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Bard of Castaguard

Second of the Book of Ond Series which follows on from the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor)Bard of Castaguard: Volume Two of The Book of Ond

Calamities batter the barony of Torra Alta like mighty waves … wolves, long protected by the Torra Altan Barons attack every town, hamlet and farm in the kingdom of Belbidia.

The king’s wife-to-be has disappeared while in the care of the Baron’s half-brother, Hal; and Caspar, the Baron’s son, has allowed his stewardship of the evil power, Necrönd, to lead him into a tangle of mistakes. Moreover, the Trinity of priestesses is about to be sundered by the death of the Crone, Morrigwen.

But the course of history is not always shaped by those in power. May, an orphaned woodcutter's daughter and now ward of the Baron, finds herself drawn to Caspar. His inability to tell her of his feelings - and his obvious worship of Brid - lead her to believe her love stillborn. Yet her own feelings will not allow her to remain idle when it seems that only she can save her new home. Self-sacrifice though, however noble, is rarely without flaw. 

Both magic and the sword must come into play if all Torra Alta and Belbidia is not to subside in a welter of blood and treachery. Jane Welch’s towering fantasy series continues to deny her characters easy answers as they enter their blackest, most dangerous days.

Volume Two of The Book of Önd. Published by Simon & Schuster  ISBN 0-671-03391-3

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Caspar’s newly acquired mount stepped delicately along the forest track, her burnished golden coat rippling in the dappled sunlight. So quiet was their progress that the faint rustle behind sounded startlingly loud in the near silence.

He twisted round in the saddle but could see nothing untoward. Trows Forest was still. Even the fluffy balls of white flowers coating the leafless branches of the blackthorn trees were motionless in the quiet air. Narrowing his bright blue eyes, he sought to pierce the gloom to either side. A twig snapped some way back down the track but he could see nothing untoward.

While twisted round and not looking where he was going, a low branch scuffed the back of his head. Wincing, he turned back to concentrate on the route ahead. The way was little used and the trees were closing around the path.

"Speedwell," he muttered aloud, forgetting the sound of the snapping twig. "Why couldn’t Brid have sent someone else to find it?"

He brushed his hand through his thick auburn hair and was surprised to feel it damp. Pulling his fingers away, he looked at the smeared blood in surprise.

"Blackthorn, wretched tree of ill-fate," he grumbled, resisting the temptation to slash at one with his knife, a particularly fine blade. He grinned at the knife in appreciation. Like Sunsprite, his mount, it was also newly acquired and without equal in this world, and though its value far outstretched that of the verderer’s horse, he did not prize it as highly.

The workmanship of the knife only briefly distracted him from the scratch to his head, which troubled him far more than so slight a graze should have done. The scalp at the crown of his head had itched of late and now bled at the least provocation, though the small injury had been some time ago now and should have healed. The deranged man in the dungeons of the Otherworld had attacked him with violent intent but had only succeeded in tearing a few hairs from Caspar’s head.

Hurriedly, he tried to put such thoughts from his mind. It was too disturbing, too frightening even, to think of how close he and Brid had come to being lost forever in the land of spirit. Talorcan had nearly caught them. The bright image of the verderer’s face still haunted his nights, still lurked in his waking mind. The creature of the Otherworld had wielded such power that he had nearly stolen Brid’s soul and Caspar could not shake his fear of him. What if the creature pursued them? He shuddered and turned his thoughts back to the task in hand.

Knowing that its blue flowers would not yet be out and so would be hard to recognise speedwell from the foliage alone, he concentrated hard on his search. Hanging low over Sunsprite’s shoulder, he scoured the ground, seeing little other than last autumn’s decaying bracken and tall black-tipped toadstools, and was beginning to worry that he wouldn’t find any speedwell. The little girl was gravely ill and he must find the flower soon. Too much depended on the child.

Yet another twig snapped. This time he drew Sunsprite to a halt, listening intently. Far from home, beneath this oppressive canopy of dark pine, ancient oaks and vast beeches, he was growing despondent. The trees grew up tall through the fallen bodies of their ancestors that littered the forest floor, providing a home for foaming fungi and spreading ferns, and he found the enclosed world stifling and alien. He longed, more than anything, to escape the damp closeness beneath the thick dark foliage and return to the far-reaching vistas and rugged landscapes of his mountain home.

Remembering that Hal had warned of mysterious beasts abroad, he felt for his bow, strung it in readiness and searched on.

Again, something moved to his rear. The snowy blossom on the branches of a blackthorn quivered and a snouty sandy-coloured face poked through the spiked twigs.

"Oh, it’s you," Caspar said in relief, looking at the short little man with spindly legs and curiously dun-coloured skin. He lowered his bow.

"Spar, we should be hurrying home, not dawdling with the wagons," the woodwose complained, with no deference to the youth’s nobility. His horns were gone, reabsorbed into his curly-haired scalp and he looked less and less deerlike with each passing day since they had returned from the Otherworld to the Ceolothian forest. Though his limbs were spindly and his movements skittish, he had something of the appearance of an overexcited, emaciated dwarf. "Spar, I need to get back to Sorrel. We must hurry."

"Go on without us," Caspar suggested impatiently. He, too, wanted to get home but his sense of duty forbade him from leaving the others. He was eager to see May. He had something important to tell her. "You’ll be much quicker. There’s no need…"

Fern wasn’t listening. His nostrils twitched and his eyes were wide and black. "Wolf," he muttered.

