Malgwyn is also the man who hates Arthur most in the world.
After the death of Malgwyn's wife by Saxon hands, he became Mad Malgwyn, killer of Saxons and right-hand lieutenant to the warrior Arthur. Right hand, that is, until a Saxon cut his sword arm off and left him to die on the battlefield. Arthur rescued him. Now a one-armed scribe and a heavy drinker, Malgwyn rejects the half-life that his liege gave him. But loyalty is sometimes stronger than loathing…and Malgwyn is pulled toward a puzzle that he can't walk away from.
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Pleasure myself with a one- armed man?" the wench had whined. " 'Tisn't likely." But half a chilly night and a full skin of wine later, she chanted a different tune. And I was forgetting that I was half a man.
Until someone grabbed me about the neck and lifted me from between her legs.
Until someone flung me across the hut, and I crumpled against the stone and stick wall.
My attacker first appeared as a fuzzy shape, and anger welled up in me as I shook my head to clear it and the figure became better defined. Then he spoke, and the anger filled my throat and threatened to choke off my breath. "It does not surprise me," the tall, bearded man said with a frown, "to find you wasting yourself with a drunken wench."
Not only had I been savagely torn from a night of drink and plea sure, but the culprit was none other than my Lord Arthur, a man who had saved my life—and the man whom I hated with all my heart.
"I have need of you," Arthur said in his deep, rumbling voice. He tossed a woolen wrap at the girl and motioned sharply at the door. Silly wench was blubbering by then, scared witless of Arthur, and she scampered out of the hut and into the foul night.
"I have no need of you," I answered, groping for the goatskin. But he snatched it from my grasp and poured the wine onto the ground.
"You wound me, my lord."
"You wound me, Malgwyn. Quit sniveling and come with me." His voice changed, perhaps unnoticeable to others, but I had warred with him through too many battles and knew that it portended trouble. "There has been a death," he said, dropping his chin to his chest.
I am called Malgwyn ap Cuneglas. The only thing gentle about my birth was the kiss that my mother laid on my newborn brow. I was born to a farmer near the river Yeo, a man
from the west country named Cuneglas. He died when I was but ten years old and my mother when I was seventeen, the year I took to wife Gwyneth, the daughter of my neighbor. She was fifteen and the loveliest lass in our lands. For five years life was as good as I could ask. We farmed and lived and loved. For a while.
Arthur was not king then, but rather the "Dux Bellorum," the general of generals, for Ambrosius Aurelianus and a handful of lesser kings scattered throughout the land. The kings had made an uneasy alliance with the Saxons to fight the Picts, and then the treacherous dogs betrayed us. To Arthur the kings turned; I knew him then only as a whisper on the wind, a story made larger in the telling, of a great warrior who laid a hundred Saxons low with a single sweep of his sword. And, truly, I paid him no mind. Troop levies had not been made in our region. The Saxons were many leagues away from our lands, and the people found no fear of them; they had once been our allies.
Until they turned on us, one cool morn while the men of our village were off to market to sell our produce. Until our return brought us death and destruction. As we rounded the road to our village, instead of finding our families eagerly awaiting our return, we discovered our huts destroyed, smoking, burning. We found our women raped and our babies killed. Searching the rubble that had been my home, I found Gwyneth, her legs aspraddle and her throat slit. Our girl, Mariam, still in her first year, had hidden in a storage pit. For a wonder, they had not found the child. I suspected that Gwyneth hid her there when she heard the Saxons come. I took her from the cold pit and cried giant tears, until her wrap was moist with my grief.
The next day I took her to my brother's home in Castellum Arturius—the town was too large for a simple raiding party—and left her with him. With other men of my village, we mounted our horses and rode to find Arthur, to join him.
I did not cry again.
I smiled at each Saxon throat I cut. I smiled at each rotting Saxon body we left on the battlefield. My fellows thought it odd that I smiled so much at death and devastation, and after a while they called me "Smiling Malgwyn." They did not understand that the smile ate at me like a disease.
Arthur saw something in me though. Before one battle, I sat on my horse on a ridge and studied the land before us. Another horse rode up alongside, and I took it for one of my fellows. "If Arthur is smart," I said, "he will place forces in hiding there, there, and there." My finger pointed out low hills. "When the Saxons ride to face our main force, they will be trapped with their backs to the river."
