Chapter Twenty: The Will Which Says to Them, “Hold on!”

For two weeks after the encounter in the cave, Caradoc’s view of the world outside was a stark, blinding white. The snowdrifts caused his eyes pain beyond reason, and so he stayed in the cave where Mother Blood had come to him in all her colorful splendor. There was food, in the form of revolting cave creatures to be killed and eaten raw.

There was water, in the form of a hidden hot spring. And of course there was the Carnángarda child, a boy by his own reckoning, but he did not truly know. It took him time, but eventually he recovered from his snow blindness with a sight that felt new. As if his eyes had grown tired over the years and what they had needed was a period of respite to come back stronger than ever before.

When he decided that it was time to make his way down the mountain, Caradoc altered his pack so that he could carry the whelp with its head peeking out of the top.

Caradoc woke.

Caradoc stumbled.

Caradoc slept.

Such was the way of things as he descended from the peaks. He knew where he was now. The snow hardly seemed to bother his eyes anymore. The test, for good or ill, was completed. Either he would be chief of the clan or he wouldn’t.

The Carnángarda in his pack crowed from time to time, a child begging a parent—or was it a friend, now?—for food. What is it you’ll do when you come the size of a horse, child? For it was certain that the animal would grow larger than any Coillcuradh of the Valleywood. When the whelp, which he had christened Celliwig after a palace in a book he’d once read, crowed, Caradoc would stop, chew one of the revolting little cave salamanders he’d found in the cavern on the peaks and spit it into the babe’s gaping snout. Gagging all the while.

His recompense would be a flood of images and emotions. Memories of the whelp’s mam performing this same ritual and feelings of loyalty, glee, and gratitude. It was, overall, the most interesting experience Caradoc had ever had. Like housebreaking a pup, excepting the formation of that bond is a trickling stream where this is a gushing tide.

The whelp found itself hungry at least once a day. Caradoc found that he no longer felt half as hungry as he once had; what little food he ate sustained him, and his body seemed to waste none of it at all. As if he’d spent all twenty years of his life eating to vast excess, only to find that he needed quite little indeed. The Peak Wood was visible now, just a few hundred yards downhill. He could see every leaf and twig, and on the closer branches he could make out crickets chirping in the afternoon sun.

It’s almost too much information to process, it is. He looked down at his hand, the one he’d injured and then used to mingle blood with Celliwig. It had been scarred and battered, but it healed during their journey down the mountainside. The skin there was hard, and rough. What would you think on seeing this, sister mine?

His thoughts had turned often to Apata when he was in the mountains. His body was acting strangely indeed, and with the Soulmistress gone, she was quite possibly the last person in Bakkaj both willing and able to make sense of it. His wounds all healed thick and leathery purple.

He’d also found that the various cuts and scrapes on his forearms had healed even more strangely: tiny, pin-sharp, purple quills peeked out from the flesh. He’d ripped them out after seeing them for the first time, but doing so was painful, and only seemed to add to their number, so he’d stopped.

I went up the peaks a man, but what, oh infinite mothers, have I come down as?

A feeling of warmth and happiness strangled his frightened thoughts. Celliwig, reassuring him as best the whelp knew how. Caradoc grinned.

A survivor. A diplomat returned from quite foreign shores. A servant of my people. I come down this mountain as a chief.

His step had a spring in it as he broke through the clearing and into the trees, feeling warm mist curling over his tested skin. He kept after the trail made by the hunting men, his newly sharpened eyesight making it as obvious as the muddy tracks a child makes on a fresh-wiped floor. When Caradoc finally arrived at the campsite, his heart sank like a stone cast into the sea.

The ashes of a long dead fire were there. The sign spoke of men, but men gone for days. A week at least. Otherwise, there was nothing. Nothing but the forest with its wild, sound-filled silence and the chirping of crickets. Oh no. In the distance, Mother Sun was finishing her descent.

♦♦♦

The Valleywood did not give a runny shite about what Caradoc had come down the mountain as. To the forest, he was a lean, lonely animal carrying a leaner, more lonely babe.

The forest ate animals like that on principle. A man was strong, or in an able-bodied group—restful hands, sometimes he had to be both—or he was dead. Caradoc’s worry and anxiety filled Celliwig’s head, and in return, Caradoc received the repeated image of the adult male Carnángarda that killed Celliwig’s mam. Have to—a hissing screech—run. Have to find—a spatter of warm blood—shelter. Have to—a horrible scream of animal agony—get to safety.

The fear ran freely between the man and the beast then, feeding a vicious cycle where reality bled into memory and back into reality again. Caradoc started to return Celliwig’s memories with memories of his own. The sight of his father, stumbling drunk, paunch jiggling as he gave Caradoc a vicious kick in the stomach.

I was three summers old, I was.

The sight of his mam, broken and bloody, his father crying over her corpse and lashing fists out at any who approached, even healers. Five.

The sight of little Apata, timid, seeing her father for the first time, standing right next to the mutilated corpse of her own mother.

Seven.

Fear coalesced. The cycle broke. Caradoc’s fists clenched, his teeth ground, and Celliwig let out a hostile snarl.

Hatred’s clarion call rang in both of their minds. A trumpeter fit to shatter the mountains themselves. The fear was distilled into anger and adrenaline. I’ll not be dying today. I’ll not be in the ground before you are, Da.

He stopped. Unclenched his quivering fist. Took a solitary, endlessly long breath.

He did not want to kill his father. Brannaw the Elder had pulled him from that path. The day that had happened was clear as crystal. The old man had found an effigy of Caradoc’s da under his bed. A little doll Caradoc poked with needles when he was angry. “The sweetest fruit the tree of vengeance bears is thus: rising above the top of its limbs, going to another tree, and picking fruit from that one. For any fruit that comes from vengeance is viciously poisonous, no matter how good it tastes. Believe me, lad.”