Caspar stiffened but then relaxed as he saw the squat white form of Brid’s terrier, Trog, snuffling along the track after them. Flopping along behind at his heels was the white wolfling they had rescued from trappers. Though Brid had not wanted to name a wild beast, Caspar insisted on calling her Runa for the rune-shaped scar on her shoulder. The mark was shaped like the rune B[see rune appendix note 1]; Beorc, which represented rebirth and was the rune adopted to signify the Maiden. Brid had taken one glance at the wound and declared it confirmation that this was the wolf they had set out to find - the wolf that would lead them to the orphaned child who was destined to be the new Maiden. And the search for Runa had led them to the little girl who so needed the speedwell.

Fern leapt up onto a fallen log, stretched his neck up long and thin and grimaced at the dog and his floppy-pawed companion. Trog glared briefly up at the woodwose before bounding after Sunsprite, the wolfling nipping at the dog’s heels and skipping back and forth around him in delight. Fern ran ahead to stay level with Caspar.

"You can’t be afraid of Runa," the youth told him. "She led us to the new Maiden - just as the runes prophesied."

Fern’s nostril twitched faster and he kept a disdainful distance from the dog and wolfling.

"Help me find some speedwell," Caspar said peaceably.

"You passed some a while back at the foot of a tall pine before we entered the blackthorn thicket," Fern told him. "Didn’t you smell it?"

"No. Why didn’t you say? You knew Brid asked me to find some," Caspar began but found he didn’t have the energy to argue with this strange creature, half deer, half man who had returned with them from the Otherworld. Whereas he and Brid had accidentally slipped through the channels of magic to reach the Otherworld, he still couldn’t quite come to terms with the fact that, like Abelard the archer, Fern had actually died.

Fern was right. The short-stemmed plant was growing nestled beneath a silver pine whose limbs stretched up high above the surrounding trees. Caspar carefully knelt and picked a handful of the delicate herb. Although he knew it was desperately needed, a part of him was reluctant to hurry back with it to the column. Hal was there. It wasn’t that he disliked his uncle. No, not at all, it was just that Hal had become so smug since he had rescued Brid from the chief verderer.

Nevertheless, he pocketed the speedwell without delay and hurried back to his horse. Fern trotted along close to his side as they wound their way back through the dense forest, dangling ivy twining around their necks and arms at every opportunity. Caspar shuddered, still unable to drive the fear from his mind that ghostly creatures lurked in the shadows, prowling the forest in search of him. He was certain they were after him in particular, since he was master of Necrönd, the means to their release from their eternal exile in the Otherworld. He needed the Egg on his person to protect himself and protect it from thievery. He felt naked without it. How could he have let the high priestesses persuade him to leave Necrönd in the dungeons of Torra Alta?

The sound of voices ahead led him back to the train of wagons and he broke out of the forest into the middle of the column. Hal was still at the fore of the escort, strutting his way alongside two princes, one of Ceolothia and the other of Belbidia. Caspar reined in, waiting for the bulk of the wagons to pass so that he could join Brid at the rear. Princess Cymbeline herself, daughter of the powerful King Dagonet of Ceolothia and the betrothed of King Rewik of Belbidia, was nowhere to be seen. He presumed she was in one of the central wagons, resting on the long journey.

He kept himself distant from Hal and the two princes, who brought out the worst of his uncle’s nature. He couldn’t bear their posturing and contrived conversation about who amongst them was the finest knight. In Caspar’s opinion, Hal talked too loudly of his accomplishments.

The nodding draught horses plodded by, leaning into their thick collars to draw the vast sagging wagons, trails of grease dripping from their axles. They bore the princess’s dowry. He had glimpsed some of it when Princess Tudwal had checked it over at night and was still amazed at the heaps of finely crafted jewellery, brightly coloured silks and satins and particularly the glistening sunburst rubies that were a deep red with a shining golden heart. He had never seen so much wealth.

"Speedwell," he said laconically, offering it to Brid.

She took it gravely, too worried to even raise a smile of thanks, and returned to stroking back the damp strands of thin blond hair from the face of the bloodless child cradled in her lap. "She is the special child. The wolfling brought us all together at a point where we could bring her back from the Otherworld. There can be no child more special than this little girl restored from death. But she is still too weak to speak and until she can give us her true name I have called her Nimue, after the moon Goddess."

Brid’s words were soft and warm but her eyes and the dark shadows beneath them belied her calm. Her soft brown hair, which turned to burnished auburn whenever a rare beam of Ceolothian sunlight penetrated the close forest, had worked free from her tousled braid and hung in knotted tresses. She had discarded the silken dress given to her by the chief verderer of the Otherworld and, in its stead, wore one of Hal’s tunics over an over-large skirt borrowed from one of Princess Cymbeline’s ladies-in-waiting.

Midst the fine Ceolothian courtiers that accompanied the Princess, Brid looked so small and peasantlike. They called her the little wren because of her small frame and brown clothes but she laughed at them for it. But like the wren, she too could blend into the background and become one with nature.

Caspar thought that once they had found the innocent girl that was destined to take Brid’s place as the Maiden, she would be filled with relief. All omens pointed to Nimue being the one but, perversely, Brid seemed more burdened than ever; though she would not speak of it.

