The Two Tanists (A Bard Without a Star, Book 2) (2 page)

BOOK: The Two Tanists (A Bard Without a Star, Book 2)
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“My uncle sent me out to tour
the cantref with no escort,” Gwydion replied. “He expects me to take care of
myself.”

Moryus looked like he was
swallowing a hundred arguments. “Fine,” he managed to say. “But do not expect
us to wait for you, or to defend you.”

Gwydion nodded, and the group
was off through the gates, pounding towards the southern part of the caer.
Gwydion kept up easily, but did not try to stay near the head; instead he
lingered towards the back and simply followed the wild dash through the hills.
It took over an hour of hard riding before they saw the dull red of a fire
ahead.

Moryus spurred his horse even
faster and pulled up sharp in front of the chieftain. “Hail Cofach!” he
called. “Where do you need us?”

The chieftain looked like he
was made of old leather, and he squinted up at his laird. “We've got the fire
under control,” he said. “But those robbers took off towards their lands with
a good dozen kine. It'll slow them; you should be able to catch them if you
hurry.” He spat on the ground. “Dirty Dyfedians.”

Moryus led the group in the
direction the chieftain had pointed. After riding a bit, he stopped and got
off his horse to examine a fresh pile of dung. “Twenty minutes ago,” he said.
“Now lads, what say you? Shall we try to surprise them, or just come on them
like a pack of hounds?”

“Hounds!” his men yelled.

“And the Tanist?” Moryus
asked. “What say you?”

“It's my first cattle raid,”
Gwydion answered. “I bow to your leadership.”

“Hounds it is then,” Moryus
said. “There only look to be five or six, so let's run them back over the
river where they belong. No blood unless they force us though; you all know
Math's rules.”

Gwydion didn't, but he held
his tongue. The men checked their weapons again and were off, streaming
through the hills. The path narrowed, descending into a steep sided valley.
The terrain slowed them, and Gwydion sniffed the wind with sudden suspicion.
The winds brought him whispers and the creak of a bow being drawn.

He pulled back hard and in
the loudest voice he had, bellowed, “Ambush!”

The riders ahead of him
pulled up in confusion, and an arrow whistled by Laird Moryus. “Fall back!” he
yelled as the warriors brought around their shields.

“To the left!” yelled Gwydion.
The men shifted their shields just in time, and several arrows clunked against
them.

Gwydion looked around and
spotted a thin trail leading with a few fresh hoof prints leading out of the
valley. He spurred his horse and charged up to the ridge, where six Dyfedians
still held cocked bows, looking for openings. He let out a tremendous roar and
drew his sword. They had just enough time to look up before he was among them,
bowling them over.

He wheeled his horse around
for another charge and found himself facing a tall man with a four-colored
cloak. “Who are you?” the man demanded. “You’re not one of Moryus’ regular
warriors. You’re just a boy.”

“I am Gwydion.”

“The new Tanist of Gwynedd?”
The man whistled. “You should fetch a handsome ransom.”

“You’ll have to capture me
first.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. I
have a half dozen men with bows after all.”

“Had,” Gwydion said. The man
looked behind him where Moryus’ men were grappling with the Dyfedians. Moryus
pulled up beside Gwydion. “It’s all but over, Deykin. Give up the cattle and
go home.”

Deykin cursed, and Gwydion
saw a dagger drop out of his sleeve into his hand. The man’s eyes darted back
and forth, but Gwydion knew who he hated more, and threw his shield in front of
Moryus. The dagger clattered off the hard wood, and Deykin used the
distraction to make his escape.

“Should we go after him?”
Gwydion asked.

Moryus didn’t answer
directly. “That’s the second time in a night you’ve saved my life. If you
want to give chase, my sword is yours.”

Gwydion shifted
uncomfortably. “I did what I could to help, that’s all.”

Moryus grinned suddenly.
“Let Deykin go nurse his wounded pride. He’s been getting desperate, but I
think we’ll let him be for tonight. Have you ever driven cattle before?”

Gwydion helped the men get
the cows safely home, where Cofach thanked them warmly. Moryus told him of
Gwydion’s exploits, embellishing it more than a bard, and Cofach offered his
hall for a feast. They spent the day there, and more people arrived from surrounding
caers to join the celebration. Gwydion felt like they were overdoing it, and
as Moryus told the tale once more to a rapt audience, he managed to pull Cofach
aside.

