Blood’s Cost

Duncan corNial, an exiled highlands clansman trained in the powers of a mysterious religious order, sets out to restore the rightful heir to the throne of the city of Nika and avenge his murdered brother in the process.

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Duncan corNial, an exiled highlands clansman, now belongs to the Blues, a religious order which believe he is an avatar of the ancient gods. As he trains in the order’s teachings, improving his martial as well as his spiritual skills, his initial skepticism changes once he finds himself in contact with an aspect of the divine.

While he trains, his brother Llêw joins the Highland Guard of the city of Nika. Llêw is killed in a rebellion by some of the leading nobles of the city, but not before he saves the princess who is now the only surviving member of the royal family. The girl takes refuge in the fortified Temple of the Moon, which is soon placed under siege.

Upon receiving the news of his brother’s death, Duncan leaves the Blues in order to muster whatever forces of the highland clansmen will join him. His hope is that those forces, combined with his own martial prowess and spiritual powers, will enable him to avenge his brother’s death and restore the rightful heir to the throne.

Caldecauthe
Cantredd
Exile year 6

Blodwen stepped back as the Highlander clansman collapsed before her. She took a firmer grasp of the clan dagger he had just entrusted to her, a blade that he had used to save her honor and, quite probably, her life. She looked to Gwdion, the leading perfect of the Blues society who had arrived with his triad just in time to see the clansman finish off the third triad who had assaulted her. She opened her mouth, to have nothing emerge, so she nodded to him forcefully.

Gwdion took charge.

“We need a door, a pallet, a hurdle, something.”

“Here,” Ossian the smith said as he reached underneath his counter to undo fastenings. “This is just setting on trestles.”

Gwdion waved at the triad coming up the lane from the other direction. “You four,” he said to the four sicuroi hands as he pointed to the clansman, “get him up on that and get him to the Moesen Baths. You,” he said to the other perfect, “run to the inner manteidd, and tell the physician and surgeon there that they are to run to the Moesen Baths to tend him.” He pointed to Duncan being raised to the counter. “They had best beat him there. Go.”

The perfect went, not even waiting for people to make a way. He ran through the crowd so fast and so skillfully that most of them were only aware of a blur or a breeze.

The clansman was on the counter, and Ossian had thrown a couple of loops of cord around his chest and his legs to help keep him in place. The hands lifted the counter and moved it out into the lane.

“Make way, there,” Gwdion shouted to the crowd. “Go,” he said to the hands, and they trundled off with their awkward burden.

“All of you,” Gwdion said to those around the final fight scene, “watch over that until we can arrange for the cleanup.”

Assurances arose all around them. Gwdion nodded, then offered a hand to Blodwen. “This way, Mistress.”

They made their way back down the lane.

Gwdion whistled when they arrived at the ambush scene. People had been peering at the bodies, but they pushed back in a hurry when they saw who was coming. Gwdion looked around. From the placement of the bodies, it was fairly easy to map out what had happened.

“So, they had two triads to your one. Did they strike all at the same time?”

“Yes.” There was a bit of a tremor in Blodwen’s voice, now that it was clear that she was going to survive this after all. “They came with daggers, rather than the dual blades . . .”

“Probably so they could get closer in the lane. Loose robes, too. Harder to see.”

“Well, yes,” Blodwen continued. “They took down Paride first,” she pointed to the guard who’d been to her left, “and that gave Dwywei a moment’s warning.” This time she pointed to the guard who’d been on her right.

“I didn’t see or hear them take Padrig,” she pointed to the guard who had been trailing, “but the clansman came from behind, so he must have seen it and dealt with the assassin himself.”

Gwdion pulled the knife from the assassin’s back. “I’d say you’re right,” he said, laying the blade down on the back of the dead assassin. “That’s not a Cantreddi knife. Has a Darcian look to it.”

The sicuroi master looked around. “So our triad, taken by surprise, managed to account for one triad. Yet three triads are dead. Either these men were very poor examples of what the Raeadd have been training up, or Duncan corNial is . . . good.”

Blodwen said nothing, letting him reach his own conclusions.

“Weeping and wailing in the family compounds tonight. Doubly so for Paride and Padrig, since they were close cousins.”

Blodwen did not respond to that, either. Gwdion moved to the dead Blue triad one by one and disentangled their bodies from the other dead, laying them out straight with their weapons beside them. The dead assassins he left sprawled on the dirt, although he did toe their daggers into a pile in the center of the ambush ground.

