Read an Excerpt
AS I SUSPECTED, STEALING FROM PROFESSIONAL thieves takes some skill and a lot of hard work. We took shifts at the oars once we were out of the territory of the Painted People and didn't, as was more usual among peaceful mariners, go ashore to sleep.
She—the ship—was decked only lightly, boards nailed over her ribs and hide bottom. We were drenched by squalls and frozen by the icy spring seas breaking over our bows. But, Lord, she was fast! Small and light, propelled by ten at the oars by day and six by night. We all took rowing duty, as I said, the ones not pulling at the sweeps eating, then sleeping on the narrow deck between the rowing benches. Or we slept when we could.
At times we would row into an icy rain squall. Then the sleepers had to rouse themselves and bail like mad, not to keep her from sinking but so as not to slow those of us plying the oars. She wouldn't sink, but if her forward progress were slowed, heavy seas might break her up. Whereas, more or less empty of water, she was able to ride the combers like a floating cork, and in calmer waters, skim along as might a bird.
We had no sail, since we wished to announce neither our passage nor arrival to any watching coastal people. And watch they do, being as they are used to trouble coming by sea.
I don't like to remember the start of our voyage or our first few days aboard. We were all seasick and none too sure of ourselves at the oars. But Dugald, who is my Druid, gave me medicine for seasickness. True, it tasted like the floor of a town midden pit and stank worse than a herd of goats, but withal—it worked. And most of us recovered well enough todevote ourselves to the oars within a day or two.
I'm not sure Dugald considers himself my Druid. Once he was my guardian, then my teacher. But when I became a woman and a queen, I felt he should be my Druid. He couldn't agree less. He says I'm a child and only an honorary ruler, and not to be so presumptuous as to drape a mantle of authority over my shoulders.
I wished I had something to drape over my shoulders. Gods above and below, it was cold in that boat. But I knew if I could pull this off, I would be rich and a real queen. So I must make the attempt, no matter how great the hardships involved.
Four days out of port, I understood I had good companions. Our flotilla—there were three small ships—held seventeen men each. "Men" not always being actual men; some were women. But there was a man at the tiller of each boat; Maeniel, my foster father, on one; Gray, an oath man of mine on another; and aboard this one, Ure, a relative of Gray's, an experienced man of the sea.
Ours was the lead ship; the rest followed us. Ure knew the coast and its hazards: rocks, reefs, sand spits—though with our shallow-draft, those weren't a problem—currents, and, last but not least, pirate nests. He told us he would undertake to keep us clear of them all.
In return, we didn't ask him how he knew so much and promised to devote ourselves to the work of the oars. When I asked him if we shouldn't have some dry land practice first, he fixed me with an eye cold and green as a breaking winter sea and said, "One learns best by doing. And when you do a thing day to day on a regular basis, you will eventually learn all there is to know about it. Sometimes more than you want to know."
He was right; by now, eight days into our voyage, I knew a lot more about rowing than I ever wanted to. About blisters that broke and bled, scabbed over, then broke open again the next day and bled. About excruciating pain in the arms, back, and neck. About the discomfort of perpetually wet clothing that chafed and itched, or sleeping on a hard, wet, stinking plank among the wet, stinking bodies of fellow crew members. Of huddling together with them to try to coax a little warmth from one another. Not to mention the joys of hanging off the stern up to your waist in the icy sea as the small craft you are clinging to battles fifteen-foot waves while you try to take care of necessities, since there is no room aboard for such nonsense as chamber pots.
See, the water ran to the back of the craft because she was lighter at the bows, so the steersman bailed with one hand while he clung to the tiller with the other. Guess what he used to do the bailing?
When I was much younger, I used to think the sea was romantic.
Despite our many struggles, we moved with almost unbelievable swiftness toward the south and the forts of the Saxon shore. On the tenth day, we arrived at the mouth of the river that flowed through the Fenlands. Ten days of rowing in the heaving, pitching sea. We were all glad to pull the narrow craft into the tall reeds and sedges, rest, and wait for dawn.
It came without a sunrise, a gray illumination of ridged storm clouds. I was sleeping, my head on the gunwales, when I awakened to see Maeniel, as wolf, slip over the bow of the boat next to ours and vanish into the water. I had slept hard and drooled; it dried on the side of my face and left a damp spot on the wood near where my lips rested.
There was no color in anything, and the sedges, reeds, and cattails were a dark frieze reflected in the silvered water. Everyone else was asleep except Ure. He was sitting in the bow and his eyes met mine, green as slag glass and twice as hard. I opened my mouth to ask him where Maeniel was going. His hard gaze edged into contempt.
