Blood trickled from his shoulder, the dark liquid sliding
from his brilliant golden scales and sizzling on the rocks at his feet.
Wriggling up through the crevice to the surface, he
sniffed the air, seeking his best route of escape. The man had not
followed him down through the tunnels; surely, it would take the
two-legged creature some time to crawl up to the Tor and pursue him
overland. He had time to draw breath before staggering to the river’s
Closing his claw around the trinket, he grimaced, his
tight toothy grin biting back on his pain. The leaping water of the
river at least cooled the deep cut under his wing and eased the stabbing
pain radiating out from the barb of steel embedded in his shoulder. He
bent his neck round, frantically twisting and stretching, but he
couldn’t reach the javelin. Dropping his great snout into the babbling
waters, he allowed himself time to drink before stumbling on.
He must get back to the cave where the great golden
queen bided her time, too big now to fly for the squirming new brood
fighting for room in her bloated womb. Already, she had eaten her
smaller mate to feed the huge litter that threatened to split her
underbelly. Secretly, he feared that she would love her new offspring
more than him. He, Aurek, could not risk losing her love; the trinket he
had stolen from the Old Nest would prove his worth to her.
The act would be a clear sign, proof that he would
soon be strong enough to reclaim their ancient and rightful home from
the naked creatures that now infested the old rock. Then, she would
always love him beyond all else. Certainly, he had already proved his
courage. He grinned with deep satisfaction at the golden trinket; his
mother loved gold.
But he was hurt and he needed her; her fire raged with
a white heat that would burn to nothing the vile creature that pursued
him. He was beginning to feel light-headed and his great lungs rasped
with effort. He coughed, spits of blood dribbling from his nostrils. All
the while, he clasped that snippet of gold in his great claw and vowed
he would never let it go until he offered it into her hands. He ached
and was tired but he would bring it home. The gift to his mother would
prove that he had, at last, found a way back into the ancient home. One
day…, he swore to himself, one day, he would sit atop that rocky tor
and scream out his name to the world, declaring that he, Aurek, was the
great lord of the canyon.
Head low, drooping from the pain that scythed through
his shoulder muscles, he limped on, squelching through the fine mud
lining the river and then stumbling onto stony ground as he worked his
way into the mountains.
His ears pricked and he sniffed the breeze. The
two-legged pest must be mounted; his nostrils tingled with the strong
scent of horse mingled with man. It had been a while since he had eaten
and his wound was draining his energy; horseflesh would be good. If only
he could spread those wings and fly but the barb stuck in his right
shoulder pierced the muscle and he could not spread his glorious golden
wings to cast his terrifying shadow over the land.
He struggled on, his two hearts pounding their double
beats in his heaving breast. The wind swirled within the steep valley
and he could no longer smell the scent of horse. Horses; traitors to the
animal kingdom like the hounds that ran with them! Aurek snorted
angrily, forgetting his pain for a moment and drew in a sharp breath,
ready to scream out his rage at all treacherous creatures that would
side with man. But the movement sent stabs of pain arcing out from the
javelin point. He dropped his great armoured head to the ground and took
quick, shallow breaths until the spasms eased.
Once he tried to draw strength by sucking in a low
deep breath, but the pain was excruciating as his lungs pressed against
the barb of the javelin embedded in his flesh. He would not try that
again. It was not a deep wound that the puny two-legged creature had
inflicted on him, nor was it immediately life threatening; it was simply
that he could not breathe deeply nor fly back to his mother; and he was
not built for walking. Despite the pain in his shoulder, he proudly
ruffled up the scales about his neck that were a deep golden colour
inherited from the dazzling she-dragon.
He had his gift hooked tightly into his claw; one
little man would not stop him getting to the caves to offer his gift
that was just a tiny speck of gold, a cup barely big enough for him to
stick the tip of his forked tongue into; but it would please Mother. It
would prove he had breached the Old Nest.
Slinking along a valley bottom, he tried to keep out
of the marshy fields, which sagged beside a stream, in an attempt to
avoid leaving too marked a trail. It would have been better to clamber
over the scree slopes and the rocky ledges above him but he was too
exhausted. Despite his best efforts, he left deep long footprints
amongst the spongy moss and mud of the upper courses of the mountain
stream and knew he would be easy to follow.
A swathe of trees, pocketed into a depression just
below the head of the valley, blocked his path; he sat back onto his
haunches and groaned. He did not like trees. All his kind were wary of
trees. The branches snagged on their wings and it was impossible to hunt
within the woods. Disgustedly, he stared at the vegetation and then up
at the steep sides of the mountains that cupped the valley. He would
have to go through the trees; the climb was impossible since his weight
would dislodge the scree and, without the use of his wings, he would
slither and crash helplessly to the valley bottom.
Reluctantly, he pushed his way between the stout holly
trees; a low branch scraped at his back, snagging at the javelin. He
snarled and snapped his jaws, trying to stifle the howl that was willing
itself up from his gut. Lashing out, he uprooted a holly that barred his
way before squeezing out between two more trees to reach the pass. His
breath rasping, he clambered to the top. The cave was not far ahead now,
on the far side of the next valley.
Aurek gave out a low moaning call.
The queen’s answering cry shuddered the rocks about
him but, to Aurek, it was like the sweetest of songs. Soon she would
have this barb out from where it was wedged beneath his scales. Soon he
would be able to breathe and fly once more.
He could see her now, the high noonday sun glinting
off her flanks, her scales gleaming more brightly than an open casket of
jewels. He staggered forward, his legs suddenly shaking and weak beneath
him. The back legs that supported the bulk of his weight buckled and he
sat back, stretching up his long snaking neck to call out again for her
As he approached the head of the pass, the wind swept
up cleanly from behind. He snorted and stiffened, trumpeting out a
warning cry to his mother whom he knew was too full-bellied to fly or
protect herself with ease. He could have stumbled on faster if he had
been prepared to relinquish his gift; but that was the very last thing
he would do in this life.
