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Soldaeg, Sol 4-Gewinnan Daeg Eve
The celebration in the mead-hall of the Eorl of Cantware was at its height. The air was hazy as smoke rose from the hearth in the center of the huge hall, whirling and eddying its way under tables, past benches, between boisterous warriors, up to the tall rafters and out the small hole in the timber roof. The coarse laughter of drunken men rebounded off the rough wooden walls, tangling and wrangling in the smoky air until it rose, like the smoke, to the rafters and out, escaping to disturb the night.
Surrounded by merriment, coarse jests, and bawdy songs, Havgan sat self-contained and controlled, as always. He smiled at the jests and joined in the war songs, but his thoughts were elsewhere, facing the truth-that the world of warriors he had longed to be a part of was just another world in which he was out of place, cut off. It was almost as though his very soul spoke a different language than all the rest. He had thought, long ago, when he was just a fisherman's son, that if he could exchange that old world with this new one, his nebulous longings would be satisfied. So he had planned and schemed and drawn himself up out of the world of lowly peasants and into this world of privileged warriors. He had been so sure that this new world would fit him. But it had not.
Havgan glanced up at the high table where his lord, Wiglaf, the Eorl of Cantware, surveyed the warriors packed into his hall. The Eorl's large, meaty hand grabbed his gold-banded drinking horn and, draining it to the dregs, held it out to be instantly filled by an attentive slave. Wiglaf's long, graying braids almost dropped into the cup. His beard was spotted with food, and his dark blue tunic strained to cover his large belly. But his blue eyes were alert and cunning, as always.
Havgan glanced at the others at the high table. Sigefrith, the Alder of Apuldre, the father of Havgan's closest friend, laughed and drank, but something in the man's dark, intelligent eyes showed he wished to be elsewhere. The Alders of Grenewic and Liminae both had glazed looks in their eyes, their movements becoming more and more clumsy.
Last of all, Havgan glanced at Sledda, Wiglaf's nephew, who sat very quietly at the end of the table. He drank his mead sparingly, as a clever man should. He was wearing the black robe and yellow taBard of the wyrce-jaga. His white skull gleamed through his recently tonsured hair, and his pale gray, heavy-lidded eyes glittered, searching the hall restlessly. It was a look that all wyrce-jaga had, even if they were newly come to their posts, as Sledda was.
For a brief moment Sledda's eyes met Havgan's. Havgan forced himself not to stare boldly, or to look away too quickly. Either gesture would surely alert Sledda that Havgan was afraid. Deep down within, terror stirred, along with something else hidden there.
Havgan's amber eyes, showing nothing of this hidden terror, shot a glance of innocent inquiry at Sledda. But the wyrce-jaga ignored him, his cold, restless gaze continuing to move across the hall. Havgan took a deep breath and relaxed.
"Not long now," Sigerric said in Havgan's ear. Havgan turned to him, his terror stilled. Sigerric, the Captain of the Eorl's warband, was the closest friend Havgan had in this strange, alien world. Sigerric smiled at Havgan, his dark eyes sparkling with amusement. Tall and lean, he ran a hand through his light brown hair, cut short to fit under his war helmet. At that moment the Eorl stood and bellowed for silence-a silence instantly achieved.
"Wulf, Captain of the gesith of Aethelmar, the Alder of Liminae, stand!" Wiglaf commanded. Wulf stood, his mailshirt gleaming in the firelight of the now silent hall. His black hair was short, and his clipped black beard framed thin lips. An old scar ran down from the corner of his left eye and down his face, disappearing into his beard.
"Sigerric, Captain of the gesith of Wiglaf, Eorl of Cantware, stand!" Wiglaf bellowed. Sigerric stood gracefully, smiling his easy smile.
Wiglaf went on. "I declare that today the warbands of the Alder of Liminae and my own warband have defeated all comers and have won the Gewinnan Daeg tournament, which we fight in memory of Lytir, the One God. As winners, these Captains have the honor to choose a champion for tomorrow's battle. These two champions will fight until one either yields or is killed. The winner is to be proclaimed Gewinnan Daeg King and receive a purse of fifty gold pieces. Wulf, who do you choose for the battle?"