He reflected on just how many words Dermot Brannaw—Brannaw the Elder—had said to him in council. Every single utterance one that Caradoc had never forgotten. And what would you think of me now, old man? A chief wandering the forest alone am I. Risky business and so forth.

The bushes and branches began to rustle. A haunting squawking noise seemed to surround him. Ero-o-o. Erok-o-o. Eo-o-o.

“Sure and that happened more quickly than I’d have liked,” Caradoc growled, taking his pack off of his shoulders. Forty-odd pounds was no burden for a hike, but considerably more of one for a fight. He could not afford to carry Celliwig if he wished to protect him.

He stepped into a broad, hunched stance, spreading both of his hunting hatchets out in front of him, blade edges gleaming silvery-grey in the moonlight.

He twirled them once, to loosen the travel weary muscles of wrist and shoulder. Twice, to get the blood flowing in the sore spots. Thrice, to get a true feel for the balance of the weapons. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Despite his best efforts, sound faded from his ears. His vision went so starkly red that it was opaque. He felt nothing but fear and rage. Thought of nothing but the fight about to come his way.

The pack of Coillcuradh, smaller and more numerous than Celliwig’s Carnángarda kin, attacked. The first came lurching downward from a branch above his head. Caradoc hacked his hatchet into the beast’s collarbone. Wet blood spurted across his wrist, and the animal fell with a weak moaning chirp. Caradoc snarled, teeth bared in an animal rictus of rage and glee. He let the momentum of the blow spin him round, the movement loose and quick, bringing the blade of his other hatchet into a second scalewolf’s chin with a charming screech of pain and a jarring thunk.

He roared, pushing the axe—attached to thirty-odd pounds of wounded, angry animal—up and over his head with gut and shoulder, following through. The axehead—and by extension the Coillcuradh’s—crashed into the hard earth. The scalewolf’s skull was crushed and split apart, a rough spatter of teeth and blood showered Caradoc’s face. He bared his own in response. He’d made a mistake—one he couldn’t avoid but one nonetheless vital—he’d left his back open.

A third Coillcuradh lurched from the shrubbery, launching itself into the air for a horrific strike. It squawked in rage—and, to Caradoc’s newly trained ears—surprise, and landed somewhere in the bushes to his left. Caradoc spun quickly, only to catch sight of Celliwig’s pale plumage as he shook the smaller animal by its wounded throat. A blue, avian eye stared back at him. A feeling of animal ferocity and blind loyalty strangled his mind. The red clouding his vision receded, and he truly saw the carnage he’d created for the first time. Like every fight before. The shattered remains of one beast, the other’s skull crushed into a paste like fresh leaves pressed between mortar and pestle.

Had he felt that loyalty he’d gotten from Celliwig, any risk would’ve seemed surmountable. Surmountable without anger. Then Caradoc looked at the tree branches. At the carcasses. A pack of three Coillcuradh was not something a man normally overcame by his lonesome. Celliwig’s intervention had saved him from a vicious wounding, but… Caradoc would have done that. He blinked and realized that Celliwig’s shared emotions were not newly birthed, but simply a return of his own.

And this is what it is to be king and subject. I’m no lord over this animal. I’ll be no lord over my people. I garner his loyalty by giving my own, so.

He hefted his bloodied hatchets into the loops on his pack. He’d clean them later in the river. For now, the stink of blood and guts would be drawing much larger competitors to the ring, and Caradoc had no intention of being there when they arrived. He plucked a handful of feathers and took the sickle-clawed toes from each scalewolf, though. Proof of extra kills could never hurt a man’s standing.

He put the pack back onto his shoulders. It was considerably lighter now that Celliwig wasn’t inside of it. The animal chirped fretfully, jumping at the pack and trying to scrabble up Caradoc’s great kilt to get inside. Caradoc dodged out of its grasp. “Fye, you loathsome, lazy beast! If you can kill, you can walk!”

Celliwig turned his eye towards Caradoc’s once more. He ran a thick, bright purple tongue across his bloodied teeth and chops, then squawked in…

Father Earth’s multicolored grin, that’s indignance it is!  Caradoc’s face took on a look of shock at Celliwig’s expressiveness.

It was as if the little monster was saying “You should at least be thankful, lad.”

Caradoc snorted down at the Carnángarda whelp and stalked off. Celliwig stayed where he was, still behaving with an odd animal version of pettiness. Raucously chirping and snapping his mouth toward the pack to show where he wanted to go.

“I mean it, boyo!” Caradoc called back to him. “You can walk or you can stay here! It’s tired I am of lugging your arse around!” Celliwig caught up quickly, born to navigate brambles and uneven ground at high speeds. The pair continued on until Mother Sun rose once more, until she once again began to set.

Until Caradoc blinked in weary disbelief at the sight of torchlight peeking through the branches of the Valleywood. Even a man made of brick and stone would start to crack after spending that long on the knife’s edge of survival.  

Caradoc knew the Valleywood as well as most scouts, having traveled through it under lightly numbered guard from the age of eight to the age of seventeen. He’d relayed requests to his father from Brannaw the Elder, had those requests viciously denied and had his person demeaned in the process, and then was sent back alone, his protection revoked—often outright killed—to teach him a lesson.  He learned that stopping in the Valleywood alone meant terror and hiding at the least. Better to be exhausted and afraid than well rested and soon dead. Aye, Da. You certainly taught me how to make proper use of fear, you did. I wonder if you know how to make use of it yourself? For that matter, I wonder how the Clan Leaders haven’t come together to kill your crazy arse.

The journey had been fraught with perils despite his pace. A knifemaw tiger had tracked them down early in the second morning. The memory had slipped from his head, but Caradoc had awoken in a pool of matted gore and fur, holding one of the beast’s huge teeth in his hand and the cracked haft of a hatchet in the other. Celliwig was terrified. Terrified of him.