The smell of horse was pungent and with it came the
sickly scent of man. He could smell the oil on his sword, the tangy
scent of polished metal and the sickly sweet aroma of sweat and pale
flesh. Aurek knew now that he could not flee fast enough and must turn
and face this wretched man, who had already caused him so much pain. He
slithered down from the high rock, chucking first one leg forward and
then another with that distinctive wide-legged gait of a great lizard.
Waggling his tongue back and forth, he tasted the air.
The scent of horse wafted towards him and he managed
to spume a jet of flame. The fiery blast burnt a black path before him
but the pain it caused in his chest and shoulder was so great that he
coughed and sputtered and the next burst of flame was little more than a
yellow flicker of candlelight.
Birds took to the air, squawking in fright. His
mother’s howl filled the mountains, shrieking out that she was coming
for him. At last! Now he must just have patience. He knew she would be a
little while since she was slow to move at all, her belly so swollen
with her new litter. He had been the only one of twelve to survive her
last and after the great queen had eaten his father, he and she had been
sole companions. A creature so vast and powerful as a dragon was not an
easy beast to recreate; it took a long terrible year of a mother’s
pain as the embryonic dragons swelled within her.
Aurek jolted back and sank onto his haunches,
instinctively tucking down his neck to protect himself: the charging
horse was suddenly before him. The man’s armour banged and clattered
as he galloped, great throwing knives, an axe, a mighty sword and four
javelins strapped and buckled to the creaking leather of his saddle.
Aurek heard every sound. He noted every movement.
Though in deep pain, he raced to face the attack. He tried to draw that
belly-deep breath that would allow him to melt his armour and burn this
knight to a splinter of charred bones, but the javelin between his
shoulder blades stabbed at his lungs as he attempted to fill them. The
pain was unbearable.
Head down like a bull, caparison flapping around the
feathered legs, and plates of armour clanking, the horse charged on. A
ton of steel and muscle thundered towards him, the point of a lance
lowered at his breast.
With surprising agility, the dragon leapt aside and
twisted his body sharply, lashing the horse in the chest with his barbed
tail. The charger’s hooves sparked on the rock and the horse was flung
back onto its haunches by the force of the blow but, miraculously, the
knight kept his seat and flung the first of his throwing knives. The
blade clattered harmlessly against the dragon’s armour of golden
Enraged, Aurek screamed his challenge at the knight,
who, to his bewilderment, cast off his helmet as if in contempt of the
dragon’s lethal strength. Humans were hard to tell apart but he judged
him to be more solid than most with sleek black hair that he only
noticed because it gleamed in the sunlight. With extraordinary courage,
the man screamed back at him. Aurek fancied the yells might be words of
speech but he had no understanding of the squeaks and yelps of man.
Hoarsely, he roared in retaliation, the air shaking
with the thunderous bellow of his voice. “I’ll have my home back!”
he shrieked, lashing out with his claws and trying to get close enough
without letting the knight’s lance jab up at the soft spot beneath his
“Aurek! My son! Get away!” Mother was bellowing
from across the valley, her wings outstretched in ungainly fashion to
help her struggle across the rocks and heave her huge bulk towards him.
Aurek focused on the man and swept forward, claws
open, his long sharp talons raking through the air. But the man was
quick. Though Aurek’s gaping snout stabbed forward and snapped
perilously close, his injuries meant that he didn’t have the speed to
harm the man. The horse, though heavy, was light of foot and danced and
darted to and fro while the man kept him at bay with his lance.
“Get back, Aurek!” his mother shrieked.
Flattening his short pointed ears, Aurek ignored her;
he would prove to his mother that he could stand up to a lone knight.
Angrily, he lunged forward with a claw but roared with frustration as,
again, he sliced through thin air. Instinctively, he was wary of the
gleaming sword in the man’s right arm and he flicked his tail round
and forward to draw the man’s guard before lashing out at the
knight’s left side. For some reason, the knight seemed unable to bear
a weapon in that hand.
At last, Aurek got a claw to the horse. The raking
blow ripped open its chest, tearing away the flesh to show the pulsing
red of the muscle beneath. The horse stumbled onto its knees and the
rider was flung over his ears.
Aurek was about to crush him but, rather than backing away, the knight,
somersaulted forward over his raking claw and rolled beneath him.
Something sharp pressed into the open wound beneath his wing and drove
deep into his body.
“Mother!” he screamed. “Mother! Save me!”
Twisting awkwardly, he blindly scraped beneath
his body, the tip of one talon slicing into the man’s cheek, but there
was little power behind the blow as his pain overwhelmed him.
Frantically, he tried to claw and shred at the long thorn in his side
but the knight had twisted the javelin shaft and the barb had hooked
deep into his muscle. Now the man had manoeuvred around to his rear and
was hacking at his tail.
Aurek tried twisting to swat at him but the action
threw him off balance. He was falling and not even his attempts to
spread his wings could save his fall. He crashed onto his side, his own
weight finishing the job that this man had been unable to complete; the
javelin was driven deeper, stabbing between his ribs to reach one of his
Head twisted on its side, he watched the knight flee
while he lay helpless and still, blackness dulling the edges of his
vision. The all-embracing, cramping pain in his chest screamed through
his entire body as he listened to the slow and steadily weakening thump
of his remaining heart. Too weak to move, his head slumped onto the cold
rock, blood oozing from his nostrils.
No longer able to smell the scent of the man, he could
do nothing but wait, hoping that his magnificent mother would soon be
with him to take away his terror at the sense of utter loneliness that
engulfed him. Cold spread rapidly through his body.