Wulf, his voice dripping with arrogance, said swiftly, "I choose myself!"
"Sigerric, who do you choose for the battle?" Wiglaf went on.
"I choose Havgan, son of Hengist." A low murmur of surprise broke out. All eyes turned to Havgan, who was sitting frozen on his wooden bench, staring up at Sigerric in amazement.
Wulf cried furiously, "I refuse to fight the son of a churl!"
"He is a warrior," Sigerric shot back, his dark eyes flashing dangerously. "I have the right to choose any member of my warband that I wish."
At Sigerric's words a subtle shifting in the ranks began. Swiftly, four members of Eorl Wiglaf's warband began making their way through the crowded hall. These men were close friends of both Sigerric and Havgan, as well as being the sons of some of the most important men in the Empire. And they were not of a mind to stand any insult to their war brothers. Baldred and Talorcan, Catha and Penda, proudly came to stand behind Havgan and Sigerric, and stared at Wulf's furious face with silent disdain.
But Wulf, too angry to care, went on in spite of the danger. "I don't fight peasants. I am a thane's son-"
"And I am the son of the Alder of Apuldre," Sigerric broke in coldly, "and the Captain of the warband of the Eorl of Cantware, the gracious lord in whose hall you are taking your ease. And I say that Havgan, son of Hengist, fights the battle tomorrow. Are you afraid of him? Is that why you will not fight?" Sigerric mocked.
"Why you-" Wulf started toward Sigerric, but was held back by his own warriors.
"Enough," Wiglaf roared, as Wulf continued to struggle. "This is my hall. I will be obeyed." The Alder of Liminae hurried from the high table and laid a restraining hand on his Captain's arm, whispering furiously into his ear. Wulf subsided, but there was murder in his eyes.
"It is the right of the Captain to choose a champion," Wiglaf continued. "The champion can be any member of the Captain's warband." Wiglaf's sharp, blue eyes bored into Wulf. "Are you saying that there is a member of my warband who is unworthy to fight you? Are you saying that the men of my gesith are no better than peasants?" He leaned forward, dropping his voice lower. "Are you saying that my warriors are not worthy of sticking a sword into your arrogant guts?"
The crackling fire was the only noise in the hall as Wulf, his face pale, finally realized his mistake. "Your pardon, great lord," he said haltingly.
"Havgan, son of Hengist, do you accept this task that your Captain has given?" Wiglaf asked.
Havgan stood. His honey-blond hair gleamed and his amber eyes glittered. He stood proud and straight and in the uncertain firelight looked almost to be fashioned out of pure gold. "I do."
"So be it," Wiglaf said quietly. "Tomorrow these two champions will battle. To the strongest goes the victory." At this the Eorl abruptly left the hall, followed by his three alders and Sledda. The warriors in the hall began pushing the benches against the wall, preparing to wrap their cloaks around them and lay down on the rush-strewn floor.
Baldred, Talorcan, Catha, and Penda quickly and efficiently claimed a large share of the floor for themselves and their friends. As they did so, Havgan turned to Sigerric. "I can't believe you did that," he said, his voice showing his astonishment.
"Believe it," Sigerric grinned. "And get some sleep. You need to be well rested for tomorrow's fight."
"But why? Why did you choose me?"
"Why not?" Sigerric shrugged. "You're the best warrior we've got."
And though Havgan knew that was true, he also knew that Sigerric had other reasons. His friend saw very, very far with those dark eyes of his.
"You'll win tomorrow," Sigerric said quietly. "You know it. And I know it, too."
"But Wulf was right," Havgan said bitterly. "My father was a peasant."
"You think so?" Sigerric said, so unexpectedly, so quietly, that Havgan was stunned. "Do you really think so?"
Havgan stared at Sigerric, unable to answer the question that had lurked for years, just below his waking thoughts.
"Good night, Havgan. Sleep well." With that, Sigerric wrapped himself in his cloak and lay down on the straw, instantly falling asleep.
