Gavan’s voice was like the bellowing of a bull in the night. “Boys of Doeth Palas!” he roared. “Hold back! Hold back, I say!” He pulled his helmet off, revealing his weather-beaten face. A long white scar ran down the left side of his jaw, a trophy won at the battle of Meigen, where he had been standard-bearer to the King. “Bryn! Padraig! Andras! Lower your weapons!”
Branwen knew those names. They were lads of the Prince’s court in Doeth Palas – boys she had seen often in her brief stay in that place. So – that accounted for three of Gavan’s followers. But who was the fourth – the small, frightened boy riding a horse too tall for him?
To learn that, the fighting must first of all be halted.
Branwen ran forwards, her sword and shield down. “Dera – Aberfa! All of you!” she called. “Stop! No more!”
The clash of sword on sword, and of iron on wooden shield ceased. Branwen’s people backed off from the horsemen. Blodwedd’s eyes burned with a deadly fire as she threw down the branch she had been wielding. She stooped and helped Rhodri to his feet. He had a raw graze across his forehead and seemed woozy but otherwise unhurt as he leaned on the owl-girl’s shoulder.
“Is anyone injured?” Branwen called. “Where is Iwan?”
“I am here, Barbarian Princess,” came an unsteady voice. Iwan lifted himself on one elbow from a bed of ferns. “My head is buzzing like a nest of wasps, but it is still attached to my shoulders, so I should not complain.” He groaned as he tried to rise. “At least, I shall not, if someone lends a hand.”
Linette ran forwards and he was soon on his feet, his arm across her slender shoulders.
“Women, for the most part,” rumbled Gavan’s voice as he stared around at Branwen’s followers. He frowned. “Dera ap Dagonet – you at least I know. I saw you last at your father’s side in Doeth Palas. I believe you to be loyal and true, child – what is your part in this venture?”
Dera stepped forwards, her head held high. “I follow Branwen ap Griffiths,” she declared, looking keenly into Gavan’s eyes. “And if you are still in service to the traitorous Prince of Bras Mynydd, then I tell you to your face that you do wrong, Gavan ap Huw!”
“Is it so?” said Gavan. “That’s twice I’ve heard Prince Llew named traitor. I’d know the meaning behind your words, Dera ap Dagonet.”
“Prince Llew has betrayed us to the Saxons,” said Branwen. “He works now for the downfall of Powys.”
Gavan looked sharply at her, then his eyes moved beyond her and narrowed in revulsion and distrust as he gazed at Blodwedd. “I cannot take the word of one who has allied herself with demons,” he muttered. He stared again at Branwen. “You are no longer your mother’s daughter, of that I am most certain. The Old Gods have tainted and ruined you, girl.”
“That may well be the case,” Iwan said wryly, limping forwards with his arm still across Linette’s shoulders. “But I am no follower of the Old Gods, Gavan ap Huw!” His eyebrow rose quizzically. “Will you take my word for it that the Prince has betrayed us?”
“This is all lies!” shouted Bryn, the big bullying boy from Doeth Palas. He had challenged Branwen to a fight with quarterstaffs and had hated it when she had proved less of an easy conquest than he had assumed. As he called out, he pulled off his helmet, revealing his pale freckled face and mop of unruly red hair. “The Prince is no traitor, nor ever would be!” He glared at Gavan. “Why are we wasting our breath on these liars?”
Aberfa sprang at him, her face savage. Before he could defend himself she pulled him from the saddle and threw him sprawling on the ground. Others on both sides started forwards, hands moving to sword hilts, faces uneasy.
Bryn stared up at Aberfa in shock and alarm as she planted her foot on his chest and aimed the point of her sword at his throat.
“Liars, is it?” she shouted. “You’d not call us so if you’d seen the Captain of Doeth Palas bend his knee to Herewulf Ironfist! You’d not say so if you’d seen the Saxon dogs carousing in the Great Hall of Gwylan Canu!”
Banon moved forward and caught her arm. “Peace, Aberfa!” she gasped. “Let it not be we who break this truce.”
Aberfa glowered at her. Then she nodded and lifted her foot from Bryn’s chest. But she kept the sword-point at his throat.
“Aberfa – do not harm him!” called Branwen. “If faith in the faithless is worthy of death, then which of us shall escape the slaughterhouse?”
She turned to Gavan, her heart aching that this man whom she so admired could place no trust in her. “Whose tale will you believe, Gavan ap Huw?” she asked. “If not mine – then whose?”
“I may believe Iwan, the son of Madoc ap Rhain, lord of Gwylan Canu,” said Gavan. “But I will need more proofs than hearsay, ere I give credence to his words.”
“Then let’s put up our weapons and perhaps build a fire to warm us on this bleak mountainside,” said Iwan. “We have food enough to share, if you have ears for our sorry tale.”
Gavan nodded. “So shall it be.” He sheathed his sword. “Bryn, you fool!” he called gruffly. “Get to your feet, boy. Would you shame us all, lying on your back in the dirt with a maiden’s sword in your face?”
It was a strange, tense gathering under the spreading oak branches in the dying reaches of the night. A fire had been built, and its flames threw a ghoulish light over the trees, as well as ruddying the faces and clothes of the two uneasy bands. They sat and watched each other warily across the fire while Iwan spoke of the events that had unfolded at Gwylan Canu over the past day and night.
Food and drink had been shared out between the two groups and Rhodri had made up some herbal salves for the minor injuries inflicted in the skirmish. Fortunately no one had been seriously hurt, and the worst abrasion was to Iwan’s head, although he made light of it. The horses were close by, tethered loosely and able to graze. Fain watched Gavan suspiciously from a low branch above Branwen’s head, as though ready at the first hint of aggression from the grizzled old warrior to launch himself down with a stabbing beak and rending claws.
