JANE WELCH

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The Broken Chalice

wpe3.jpg (65077 bytes)The Broken Chalice: Volume Two of the Book of Man

After Isolde disrupted the ceremony at the amphitheatre by plunging her bleeding arm into the Chalice of Ond, contaminating the spell and damaging the Chalice, Silas has escaped, taking the magical cup with him.

Forced underground to escape the furious swarms of hobgoblins intent on revenge, Caspar, Brid and the youths are torn between going after Silas and returning home to the hill fortress of Torra Alta and Hal, who waits unknowing if his family is alive or dead. To make matters worse, Isolde gradually falls ill; her injured arm is infected and the disease is spreading rapidly, mutating her flesh. Brid's attempts to heal the young priestess seem hopeless so they must seek help elsewhere; fo if the Trinity of Priestess is weakened, Belbidia and her people will never be able to resist attack, especially if Silas finds a way of mending the Chalice.

ISBN 0-00-711250-5

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PROLOGUE

She was tired. Every breath, rasping through her body was a painful effort, the cool evening air sharp in her lungs. Her muscles screamed out in protest at their labour.

The deep red glow of the sun shining on her right flank became the centre of her focus and she climbed higher, valiantly thrashing the thin air with her wings in a determined effort to catch the last of the day’s heat. Once the sun set, she knew her last reserves of energy would be quickly drained by the chill. And there was nowhere to land. Below her stretched a blue carpet interwoven with silky golden threads where the evening sun kissed the sea.

Her brood flapped feebly behind her, calling to her desperately for help. The two strongest tried to soar upwards to her altitude but, though they were young and she was ancient and withered with grief, they lacked her strength.

“Feeble wretches!” she hissed at them resentfully.

“Mother! Mother! Save us,” one of her sons cried, his red and golden scales becoming a dark crimson in the twilight.

Since there was nothing she could do to help, she didn’t bother to answer him but concentrated her thoughts on keeping her wings beating regularly, maximizing the glide between stokes to conserve what little energy she had left.

“Mother! Great Queen!” A feeble cry came from below as one of her daughters glided down on trebling wings, her legs spread wide as she skimmed the water and finally plunged into the waves.

The queen was too exhausted to feel any deep loss. Her one great golden son was dead and, since that loss, no other bereavement touched her steely hearts. Her daughter would drown in time or, too weak to defend herself, would perhaps be eaten by sharks.

She glided on, the sea below now darkening as it fell into the shadow of night. Then she saw it; a fishing boat, its lanterns blinking as it rocked in the waves. And beyond that was the dense black outline of land. She flinched as another of her young crashed into the sea but she had hope now that, perhaps, he might swim to the shore before the sharks shredded him. Easing her wingbeats, she gradually lost height, aiming for a single tall peak that rose up from the island now appearing on the horizon. It was a distinctive isle, tall and rocky amongst the smooth flat lines of its smaller sisters dotted about.

There was no mistaking it; she had succeeded in making the long journey. The sight gave her strength enough to call to her remaining brood and urge them on. Though they revolted her by being small and feeble compered to her majestic self, a part of her still loved them for being hers.

“No!” she roared at her smallest daughter, who was aiming for the fishing boat, gliding down on wings that would not flap any more. But there was nothing she could do as the young dragon crashed onto the deck, became entangled in the sails and capsized the boat. She could see her daughter’s tail thrashing feebly but her body was pinned under the boat and she would be drowned in moments. But the queen could not think of that. She must reach land; she had to succeed. She had been promised a means to resurrect her precious son and nothing would stop her.

Crashing into the shingle of the beach, she lay there, her two hearts pounding wildly for many moments before what was left of her brood landed heavily beside her. One thumped against her body, knocking the breath from her. Lifting her aching wing to cover the young dragon’s body, she sought to offer her warmth. Huddled together, they lay there all night, shivering pathetically. By morning, two more had died from the cold of exhaustion.

The great queen angrily shoved their corpses aside and attempted to stagger to her feet, which sagged beneath her. They needed food and lots of it.

