Owain sniffed the air and scowled. The rain was supposed to make the world smell fresh. True, it washed away the acrid smell of woodsmoke and the stink of dung and unwashed bodies. Yet, the rain brought its own bouquet of mould, rotting vegetation, the wet fur of animals and the dank stink of mud underfoot.
He tightened his grip on the bridle of his master’s horse, cursing the animal’s slowness as he led both horse and master along the mired road. His hands were as cold and wet as his feet, which sank into the mud at every step.
The River Cae ran its course alongside the road. The water ran high and swift, swelled by the runoff from the valley’s high slopes. Another foot and it might break its banks, though his master insisted that hadn’t happened in twenty years.
The rushing water compounded the ache in Owain’s bladder. The feeling had been steadily building since leaving Colfrick three hours and two pints of cider earlier. He cast a longing glance at one of the many trees forming a loose boundary between river and road, debating whether to relieve himself.
No. Master Trystan bade him not to stop until they reached Skeinhold. Trystan insisted they reached the castle before nightfall and with good reason — the Cae Valley was not safe for travellers at night. Not even for his renowned master, the Bard of Langorn.
Still, nature was calling, and surely a quick dash to one of the trees would be a reasonable and brief diversion.
No. Master Trystan demanded discipline, not least over the weaknesses of the body. ‘The bard who cannot master his own body’, the old man frequently said, ‘can never expect to master voice and instrument’.
Owain didn’t quite believe his master’s assertion, but he did believe in the consequence of his actions. He knew he was gifted — Master Trystan said as much — but if he ever wanted to learn more than weaving music and song, he had to stay on his master’s good side.
Oh Gods, I really need to piss!
Owain chanced a look backwards, turning over his shoulder and peeking up from under the hood of his cowl. Master Trystan lolled and swayed with the movement of the horse. The old master’s face was hidden by the shadow of his hood.
Was he asleep?
Owain decided he wouldn’t risk it. Discipline was a worthy quality. If a tiresome one. Besides, Owain didn’t want to cause his master’s disappointment again.
He turned ahead and tugged on the horse’s reins, hoping to pick up the pace. The road — and ‘road’ was being generous — between Colfrick and Skeinhold was only ten miles. Yet, the rain and mud had made the journey a laborious slog, doubling the time it should have taken.
Some fifty yards ahead, the river cut through a thick copse of trees. Owain squinted into the rain. His eyes followed the line of the wooded banks, picking up the road as it skirted the copse. In the distance, the valley’s edge broke into a sheer cliff face that suggested the entrance of a shallow gorge.
Hadn’t Trystan said Skeinhold Castle straddled the confluence of the Cae and Talw rivers?
He chided himself for not paying more attention when his master outlined their journey earlier that week. It was his own fault; his disappointment at the change in plan angered him to wilful insolence. For half a year they had planned to travel to Kas Mendoc and the court of Duke Artur Kasparu.
Owain had never visited a proper city and the prospect of performing before Duke Artur both exhilarated and terrified him. When Trystan announced they would go instead to Skeinhold his disappointment had been impossible to conceal.
Owain glared under his hood, his mood darkening. Performing for the duke promised to enhance his stature beyond his homeland, and perhaps even the chance to shine through his master’s long shadow. It was hard not to take the news personally.
Stop it; there must be a good a reason.
His master had long spoken of the need to foster close ties with the Venyk-ruled duchy. Even Owain knew those ties were strained and close to unravelling. His own ruler, Prince Griffod, had married off his sister, Arenwen, to Duke Artur, but after ten years of marriage, she had died giving birth to Artur’s twins, Lillian and Emilan. That was six years ago, but ever since her death, the relationship between prince and duke had soured, and old tensions over trade and territory had surfaced once again.
Yes, a good reason indeed.
Yet, the old man had not shared his reasons, leading Owain to wallow in speculation and resentment in their three-day journey from Langorn to Skeinhold.