Branwen looked at the newcomers. With their grim, iron-faced helmets removed, they were suddenly just a bunch of lads from Prince Llew’s citadel: sullen-faced Bryn with his huge muscles and his swaggering ways, skinny Andras with his gangly limbs and his startled-chicken face, and Padraig ap Gethin, a boy with jet black hair and a thin moustache hidden by a great craggy nose.
Not exactly a cadre of weathered warriors for such a man as Gavan ap Huw to ride with. And there was still the puzzle of the fourth lad. Branwen guessed he was no more than seven or eight years old, his hair tawny, his face showing an expression she recognized – the downcast eyes and flinching demeanour of someone used to dodging blows. A servant, she guessed – but not a Saxon captive by his looks. A boy of Brython, then –one recently rescued from some Saxon household.
“And believe what you will of The Shining Ones,” Iwan was saying, his eyes fixed on Gavan. “But I tell you I was there – and I saw the great green man of the ancient woods – and dreadful and unknowable as he may be, he was our friend at that moment, and without him a Saxon army would now be squatting in Gwylan Canu, plotting the conquest of Brython.”
A long, suspenseful silence followed while Gavan stared into the flames, as though he hoped the leaping tongues would reveal something to help him make up his mind. Padraig and Andras were looking at one another with puzzled, worried faces. Bryn’s stubborn features were unreadable.
It was Blodwedd’s voice that broke the crackling silence.
“If you wish for further proofs, I can give them to you,” she growled, eyeing Gavan with open hostility. She lifted her hands, her white fingers spread like raking claws. “I can show you things, man of war – things you will not doubt. Proofs of perfidy indeed.”
Gavan’s lip curled and he shrank away from her. “Do not seek to touch me, demon,” he said. “For I will smite you to the bone if you seek to work your sorceries on me!”
“What use will the spilling of blood serve?” asked Rhodri, reaching to draw back Blodwedd’s hands and to cradle them in his. “Have we not already seen blood enough to last us a lifetime?”
Branwen peered into Gavan’s closed face, dismayed at the thought of having to fight again, but frustrated at the delay this strange encounter was causing. Upon the mountain peak, Merion of the Stones was waiting – and Branwen knew from experience that the tasks set her by The Shining Ones did not allow for procrastination.
“Speak your mind, Gavan ap Huw!” she said. “What choice do you make? To let us go on our way unmolested, or to try and take me back to your master’s cruel justice?”
“You’ll wade to the hips in your own blood ere that happens!” warned Dera.
Gavan looked slowly from face to face of Branwen’s followers, seeing defiance and grim determination in every one. He turned at last to Branwen. “You misunderstand my purpose here if you believe I have come onto the mountain to take you back to the Prince,” he said slowly. “I have no desire to return to Doeth Palas – I have a mission in the east. A mission that will brook no delay.”
“It’s the boy, isn’t it?” Rhodri said, nodding towards the scared-looking lad. “I know the look of a boy who has been in servitude to the Saxons – and I know a runaway when I see one.”
Branwen glanced at her friend – so, she had been right in her guess! The boy was an escaped prisoner of the Saxons.
Gavan looked at Rhodri with a new respect. “A shrewd man, you are,” he said. “It is news from the east brought to me by the boy Dillan that has hastened me from Doeth Palas.” He turned to Branwen. “Forgive my slow response, Branwen of the Old Gods,” he said. “I am a man of action, not thought, but your tale of the Prince’s perfidy chimes all too well with an encounter I had with him before I departed his Court.” He paused, his face grim, as though the words were bitter in his throat.
“When Iwan came to Prince Llew with his tale of a Saxon army approaching Gwylan Canu, it seemed strange to me that the Prince should choose to send out fifty horsemen,” he said. “Were that citadel taken by an enemy, all of Brython would be in danger.” He shook his head. “If an army were marching on Gwylan Canu, fifty men could not hold them back – and the Prince had not called for a muster of footmen or armed riders to follow on after Captain Angor’s troop. Yet, if the Prince believed Iwan’s tale to be false, then why send so many? A brace of swift riders would be enough to gauge the situation and report back.”
“So,” said Branwen. “Fifty was too few – or too many. Yes, I understand. We thought the same…until we learned the truth.”
“I went to the Prince with my thoughts,” Gavan continued. “But he became angry and dismissed me with my questions unanswered.” Gavan’s jaw set. “So I left him, but it rankled with me, although I had no inkling of the reason behind his decision.” His hand balled to a white fist, rage was building in him. “But were he indeed in league with Herewulf Ironfist, then the sending of Captain Angor and his fifty riders had a good purpose.”
“Exactly,” said Iwan. “To delude my father into allowing them to enter Gwylan Canu at their ease, and then to hand over the citadel to Ironfist upon his arrival. And the plan would have worked, if not for the loose lips of one of Angor’s men.” He looked at Branwen, his eyes shining. “And if not for this Princess of the eastern cantrefs, whose allies you despise, all would still have been lost.”
“Aye,” growled Gavan. “She has served the land well, but the Old Gods have their own purposes, I deem, and the lives of those who are caught up in their webs are of little value to them.”
“I do not think that is true,” said Branwen.
“It is not,” added Blodwedd. “All life is sacred to the Elder Powers – I wish the same could be said of you humans!”
“But do I understand you correctly, Gavan ap Huw?” asked Iwan. “Do you now believe that the Prince has betrayed us?”
There was a heavy silence. Branwen saw that the eyes of Gavan’s three lads were riveted on the old warrior’s face. “I do,” he said at last. “It grieves me to the heart – but I can see no other answer to the riddle of his actions.” He clenched his fists and shook them at the blind sky. “Traitor most foul!” he shouted. “Had I known of this when I stood at his side, a knife to the heart would have been his reward!”