Why would Arthur be so interested in helping keep this small region stable and under the High King influence? Perhaps because Doged's people had discovered caves that might contain huge veins of gold….
The Stolen Bride is the next masterpiece in Tony Hays's critically acclaimed Arthurian mystery series.
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The Stolen Bride
By Tony Hays
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2012 Tony Hays
All rights reserved.
My belly roiled and threatened to revolt. Bodies lay prostrate on the ground, in the lanes. Flies buzzed about them, feeding on the blood that reddened their wounds. The sickly sweet scent of death lay heavy in the air. For a moment, just the briefest of moments, I was not here, in this city of death, but staring instead at my own village, at my own cottage, at my beloved Gwyneth, freshly killed, freshly ravaged. I almost rushed into one of the silent huts to find my daughter, Mariam, but I knew that these raiders had been more thorough than the Saxons.
I climbed down from my mount and walked a dozen steps up the lane into the village. A day, no more, had passed since this abomination. The cool night had staved off decay a bit, but the bodies would soon bloat in the sun.
A pair of carcasses in front of one of the huts drew me. 'Twas a woman who had been nursing her baby. I knew because her breast was bare and the child lay a foot away, its skull crushed, the crimson of blood and yellow of old milk crusted on its cheek. The woman had been beheaded, and in a macabre twist of chance, her head, some three feet away, was turned toward her baby. But the eyes saw nothing.
Behind me, a voice, as familiar as my own, broke the near rhythm of buzzing flies and snorting horses.
"This is why I demanded that you come. This is why it is so important for you to be here."
I could hear the pain in his voice. The Rigotamos of all Britannia, Arthur ap Uther, was a compassionate man, though I had accused him of the opposite only the previous day when he ordered me to accompany him on this journey. My woman, Ygerne, was near to time to deliver our son, or so the fortune-teller said, and I wished more than anything to be there, not here.
Arthur was still talking, but though I heard him, I did not hear him. My eyes were fixed on the images before me. Rubbing the aching stump of my half arm, I spoke. "This was a provisioning raid."
"How do you know?"
"Do you see chickens or pigs or cattle, my lord?"
"Surely the people would have surrendered those to an armed force," my friend Bedevere said, "rather than be murdered trying to protect them."
"The killing was a message to all other villages these demons visit."
"Do you understand now, Malgwyn?" Pause. "Do you understand?"
I nodded, my eyes unable to leave the dead. Nearly three years before, the thought of me, Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, following Lord Arthur's banner would have seemed impossible. For I had hated him with every drop of blood coursing through my veins. And part of me still did. But to hate with that sort of passion means that once there was adoration. That part came before Tribuit, before I left one arm lying in a bloody field.
And though Arthur had not left me to die on that field, as I longed for, but had condemned me to life as half a man, it was also Arthur who took a whoring drunk and made him his councilor.
At that moment, my long grudge with Arthur was forgotten. All that I could see were the bodies of my fellow Britons, slaughtered. I squatted in the lane, took my one hand, and grasped a handful of dirt, letting it slowly drain from my fist. Arthur knew me well; he knew that my heart would not let this savagery continue, no matter how much I wished to be elsewhere.
Behind me, I heard Arthur's voice again, pulling me back to the present, back to this village.
"Morgan, take two soldiers and see if any yet live."
I nodded; Morgan ap Tud was Arthur's medicus, trained in Lord David's lands by the famous doctor Melus, though I suspected that the short, neat little man was more spy than physician. I pushed those thoughts from my head.
"Tell me again," I said finally, "of what is happening in these lands."
* * *
In another lifetime, I had been Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, the farmer son of another farmer. A wife, a baby daughter. A sturdy hut. Pig and chickens. Land to farm. It had been a good life.
Arthur ap Uther was just a name to me then, a boy soldier praised by my father for his Romanitas and his talent as a commander. Our farmstead was far to the west of the fighting, near unto the old Roman town of Lindinis. Our lives had not been touched by the war with the Saxons.
And then, one day, my neighbors and I were returning from market to find a scene much like that before me now. I found my wife, Gwyneth, spraddle-legged, ravaged until her womanly parts were red with blood, in our hut. She had succeeded in hiding our baby, Mariam, in a storage pit. I took the child to Castellum Arturius and gave her over to my brother, Cuneglas.
The other men, there were ten, and I then rode off to find Lord Arthur, Dux Bellorum, general of battles, for the consilium of nobles that tried to govern our fractious land after Vortigern's disgrace.
And now I faced that young lord again, only this time there was gray creeping into his hair and beard. And now he was the Rigotamos, the High King of All Britannia, a title more fantasy than reality, as we were more a collection of feuding tribes than a united nation. But Arthur was trying, and much good could be said for that fact alone. We were tied by more than that, though. My cousin, Guinevere, was Arthur's consort.
