The earthy scent filling the blackness of the tunnel gave
way to the strong aroma of horse. Dust and grit sprinkled down from the
low roof as something thumped and kicked ahead, the dull echo winding
back to them along the underground passage. Rollo shook his head to free
himself of the dirt.
For a moment, he forgot the others. The sense of their
racing hearts and laboured breaths, as they struggled to control their
apprehension at being deep underground in utter blackness, receded. He
found the experience curiously comforting, much as if he were crawling
into a warm bed and pulling the covers over his head. The smell of horse
lured him on. It was inexplicably tantalizing; the aroma of fear
mingling with the juicy smell of a plump horse flooded his mouth with
saliva and he surged forward.
His father caught his arm. “Rollo, be careful! Stay
His father’s touch sent a cold shudder through his
body and the youth was suddenly aware of himself and the situation.
“The dark,” he murmured. “It was as if I were dreaming.” Shaken
for a moment, he let Caspar move on ahead until his cousins caught up
and nudged him forward.
“Come on, Rollo, we don’t want to be tripping over
you,” Guthrey’s voice taunted.
Rollo sniffed and marched on, the sound of stamping
and kicking now very much louder.
“There must be a horse trapped in the tunnel
ahead,” Quinn stated the obvious, his voice a little higher and more
strained than usual. “I thought it might be hobs.” He laughed
“It must be Sorrel. But Arathane would never leave
his horse! Something’s happened to him,” Baron Caspar’s voice
echoed in the tight confines of the earthy hole.
Together, the Baron and the four inexperienced youths
stumbled and felt their way forward until Caspar suddenly leapt back,
treading on his son’s toes. “Stay back, Rollo; I just touched her
rump. An animal of that weight will have a nasty kick on her so be
careful.” He still sounded calm and in control but, ever since they
had left behind the last threads of daylight and felt their way deeper
and deeper into the treacly blackness of the tunnel, Rollo could just
detect the unease edging his father’s calm tones.
“What is it? Why is she here?” Quinn’s young
voice was strained as he called out from the rear of the party.
“Uncle, tell us what’s going on!” Guthrey’s
voice demanded more insistently.
“I can’t see a thing!” the young woodsman, Gart,
complained for the tenth time.
Baron Caspar took a deep breath. “Sorrel is wedged
in the tunnel ahead. Arathane!” he bellowed out and then fell silent.
Rather than penetrating the confined emptiness of a tunnel ahead, his
echo bounced straight back at him and all knew at once that the way was
blocked. They listened vainly for any answering cry but all that was
audible were the frantic stamps from the horse’s rear hooves.
“What do we do?” Quinn’s young voice was
strained. “Sir, we must go back for the women. I can’t leave my
mother up there unprotected.”
Their voices rang abnormally loud in the pitch
blackness, the air thick and humid with scent of horse.
“I can only imagine that Arathane is trapped on the
other side of his horse. The roof must have come down on the animal,”
Caspar said with steely control. “I’m not leaving Arathane trapped
down here in this labyrinth of tunnels beneath the arena. Who knows what
other manner of creature beyond hobs and ravenshrikes Silas kept down
here? Guthrey, Quinn, Rollo, get back out to the surface. Quinn is
right; you have to go back to protect Isolde, Brid and little Leaf. Gart,
you stay with me.”
While Guthrey and Quinn turned and raced away, eager
to protect their mother and the rest of the women, Rollo pressed his
back against the soft earth of the tunnel wall. Why would his father
order Gart, a mere stranger, to remain with him? Didn’t he trust him
to be capable in this situation or was he trying to protect him from a
further collapse of the roof? Either way he would not have it. He would
play his part.
“I’m staying with you, Father.”
“The first thing a Torra Altan should learn is
obedience,” Caspar told him stiffly.
Rollo shrugged, a rather futile gesture in the dark.
Still he was gratified when his father changed the order.
“Gart, go with Quinn and Guthrey to the surface.
Rollo you go with them.”
“There’s no argument. These tunnels are not shored
up; they could come tumbling down at any minute. Go back with them.”
Rollo did not reply; nor did he obey. He knew Caspar
was not able to make him and he wasn’t going to crawl away from
danger. It didn’t actually occur to him that his father was right and
that the tunnels would collapse at any moment. He simply wasn’t going
to retreat like a coward.
“Don’t stay here for my sake,” Caspar told him
more softly. “If you want to prove your love for me, do it by
returning to the surface so that I know you will be safe.”
Rollo snorted. “I’m not staying here for you,”
he said cruelly. “I’m just not running away like a coward.”