"I agree," a deep voice said. Arthur. "You are Malgwyn ap Cuneglas."
"Yes, my lord," I said, turning quickly and giving the salute, surprised almost as much by his sudden appearance as by the fact that he knew me.
He nodded, smiled faintly, turned his horse and left. Within minutes, the troop dispositions were made as I had suggested. When the Saxons made their charge, the course of battle ran just as I predicted. We crushed a large Saxon force, shoving the last survivors into the river to drown. I was given my own troop of horse to command and a place in the war councils.
Had I known then what that brief encounter portended, I would have killed him there. It would have saved me a great deal of pain and misery.
Arthur's odd pronouncement cleared my eyes, and I began to focus. I yearned to return to the wine and the wench, but the set of his jaw made me want to know more.
"Death is a constant of this life, my lord," I observed. "It is all around us. Why is this one different?"
Arthur lowered himself onto a stool that I had lashed together out of an armload of trimmed branches and scraps of leather. He was dressed as a common man, in a woolen tunic hanging down nearly to his knees and tied at the waist with a leather belt, and braccae. His huge feet were covered with leather shoes laced across the top in the Celtic manner. He liked to go abroad in peasant's garb, without the fine linen camisia his wealth and station afforded him. A dagger protruded from his belt, and I suspected that one or more of his men lingered in the darkness outside my hovel.
"A servant girl from my hall was found dead an hour ago in the lane. She was lying outside Merlin's home."
"Ravaged?" I gathered my own braccae and slid them on. In front of any other man, I would have been humbled, but we had shared too many campfires to worry about such niceties.
"That is not for me to say, but the poor child was gutted like a deer, slit from throat to belly."
"Odd. But why does the death of a serving girl disturb the great Lord Arthur?"
"There was a knife lying by her body, covered in blood. It belongs to Merlin."
And that explained it all. Merlin, though some called him Myrddin hereabouts, was a harmless old man, a councillor to Ambrosius Aurelianus and Arthur's old teacher at Dinas Emrys, where Arthur was schooled. He came from a town in the far north, Moridunum in Roman days, Carmarthen now. Some said that he was of a long line of prophets, whose deeds gave rise to the town's name, which meant "inspiration" in our tongue.
Once he had given good counsel, but the years had played tricks on his mind, and he thought himself a sorcerer now and sold potions made of valerian root to the gullible. When he was in his right mind, he could cut through the thickets choking a problem and strike at the root of the matter. And, Arthur loved the old cantankerous fool.
The wine's magic was beginning to fade and a pain grew in the back of my head as I, now dressed, rested on my haunches. "So, your much touted devotion to justice is now about to betray you? What of it? You are Lord Arthur. You are as good as crowned as the Rigotamos. Do as you please. No one will argue."
"You know I cannot do that. Vortimer, David, Mordred, and the others are always tormenting me. They snap at my heels like a litter of unruly pups, and they are always looking for some reason to challenge my ascent to the throne." David, a lord of the northern lands, the Votadini, was one of a number of cagey warriors, ambitious and sly. And while Arthur still championed the Christ, Vortimer, and a handful of other lords led a growing movement of those who believed our troubles came because we strayed from the old gods.
The pain in the back of my neck grew even stronger, and I rubbed it with my one hand. "Go away, my lord. I am no help to you, and even if I could be, give me one reason that I should come to your aid."
Arthur rose and crossed the hut, kneeling in front of me and resting his hand on my shoulder. I looked up into his eyes and saw a sadness in their depths. "The murdered girl is Eleonore, your wife's sister."
I considered this for a moment, letting the weight of what he said fall upon me. Eleonore, a warm and wonderful girl. I remembered her as a child, not yet in her teens, helping my Gwyneth with our Mariam, not long, it seemed, before I found Gwyneth bloodied and Mariam hiding.
Damned Saxons! They couldn't have done it; this I knew. But I wanted someone to blame, and if I didn't know who committed the deed, they would serve to fill the role. Or maybe I blamed them for making me less than a man. Arthur and I had done for many of them. But that was before, before the other had happened. And for that, I could blame Arthur.