Owain quickened his pace as best he could in the ankle-deep mud. He yanked the reins, his master’s horse snorting in protest. The animal’s annoyance reminded Owain of the virtue of patience, and so he relaxed his grip — it wouldn’t do to have the horse rear and throw the old man from the saddle.
They came to the edge of a thick copse of trees on the river’s bank. Owain followed the road around its edges. The rain eased to a fine drizzle, and the misty rain hung in the air like a shroud, blurring Owain’s sight.
They rounded the copse. Ahead, the valley opened into a patchwork of fields and cottages, and Owain squinted against the fading light. Skeinhold Castle lay half a mile distant, a grey smudge against the rolling green hills along the horizon. The castle’s keep rose from the centre of the complex, twice as high as the perimeter walls and their defensive towers at each of the four corners. He couldn’t see the gatehouse and wondered if it lay along the southern or western wall, which he couldn’t see from his vantage point.
Owain stopped in the middle of the road and turned about. The horse tugged against his restraining hand. Owain loosened his grip on the reins and let her wander to the road’s edge, where she bent her head and began to clip the grass. He followed and patted his master’s leg.
“Master,” he said softly.
Trystan opened one eye.
“We’re close to Skeinhold.”
Trystan opened his second eye and frowned. “Close to Skeinhold is not the same as in Skeinhold.”
“No,” Owain said cautiously. “I thought you’d like the chance to approach the place awake.”
Trystan’s frown deepened. “I was awake.”
Owain said, “Your eyes were closed, Master. Forgive the assumption.”
“I was meditating.”
“Yes, Master,” said Owain, trying to sound agreeable. He turned and looked upon Skeinhold, his shoulders slumping in disappointment. “It doesn’t look like much. Skeinhold I mean.”
Trystan gave a pensive, nasal hum as he stared at the settlement. “No, you’re right there. It’s changed somewhat since I was last here — not for the better it seems.”
Owain looked up at the old man. “When was that, Master?”
“Eight or nine years ago,” Trystan replied.
Owain turned back and looked up at the old man. “Master…why…” He stopped, casting his eyes downward.
Trystan’s eyebrows met in the middle. “My boy, if you’ve something to say, spit it out. You are a bard in training. Act like one.”
Owain’s cheeks flushed. “I…I would know… I mean, I’d like to know your reasons for coming here.”
“Oh, you would?” said Trystan, with a bemused smile. “Well, I thought it was past time to see an old friend.”
“And that’s more important than ‘greasing Artur’s arse’?”
Trystan chuckled. “Careful how you repeat Prince Griffod’s words, boy — it’s most unbecoming in a bard when he speaks too much like his patron.”
Owain’s lips curled in a half smile. “But I am right, Master. I know your reasons are important.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because, Master, you above all men in Griffod’s court champion Artur’s cause.”
“True,” said Trystan, stretching the word before lapsing into a brief pause. “Perhaps, I do so out of a desire for peace. War will not blossom if we miss one festival.”
“No,” said Owain carefully, mildly irritated when he realised Trystan had skilfully avoided answering his question.
“Now come,” said Trystan, “let us be on our way. We’re burning what little daylight remains.”
Owain shifted his weight from one leg to the other and grimaced. “Master, do you mind if I relieve myself first?”
Trystan pointed toward the castle. “Wouldn’t you prefer the comfort of a privy?”
Owain grimaced. “Not if it’s like those in Colfrick.”
Trystan laughed. “Well said.” He waved his hand towards the edge of the copse. “Do what you must and don’t be long about it.”
Owain offered the old man the reins then dashed off towards the trees. The trees grew close together in a mass of tangled limbs and roots. Dense blackberry bushes made it almost impossible to venture too deep, but he managed to find a way through to a small space that afforded him privacy with minimal risk of scratching himself on thorns and branches.
His need increased to a state of urgency, and he fumbled with his robe and breeches. He’d been holding for so long it took a moment to relax enough to let the stream flow. When it did, his relief was palpable, and Owain let out a long sigh.