By the time he was done with that, they could see the other perfect and the four hands approaching at a run from the direction of the baths. They were moving as a group and not attempting stealth, so people moved out of their way with some alacrity. They brought Master Ossian’s counter with them.

“I ordered carts while I was at the manteidd,” the perfect said, breathing deeply. “They should be here soon. The physician and surgeon received the clansman in the bath’s healing chamber and began to work on him as soon as he arrived. Barrys was there, and immediately put the full bath staff at their disposal.”

“Good,” Gwdion said. “Remain here with your hands until the carts show up, and make sure that all bodies, weapons, and any other things of interest are taken up and removed to the manteidd. We will escort Mistress Blodwen back to the manteidd.”

“That would be good,” the perfect replied. “Master Pwyll was . . . concerned.”

“I can imagine,” Gwdion said dryly.

He turned to Blodwen. “We should leave now, Mistress.”

She raised a hand. “Not yet.” She turned and moved back down the lane to where Ossian stood in the remains of his booth, humming a sprightly song and cleaning the master blade the clansman had used to such good effect.

“Master Ossian,” Blodwen called out as Gwdion’s hands restored the counter to its place atop the trestles.

He ceased his humming and laid the blade down on top of its chest before he came to stand before her.

“Yes, Mistress Blodwen?”

“Did I hear the clansman correctly? Did you present to him your grandfather’s sword—yes, I’ve heard the accounts—earlier today?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“What is the price of the blade?”

“For you, Mistress, twenty-five gold crowns.”

“What is the price of the blade for the clansman?”

Ossian fell silent, and looked back at the sword where it lay bared on top of the chest. He took a deep breath.

“For him, Mistress, the price is nothing. I would give it to him, for the joy of seeing him use it and for the work that he did with it today. And for the pieces of his broken sword.”

“What was the price you quoted him earlier today, Master Ossian?”

The answer was slow in coming. “Fifty gold crowns, Mistress.”

Blodwen nodded in a satisfied way.

“Tend to your blade, Master Ossian, and when it is clean, and oiled, and as perfect as it should be, bring it to the manteidd, where you will receive your fifty golds. You are right that the clansman deserves it, especially since his own blade was broken in the fight. Yet we will not let it be said that your grandfather’s blade was not properly valued. And for your generosity in the lending of it to the clansman, you may take up the pieces of that broken sword.”

At that, Master Ossian bowed. “As you direct, Mistress Blodwen. It shall arrive tomorrow or the next day.”

She nodded in response, then turned to the triad standing behind her. “Now we can leave, Gwdion.”

✽✽✽

Ossian walked out into the lane and moved to pick up the broken blade of the clansman’s sword. As he straightened, he felt a touch on his arm. He looked down to see the hilt with its stub of remaining blade in the hand of the woman with the birthmark from across the lane.

“Thanks, Seren,” he told the woman as he took it.

She waved off his thanks, and stood with her hands on her hips to watch the retreating triad for a moment.

“He wasn’t anything special to look at,” Seren said finally. “That clansman, I mean. Who would have thought?” She walked back to her own booth and hopped up on its counter.

Ossian laid the pieces of the broken sword on his own counter, but didn’t lean on it because he hadn’t reattached it to the trestles yet.

“Clansmen are . . . clansmen,” he finally replied. “Only a few ever come down off of the Highland plateau and come this far away, but those that do usually have some kind of impact on anywhere they go. And they all, every one of them that I’ve heard about, have been better than average with a sword. This Duncan was apparently one of the best.”

Seren whistled. “I’ll say. He took down an entire triad.”

“More than that,” Ossian replied. “Some of that,” he waved at where the carts had finally arrived at the first ambush site, “was his doing as well.”

They both looked that direction, and watched as body after body was lifted to the carts; the Blue’s guards to one cart, and the assassins to another, including the triad that lay in the bloody mud right before their booths. All the weapons were placed in the Blue’s cart, though. Twelve dead men, from less than a quarter of an hour’s events.

Ossian shook his head and turned back to his booth. He fastened the counter back to its trestles, then picked up the master blade and resumed cleaning it.

“That fight chased away all the business,” he heard Seren complain.

“They’ll be back in a while,” he returned. “It will be really busy tomorrow, because everyone will want to see where it happened. That’s the biggest fight between the societies in several years, and having the clansman involved will just make it seem exotic or supernatural. Make sure you have a lot of your work here tomorrow, including your best.”

“So what are you going to do with these?”

He looked up to see Seren standing in front of his counter, holding the blade portion of the broken sword.