"These are Lord Doged's lands."
Doged was an old man, a contemporary of Lord Cadwy, who had been dead for many winters, and Ambrosius Aurelianus, the former Rigotamos, who had retired to his fortress in the north, Dinas Emrys. Doged held dominion over a sizable but poor territory in the far west, and he had no heir. But he did control our busiest ports at Trevelgue and Tyntagel. And now, in his last years, he was facing the very real threat of rebellion.
"The two primary factions are led by brothers, Cilydd and Druce," Arthur continued. "Though no one can be certain, this travesty is the work of one or both, I suspect. Doged has sent me word of provisioning raids made on his outlying villages and in the border villages with his neighbors. But until now there has been no killing, just theft."
"Until now," I repeated, glancing back into the lane at the poor dead villagers. "And Doged has no heir, you said."
"No, and that is what has spawned these factions. Doged is old, nearly as old as Merlin. But Doged is not ready to give up his title, and he has recently taken a young wife to give him an heir."
Although the position of Rigotamos was one elected by the lords of the consilium, the nobles from the individual tribes held their rank and titles and land by birth.
"Good fortune to him," I said grimly. "And may it happen soon."
"Don't wish him good luck yet," Arthur countered. "He has married Ysbail, sister of Ysbadden Penkawr."
That spelled trouble. Ysbadden was a minor lord far to the south. Not of noble birth, he held his title by virtue of his sheer size and cruelty. Said to be the tallest man in our lands, taller even than Kay, Ysbadden had recruited his men from among the worst, including Scotti pirates. One day he walked boldly into the former lord's chambers and cut his head off. Emerging, with his retinue of thugs at his back, he thrust the still-dripping head in the air. From that day forth, no one questioned his assumption of power.
I felt a hand on my good arm. It was Arthur, guiding me to my feet. He jerked his head to the side of the lane and Bedevere joined us in the eaves of a roundhouse. Once out of earshot of Morgan and our soldiers, Arthur reached into the leather pouch he wore around his neck.
"Malgwyn, we are in a difficult position here. Aye, a difficult position throughout our lands. That idiot, Lauhiir, set our tin-mining efforts back two years because of his greed. Aircol is a good ally to the north, but he is suffering border incursions from what he thinks are David's men. The Saxons under Aelle have begun to claim the lands around Londinium. The cost of refortifying Castellum Arturius has been much higher than I expected, but it had to be done. Ambrosius has already abandoned his seat to the east of us. He has been urging me to construct a defensive ditch to better guard against the Saxons. And that will cost yet more."
"And what does Doged have to do with this?"
Arthur reached into a pouch dangling at his side. He looked around quickly, motioned Bedevere in closer, and held his hand out.
In his palm lay four rocks, three of which I knew immediately. One was, plain and simple, agaphite, highly prized for its use in jewelry but rare in our lands. A second was a brown ore of some sort, looking something like a tree turned to rock. I had not seen its like before. The other two needed no explanation; they were the sort of rocks one found near gold.
"Doged sent me these by his fastest rider last night. They were found in his mines near Castellum Dinas."
"I heard no rider enter camp." We had left on this journey the day before and camped on the road that evening.
"You were asleep, and Merlin has told me how dangerous it is to awake you." But Arthur's joke did not ring true. Something beyond this business of Doged and his rocks was bothering the Rigotamos. I shrugged the jest aside.
"Why did you not tell me of this in the morn?" It was not like Arthur to hold information away from his closest advisors.
"I have scarcely had time, Malgwyn," he snapped at me. "And I feared spreading the word that there might be gold in Doged's land. I love my soldiers and trust them, but gold does things to a man's thinking."
I could not argue with that. Men were unpredictable about two things — gold and women. But gold held no allure for me. Not two years before, I had refused a title, lands, and a seat on the consilium, a reward for my service during the recent rebellion. But something in Arthur's manner told me that the temptation of gold was not the only reason for his reticence.
We were interrupted by the diminutive Morgan ap Tud, running with his patrol to rejoin us. His tunic bore the colors of Arthur's service, and his clipped, brown beard was of the old Greek style.
"We found no one alive, Rigotamos," Morgan reported.
"How many dead?"
Morgan paused for a second, pursing his lips. "Thirteen that we found, but there were a handful of blood trails leading off in different directions."
Arthur, Bedevere, and I exchanged swift glances. At least eight roundhouses marked this village. Thirteen souls were too few a number. But had the remainder fled in fear, or had they been taken captive? And, if so, for what purpose? To be sold? To be ransomed? None of these questions had to be voiced; all three of us were thinking them.