Caspar only grunted in response, leaving Rollo to
regret the harshness of his tone as his father began to talk in soothing
tones to the horse’s rump. “We need another way round,” he said
after a minute. “I can’t get past her.”
“What do you suppose happened?” Rollo asked,
breathing deeply. There was a rumble through the earth as he spoke and
dribbles of fine earth fell like the sand of an hourglass from overhead.
“The tunnel must have closed in and become
impassable for the horse. Arathane must have gone on ahead. I’m amazed
that he left her; when I first met him a couple of days ago he was
completely obsessed by his horse.”
“You’re one to talk!” Rollo chided him. “The
way you go on about Cracker…”
“I know I feel strongly about Cracker but I’ve had
that war-horse from a colt and he’s carried me safely through many
battles. And, by the way, he had better be safe and sound with Baron
“I told you he was, didn’t I?” Rollo said in the
most hurt tones he could muster to try and stave off yet another
scolding about taking his father’s horse. “I left him at Baron
Oxgard’s northern castle and he was as right as rain. How can you even
begin to think Arathane is obsessed by his horse when you go on the way
Caspar grunted by way of refutation. “Sorrel could
have been his queen the way he was behaving. And now he’s left her.”
“Or perhaps the hobs got to him,” Rollo suggested.
“All the more reason to find him.” There was
silence for a moment and in the pitch black of the tunnel Rollo wondered
what was going on. He could hear grunts as his father struggled to dig
earth away from the horse with one of the rusted hob swords they had
taken from the arena above. Clearly, the animal was held to tightly in
the collapsed tunnel to kick out and hurt them and so Rollo did what he
could to scrabble at the earth on the opposite side of the horse. It was
hard work and it seemed like an age before Gart returned.
“The Lady Brid says you’re all to come out at
once; it’s not safe,” Gart dutifully passed on the message.
“Kindly tell the lady that I cannot leave a friend
down here to the mercy of the hobs,” Caspar said calmly. “There’s
a good lad, head back on up to the surface. It won’t be long now and
we’ll dig this horse out.”
“But…” Gart mumbled, clearly uncertain as to how
to react faced with conflicting orders.
“Arathane!” Caspar called again but only his
muffled echo came back at them. “Listen, Gart, we’re not coming out.
Why don’t you find a torch and bring us some water?”
“Sir!” the youth replied smartly, evidently
pleased to be of service.
They worked in the dark, side by side, for what seemed
like an hour but was probably only a matter of minutes before Gart
returned, his eager faced swathed in the glow of a burning torch.
“Good lad.” Caspar put down the rusted hob sword
and reached out a hand for the water.
Rollo blinked at him. The Baron was unrecognizable;
his teeth and the whites of his eyes, glowing dimly pink in the
torchlight, were set within a face black with grime. His hair was
clogged with earth that also clung to his clothes. Trickles of sweat had
turned the soil to a slurry around the edge of his hairline.
Rollo, too, took a swig from the canister and turned
to look at the obstacle ahead. The warm round rump of the horse was just
visible, packed tightly in earth. Caspar was right; there was no point
them all being down here, waiting to be smothered beneath the earth and
a moment of trepidation filled Rollo’s heart as he imagined the slow
gruelling death of ghastly suffocation.
“It’s hopeless,” he panted, “we can’t dig
her out like this with just these swords.”
“We have to,” Caspar told him. “Arathane will be
on the other side. Arathane would never abandon his horse. He
Rollo grunted, not really interested in the where’s
and whyfore’s of the matter only that they were trapped in this stuffy
tunnel that might cave in at any moment. Should they rarely be risking
so much just for the vain hope of rescuing one stupid horse and a man
they barely knew?
“What did this man, Arathane, think he was doing
charging in with a great war horse into these tunnels?” the petulant
youth complained to his father.
“He was after, Silas,” Caspar grunted as he worked
the blade around the horse’s rump. “ He wasn’t about to just sit
down idly and watch the vile man escape with his life.”
As he dug around the horse’s hindquarters, a chunk
of earth slid away from her back and she suddenly had freedom to do more
than stamp. Bucking, she lashed out, catching Caspar on the knee. Rollo
flung himself back and only managed to avoid being kicked by the barest
Swearing and rubbing furiously at his knee, Caspar
pushed himself up and looked straight to his son. “Rollo, are you
hurt? I’m an idiot; I should have seen that coming. The poor girl
can’t see us and she’s probably terrified that we’re some hob
that’s about to eat her - rump first.”
“Now what do we do?” Rollo asked, his voice barbed
and he glared at his father for his incompetence.