Suddenly, the trees rustled off to his right. He turned and caught a streak of movement. A flush of panic came over him, heart beating hard against his ribs. His dreamsight flooded his awareness, fuelled by his uncontrolled surge of fear.
Fear and not all of it mine.
They were afraid…of him.
Yes, he sensed two of them.
Owain finished and hastened to cover himself. He tracked the pair’s movements and set off after them. The rustling became louder as they tried to escape through the thicket. A boy swore, his voice edged in panic.
Owain pushed through the trees and saw them, a young woman and a boy, their passage of escape blocked by a wall of thorns.
“Stop!” cried Owain. “Please, I’ll not harm you.”
The pair looked terrified. The boy, who looked no older than thirteen, quivered like a frightened hare. His companion, a young dark-haired woman, perhaps nineteen or twenty, crouched defensively between Owain and the boy. Her face was streaked with dirt, but she looked lovely to him — a wild and fierce thing with quick, dark eyes that shone with intelligence. She held a bow across her chest, her shaking hand trying to nock an arrow on the string.
“Who are you?” she hissed.
“A traveller,” Owain said, keeping his tone as even and calm as possible. “We — that is my master and I — are from Langorn. We are bound for Skeinhold.”
“How old are you?”
Owain’s eyes widened, surprised by the question. “I… ah, I’m seventeen…no eighteen.”
The young woman frowned in suspicion. “You don’t know?”
Owain shook his head. “It’s not that; it’s…never mind. Why do you want to know?”
“You won’t be safe around her,” said the woman.
Owain said, “Who are you talking about?”
Without taking her eyes off Owain, she returned the arrow to the quiver at her belt. “If you’ve any sense you’ll leave this place and go home. It is not safe here.”
Owain smiled. “It’s all right. I am under my master’s protection.”
The woman shook her head. “Won’t do you any good.”
“Why not?” asked Owain. “What are you running from?”
The woman didn’t answer. She pulled a dagger from her belt, turned and bent over to help the boy extricate himself from the thorns that ensnared his cloak. Owain watched, captivated by her swaying rump, shown off to good effect in the tight-fitting garments of a travelling man.
“Where are you going?”
The woman replied with her back to Owain as she knelt over the boy. “Away from Skeinhold. We’re only waiting here until nightfall.”
Owain winced. “You can’t travel after dark in this valley; you’ll be murdered!”
The woman freed the boy from the last of the thorns and sheathed the dagger at her hips. “It’s better than staying there.”
“She’s a w-witch,” said the boy suddenly, stammering in fear.
“Shut up, Tom!” said the girl and she bent to pick up two fallen bundles. She thrust both into the boy’s arms, forcing him to grunt and step back, then slung her bow over her shoulders. “Please, leave us, and don’t try to follow.”
Her tone was pleading and afraid, her anger thinning. She motioned the boy back towards the trees in the direction of the river and turned to follow him.
“Wait, I can help, my master—”
The woman stopped and turned suddenly, her eyes boring into him. “Who’s your master?”
Owain stepped back from the intense suspicion and distrust in her gaze. “Trystan of Langorn.”
The young woman’s eyes widened, her expression caught between wonder and fear. “The Weaver of Dreams? He’s here?” she asked in a hushed tone.
Her use of the old title threw him. It was seldom used in Langorn, except among the superstitious and the elderly. Did the people of the Cae Valley cling harder to the old ways?
“Well?” she asked, hand on one hip — which did wonders to accentuate her figure.
“Ye-yes,” he stammered, uncomfortable by the directness of her speech. That she was beautiful in her own wild way wasn’t helping his composure either.
“Why has he come here?”
Owain shrugged helplessly. “He’s not told me,” he began, and despite his present resentment towards Trystan, speaking of his master rebuilt some of his confidence. “Will you come speak with him? He can help you.”
The woman shook her head. “We’ll take our chances.”
“Just go!” she snapped.
Owain recoiled and spread his arms in a gesture of peace. “All right, have it your way. The gods be kind to you both.”
