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Authors: Gillian Bradshaw

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BOOK: Hawk of May
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He looked at me, then at the Queen of Darkness. His face twisted desperately—and then he stepped towards Morgawse, stepped again, past me, to stand beside her. “You are mad,” he said. “Mother is perfect. It is Father who is wrong. Put down that knife and come and help us.”

I began to weep. “She will sacrifice Conall.”

He looked uncomfortable for a moment, but she touched his shoulder and the unease faded from his face. “She is perfect. He insulted her. He deserves to die.”

“She will kill Father one day.”

Medraut actually laughed. “Good! Maybe then…I will be the successor to the kingship! Mother has promised me. And, after all, Arthur is a bastard too.”

I stared at him where he stood under her upraised hand, his eyes again wild with misery, and with a pain I had only suspected. I had been wrong about him. I should have realized that his ambition was not just to be a fine warrior, but rather to be something beyond his reach. It was too late to help, even if I could have. Too late.

I looked again at the creature who had once been Morgawse, daughter of Uther, and knew that my knife could not harm her. I was only alive because she hoped that I would come. And I could come, could drown in the black tide, forgetting confusion and loneliness and guilt and, yes, gain a kind of immortality. Easy is the descent of Avernus, I thought.

I lowered my hand slowly. Medraut smiled with joy, and my mother smiled again also, at me.

And then I threw the dagger straight into Connall's throat, saw the thanks in his dying eyes, and dragged open the door, fleeing the Darkness that rose up behind me.

I heard Medraut run to the door after me, his shout ringing across the yard; “Traitor! Traitor, traitor, traitor…” There was almost a sob in it.

Then I was in the stables and my horse stood waiting in his stall, ready for me to mount and go flying away from Dun Fionn and from the Darkness which ran behind me, thick with the fury of its Queen and heavy with her desire for my death; and I was mounting and riding off through the moonlight and cloud-shadows, riding away from Dun Fionn, riding…

My horse's hooves kicked up stones on the path, and the fortress was limned for a moment against the wracked sky, and then I rounded a hillside and it was gone…

Gone.

Five

There was sand and gravel under me, and somewhere very near the sea was pounding.

I lifted my head and looked out over the western sea which beat-hissed on the narrow beach and flooded up towards the deep pool of fresh water by the cliff's base. Llyn Gwalch.

The memory of the night before returned to me, and I lay still for a while and considered it. I felt tired, too tired to feel anything, and the memory was heavy and hard. After a while, though, I realized that I was very thirsty, so I crawled up to the pond and drank from it. The water was very cold, clear and fresh, delicious. I splashed it over my head when I had quenched my thirst, then went over and sat down against the cliff to look out at the sea.

I thought about the wild ride, down along the cliff-path, with the demon of Darkness chasing me, catching at the edges of my mind. I remembered reaching Llyn Gwalch, dismounting and sending my horse on with a slap, then scrambling down the cliff to lie, exhausted, in my only refuge. And apparently it was indeed a refuge, for I was still alive and sane. I wondered how long it would last, then wondered again because it did not seem to matter much. I felt weak and empty but not sick. In fact, I felt better than I had for a long, long time. I was free. Even if I lost my life, I was free.

The sun had risen behind the cliff, and its rays crept closer across the ocean. I smiled at the light and spoke an old poem of greeting to it:

“Welcome to you, seasons' sun,

Travelling the skies from afar

Winged with glad strides the heights you run

Joyful mother of evening stars.

With night you sink on the perilous sea

But arise from the waves' bower

Leaping from harm and darkness free

As a young queen in flower.”

And in a moment of dizzy triumph I thought, I have followed the sun, the young queen. I have recalled my step from Avernus. And then, close behind the triumph came the pain. My mother was trying to kill me. As vividly as if I relived it I saw her fury when I threw the knife at Connall—poor Connall!—and saw the Darkness leaping from the shadows behind her.

I shuddered. I could not return to Dun Fionn. I pressed my hands together until it hurt, trying not to realize what that meant. I would never ride into those light walls again, nor listen to old Orlamh's drily courteous explanations of metre and genealogies, or Diuran's coarse jokes. In one blow I had separated myself from my kinsmen and home for ever. Even if somehow, in some later time, I returned, I would never regain what I had just lost. I had lost the world of warriors before, and now had lost the other world I had desired, and if I were free, it was with the freedom of the outcast; clanless, nameless, placeless. I could not return to Don Fionn—and for that matter, why ever was I safe at Llyn Gwalch?

Perhaps, I thought, distracted from the pain by surprise, perhaps there is some force here that thwarts the Queen.

I remembered Arthur.

Certainly my mother would have destroyed him long before, if she had been able to. She hated him enough. But she was unable to, because of his new gods and his counter-spell that she didn't understand.