"It smells of the Saxons or Scotti raiders," I said finally, "but that does not feel right to me. We are far to the east for such Scotti raids and far to the west for a Saxon party. If either the Saxons or Scotti are striking this deep into consilium lands, we will soon have more than a single, ravaged village to mourn. No, there is something else at work here."
From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a shock of blond hair, painted with crimson, and I was swept away.
I was no longer standing; I was walking, toward the door to the hut, toward the blood-soaked blond hair. Behind me, beyond me, I heard the screams of pain, of devastated lives, as my friends found their wives and children dead. Stepping in, I saw my Gwyneth, eyes open but unseeing, naked from her waist down, blood streaking her body. In a corner, at the back of the hut, I saw a simple wooden cover move. In a single movement, I swept the cover away with one hand and scooped up little Mariam with the other.
"I have her, Gwyneth," I said softly. "I have her."
I blinked and once again I saw the village, not of yesterday but of today.
Storm clouds were already blackening the western sky, and I detested traveling at night in bad weather. But I knew that there was yet more for me to do here, to see here. "Leave four soldiers with me as an escort, Rigotamos. I will join you at Celliwic late tonight. I would send for Merlin. He knows about such things as these rocks."
"I agree. Very well. Sort this out, Malgwyn. There is something dark in the air. It troubles me. And I'll have him bring Kay as well. We may need some field commanders." Arthur's face took on a bit of that darkness then, and we exchanged a look that needed no explanation. But Kay, Arthur's chief steward, had been difficult to deal with of late. He felt that his value as a warrior was not appreciated. Perhaps this would help. "I am not a prophet or seer. But ever since I received Doged's dispatch, this business has weighed heavily on me, and I did not know why. Now, I see that my concerns were justified. That Doged has troubles with insurrection and rebellion I knew. And I wished to take the role of mediator. But that the struggle had turned to this sort of bloodshed I did not know."
"Perhaps Doged does not yet know either," I pointed out. I paused and looked down the lane again, at the bloating, fly-buzzing corpses.
"Then he will learn quickly," Arthur concluded behind me.
One body, one that I had not noticed before, caught my attention then. A man lay facedown in the middle of the lane, his arms outstretched as if reaching for something. I moved closer and saw that the killing blow had split the back of his head open.
I pondered what Arthur had said, even as I went to lean against an old roundhouse. I smelled something truly evil in all of this too, but probably with less reason than Arthur. Coming along on this trip had not been my pleasure at all. Glancing at the sky, I saw that we had been on our journey nearly two days. And already we were deep in death and tragedy. I knew that Arthur could not have known that this village had been sacked, but it would have been just like him to direct us through such a place to marry me to his plans. Perhaps I was being unkind to him, perhaps not. But, as usual, I needed to plant my feet on solid ground. "Rigotamos."
And he stopped and turned back toward me.
"I will do this not for Doged or you or the consilium, but for them."
Arthur studied me closely; he wanted to scold me, to reprimand me for my insolence. But that melancholy he felt was rooted too deep. "I will take you on whatever terms I must, but remember that this is not your village. And your Gwyneth is not among these unfortunates. That is behind you."
"That will never be completely behind me, Arthur."
* * *
A few moments later and I was alone in the village with my escort, four of the older soldiers. Arthur chose well. Two of the four had been among those in my command during the rebellion two years past. Our respect for each other had been born on the battlefield; I did not need to prove my value with them in a world that held little regard for a one-armed man.
"Scatter out," I instructed. "Follow the blood trails. If you find anyone alive, be gentle with them. They have weathered enough fear. I will be here."
As the men separated, I returned to the body in the lane, the man with his head split open. Something about this one called to me. It was as if I had been there, watching him rush across the lane, until an arrow took him in the back and down he went. But that had not stopped him. I looked at his outstretched hands and saw the marks in the muddy lane where he had tried to pull himself further, his fingernails torn and dirty.
Until a battle-axe, wielded by an enemy standing over him, halved his skull, ending his flight forever.
Directly in front of this unfortunate man was a small hovel, hardly big enough for one person, let alone a family. I wondered what he would be rushing toward in such an unprepossessing house.
Crossing the lane, I ducked into the entrance, covered over only with a fur. Once inside, I saw what the poor fellow had been racing for.
A woman lay face-first on the hard-packed, earthen floor, an arrow protruding from her back. I crouched to see her better. She had been a handsome woman, if a bit young for the man in the lane. Perhaps she was his daughter. Perhaps not. I would never know the answer, and that saddened me.
And as I squatted there, another daughter appeared to me.
"Must you go, Father?"
My darling Mariam was growing up. Once her hugs had hit me at knee level; now her head snuggled comfortably into the hollow below my breastbone.
Excerpted from The Stolen Bride by Tony Hays. Copyright © 2012 Tony Hays. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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