“Rollo! This is not my fault,” Caspar began to
protest in exasperated tones but then just looked at him in despair.
“You go back up to the surface. This kicking is only going to make it
“I’ve told you, I’m not leaving you. Do you want
the world to think I’m a coward?”
“No one thinks you’re a coward.”
No, Rollo thought. But nor will anyone believe that it
was I who saved everyone from Silas and the dragon. All they will
remember was how the strange knight Arathane and his father, Baron
Caspar, charged into the midst of the hobs to rescue Brid and Guthrey.
The fighting had been so intense and the riotous chaos so violent they
would have been too confused to notice that it was his cry that had
controlled the dragon, which had come to do Silas’s bidding. His voice
had rung out with that same note of command his much grieved for mother
had used to control the great bears of his homeland. He drew a deep
breath and squared his bony, adolescent shoulders.
Did it really matter that no one had noticed, that no
one would believe he had such a power? Watching his father struggling
with a loop of rope that he was trying to slip under the horse’s
hooves, he decided Caspar had never noticed anything good he had done in
his life, so what difference would it make now? He was used to it,
wasn’t he? For a moment, Rollo managed to coax himself into feeling
better but the illusion quickly passed; in his heart he knew that what
he really wanted was recognition. As a result of his affliction, all his
life he had only ever won sympathy and sometimes scorn from his fellows.
Wasn’t he entitled to the slightest admiration or praise for his
“Got it!” Caspar exclaimed, snapping tight the
noose that hobbled the horse’s back legs. The end of the rope was
stuffed into Rollo’s hands. “Hold that tight,” the Baron ordered,
“while I try and loosen the soil.” Although, hobbled as she was, the
great war-horse could still kick a little, but was slowly soothed by
Caspar’s firm, soothing strokes to her flank. At last, she ceased to
attempt to kick and seemed a lot calmer though Rollo could see that
thick runs of foamy sweat breaking through her hide and she continued to
tremble violently. The animal would soon be exhausted.
Caspar returned to the hard labour of loosening the
soil around Sorrel’s flanks but it was a laborious and exhausting
process. At long last, he cleared the rear portion of the saddle and
stopped to take a drink. Brushing the clods of mud from Sorrel’s sleek
coat, he revealed old wounds on her rump where it looked as if a vicious
hob had sunk its pointed teeth into her flesh. With firm hands, he
stroked her flanks, continuing to reassure the animal that they were not
about to eat her.
“Spar!” A young female voice echoed down from the
entrance to the tunnel behind them. “Spar, where are you? Come out.”
“Leaf, what are you doing here? I told you to stay
with Brid,” Caspar chastized the approaching girl.
“I couldn’t,” she replied with remarkable aplomb
for one so young.
Rollo flashed the girl a quick look. She was about the
same age as his sister, Imogen, whom his father had left in Artor to
take up the reins of command after the tragic death of their mother.
Rollo looked at this girl sideways. It hadn’t taken Caspar long to
find another girl on whom he could lavish his affections and so give the
Baron even more opportunity to ignore him.
“I’ve come to tell you that you must return to the
surface. Brid says we must leave at once. Isolde is ill and you have
been down here an hour. Sooner or later these tunnels will collapse.”
“All the more reason for you to get out of here.”
Caspar grunted. “Arathane saved us. He risked everything to help us
and I’m not leaving him trapped down here.”
The little girl shouldered her way alongside Rollo and
looked up at him quizzically.
“You are not what I imagined,” she said
matter-of-factly and the youth was very much taken a back. She looked to
be no more than eleven but the way she drew in breath and looked at him
and his father so levelly in the eye quite astonished him.
“Cut the saddle loose. If you pull that off you’ll
probably be able to get her free,” Leaf told Caspar. “Her smooth
hide will slip more easily through the earth and she may well be able to
slither free once the obstacle of the saddle is removed.”
The Baron looked at her and wearily smiled. “Now,
why didn’t I think of that?” Pushing his hand into the compacted
earth under her belly, he tunnelled a small hole big enough for his arm.
His face twisting with the effort of delicately feeling his way, Caspar
pushed his shoulder into the earth just a little deeper and then gave a
grunt of satisfaction. “There, that’s the girth done!”
Now able to reach up around the horse’s back, he
worked the saddle back and forth until the was able to twist it sideways
and drag it free. Loose earth poured round the sides of the horse and
they all worked frantically to clear it back and out of the way.
Using his knife, Caspar freed the hobbles around the
horse’s rear hooves before leaping backwards, allowing the great
chestnut mare to do the work herself. With her hind-legs now tucked
beneath her, she squatted down on her haunches, using the power in her
massive hindquarters to heave herself backwards, wriggling and kicking,
until she suddenly fell back. Yells, grunts and the clash of metal
suddenly echoed around them.