I reminded myself sternly that Arthur had defeated my father, and that he kept my brother as his hostage. He ought to be my sworn enemy. And I reminded myself of the constant wars which racked Britain, and the invasions. But the sternness was no use. I began to think of all the places which I had heard of: Camlann with its triple banks, new heart of Britain; Caer Ebrauc, a great city, massively walled, Sorviodunum, Caer Gwent, Caer Legion, splendid fortresses. Monasteries filled with books and learning, great roads from one end of the island to the other, triumphal arches tall as trees, mosaics in the courtyards of rich villas, fountains and statues, theaters and arenas, things I had read of but never seen. Britain, the last remnant of the Empire of the Romans—except for the east; but Constantinople was further away than the Otherworld and more unreachable. Britain, surrounded by men who desired her, unconquered in the midst of defeat. There, in that fabulous land, the High King Arthur Augustus had raised the dragon standard, and he was protected by a magic Morgawse could not overcome. And I remembered that, although by his acts I might be counted his enemy, by blood he was my uncle, and that might win me a place. I was no warrior to join his warband, but there might be something I could do if I joined him.

Yes. I would try to journey to Camlann, or to the High King Arthur where he was, and I would offer him my service.

This decided, I stared out to sea again and wondered how to go about it.

For some reason, Llyn Gwalch was safe, if only for a little while. But Morgawse had raised the Darkness against me, and I knew that if I climbed back up the cliff I would be destroyed long before I could reach the port in the east of the island. And even if I did reach the port, what would I do for a boat? If I stole a small boat, how could I, a fairly inexperienced sailor, hope to travel the treacherous northern waters to Pictland with the winter coming on? And I had nothing to pay for passage on a larger vessel.

For a moment I thought of going to my father with the story, but dismissed the idea at once. Morgawse would not possibly allow me to tell my father that she had accomplished the death of one of his warriors. I wondered what she would tell him as it was. That I had killed Connall? Probably not. That would require too much explaining. No, she would pretend to know nothing of either Connall's disappearance or mine, and find some way to dispose of Connall's body. My horse would return to the stable riderless, or perhaps be found wandering about the cliff, and my clan would conclude that I had gone mad, and ridden along the cliffs on Samhain. And Medraut—he might weep. I felt sick again. Poor Medraut. If only I could have…or have understood. But it was too late. Perhaps it had been too late for a long time. It was best that he thought me dead. If he knew that I was alive, he would hate me.

I stared at the sea and pondered all these things, twisting them about in my mind and running off on tangents. But the answer—or rather, the absence of an answer—remained the same. I was trapped at Llyn Gwalch.

By noon I felt quite hungry, though stronger than I had been when I woke. I looked hopefully in the pool for fish and found none. There were some oysters clinging to the rocks along the cliff-foot, though, and plenty of sea-birds nesting in the face of the cliff, if it came to that. I stripped and swam out, then along the foot of the cliff, collecting oysters in my tunic. I had a good amount when I felt a sudden chill, colder than the water. I looked up. The sun shone on the cliff-face, hazed by a light mist. Half-way down the cliff lay a patch of shadow. I looked upwards, then looked at the shadow again, and realized that there was nothing on the cliff to cast it. Hurriedly, I turned and swam back to the beach, and the cold became merely the usual cold of the north sea in November. So. The creature Morgawse had summoned was waiting for me.

I laid my tunic in the sun, wrapped myself in my cloak, shivering, and ate the oysters. They tasted very good, but I knew that they would not support me for ever. I could not stay at Llyn Gwalch: I could not leave it.

Well, sooner or later I must leave, but I would rest first. I looked up at the sun. It was already dropping towards the horizon, and the mist was thickening imperceptibly. Winter was coming on, and the days were shortening. I dropped my eyes to the beach, the clear stream running out into the ocean over the wave-smoothed stones, the seaweed and driftwood. I smiled, and decided to make a toy boat.

I had not forgotten how. The curragh I made from driftwood and seaweed floated perfectly on the pond. It was a pity I couldn't build one large enough to hold me, but the thing was beautiful enough as it was. I watched it float down the stream, anxious whether it would overturn in the surf. It jerked when it reached the waves, rolled, then caught by the current, began to glide out to sea. I watched it drift away and thought again of the Isles of the Blessed. Suddenly I wondered what they were. The forces of Darkness were real and powerful enough. What about those of Light? Arthur's magic was strong enough to baffle Morgawse: if he could claim the Light's protection, perhaps I could as well.

I had been in a great darkness, near to drowning in it, and the thought of a Light opposed to it was sweet. So, as I watched the curragh bobbing on the waves, I spoke silently within my heart: “Light, whatever your name is…I have broken with the Darkness and it seeks my life. But I would follow you, as a warrior does his lord. I swear the oath of my people, I will serve you before any other for as long as I live. Protect me, as a lord does his warrior, and bring me to Britain. Or let my kinsman, Lugh of the Long Hand, if he exists and is indeed my kinsman, help me from the Islands to which my boat travels. I beg you, help.”