I reflected that I knew exactly where the Gray Watcher was headed. And Ure had no use at all for what he called senseless blather.
No sense waking half the boat to ask a question when I knew the answer already. I put my head back down on the gunwale. I didn't think I could, but I drifted off to sleep.
When I awakened again, Maeniel was climbing back into the boat. He was dripping wet and wrapping one of Gray's mantles around himself. I rose; pulling up my stiffened body was a painful effort. But I stepped to the deck and tiptoed around the sodden sleepers between the rowing benches until I reached the three standing in the bow, Gray, Maeniel, and Ure.
"What?" I whispered.
"Nothing good," Maeniel said. "The smartest thing might be to turn around and go back."
Gray whispered, "Say on, Lord Maeniel."
"I didn't think their strong point would be this strong. The pirates have refitted an abandoned Roman fortress about ten miles upstream. There are seventy to a hundred men there, all mature, able-bodied warriors. Twice our force and more. Better armed, tried and tested in battle."
"Ships?" Ure asked.
"I counted twenty careened and upside down on land. A few more in the water," Maeniel said.
"We have what?" Gray said. "Forty boys, three men, and eight women." He shook his head. "We should look for easier pickings."
I felt my failure, and, yes, the failure was mine. Though I sat on the Dragon Throne and it was acknowledged I had the right to be there, the subchiefs hadn't fallen in with my plans to carry war to the Saxon raiders who harried our highland coasts and Out Islands. When I visited the villages recruiting among the war bands and coast watch, none were willing to chance such a hazardous endeavor as striking at the Saxons in their home ports.
Yes, they had hailed me wildly at my accession to the Dragon Throne, but in the cold light of morning, they had second thoughts. What did a woman, a child, as yet, know of warfare? I got the useless, the outcast, the weak, the orphaned, the despised among the boys.
And as for girls, the ugly. One had a strawberry birthmark that covered one cheek and part of her mouth. Another was taken captive and left for dead by the same Saxon raiders. Another hid her harelip. The others, drudges, broken by hard labor before they were in their teens, without friends or kin, bearing the load of endless work by day and the weight of their owners' bodies by night. Leading lives so filled with misery that they had come to believe any chance of freedom was better than their day-to-day existence. If they should fail and fall into death, why then . . . so be it. Nothing beyond death could be worse. "At least I can sleep," one called Albe told me.
"At least we could burn their ships," I said bitterly.
"As I said, there are some in the water," Maeniel told me. "We would probably be run down in the open sea. The pirate craft are oared and also light and very fast. Not to mention much better manned."
"Suicide!" Ure said.
"Over the wall by night and take them in their beds?" I suggested.
"Full of ideas!" Ure commented. "No! These are children, not blooded. I'm a corrupt old devil, but even I won't be a party to the slaughter of innocents. For such tricks you need a group of experienced men.
"Any others?" he asked.
I hunkered down and looked up at the three men. "Yes," I said.
Ure made a beckoning gesture. "Say!" he said.
"What's inside that fortress? Is it stone or wood?" I asked.
"Wood," Maeniel said. "But on that scale . . . you can't."
"I can," I said between my teeth. "I can."
Then I reached over the side and fished out a floating branch, narrow, maybe a foot long. Very waterlogged. I clamped my right hand around it. With a whistling hiss, steam erupted around it, erupted the way steam does when water is poured into a hot metal pot. Then from the top to the bottom, the dry stick burst into flame and was ash before it had time to heat my fingers.
"I'll go over the wall while you and the rest strike at the gates and burn them out."
Maeniel studied me. "The reason the Romans abandoned the fortress was the damp began to undermine the walls. Like as not, what's in the fortress that isn't wet is at least damp."
"There's that," Ure said.
I rose from my heels and stood looking the three of them in the face. "Bet your life, bet your patrimony, bet your hope of heirs, when I put my hand on something, it will burn." I raised my scarred right hand and held it up before them.
"Yes," Ure said, looking at Gray. "It's a plum, this place, and well worth the risk."
Gray looked uncertain.
Maeniel studied me sadly. "Very well," he said at length.
"Nothing is sure, ever," Ure said to Gray. "Nothing."
When I turned, I saw the youngsters in the boats were awake, sitting up and staring at the four of us. Outcasts, I thought. Maybe this is the advantage of being in the company of the last and least. None of them looked afraid and most seemed ready for anything.
The Brotherhood of the Bagudae.
Black Leg was already lonely. He moved away from the forest near Tintigal, where he'd left them. He missed his family, blood family or not. Even that terrible-tempered old Dugald, though these days all he did was scold or lick his chops about how "she" was progressing into a real noblewoman.