“Am I missing something?” he
asked. “Moryus seems to be making this out to be much more important than it
is.”

The chieftain eyed him up and
down. “You said this is your first cattle raid,” he said slowly. “Do ya know
much about these things?”

Gwydion shrugged. “Just the
stories. Like the Cattle Raid of Coomly.”

“So you think all cattle
raids end in war?”

“No, of course not.”

Cofach nodded. “And you are
training as a warrior, so you reacted like one.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

“Not at all!” Cofach said
quickly. “But cattle raids are usually like a game of capture the flag, but
for grownups. I steal some of your cattle, you steal them back. Then next
time you may do the stealing first. See how it goes? And death is rare, and
never sought.”

“But Deykin—”

“Oh, aye, he’s a bad one,”
Cofach said. “His brother was killed in a cattle raid some years ago. Nothing
malicious mind, but he fell off his horse and broke his neck when Moryus was
chasing them back over the border.” He shook his head. “An accident and a
tragedy, it was. But it has long been thought Deykin sought the Laird’s blood,
and now we know for sure.”

“And I saved Moryus’ life.”

“Twice, mind you,” Cofach
said. “He’d follow you over a cliff, he would.”

Gwydion focused on the
chieftain. “And what do you think?”

Cofach shrugged. “You’ve
proven yourself when you didn’t even have to be involved. I don’t know you,
but I trust my Laird, and I will follow him when he follows you.”

“Thank you.”

Cofach just grunted in reply,
but Gwydion could tell he was pleased. He left the next day, but found the
story had sped ahead of him. He spent the rest of the summer among a much more
open and accepting people than he had expected. And he gained an appreciation
for their rough and tumble lives that made him feel strangely humble, as though
he could never live up to their expectations of him.

Chapter 2: Company

Gwydion had just turned his
steps north towards Caer Dathyl when he encountered a bardic company on the
road. He didn’t recognize any of them, but their leader, a gangly man with
unruly black hair, said, “Hail, Tanist!” in a voice that was much deeper than
Gwydion had expected.

Gwydion knew enough about the
bards to bow and say, “Hail, Ollave. Where are you and your company headed?”

“To Dyfed for a bit,” the man
answered. “I am Ollave Aodhgán, and I am leading this company throughout
Cairnecht this season.”

“I am sure my uncle has
already given you welcome, but allow me to add my own,” Gwydion said.

“Math did indeed feast us
well these last two months,” Aodhgán said.

“You’ve been at Caer Dathyl
that long?” Gwydion said.

“Well, I have.” He gestured
to his company. “These fine bards have been out judging among the small caers
and duns, wandering much as I hear you have.”

“I’m surprised I haven’t run
into any of them,” Gwydion said.

“As are we,” a young bard
with straight brown hair said.

“But we are met now,” Aodhgán
said. “If you have a few hours, perhaps we could share a meal, and maybe swap
a story or two?”

“I would like that,” Gwydion
said.

They found a place off the
road to set up camp. Two of the bards went to a nearby stream for water, two
more made a fire, two took care of the horses, and two began setting up tents.
Gwydion sat next to Aodhgán, watching it all with a twinge of guilt. “Isn’t
there something I can do?”

“Not really,” Aodhgán said.
“We have this down pretty well, as you can see.”

“Are all bardic companies
this organized?”

One of the bards, a young
woman carrying an armload of firewood snorted. Aodhgán said, “Not really, as
Eithne’s reaction might indicate. But I like to keep my company in good order.”

“I see,” Gwydion said.

“But while we wait for
dinner, could I pick your brains a bit?” Aodhgán said. “We like to get a feel
for the lay of the land as we travel, but your people are a bit tight lipped
with outsiders, even when they wear the star of the bards.”

Gwydion grinned. “I get some
of that myself.”

“But I hear that you’ve
proven yourself to some of your lairds and chieftains,” Aodhgán said.

“It wasn’t much,” Gwydion
shrugged.

“So you didn’t save Laird
Moryus from an ambush and a thrown dagger? And on your first ever cattle raid
no less?”