But Mother was a long time coming. His eyelids grew
heavy and sagged, every breath excruciating. Within moments, his
nostrils flared; a sour, acrid smell swept into his snout and his ears
twitched at the sound of scraping. Something small poked its round head
out from behind a rock and warily approached on two legs. The creature
prodded his flank but he could do no more than grunt in protest and
weakly drag open his eyelids to see a mud-brown hob hoot with glee. With
a rusty sword, it set about trying to lever the golden trinket from his
still clenched claw.
With a huge effort, Aurek snapped his jaws at the
creature. The hob leapt back in fright, black blood pulsing in the huge
arteries about its face but he did not run. The creature watched Aurek
silently for a while before raising its sword, which was longer than its
own rangy body. Boldly, it stepped forward.
In disbelief, Aurek watched helplessly as the creature
swept the blade sideways, slicing under one of the scales of his legs
and cutting it away. Then in one swing, the hob smote downwards on his
raw flesh, striking rapidly again and again until he had hacked through
a joint and cut through tendon and gristle. Finally, the severed limb
fell away, the trinket still clamped between curving talons. Jets of
deep red blood spurted from the wound.
The goblin sprang after the trinket and claw as,
together, they slid down the steep rock and rolled away between two huge
slabs of dark stone. Before the creature was lost from sight, it snapped
round its pointed chin, taking one glance up the valley to where the
golden queen bellowed and roared.
The young dragon’s eyes sagged. “Mother…”
After what seemed like an eternity of pain, she was at
last standing over him, singing out the dragon’s great song of loss.
Then she was licking his face, her warm breath caressing his cheeks.
“Son, you’ll mend. You are strong! Fight the pain.
The blood of the great golden dragons of old runs hot in your veins. Do
not leave me. Get up! Open your eyes; see the life in me!”
But he was too weak even to raise his head in
response. All he could do was grunt softly. “Mother, Mother I tried to
bring you…” He could barely speak, his words hardly louder than the
bump-bump, bump-bump of his remaining, overburdened heart.
He clenched his great strong jaws together, finding
the strength to fight off the soft blanket of apathy that sought to
claim him. Hot steaming tears hazed his darkening vision. “I had a
gift for you, Mother,” he hissed, knowing that one last burst of
effort to speak was too much for his ruined body and that he could say
no more. The sound of his pulsing heart was loud in his ears.
Mother, don’t leave me, he willed, listening to the
thump of his heart. Bump, bump, then bump. All was black and cold, a
cruel biting cold. Bump, bump.
“Aurek, I love you,” he heard her murmur.
He wanted to answer, wanted to raise his eyelids to
look into those huge loving eyes once more.
Mother, I have failed you, he thought. All I wanted
was to show you how strong I had become, that soon I would be able to
win back our home. I had proof, had it in my claw. But I lost it. All I
wanted was to prove that I could regain what was ours. I wanted to win
the Old Nest for you and cry out from the great Tor, “I am home!”
Bump … bump. Bump … bump. His heart pulsed
faintly. Now I shall never be home.
“Aurek, don’t leave, me. Son, I love you. I love
you. Speak to me; answer me!” his mother implored.
He was vaguely aware of her snout butting against his
head, trying to make him lift it, but he had no strength. “I love you,
Mother, I am scared. He could hear singing now and,
though the pain of his body was numbly receding, he was terrified of the
sense of loneliness sweeping through him.
Mother! I shall never forget you, he pledged, gripping
only that thought as, with a wrench, he was suddenly free of the world
and soaring through skies of deepest blue.
Rollo stared upward, squinting against the glare of the
snow. Had he really journeyed across half the world just for this?
His young face scowled at the great towers of Torra
Alta, the long icicles dripping from the turrets and the snow devils
rising from the towers where the bitter north wind whipped at the
freshly fallen flakes. Men patrolled the battlements, black figures
against a grey sky.
The stern towers snagging at the brooding clouds
filled him with a wary sense of unease; in fact the entire canyon that
cut like a dark scar splitting the
was to him gloomy and threatening. Flashing his father a sour look of
resentment, he decided that he had been deliberately misled; his father
had always described Torra Alta as a glorious place.
To add to Rollo’s annoyance, his father, Baron
Caspar, estranged lord of Torra Alta, seemed more radiant at the sight
of the ancient fortress than he had ever been to see him. Sitting
silently on his red roan stallion and marvelling at the view, it was as
if he had totally forgotten his presence. Unexpectedly, Caspar reached
across and gripped his arm.
“That, Rollo, is home! That is Torra Alta!”
The young lad, who looked as if he would soon outstrip
his father in height, wrinkled his nose. “That! But…” He snorted
in disgust as he sought for a suitable insult. “It’s just a shack
compared to Mother’s palace, a thimble compared to the frontier towers
she raised against the Empress.”
Caspar looked at his son in despair. “Yes, but one
day this will be yours. Your home. Your castle. Nothing that you mother
owned or commanded can ever be yours. You know that all that was your
mother’s has gone to Imogen. You did not inherit your mother’s
powers over the bears; that gift went to your sister. You have always
known that the law of Artor, the Bear Country, dictated that she would
inherit. Don’t fight against something that you cannot change. Enjoy
what you have. You have to admit that Torra Alta is fine!” Caspar
sighed in appreciation at the sight.
“Ha!” Rollo scoffed, unable to think of anything
“I am truly sorry that your mother is no longer with
us. I miss her too; I wish you would believe that. But I can’t change
what has passed. Life goes on, Rollo, and we must make the most of what
we have. Now, go on, look at that. Look at that tower of rock!”