A man without a limb had no place in our world. 'Twas better to be born with some deformity, for then you might be marked as blessed by the gods, or cursed by them. But one who has lost a limb was given no such choice. The loss of a limb would follow a man into the afterlife and most considered it a punishment for some sin or a cruel nature. Aye, many believed that a man so marked could not ascend to heaven, was doomed to wander the underworld. Such a man could never be a king, for only perfection in a king was acceptable. Losing my arm cost me not only its use but marked me as cursed by the gods both in life and out.
It had happened along the river Tribuit; we battled with an exceedingly large force of Saxons. I remember that it was a pretty morning, but the songs of birds did not grace our ears, rather the clank of metal on metal and that awful, indescribable sound of rent flesh. The enemy had nearly overwhelmed our brave force with their stout spears, lances, and swords, and a handful of us were surrounded on a grassy knoll that sloped into the river.
The more desperate our situation became, the more frenzied the thrust and parry of my sword. I slew twenty of the mongrel Saxons, but with only three of my fellows left, I realized this was the end of my vengeance, the end of my smiles, a reality driven home when a Saxon blade cleaved my right arm at the elbow.
I fell in the blood- dampened grass, my severed member lying with the hand toward me as if imploring me to join it, and waited for peace to come, for my chance to rejoin Gwyneth. But as darkness grew around me, I sensed someone fumbling at the stump of my arm, a leather strap tied taut to stanch the flow of scarlet. As I cried in protest, I was lifted up and placed on a horse; a voice whispered in my ear, "No warrior such as you will waste his life's blood if I can prevent it." It was Arthur.
For days I was delirious with fever and exhaustion, near to death I was told. I awoke two weeks later with the brothers of the small abbey at Ynys-witrin, that place also called Avalon. Arthur had left me in their care. The brothers liked Arthur not and he cared not for them, but they respected each other, and Arthur knew my wound would need careful attention if I were to survive.
Survive, what a hateful word.
When I awoke and realized what I had lost, the last thing I wanted was to survive. Gwyneth gone. The farm gone. Half an arm gone. I cursed Arthur for saving me, cursed him for not letting me die on the battlefield, bathing in Saxon blood. I struggled with learning to write my letters. The brothers had suggested the task as a way to keep my mind active, to strengthen my left hand and arm, and to give me a trade, that of the scribe. But for me it was just something to fill my time, to push out thoughts of Gwyneth and the Saxons and a war that had seen Arthur rise high while others lost everything.
The great man visited me once, without warning. "A good occupation," said a voice from the door.
"Good for something that once was a man," I had answered without turning, already knowing who it was, continuing to scratch the quill across the parchment.
"That is true only if you believe it yourself."
"That is what you and your church say, and the Druids as well."
"Yet, the brothers here have cared for you," Arthur retorted.
"They are kind."
"Perhaps you should learn some of that kindness."
"For what purpose, my lord?" I spat out the words as though they were sour wine.
"In order to turn it upon yourself. You act as a man who has done some great wrong and cannot forgive himself. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it."
"And what should I tell my men, the ones you dragged me from, the ones I should have died with, and betrayed."
"That their time had come and yours had not. That God had more plans for you."
"You are not God, my lord! But you are the archpriest of bastards and the spawn of vermin." In any other time and place that would have earned me a quick death. But Arthur had merely laughed. I think back now and realize that my words were so venomous because Arthur's were so true. And I think he knew that then.
"Learn your lessons well, and keep your mind sharp. I may have need of you again."
He was gone before I could tell him to leave me alone forever.
But though I heeded his words about learning my letters, I kept my mind anything but sharp, except for one irritating puzzle at the monastery that drew me from my melancholy. I learned my letters, and with something of a trade, I returned to Castellum Arturius, intent on making what little money I needed to drink myself into the next life.
I scratched the stubble on my face as I considered Arthur's expression and a burning that was building in my belly.
We had seen each other little from that time to this. Now, Ambrosius was the Rigotamos, and Cadwy and the rest were but memories, old men who bored guests with their tales of battles gone by, for the Saxons' advance had been checked for a time. Ambrosius was readying to step down, and the cloak of leadership seemed poised to fall to Arthur. I watched from afar as he rose high in the esteem of the people, and now he sought election as the acknowledged overlord, the Rigotamos, the high king of the Britons. It was a time of relative peace as the Saxons stayed in the lands of the Cantii and left our western fields and villages alone. And I lived alone in my little hut, drinking, trying to forget I'd ever heard of Arthur.