“Study it first, to see if I can figure out why it broke.” He held the master blade up and angled it in the light. Ah, there it is. He rubbed at a stubborn streak of blood. “If it was a problem in the forging, maybe I can make sure I don’t do that in my own work.”

“What are you going to do after that?”

Seren had put the blade down and was studying the hilt now.

“Probably melt it down to an ingot and remake a sword from that.”

“Makes sense,” the young woman said. “No way to repair something like that.”

“I should have made my own master blade before now,” Ossian said. He picked up a whetstone to touch up a burr on the blade. “I never felt I could as long as I had my grandfather’s in the shop. After I deliver this to the manteidd, though, I think I’ll be ready.”

“Wish I could watch that,” Seren said with a touch of longing in her voice.

“Sorry, that’s not possible,” Ossian said. He waited for a few heartbeats. “But I would allow you to help.”

Seren’s face flashed to stunned, then a very slow grin blossomed on it, to be matched by the one that Ossian felt growing on his own face.

“He what?”

Guthsund couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.

“He intervened in an attempt to take or kill Mistress Blodwen of the Duur Society.”

That was from Barrys, Master of the Baths of Moesen, who was seated across from Guthsund and Trauth at a table in a private room of The Golden Harp.

“That’s the Blues, right?” Guthsund asked. Barrys nodded, but his mouth tightened as if he wanted to correct the merchant.

“But by the White God, why?” Trauth almost exploded. “He knew that he shouldn’t have anything to do with you!”

Barrys shrugged. “No one knows for sure. He apparently said something like he had a history of defending women, but that was in the middle of the fight, and Mistress Blodwen may have misheard, or he may have been making light of it. When he wakes, you can ask.”

“Wakes?” Guthsund caught that note. “He’s not conscious then? Did he take a hit to the head?”

Barrys shook his own head. “No head wounds that our physician and surgeon could find. But he lost a lot of blood after apparently fighting six men to the death.”

“Holy . . .” Words failed Trauth at that moment.

“So how badly hurt is he?” Guthsund demanded.

Barrys held up a hand and started ticking fingers off.

“First, his right thigh was run through from front to back, just barely missing the bone. Second, his left hand was pierced all the way through. Both of those by sicuroi swords.”

Barrys moved on to the third finger.

“Third, both legs have multiple gashes on the outside of the thighs below where his mail shirt hung. They would normally be considered serious, but in comparison to the first two wounds . . .” he shrugged, “. . . the physician and surgeon are of the opinion they should heal up, albeit with some impressive scars.”

“That’s if he doesn’t catch the wound fever,” Trauth growled.

“We have very good physicians here in Cantredd,” Barrys said. “The chances of that are very low.”

The bath master returned to his fingers. “And fourth, his left side is almost one solid bruise. From what they can tell, no ribs are broken, but there are probably one or more cracked ribs, and he has some very deep bruising. The physician and surgeon are more concerned about those than the gashes on his legs. They are staying with him until he regains consciousness.”

“And when will that be?”

“He swallows water and broth when they’re put in his mouth, which they say is a good sign. Hopefully within the next day.”

“I want to see him when he awakes.” Guthsund was leaning over the table, thumping it with his fist.

Barrys nodded. “I will send word.”

“Why?” Trauth repeated, returning to his original question. “He’d been told not to get involved with the societies.”

At that, Barrys ducked his head. “I . . . may have led him to understand that there was a connection between his family and the Duur.”

“And is there?” Trauth’s voice was very cold. Guthsund laid a hand on his captain’s arm.

Barrys nodded, after a long moment.

“Whether there is or there isn’t, if he dies, you and your society are responsible,” Guthsund said in a level tone. “And word will be sent to the Highlands of that.”

Barrys nodded at that, as well.

“He is in our charge, now. We are responsible, we will tend to him.”

✽✽✽

“How did they know?” Pwyll looked at Gwdion. They were standing in Barrys’ office at the Moesen baths. Pwyll had co-opted it for the next few days.

“I don’t know, but it’s obvious that they learned of her movement somehow.” The chief sicuroi looked grim. “I will find out, though.”

“I’m more concerned that they attempted to take her at all.” Pwyll frowned. “Things have been quiet for several years. This is not a sign I wanted to see.”

The door to the master’s office opened before Gwdion could respond. Pwyll noted the faint look of relief that crossed the sicuroi’s face.

Blodwen stepped in. After closing the door behind her, she walked over and planted a kiss on Pwyll’s cheek. “Brother.”

He returned the kiss. “Sister.”