Rollo was blinking in the dust, not quiet sure of what
was happening as the horse squashed him against the tunnel wall. He
couldn’t see his father but he could hear angry shouts.
“Back the horse out. Make some room for them,” the
young girl was yelling in his ear above the other raucous sounds that so
“How?” Rollo spluttered, trying to clear the loose
earth from his mouth and shove the struggling horse off him. Someone was
going to get hurt by those hooves any second, he thought to himself.
“Do something!” the girl was yelling at him.
“Back her out.”
“I’m trying,” he yelled in some frustration as
he wormed his hand forward and, with fortune working for him for once,
managed to get a hand to the reins and so gain control of the horse.
Fortunately, the animal appeared to be well-trained and instantly
responded, backing up calmly. It was only then that Rollo saw what had
so affrighted Leaf. There was Arathane and he was in desperate trouble.
Two dwarves swung their double-bladed axes at him and
he was struggling to block their heavy blows. The man was clearly near
exhaustion as he staggered and stumbled under the impact. Baron Caspar
had already kicked his way past the horse to leap forward into the
tunnel and stand by Arathane against the broad, powerfully built
“Send Leaf out of here and back the horse up,”
Caspar yelled over his shoulder as he blocked an axe blow that was aimed
for his chest. “Move it, lad. Now!”
Impressed by his father’s skill at withstanding the
assault from the solid power of the dwarf, Rollo immediately obeyed.
Poor Arathane, he thought. The man must have been fighting like that for
at least an hour.
“Leaf, you heard; get moving now,” Rollo growled
at the young girl. Unable to turn the horse in the tight space, Rollo
painstakingly backed her up. All the while, he cast over his shoulder in
fear for his father as the sound of metal on metal rang through the
earth. The mare squealed in alarm, her head up and reluctant to obey as
the dwarves concentrated their attack on Arathane, who was breathing
hard and his movements becoming jerky and laboured.
“Get behind me!” Caspar shouted at the big
“You can’t hold them alone,” Arathane protested.
“I can and I will. Give me space! Another minute and
you won’t be able to fight at all.”
To Rollo’s amazement, the knight, beneath his
impressive horned helmet, obeyed and stumbled backwards, feeling his way
through the broken tunnel. Blood streamed from a cut on his forehead
into his eyes and Rollo guessed he could barely see as, arms
outstretched, he made for the horse. Caspar leaped forward, roaring a
fierce defiance as he braced himself against the full onslaught of the
dwarves. There was no room for him to swing his long blade but he had
time to stab forward at one dwarf, pricking him in the belly. Retracting
the blade, he twisted it downward and smashed the pommel of the sword
into the dwarf’s face. The wounded dwarf fell against his comrade,
giving Caspar enough time to take a leap back through the soft earth
where the horse had been trapped.
“Strike the roof,” Leaf yelled at him snatching
the smouldering torch from Gart’s hands and holding it high.
Caspar took another step back and, rather than lunging
at the dwarf who had shaken off his injured fellow, heeded Leaf’s
words. It gave the dwarf a moment when Caspar’s body was unguarded and
he was able to strike. The Baron twisted away as best he could while
still persevering in his purpose. The tumbling earth smothered the
dwarf’s axe softening the blow and Caspar staggered back, watching
blankly as the curtain of earth cascaded down, blocking the way.
“It won’t take them long to break through,”
Caspar grunted. “Come on, quick! Let’s get out of here.”
Arathane was skilfully backing his horse up and the
rest followed as fast as they could. Rollo glanced anxiously at his
father who stuffed his sword into the boy’s hand so that he could
cradle his left arm to his body. Rollo was impressed that the man had
made no cry of pain when, clearly, the dwarf’s blade had connected
with flesh. The tunnel widened and Arathane was able to turn Sorrel.
After handing Rollo the torch, he threw Leaf up into the saddle and soon
they were able to make much faster progress.
“We’ll be safe in the open,” Arathane told them
between panted breaths. “There was only the two of them and, even if
they quickly find another way out, they won’t follow us out into the
open of the arena. Dwarves like to fight in bands and they are never
“Save your breath, then and run,” Caspar ordered
Rollo blinked as they burst out into the sunlight.