He pointed at the jagged spire of bedrock that lanced
up out of the canyon floor. A narrow road cut about its huge girth and
spiralled upwards to the giddy heights of the frosted towers. “We do
not have carpets or silk-draped settles heaped with cushions; we have
keen steel and the finest archers in the world. We have a castle of
solid stone, an honest stronghold built by our ancestors to repel
northern attack: a warrior’s castle.”
“Ha!” Rollo snorted again, finding that he had no
admiration for the incredible engineering employed to build such a
structure upon the towering pinnacle of rock. In fact, he despised it
though, at that moment, he could not account for the strength of his
Caspar gave him one of those thinly veiled looks of
despair that so annoyed Rollo. “Why is it that you are no easier to
please now than when you were a young child? Haven’t I done my best
for you? I even trained up Chieftain for you though you know your mother
didn’t approve. I had to argue long and hard to persuade her that you
could manage such a strong-willed mount so long as you were given the
opportunity to learn.”
“All very fine, I’m sure, but you still wouldn’t
let me ride Firecracker.” Rollo watched his father’s face, knowing
in his heart that he would avoid answering him; it was how Caspar always
dealt with him.
Indeed, the Baron did look away. Thoughtfully, he
stroked his old faithful horse that, even in Rollo’s home continent on
the far shore of the Tethys Ocean, was unmatched for his speed and mean
temperament. Even the bears of Beyond Tethys, or Tethya as it had become
known, had kept a respectful distance from Firecracker’s powerful rump
and sharp teeth. Finally, Caspar smiled at his son. “I love you too
much, Rollo, to allow you to come to harm. Believe it or not, it is the
Rollo was saved from answering by a clarion call to
muster, blasting out from above.
“That, my boy, is for us,” Caspar said with
approval, his eyes gleaming.
“But they don’t know we’re coming. You sent no
word,” Rollo objected.
“I had no need. Your grandmother knows. She will
have sensed my homecoming. Fifteen years!” The corners of Caspar’s
mouth lifted. After breathing in deeply, he let out a long sigh, his
breath steamy in the cold air. “Fifteen long years.”
It was the first time since his mother’s death that
Rollo had seen his father smile. But it didn’t make Rollo smile. He
glared at the slope before him, snatched at Chieftain’s reins to drag
him to a halt and then, with a cry of attack, plunged his spurs into his
horse’s flanks and charged the slope as if it were an enemy of flesh
The Baron was quick to respond. Firecracker was over
twenty years old but still showed little signs of ageing and had no
trouble overhauling the Tethyan high-stepper. Despite their speed and
showing remarkable horsemanship, he reached over and grabbed his son’s
reins, quickly bringing both animals to a safer pace.
“Steady lad, it can be a treacherous slope in
“I can manage,” Rollo growled. “Do you think I am afraid?” he
“Of course not,” Caspar said calmly. “I have never thought you
afraid of anything. To the contrary you are, perhaps, too brave and
reckless for your own good.”
“It’s not going to work, Father. I know what
you’ve been thinking and what you are doing dragging me here. It
won’t change me.” Rollo growled between gritted teeth.
He had known all along that his father had hoped that
their long journey might have eased his temper and drawn them closer
together. The knowledge that he could be so little respected stirred
blackly within him. He knew people thought less of him because of his
fiery temper. He knew they talked behind his back of the raging fire in
his soul that could not be quelled and, worse, they whispered of his
Rollo lashed out with his boot at Caspar’s hand and wrenched his
horse’s head around to break his father’s grip. With sparks flying
off Chieftain’s hooves, the butter-white beast attacked the road. This
time, Caspar let him go, keeping a non-provocative distance behind. “I
should have been tougher with him right from the start, just as everyone
said,” he muttered into the rushing air.
Rollo raced on, his horse blowing hard as it heaved itself up the Tor.
The road snaking around the pinnacle was, in places, little more than a
narrow ledge, the stone surface both smooth with use and slippery with
ice. Rollo refused to admit that he was daunted by the steep drop from
the edge yet, at the same time, could not stop himself from imagining
that the slice of rock beneath his mount might sheer away, leaving them
to fall from the precipitous face of the Tor to the jagged jumble of
Chieftain was also less than happy and eyed the drop.
When faced with a section that was narrower than the rest and shrouded
in shadow, he finally drew to a stubborn halt and shied from the way
ahead. Rather than calmly urging his horse forward, Rollo slapped at
Chieftain’s neck with the end of his reins.
“Rollo!” His father’s tone was sharp. “Stop that! Tell him you
are not afraid. Win his trust and confidence. Sit firmly; be confident
and stop flapping.”
“He should obey me, obey me without question!” the
youth snarled arrogantly, and jabbed his spurs viciously into
Chieftain’s creamy sides.
In response, the horse leapt up the road only
hesitating at the final approach to the castle’s barbican. Deep wagon
tracks grooved the stone and a post with pulleys and long ropes was
installed at the top to help wagons up the last section though, clearly,
it was not prudent for vehicles to attempt the climb in such slippery
conditions. Rollo cursed the cold weather; he sorely missed the lands of
For the briefest moment, he, too, hesitated, craning
his neck out to the side to stare down at the great drop from the rock
to the stables at the foot of the Tor, now tiny squares in the canyon
below. He flicked his gaze determinedly back to the road.
“Wretched animal, do not shame me,” he shouted in
loud, unrestrained frustration, kicking his steed hard in the ribs.
Chieftain shied and sat back on his haunches and, for
one moment, Rollo thought the animal would lose his footing. Shouting
abusively, he drew his dagger and pricked his flank with the point; the
animal burst up the last section of the slope, slithering on ice that
choked the cracks in the rocks, before finally overcoming the approach
to the castle.
The road levelled off before the barbican’s raised
portcullis. Here, Rollo drew to a halt, waiting for his father who was
following calmly, allowing Firecracker to pick a more careful path up
the steep and slippery climb. Irritatingly, Caspar said nothing to him.