They intertwined hands, and he led her to a delicately carved bench that had been added to the room’s furniture when he announced that he was moving in. It fronted a many-paned window. They sat together, and Gwdion noiselessly excused himself from the room, leaving the two of them alone together for the first time since the assassination attempt.

“Gods, Wen, my heart nearly stopped when I heard the news.” Pwyll reached to cup a hand behind her head and draw it close to touch forehead to forehead. “I don’t know what I would have done if they had taken you.”

“What you must, brother,” she said without a tremor in her voice. “I knew that the instant I saw them begin to move. If they killed me or if they took me, you could only do what was best for the Duur.”

“There would have been war with the Raeadd, if they had succeeded,” he said in a hard voice. “I could not have let that pass unanswered.”

“Understood,” Blodwen said. “I would not have expected less. But I knew there was no provision for me. There could not be.”

Pwyll closed his eyes and shuddered. “No. But the price I would have taken from them . . .”

Now she reached and cupped his head. “But it wasn’t required, Pwyll. You didn’t have to.”

“And that, sister dear, is solely because of Duncan corNial.”

“We owe him—I owe him.”

We owe him; I perhaps more than even you.”

They sat there, head to head, hand to hand, silent, for some time as they both relived the fears they had felt in their own ways and own times.

A knock came at the door. They drew apart, and Pwyll stood.

“Come.”

Two figures in undyed linen robes entered. They were of much the same height and slight build, with heads covered and faces muffled by dark blue head cloths like that worn by Gwdion. After the door closed, hands clad in identical blue gloves pulled the head cloths away from their faces, and there a difference was revealed: one was narrow, with a thin-bladed nose that could be called prominent and a complexion that was dark; the other was rather round with a bit of a strong chin and a nose that wasn’t much more than a nubbin, all wrapped in a complexion that was the color of old weathered bone, a hue midway between gray and the color of the linen robes. Both had eyes of warm brown.

Blodwen had risen from the bench as soon as she saw who had entered, and now she joined Pwyll in giving a slight bow to the robed figures.

“Saint Meurig, Saint Fiona. Please, be seated.” Pwyll waved to the bench he and Blodwen had just vacated.

Pwyll turned the chair at the desk around and motioned his sister into it, then leaned back against the wall and waited.

“No questions, young Pwyll?” came in an alto tone from the thin-faced woman.

“No, Saint Fiona.”

“Hmmph. First time I’ve seen you at a loss for words.”

Saint Meurig reached over and tapped her companion on the arm rather firmly. “Be fair, Fiona. There was that time in training where Gwdion got through his defenses and gave him a solid hit to the solar plexus.”

“Yes, well, I supposed that’s true,” Fiona grumped. “As long as we don’t count a squeak or two and a gasp as words.”

“Are you quite through humbling me?” Pwyll asked with a slightly astringent tone.

“For the moment,” Meurig responded with a smile. “But it is one of our responsibilities, you know—to make sure that your ego is no larger than your head can contain.”

“And you enjoy it so much.” Pwyll’s tone was even more astringent.

“Of course we do!” Meurig’s face blossomed into a beatific smile.

Blodwen had said nothing, but the corners of her mouth had turned down in a reversed-smile smirk. That went away when Pwyll spoke again.

“I presume you have been to see our guest.”

Meurig sobered instantly.

“Yes. Both individually and together. And we consulted with the doctor and surgeon, and questioned Hadyn, Vaun, and Barrys. Such nice boys they are.”

“Barrys is ready for more responsibility,” Fiona said.

“You think so?” Pwyll said. There was no further response from either of the saints, so he tucked that thought away and returned to the main topic.

“What are your thoughts on Duncan corNial?”

“I’m of a mind to curse our ancestors who drove away his ancestors,” Fiona growled. Even Meurig looked around, shocked at that pronouncement. “The boy reeks of power. Whoever placed those marks on him either is touched by the gods, or knows far more of these things than we do.”

“Or both,” Meurig said quietly.

“Or both.” Fiona’s tone wasn’t quite a snarl.

Before she could continue, there was another knock at the door.

“Come,” Pwyll said, after giving the saints a moment to veil their faces again.

“Your pardon, Master Pwyll,” Hadyn opened the door and stood to one side. “Barrys sent me to inform you that the clansman has regained consciousness.”

All four of them stood and headed for the door. Hadyn stepped through the door and waited for Pwyll to stride through, followed Saints Meurig and Fiona, with Blodwen bringing up the rear.

“This way, please.”