"Brid, shouldn’t we ride on ahead? They will be eager for news of us at home. We should hurry." Caspar urged, gently squeezing her shoulder.

She shook her head. "Nimue is sick. Too much depends on her. She must ride in the wagon and I cannot leave her."

"If what Hal says is true, the wagon might not be the safest place." Caspar looked suspiciously round at the Ceolothian troops. "What of this plot he’s uncovered to steal the princess and her dowry?"

Brid waved a hand dismissively, never once taking her eyes off the quiet face of Nimue as she tried to protect her from the jolting wagon. "Hal’s just being melodramatic. Only a fool would attack Princess Cymbeline. It would be madness to risk the wrath of both King Dagonet of Ceolothia and King Rewik."

Caspar was surprised that Brid criticised her betrothed. The corners of his mouth lifted into a half smile, glad to see that her love of Hal had not clouded her judgement of him. But fearing that his smile would stir her displeasure, he turned and swung his legs over the tailgate.

Marching vigilantly behind, though with a pronounced limp, was a strangely dressed archer who nodded politely at Caspar. It was still hard to believe that this man, Abelard, had been born four hundred years ago and had fought and died during the Ceolothian wars. Like Fern and Nimue, Abelard had also returned with them from the Otherworld. It was easy, however, to see that he was different from the other troops, his distrust of Ceolothians obvious and intense - though that was hardly surprising since it was a Ceolothian arrow that ended his life.

Young Pip, who had never managed to march in any form of orderly manner, matched him step for step, his broad grin constantly flashing up towards the archer. Brock fell in line behind Abelard, in awe of the man, constantly reminding Pip that Abelard was a man of legend, sung about in ballads from a time of heroes, and that he shouldn’t be so familiar.

Those Belbidians not from the Barony of Torra Alta found his manner strange and shunned him, and the Ceolothians, unable to ignore his black looks, stiffened when he was near and tried to avoid him. Hal, too, clearly did not like him and it took Caspar no time to realize that his uncle resented how Brock and Pip so respected the archer.

Earlier that morning Hal had sneered, "Hero! Abelard the hero! We should be grateful, of course, at a time like this. No doubt, his mere presence will thwart any attack on the princess." The raven-haired young man had sniffed scornfully but then his expression brightened and he lent from his horse to give Brid a tender kiss on the top of her head before riding purposefully to the fore of the column.

To ease his tension, Caspar jumped from the wagon and strode alongside Abelard. Few words passed between them, both pairs of eyes fixed on the Maiden and her charge, as if their gaze in some way prevented Nimue from slipping back to the Otherworld.

"Spar!" Brid demanded sharply from the back of the wagon and the light-boned youth started at the sound of his name. "I need bloodwort. Take Fern and find me bloodwort. Morrigwen swears by bloodwort. Nimue is ailing; her blood is weak. Be quick about it!"

Caspar wasn’t troubled by her biting manner; she looked tired as if she had been up all night and he shared her concern.

He turned Sunsprite from the road into the umbra of the trees and stooped over her shoulder, scanning the ground. The trees quickly muffled the sound of the plodding draught horses, creaking wagons and the crash of the huge cartwheels as they jammed on roots and heaved and bumped over the uneven ground. As Caspar left the track and entered the thick of the forest, he was immediately aware of an unreality that permeated this gloomy world. It was so still and self-contained. Nothing much seemed to matter here. The rest of the world was hundreds of miles away, all the hustle and bustle of human life so meaningless in the ageless still of the forest.

"Bloodwort," he now murmured repeatedly to himself, trying to focus his mind on the new task. He so wanted to get home. He had been away too long, far too far. Anything might have happened. His thoughts centred on the Druid’s Egg that the high priestesses called Necrönd, cocooned in its rune-bound oak chest, deep in the dark safety of the castle dungeons. Something was wrong and he felt its hold on him clawing him back home.

Both Hal and Ceowulf had lately been troubled by mysterious beasts and had accused him of wielding Necrönd to summon them. It was typical of Hal to immediately blame him, though he was little troubled by harsh words from his young uncle - he was used to it. However, the criticism in Ceowulf’s voice had unsettled him deeply. The big Belbidian knight from the barony of Caldea spoke only with consideration. Hal might accuse him of misdeeds, just to put him in his place, but not Ceowulf.

Caspar’s quest for bloodwort was proving fruitless; not even Fern could sniff any out, and the youth was deliberating whether to go on or return empty-handed, when the sound of women shrieking from the wagons made up his mind for him. The ground was trembling with galloping hooves and the air was split by a blast from Hal’s hunting horn.

The note called out again as Caspar raced back through the trees. He never once thought of the Princess Cymbeline. His concern was for Brid and Nimue.

The trees whipped by, scratching at his face and scraping over his spine as he hunched up low over Sunsprite’s withers and raced for the wagons. His heart plunged to his belly, knowing that Hal had been at the fore of the column and there were fifteen wagons between him and Brid in the rear.

Horses squealed and the clash of metal screamed through the forest. Sunsprite’s pace quickened, her hooves effortlessly gliding across the treacherous ground. Caspar struggled to unhitch his bow from his back, his ears already ringing with the clamour of battle. He burst out onto the road and raised his bow, seeking a target. Unliveried soldiers and men clad in skins, a force three score strong at least, had engaged the escorting troops on both sides of the wagons. Caspar loosed two arrows in quick succession but soon the men were fighting at such close quarters that it made the use of the bow nearly impossible.