So terrified he’d run headlong into another pack of Coillcuradh, ten in number. Caradoc couldn’t remember that fight either. He remembered the fear and the hate and then waking up to the remains of his foes. It was what the fury of battle had done to him since the first time he’d tasted it.

The journey forward from that point was much less eventful. By the time Mother Sun completed her descent, Caradoc was coming through the younger trees that marked the edge of the Valleywood. He saw wavering light and stopped dead, digging his finger into the ground and tasting the earth. It tasted of salt, of copper, almost of blood. Clay. That meant Brannawstead was close by—which was obvious by the wavering torchlight as well, but it always made do to check for an ambush at night. It was always better to trust two senses than one. The Abrugaels built near clay deposits to make gathering the stuff for pottery an easier process. Torchlight without clay meant, at best, a campsite. At worst it meant raiders in wait. He was assured enough to relax his exhaustion-frayed guard and step out of the forest. Celliwig nuzzled at his fingertips as he did so, cooing with affection. The animal was a strange thing to him. Like a child and a brother all wrapped into one, sure. Caradoc rubbed a battered knuckle against his snout. The pair approached the gates of Brannawstead.

♦♦♦

Brannawstead proper

Maertin Meriwether Himself, king of Brannawstead in all but formal rite, smiled to see the people of his village—soon to be renamed Meristead, should Caradoc not return with a right valuable prize indeed—dancing, drinking, and making merry. The hunters had been back for four days now; the festivities would go on, on for at least a month.

People would work their trades, leave them, get piss drunk, and show up to work late the next morning. They would dance and sing, brawl and fuck. When enough of them were tired of hangovers and sore spots in strange places, the village would calm down of its own accord.

Such was the way of the Abrugaels. Life was not lived to its fullest by avoiding simple pleasures, after all. Best to make a short life a full one, in Maertin’s book. He—like all of his people—did not seek death but expected it to come from any place it could. Any life was too short to the one living it, he figured. So live ’em all full.

He quenched the torque he was working—had been working since before and after the hunt—in a cask of Anft-harvested Leviathan’s Oil, freshly opened on their return. The bubbles came on fast and large and then receded into a thin foam around the hot metal. He took the torque from the vat and plunged it into a bucket of chilled river water that hissed and sputtered at the heat, droplets cascading off of the surface almost in time to the fiddle playing outside. He waited for the spitting gurgle of oil and water to calm before he took the torque out and tested its temperature by quickly putting a cloth covered thumb on the metal. Still warm, but cool enough that he could clean and polish it. Outside the music went on, the crowd and  fiddler slipping seamlessly into a quick-step rendition of Hey Hey Johnny:

Hey hey Johnny, oh,
The day grows short,
The winds grow cold,
Hey hey Johnny, oh,
Crack that cask of rye!

His grin grew wider. If any hunt deserved a cask it was this one. He himself had taken ten hides and some trimming from the hunt this year. When he presented her with this torque—this dazzling arm ring of polished jade, gold and silver spiraling a steel core—Cliona Gideon-Meriwether would shite. Just you wait, lass. Your days sleeping in a rundown longhouse and serving soup for your coin are numbered. We’ll be abed in a castle soon, and no mistake.

Outside the fiddler sang the first verse in a clear, feminine alto:

The harvest has come
The tides have, too,
The sunshine is done,
The gates are barred through,
The time has come for a drink or two,
Crack that cask of rye!

The crowd came back in on the chorus. “Hey hey Johnny, oh…”

Maertin himself was biding time. Waiting until her clan name—not just her surname, but the name denoting her homeland—was officially Meriwether. Waiting for the final journey of Mother Sun before Caradoc MacDowell’s awaited return became Caradoc MacDowell’s lamented demise. Then Maertin would be chief. He would turn the Clannad from a blasted, poverty-strewn hovel into a shining place where all had a roof and their fill to eat.

Even if it killed him.

Even if he had to kill to do it.

He kept to polishing for now. Checking that the oil and water hadn’t hurt the setting of the jade fragments. Checking that the curling knotwork was as perfect as a man’s hands could make it. He stopped for a second, hearing the faintest echo of a sound. The music cut short, and the crowd outside began to murmur. Then the sound came on in full, half of the code cut out by the remains of noise drifting into silence. The dunting blat of a hollowed ram’s horn. Huuu-hu-hu.

That meant “—approach outside the gates.” But he hadn’t caught the beginning of the call. He waited for the third repetition.

Hu-hu-huuu-hu-hu.

The gorgeous torque clattered to the floor, his hands forgetting the work as fast as the head attached to them. “Celebrated approach outside the gates.” The crowd burst into applause, cheering, and hollering.  No, that’s not possible. He should be dead. Dead says I!

Maertin rushed out of the smithy to catch sight of Caradoc MacDowell Himself walking, weary, into the village. His neck and arms were laden with vines corded to feathers and sickle-clawed toes. Maertin did a quick count and felt his mouth go dry. Infinite mothers, he took at least thirteen of the bastards by those trophies!  

On top of which, Caradoc looked… different. His skin was streaked and battered with splotches of purple where the scars should’ve healed red. As if his own gods-damned body is pretending to be a king like them highborn, velvet-wearing Mjimeri shites. Even his eyes were strange. The colored parts were larger, the brown itself rimmed with spots of violet. The pupil was visible at a distance.

And then there was the scalewolf whelp to contend with. It was still covered in soft downy feathers rather than sharp spines, but it was as large as any Coillcuradh he’d ever seen. The child of a Carnángarda?  If that’s the case, the beast will soon be the size of a horse! How are any of these folk all right with this?  The beast was following him like a well-trained bear dog pup. Some of the women folk with children in tow tried to haul them away from the creature. One broke his mother’s grip and rushed forward, roughly patting the whelp on its head. The beast flinched and squawked but did not attack. Caradoc knelt next to the child and grabbed his hand mid-pat, stopping what would’ve been an open handed blow and turning it into a soft scratch on the animal’s cheek. “Better to be gentle, lad. Come to an understanding before you play rough in the muck and mire, eh?”