But Havgan was not ready for sleep. Too much had happened tonight for that. In a daze he sat down on the rushes amid recumbent, snoring warriors and stared into the glowing embers of the hearth fire, his knees huddled under his chin.
He began to remember how he came to be here; to remember the sea and how it drew him so, even now, even here. To remember how he longed to sail away across the ocean and find whatever waited for him in a land far, far away.
His first memories were of the sea. Before he even knew the sound of his own name, he knew the sounds of the ocean. He knew the rush of the water as it grabbed the shore and the hiss when it slid back again. He knew the sound of the gulls, crying of loss and beauty, stirring something deep inside. He knew the smell of the saltwater as it wafted up the cliffs, reaching for him, inviting him to come down and float forever in its green-blue silences.
He remembered that his mother always insisted on walking down to the beach with him, never letting him go alone. "You are my gift from the sea," she would say in her off-key, high voice. "And it might try to take you back again, unless I am there." Often she would say these strange things he didn't understand-though never in the hearing of his father. When Hengist was around his mother rarely spoke.
His father was a big man, his skin burned dark by the sun. Every day Hengist and the other men of the village would go down to the jetty and sail their tiny boats far away from shore, casting their nets for the fish that swam beneath the waves.
Some days they caught nothing, and there would be only milk and bread for supper in their tiny hut. Some days the catch was good, and they feasted on fresh fish wrapped in herbs. And some days the men caught other things from the sea washed up from wrecked ships. Sometimes there were bolts of cloth and crates of fruit. Sometimes there were jeweled cups and pieces of wood. And, sometimes, there were bodies.
One day, when he was only five years old, he was running down the beach, collecting shell after shell in his tiny hands, leaving his mother far behind. The roar of the waves crashed against his ears, the waves themselves glittered in the morning sun, flashing silver as they arched toward the shore. And as he ran he saw something in the distance. A bolt of cloth, he thought, and hurried toward it.
But when he reached the dark blot on the beach, he saw it wasn't cloth at all. It was a dead man. His sightless gray eyes were open and staring at the sky. He wore a tunic of blue and a strange necklace made of silver and a single sapphire. Cradled against his dead body he held a curiously carved harp, its strings broken and silent. Havgan thought that maybe the man had come from a place very far away. And he thought that he would like to go there, and find a harp just like this one that seemed to call out to him. And he reached out to touch that harp.
But his mother had called out to him and made him come away. She had looked at the man's necklace with loathing and had whipped Havgan for running away from her. "That man was a witch," she screamed. "A demon of Kymru. The God hates witches. You stay away from them. Or the God will hate you, too." And he had sobbed and sobbed, frightened that the God would hate him. If the God hated him, he couldn't go to Heofen, but would have to go to the realm of Sceadu, the Shadow, who ruled in Hel. And there he would have to endure fire and pain forever and ever. His mother had told him so.
After that he had been very careful to be good so that the God wouldn't hate him. And he had been good-until that day when Frithu made him so angry.
Frithu was a great big boy of nine years old, the son of the village blacksmith. On that terrible day Havgan had been sent to the blacksmith to collect the newly mended cooking spit for his mother. While walking back, he had felt a stinging blow on his bare leg. Someone had thrown a rock. Looking around wildly, he had spotted Frithu perched in an oak tree, laughing.
Havgan had shrugged and begun to walk on. But Frithu began to say things. He said that Havgan's mother was crazy. He said that when Havgan grew up, he would be crazy, too. He said that they would have to chain Havgan up, chain him next to his crazy mother. And Frithu laughed as he said those terrible things.
And Havgan, boiling with rage and fear felt-something-happen. Something unleashed inside him and grew and grew and lashed out with a roar, deafening him and dimming his sight. And when he could see again, he saw that the oak tree had cracked, split down the middle, pinning a now silent Frithu under the heavy, broken branches. The people from the village had come running. Frithu's father pulled the boy out from under the tree while the men strained to lift the trunk. As they began to fuss over the injured boy, Havgan's father detached himself from the crowd and walked slowly up to his son.