Eleonore, such a pretty child. Dead, now. I had seen her about the castle in recent days, and she showed a love for life that knew no bounds. I could not imagine her cold and white with death, as I had seen her sister, my beloved. It was as if Arthur had brought death to my family again and had saved me to bear witness to it. With a great effort, I pushed myself to my feet and brushed Arthur's hand from my shoulder, meeting him eye to eye and not yielding an inch. "Listen to me, my lord. Mark you this and mark it well: I will have the truth of it, no matter where it leads. Even if that crazy old fool did the killing. She will atone for another of her family who lies unavenged."
My lord drew himself to his full height, fearsome as it was, his eyes blazing. "Do not forget who rules Arthur's castle."
"Do not forget whom you have sought out," I countered. "I will not spare Merlin if he is the guilty one. And should your hand be seen in my inquiries, it will prove what Vortimer and the others are probably already whispering: that the great Arthur, who champions truth and justice and boasts the Cross on his shield, will conveniently forget such things when an old friend is in jeopardy. And that will force Ambrosius to reconsider his support for you." I chose my words well and knew my target even better.
Arthur's shoulders slumped, and he turned from me. "Of course, you are right. You are a hard man, Malgwyn. But the world needs such as you. Though if any citizen of this kingdom lies unavenged, Malgwyn, it is not Gwyneth. You repaid her death a hundred times over."
"Her death will never be fully avenged."
"Believe as you wish. Come, I'll show you where it happened."
"Has aught been touched?" I asked him brusquely, struggling into my shirt.
"No. I knew you needed to see her as she was found."
Outside, people were still moving about in the lanes. This was no ordinary night. The entire consilium, the entire group of lords from all the tribes of Britannia, had come to Arthur's castle for one purpose and one purpose only—to name a new Rigotamos, a new high king to govern over all.
Oh, the old Rigotamos was not dead. No, he breathed yet.
Most such lords seemed as the one before, one to pay tax to, like all the rest. But Ambrosius was different somehow. He seemed to care about all of the raids by the Saxons, once our allies. "Aye, he has a Roman bearing, that one," my old man would say, leaning on his hoe at the end of the day. "Yep, him and that young one will stand us in good stead." By "that young one" he meant Arthur, a young officer and tax collector for Ambrosius. "A good, stout Roman lad," my father had said.
And when I met him one day, I saw that look in his eye, the one you knew you could trust above all else. His name was well known in our family. Rumors flew that he had been the reason that my cousin Guinevere was cast from the women's community at Ynys-witrin, but few knew the truth of it. A few years later, when we had laid my old father in his grave and the Saxons turned on us, ravaging the land at will, I remembered those eyes, and it was those I sought after the devils butchered Gwyneth when they reduced our village to burning huts and bloodied bodies. That was the beginning; much came after.
Now, Ambrosius was stepping down, and that young officer, the one I had come to trust with my soul yet now hated with all my heart, was said by some to be the next Rigotamos. He had repulsed the Saxon surge, with me at his side most of the time, and his reputation stood high across the land. Ambrosius, fat and rich, had retired to Dinas Emrys, leaving the administration of the various lords to Arthur. But he did not trust his consilium, as well he might not, and worried that some ambitious lord would conspire to kill him and claim the throne for himself. So, by retiring, he removed himself as a target and secured the major voice in choosing his successor.
By that time, I could care less, a one- armed drunk, saved from the grave by Arthur and despising him for it every day. He had made me half a man, and robbed me of my love for killing Saxons, that inner love that kept a smile across my face. No, I was no lover of Arthur.
It was generally assumed that this meeting of the consilium would confirm Arthur's choice. Treachery was a way of life, however. By proposing Arthur as his successor now, and using his power with the consilium to secure the selection, Ambrosius could rest easy. I had to wonder at the conjunction of events—the consilium's meeting and Eleonore's death. Were they somehow connected?
Arthur's castle was an old fort even then. An ancient village from Roman times was located to the northeast, and it was among those once-fine houses that some of the soldiers made their homes. Lord Cadwy established our fort on old Roman ruins near the land called Camel. The young Arthur would not take the bribes offered by the abbots and monks to ignore their levy. It earned him no friends among the priests, but the common man appreciated his fairness, and he rose to Dux Bellorum for our consilium. When Cadwy died, Arthur claimed his fort near Camel, changing its name to Castellum Arturius.
