Authors: Ethan Risso
“What happened?” Connor asked, his back against the wall.
Gawain shook his head. “I only woke when I heard the commotion.”
“I need to find my uncle.” He looked down the hall, both directions. “And Rhodri.”
“I must reach my father.”
He saw the worry on Gawain’s face. “Go. Find your father. I will be all right.”
Gawain stared at him for a moment. “No. I will help you find your brother and the high king. It would not be proper for the son of Duke Gweliwch not to fight for his king’s protection.”
“The dormitories are this way,” he said as he led Gawain down the hall toward the spiral stairs.
“Wait.” Gawain pulled at his shoulder, whispering. “Listen.”
Connor looked toward the stairs. He heard the slow creaking of the wooden door below.
“Back!” Gawain snagged Connor’s sleeve as the door exploded in a flurry of splinters. Their legs tangled, and they tumbled against the wall. Boots thundered up the stairs. Gawain pushed him back, drawing his sword. “Run!”
Connor spun on his heel. His fingers clawed at the wall. He dashed down the corridor toward his uncle’s quarters until he reached the top of the central staircase.
More rushing footsteps. More screaming.
Connor skidded to a halt. He staggered backward, side-stepped and clung to the wall until the noises died away. He needed something—anything!
Two guards lay dead on the stairs nearby. One still clutched his sword. Connor slid to his knees beside him. He quietly pried the sword from the armsman’s hand, but when he strained to lift it, the tip of the blade scraped against the stairs. The sound was anything but quiet.
Connor held his breath, his lungs burning.
A man wearing the white marks of the Féinmhuinín slid into view, leather boots scraping against the floorboards. His lips twisted into a gaping, yellow smile.
Connor’s heart throbbed in his ears.
The man drew a knife from his belt and lurched forward.
Connor lifted the sword into the air, but toppled to the side under its weight. When the man lunged, Connor brought down the sword, losing his grip when the riser smashed into the side of his attacker’s head. The man tumbled down the stairs. He twitched only once as blood poured from his scalp.
Connor’s stomach churned. He bent over and heaved, coughing up slurry, splashing it onto the stone floor. His abdomen still contracting, he looked to the bottom of the stairs to see his attacker crawling away.
As he straightened, he felt a sharp sting in his shoulder. He heard his name called out. Then, only darkness.
Ceridwen ran toward Connor, tripping over her own feet. She skidded onto her hands, dazed. Palms burning, she clawed her way to him.
“Connor! Can you hear me?” She lifted his head onto her lap.
He was unconscious.
The arrow jutted out of his shoulder, buried almost to the fletching. Blood had already seeped through his linen night tunic.
She felt around under his back until she hit a small, sharp point. It had not gone completely through.
“Goddess, help me.”
She struggled to lift him. The strength in her arms waned, but she dragged him away from the staircase to the opposing wall. She swallowed the lump in her throat as she wrapped a trembling hand around the drenched feathers and snapped the shaft, throwing the fletching to the side.
“I am sorry, little one.” With all her strength she bore down on the arrow, pushing the remainder of the head through his shoulder.
Still unconscious, Connor let out a whimper.
Again, she felt beneath him. She pushed once more on the shaft until she could wrap her forefinger and thumb around the arrow’s spine. What was that? She jerked the remnants from Connor’s body, and stared slack-jawed. A sharp spike of ice shot through her core and she dropped the arrow to the floor.
“You will not die this day,” she said, straining to pull him up.
Footsteps approached from behind, and her grip tightened until she heard Rhodri’s familiar voice.
“Help me,” she said. “I cannot carry him.”
He and his wife Siana bound up the stairs. With little effort, Rhodri hoisted his brother from the floor as a loud skirmish erupted below.
“Duke Helygen!” an armsman called from the base of the stairs. “The assailants have retreated!”
“And my uncle?”
“The high king is safe!”
“Gods be praised.”
* * *
Through fogged vision, Connor glanced across the room. For a moment, he thought he could hear the sound of his mother humming. There, seated in front of the fire, he saw her, a haloed silhouette of flowers woven into her hair. Immediately, the scent of lilacs filled his nostrils. He was sure he had died and joined his parents in the halls of his ancestors. He tried to call out to her, but his voice would not obey.