The boy nodded slowly, and the scalewolf pushed its head into the boy’s palm, cooing like a messenger pigeon after receiving payment for its message in food. His mother was smiling. All this strangeness and surprise was like the rattling bash of a shield, directly into Maertin’s mind.

Before he knew what he was doing, Maertin had jostled his way to the front of the crowd.

“How?” he asked, voice quivering in disbelief. Almost in fear. The crowd went silent.

Caradoc looked him up and down. His gaze was chilly with anger, but not with hatred. You learned to read a look, growing up alone. “It would seem,” Caradoc said quietly, “that the gods decided.”

The First Warriors roared. The cheer ripped through the stead—through Dowellstead—with the fury of a flooded riverbed.

I… lost?

He watched Caradoc MacDowell walk up the stony stairs of the fortress’s great wooden gate. Heart sinking, lamenting his failure, Maertin watched him walk through the lowered drawbridge, Carnángarda whelp tottering behind him. His vision, he realized, was blurring with tears. It was not shameful for a man to cry. It was shameful for him to deny his sadness in the face of loss. Doing so was as dishonest as dishonest got, in Maertin’s book. He weren’t anything, if not honest.

♦♦♦

The Brannawstead fortress

Caradoc’s eyelids split open. For the first time in weeks he was surrounded by feather pillows and soft cushions, resting in a comfortable bed smothered in blankets and daylight and fragrant incense smoke. Mother Sun’s light drifted through the tapestry-covered arrowslits in the wall of the chief’s bedchamber. The cragged roughness of the brick wall and the cold polished stone of the fortress floor were abated only by the rugs and the singular fireplace.

It had come slowly and in waves that this was now his bedchamber. Celliwig was asleep beside him. The animal looked like a cross between a chick and a lizard hatchling. Its arms folded at odd angles, like the wings of a bird, but they ended in hands and clawed, grasping fingers.

Every day more of the soft down that had coated him when Caradoc found him fell out to be replaced by leathery skin and sharp quills. He—it, actually, as far as Caradoc knew for certain—was an interesting animal. He stood on two legs like a bird, but his long mouth was covered in scales and sharp teeth, like a lizard’s. His feet, now folded under his body, were overlarge with youth and carried vicious sickle-shaped claws that were halfway up his leg in length. Celliwig slept oddly straight, clawed arms folded underneath his chest, muzzle forward, neck and chest flat to the bed, eyes plastered shut. His breath was a whistle breaking the silence. In. Out. In. Out.

Caradoc rolled out of bed and groggily stumbled to the chief’s chair. His chair. The weight was not settling as evenly as he’d hoped. Anxiety and apprehension were with him on a moment to moment basis. Would he fail? Would he repeat the mistakes his father had made?

Only time would tell. He sat in the chair and gestured to the staff bustling about to set a festival breakfast before the bridge was lowered. The long tables of the hall were bookended by massive casks of ale and lager. Tapestries hung from the ceiling, braziers chuckled merrily with the crack of burning wood. Food was resplendent upon those tables. Stuffed and simmered scalewolf, rump of boar and bruin, broasted chicken and slow turned jak-ox roast. More than any one man could eat himself. More than the staff could, when it came to it. During times of celebration, any who wished it could sup with the chief, and for the first time since Brannaw the Younger’s death that bloody day on the shifting passes, the clan had a new—sane—chief to sup with. Though for the first time in an epoch, that man’s name was not Brannaw. As such, the entirety of the staff was apprehensive to the point of disrespect. Surprisingly, the first one to approach him was a woman.

The maid finished working an arrangement of perfectly ripe boden fruits donated to the festivities by the man who ran the clan orchard.

They were large things, each consisting of thin-skinned pods filled with a sour juice and seeds surrounded by sweet flesh. Small ones were about the size of a man’s head. The woman had stained her palms something fierce with the work, but she was a fair maiden by her looks. Young, with brown and blue hair and a full figure.

Though I know not her name, nor most of the general staff. Just my own staff. I’ll have to fix that. After she finished with the boden, the woman came over quickly, but lost her resolve step by step until her approach was meek and fearful. “Y-yes, Lord MacDowell?” she asked, her voice a shaky whisper.

Caradoc raised his eyebrows. “None of that now, good woman. My name is Caradoc, and no title needed. You’ve naught to fear from me. What do you call yourself?”

The woman’s eyelids fluttered, surprise threading across her face. The chiefs he’d served under, the chief-king that sired him, all of them had a reputation for a temper. “Ah, I’m Cliona. Cliona Gideon-MacDowell.”

He recognized that name. “Cliona? You’re Meriwether’s intended, aye?”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say intended, milo-er—” She coughed, flushed, and looked away, but a smile spread across her face. “I’d not refuse him if he asked, though.”

“If you don’t mind my prying, what’s your dowry, lass?” Maertin was a former orphan, he knew, and Cliona he now knew was a servant. Neither were flush with funds. They made enough to live on, to maintain their trades, and that was all.

“I, ah, I’ve none, sire. Why?”

“That’s not fitting. Maertin, I think, has goodness in him. Leastways, enough good to find his route into the heart of a woman such as yourself.”

At that, her flush ran deeper. Caradoc fished around the inside fold of his great kilt. His coin purse was tied to one of the tassels near his chest. He pulled it out and opened it.

These were the last funds he would ever freely have. No more allowances, no more windfalls from friendly clans who he hadn’t made friends with himself. Taking the chief’s chair meant a clean break from tradition. From the ways of old. From his father.

The purse contained three gold clatters—so named because their cylindrical shape always bounced against a countertop or scale—eight silver coins, and two bent copper pennies. That much money bought siege supplies to last a month. It bought fine armor, jeweled swords, clothing glimmering with enchantments. It bought a new ship, or house, and salaried a staff to work it for a year.