Hadyn set a quick place through the back halls of the baths compound, and before long arrived at an unremarkable door, which he opened. The others proceeded through the doorway, and Hadyn closed the door behind them, remaining in the hall.

They found Duncan being helped to take a drink. The surgeon was supporting his shoulders, and the physician helped support the cup. When he was done, the physician shaped some bolsters behind the clansman’s back, and then he and the surgeon helped Duncan ease back.

✽✽✽

“I know who I am and where I am, and I know why I’m here, so we don’t need to go over that,” Duncan began. “Who are you?” His voice was level and a bit hoarse, although not as strong as he would have liked.

“I am Pwyll, the current leader of the Duur Society,” the man said. “What you may have heard referred to as the Blues.”

“Umm, that’s the group the Moesen baths are tied up with, right?”

Pwyll nodded. “It could be said that way, yes.”

Duncan shifted his gaze. “And I know who Lady Blodwen is. Or maybe I know a little bit about who she is.”

She also nodded in acknowledgment.

“She is important in the society for several reasons,” Pwyll responded. “But she’s also important to me because she’s my sister.”

“Ah.” Duncan didn’t quite know how to respond to that, so he shifted his gaze to the other two figures. “I don’t know you two, and I don’t talk with people if I can’t see their faces.”

Pwyll started to respond to that, but one of the figures lifted a blue-gloved hand, and they both unveiled their faces. “Let us begin as we mean to continue,” the round-faced one said. “I am Saint Meurig.”

“Saint Fiona,” the narrow-faced one said shortly.

“First,” Pwyll said, “let me thank you for preserving Blodwen’s life and freedom. The entire society is thankful for that. We are very aware of the price—prices—you paid to accomplish that. We cannot repay you as you deserve.”

That sounded a bit ominous, Duncan thought, trying to repress the quirk his mouth wanted to make.

“But it doesn’t mean we won’t try,” Pwyll said with a smile, echoed by a smaller one from his sister. “First, to replace your sword that was broken, we gift you with this.”

Blodwen turned and opened a chest behind her and removed a sword from it to place in Duncan’s hands. He received it almost eagerly. The thought of his father’s sword being broken had not been one of the happier memories that had returned to him when he woke up.

Duncan looked at the hilt, then drew the sword partway from its sheath. “I know this sword,” he murmured. He looked up at Blodwen with forehead furrowed. “Ossian’s master blade?” He had trouble believing that.

The smile had remained on Blodwen’s face, and she nodded. “It’s only right,” she replied, “that you be given the sword by which you triumphed to replace the one which broke in your hand.”

“But he wanted fifty gold crowns for this blade!” Duncan protested. A corner of his mind noted the fact that despite his protestation, his hands had restored the blade to its sheath and were now clutching it fiercely.

“It is the finest sword now in Caldecauthe,” Pwyll said. “As such, it is worthy of you. We gave your uncle an equivalent gift for his deeds a half generation ago. We will not do less for you after you performed an even greater deed before half the city of Caldecauthe.”

“It is not just the society’s honor that is at stake here, Duncan corNial,” Blodwen intervened. “It is my honor that is paramount here. I would and will not be seen as someone who palms off a deed and service such as yours with paltry rewards and favors. I am still alive and available to my society because of you. The sword is the least of what we can and will do for you. It is only the beginning.”

Pwyll nodded, a wry grin on his face. “My sister can be a bit outspoken,” he said. “You will learn this if you spend much time around her. She has been the scandal of our mother at times.”

Something suspiciously like a snort came from one of the saints. Duncan rolled his eyes that direction without moving his head, but neither of the saints had anything other than an expression of mild interest on her face.

“She is,” Pwyll continued, “nonetheless quite correct. Our honor—her honor—demand nothing less than this, and more besides. And although like most clansmen, I’m sure your will is as the granite of your plateau, I think you’ll find her will is adamant. In other words, you’d best not butt heads with her; you will lose.”

“That’s true,” was muttered by one of the saints, who was ignored by everyone else in the room.

From inside a sleeve, Blodwen produced Duncan’s clan knife in a new sheath.

“Here,” she presented it to him. “Speaking of honor. I cleaned it, and Gwdion made sure that it was sharp and oiled. It hasn’t left my presence since you put it in my hands. And so I put your honor back in your hands.”

Duncan reached eagerly for the knife, and smiled when it was in his hand again. “Thank you, Lady. And,” he inhaled deeply, “my thanks for the sword as well. You are right, I will need a sword, and this is one that fits my hand like a well-made glove. But what happened to my father’s sword? Where did the pieces go?”