I preferred to be closer to the fort above and lived just beyond the outer gates. Years of use had beaten the main road into more a wide gully than a road, but Arthur had had the route cobbled in recent years. It led past my door and entered through Roman- style double gates, winding sharply up through the four defensive rings surrounding the fort. The massive rings were made of rock walls, dry- stacked in the old fashion, not mortared like Roman builders would have it, sixteen feet thick and reinforced by strong wooden posts every ten feet or so. Each ring of stone was surmounted by a stout wooden rampart. It would take a massive army or base treachery to defeat the castle's defenses.
Guards stood watch at each ring, but they raised a hand and smiled as they saw Arthur with me. Had he worn his warrior's regalia, they would have stood and saluted, but they knew that Arthur did not like ceremony when he dressed as a common man. Arthur could be a fierce and passionate warrior, and for this his men loved and trusted him. Trusted him enough that they accepted that he was a true believer in the Christ and carried symbols of Christianity on his shield, though even some of Arthur's men wished for the return of the Druids. A good man he was, but no special friend of the clergy, and that endeared his men to him as well.
On top of the hill, on the high summit, sat Arthur's great hall. The .etchers' workshops, armorers, the great market, and other shops and timbered houses lay spread gloriously out below. A Roman- style barracks occupied the far end of the plateau from the great hall, at the terminus of the wide lane that ran the length of the fort. All was fresh and clean, the lanes all paved with local stone. When Arthur had taken residence at the fort, he launched an extensive rebuilding campaign, paving the lanes, repairing the buildings, and erecting a new hall for himself.
As we trudged along the lanes, we encountered few people at this hour, two past the midnight, but as we drew closer to Merlin's hut, just east of Arthur's hall, a circle of armed warriors stood guard while a group of young men pushed for a closer look.
The metallic smell of blood hung in the air, like that of a freshly dressed kill in the field. I pushed past the young toughs and through the circle of guards. Eleonore's face was turned away from me, and I was glad for that. Her tender neck looked like Gwyneth's, though, and the sight stole my breath from me. From behind I heard a sudden silence and the rustling of bodies as the crowd parted for Arthur.
I knelt before her and pulled her clothing back from her stomach. She wore an old- fashioned gown, called a peplos, with a Roman- type cut, favored by Arthur's circle. A beautiful bronze brooch, shaped like a dolphin, fastened the gown at her shoulder. But when I saw what had been done to her, appreciation for her jewelry .ed and I nearly spewed wine over her. Arthur had been absolutely correct. She was cut from between her breasts to her womanly parts and the flesh laid back. Blood lay splattered about her clothing in gobbets. I took her cold face in my hand and pulled it toward me, and the sight of that familiar face sat me back on my haunches as if I were truly drunk. I began to heave again as the bile flooded my throat. This time I couldn't hold it back and my evening's drink splashed all over the cobblestones. She had her sister's face, almost my wife's twin, and seeing her like this was like kneeling in my hut, desolate, so many moons before. For a moment, all around me disappeared, and I felt the rage and revulsion of Gwyneth's death sweep over me again. It was as if I knelt over her still ravaged remains; it was as if she had died once more. My bile heaved and my heart tightened; until, that is, some wag behind me chuckled.
"His lordship not only brought a one- armed drunk to investigate the crime, but one with a weak stomach as well. Perhaps his spine is as yellow as his belly is weak." I didn't recognize the speaker, but I knew that he was a follower of one of the lords of the consilium, a young buck with less common sense than experience and of that not much at all.
I paused to see if Arthur would answer this insolence, but he stood curiously silent, perhaps waiting to see what I would do. I knew too that this was Arthur's way of checking my worth. We had some old warriors about the villages and towns, missing hands, feet, but those who suffered such wounds mostly died from loss of blood or the stinking, choking putrefaction that followed. Those who survived, like me, were left to begging, pleading for a scrap of bread or a jug of wine, losing the last of their pride. A one- armed man served little purpose in any world. Farming required two hands as did most other jobs. Men with one arm had no purpose, no use it seemed. Arthur kept me breathing, gave me a trade to keep me from begging, but he could not return my arm. And now he would see how I had adapted to that loss.