Only then did he see how grey his father was. Dropping the torch, he
held out his hand for him and pulled him up the tiered steps of the
amphitheatre, barely noticing the crisp bodies that had been incinerated
by the great golden dragon earlier than day. At the top of the steps, he
paused to look round just as the dwarves staggered out from one of the
many tunnels set in the arena wall. They, too, blinked in the daylight
and stumbled to a halt. Doubled-over to catch their breath, they looked
up at the sorry band of humans but made no attempt to follow. Arathane
nodded in grim satisfaction before helping Caspar onto his horse so that
he might sit behind Leaf.
As they staggered up the steps circling the arena, the
warrior ordered Rollo to gather any discarded weapons before leading
them down the steep embankment towards the grassy plain that spread
between them and a choppy sea.
With Rollo panting from the weight of iron he now
carried, they progressed at a steady jog, hurrying across the open
ground to a small cluster of holly trees whose leaves rustled in the
breeze. Rollo continued to glance over his shoulder but was relieved to
see that no one followed. As they jogged after Arathane and his mare,
Quinn and Guthrey burst out from the bushes, brandishing swords that
they soon lowered.
“Uncle Spar, you’re hurt,” the taller youth
exclaimed as he saw Rollo’s father.
“It’s nothing, Quinn,” Caspar assured him as he
sagged out of the saddle. “Help get Leaf down,” he ordered the two
youths. As he stepped away from the horse, he suddenly swayed and
staggered, wincing and clutching his arm to him. The shorter of the two
youths stepped smartly forward to catch him and Caspar nodded his
thanks. “Thank you Guthrey. I trust all is well with your mother.”
“Yes, sir,” Guthrey replied with military
sharpness, reminding Rollo that his two cousins were born and bred to a
warrior’s castle. “But Isolde…”
“Quickly then,” Caspar ordered.
They pushed their way into the thicket and Rollo was
immediately alarmed at what he saw; sitting cross-legged, Brid was
gravely hunched over an inert girl lying on her side, her head flopped
into Brid’s lap.
Caspar sank down onto his knees and looked from Brid
to the limp girl in her arms. “What’s happened?” he croaked.
“Isolde was fine when I went after Arathane.”
Rollo was amazed to see tears rolling down Brid’s
cheeks. Her long brown hair streaked with tresses of red was matted to
her wet cheeks and she wiped them away, drawing in a breath that
shuddered with sobs. She coughed to gain some composure. “She cut
herself with a rusted hob blade. She wanted to draw blood from her arm
and so contaminate the potion within the Chalice and ruin the spell but
she used a rusted hob blade. I fear that poison has entered her blood
through the wound. She is very ill.”
Brid lifted Isolde’s hand and Rollo blinked at it in
revulsion. A long jagged scar marked her forearm where the girl had so
bravely slit the skin and let precious drops trickle into the Chalice.
Rather than looking red and raw, as Rollo had expected, the scar oozed a
greenish brown liquid and the skin looked blackened as if it had been
burnt. Isolde appeared to be running a high fever, her skin blotched
with bright pink patches.
“Oh Isolde,” Caspar murmured, stroking her
forehead. “Brid, she’s so hot!” he exclaimed in alarm. The girl
looked exhausted and was beginning to tremble.
“We’re not in very good shape,” Arathane said
heavily, “and we’re not safe here. We must head towards the sea
where at least we can protect our backs. Then we can see about getting
this young girl fit. And the salt water will do your arm some good, I
have no doubt, Spar.” He raised a thin smile but then his face fell
again, his mouth clenching in grim defeat. “I let him get away. I was
so close, so very close and he escaped me.”
“He can do no more harm now,” Caspar said
brightly. “The Chalice was broken.”
“Can’t he?” Arathane asked sourly. “Never
underestimate Silas. We need him dead. I need him dead,” he added
All looked at him a moment before Caspar broke the
uncertain silence. “Rollo, let’s have a look at those weapons. What
have you got?”
The youth had long since let them drop to the floor.
He bent down and laid them out to display the array of daggers, a belt
with a dozen knives in it and two short swords to his comrades. “A hob
sword,” he pointed out, “and—”
“Of little use,” Guthrey said scathingly. “The
other looks like a short dwarf blade, though. I’ll have that!”
“I found it!” Rollo protested.
“Don’t bicker!” Caspar growled. “Your own
sword is a perfect fit for you, Rollo. Quinn has the master blade
crafted by the dwarves and endowed with immense strength. He found it on
the field of battle and so its is rightfully his. That leaves Guthrey
with the greatest need. You don’t need the dwarf blade but you and
Gart could do with a dagger each in your belt. And hand me that belt of
throwing knives.” He looked at the dozen slender knives pocketed into
a sturdy belt, which was missing its buckle and so had been lost by its
former owner. “Very nice!” the Baron exclaimed in satisfaction.
