. He and his men were spread in a half-circle before the great gates of Haldis, last bastion of the Hunen
giants. Only a short while ago Calidus and Alcyon had disappeared inside, with over two hundred warriors at their back.
Survivors of the clash against the giants were trickling into the clearing and Veradis sent half a dozen scouts out to help guide the stragglers in.
‘It’s thirsty work, eh?’ Bos, his comrade-in-arms said, grinning. ‘This giant-killing.’
The big warrior was bleeding from a cut to his ear, blood matting his hair. As Veradis stared he realized it was more than a cut; a large chunk of his friend’s ear missing.
‘Where’s your helmet?’ he asked.
‘Lost it.’ Bos shrugged. He touched his ear and looked at his bloodied fingertips. ‘Better’n losing my head.’
‘That’s debatable,’ Veradis said as he passed his friend the water skin.
Bos drank deep. ‘We have a fine tale to tell Rauca, eh?’
‘For sure,’ Veradis said. ‘If we make it out of here.’ He gazed at the surrounding cairns, each one at least twice as tall as a man and grave to a giant. The sounds of
battle still drifted on a cold wind, faint and echoing. Beyond the cairns the trees of Forn Forest rose all about. At Veradis’ back a sheer cliff face reared, covered in huge carvings; an
open gateway at its foot led into darkness.
The blood-rush of battle was slowly fading, replaced now by aching muscles, tiredness and a throbbing in Veradis’ face. He reached up and pulled a splinter from his cheek, from where a
giant’s axe had carved into his shield, chopped through its iron rim and spat splinters of wood into his face.
Many of his five hundred had fallen in the battle amongst the cairns, but those left stood proudly. They knew they had turned this battle, somehow pulled victory from defeat with their shield
Braster and Romar’s warbands had been decimated, laid low by giants’ magic and giants’ iron. Braster himself had fallen amongst the cairns, carried wounded and unconscious from
the field. Romar, King of Isiltir, had led a force in chase of the routed Hunen through the black gates. Despite Calidus seeing him as a thorn in their flesh, opposing Nathair and his servants at
almost every turn, Veradis didn’t envy Romar the close-quarters battle he would encounter in the dark tunnels.
Especially as Calidus had hinted that it was time to take drastic measures against the recalcitrant King. That was Calidus’ business. Nathair had made it clear to Veradis that he had no
authority over Calidus, that the man could do as he wished. And Calidus had the Jehar to enforce those wishes.
Whatever happens, happens
, he thought. Romar meant little to him, but Veradis did have friends in there, inside those tunnels. Kastell and Maquin. They were part of the Gadrai,
Romar’s elite warriors. He would not like to see them come to harm. But he had warned them, or tried to. What else could he have done?