“Try not to talk,” she said.
Squinting to clear his view, he felt a sharp pain shoot from the corners of his eyes to his temples. The visage of his mother faded. He saw Ceridwen for the first time. Without warning, he found himself overtaken by memories of the first time he met her.
She had arrived at the castle weeks after Connor and his brother arrived, when the sting of their parents’ death was still fresh. She had been given the task of nursemaid at Uncle Alric’s behest.
“This is Ceridwen,” his uncle told him matter-of-factly.
Connor clung to his uncle’s robes, peeking out at the woman before them. Dressed in a simple green dress with a small leather satchel over her shoulder, she loomed over him.
“Come now, Connor.” Alric gently pushed him forward. “Ceridwen is to be your new nursemaid.”
She set her satchel onto the floor and knelt down to meet Connor at eye level. “I have something for you.” She held out her hand. “Would you like to see?”
Connor hesitated, but took her hand, surprised to find it so warm.
Just outside the castle gates, a group of attendants waited atop horses.
“May I have him now, Rhys?” Ceridwen let go of Connor’s hand and reached out toward one of the women riders. The woman pulled back her cloak and revealed a small creature on her lap.
“I brought you a new friend.” She cradled the creature in her arms before kneeling to Connor once more. “His name is Víðófnir.”
It would be some time before he realized how special the gift was.
“Cer—” A coughing fit interrupted him, and an excruciating pain sprung from his shoulder across his chest.
Ceridwen stared into the smoldering embers in the hearth. With trembling hands, she pounded a comfrey poultice in a mortar. Thunder crackled as she scraped it into a bowl. She accidentally dropped the poultice into her lap.
“Damn these autumn storms!” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I am coming, Connor.”
While he waited, he watched Siana dab a tincture, rosemary from the look of it, onto Rhodri’s arm.
His brother winced, waving her away. “I wish you would stop prattling.”
“The cut is shallow,” she said. “If you would but still yourself, I would be finished.” She proceeded to apply a salve, lavender, and comfrey rendered in lard, and wrapped a linen strip around his upper arm, securing it with a knot.
Rhodri stood and pulled his tunic back over his head, paying no attention to the rough wool catching on his hair as he stretched the opening over his head.
Ceridwen took out a ladle from the cauldron atop the embers. She poured some of the liquid into a copper cup and handed it to Rhodri.
“Here, brother.” Rhodri slipped his hand under Connor’s head and lifted it from the pillow. “Drink. You will need it.”
Connor cringed as he choked down the drink. He thought it would be a tea, but his tongue met with mead steeped with bitter herbs.
Ceridwen turned her attention to Siana. “You remember your training, do you not?”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“You should avert your eyes, ladywife. It is no sight for a woman.”
“You forget, husband, I would have been trained as a healer had I not left Arlais before taking vows. I have no fear for the sight of wounds.”
Rhodri pulled the skins back from Connor.
Any shame Connor felt at being seen naked was soon replaced with fear.
Ceridwen’s lip curled. He followed her gaze down to his chest. Dark purple striations spread outward from the festering gash on his shoulder.
Ceridwen swallowed, hard. “Hold him.”
With quivering hand, she drew a knife from the embers, its blade white hot. She walked to Connor’s bedside and pressed the searing blade into the gash as fast as she could manage.
An awful sound emerged from Connor’s lips. A sound which he had never uttered before. It was neither Hume nor beast.
“Quickly now, Siana.” Ceridwen pulled the knife away, stifling a cry.
Siana slathered a greasy concoction of herbs onto the wound. She then proceeded to tightly wrap his shoulder and chest in linen bandages with Rhodri’s aid.
Ceridwen threw the knife into a pail of water, where it crackled and hissed. She went to the window, heaved air into her nostrils, tears swelling. “If he lives throughout the night—”
She cut off her sentence, looking back at Connor. He knew she never would have said it had she known he could hear her. But before she could continue, Rhodri spoke up.