Dog And Dragon – Snippet 20
Alois, the Earl of Carfon, had been riding south by night, hiding by day for more than a week now. He was exhausted and hungry and he was in a better state than his horse. He knew he should be grateful for the horse. Grateful for the magical intervention that had plucked him from the cell, while waiting for the torture chamber, and dropped him next to the horse in a half-ruined stable, a good fifteen miles from Dun Tagoll, where months of planning had all gone so wrong.
And he was glad. Glad that he would see his son and wife again. Glad, in the last few miles, to see signs that he was returning to farmed lands and not anarchy and banditry. Only Dun Tagoll had wholly abandoned any effort to farm the lands. Only they could. All of the Duns tried to keep at least some agriculture and livestock farming going. It was usually limited to fields just outside the walls. Too few fields, feeding too many mouths. Only in the South had they managed to keep a reasonable amount of land under cultivation, and that by building a great many more forts and having as nearly as many men-at-arms as neyfs working the land. And as he’d said to Branwen when he’d rode out on this venture, the Gods above and below alone knew how much longer they could survive. That was why he’d taken up the offer from the plotters. They’d be dead for their pains, he had no doubt.
So close. So very close to seeing Medraut dead.
And then…He mulled it all in his mind, as he had a thousand times since.
He rode slowly along the lane. It was muddy, but at least not overgrown too. And bandits were rarer here.
“Halt. Who rides after the curfew bell?” demanded a voice.
“Earl Alois. And I am truly glad to see my own land and my own men!”
Six hours later, after a sequence of fresh horses, and with a troop around him, he rode into the gates of Dun Carfon — he’d never thought to see it again — and then into the arms of his wife, and to gaze on the sleeping form of his son. “We’ll have to wake him,” said Branwen. “I’m afraid…like most of us, he believed you were dead, Alois. It’s…its been hard for him.”
She was a jewel. A mere local chieftain’s daughter, not even of the House of Lyon. He’d married her against the politics and calls for alliance. Married her just because he was a headstrong young lord and he’d looked at her and known what he wanted. In earlier years it would never have been permitted. But if one good thing had come out of this chaos of endless war, it was her. “Yes. Hopefully he’ll see a better Lyonesse before he grows up.”
She blinked, holding him, as if to reassure herself he was real. “I thought Medraut still sat on the throne?”
“He does. But the Defender Aberinn forecast in his prophecy has come. I was there. I saw it. She made the sea-window reappear.”
Earl Alois sighed. “Yes. I saw her appear from nowhere, I saw the sea-window reappear. And I heard her name herself as Anghared. I believe it is her. That was magic of no low order. She has come to set things to rights. She even looks like the old queen in the tapestry hanging in the banquet hall. But the bad part, Branwen, is that she will want my head. And if that is what it takes to put Lyonesse back together again, I will go to the headsman.”
“No!” she said, clinging to him. Clinging as to someone whom she’d loved, thought dead, and now had to face the fear and uncertainty again. Which was true, of course. “Why would she do that? It’s Medraut who has brought Lyonesse to ruin. Not you, Alois!”
The boy woke up and stared at his parents, and rubbed his unbelieving eyes, as his father said: “Because I tried to kill her.”
Meb wondered how long the state of tense waiting would continue in the halls of Dun Tagoll. Wars could go on for years. This one had, it appeared. But the answer this time was: not too long. The prince seemed to have developed a hit-and-run strategy, simply designed to hurt the foe, irritate them and make them plunge after the army, toward Dun Tagoll, rather than ravaging the countryside.
That might be good for the countryside, but right now it meant that the attackers were setting up siege engines on the headland. “Last time they threw everything from dead horses to rocks at the castle,” said Neve. “It looks like they’re making bigger ones this time.”
“And…will it break the walls?” asked Meb.
“No, m’lady. The walls are magical. Even if they break, they just pull together. But a dead horse…oh, the mess. And the rocks can kill people.”
The causeway was too narrow and steep for a charge, but their foes had sent brave men across in the darkness, under their shields, carrying a brass-headed ram. So Meb woke to the pounding of the ram and a sudden inhuman yowling and screaming. In the darkness of her room, it was terrifying. She’d never been in a castle under siege before. Had the attackers broken through? What should she do? Fight back, obviously. What was there in this room that she could fight back with. She needed a sword. Or better yet, an axe. You needed to have some skill with a sword, but an axe, one of those metallic-handled, narrow, wicked-bladed ones that the alvar gate guards used, surely didn’t need much. She was afraid and imagining it in detail…and it was a great deal heavier in her hands than she’d thought. Summoning magic again…it seemed to work when she was absorbed enough and afraid enough…neither of which were easy to switch on at will, she thought as she wished for a light…and failed. She couldn’t even find the pricket, let alone light it. So she went and opened her door by feel, alvar axe in hand. There was a tallow-dipped brand of rush on a metal wall sconce at the end of the hall. She walked down that way. To find a bored guard walking down the passage…
He was a lot less bored seeing a woman in her nightclothes with a silvery two-handed spatha-axe in her hands. “M’lady,” he took a grip on his own sword handle. “What’s amiss?”
“The noise. That screaming. What happened?” she asked.
He looked a little startled. “Oh, just the Angevins getting a snout full of hot pitch, m’lady. Never man the ram. Aye, first at the loot, but also first at the hot pitch.”
“Oh…I thought they’d got in,” said Meb, feeling faintly foolish.
“No, m’Lady Anghared. We’re safe enough within the walls of Dun Tagoll. Siege engines and rams won’t do naught. Starvation neither. It’ll take more magic than the Shadow Hall can throw against us.”
Meb went back to her bed, leaving the axe next to it. It was a long while before sleep came again. What was this Shadow Hall? And why did the Kingdom of Lyonesse seem to have such an ample supply of enemies and, apparently, not one ally? Finn had said magic use inevitably made work for him, distorting energies. What was happening here? Were there other dragons, planomancers like Finn, moving in their shifted shapes, fixing things? Her dreams were troubled. Full of screaming and silver-handled axes with narrow curved slicing blades.
She awoke to a troubled squeak. It was Neve, staring at the axe, looking as if she was about to drop the water she carried, and run. Meb yawned. “Thank all the Gods you’re all right, m’lady! What’s that nasty thing doing in here?”
“I thought I might need it if you spilled all the water on the floor…I’m only joking for dragons’ sakes. I thought we might have to defend ourselves. And I don’t think I can use a sword. I’ve split wood with an axe, so I have an axe.”