I handled it swiftly, my anger at the child's death venting on the heckler. With a speed that shocked all who saw, I grabbed the feeble throat of the boy and, in one move, lofted him off the ground and pinned him against the wall of Arthur's hall. His eyeballs bulged as I remorselessly cut off his breath.
"As you can see, I need but one arm and one hand to stifle your childish mewlings." I let him drop to the ground, and he clutched his throat. "Another word from you and you'll be as dead as that girl." Coughing and hacking, he scuffled away from me across the cobblestones. "Now, go, before I change my mind and end your miserable life."
I spun around and fixed the crowd of soldiers with a stare. "Would anyone else care to test my spine?"
The young ones took a step back, without knowing it, it seemed. But not Vortimer, who stepped out so that I could see him. He and I had shared a battle.eld or two in our time.
Bearded with a thick chest, he had not the height of Arthur, or the honesty. The slyness in his eyes worried me, for I could not read him as well as I could read other men.
"Go on now, the rest of you! Get to your homes," ordered the captain of the guard. The handful of others slowly dispersed, leaving me with the guards and Arthur, and, of course, Eleonore.
"Bring those torches in closer," I directed. The glowing, dancing globes of light drew in about me until I could see all too clearly what evil the murderer had wrought on the poor girl.
She looked so different now, so unlike the little girl I had watched grow up. She had been but a child when Gwyneth and I were wed. The youngest of the children, she had been doted upon by her parents. Gwyneth often chided them for spoiling her, but both she and I did our share of the spoiling. Eleonore had bright, inquisitive eyes, and when she visited us, as she was wont to do, she would climb into my lap and beg me to tell her stories. How she would listen to those stories, with those beautiful eyes sparkling. But the sparkle was gone now, .ed with the .re of life that had once filled her, replaced with the dull glaze of death. I shivered and steeled myself for the task ahead.
The blood I had first noticed now seemed less marked. There was much, to be sure, but not as much as one would expect from such a wound. No great puddles lay on the cobblestones, and yet the knife had ripped through her body, severing all those great channels that carried her blood. A knife, a single- edged blade, lay beside her, and it was covered with her blood and bits and pieces of her flesh. The great, gaping wound could easily have been made with such a weapon.
Still, something bothered me. I brushed the hair back from her face and neck and saw immediately the knife had not killed her. Bruises showed on her pale neck, in the shape of fingers, and small splotches, where blood had burst to the surface and appeared around her white eyes.
Eleonore had been strangled to death.
No blood had sprayed the lane because her heart had quit pumping before her body had been ripped open. I had seen similar wounds on the battlefield, where a blunt blow to the head had killed, and a later sword thrust produced no great gouts of blood. Why would the killer have mutilated her so when she was already dead?
I motioned for the guards to draw closer with their torches, and, with my initial shock set aside, I studied the gaping wound more closely. A quick survey led me to realize two facts: the blood I had sought on the lane was not pooled in her body cavity, another sign that she had been dead when this butchery had been done, and something more disturbing than the poor girl's identity could ever be.
Her heart was missing.
With all the will I possessed, I strengthened myself and slid my hand into her body, shifting lungs, stomach, but where the heart should have been were those great, severed tunnels and an empty spot. An old monk at Ynys- witrin taught me what I know of a person's insides. It was another of those studies I performed to help forget my missing arm. Preparing the bodies of the brothers for burial had fallen to this old man. He had studied the human body carefully and knew it well. The other brothers were reluctant to touch a dead body, a superstition dating back to Roman days, but one no more necessary then than now. The dead are ever with us, but I had heard tell of priests and ritual purifications, necessities to be performed before a body could be touched. We worried little about that sort of thing in these days. Now, sitting back on my heels, I studied the blood covering my hand, drying into a mortal glove, and tried to think of some reason for this. Rape. Yes, I understood rape. But this was different.
To be certain, I drew her skirts up and examined her womanhood. No tears, no scrapes, no blood, no bruises, nothing. No reason to think she had been raped or even that she had submitted willingly. I had heard enough in the lanes to know that she had her admirers, those who would pay court to her. Kay was one. I had also seen the look of hunger that young Tristan had given her at the feasting that night. He would bear questioning, as would Kay.
"Malgwyn!" a voice hissed, and I looked up to see Kay himself, with an expression of disfavor on his face. "Her honor, Malgwyn. Leave her something!"
