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.