“Well, yes,” Gwydion said.
“But I have heard some of the stories from that night as well, and I did not
turn into either a ravenous wolf or an angry bull.”

“Too bad,” Aodhgán said. “It
makes the story more interesting. Can you tell me what did happen?”

“Why?” Gwydion said.

“The truth is important to
us,” Aodhgán said. “We like the tall tales as much as anyone, and will
embellish when we feel it’s warranted, but we also like to keep an accurate
account of things.”

“I thought you guys just
judged when you travelled.”

“That’s only part of our
job,” Aodhgán said. One of the bards handed them each a plate with a slice of
ham and cheese and a crust of bread on the side. “Thank you, Essoghan,” he
said. The bard sketched a quick bow, and joined the others around the fire
with their own plates.

“What kinds of things came up
in Caer Dathyl?” Gwydion said. “If you can talk about it, that is.”

“We can about some,” Aodhgán
said. “But how about your stories for ours? Would that be a fair trade?”

Gwydion said, “I think it
might be.”

He spent dinner telling them
about the cattle raid, and about the other caers and duns he had visited.
Occasionally one of the other bards would interject a comment about a judgment
that had been made in that area either before or after Gwydion’s visit. As
dinner wound down, Gwydion said, “I’m surprised I didn’t hear about these
judgments, or even that the bards were around.”

“Why would you?” Aodhgán
said.

“Well, I am Tanist.”

“Ah, but it sounds as though
you have only recently proven yourself to your people.”

“There is that,” Gwydion
said. “It makes me even more surprised that the people would open up to you at
all.”

“We are bards,” Aodhgán
said. “Our tradition spans centuries, and we have proven ourselves many times
over.”

“At Caer Dathyl, people
always bring their complaints to Math to be judged.”

“And that’s proper,” Aodhgán
said. “But suppose that Math’s judgment was suspect for some reason.”

“No one would accuse Math of
such a thing,” Gwydion said quickly.

“I’m not saying they would,”
Aodhgán said. “Okay, think about the Ard Righ. One of his sons, Bessac, is
known to be a bit of a rowdy, and he has gotten into trouble a time or two.
Would you take a complaint about him to Ard Righ Fergus, who is known to be
much more lenient with his sons than he should be?”

“Not if there is a history of
him going easy on Bessac.”

“And there is. So who do you
seek justice from?”

Gwydion nodded. “So that is
the role of the bards. To provide an impartial decision.”

Aodhgán shrugged. “Mind you,
we’re only human, too. We don’t always get it right, but we try very hard, and
we’re trained for it.”

“What happens if someone
feels the bards are wrong?”

“You can take it to the Pen
Bardd,” Aodhgán said. “He consults everyone before making a final decision,
but his word is final.”

“It seems like that would go
to his head,” Gwydion said.

Aodhgán nodded. “Power can
be seductive, and we always have the example of Cathbar, who overthrew the Ard
Righ and set himself up as the King Bardd. Notice, though that it was the
bards themselves who overthrew Cathbar in turn, and restored the High
Kingship.”

“Like you said, you’re
trained for it.”

“We sure are,” Aodhgán said.
“So if you hear of something in your travels, feel free to seek us out.
There’s usually a bardic company nearby, but even a free bard or Bard Teulu has
the right to make a judgment.”

“Thank you,” Gwydion said.
“I will keep that in mind.”

“Now, how about a song or
two?” Aodhgán said, pulling out his harp. The other bards began pulling out
instruments, including a fiddle, a bodhran, and a flute.

“I thought all bards played
the harp,” Gwydion said as he pulled his own from its case.

“And we do,” Aodhgán said.
“But all bards have a secondary instrument, which is good, because let’s face
it: nine harps playing are pretty boring. So every night, in my company, we
play something different. Sometimes we even try out new instruments, to
stretch our skills.”

Gwydion watched as Eithne
gave her pan pipes to another bard, and took his uillean pipes in return. Her
face clearly indicated that she felt she had gotten the worse deal.

“What would happen,” he said,
“if a bard had a disagreement with another bard?”

“Ah, yes,” Aodhgán said.
“Well, we try to keep it from happening, of course…”

“But you’re only human,”
Gwydion said.

“That we are. So a bard may
challenge another bard, with the only weapon we have: satire.”