Shrieking out the Torra Altan battle cry, he loosed three more arrows at the outflanking enemy as he hurtled to the back of the column, intent on reaching Brid. His hand moved to his belt, reaching for the verderer’s knife he had brought with him from the Otherworld. A spike of a blue metal, the blade shimmered with stardust.

Sunsprite reared, her cream hooves lashing out at a black animal that streaked beneath them. Caspar faltered. He knew it at once: a hooded wolf! A huge granite-grey beast with a black face and mane.

In reflex to a shriek from above, he raised his knife just as a man fell on him from the branches overhead. The ruffian impaled himself on the terrible knife that tore through the soft tissue of his neck. Blood soaked down Caspar’s arm as he threw the man aside to be trampled beneath Sunsprite’s hooves.

He looked ahead to the wagons. Abelard stood atop the rearmost wagon, loosing arrows into the mêlée below. Two attackers had stout poles under it and were using them to topple the wagon. Caspar charged. "Brid, get out," he yelled. "Get out!" He could hear the feeble cries of the little girl within. Where was Hal?

Five men barred Caspar’s way. He sheathed the knife and nocked an arrow to his bowstring, loosing one and then another into the bellies of the men before him. He reached back for his quiver but pressed his hand to his scalp as a sudden and acute pain sliced through his head. He was certain he had taken a glancing blow from a hurled knife. He expected blood to gush over his face but there was none. The pain deepened and he slumped for a moment, suddenly intensely aware of wolves running through the undergrowth, flanking the wagons. He gritted his teeth and forced himself to focus.

"Spar! Spar!" Brid was yelling and the urgency of her cry cleared his head.

The wagon toppled and a crash of splintering wood tore the air. Women shrieked and horses caught in their harnesses squealed and writhed on the forest floor. Crashing caskets burst open and jewels and fine trinkets rattled out into the earthy carpet of leaves. Attackers whooped and yelled with the frenzy of battle, their cries mingling with the cacophony of clashing steel.

Caspar’s hands reacted faster than his mind and he had already nocked a new arrow to his string. Brid was out from under the torn canvas, crouched protectively over Nimue. A man ran at her from the cover of the trees. Caspar loosed his arrow, the sound clean and sharp midst the ranging cries of panic and disarray. The shaft buried itself in the man’s chest, driving him to his knees, pink blood and saliva bursting from his mouth. Caspar spurred Sunsprite to Brid, who had Nimue clutched under one arm. He reached down for her upheld hand and half dragged and half swung her away from the wagons. The few Torra Altan men followed in his wake and helped Brid up onto the back of a loose horse. She gripped Nimue over the front of the saddle but could not flee with her into the forest for the wolves and bears still charging in from all angles. Caspar thrust his hunting knife into Brid’s hands and turned Sunsprite to protect her.

The Torra Altans formed a protective knot to the rear of the escort as wolves and bears swarmed over the fallen, and more men leapt out of the forest and cut into the troops guarding the wagons. Belbidians and Ceolothians alike were cut from their horses; dragged off by billhooks or hacked through limbs and torsos with common scythes. Caspar looked down the length of the column and fired on any rogue or mercenary offering a target.

The fighting was concentrated around the central wagons but Caspar’s thoughts were not for the princess. He could see Hal beating a path towards them, the sweeps of his great broadsword scything rhythmically to left and right.

Heavily armoured and distinctive in his red and white chequered surcoat, Ceowulf was still at the fore of the column, the fluid effortless motion of his sword-arm swinging back and forth distinguishing him from the cumbersome efforts of the other noblemen around. Caspar watched as the Caldean knight hacked at shoulders and heads and speared a wolf through the neck. Using the heel of his spurred boot, he raked down the back of a trapper’s head, tearing away scalp and stripping the flesh from his backbone in a broad sheet before he turned his destrier towards the central wagon where the princess and her ladies-in-waiting cowered.

Caspar loosed arrow after arrow but it was not enough. The ladies-in-waiting were dragged from the wagons and trampled under foot. Prince Tudwal, bellowing with fury, cut at a knot of wolves around him, thrashing savagely in hot panic. Prince Renaud, a sack thrust over his head, was screaming for help as he was dragged from his horse and stolen away into the trees.

Then seven trappers set on Caspar and his companions at the rear of the column. With his arrows spent, Abelard used his knife to stab manfully left and right. Brid’s horse reared and she fought to control the beast while still pinning the ailing Nimue to the front of her saddle. Caspar could barely think for the screams of the dying and the howls of carnage. The fighting was too close for his bow so he drew the verderer’s knife, stabbing it into the face of a trapper that grabbed at his ankle. The man fell, blood pouring from between his fingers that were clamped over his eye.

The attack was aimed around the central wagon concealing the princess but Caspar could no longer see it for the clash of swords. Hal fought his way to the back of the column to reach Brid, and three more fell to his great broadsword, not rogue trappers this time but soldiers in the unmarked black livery of mercenaries.

A billhook was thrust at Caspar’s face and he instinctively lurched backwards before stabbing down ferociously at the bare head of a mercenary. His arm jarred as he smacked into solid bone that then gave as the blade split the plates of skull.