He tied the string around it, sighing. Caradoc took Cliona’s hand and pressed the purse into it. “It’s not the most money anyone’s ever had,” he said, holding his hand to hers, “but the pair of you deserve a chance to make your way through the world, instead of letting it make its way through you, sure.”

“Sire, I—”

“None of that now, lass. It’s yours, and no mistaking. If you’re burning to repay me, how about finding me a mug of breakfast beer, eh?”

Cliona bustled off, the smile splitting her face. The magic of a throne was a surprisingly absent thing. It changed nothing of who Caradoc was and only transmuted what folk expected to see from him. The last person to sit the chair was Malchus Brannaw—the Younger. He sat it stewed in a rageful disdain thicker than any gravy Caradoc had ever tasted. Caradoc would not be the same leader Brannaw the Elder’s son had been. Caradoc would do Dermot proud

He smiled, knowing that his first choice had been a good one. As the day wore on, Caradoc stayed in his seat, waiting for what he knew would come.

♦♦♦

Caradoc sighed. His stomach was drumhead tight and his eyelids were heavy. The guards flanking the cheif’s chair were sagging, having spent an exhausted day under the weight and heat of heavy jack and helm. Caradoc was tempted to call for their release from duty when a storm of huffing curses echoed through the brick of the mead hall.

Maertin took a surprisingly long time to make his way to the fortress after the bridge was drawn down. The day passed in fullness—Cliona long since returned home to make merry her own self—before he stepped past the threshold. Caradoc was not at a loss to his motives for waiting, though. This was a sensitive ploy he was undertaking, and the pieces had fallen into place perfectly. Maertin stormed in two hours after the last drunkard had stumbled out. Caradoc was messing about, teasing Celliwig with the rib bone of a jak-ox. He took the young scalewolf off of his lap, placed him on the floor, gave him the bone, and scooted him off gently with a foot. Then he knelt forward, elbows on his knees, chin resting on steepled hands. Maertin was climbing the steps to the chief’s chair, fuming all the while.  

“And just what in the fuck is this now, you prat?” he shouted. He threw the coin purse Caradoc had given Cliona to the floor in front of him. The coins slid out of the purse with a loud clatter.

“That would appear to be a coin purse, unless I’ve been struck blind in the past hour. I had a lot of whiskey today sure, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

“Aye, that and it’s your coin purse. I don’t want your godsdamned charity, and I didn’t ask for it.”

Careful there, lad, else your true feelings about my own poor self will show. “Nor did Cliona, aye. But it’s not charity, it’s a gift, and you’ll be leaving here with that money, boyo, even if you leave having to dig it out of your morning shite come sun-up.”

“Fuck yourself.”

Caradoc quirked an eyebrow. “In the mead hall? Awful public for that bit of fun, but if you’re keen to watch, I could attempt to oblige…”

One of the guardsmen flanking his chair sniggered. Maertin’s skin turned mottled red and purple with fury. Caradoc had to admit, being wry was seldom the same thing as being productive. It was just so godsdamned entertaining with a man like this, though.      

Maertin’s blue-whorled and anger-reddened face crinkled into a grimace. He looked away and growled a single word. “Why?”

“That marks twice now you’ve asked me a question all great storytellers ask themselves. And neither has been the correct question for me,” Caradoc said, leaning back.

“Quite the ponce’s answer for mighty warrior Chief MacDowell. Especially considering your sister was the ponce of the family, sure.”

“You forget yourself!” Caradoc snarled, exploding from serenity to rage in the span of a second. The guardsmen flanking him bristled, grasping weapons as if the order to behead the man in front of the Chief would soon come. It wouldn’t, but Maertin still cringed. The scars Malchus Brannaw had left on the clan would be long in fading. They served as a cogent reminder for the new-minted chief, that a king could destroy in days what he had spent years building.  

Nonetheless, Caradoc continued, his voice a throaty growl of barely throttled rage. “Twice now you’ve questioned me. You rebuke a lavish gift freely given because of its source! What you should be asking, dear lord Meriwether, is not ‘How?’ or ‘Why?’ but ‘Who?’ and ‘Where?’”

“What?”

“Fine show, lad, now all we’re missing is ‘When?’” Caradoc tried to hide his sneer. He couldn’t. He paused and managed to chill his rage with a weary sigh, bringing the priorities of his folk above his own personal dispute with no small effort. “You are a man of talents, sure. A smith and tanner of note, a war-time chief’s guard, and a speaker and fighter able to command a room and a soldier’s loyalty both. You can sail, create, think, and fight.” As he spoke these praises, the embers of Caradoc’s rage sputtered out. “If we are going to stand against the chief-lords of north and south—and believe you me, it will be my da as well, not just doddering old Kannach—Brannawstead needs men of your mettle, Maertin. You are who.”

Maertin blinked in surprise—much like his beloved Cliona had earlier that day—and turned his head at an angle.

“As for where, the Harbormaster’s position has long been vacant. Ever since Malchus killed the last geezer with a wine goblet.”

The expression of surprise on Maertin’s face deepened.

“I know you had your sights set on this big chair currently warmed by me own arse. The Harbormaster controls the import and export of goods from isles of the charter in peacetime—goods like ore, oil and leather, sure—and the position of the raiding fleet when we’re at war.”

“I-I know that, sure and I do, but—” Maertin appeared to be rethinking every belief he’d ever held, not simply the ones that involved Caradoc.

“I know we’ve got personal animosity to work through—the infinite mothers know, sure—but I’m willing to let bygones be just that. Are you?” Caradoc knew the question was pointed. He knew that the tactics he’d used to get Maertin to see him privately were underhanded at best.

He waited for an answer. Maertin hesitated. He opened his mouth to speak. “I—” The dunting blat of a warhorn pealed through the air. Huuuu-huu-huuuu-hu-hu.

“Raiding fleet landed at the shores.”