“It won’t take much to fix the belt.”
His newly acquired dagger at his side, Rollo found
himself at the rear of the party. He was ordered to watch their backs
while Arathane, mounted on his horse and with Isolde in his arms, took
the lead and the two half brothers, Guthrey and Quinn, shouldered their
mother, Brid. Caspar limped quietly along beside Brid, all the while
looking anxiously towards Isolde and constantly asking Brid how the girl
Rollo scowled at his father and the rest of the party,
seeing how all had something to say to one another yet no one paid him,
at the rear of the company, the slightest heed. He grunted in disgust at
the state of affairs. No one had mentioned how he had saved them all
with his magnificent song of command that had cowed the dragon. No one
had talked in hushed whispers of his power; they had dismissed it as an
anomaly, as a freakish stunt that had just, by chance, caught the
dragon’s ear. He chewed at his lip, watching resentfully as Caspar
fussed over Isolde.
Staring from of the salt-crusted plain towards the
sea, where crisp thistles stood stiff against a gentle early spring
breeze, Rollo sucked in the moist air and looked longingly eastwards
towards the country of his birth that was a continent and an ocean away
on the other side of the world. For a moment, it was almost possible to
believe that, all those thousands of miles away, his mother was still
there at home, sitting in her cool marble palace, waiting for him to
return. The youth blinked back the tears, realizing that now, only a
year after her death, he could not fully recall her face. He knew she
was beautiful with dark, almost black hair cropped short against her
tanned face but, though he screwed up his eyes with the effort of
concentration, he could not reproduce the image of her face in his
mind’s eye nor recall her voice. All he could do was remember her
smell, that faint sweet smell, which imbued him with a deep and
fulfilling sense of belonging. But she was gone – gone forever and
only his sister remained in Artor, sitting on its splendid throne as the
Rollo, Prince of Artor, only son of the deceased
Ursula, Revered Queen of Artor, lowered his gaze and stared at the
Belbidian soil at his feet that was so alien to him yet clearly so
pleased his father. How he missed his homeland; how he missed his
mother. He looked up and glared at Quinn and Guthrey as they marched
beside their mother. How he loathed them for having a mother when he had
Brid continually reached out to pat her sons’ hands
and worriedly looked up to both youths, who were very much taller than
the small priestess. Rollo felt excluded. He didn’t even know what to
say to his own father. The Baron was clearly injured but was stoically
refusing to admit to this since all his concerns seemed to be focused on
Isolde, who was being cradled in Arathane’s arms as he rode ahead on
his chestnut mare. Isolde, like Brid was a high priestess. Along with
his grandmother, Keridwen, they formed the trinity of high priestesses,
representing the mortal embodiment of the Great Mother on Earth as the
Maiden, the Mother and the Crone.
He could well imagine Brid and Keridwen as people
worthy of holding such lofty positions. Brid commanded immediate respect
and had great skill at helping and soothing others. Keridwen, his
beautiful grandmother had been left behind in the castle of Torra Alta
helping his father’s uncle, Hal, to command the fortress. He held her
in even higher respect than Brid. But Isolde was frail and
self-apologetic. Her mysteriously green eyes flecked with gold regarded
all warily as if they accused her of some terrible crime.
Rollo fell into brooding about how Hal had appeared so
unimpressed at his father’s return and so reluctant to hand back the
reins of command after fifteen years. How dare he feel he owned the
place! Rollo glared at Guthrey, Hal’s son, as if his father’s sins
equally belonged to the black-haired youth. Quinn he exonerated from the
crime. Who Quinn’s father was, Rollo had not yet learned but at least
it was not Hal, whom he had hated on first sight. Stamping along
moodily, he became vaguely suspicious that there were eyes on his back.
He wondered whether the dwarves were in pursuit or whether it was a
number of hobs that had escaped the dragon’s wrath and were now
stalking them, waiting for an opportunity. He twisted round to see but
there was nothing untoward and so he shrugged away his concerns, glad
that the sea breeze was already stirring his hair. He welcomed the
It wasn’t long before they had crossed the plain,
which was bordered to their left by a rocky escarpment. Now they were
picking their way across rolling dunes, the sand abrading their legs and
stringing their eyes as the occasional gust of wind whipped the fine
grains up into dancing sand-devils. The dunes led down to a wide beach
beaten smooth by the assault of rolling waves. Rollo breathed in deeply,
the smell of the sea refreshing and calming. His head was pounding
within his skull and he only now realized how exhausted and worried he
“Rollo, get some wood,” his father ordered.
“Scour the tide line for driftwood and let’s get a fire going.