“And then what?” Gwydion
prompted.

Aodhgán looked around.
“Look,” he said, “This is not really for non-bards, okay?”

“Is it secret?”

“No, not exactly,” Aodhgán
said. “But would you want to talk about how you and your Uncle settle your
disagreements?”

“He just tells me what to do,
and I do it,” Gwydion said. “It’s not a mystery.”

“But do you like that
arrangement, where your uncle’s word is law?”

Gwydion laughed. “Sure, I’d
like him to see my point of view more often.”

“You laugh, but it covers
some bitterness. Would you like to explain?”

“No,” Gwydion said slowly.
“No, I wouldn’t.”

“And that’s what I’m talking
about,” Aodhgán said. “Yes, bards sometimes disagree. But I’m not comfortable
going into the details with you. It’s a little personal.”

“Okay, I get it,” Gwydion
said. “So why you don’t just call in another bard to render judgment?”

“Depending on the nature of
the disagreement, we might,” Aodhgán said. “And depending on what you and your
uncle disagreed about, you could, too.”

Gwydion plucked a string
mindlessly. “I can’t think of a time when I would want to do that.”

“That’s not a bad thing, you
know,” Aodhgán said. “Do you know
The Plooboy Laddie
?”

Gwydion shook his head. “It
doesn’t sound familiar.”

“It’s pretty easy,” Aodhgán
said. “We use it to warm up, and get used to whatever we’re playing. Listen
to the opening phrase, and see if you can copy it.” He played a simple
melody. Gwydion watched his fingers while he listened, and managed to play it
back fairly smoothly.

“Excellent!” Aodhgán said.
“Just keep playing that; it repeats throughout the song. When you’re comfortable,
throw in a riff or change up. And away we go!”

Gwydion played with the bards
for a couple of hours, and even tried his hand at some of the other
instruments, although he did not care for any of them. He had never been with
a group who loved music the way he did, and it surprised him how at ease he
felt. For their part, the bards treated him not as an outsider, but as a
distant cousin just discovered. Gwydion was careful to use no magic, but the
winds left him alone for the most part anyway. As it got later, bards bowed
out and retreated to their tents, until all that remained were Aodhgán and
himself.

A great yawn interrupted
Gwydion’s playing, and he said, “Many pardons.”

Aodhgán waved it away. “It’s
late. We should both be asleep.”

“I know, but I’m having too
much fun,” Gwydion said. “You’re not like other Ollam I’ve met.”

“Like who?” Aodhgán said.

“Kyle.”

Aodhgán nodded. “He was
there when you were named heir apparent, right?”

“I shouldn’t be surprised,
that you know, but it still catches me off guard,” Gwydion said.

Aodhgán shrugged. “It’s part
of my duties to know these things. I can also guess that Kyle came off as a
pompous windbag.”

“I would never put it that
way,” Gwydion said.

“But I would,” Aodhgán said.
He shrugged. “There are some of the Ollam that are like that. I hope that I
showed you a different side to us tonight.”

“That you did!” Gwydion
said. “So much so, that I wish I could go with you tomorrow.”

Aodhgán began putting away
his harp. “We all have things we wish he could do.”

Gwydion took the hint and
pulled his harp case up onto his lap. “I could at least escort you to the
border.”

“I would like that,” Aodhgán
said. “Until the morning then.”

Gwydion spent the next two
days with them, playing every time they stopped, and generally seeing the world
through their eyes. At the Dyfi River, he bade them farewell, saying, “Luck in
your travels.”

“And in yours,” Aodhgán
replied.

Gwydion shrugged. “My time
on the road is almost done, I’m afraid. I might stop at another caer or two,
but it is time for me to return to Caer Dathyl.”

“And our time does not end
until the snow flies,” Aodhgán said. “We’ll spend a couple of months in Dyfed,
and then we’ll probably winter in Clwyd. But perhaps we’ll swing through
Gwynedd again in the spring or summer.”

“It would be good to see
you,” Gwydion said. Watching them ford the river into Dyfed, Gwydion had a
sudden impulse to join them and abandon his responsibilities. But instead he
heaved a great sigh, and turned towards home.

BOOK: The Two Tanists (A Bard Without a Star, Book 2)
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