Showing no concern for his son’s welfare, the Baron simply stared up
at the whinstone walls and towers above them. Ballistas and huge
catapult engines peered over the crenellated battlements. Clearly, the
castle had been recently repaired, for the walls of the north tower
stabbed up high above the rest, the stone brighter.
Baron Caspar nodded at it. “I’d say that was a
good twenty foot higher than it was before the last siege.” He grinned
to himself. “But should I really be surprised at Hal’s need to build
something greater and more obvious than his ancestors?”
Twisting in the saddle, Rollo looked high up at the
overhanging battlements and, stretching back his neck to scan the
shining whinstone walls that glistened with ice, he glimpsed two young
faces peeking out from the crenellations. Much to Rollo’s annoyance,
since he felt the gesture was undignified for a one of such status, his
father raised a friendly hand to wave. The young faces instantly
The portcullis was already raised in welcome, the
opening beckoning them in. Caspar reached out a hand to touch the huge
blocks of stone forming his home as if touching a friend in welcome as
they passed under the arch of the barbican and into the cobbled
courtyard beyond. Barely blowing from the climb, Firecracker stood up on
his back legs and screamed at the sea of faces arrayed within the
courtyard. His cry was met by the salute of a trumpet blast. Caspar
raised a hand in acknowledgement, his feisty steed snorting and tossing
his head and cantering on the spot, hooves clattering and sparking on
Forming two lines to let the Baron and his son move
forward through them, the men raised their caps and cheered.
“I’m home!” Caspar breathed, drinking in
Never before had he felt so deeply touched. His son
even pressed up close beside him and gave him a rather surprised look at
their reception and even a half smile. Caspar had the vague impression
that he might have actually impressed his boy for once and ruefully
reflected how Rollo had never held him in any high respect, having only
ever viewed him in the shadow of his mother, Ursula.
The troops formed an avenue that led him to a stand
draped in blue and gold bunting. Caspar halted in joy at the sight of
his own mother, the high priestess Keridwen. However, he drew a deep
regretful breath that his father would never more be there to meet him.
While he had been away all these years, he had found it possible to
believe that, somehow, his father still marched through the echoing
halls of Torra Alta. He shook his head, trying to oust his feelings of
sorrow. To affirm his sense of continuing life, he looked to his strong
tall boy whose skin was deeply tanned, his young white teeth bright in
his reddish-brown skin. It flickered through his mind whether Rollo
would ever hold him in the same high regard that he held his own father
and doubted it very much.
With restrained dignity, Keridwen nodded her welcome
but did not burst forward to embrace him, her only child, as he knew she
must yearn to do, just as every fibre in his body cried out for her
touch. Instead, she looked to Hal, Warden of Torra Alta, who had
overseen the castle in Caspar’s absence. Caspar understood the need
His cerulean blue eyes welcomed his kinsmen though he
kept his expression steady and calm, while his mind whirred. Already, he
had noted much about his mother and Hal and in both instances was
surprised. Keridwen, high priestess of the Trinity, the oldest of the
three women that represented the mortal embodiment of the Great Mother,
looked no older than when he had last seen her. She was still
extraordinarily young and vibrant for her age, her flame-red hair,
twisted into a knot on top of her head, showing no sign of grey, and her
body still appeared lithe and strong.
Caspar turned his attention to Hal, who though only
three years his senior was, in fact, his uncle. The man had gained in
weight, being thicker set about the waist, and his chest and arms were
more heavily muscled. His raven hair, however, was still as sleek and
striking. All this was much as Caspar had expected, but what surprised
him about his uncle was that his face no longer bore any trace of the
youthful recklessness and impudent good humour that he remembered. There
were also the scars. Hal’s thick arms, visible to the shoulder, bore
the marks of many violent encounters. Even his handsome face was scored
by a deep white scar contouring his left cheek. Strangely, the injuries
did not detract from Hal’s undeniably handsome features but only
served to make him look more impressive.
His eyes flitting about him into the crowd, Caspar
noted the high number of men with severe wounds and amputations; the men
of his homeland had suffered in his absence. Slipping from his stallion,
he marched with all dignity towards the Warden of Torra Alta. Though he
was choked with tears at the thought of hugging his mother, he knew
that, for the sake of the garrison troops and the sense of solidarity
amongst the nobles, he and Hal must first publicly embrace.
“Welcome home!” Hal cried out loudly above the muffled whispers of
the crowd. “Welcome home! Lord Caspar, Baron of Torra Alta!” The
raven-haired nobleman took from his finger a blocky ring and held it up
for all to see. “As warden of this barony, I hereby return the
guardianship of Torra Alta into the rightful hands of its lord.”
Caspar knew he should have prepared some great speech with which to
impress the men but he had none and, for the moment, he could think of
nothing to say. Through blurry eyes, he stared at the great ring that
he, himself, had taken from his father’s hand. It was too big to fit
snugly on to his little finger and so, sliding it on to his ring finger,
he turned to face those assembled in honour of his homecoming.
His eyes fell on one, two, three and more that he
recognized; Orwin, Alief, Brock, Sergeant Tupper and a fine young man
standing high up by a huge pile of shot that he guessed must be the
young lad Pip now grown into manhood. His eyes scanned the ranks,
searching until he found a tall, thin old man with a hooked nose; the
Captain. Caspar nodded and the soldier nodded back with a quiet,
welcoming smile. The estranged Baron drank in the encouragement.