“They would ordinarily have been claimed by us as a result of your destruction of Raeadd’s triads, but Ossian asked for them,” Blodwen said. “I allowed him to take them.”

“Good,” Duncan said as he relaxed a bit. “I can think of no one better to have them. He understands blades, he does.”

Duncan placed the clan knife on the bed in the place where his right hand would rest on it naturally, then shifted the sword around where it was cradled in his left arm with his bandaged left hand resting atop it. He looked around. “And my mail?”

“In here.” Blodwen touched the chest from which she had taken the sword.

“Good,” Duncan repeated.

Duur society has the best physicians and surgeons in Caldecauthe,” Pwyll added, “so they will tend to your wounds until they are healed.”

Duncan tried to shrug, but gave it up when twinges of pain let him know that wasn’t a prudent move to make.

“I don’t expect to be here that long,” he said. “I’ll be walking tomorrow, and riding in a week, I expect. And if I can’t sit a horse when Master Guthsund leaves, I’ll ride in one of his wagons until I can.”

“Are you sure . . .” Blodwen began.

“Of course he’s sure,” Saint Fiona said firmly. “He’s a Highland clansman. They define headstrong and stubborn in the flesh.” The snort definitely came from her this time.

Duncan looked around the room. “While I do appreciate the visit, and I very much appreciate the sword,” he ran his right hand up the sheath to the hilt, “I’m beginning to get a feeling that there is another reason why I have such notables here.” He raised his eyebrows almost to the bandage around his head. “Anyone care to explain, or am I supposed to guess?”

The mood in the room changed markedly. Pwyll and Blodwen retired to the back of the room, and the two saints moved forward.

“We need to tell you a story, Duncan corNial.” That was Saint Meurig, her round face now solemn, no glint of humor in her eyes at all. “We ask that you listen to all of it if you can before asking your questions. And you will undoubtedly have questions.”

Duncan arched his eyebrows, and felt them make contact with the bandage wrapped around his forehead. He pondered her statement, then spoke.

“All right.”

“A thousand years ago,” Saint Meurig began, “the land called Cantredd was the south reaches of a kingdom that stretched north and east of here. We think it was called Harlyn, and the king’s palace lay in a city called Harcourt.”

Duncan was really taken aback by what she was doing. Why did he need to hear this? Why would he want to hear this?

“That was a time of great unsettlement and migration and conflict,” the saint continued. “Eventually Harlyn fell, with the northern lands falling first to the Mydhiote tribes coming from south and east. That eventually became Myddym. The southern lands sometime later fell to tribes from the western desert area and, after some disagreement and inter-tribal fights, eventually settled down to become Cantredd.

“Prior to that migration, there were five federations among the desert tribes, each centered on a major oasis.”

“I know you said no questions,” Duncan said, “but what’s an oasis?”

“You do know that the desert is harsh wilderness, with very little water, right?” That came from Saint Fiona. Her tone was abrupt, to say the least.

“I’ve been told that, but haven’t seen it with my own eyes,” Duncan replied. So far, he was beginning to think that these two saints—whatever those were—were likely to be a more of a pain than the wound in his thigh, which right now made them a significant issue.

“Believe it,” Fiona said. “An oasis is a place where a spring or springs produce enough water to keep people and animals alive and maybe allow a little bit of farming to raise food. They are rare in the desert, and as you might imagine are highly prized.” She shut up and waved a hand at her fellow saint.

“So, yes, five major oases in the desert, each supporting a tribal federation,” Meurig continued with a glare at Fiona. “And then the water began to fail. Not equally, not at first, but within a generation each oasis was only producing half the water it had, and the flow continued to decline. The tribes were a bit unhappy, and began to look for reasons why and who could have caused it. The stories and records are not very coherent, but it appears there was a meeting of the chiefs of all the federations, out of which came a conclusion that one of the federations had offended the gods, and therefore they were all being punished.”

“I can guess what came next,” Duncan said a bit sourly. “Four against one aren’t good odds for the one.”

“Indeed,” Meurig said. “The four closed ranks against the one. Even in the fragments we have, the fighting was extremely bloody. There are hints of massacres occurring, and echoes of great heroes.”

“A lot of good that does if everyone dies.” Duncan’s tone was headed toward bitter. He tried to pull it up, but he wasn’t sure just how much change he effected.

“The one side wasn’t destroyed—quite—although again, piecing together the fragments we have, it appears that it was a near run thing. It came down to a final battle, and the battle leader of the one formed a desperate strategy.