Through the screams and wails, he fought on in a daze of exhaustion and disorientation. Sweat stinging his eyes, he could barely see what was happening around him. Someone had his foot. He looked down at the determined bloodied face staring up at him as the man began to haul him off balance. Then a cudgel struck his shoulder, sending a jarring pain down his arm to his hand.

Someone gripped his tunic and held him upright. With relief, he knew his bones hadn’t cracked though he slumped forward giddily and it was a moment before he could turn his head and grin gratefully into Hal’s face. His uncle’s sword was dripping with blood and the body of the man with the cudgel now lay in two pieces in the mud. Caspar nodded his gratitude and, with gritted teeth, concentrated on the work in hand.

There was panic. Wave after wave of attackers crashed out from the forest, hacking their way towards the central wagons and, as each wave struck, the small Torra Altan group became more isolated from the rest of the column. Huge black bears lumbered in behind them, lashing at the horses. Caspar tried to count his men. He couldn’t see Fern and hoped the little woodwose was still somewhere deep in the forest. Nearby, he could see Brock, Abelard, Hal, Brid and Nimue. But where was young Pip?

A bear lashed at the canvas hood of a wagon. Crates of pearls spilt open on the ground as the beast tore through the contents. An arm flapped from beneath one of the spilt pallets and clawed at the rutted forest trail. Keeping crouched and his head low below the level of slashing swords, Abelard charged bravely forward to grab the hand. He heaved at it, dragging Pip out from beneath the toppled wagon.

The boy gave the ancient archer a sheepish grin, and yelled above the shrieks of battle. "I’ve never seen a Ceolothian bear before. They’re big!" There was no sign of fear in the boy’s face despite the carnage around him.

Horses bolted for the woods, scraping off their riders on low branches, the floundering men left to the wolves. A black bear lolloped towards them, the animal’s slashing claws level with Caspar’s face. He wheeled his golden horse and flung his precious knife, focusing on the blade that cartwheeled through the air, slicing into the beast’s left eye. The youth was not so accurate with a knife as he was with a bow but the bear fell. Caspar’s triumph was short-lived. Another was immediately behind it.

"Pull back!" Brid shouted.

It was the voice of reason. The great slashing sweeps of Hal’s runesword cut through the outstretched arms of the bears as if they had been parchment, and allowed the Torra Altans to pull back into the cover of the trees and reform their tight knot.

Shielded by Hal’s sword, Abelard retrieved a quiver of arrows, drew his bow and fired thick and fast until neither man nor beast dared risk an attack. For a moment they stood in silence, gathering their senses, their blood still tingling with adrenaline.

"The princess!" Hal appealed to Brid. "We can’t just hide here like cowards."

"We were doing nothing to protect her and could never have reached her side," Brid argued, raising her voice above the desperate cries of men and women ringing out from around the wagons. "Nimue is more important. The continuation of the Trinity is all that matters."

"I’m going back. You’ll be safe here with Spar," Hal insisted.

Brid snatched at his hand and held fast. "No, you must stay. You have the runesword: you must protect Nimue. The child is vital to us. She is the future Maiden and Morrigwen has not long to live. The Trinity must not be broken."

Hal looked at her for one brief moment of uncharacteristic indecision before his bony jaw hardened into lines of determination. "Spar will protect you. There will be war if a Belbidian escort allows harm to come to the Princess of Ceolothia. If anything happens to her, King Dagonet will vent his grief on us and all Belbidia. Thousands will die and I will not stand back to let this happen. Besides Ceowulf is in the thick of it. He is my friend. I will not leave him." He withdrew his hand, turned his horse and cantered back.

"No!" Brid shouted after him in outrage. "Hal, no! For me, don’t, please don’t. I need you." Tears sprang to her cheeks and she bit her trembling lip.

The remaining Torra Altans withdrew into the denser cover of the woods, their weapons drawn and braced for attack, and waited. After long moments of tense silence, the bushes to their right rustled. A black snout poked out, sniffing the air. The hooded wolf froze as it scented them then burst forward. Abelard loosed one arrow that pierced its throat and cut short its wild cry of attack. But the cry had alerted others to their presence and, in seconds, a bear was charging towards them, flattening trees in its rush. Caspar drew his bowstring taught but, with cool-headed control, waited until the bear was clear of the obscuring trees and bushes before loosing his arrow. Neither his first nor his second arrow stopped the beast and it took three more, one from him and two from Abelard, to bring it down.

They stared into the forest gloom, listening to the wails and cries from the trail, until at last came the sounds of withdrawal, horses and wolves galloping away, the noise of their thundering retreat swiftly absorbed by the forest. After the clash of metal and cries of pain, the sudden silence was almost tangible, hanging thickly in the forest air.

Brid was the first to speak. "We must see what help we can give." She spoke no words of concern for Hal’s safety though her eyes were wide and almost black with anxiety. Cradling the child in her hands, she nudged her horse to walk forward. Caspar retrieved his knife then hurried after her and the others. Abelard was hurt. He had masked his pain well but, as he started to walk, he stumbled, gasped and clutched at his arm.

"It’s nothing," he grunted, turning his wounded side away from them.

"Let me see," Brid demanded, handing Caspar the girl and sliding from her horse.