“Men,” Caspar began a little too quietly and so stopped to clear his
throat. “Men,” he repeated more forcefully. “Stout hearts of Torra
Alta, though I have crossed the great Tethys Ocean and lived and raised
my family,” he nodded at Rollo who was scowling at the strangers
around him, “far from these noble towers of my birth, I promise that
not one day has passed when you were not in my thoughts. You have been
always in my heart and it is good to be home and amongst you once
A single cheer broke out from the back of the crowd,
gained a supporter and quickly spread through the throng. But it was
short-lived, subsiding into curious silence as the men waited to hear
what next their hitherto absent overlord would have to say. However,
Caspar looked about him, wondering what more he could say.
At the midst of the crowd there was much loud whispering. “I guess I
was only a youngster then but he’s more than a jot smaller than I
remembered,” one man murmured. “And what’s his son doing looking
like he wants to bite our heads off?”
“Pound to a pinch of snuff, he’ll be on his way
and out of here as soon as he learns of the troubles afoot,” another
After hearing the gist of the guarded murmurs, Caspar was even more lost
for something rousing to say. He knew that Hal must have ordered these
men into the courtyard to give him a fine welcome, but few knew him so
why should he be dear to their hearts? Hal had always known how to
muster the men’s spirits and unite them under his banner whereas he
had come to recognise his lack of ability in these matters. Still, he
hoped that his actions would win their support and, though it would be
slow, he would have to content himself with that.
Rollo cringed in embarrassment for the whole period
that his father spoke before the men. He struggled to rise above the
situation by staring disdainfully at the gathered Torra Altans. Their
bearskins were threadbare, their gambesons worn and there seemed almost
no distinction between ranks. The Captain, whom his father had always
spoken about with such great respect, was noteworthy only for his
height. He had to admit that Lord Hal was immediately an imposing
figure; to his angry shame, he found his gut tightened at the very sight
of him. There was something about this man that filled him with
loathing. The blood rushed up into Rollo’s face and for a second he
feared he might be overcome by his shameful affliction and suffer one of
his fits. He drew deep breaths, struggling to remain calm.
Staring at Hal, he was determined to get the better of
his emotions and, in an effort to do so, tried to judge him impartially.
He was not so tall as he might have expected though he was at least a
head taller than his own father. Broad-shouldered with extraordinary
black hair, he had smouldering olive-green eyes. Despite the cold, his
arms were stripped bare, which emphasized the hardiness of his
musculature. The brazen exposure made him somehow accept the fact that
the man’s thick forearm on the left side ended at his wrist, a steel
cap covering the stump.
He wore no insignia, fine clothes nor even armour.
Rollo found that this conflicted with the image he had expected, which
had been implanted by his father who had passed many a long winter’s
evening telling them tales of his homeland. Rollo was sure that he had
described how Hal had always wished for fine armour. Clearly, his father
had been wrong. But despite Hal’s lack of grand attire, it was easy to
see that he had a commanding manner and all looked at him with respect.
Rollo bit his lip. Caspar had finished mumbling about
how glad he was to be home and was standing looking awkward. The youth
was deeply relieved when Hal saved his father from embarrassing him
further by sweeping forward and slapping him heartily on the back.
“Spar! Come on inside out of the cold. Your freckled
face makes me think that you’ll have lost the hardiness to endure a
Torra Altan winter,” he said affably.
“I’ll have none of that,” Caspar retorted
light-heartedly, prodding Hal’s midriff. “You’ll find me tougher
than the leathery stomach of a man that’s doused himself in Caldean
Red for half his sorry lifetime and, besides, I have already waited too
long to greet this fine lady.” He turned to his mother and at last
fell into her arms, hugging her close.
Rollo stiffened, the memory suddenly flooding back to
him of the sweet smell of his own mother’s hair and her warmth and
comfort; but all that was gone forever.
After a long minute, Caspar pulled away from Keridwen
and turned back to his son. “Rollo, will you get over here and meet
“Hush, don’t hurry the boy,” the priestess said
kindly. “It’s a lot to take in. There’s few that wouldn’t be
overwhelmed at their first visit to Torra Alta.”
“Overwhelmed!” Rollo echoed in disgust, looking
down his short nose at his grandmother. This is but a mere shack
compared to my mother’s palace.”
“And a warm welcome to you too!” Keridwen said,
her eyes half-laughing though her voice was stern. “Do you know whom
you are addressing?”
“Why should I?” the youth defended himself
“How dare you disgrace me like this!” Caspar
snapped at his son.
“I see you’ve sired more than your match there,”
Hal said with a wry laugh.
Caspar threw his eyes heavenward. “And don’t I
know it! That’s why I came home. I thought Rollo was sorely in need of
some sobering time at Torra Alta amongst the men.”
“I thought you came home because of my message,”
Hal remarked in some surprise.
“What message?” Caspar asked, his voice suddenly
“You didn’t get my message?”
Caspar shook his head. “No, I came to bring my son home so that he
might grow up knowing his inheritance. Perhaps we left before your
message reached me.”
Hal paused for a second, raising a dark eyebrow in
consideration. Shrugging, he drew in a deep breath as if trying to
contain and gather all his thoughts, preparing to divulge them in a
fluent manner. “Well, we’d best get inside. There is much to
Aware that all had dismissed his presence and not
knowing what else he could do, Rollo followed on behind. Glaring at the
deformity of Hal’s hand, he felt a rising sickness well up from his
stomach. In fact, the more he looked at Hal, the more the deep
inexplicable sense of loathing churned within him. His vision darkened
for a moment and he stumbled, his emotions getting the better of him.
For fear of suffering one of his shameful attacks, he took deep breaths
to calm himself, but they were less effective than the act of his
grandmother looking round and smiling at him. Somehow, the touch of her
gaze raised his spirits though he only allowed himself to scowl back at
Their boots struck loudly on the cold stone flags as
they progressed through the lower halls and up a broad winding staircase
until they finally reached the upper keep. A servant swung open the
doors to the baronial rooms and Rollo craned his neck up to look over
his kinsmen and see what lay within as the heady scent of mulled wine
filled his nostrils. Side tables were set with steaming flagons ready to
fill the pewter goblets on the long central table. A crackling fire
filled a huge stone hearth and gave out a roasting glow into the hall,
the dancing light giving life and movement to the tapestries lining the
Once they moved into the room, Rollo stepped slowly
round, noting the lances and swords pinned to the limewashed walls.