The air outside filled with shouts. “Kannach! For clansmen and blood!”

Maertin’s answer, it seemed, would have to wait.        

♦♦♦

The inward port of Brannawstead, at the shore of the Peak-Sealed Sea  

There were two things any decent Abrugael stead needed: a valley and a shore. When these steads were founded, Maertin had read once, the men looked for spots that had their own walls. Less work that way. Brannawstead was built into a huge, rocky crag. The ground it stood on looked to belong about eight stories up. Excepting that one of the gods got angry about something—Father Earth having his way with the bastard’s wife probably—and smashed it down with his fist. The rock was cracked, and the soil was fertile, and the town had grown up from those foundations like a strong redbark tree. Thin and wavering at first, but then strong and large and filled with the lives of many.

Tall brick and mortar walls rose to meet the cliff faces on either side of the valley, making a foreboding chain of raised brick and rock that took the gusto out of any man approaching with hate in his heart. It was a stately defense built into a tangle of forest, something that most folk in Bakkaj would reckon a gargantuan castle. The Abrugaels had a better handle on such terms—war being as much a part of their lives as the harvest of grain—and they called it a fort.

None of this mattered: Maertin and the men that would fight alongside him were outside of the gates, trundling toward the inward port at a breakneck pace. Barking shouts reached Maertin’s ears as he ran out clear from the walls of Brannawstead and towards the fighting. These were the shores that held trade and commerce between clans and were set against the Peak-Sealed Sea. They were a space of almost sacred but unwritten trust. It was held that Abrugaels never raided inward. War and raiding were different affairs. One was honest men coming to honest blows. The other was sneaking skullduggery done in the aim of taking someone else’s wealth. That trust had been broken. Those shores were filled with men, heaving angrily against each other. The early comers to the fight were getting exhausted, the second line of Brannaw clansmen arriving just in time to relieve them before they died from mistakes rooted in exhaustion.

If the men of the Brannaw line were a linked chain, the Kannach men were a smith’s hammer. The chain, as it stood, was about to shatter. Maertin’s clansmen wavered and retreated as a jagged point of reinforcement met the Kannach line like a searing arrow shaft from the blue of the sky. The Kannach men were angry. Right angry. Angry enough to call a chant out, deep and strong and steady.

The iron clanks and rattles
When King Kannach calls.
The arrows fall in barrels and bales
When King Kannach calls.
The blades are sharp, the foe’s wits dull,
When King Kannach calls.
So prepare for doom,
And death,
And blood,
For today King Kannach calls!

“May Father Earth deny your king any rest at all!” one of the Brannaw men cried into the face of the roiling mob. That man was an idjit, and in short order he was a dead idjit. A Kannach man cut him down with a ruthlessness only seen in battle. Kannach was here for keeps, then. This weren’t no friendly tussle. The Kannach men would win or die. The Brannaw men would have to do the same. 

The shores were milling chaos. Seven raiding boats, filled to the brim. The Clan Kannach Warriors, it seemed, had skipped this year’s hunt and opted to avenge last spring’s war, when Brannaw the Younger had died a death Maertin had to admit—even if only to himself—was rightly deserved. The Kannach men were as hungry for blood as he remembered them, but near the beachhead, where the shores met the cobbled streets of the stead, the fighting went strangely still.

He pushed his way through the fighting to see why, even though he already knew.

Maertin Meriwether-MacDowell, or Maertin Meriwether, or just Maertin—for he was unsure of everything known to him now—was invariably certain of just two things.

That the steel-shod soldiering boots he’d thrown on from the dun’s armory were not his—they were too small—and that if he was going to fight alongside Caradoc again, they would surely be filled with his own piss.

The deep green markings of Clan Kannach warriors clashed with the markings of his own clan. There was one man whose markings were blood colored, who was spattered in spiny feather quills and violet scars, who was fighting alongside Clan Brannaw. That man was the Chief. That man was terrifying. The battlefield always froze around him in fear and awe.

This was for a simple reason.

Two things invariably happened when Caradoc started fighting. First, he took on more than any sane man could handle—as now, where he was up against three men who all bore sword and green-painted targe—with a battleaxe. Second, he would handle it. As now, when Caradoc charged giving off a cry between the enraged roar of a wounded bear and the keening shriek of a swooping falcon. He bowled one of the men over and cored his head—through the eye socket—like an apple, using the sharp-ended pommel of his axe.

The second man attempted to bash Caradoc into submission with his shield.

Maertin had seen men make that mistake before.

Caradoc took the blow as if the man were a chaff of wheat and he were planted in place like a blacksteel pylon. Then he returned it with a heaving shove of his own shoulder that made the man stumble. As he was regaining his balance, Caradoc drove the slender spike atop the haft of his axe into the gaping mouth of the third man, withdrawing it just as quickly.

That man toppled forward onto his knees, face banging against shield banging against ground. He gave a final, galvanic kick and lay still, the rocky sand turning sanguinous from the blood gurgling between his teeth.

There was a problem now, though. The third man had regained his bearings, and an archer with a short limbed bow was circling Caradoc, string drawn in full. He didn’t notice the archer, and the man got a shaft off of the string as Caradoc was lurching towards the last fighter with sword and shield.

Had he moved a second later, the arrow would’ve hit his head. Instead it hit his shoulder, and Caradoc gave it all the attention a boar might give a thistle. A rage-filled snarl ripped through his teeth.

Had he moved a second later, Maertin would be coming up with strategies to restart his run at the chief’s chair. Instead, he pushed through the crowd circling the fighting men as if they were at a formal duel—because any number of melee men against Caradoc was a formal duel, in Maertin’s book—to the front.

