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Night Birds Reign
By Holly Taylor Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Holly Taylor
All right reserved.
Chapter One Caer Dathyl Kingdom of Gwynedd, Kymru Gwernan Mis, 482
Suldydd, Lleihau Wythnos-night
Gwydion slept on the Dreamer's pallet in Caer Dathyl, twisting restlessly under the light of the waning moon that streamed through the glass ceiling. His dark brows were drawn together in concentration, and the lids of his closed eyes twitched rapidly.
For the Dreamer's heir was dreaming.
And the Shining Ones smiled, satisfied.
He was staring at Cadair Idris, the deserted hall of the High Kings of Kymru. The mountain stood tall and silent, closed and dark, as it had been since the murder of Lleu Silver-Hand, over two hundred years before.
The waning moon was rising over the mountain, bathing the still plain in faded, silvery beams. In Calan Llachar, the forest west of Cadair Idris, even the leaves on the trees did not move. But from Galor Carreg, the standing stones that guarded the burial mounds of the High Kings, he saw movement.
Three figures made their way from the shadowy stones to stand at the base of the dark mountain. Silently they mounted the broken and time-stained steps that led to Drwys Idris, the bejeweled Doors that guarded the entrance to the hollow mountain.
The golden Doors glittered palely at first, then began to glow as the ghosts of the High Kings approached. Verdant emeralds and azure sapphires vied with milky pearls and fiery opals. Rubies shone like drops of fresh blood while clear diamonds, orange topaz, and purple amethyst glowed warmly as though in sweet welcome.
When the three ghostly figures reached the top of the stairs they turned their backs to the Doors, facing outward toward the plain, toward Gwydion who now faced them from the bottom of the steps.
He knew them, for he had seen them before in his dreams, the dead High Kings of Kymru.
Idris, the first High King, had silvery eyes in a face lined with years of bright laughter and unspeakable sorrow. Macsen, Kymru's second High King, was tall and broad-shouldered, his honey-blond hair held back from his good-natured face by a band of gold. Lleu Lawrient, the last High King of Kymru, stood in the center. Moonlight spilled across his silver hand and his golden hair.
Each of them wore an identical, massive torque formed of twisted strands of silver and gold. At the center of each necklace was a figure eight studded with onyx, the sign of Annwyn, Lord of Chaos. A luminous pearl and a sparkling emerald hung to the left of the onyx, while a glittering sapphire and a fiery opal flashed from the right.
As one the High Kings pulled the ghost of a sword from the scabbards hung around their waists. Each shining sword was a duplicate of the other two, for all three of them had once carried Caladfwlch, although where the real sword was now, no one knew.
The gold and silver sword flashed in the moonlight. The hilt was fashioned like an eagle with outspread wings. The eagle had eyes of bloodstone and wings of onyx, and the remainder of the hilt was scattered with emeralds and pearls, sapphires and opals.
The three High Kings stood silently, ghostly swords raised, scanning the sky above the shadowy plain.
At last Gwydion found his voice, sure that the question in his dreaming mind was the right one. "What do you here, High Kings of Kymru?"
Idris answered his voice like the rushing of a storm through the trees, "We are waiting."
"What do you wait for?"
"For the next High King," Macsen replied, his voice hollow, echoing with dead power.
"It is time?" Gwydion asked, his heart beating faster. For Kymru only had need of a High King when the land was in danger.
"The time is coming," Lleu answered, his voice resonating across the moonlit plain.
"Betrayal endangers the life of the one we wait for," Idris said.
"Betrayal, Dreamer," Lleu said, "is what killed us all."
Before Gwydion could reply he heard the faint strains of a hunting horn, borne on a suddenly quickening breeze. The moon seemed to shine even brighter and the stars glittered sharply. A fierce cry sounded out over the plain. Gwydion could hear the beat of wings overhead and turned sharply to see.
The largest eagle Gwydion had ever seen soared effortlessly over the dark mountain. Silhouetted against the bright moon, its wings outstretched, the eagle cried out again as it folded its wings and dropped down, coming to rest before the three kings at the top of the stairs.
The eagle was brown, with tail feathers of shimmering blue. Around its breast it wore a massive torque of gold exactly like the torque's that glittered from the necks of the High Kings. The eagle cried out again, its call fierce and commanding.
As one the High Kings laid their ghost-swords on the stones before the eagle's talons. But as the eagle stooped to take the swords in its beak, the weapons shimmered and disappeared.
At that moment the shadows on the plain began to twist and moan, melting together, forming a pool of darkness that coalesced at the bottom of the steps. Gwydion retreated, stepping backward up the stairs, his heart caught in his throat.
The shadowy darkness reared up, looming formless and menacing over Gwydion and the eagle, crying in a voice like the rushing of the wind across a dark sky, calling for the eagle's blood.
The High Kings vanished, blown away on the winds that had risen. The shadow stretched out dark arms, reaching for the eagle, death in its cry.
"No!" Gwydion cried, as he sprang in front of the eagle.
The things dark arms plunged through Gwydion's chest, parting his flesh like water. Icy cold terror gripped his heart and his back arched in pain.
"No!" he cried again as he fell to his knees, all strength drained from him. "No!"
The echoes of his scream still ringing hideously in his ears, Gwydion sat up, his heart pounding, his lean body bathed in sweat although he felt cold inside. His dark, sweat-stained hair hung lank around his face, tangling in his short beard. His gray eyes, dilated with horror, were almost black. His chest heaving as though he had run many leagues, he did not hear the footsteps of the others as they pounded up the stairs and burst into the Dreamer's chamber.