Quinn, you had better go and find water. Guthrey, help Rollo,” Caspar
Rollo didn’t want any help and he certainly didn’t
want to be with Guthrey. The youth was very dark with almost blue black
hair and bronzed skin in contrast to his own auburn hair and freckled
sun-reddened skin that he had inherited from his father. Beyond their
first quarrel, he had barely spoken to Guthrey since his father had
forcibly brought him to this country. Their first quarrel had been
dramatically cut short when a ravenshrike had snatched Guthrey just
after Rollo had gone so far as to try and kill him. After that, they had
not spoken beyond the few brief words they had exchanged in the arena
when he had saved Guthrey from the dragon. It was an awkward silence
that therefore accompanied them as they trudged up the beach.
Rollo had spent much time with Guthrey’s elder
brother, Quinn, who, not being of Hal’s blood, was very much more
congenial. Although Guthrey was, like himself only just thirteen, he was
very similar to his father, Hal, in that he was impossibly arrogant and
After long minutes had passed and Rollo could no
longer bear the silence, he snapped at Guthrey. “Listen, I’m sorry.
I didn’t really want to hurt you and you cannot believe how awful I
felt when you were stolen away by that monstrous ravenshrike.”
“Not as awful as I felt,” Guthrey assured him
haughtily. “It hurt! And don’t forget I was hauled all the way here
and stuffed into one of these dungeons, listening to the screams, the
endless screams as the wretched hobs tortured men to dearth. In the dark
of those tunnel, I was left wondering when it would be my turn. You
couldn’t have felt one jot as bad as I did. I doubt you could even
“No, no, I can’t imagine,” Rollo admitted,
deciding that Guthrey had good reason to feel vexed about it all. “But
that wasn’t my fault.”
“No, it wasn’t your fault,” Guthrey told him
gruffly. “No, that was down to the hobs and the dwarves and that
treacherous man, Silas. You came back for me. I’m not angry with you
and I’ve already told you I’m sorry for attacking you. That,
however, doesn’t mean that I welcome you and your father, cousin,”
he said bitterly. “Your father abandoned us fifteen years ago, leaving
my father to run the castle of Torra Alta and protect the lands just
when the dragons and the hobs poured in from all sides to attack us. I
don’t see that he has any right to come back here after so long and
just claim it for his own.”
“Don’t you think we have more important things to
worry about for the moment?” Rollo snarled, flinging down the
driftwood he had so far collected. “And who says I want any part of
you rotten, stinking barony? It wasn’t my idea to come here and,
believe me, the first opportunity I get to go home to Artor, I’ll
“Go home? Go home to what? Go home to be your
sister’s little pet?” Guthrey sneered cruelly as he bundled bleached
and split driftwood into his arms. “How can a prince return to his
country knowing that his younger sister is queen of the land? You would
feel like a fool.”
“She’s my sister and I love her. I would do
everything I could to help her in her difficult task,” Rollo said
nobly though, he knew in his heart that Guthrey was right. It would be
very hard indeed to be subordinate to Imogen. Though she did indeed have
the mystical power inherited from their mother to control the great
bears of Artor, she was still just his little sister.
Rollo regathered his driftwood and sauntered moodily
back to the others only to be met by his father’s stiff frown. Caspar
was angry for the length of time it had taken him to carry the driftwood
back to their camp.
“Where have you been? Can’t you see she’s in
Rollo didn’t reply but looked at his father
resentfully. Was it any wonder that, already, his father was more
concerned about Isolde than he was about him? Rollo stared at the young
priestess, wondering what to say. Guthrey had already set off after
Arathane and Quinn in search of food, leaving him to stand by,
helplessly watching as Brid did her best to cleanse Isolde’s ugly
“What’s the matter with her?” he finally asked
since no one had offered a full explanation. The girl was beginning to
sweat and looked a sickly green in colour. Brid was busily stirring a
potion and muttering prayers while Caspar fretted without apparently
helping at all. At last, the Baron slumped down, still cradling his arm,
and looked glumly at Isolde.
“I remember, Isolde, after your poor mother died and
I was all that was left to care for you.”
“I know,” the girl croaked. “I remember too.”
“You couldn’t,” he said in some surprise and
then turned to Brid. “She’s delirious.”
“I don’t think so,” Brid said wearily. “Just
in a lot of pain.” She looked at Caspar. “It is one thing to be in
pain oneself but altogether a deeper torment to watch a loved one
Caspar nodded and to Rollo’s humiliation looked at
him with those blue sorrowful eyes and sighed.
“Well, I’m sorry that I’ve been such a
disappointed to you,” Rollo snapped angrily.