Had he moved a second later, Maertin wouldn’t have pulled the bowstring taut. He wouldn’t have shot the arrow at the archer’s feet and given a shrill whistle. He wouldn’t have watched as the archer’s head snapped toward him. Snapped just in time for the second bodkin-tipped shaft to slam into his nose, one hundred and twenty drawn pounds of momentum carrying it. If Caradoc had moved a second later, Maertin would have been the new Chief of Meristead. Now, it seemed, he would be Harbormaster of Brannawstead. His answer given in the oldest, bloodiest way a man could give it.

That didn’t matter now. The frozen circle of men was broken, the chief had an arrow in his shoulder, and the high-raiders of Clan Kannach were but bloodied corpses at his feet.

As with the waves, the Kannach line would surge before it broke. Caradoc, the wily, battle-mad bastard that he was, had ignored that fact. To Clan Brannaw—or whatever the clan was to be called now—the sight of him standing breathless over the dead Kannach raid leaders was like being slapped in the face, with a palm coated in waking salts.

Caradoc lifted his axe, roaring his defiance. The Brannaw men roared with him, the users of blade, shield and axe rushed forward to meet the crashing green-marked swell of Kannach raiders.

Maertin kept his distance from the fight, watching, watching. He put work in, sure—any forest-marked man unlucky enough to fall out of the throng and into his sight got a shaft through ’em. That was the safest way to be a war archer in Maertin’s book. What he was watching for, though, was as toxic as the liquid sloshing in any leather tanning vat.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement. A squadron of men threading their way past the fighting, to the cliffside of the stead. Gate breakers. “Father Earth’s maggoty shite,” he hissed. Seven men, all wielding short sword and dagger. It was another part of a war archer’s duty to be sure of the rear guard. Maertin unbuckled a strap on his quiver belt. Resting opposite the hip that held his quiver was a hollowed out knifemaw tooth with a bronze mouthpiece where the tip should’ve been. He kept his reflexes tuned to his peripheral vision. Timing here was everything. It wouldn’t do to die of a stray blow and leave his Cliona alone with that grand new windfall.

The call had to reach the walls after the gate-breaker party was fully committed, but before they rose to the wall itself. Maertin waited until the men had pulled themselves up the cliff face. He put his lips to the instrument and blew, a shrill, flute-like whistle echoed about the field.

The blat of the gate horn signalled that the message had been received. The pulley system used to move the shoreline gates was housed in a tower well fortified to withstand a long and well-founded assault. The ladder to the palisade surrounding the tower—its only point of entry to anyone not already inside the walls—was raised and tied to the palisade railing.

A woman’s voice could be heard in the distance. Maertin’s own Cliona, a commander in the raidguard. “Gate breakers! Archers to the slits! Oil to the murder holes!” Maertin saw the Kannach men waiting at the gate, saw two stumble back onto their arses as a third was fried by boiling rapeseed oil. Saw a group of green-marked men duck as shafts spat out of the narrow slits in the wall. Realizing that the gate would not be breaking any time soon, the crowd of Kannach men turned back towards the shoreline. Maertin realized, with burgeoning horror, what that sight meant.

Four new Kannach boats had landed during the fighting. Fresh raiders seeking blood. The First Warriors of Clan Brannaw were surrounded on all sides, separated from their defenses and out on an open field. Maertin put the knifemaw whistle to his lips again, giving a long call that pitched up and down. Skreee-eee-Skree-eeee!

The archers turned as a single, well-oiled unit. A line of warriors who used shield and sword slipped through them, raising targe toward the enemies at the gates. As soon as a rear guard was formed, the archers—Maertin included—raised their bows, shafts nocked, and pulled back the strings. It went without saying, but Maertin screamed it anyway. “Loose!”

The shafts flew in a sputtering stream of wood and feather and sharpened iron. Before the first volley hit, three more were in the sky. The Kannach men raised their shields and bellowed, the sound coming thin and reedy across the clearing. Maertin gave a predatory smile. The arrows were beginning to land now, the soft patter reaching his ears was no doubt a vicious thudding surprise for the men rushing under the cloud of arrows. Doubting the archers Dermot Brannaw trained was a fatal mistake made only by blood-mad fools. Doubting the archers that had survived the war-crazed reign of his blithering son was an even larger mistake than the former.

Still, Kannach men were beginning to break through the arrowstorm. In Maertin’s book, it was time they learned that lesson.

“Rangers! Shatter ranks!”

All at once, the line of archers wove out from behind the men who bore sword and shield. They danced like leaves on wind, every motion an economic choice that led to devastating results. One man—Lennart—had a real talent for spraying multiple arrows off of a single draw. Four Kannach raiders dropped after his first volley.

Another—Murphy—could draw and shoot in the space of a second and at the distance of a stride. One man charged him, and Murphy loosed a bodkin point blank, whirled around him and loosed another at a different man while dodging under a sword swing aimed at his head.

All of the Brannaw archers had specialties like this. Maertin’s own was stunning accuracy. He could kill an enemy if he were embracing a Brannaw soldier. In fact, he did: one shaft through the kneecap, a second in the ribs. He whirled left and gave another man a shaft in the gullet. Another in the throat, the sword arm, the face. Until he was out of shafts.

Maertin was breathless. The archers were all breathless. Three Kannach men had made it past the archer’s line. They lay dead at the rear guard’s feet. He stumbled toward a man who was paying attention to the shoreward line. He pulled the knifemaw whistle from his belt and pushed it into the man’s hands. “Sound. Retreat,” he gasped.

“From what, lad?”

Maertin turned towards the shoreline for the first time in what felt like hours. Three boats were jerking to and fro across the water, against the wind, only barely manned by enough men for the job. The rest of the ships sat on the shore, water lapping lazily against their hulls. The Chief—Caradoc—fell to his knees, supporting the weight of his torso on the haft of his axe. The crowd rejoiced to see the Kannach men on the run.

Maertin had bigger concerns. “Oy,” he shouted. “Someone find me a godsdamned arrow spoon, yeah?” A few men stumbled away in search of the instrument. By the time he was at Caradoc’s side, three men were pressing individual arrow spoons in his direction. They were diamond shaped, ridged pieces of metal on a long slim handle, used to pull  reluctant arrowheads out of wounds.