"I’ve had worse," Abelard joked as Brid looked at the slash in his leather jacket.

Beneath the jacket, his shirt and skin were wet with blood and it was hard to tell what was split flesh and what was drenched and shredded cloth. Quickly, she cut away his sleeve and pressed the oozing flesh together with one hand while binding it tightly with the other. Pip had hurried to place himself at Abelard’s other shoulder for support.

"Fine lad," Abelard praised him and Pip grinned. Caspar had never seen the boy so happy.

When they reached the road, they halted at the sight of the carnage. Crushed and severed limbs jutted from beneath upturned wagons, their contents spilt in swathes of bright colour over the earth that was now dark and puddled with blood. The bodies of men and animals, friends and foes lay side by side in the final equality of death, the heaped bodies of the fallen blocking the road.

But where was Hal?

Brid bit her lower lip, her eyes flitting anxiously back and forth over the scene. "There!" She pointed. "Hal!"

He stood up from behind a toppled wagon, acknowledged her with a brief wave and returned to the task of freeing a man pinned beneath one of the wheels.

Caspar took in the rest of the scene. The escort, two score strong, lay slaughtered with, perhaps, twice as many bandits and mercenaries strewn around them. Three wolves moved amongst the bodies, tearing at bellies and driving their pointed snouts into the warm offal within. Caspar aimed his bow at the nearest and it shrieked horribly as the arrow dropped down through its shoulder. The others fled.

He grimaced at the dead animal and the five other wolf carcasses strewn in amongst the men, and wondered that only six hooded wolves had been killed when so many had attacked. Even dead, the hooded wolves filled him with horror.

Brid refrained from rushing to Hal’s side as the raven-haired man looked up from the man at his foot. Turning her angry back on him, she started the cold business of laying out the shattered and torn bodies. Though her face was pale and solemn, she showed no revulsion at the cold touch of the dead.

Hal left the man he had pulled free and began shouting for Ceowulf. Some of the fallen shrieked and thrashed; others lay still, groaning softly with their pain. Horses, some with flanks rent by great gashes, others with white and jagged bones sticking through the skin of their legs, trembled on their feet. Two struggled in panic, entangled in their harnesses. Midst the strewn bodies and thrashing horses, it was impossible to see at a glance who lay amongst the dead.

"We were lucky," Brid spoke quietly, "so lucky to be at the rear of the wagons and furthest from the princess."

"Ceowulf!" Hal bellowed again.

He was yanking away bodies, digging and kicking his way through them. At last, he stopped in his track and, mid-cry, his voice cracked. The Torra Altans froze as the raven-haired young man dragged away a man by his boots and heaved aside the body of a wolf. There lay the body of a knight. Clad in his red and white chequered surcoat, he was instantly recognizable as Ceowulf, youngest son of Baron Cadros of Caldea. Blood oozed from his forearm where his gauntlet had been ripped from his hand. His helm had been knocked from his head and claw marks raked his face.

Brid fell down by his side and pressed her head to his chest, listening intently. At last, she sat back. "He’s breathing," she whispered and soothed his brow. "Ceowulf, dear friend, it’s Brid. Don’t worry, I will help you."

Caspar’s heart pumped in his throat.

"Why are you all standing there staring? There’s work to be done. Find the wounded and bring them to me," Brid demanded as she tended Ceowulf’s wounds. She sent Pip for water and blankets from the wagons and the others to search through the bodies for those that still breathed.

Hal did not respond to Brid’s orders. "She’s gone," he said quietly. "I was too late. They dragged her away into the forest. And there’s no sign of Prince Renaud or Prince Tudwal. Nor Tupwell and Hardwin for that matter though they might still be here amongst all this."

Brid toiled for many hours, preparing poultices and washing wounds. Despite his own wounds, Abelard worked constantly beside her, his ancient skill learnt on the battlefields of their forefathers making him adept at the task. With strong hands, he straightened twisted limbs and stretched broken bones so that the high priestess could set them in splints. Hal and Caspar solemnly took the bodies to a glade, which was split by the road ahead, and laid them reverently in a circle, placing Ceolothian by Ceolothian and Belbidian by Belbidian. It was some while before a true account could be made of their losses.

There was no trace of any one of the other noblemen and there were at least half-a-dozen troops missing. Hal was glad that Sergeant Ogden was not among the dead. He had admired the man’s professionalism.

"Ransom?" Hal suggested.

Caspar nodded. "Why else would they take them alive? Though how such well-armed men could yield to mercenaries I can’t imagine. "

"They weren’t that skilled," Hal told him. "We’d been attacked a few times in the forest and only myself, Ceowulf and Prince Tudwal knew how to wield a sword. The rest were easy prey."

"But why stop at the princess and the nobleman? Why not take the dowry as well?" Caspar asked.

Hal snorted as if the answer were obvious. "We’re the only ones left, us and a handful of injured troops, whom we must get to safety. What are we going to do? Carry the wagons on our backs, I suppose, since there’s no more than three horses fit enough to walk. We’re deep in Trows Forest. It’s a good three or four day’s ride out and they will have returned to clear up the loot long before we can get help."

They glanced back towards Brid who was stooping over Ceowulf. The knight was grey and had not moved since blinking once or twice before dropping back into a cold sleep.