“But I didn’t mean that at all!” Caspar
“Yes, you did. You were thinking of my fits and how
they have brought shame on us and how I am less of a person because of
them. I can see it in your eyes every time you look at me. Well, I
don’t want your sympathy.”
“But I—” Caspar began to protest but Brid caught
“Leave him be. None of your mutterings will make him
feel better. He’s blaming you for something that isn’t your fault.
No amount of reassurance will help.”
Brid fixed the Baron firmly in the eye. “Now just
sit back down, Spar. Stop thinking about everyone else and take care of
yourself for a change. I’ve seen you guarding your arm. I can’t do
anything more for Isolde until the potion has brewed so let me have a
look at you.”
Caspar reluctantly obeyed and Rollo looked at him
piteously. It was so typical that his supposed high and mighty father
was already taking orders from a woman. His look turned to one of
disgust and his father caught his gaze, held it for a shocked,
bewildered minute before the more usual sad and haunted look filled his
face. Rollo turned away.
He was studying the debris washed up by a past spring
tide at his feet and it was a minute before he looked up again and
surreptitiously eyed his father. Brid was peeling back the Baron’s
shirt; Rollo gasped in shock at the sight of the deep purple gash to his
upper arm. The skin was gaping and the muscle had been slashed into and
Rollo could just glimpse white bone beneath. Suddenly, he was angry with
himself for behaving in such a boorish manner. How could he have spoken
like that when Caspar was so badly hurt? Still, he comforted himself
with the thought that, all the same, his father should have said
something. It hadn’t been right of him to make everyone think he was
unharmed when, clearly, the dwarf’s axe had bitten into the muscle of
his upper arm and done some serious damage.
Brid also seemed annoyed with him. “Well, for a
start, Spar, you won’t be able to use your arm at all until the muscle
has knitted together again and I’m sure it’s going to be painful for
“I didn’t need you to tell me that,” the Baron
Brid offered him some poppy juice from a vial.
“That’ll do you some good and you’ll need it while I clean up the
Caspar made a face.
“Is there a bone in your body that you haven’t
dislocated or broken?” the priestess asked as she cut away what was
left of his shirt. Rollo’s stomach turned as he looked at the pulp of
flesh and the curve of glistening white bone exposed to the air. Brid
sought patiently through a leather pouch that she kept tied to her waist
for various materials and implements.
“Now hold still,” she warned Caspar sternly.
With a fine pair of bone tweezers, she probed the
wound, extracting pieces of thread, dirt and grit that had become
trapped in the congealed blood. She then doused it in water and took a
needle and thread to start with deep stitches first before closing the
wound. The poppy juice was clearly having the required effect on the
Baron because he was lolling back, barely wincing at this treatment.
“Well, you’re not going to be a lot of use to us
in the immediate future,” Brid complained.
Between Isolde’s gash and Caspar’s wound, Rollo
didn’t know where to look and stared glumly down at the cracked
leather of his boots.
“At least be grateful, lad, that we haven’t been
eaten by hobs, which could so easily have been the case,” Caspar said
flippantly, which was just the irritating remark Rollo expected from his
He scowled at the Baron, not feeling in the least
grateful for anything right now.
Falling into a broody silence, he listened to Brid and
Caspar muttering over what possible illness or infection now beset
Isolde. Leaf, the young girl who had extraordinary composure and
strength of mind for one so young, was keenly offering to help. She was
offered the task of crushing seeds between two pebbles so that Brid
could make a potion for Isolde; it was a task that she performed with
“We need honey really,” Brid explained, “for
both Isolde and Spar. It’s the very best thing to draw out the
impurities and we particularly need that for Isolde.” Everyone’s
eyes were automatically drawn to the child’s arm: the suppurating
wound oozed a thick dark green pus.
“Will you have to cut it off?” Rollo asked
callously. He liked Isolde and her quiet ways but he was hurting inside
and, somehow, it made him feel better if he could make others feel
“Of course not,” Brid retorted harshly and fixed
him with her piercing green eyes. She rose, marched up to him and looked
him fiercely in the face. “I don’t know what gives you the right to
feel sorry for yourself but we’ve all suffered here. If you want to
feel better, forget about yourself and start thinking about others. It
is the very best way to heal the soul.”
“Oh, I am sure that you, a privilege high
priestess—” Rollo began but his words stopped in his mouth as he
caught sight of Quinn leaping through the dunes, hotly followed by
Arathane, who looked clumsy compared to the youth’s long-legged grace.
“Run for it!” Quinn was shouting.
“Go! Go now! Head for the sea!” Arathane bellowed.