Maertin took the one that looked cleanest and waved the other two men off. He tested the shaft, only to find that it had been attached with beeswax. A nasty trick, that. The stick and fletching came right out of the wound. The arrowhead stayed. Maertin looked at the remaining soldier. “Forgive me, friend, but it’s also your sporran belt I’ll be needing.”

“A-aye, sir, of course,” the man said, fumbling with the notched leather around his waist. Maertin folded the belt until it was triple thick, and handed it to Caradoc, who took it with an almost lackadaisical calm.

“And find some whiskey. And a needle. And gut.” The man ran off without another word. Maertin watched to make sure he was seeking those provisions, and when he was satisfied he turned to Caradoc. “Right then, Chief. This won’t at all compare to the tender ministrations of your dear sister. Do me a large favor and bite down on that there belt, aye?”

Caradoc nodded blithely and did so. Maertin was starting to get concerned about his blood loss. His expression was not one of a man who’d won a battle on his first day as a ruler. The wound needed closing, and, while he couldn’t do it with magic, he could, by the restful hands of Father Earth, do it with skill and needle and gut.

“Alright, boyo. Just remember, you promised I were to be Harbormaster.” And with that, Maertin plunged the arrow spoon into the rough tract made by the arrow in Caradoc’s shoulder.

All at once, Caradoc’s eyes flew wide and his teeth clamped onto the leather of the soldier’s belt. A guttural howl seethed through his teeth. He started to convulse away from the pain.  

Maertin let go of the arrow spoon as quick as he could to avoid further damage. “Don’t thrash, lad! Sooner still is sooner done!”

Caradoc’s howl turned into a series of gasps, all hissing through this teeth and around the spittle covered belt. Maertin worked the arrow spoon without a mind for tenderness. He knew Caradoc would feel just as much pain either way, and lengthening that pain would prove worse than making it a short, intense bout. He pulled the arrowhead free, Caradoc snarling into the leather as he did so.

All at once a wave of giddy laughter hit Maertin. “It’s a mad dog muzzled you are, Chief, and that’s a fact.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m not quite so jolly, Harbormaster,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Aye.” The beltless soldier arrived with Maertin’s supplies. Caradoc handed him his sporran belt back. Maertin set to work tying his wound closed without a second thought, the slim strings of gut quickly growing slippery with blood.

This work, too, was soon done. Maertin handed Caradoc the bottle of whiskey: a fine northern rye no doubt stolen off a Kannach man celebrating prematurely. Caradoc took a long pull, coughed, and took another, eyes staring out to sea, utterly haunted.

Maertin snatched the bottle and took a small sip himself, and then splashed some of the liquor directly onto Caradoc’s wound. Caradoc gave a guttural growl of pain and Maertin smiled when he saw the other man look him in the eye.

“A swig for you, a swig for me, a swig for the wound and that makes three,” Maertin said, voice taking on a sing-song bent. “Here’s to life, and long prosperity, and the rot-free healing of injury.”

Maertin grimaced and took another drink.

“That,” Caradoc said, “was a terrible toast.”

“Aye. But this is good drink, sure,” Maertin replied. Forgiveness was quick and easy among honest men. Maertin weren’t anything if not honest. Caradoc said nothing. Maertin noticed that everything about him seemed… flat. Despondent, the word was. “What’s making your arm ache, boyo? Aside from the killing, and the arrow I just took out of your shoulder, I mean.”

“Kannach’s eldest led this raid.”

Maertin’s eyebrows shot up. That was quite a risk for an heir.

“More accurate, I think, to say he was sent on this raid. He said his father, ‘Ard Rí Kannach,’ conversed with a man claiming to be the son of Mother Sun. Hair like living flame. Smile of radiant light. All that.”

Maertin snorted “Aye, and what did the Sun’s son say?”

“That the gods weren’t happy to see the Brannaw line supplanted. That I was a threat to the mountains and valleys and all the godmarked folk breathing in this wide and wild world.”

“That’s a fine pile made by a green-marked jak-ox that is,” Maertin said, nodding to himself and aiming the bottle toward his lips for another pull. What Caradoc said next made him stop with it halfway to his mouth.

“It takes three weeks to get here from Kannach shores by way of the Peak-Sealed Sea.”

“Aye, that it does.”

“So even if someone left for Kannach right after your lot got back from the hunt, there still wouldn’t have been time for the message to get there and return. How. How could they possibly have known?” Caradoc’s voice was filled with confusion. In his men, in Maertin, that confusion sowed doubt. That wouldn’t stand.

“Don’t matter,” Maertin said. “Don’t matter if Father Earth hisself were to piss in our well-water over your sitting the chair.”

“But—”

“We’re a clan, Lord MacDowell, and a clan can only be a body with no head for so long. You’re a fine head to fit in that neck of a chair, says I.” Maertin stopped, took another pull from the rye bottle and handed it back to Caradoc. “Born and bred and taught for it all your life long. If you promise to give me your ear when I ask and naught else, I’ll do my best to make sure your life is a long one indeed.”  

Caradoc smiled, a bit of color returning to the red and pink whorls of his skin. “Twist my aching arm why don’t you?”

Maertin punched the stitched arrow wound as hard as he could, scrambled to his feet, and sprinted off.

“Get back here, you spindly ingrate!” Caradoc shouted.

“I can’t, sire, for you see, the Chief has made me Harbormaster, and the Kannach clan left us four fine raiding ships, they did!”

“You hands-damned tanner! I’ll have your bollocks!” Caradoc shouted.

Maertin howled laughter, happy for the first time in months. A sensation he found quite strange, seeing as how, in Maertin’s book, the only thing he could see coming for Clan Brannaw was war. And there weren’t nothing good to come of honest men going off to battle.  

 

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