The curragh slipped on over the waves as though it bore a message. I watched it until it vanished from sight.

The sun sank slowly down the west, bursting free of the mist at its setting, and splashing red-gold on the face of the sea. There were heavy clouds beneath it, looking like an island. There was one of the great winter fogs coming. It would arrive before morning, and would be cold. I watched until the sun was quite gone, and, after that, watched the twilight deepening its shade from the first soft green into blue, while the sea became first silver, then grey, then silver and black as the moon rose over the cliff, cloaked with pale gold in the mist. I sat drenched with its light and half drunk with it and the earth's beauty. I sang songs to it, and the rise and fall of the sea seemed to answer me. When I lay down at the cliff's base, the driest part of the beach, I had scarcely wrapped my cloak about me when I fell asleep.

I woke around midnight, opened my eyes to stare, rigid with terror, into the blank darkness. Some dream which had swept black wings through my brain departed, leaving a foul memory. There had been a sound. The demon! It had broken into my refuge and must be creeping upon me; best to whimper and dig into the earth.

I sat up and flung back my cloak. I reached for my dagger, remembered that I had left it in Connall's throat. You must go out as a warrior, I told myself.

But there was no shadow on the beach, nor any hint of the Darkness. The moonlight was dim with mist, but I could see clearly enough that I was alone on Llyn Gwalch. There was only a boat, resting, prow first, on the beach.

It was a strange boat, a lovely one. It had a high prow and stern, unlike a curragh, though otherwise it resembled one. But it had neither oars nor mast nor rudder, and the color was like no wood or hide I had ever seen, but grey-white in the luminous mist. It was no derelict either, I saw. Cushions and coverings were heaped in it. And yet no one sat in it. The prow lay on the stones, and the waves, grown very quiet, lapped and sighed out into the mist. There was no other sound.

I stood slowly, staring. No boat should have landed so at Llyn Gwalch. The current of the stream, combined with an undertow which was often fierce, pushed any floating things on to the rocks at the side. I took a few steps towards the boat. It rested there, half on land, half on water, like a pale flower. I noticed now that it was not a trick of the moonlight in the mist, that the boat really was shimmering softly in the dark. I sensed the magic woven into its fabric, an awareness of it stirring my hair like a faint breeze, and I stopped and watched it.

And yet…

It did not feel like a dark magic. It was light and swift and clean, like a seagull swooping over the waves. And though things could be other than they seemed, I had spoken words that afternoon as I watched my curragh sail off, and the silence in my heart had listened.

And even if this were a trick, a trap made by the demon lurking along the cliff, what would it mean except that I would die now instead of later? I decided, and walked forward to place my hand on the boat's prow. It was soft, warm, like a living thing, a trained hawk which rustles its feathers in the eagerness to fly. I took my shoes off, threw them into the boat, and pushed it off the stones, clambering in when it was a few feet from the beach.

While the boat hung there, bobbing in the calm sea, and I searched for an oar, I sensed a stirring above and looked up. The shadow lay on the cliff-top again, like the shadow of a cloud now. My fists clenched, and again I longed for my dagger. Then I started, for the boat began to stir of itself, very slowly, turning from Llyn Gwalch till its prow faced westwards. It began to move forward over the waves which shivered with the moonlight.

The shadow on the cliff grew smaller, darker. It raced down the cliff side, swinging about Llyn Gwalch. A cold darkness seemed to brush past me, like an unseen bird, and the sick, suffocating feeling of the night before touched me again. But the boat was picking up speed, gliding over the waves, and I suddenly remembered what is said of evil and open water, how some spirits may not cross the wide sea. I laughed. The black tendrils fell away from me, overextended and worn out.

I watched over the stern as Llyn Gwalch shrank behind me, becoming a pale place in the cliff wall, then a soft spot in the frothing of the light surf in the moonlight, with the waterfall of the stream a chain of silver hung down the cliff—then the mist grew thicker as the boat ran into it, and Llyn Gwalch and the island I had lived on all my life faded from my sight. I could not think to give it any farewell, and looked westward over the boat's prow. We were still increasing in speed. I laughed again, feeling the same exultant triumph and liberty I had felt that morning, and sang a song of triumph in war. The boat leapt forward like a willing horse and glided on, swift as a gull or a falcon, through the fog into the moonlight again, and the foam glittered at its prow as it ran along the path of light cast by the sinking moon.

I yawned, realized that I was still very tired. The cushions I had noticed were soft, the coverlets of silk and ermins much warmer than my worn cloak. It was cold in that rush of speed across the open sea. I lay down and drew the coverings over me, whispering thanks to the boat and to whatever force had sent it.

BOOK: Hawk of May
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