"Her honor is gone with her life's breath, old friend. And if studying the most private part of her is the path to her killer, then I must follow that lane wherever it leads." I shook my head, replacing her skirts and smoothing them. "However, that is not the reason this time."
"She was not abused?" Kay asked. He was an exceptionally tall man, and I was forced to stretch my neck to look up at his face, as I was stocky and of medium height.
"No. There is something else awry here. Where is Merlin?"
"I had him taken to the barracks and tied to a post to keep him out of trouble," answered Arthur, more loudly than I thought necessary considering the hour, but I suspected he wanted all to know that he would offer no favor in this matter. In other circumstances, I would have laughed at Arthur's sometimes overwhelming desire to seem fair and just. What man with power in this day and age was either? But this was not a night for jests.
"And your other servants, my lord? The ones that this girl worked with. I'll need to speak to them as well."
"As you wish," Arthur said with a flourish, more for the benefit of his followers, Kay, Bedevere, and the others. He knew that I'd do as I pleased regardless. "You have my full authority in this matter."
"Thank you, my lord."
"I will leave you to your work," Arthur answered. "But, Malgwyn?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Be quick about it." Arthur left abruptly, returning to his hall.
His tone left nothing to the imagination. The longer I took to divine this matter, the less chance Merlin would have, and Arthur's chances to be Rigotamos would dwindle. The people would demand Merlin's punishment, and for this there could be only one choice.
Arthur loved the old man like a father, and he would hesitate to have him executed, hesitate until the people began to ponder whether he had the strength to rule. As soon as Arthur lost his popular support, the other nobles would pressure Ambrosius to stop championing him as the new Rigotamos, leaving the field open.
"Are you finished with the body?" a new voice asked, one that was as familiar to me as my own. I turned toward the grim face of my younger brother, Cuneglas, named for our father.
He was turned differently, was my brother. He had no liking for the farmer's life and became a thatcher in Arthur's castle. Though I started out as a farmer, fate and the Saxons had robbed me of that life. Despite my missing arm, and by the grace of the monks at Ynys- witrin, I made good money, more than I ever had as a farmer, by writing or copying documents. And so I had spent my days, when the light was good, copying or writing, and my nights drinking to blot out the blackness of my sunny days. My brother and I were not close; we saw each other but seldom. Like our father, he had a gruff bearing, cast by his nature to be sarcastic, and his company was not pleasant. My days were dark enough without allowing him to darken them further with his melancholy moods. A big part of the matter with me had to do with my embarrassment at leaving my child with him and Ygerne, his wife. At first, I was so besotted with revenge that I could think of nothing but seeing her cared for and out of danger so that I might pursue my own mission. Then, when my wound cost me my arm and I turned to drink to blot the thought of my dishonor, I knew she needed a family, not a cripple. So, I stayed away and let my brother see to her raising. Occasionally, I would slip them some money; I spent a little on drink and less on food.
Cuneglas and another man began moving Eleonore. I rarely saw my brother. Indeed I saw his wife, Ygerne, more frequently, and Mariam, my daughter, until recent days—before Mariam stopped speaking to me. But that was my fault, for shirking my responsibility and leaving her to be raised by them.
"It is good to see you, brother," I stuttered somewhat lamely, not meaning it. My hand flew to my empty sleeve, attempting to hide unconsciously what I could not keep from his view.
"Would that another reason had brought us together," he replied.
I had no answer, and I knew that he expected none. A thought struck me, though, now that he had asked about the body. "No. I'd like to look at one more detail." Kneeling beside her again, I held her hands up and saw that a bit of cloth was clenched in one fist. I needed to look at it, but the cloth was held tight in her death grip. "Cuneglas. Please, help me here."
With his two good hands, he pried her fingers apart enough for me to pull the cloth out. It was dark, heavy wool cloth, the type worn by peasants and not uncommon among the Picts. Of itself, it meant nothing. Folk even of Arthur's rank would wear such cloth as an outer garment, covering their precious skin with imported linen beneath. That it was torn and clenched in her fist did offer a clue. She had struggled with her killer.
I checked her fingernails and found some streaked blood on the nails of the hand that clenched the scrap, but I couldn't be sure if it was her own or her assailant's. No flesh clung to them, but that didn't mean she hadn't marked the killer.
Excerpted from THE KILLING DAY by TONY HAYSCopyright © 2009 by Tony HaysPublished in April 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
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