Hal knelt beside Brid, put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulder. For one brief moment she rested her head against him before stretching up to kiss his neck. Then she pushed him away and gravely returned to her charge.

"Best make a fire for the night," Hal said with forced brightness.

"If we hadn’t have been right at the rear of the column…" old Brock muttered, staring at the circle of dead lain out in the shallow graves he had dug for them.

Fern finally appeared from the trees. He sniffed at their work. "I wouldn’t have bothered; the wolves will dig them up before the week’s out."

Ceowulf stirred as the woodwose spoke.

"Wolves," he spluttered.

His eyes rolled beneath drooping lids, scanning the ring of young faces before finally fixing on Caspar. "Wolf, Spar!" he said in accusation. "An unnatural wolf. It walked on its rear feet, Spar, and it had an empty skull for a face." He spoke in gasps and then slumped back in exhaustion.

Brid crushed stems of woad and used the ink to draw runes across Ceowulf’s brow. "He’s delirious. Hush, Ceowulf, these are runes of healing. Great Mother, we beg your protection. This brave knight, devoted to your service, is in need of your mercy." As she spoke, her deep green eyes flashed angrily towards Caspar.

"It’s not my fault! I didn’t do anything!" he protested more fervently than he had intended.

Hal was suddenly on his feet and, without warning, swung a clenched fist at Caspar. The well-aimed and unexpected blow knocked him to his knees. A stunned silence followed. For once, Caspar didn’t return the attack but slowly pushed himself to his feet.

"I didn’t summon them. They are not of my doing," he protested nervously.

"You’ve been tampering with Necrönd!" Hal roared, rubbing at his fist where Caspar’s teeth had split the skin.

The younger Torra Altan withdrew sulkily. He felt foolish and ashamed and knew that no one believed him. Taking himself off to the edge of the glade, he sat and pulled his thick bearskin defensively around him. His only comfort was that the little wolfling squirmed out of Pip’s arms and stumbled after him to flop into his lap. Together, they watched as the light of the fire grew, casting out a bright circle within the dark of the forest. Runa’s white fur was soft and it soothed him to stroke it. Carefully, he avoided touching the rune-shaped wound on her shoulder. He patted her, trying somehow to convey his thanks that she had found Nimue for them.

"I didn’t summon the hooded wolves," he told her. "I haven’t been near Necrönd in weeks. How could I?"

"What do you mean by summon the wolves?" Fern was suddenly beside him, holding a stick that he brandished at the little wolfling. Caspar shielded her head protectively.

"Stop it, Fern! She won’t hurt you."

"Humph! That’s only because she’s too young yet. But what have you done wrong, Spar, and why did you let that man hit you?"

"I haven’t done anything wrong," Caspar protested vehemently. "I’ve done nothing. Just because they can’t explain it they choose to blame me. Everybody always blames me."

"But I thought you were a powerful lord. I thought you were heir to Torra Alta. How can you let them treat you like that?"

"Because I’m no one, Fern," Caspar tried to explain but sighed, thinking there was no use. His uncle had always commanded a deeper respect than he had and Brid was a high priestess soon to become the Mother, the most powerful of the Trinity. It would not matter how many titles he held; they would never respect him.

Fern prodded the wolfling with the stick and the little white cub grabbed the end of it and worried it back and forth savagely.

"You’re a child," Caspar snapped and pulled the stick out of Fern’s hands.

"You haven’t explained anything," the woodwose complained. "How do you summon these wolves?"

Caspar shrugged and subconsciously rubbed at his scalp. "To save Torra Alta from attack three years ago and to rescue my mother, the high priestess Lady Keridwen, I had to find a talisman. An egg."

"An egg!" Fern echoed contemptuously.

Caspar nodded. "But it is an egg of sorcery and within it is held the breath of life of all the ancient savage creatures that once roamed freely across this world. They were banished to the Otherworld, to the land of spirit by the First Druid. The Egg allows me to summon them back. It draws them as ghostly creatures that gradually form into solid creations. The Egg we call Necrönd."

"And you are its master?" Fern sounded incredulous.

"I don’t believe any man can be its master. I am its guardian - though the priestesses do not trust me with its care," he added bitterly. "They believe it has too much power and that I have been wielding it."

"Have you?"

"Since the Vaalakan war, no. Since then, I have been tempted and just once or twice, I admit, I have summoned maybe one or two creatures but I have always sent them back. I am not that irresponsible."

"You sound uncertain." Abelard was suddenly standing over them, the firelight flickering on his frowning face.

Caspar’s arms fell open in honest dismay. " No one else can reach the Egg. No one else tampered with it while I was in Torra Alta. I checked daily. But still the wolves appeared. Sometimes I fear I summon them in my dreams, though I don’t see how; I can’t conjure up any spirit without holding the Egg in my hands and I’ve been away from it!" His voice rose in passion.

"You fear your spirit might be able to leave you at night and wield the Egg?" Abelard asked.

Caspar nodded. He felt a weight being heaved off his shoulders as he acknowledged his guilt. "Perhaps all these deaths are by my own hand."