The slanting rays of the morning sun crept across the beach and slid over her body, easing the cold-induced cramp. She was dangerously cold and suspected that all the lesser dragons would be dead by nightfall if they didn’t feast. The long, strenuous migration had taken its toll.

Even the heat of midday in this gloriously hot climate was not enough to revive her and bring her to her feet. She needed food. Her young were whimpering beside her, pressed up against her belly, begging her for help and there was nothing she could do for them. They might well die, but their sacrifice would be well worth it so long as Silas fulfilled his promise. And where was he now?

It was evening before he arrived. She could smell him, smell his excitement and the fearful sweat from many of his hideous kind around him. With him, too, were bitter-tasting hobs. She recognized at once, the shorter-limbed Gobel amongst their number.

“Great Queen, I have never seen you so weak and pathetic before,” he gloated in the hobs barking tongue, unique to their kind.

The Queen produced a gurgle in her throat, forcing her voice to spit out the alien sounds. “Another word like that, wretched go-between, and you die where you stand.” She twitched her barbed tail to demonstrate that she meant business. “We need food,” she snarled.

“Silas thought as much. He has brought an offering.” The hob waved his long-fingered hand at the huddle of humans behind him. All were manacled to a single lengthy chain.

Using her wings as extra support, the magnificent she-dragon pushed herself up onto her faltering legs. She staggered forward, her tongue flickering out and tasting the sweet smell of human. Their mouth-watering scent revived her and gave her renewed vigour.

“Unchain them!” the golden dragon commanded and Gobel barked out his orders to the hobs standing guard over the snivelling band of captives. “I want them to scream and squirm! I want to see their miserable attempts to try and flee me! I want the air to ring with their cries!”

Three of her sons were already on their feet and the pack spread out to corner the humans against the cliffs at the head of the beach.

The hobs released the first human, a young man who did not run but stood over a female, spreading his arms wide in a futile effort to defend her as she, too, was released from her manacles. The great queen scurried forward, her lumbering size beguiling, disguising her remarkable sudden burst of speed. A claw sprang forward and pinned the human, the talon piercing his pelvis. In the same fluid manoeuvre, the dragon snapped at the female, who was just beginning to break into a run. While the man bellowed in protest, the golden queen tossed the woman’s flimsy body up into the air and caught it, closing her mouth only partially. The girl still wriggled and screamed in her mouth before she slowly closed her jaws, inching her great incisors deeper into her flesh and finally puncturing her heart. The man screamed hysterically and she relished his anguish.

“Your kind killed my son! Killed the only golden dragon to have been born in centuries,” she bellowed though she knew the man would not understand her roar.

At last, she was tired of his screams. Raising her other fore-claw, she raked it across his chest, ripping open the ribcage and tearing out his heart and lungs in one easy movement.

Soon the queen and her surviving brood were purring contentedly as they chewed on the bones, the queen’s long tongue now curling in and scooping out brains to leave a clean empty skull. Belching loudly, she watched Silas approach and wondered what kind of a man would stand by and watch his own kind scream, shriek and snivel as they were torn apart by dragons.


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

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 behind me.”

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 nervously

“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.”

“But Father…”

“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 Oxgard.”

“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 you do?”

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 can’t…”

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 of margins.

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 worse.”

“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 bravery?

“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 confused him.

“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 dwarves.

“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 warrior.

“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 foolhardy.”

“Save your breath, then and run,” Caspar ordered hoarsely.

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 emphatically.

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 fared.

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 rightful queen.

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 lost his.

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 change.

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 had been.

“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 ordered.

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 overbearing.

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 imagine it.”

“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 take.”

“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 trouble?”

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 wound.

“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 suffer.”

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 protested.

“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 his arm.

“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.”

“Yes, but—”

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 weeks.”

“I didn’t need you to tell me that,” the Baron grunted.

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 wound.”

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 father.

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 painstakingly care.

“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 uncomfortable.

“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.


 

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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