Ignoring the yapping dogs that pressed up against him, sniffing his
boots and breeches, he slowly took in his surroundings. He continued to
step round until he was looking up above him at the entrance through
which he had just come and his gaze stopped. Bile flooded his throat.
His palms began to sweat and he felt the skin on his face go clammy and
cold. With an open mouth, he stared at the trophy above the door.
Leering down at him was a huge skull with vast curving teeth; a
He stared into its gaping eye sockets. Panic swamped
him; he thought he was choking. It was as if a hand were being stuffed
down his throat, reaching down into his lungs and trying to wrench them
out. He felt himself falling to the floor, spluttering, choking and
clawing at his throat until the blackness claimed him.
“In the name of the Mother!” Hal exclaimed.
“Just give him room,” Caspar ordered, running to his son and
gripping him tight, waiting for the spasms to pass. He would never grow
used to his son’s fits. Every time it happened, it was as if a part of
him died in terror of his boy failing to recover.
“What’s the matter with him?” Hal said softly, his voice full of
“It’s not so bad as it looks,” Caspar assured everyone, intensely
relieved when his mother knelt down on the far side of Rollo and soothed
her hand over the rigid muscles of his face that was purple with blood.
“It soon passes. It usually comes when he gets upset.”
Keridwen sat back and hastily searched through a leather pouch that she
kept tied about her neck, the smell of sweet herbs filling the air about
her. “Gortan valerian,” she stated. “It will relax him but I’ll
need to mix it up with a sleeping potion. Oh, where are Brid and Isolde
when I need them? Don’t worry; I’ll be back in a moment. I just need
to fetch something from my rooms.”
She was back shortly with a vial containing a syrupy liquid that she
trickled into Rollo’s mouth. Within a minute, the spasms began to
lessen and the jerks of his muscles eased. Finally, his head flopped
into his father’s lap. Caspar hugged him close, the love for his child
overwhelming his every thought. Scooping the boy up with some difficulty
since Rollo had grown so much over the last year, he carried him to a
couch and laid him down. The youth was groaning softly to himself and
Caspar heaved a sigh of relief that his mother had a way of helping him.
The rest of the company had withdrawn to the fire, giving them a little
space, while he and Keridwen sat with the boy and waited for him to come
round. The priestess looked anxiously at the vial in her hand and he was
uncomfortably aware of her uncertainty. Sick with fear, he wondered that
she wasn’t questioning whether she had administered too much potion.
Seeing his expression, she hastily gave him a confident smile and
reached across to squeeze his hand.
The Baron looked about him, trying to take his mind off his fears. He
noted at once the new tapestry hanging above the fireplace, which
depicted the Trinity of the Crone, Mother and Maiden. The needlework of
the tapestry was very fine and it was easy to marvel at Keridwen’s
likeness. Beside her in the picture was Brid, who looked comfortable in
the role of the mother. It was the image of Isolde, however, that
engaged Caspar’s eyes the longest.
He was shocked. Surely, that could not be the girl he
had left behind when she was no more than a baby? Her hair and eyes were
as he had imagined after fifteen years. She had long strawberry blond
hair, streaked with copper, curls floating down to her waist; he had
expected that. And her eyes too. She had unique green eyes with glints
of gold that leapt out of the needlework. But all else about her was not
at all as he had anticipated. The mouth was small and sadly morose;
there was an apologetic stoop to her bearing and the gaunt cheeks spoke
of a nervous disposition. This was not the happy, bubbling infant he had
left in Keridwen’s care.
“That’s Isolde?” he asked, his voice still
strained with concern for Rollo.
Keridwen followed his gaze, sighed and nodded. “The
women who stitched her likeness didn’t capture the image of her soul
very well,” she said with a shrug.
Caspar nodded. He hadn’t seen Isolde since she was a
tiny child and his heart raced with the excitement. Though only a baby,
her happy, carefree disposition had warmed his heart and helped him
through those tragic times. He sighed, longing to greet her after all
He wondered where she was. He thought it strange,
since everyone else had been mustered to give him an official welcome,
that both Brid and Isolde had chosen to be absent. But he was not
offended; no doubt, they had more pressing business, he firmly told
Keridwen was stroking Rollo’s forehead when the boy began to stir and
groan. Caspar noted her heave a sigh of relief. “I shouldn’t think
he’ll sleep more than half an hour; he looks as if he has a very
strong constitution. Now, Spar, you need to get yourself out of those
damp clothes and get some warm food and wine inside you.”
Caspar nodded at this and relaxed, knowing that his
son was in good hands. He stood up and immediately Hal stepped forward.
“He’s all right then?”
“Good! That’s good.” Hal opened his arms to
Caspar and enclosed him in a warm embrace.
Hugely conscious of the cold hard steel of the cap
covering Hal’s stump that pressed into his back, Caspar hugged his
uncle back, aware of the man’s solid body and broad shoulders. For a
moment, they looked at each other intently before bursting into
“It is good to see you! So good to see you home!”
Caspar laughed more and turned from his uncle to scoop
up his tiny mother and sweep her round in an arc that lifted her legs
high off the floor.
“Spar!” she scolded, “I’m an old woman;
don’t do that to me!”
He placed her lightly down beside him, stooped to kiss
her silken head and was warmed as she raised her hand to smooth his
cheek. “Oh my only son, how I have missed you!” She ran her finger
down to the point of his stubble-covered chin and then pushed back his
thick auburn hair that was streaked with gold by the eastern sun.
