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 kings wife-to-be has disappeared while in the care of the Barons half-brother, Hal; and
Caspar, the Barons 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 Welchs 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
Caspars 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 couldnt 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 verderers
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 Caspars 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 verderers
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 Brids 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
Sunsprites shoulder, he scoured the ground, seeing little other than last
autumns decaying bracken and tall black-tipped toadstools, and was beginning to
worry that he wouldnt 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, its 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 youths 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
"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. "Youll be much quicker. Theres no
Fern wasnt 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 Brids
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
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 dogs heels and skipping back
and forth around him in delight. Fern ran ahead to stay level with Caspar.
"You cant be afraid of Runa," the youth told him. "She led us to
the new Maiden - just as the runes prophesied."
Ferns nostril twitched faster and he kept a disdainful distance from the dog and
"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. "Didnt you smell it?"
"No. Why didnt you say? You knew Brid asked me to find some," Caspar
began but found he didnt 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
couldnt quite come to terms with the fact that, like Abelard the archer, Fern had
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 wasnt 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
uncles nature. He couldnt bear their posturing and contrived conversation
about who amongst them was the finest knight. In Caspars 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
princesss 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."
Brids 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 Hals tunics over an
over-large skirt borrowed from one of Princess Cymbelines 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
Brids 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, shouldnt 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 hes
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. "Hals 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 shouldnt be so
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
Caspar wasnt 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 Druids 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
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 Ceowulfs 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.
Caspars 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 Hals hunting
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 Sunsprites 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. Sunsprites
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
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 verderers 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 Caspars arm as he threw the man aside
to be trampled beneath Sunsprites 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 Caspars 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.
Caspars 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
mans 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 Brids 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 Caspars 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
trappers 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. Brids
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 verderers
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 Caspars 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
hadnt cracked though he slumped forward giddily and it was a moment before he could
turn his head and grin gratefully into Hals face. His uncles 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
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 couldnt 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. "Ive never seen a Ceolothian bear before. Theyre big!" There
was no sign of fear in the boys 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 animals slashing
claws level with Caspars face. He wheeled his golden horse and flung his precious
knife, focusing on the blade that cartwheeled through the air, slicing into the
beasts left eye. The youth was not so accurate with a knife as he was with a bow but
the bear fell. Caspars triumph was short-lived. Another was immediately behind it.
"Pull back!" Brid shouted.
It was the voice of reason. The great slashing sweeps of Hals 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 Hals 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 cant just hide here like
"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
"Im going back. Youll 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
"No!" Brid shouted after him in outrage. "Hal, no! For me, dont,
please dont. I need you." Tears sprang to her cheeks and she bit her trembling
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 Hals 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.
"Its nothing," he grunted, turning his wounded side away from them.
"Let me see," Brid demanded, handing Caspar the girl and sliding from her
"Ive had worse," Abelard joked as Brid looked at the slash in his
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 Abelards 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 Hals 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. "Hes breathing," she whispered and soothed his brow.
"Ceowulf, dear friend, its Brid. Dont worry, I will help you."
Caspars heart pumped in his throat.
"Why are you all standing there staring? Theres work to be done. Find the
wounded and bring them to me," Brid demanded as she tended Ceowulfs 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 Brids orders. "Shes gone," he said
quietly. "I was too late. They dragged her away into the forest. And theres 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
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 mans professionalism.
"Ransom?" Hal suggested.
Caspar nodded. "Why else would they take them alive? Though how such well-armed
men could yield to mercenaries I cant imagine. "
"They werent that skilled," Hal told him. "Wed 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. "Were 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 theres no more than three horses fit
enough to walk. Were deep in Trows Forest. Its a good three or four days
ride out and they will have returned to clear up the loot long before we can get
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 hadnt 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
Fern finally appeared from the trees. He sniffed at their work. "I wouldnt
have bothered; the wolves will dig them up before the weeks 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 Ceowulfs brow.
"Hes 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.
"Its not my fault! I didnt 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 didnt return the attack but slowly pushed himself to his feet.
"I didnt summon them. They are not of my doing," he protested
"Youve been tampering with Necrönd!" Hal roared, rubbing at his fist
where Caspars 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 Pips 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.
Runas 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 didnt summon the hooded wolves," he told her. "I havent
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
"Stop it, Fern! She wont hurt you."
"Humph! Thats only because shes too young yet. But what have you done
wrong, Spar, and why did you let that man hit you?"
"I havent done anything wrong," Caspar protested vehemently.
"Ive done nothing. Just because they cant 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 Im 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.
"Youre a child," Caspar snapped and pulled the stick out of Ferns
"You havent 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 dont 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."
"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.
Caspars 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 dont see how; I
cant conjure up any spirit without holding the Egg in my hands and Ive 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?"
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,"
Brids 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. "Its
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 didnt 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. Caspars hand snapped up his bow
in automatic reflex.
Ferns neck stretched up tall and his nose twitched impossibly fast for a human,
then he relaxed. "Its 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 youre 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
"They took the princess and all the other nobles," Ogden panted. "Bagged
them and tied them to the horses. Theyve headed deeper into the woods, streams of
wolves flanking them. Theres 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 camps 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.
"Itll mean war!"
"War! How so?" Brid asked. "Surely King Dagonet and King Rewik will work
together to raise the necessary sums to ensure the princesss safe return. Then their
combined armies will scour the forests until the ransomers are found and punished. But not
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, Im telling you. I knew even before we entered the
forest that he had plans to set an ambush. Theyll ransom all the nobleman; but
Princess Cymbeline wont 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
Caspar shrugged. "How does that prove that Prince Renaud is to blame?"
"Its obvious, Spar, isnt 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. Hals right. It will take no
time for King Dagonet to realize that only Prince Renaud benefits from Cymbelines
and then he will have revenge on Belbidia."
"And you found that in a wolfs 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. "Its 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
Brids 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 Altas 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,"
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."
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