JANE WELCH

Book One in the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) Book Two in the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) Book three in the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor)      First of the Book of Ond Series which follows on from the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) Second of the Book of Ond Series which follows on from the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) Third of the Book of Ond trilogy which follows on from the Runespell Trilogy (Artwork by Geoff Taylor)
Artwork for Dawn of a Dark Age (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) The Broken Chalice (Artwork by Geoff Taylor) The Allegiance of Man Book Three of the Book of Man (Artwork by Geoff Taylor)


 

Dawn of a Dark Age

Artwork for Dawn of a Dark Age.jpg (165103 bytes)Dawn of a Dark Age: Volume One of the Book of Man

A spellbinding tale of sorcery, intrigue and betrayal.

Prince Rollo's world is shattered by the death of his mother, Queen Ursula of Artor. But even before he can grieve he faces the bitter disappointment of being overlooked as heir to the throne which ids to pass to his younger sister. Deeply concerned for his son, Caspar decides to take Rollo to Torra Alta, his barony in Belbidia across the ocean, to claim the only bithright left to him.

But fifteen years have passed since Caspar left his uncle, Hal, as guardian of the remote province and many things have changed. Terrible creatures, banished from Belbidia years ago, are re-emerging; a huge golden dragon plagues the mountains and swarms of hobs and ravenshrikes ransack the fertile plains. Worst of all, the Chalice of Ond, a sacred artefact with the power to duplicate other magical objects, has been lost.

If this powerful weapon falls into the wrong hands, a dark age will undoubtedly befall Belbidia and her people.

ISBN 0-00-711249-1

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PROLOGUE

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 edge.

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 help.

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 scales.

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 throat.

“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 hearts.

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, Aurek.”

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.

Bump… Bump…

            “Aurek…”

            Bump…

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.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

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 Yellow Mountains 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 more expressive.

“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 feelings.

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 truth.”

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 and blood.

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 winter.”

            “I can manage,” Rollo growled. “Do you think I am afraid?” he challenged.

            “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 affliction.

            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 scree below.

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 his birth.

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 vanished.

 

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 the cobblestones.

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 the atmosphere.

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 for protocol.

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 more.”

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 grumbled.

            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 your kinsmen.”

“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 haughtily.

“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 tight.

            “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 tell.”

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 her.

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 walls.

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 dragon’s skull

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 genuine concern.

            “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 these years.

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 himself.

            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?”

Keridwen nodded.

“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 laughter.

“It is good to see you! So good to see you home!” Hal enthused.

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 in him.

“Now off with you and get into some fresh clothes before we talk more. Don’t fear, I will not leave your boy,” she assured him.

 

“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 feel later.”

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 seated.”

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 Cook?”

“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 food.”

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 look.

“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.


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

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

 

 

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