But, of course, he missed her most of all. He wished sometimes they were still children. When they were young, before the pirates came, the two of them used to snuggle together against Mother's warm belly. He would turn human just so she could cradle him in her arms. Most times he had no use for the shape, except when climbing around in the rocks to get birds' eggs or going up trees after fruit. And from time to time attempting to understand some of Dugald's stranger ideas.
Like those choirs of angels. He had put up a fight when Dugald tried to get him to memorize them, thrones, denominations, principalities, powers, and so on. He'd told Dugald in no uncertain terms that he had no interest in the classification of impossible, nonexistent beings. Dugald told him a lot of people would believe he, Black Leg, was a nonexistent being. Black Leg replied that he was here now and no one could deny his existence. If Dugald could produce an angel, he, Black Leg, would learn how to place it in proper ranking order with no further complaint.
"She," the fair one, thought it was hilarious. Magetsky, up in the raft- ers, waxed loud, filling the room with raucous laughter. Dugald lost his temper. Magetsky, the raven, abruptly left, pursued by a small, dark thunderbolt. Kyra discovered she wanted to visit Etta, Gray's wife. Maeniel went hunting, and he, Black Leg, and Guinevere went and slept in the woods.
That was the last time, though. Not long after, Kyra separated them, saying it wasn't seemly any longer for them to share a bed. People might talk.
"About what?" he asked indignantly.
No one offered a straight answer, not even his father, Maeniel.
He didn't think about it much after that, because then Mother died. Somehow he had known in his heart that a time of innocence and joy was ended. When Mother's pyre was ashes and she was gone, he told his father that he wanted to learn to be a man.
Maeniel had given him a long, thoughtful look. A speaking one. But wolves do not lightly try to interfere with one another's freedom or give advice, even when requested to do so.
But he did say one thing. "Don't get involved in their struggles. They are endless and usually futile. Wolves settled things between themselves before the beginning of time, but these creatures have never come to an accommodation with God's creation or with each other. Still, I suppose you must let them break your heart once. Then perhaps you will learn."
He had wondered at the time what his father meant. Now he was sure he knew. He remembered her with great bitterness and more than a little sorrow.
The lands he moved through were rugged, wild, and unsettled. He remained wolf as he traveled. There were two or three packs about; they hunted the stony defiles between the hills even as the occasional big cat still ruled the heights. But Mother taught him to be an efficient, able wolf long before he ever thought about turning to his human side. So he had no problem avoiding them.
It was spring and there were females in heat that drew him, but he wasn't ready, not really mature enough to fight for the father right. In any of the packs, poaching on the territories of the leaders would sooner or later lead to an attack, possibly by the whole pack. Wolf law said you presented yourself openly, took your place in the hierarchy, then challenged the leader. The treacherous interloper would meet the bared fangs of the leader and his inner circle, all yearning to shed his blood.
Farmsteads were scattered on fertile patches of soil throughout the forest, but they were, without exception, surrounded by high, earthen banks surmounted by palisade fences. The resident war dogs that protected the livestock were nothing a lone wolf wanted to mess around with. So he moved secretly and silently through the countryside until one morning, just before first light, he came to a valley with a lake.
He should have known.
From the first moment, it raised the hackles on the back of his neck. A wolf would have left. But with him, there was that human component.
So he trotted downhill into the fog that filled the bowl of the valley.
No humans. That in itself should have made him suspicious. But he was far too inexperienced to have his anxieties roused by the absence of something.
Light was spreading from the east into the silent forest at the lake's margin, illuminating the haze that hung between the trees with long shafts that were almost as discrete from each other as a handful of sticks. Nothing. No wolves, no humans, and in a place as beautiful as morning in paradise. He couldn't believe his good fortune. Indeed, he shouldn't have.
He sensed the water was very close. Then he smelled it and found he was trotting along through a very shallow marsh. Ahead even through the fog he saw a stretch of open water and a dim shape that might have been an island. The light striking down from above was losing its grayness and turning slowly to gold, trees to green, and the water to a multicolored gem as it cast back the reflection of the surrounding forest.
He bent his head and drank, troubling the absolutely smooth surface with his tongue. When he raised his head, he found the fatigue of the long night's trip weighed heavy on him. He was not used to traveling so far so fast as a wolf.
And then he reflected that, while lonely, he was at least now free of the thousand constraints that had beset him as a human being. He could return to the forest, seek a warm nest in bracken and dried leaves, and enjoy the luxury of sleeping as long as he liked.
He stretched as languorously as a cat, stiffening each of his hind legs in turn, yawned, and just about then . . .
He felt the weight of a big, heavy hand on his neck . . . and every hair on his body stood straight up at the sound of a triumphant crow of savage, evil laughter.