“Both sides had taken horrific losses over the seasons of the struggle. The four had lost more both in numbers and in proportions than the one, but they could more easily afford to do so. The battle leader of the one could see that there was only one great fight left in his people, and so he laid his strategies.

“The younger women and the larger children were formed into companies under the warriors who were in the prime of their years. The older warriors and the striplings formed into a single column. When they located the main camp of the warriors of the four, they waited until a night when the moon was dark, and in the coldest hours of the night watch, they attacked.

“Their purpose was to disrupt, and kill, and destroy, so that it would be days before the four could send out hunting parties again. And they succeeded—they reaped a harvest of death greater than any that had gone before. It is bitter indeed when brother hates brother, when sisters’ sons cross blades. And the four had taught the one to hate; indeed they had.”

“Sounds like our kind of people,” Duncan said in a quiet tone. “We clansmen know how to hate when it is warranted.”

There was a moment of silence after that was said, during which it seemed that the phrase almost echoed around the room.

“Remember that thought,” Saint Fiona rasped.

“The column of the one took out the sentries around the main camp, then it punched into the camp and began slaying and burning as they ran. They spread out through the camp, killing men in their beds and setting tents and wagons on fire. A core group of the best fighters led by the battle leader fought their way to the center of the camp, where they killed or wounded all of the major leaders of the four before they fell.

“All of the men in that column died in that attack, but they took many lives before the last one fell. And none ran. Even when the full host roused and finally brought the survivors of the one to bay, none broke, none ran, all fought until they were killed. None survived, and the host of the four was furious.

“The companies of women and warriors ran that night, on foot and with what horses they had. They ran to the east, headed out of the desert. Their battle leader had seen that their only hope was to leave their land behind and make for new territory.”

“You said they took older children,” Duncan interjected. “Surely there were infants and small children.” It was not a question, but it demanded an answer.

Meurig sighed heavily. “Yes, even after seasons of warfare, there were still infants and younger children in the one. It was a harsh duty, but the battle leader ordered them left behind, in the care of the crones of the federation’s tribes and what priestesses had survived.”

“And?” Duncan said after another moment of silence.

“The blackest deed of the whole struggle. When a column of riders from one of the four found them, such was their rage at the aftermath of the attack on the camp that they massacred the lot of them. Babes were tossed in the air and caught on lance points, younger children were caught up by the heels and swung against rocks and walls until their heads split open. The crones were run down, run over, and raped as they lay dying. The handful of priestesses stood together chanting curses and imprecations at the warriors until their battle leader called forward his archers and had them filled with arrows.”

Duncan held up a hand, and Meurig fell silent. The clansman was filled with rage, and he could feel the coldness beginning to seep out of his heart. He welcomed it, now; oh, how he welcomed it.

Duncan took his sword in his right hand, then threw back the blanket that covered him. He had no care for whether he was naked or not, but the physicians had wrapped a short kilt around him. He swung his feet over the side of the bed, set the tip of the sword sheath on the floor, and levered himself first to a sitting position, then to stand on his feet. Pain flared in his leg, and his head grew light for a moment, but he locked his knees and leaned on the sword until the moment passed.

“Four federations based on oases,” he growled, looking around the room. “Four societies based on water. And you dare to tell me this story, to brag about it?”

“Not brag,” Fiona pushed forward. “Shamed. We expose our shame to you. But sit, young clansman, and hear the rest of the story. Please.” She dropped to her knees and bent forward to rest her forehead on the floor before his feet. Pwyll and Blodwen followed. Only Meurig remained on her feet to face Duncan.

The cold had permeated Duncan, as much as if he were facing the triad on the street again. He wanted to storm out of the room, out of the baths, back to the inn to saddle Swiftwing and ride out of Caldecauthe.

<Stay>

The sensing of that word shocked Duncan. He froze, trying to hear more words spoken without a voice. Nothing.

Duncan hesitated, then sank down to sit on the edge of the bed. He said nothing; simply moved the sword so that it stood vertically between his thighs, leaned it against his left shoulder, wrapped his left arm around it and embraced the hilt with his right hand. His clan knife lay just to his right on the bed.

The clansman stretched his right leg out to reduce the strain on the stab wound; took a measured breath. He said nothing; simply looked up at Saint Meurig from beneath lowered eyebrows.

“Most of the companies of the one passed out of the desert alive. Only two were caught up with by columns from the four, and they ended in death, albeit death by combat, somewhat cleaner than the other. The women fought as well, and would not be taken. The other companies, however many of them there were, passed beyond the border of the desert, passed to the east, out of the ken of the four.