Unable to contain himself, Caspar again wrapped his arms about her. He
had been separated from his mother throughout his childhood and it had
always left him inclined towards a sense of vulnerability. He relished
and always yearned for the sense of well-being that her closeness imbued
“Now off with you and get into some fresh clothes
before we talk more. Don’t fear, I will not leave your boy,” she
“Are you feeling a little bit better now?” the
woman with eyes as piercing and as blue as his father’s was saying.
Rollo didn’t answer as he sat up. The woman was
pressing a goblet of clear water into his hand and, despite himself, he
took a sip. Though he had not wanted to comply without a show of
protest, he had to admit that the water did make him feel better.
“What you need is a little food,” his grandmother
was telling him. “What do you fancy? Cook’s made apple pie if you
don’t feel up to meat.”
“I’m not hungry,” he lied, watching the
woman’s response and wondering how she was going to persuade him to
eat. He knew he was being perverse but he couldn’t help it.
“That’s fine,” she shrugged. “The rest of us
are going to eat. You just rest a little while longer and see how you
Rollo grunted in dissatisfaction. He had thought she
would have tried harder. And he could smell meat. All were hurriedly
making their way towards the long table as boards of boar and venison
were carried into the room. He looked at the empty chair beside his
father and hastily decided that it would be easier to join the company
now than wait until later.
“Bring the Baron food,” Hal boomed loudly over the
excited chatter that filled the hall.
Much to his chagrin, Rollo noted how his father
cringed at the title. He could not believe he had been dragged across
half the world to suffer this embarrassment.
“We cannot discuss these latest developments on an empty stomach. And
get some of these dogs out of here!” Hal ordered; stumbling over a
large blunt-nosed terrier. The dog was intent on catching a spider that
was creeping in and out of a crack between two of the broad floorboards.
It took a moment for Hal to recover his temper and Rollo noted how he
continually looked with some irritation towards the door as if he had
long been expecting someone. He then nodded at the large oak chair
placed central to the long side of the refectory table. “My Lord,”
he addressed Caspar, “take your place so the rest of us may be
Caspar flashed him a quick, uncomfortable smile before
easing himself into the large chair. Rollo watched his father’s
fine-boned fingers stroke and grip the worn carvings of the great oak
arms and wondered at his unease. Once the wood must have been whittled
into an exact and delicate carving of warring dragons though much of the
detailing had been worn smooth over time by the many hands that had sat
in that great chair.
He glanced sideways at the Baron, a flicker of
sympathy in his heart as he considered his father’s feelings. The man
was thirty-six and of a similar age to that which his dear mother would
be if she were still alive. She had worn the mantle of command with ease
but Caspar fidgeted uncomfortably and, clearly, was not used to the
attention. His father’s nerves, however, seemed to recover as further
trays and platters were brought in from the kitchens. Even Rollo could
no longer suppress a smile at the aroma from the steaming meat puddings
that were set before them.
Caspar clapped his hands in delight. “There have
been many things I’ve missed about Torra Alta and, though I love you
all deeply, I know it’s the food I’ve missed the most. And how is
“Oh, she’s well,” Keridwen said, laughing and
wiping away the tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. “Mind,
she’s twice the size that she was. She says, just if ever there was
another siege, she would be prepared to last a full year without
Hal grunted, his face set stern and the vein at his
temple pounding. Suddenly, he thumped the table with his metal-clad
stump and bellowed at the nearest servant. “You find Guthrey and Quinn
and don’t come back without them this time. I expressly told them that
they must be present to greet their baron.” The servant scurried away
and Hal grumbled more quietly, “And where’s Brid? I can’t believe
she’s not here either.”
A servant filled Rollo’s goblet with water and he took a long draught
that at least cleared his head a little. He noted that his grandmother
was sitting opposite him and, after a while, she looked up and gave him
a faint encouraging smile. He was glad that she didn’t ask him
question after question as he had expected. He was vaguely aware of Hal
telling his father that they would talk of more serious matters anon
but, for the moment, Hal was asking Caspar about their journey and the
horrors of sailing between the ice-floes.
Keridwen nudged a heavy platter laden with slices of
pink venison towards him. “Take some.”
Though he was glad that she treated him this way, he
still felt deeply resentful about being brought here and had no
intention of being civil. He grunted and speared five slices with the
point of his knife. Dripping with juice, he lifted them onto his plate
and ate ravenously.
Once his plate was empty, Keridwen lent forward across
the table. “The apple pie is excellent, you know.”
“I don’t want any!” Rollo replied flatly, just
as there was a lull in the conversation and his words were suddenly far
louder than he had intended.
Eyebrows pressed low in a disapproving frown, Caspar
broke off his conversation with Hal. “Rollo!” he snapped in
exasperation and embarrassment. “Keridwen is not only your grandmother
but a high priestess, One of the Three. If you are too overwhelmed to
think of something fitting to say, you… you—”
“Hush, Spar,” Keridwen gently chided. “I’m not
made of glass. The boy won’t break me that easily.” She smiled at
the youth. “There’s plenty of time for us to get to know one
another, now isn’t there, Rollo?” She inclined her head knowingly at
him and then, much to Rollo’s relief, rather than persisting in
focusing the conversation on him, turned to Hal. “I think we’ve all
eaten enough now.” She said meaningfully and gave him a long hard
“Yes,” Caspar agreed. He took a sip from his ale
and also looked over his tankard at Hal. “So tell all.”
Rollo was intensely aware that this man had carried
his father’s responsibilities of the command of Torra Alta and the
fifteen years had been long ones. There was no smile on Hal’s lips as
he rose to pace the heavily worn floorboards before the crackling fire.