For a moment Hengist said nothing, staring down at Havgan with an expressionless face. Then he slowly turned and stared back at the broken tree. And when he turned around again to gaze on Havgan's still, white face, Hengist's eyes began to glow with a dangerous light. "What have you done, boy?" he whispered, his anger cutting through Havgan's daze. He grabbed his son's arm in a grip that hurt. "What have you done?" And then he dragged Havgan away from the others, across the streets of the tiny village, and threw him into their hut. His mother, who had been crouched before the fire, slowly straightened as Hengist slammed the door.
"What? What's happened?" she asked, her voice tight with fear.
"What's happened? Just what I always said would happen!" And then Hengist struck Havgan across the mouth, sending the boy crashing into the wall. Hengist grabbed Havgan by both arms and hauled him up, screaming into his face. "Never, never, never do that again. I'll kill you if you do." And then he released the boy's arm and hit him again. "Never. You keep your temper, you understand? Do you understand?"
And Havgan nodded weakly. Yes, yes, he understood. But he hadn't. He hadn't understood then and he didn't understand now. He couldn't have done anything to Frithu. Didn't do anything to the tree. No one could do those things. No one except witches. And he wasn't a witch. The God hated witches. His mother had said so. He wasn't a witch, and he hadn't done anything. And never would. Never again.
They left the little fishing village of Dorfas soon after that, to live with Havgan's uncle, Horsa, in the city of Angelesford, many miles away. And though no one ever said it, Havgan knew that they were moving away from Dorfas because he had done something bad. And he thought how unfair it was. For they had taken him away from the sight and the smell of the sea. They had taken him away from that shining road that led to other places, places that he might have been able to call home.
For six years Havgan worked for his uncle in the tedious, sweat-soaked business of rending salt from the brinepits. For six long years he spent his days winching up bucketfuls of salty brine from the pits and pouring the heavy liquid into huge pans of lead. For six years he built fires to boil and stir the mixture, to evaporate the water and skim the salt. For six years he drew the salt from the boiling water with a long rake, pouring the salt into baskets and setting basket after basket after basket under the hot sun to dry.
After a time his young body grew strong and hard with this heavy labor. He began to outgrow tunic after tunic, his muscles bulging against the material. His skin darkened to bronze, making his amber eyes seem lighter than ever, and his tawny hair shone like spun gold in the relentless heat of the boiling sun.
Ever since he could remember, his dreams had been vivid. Sometimes he would wake up, his mind a jumble of images he could not understand-a throne fashioned in the shape of an eagle; silver dragons and black ravens with opal eyes; pearl-white swans and blue nightingales; black wolves with eyes of emerald and hawks with wing bands of bright blue. But he did not understand these images, though they called to him in a way that puzzled and frightened him.
Excerpted from Crimson Fire by Holly Taylor Copyright © 2007 by Holly Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 9, 2008
Havgan of Corania has an intense loathing of the Kymru witches. He has obsessed all his life with the fervor of eradicating every one of these abominations although he somewhat hides his deepest hatred so that it will not interfere with his climb to power. When he becomes the Corania Warleader, his opportunity to achieve his life objective has arrived he begins his genocidal quest.--------------- Gwydion the Dreamer sees a vision that frightens him to the core his beloved Corania in ruins and those he loves dead. He turns to his friend Rhiannon the witch for her interpretation. She also fears the dream and decides they must confront Havgan to thwart the pandemic destruction of their homeland. However, before they can stop the madness and prevent the nightmare from happening they know they must learn why the Warleader demands every Kymru witch must die and worse who is this adversary who seems like an untrained one of them.---------------- This is a terrific epic fantasy with an enjoyable final twist that readers will sort of see coming, but will be surprised anyway. The story line is fast-paced and filled with action as the ethnic cleansing seems heading into Armageddon unless Rhiannon and Gwydion can stop the obsessed Warleader from his final solution. Sub-genre fans will enjoy Hilly Taylor¿s fine tale once the genocidal countdown to a country-wide High Noon begins.---------- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 10, 2011
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Posted January 9, 2012
No text was provided for this review.