Brid was hurrying over to join them, acute as ever to anything of import. She offered Caspar her hand. "We must talk. Come, join us by the fire. What you suspect may well be true. I will cast runes of protection around you while you sleep. Then we must hurry you home to Morrigwen and Keridwen to perform a rite that will shield your mind from the power of the Egg. The ancient creatures, banished for thousands of years from this world, will all pine to rejoin the cycle of life. The combined will of so many beings, focused on one common intent will be overwhelmingly strong. It will create a magic that will travel through the dimensions. They yearn to be released and they will worm their desires into your thoughts when your mind is weak. And, Spar, stop rubbing at your scalp," Brid’s tone suddenly became sharp. "That scab will never heal if you keep picking at it."

"I must have caught my head on a branch," Caspar muttered. "It’s opened up again."

"I have too much to worry about here without worrying about a scratch such as that." Brid pursed her lips irritably and set about her runes.

Huddled by the fire, Caspar could not ignore the flickering shadowy presence of the trees. He didn’t like them. They seemed to hang over them like giant vultures. He longed for the heights and the open skies of Torra Alta.

A rustle amongst the trees made them all start. Caspar’s hand snapped up his bow in automatic reflex.

Fern’s neck stretched up tall and his nose twitched impossibly fast for a human, then he relaxed. "It’s not a wolf or a bear; just a man."

Hal was smartly on his feet at the sounded of twigs snapping and branches being pushed aside. Without a word, he disappeared into the gloom only to reappear minutes later, supporting an old soldier under his shoulder. Two others stumbled close behind.

"Master Hal, thank the Mother you’re safe," the old soldier was saying with relief before nodding in greeting at the gathering of Torra Altans. "I chased after them but four turned on us and killed our horses."

"Take your time, Ogden," Hal told him kindly. "No need to rush. Sit by the fire."

"They took the princess and all the other nobles," Ogden panted. "Bagged them and tied them to the horses. They’ve headed deeper into the woods, streams of wolves flanking them. There’s devilry at work."

As he talked, Brid mixed him a calming potion of hypericum in a golden goblet taken from the dowry and then turned back to the more injured soldiers.

Once they had made all the wounded as comfortable as was possible, they returned to the fire. Behind them, the toppled wagons had spewed forth their rich cargo of jewels, the great spills of sunburst rubies glinting like fairy fires in the camp’s torchlight.

"We could fill our pockets and be the richest men in Belbidia," Ogden joked.

The surviving companions laughed though none of them made the faintest gesture to do so. Surrounded by death in the great expanse of forest, the jewels seemed worthless, no more valuable than the leaf mould and rocks around them.

Hal looked from the treasure to the Torra Altans, Ceowulf and the eight other soldiers that had survived the attack. There was not one Ceolothian amongst them.

"It’ll mean war!"

"War! How so?" Brid asked. "Surely King Dagonet and King Rewik will work together to raise the necessary sums to ensure the princess’s safe return. Then their combined armies will scour the forests until the ransomers are found and punished. But not war."

Hal shook his head. "There will be war between Ceolothia and Belbidia." He patted his breast pockets and then brought forth some scraps of torn parchment. "Renaud is behind all this, I’m telling you. I knew even before we entered the forest that he had plans to set an ambush. They’ll ransom all the nobleman; but Princess Cymbeline won’t be found alive."

"How do you know?" Brid demanded.

Hal placed the pieces of scrunched parchment together in some form of order. "You remember this" he waved the parchment, "I discovered hidden by the carcass of a wolf. It speaks of the princess and her sixteen wagons and warns that she must not leave Trows Forest."

Caspar shrugged. "How does that prove that Prince Renaud is to blame?"

"It’s obvious, Spar, isn’t it?" Brid suddenly jumped to her feet. "King Rewik is elderly and never once showed any inclination to marry. Everyone expected his younger brother, Prince Renaud, to succeed but the announcement that he intended to marry Princess Cymbeline changed everything. Hal’s right. It will take no time for King Dagonet to realize that only Prince Renaud benefits from Cymbeline’s and then he will have revenge on Belbidia."

"And you found that in a wolf’s carcass," Caspar repeated. "There are wolves in everything."

Brid looked at him and then, as if suddenly remembering something, reached for her herb scrip. Impatiently she tugged open the leather thongs that secured it and pulled out a roll of skin. "We found this in the Boarchase," she told Hal. "It’s a communication about a find of sunburst rubies in the Yellow Mountains." She nodded at a glistening sweep of jewels that had spread like molten magma from a cracked casket. "We found this message inside the body of a buried wolf as if it had been left for wolf trappers to find."

"There are wolves everywhere," Hal echoed, snatching the skin from Brid’s hands. "Wolves everywhere!"

Caspar pulled his bearskin up around his ears. So Renaud wants the throne for himself and someone else wants to steal Torra Alta’s mineral wealth from his father. It was strange, deeply strange and Caspar wondered whether it was just a coincidence that both conspirators had used trappers to convey their message.

He felt in his pocket and found the chip of bone that Morrigwen had given him, its surfaces worn smooth by generations of worrying fingers. "The rune of the wolf," he murmured.

Brid looked at him thoughtfully, the light of the fire playing in her wide pupils. "The rune Morrigwen gave you; the rune of the wolf that represents the savage side of nature. There has been too much of it about you of late. Come, you are near sleep. I must perform the rite that will protect your spirit from their will while you rest."

"War," Hal repeated. "And we are not strong enough. Not now."

Hope you enjoyed this and didn't find it too much of a strain on your eyes.

Anyway let me know what you think my e-mail address is janewelch@janewelch.com



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