The woman ushered her younger companion back under the cover of the dense trees. She was poised to follow him when she turned and cast one final glance at Owain. “Leave. Do not step foot in Skeinhold.”
The young woman melted into the undergrowth before Owain had a chance to reply. He stood there, eyes fixed on the branches that swayed with her passage. He heard them scrambling and scraping. The sound soon faded to nothing.
Some bloody wordsmith I am! I didn’t even ask her name.
For a moment he was more concerned with his awkward shyness around young women. He could recite and sing before a crowd of hundreds but find himself before a pretty face and a full bosom and all his training counted for nothing.
Damnit. How long have I been here?
He let out a long sigh, resigning himself to his master’s displeasure as he turned and retraced his steps back to the road. In his haste, brambles tugged at his cloak and scratched his forearms. He emerged from the copse just as the sun disappeared behind the walls of the valley. Trystan had dismounted and was standing off the road, still holding his horse’s bridle as the animal tore out tufts of grass from the roadside. The old man leaned casually on his stout oak staff.
“Where have you been, boy?” Trystan asked, his tone thankfully more curious than irritated.
Owain related his encounter, and Trystan’s heavy brows furrowed. The old man’s gaze shifted from Owain to the trees behind, his expression becoming more sombre as Owain described the pair’s fear. Owain read the concern in his master’s expression, but he left his own questions unasked.
“Did they give you their names or that of this witch?”
“She called the boy, Tom. That’s all I know. The girl wouldn’t answer my questions.”
The old man’s bushy eyebrows met in the middle as he frowned. “We’ll deal with them later.”
“She said they were running at nightfall.”
Trystan shrugged and gazed off to the north. “They won’t wander too far. Common sense will prevail.”
Owain wasn’t so sure, but he knew better than to argue.
“Anything else?” asked Trystan.
Owain met his master’s eyes. “Only…”
“Go on,” said Trystan, an amused glint in his eyes.
“My dreamsight,” said Owain, “It was triggered in my panic at first hearing them. Unbidden, as you warned me it might.”
Trystan raised an eyebrow, a knowing smile on his lips. “Yes, and so it will until you learn control. Today more than any other day.”
Owain eyed his master with suspicion. He had learnt — or rather, inferred — enough about magic to know Trystan would have sensed the sudden release of dreamsight in such proximity.
“You knew, and you did not come to my aid.”
Trystan shrugged. “I sensed you were not in mortal danger. Was I wrong to trust you’d look after yourself?”
Owain flushed crimson and caught the teasing look on his master’s face. “No, but you promised you’d begin teaching me magic should it happen again.”
“And I will — once you've learnt patience.”
Owain sighed, having lost count of the number of times Trystan had dangled this carrot before him. “Yes, Master.”
Trystan patted him on the shoulder. “Rest easy and be patient, boy. It is a discussion for another day. There’s time aplenty; you must first master song and lore. Magic does not rest well on youthful shoulders.”
Owain nodded, trying to take his master’s words to heart while being acutely aware of his own impatience. “What of Skeinhold? Should we not heed their warning?”
Trystan shrugged. “Perhaps. Then again perhaps they are nothing more than frightened children fleeing an abusive father.”
“Perhaps…” Owain echoed, though he was not wholly convinced. Their fear had been real. He’d felt it as surely as the rain on his head and the mud oozing beneath his feet. Yet, in the comfort of his master’s presence, he could well believe the pair were nothing but wayward delinquents.
Trystan handed over the reins of the horse and pulled his staff free of the mud. “Nevertheless, we will be cautious. Now, come on; I grow tired of this rain. Let us present ourselves to the good people of Skeinhold.”
Trystan set off down the road, his pace brisk for a man of his advanced years. Owain watched him for several moments. He wondered if their reason for travelling to this gods forsaken mire was somehow related to whatever fear had driven the young woman and the boy away.
His expression soured. Why don’t you tell me your reasons, old man?
“Hurry up, boy!” Trystan bellowed without looking back.
Owain gave a long sigh, tugged on the reins, and trudged after his master.