“The four thought they had won. They thought they had purified the desert. They expected the water to return, and their way of life to be restored in all its richness.”

Meurig shook her head in obvious sadness.

“They were ruined. Whether it was because of their driving out of the one, or the slaughter of the innocents, or the imprecations of the priestesses, they were ruined.

“The water failed altogether. In five years, all the oases were dying. They had no choice but to band together and migrate to the east, oh so reluctantly following in the steps of the one they had driven away. And so they left the desert, and came into the land now called Cantredd, which means ‘a bitter dose’. And so they took it, and made it their own, and took in the people who survived of the original inhabitants, and learned how to live in this rolling green land where sand only occurs in the banks of streams and rivers.

“It was not until years later that they learned of the greatest failure.”

At that, Meurig nudged Fiona in the ribs with her foot. “Stand up, you old fool.”

“All of you, stand up,” Duncan muttered. Fiona and the others stood, her with some stiffness, Pwyll and Blodwen with limber grace.

Meurig stepped back, leaving Fiona in the focus of Duncan’s gaze. He continued to gaze out from under his lowered brows. The saint faced him squarely.

“For unnumbered generations before the great schism between the four and the one, the lives of the people had been guided by spokesmen sent by the gods.”

“Priests?” Duncan interjected.

Fiona shook her head. “Sometimes, but more often not. These would be men or women touched directly by the gods and called out, sometimes for a single specific purpose, sometimes for a lifetime. They wandered between the main oases, so all the federations knew them. Sometimes years would go by between the death of one and the appearance of the next; sometimes there would be three or more moving among the people.

“Some were warriors; some were herdsmen; some were farmers. There was at least one baker.

“Some would bring a message or prophecy; some healed; some just walked among the people and encouraged them. But they all had one thing in common.”

The saint raised an index finger.

“They all had marks–sigils.”

She pointed it at Duncan.

“Like those.”

Duncan was appalled. “What are you saying?”

Fiona ignored him and carried on.

“No one noticed that when the four federations turned on the one, the spokesmen began disappearing, until by the time the one was driven out, there were none.”

She started pacing back and forth. “Who would have known that when the fifth federation was harassed and assaulted and persecuted into fleeing for their very lives, leaving all else—even their small children!—behind that they would somehow take with them the secrets of enchanneling avatars. By the time the wiser among the four realized what had happened, well-nigh a generation had passed. For two generations, no one rose who could speak for the gods, and by the time it was clear to everyone what had happened, the fifth federation—the one—had passed beyond our ken. For over five hundred years there was silence—stark, cold, empty silence, no matter what we offered, no matter how we prayed. And for the following five hundred years, the only people who might have been or could have been avatars were occasional clansmen who wandered from their Highlands down to Cantredd.”

“The latest of which was Jamesh corAnuwn,” Meurig took up the thread. “He refused to see, refused to act, and left Cantredd when we . . .”

“Don’t mince words, Meurig.” Fiona whirled and faced her companion. “He fled, because we tried to force him to become an avatar, and he would have no part in it.”

Meurig’s lips tightened, but she said nothing more. Fiona stood for a moment, then her shoulders slumped and she turned back to Duncan.

The cold was so strong in Duncan that he felt icy.

“The markings on your arms are right out of the oldest complete scrolls that we have. The Sword of the Dawn and the Owl By Night.” Fiona pointed at Duncan’s arms, “two of the strongest sigils we know, done in a style that matches those old scrolls—a style much more elaborate than what we have seen on clansmen before. That alone tells us you are something out of the ordinary.” She placed her hands together and pointed them at Duncan’s chest, then slowly drew them apart. “But the Raven . . .”

The saint paused, and slowly drew herself up.

“There are very old scrolls back at the manteidd,” Fiona said almost in a whisper, “scrolls that are delicate, are decaying, that crumble into fragments when we try to open them. Who knows what we have lost in them? But some few of the fragments can be read, and one of them mentions Raven. Judge, Raven was, and sometimes nemesis.” She shivered. “The last battle leader of the one wore Raven.” She shivered again.

“We have not seen many clansmen, or clan markings, here in Caldecauthe.” Meurig’s voice was also soft. “But what little we know would indicate that Raven would not be common among your folk, friend Duncan.”

The saint left an expectant pause, and Duncan was drawn into it enough to respond with, “No. Common is what the raven mark is not.”

<Tell>