They rushed to his pallet, Aunt Dinaswyn reaching him first. Her long black and silver hair in disarray, she grabbed his face between her cool hands, steadying him. "Look at me," she commanded, her voice level. "Look at me, Gwydion. Tell me."
When he did not answer immediately, she turned her head slightly to the young man behind her. "Amatheon, bring wine," she snapped. Without a word, her youngest nephew turned to the small table by the door, grabbed up a goblet and pitcher, and poured. He brought the cup to Gwydion and placed it in his brother's shaking hands.
As Gwydion drank, still trembling from the terror of his dream, Dinaswyn sat back on her heels next to his pallet. "Arianrod," she said to the young woman who had halted by the door, "bring the Book of Dreams."
Arianrod hesitated, her face pale and washed out by the moonlight. "Will he be all right?"
"Of course he'll be all right," Dinaswyn said, impatiently. "Go." Without answering, Arianrod left the room.
Amatheon crouched down next to Dinaswyn as Gwydion remained on the pallet, trying to force his shaking body into some semblance of calm. They glanced at each other over Gwydion's bowed head.
"You ever have a dream as bad as this?" Amatheon asked quietly.
Dinaswyn shook her head.
Arianrod returned clutching a leather book with an inkwell and quill balanced on top. She set them on the low table, picked up a taper and, touching it to the glowing brazier, lit the candles. Amatheon went to the table, opened the book and dipped the quill in the ink, sitting cross-legged on the bare floor. "Ready," he said, his voice steady.
Dinaswyn stirred up the fire in the brazier, then turned to Gwydion. "All right. Tell us."
Gwydion looked up from the depths of his goblet. In the fitful light from the burning brazier Ystafell Yr Arymes, the Chamber of Prophecy, seemed to have more shadows than could be accounted for. The clear light of the waning moon streamed through the glass dome overhead. The jewels, which studded the four round windows of clear glass set around the circular chamber, gleamed in the vagrant lights of moon and fire. There were sapphires for Taran of the Winds around the north window; and pearls for Nantsovelta, Lady of the Waters to the east. Opals for Mabon, King of Fire framed the south window; while emeralds for Modron, the Great Mother surrounded the west. The jewels winked and glimmered slyly, as though holding a secret. The floor shimmered and shifted as light played over the onyx of Annwyn, Lord of Chaos and the bloodstone of his mate, Aertan, Weaver of Fate.
As he gathered his thoughts, he looked up at the three people who waited to hear the dream.
Dinaswyn's face was impassive. Around her slim, proud neck the Dreamer's Torque glittered. Thick strands of gold intertwined to form a massive collar. The center clasp was formed of two circles, one inside the other; both studded with fiery opals. Firelight and moonlight turned her high cheekbones into sharp, hard angles. Her gray eyes, so like Gwydion's, were cool and watchful. Yet in them he saw that she understood the power of the precognitive dreams that reached through time and space into the mind of the Dreamer. She understood, for as the Dreamer of Kymru she had guided her country for many years. Distantly, he wondered that he, the student, should have this dream, while she, the teacher, had not.
Amatheon, Gwydion's younger brother, looked at him calmly, with an encouraging smile on his fresh, young face. Amatheon wore the Dewin's torque, strands of silver clasped with the shape of a pentagon from which a single pearl dangled. As he always did, Gwydion saw echoes of his beloved father in his brother's face, in his clear, blue eyes. But he would not think of that now. His father's death was still too raw, too painful to dwell on for long.
Lastly, Gwydion looked at Arianrod, his beautiful cousin. She was vain, selfish, and powerfully sensual. As he well knew, her long, thick, honey-blond hair was silken to the touch, and her almond-shaped amber eyes promised many things, all of which she could and would deliver-if she chose. He had shared her bed now for a few years, and he knew that he wasn't the only one-which had never bothered him, for she had touched his body, but not his heart. Never, never would he allow any woman to have that kind of power over him, not after ...
He shied away from that thought, as he always did. Now was not the time to think of his festering wounds that would never heal. Now was the time to tell of the dream. Gwydion sank back on his pallet and began to speak.
Gwydion fell silent, staring into the brazier. The only sound was of the quill racing across the Book of Dreams, as Amatheon recorded the threat to the unknown High King.
"Interpretation?" Amatheon asked crisply, his pen poised.
Gwydion looked up quickly. "Guess," he said bitterly.
"Interpret the dream," Dinaswyn said, her tone clipped
Gwydion took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He raised his head and looked up at the night sky, past the uncaring stars that glittered through the clear ceiling of the shadowy chamber.
"The eagle. It was Arderydd. The symbol of the High King." Gwydion shifted restlessly on his pallet and got to his feet. He began to pace the room. "Which means a new High King. They said it was time."
"Which means war," Arianrod said in a hollow voice. "High Kings are only born for warfare."
"And born to be betrayed," Gwydion said, his throat tight. "All three of the High Kings were betrayed to their deaths."
He fell silent for a moment, thinking of those betrayals. Idris had died from wounds received in battle against his own son. Macsen had died in Corania where he had gone to fetch his bride, killed by Coranian oath-breakers. Lleu Silver-Hand had been murdered by his wife and her lover.
He closed his eyes briefly; his throat tight, for he still suffered from the raw wounds of betrayal himself.
"But who is the betrayer that endangers this High King to be?" Amatheon asked. "Who would wish him ill?"
"Who can tell?" Gwydion asked wildly. "Any one of Dinaswyn's fellow Great Ones might perceive a High King to be a threat to their way of life, for now they are answerable to no one. Or, if it comes to that, any one of the Rulers of the four kingdoms might have cause. They, too, are used to doing things their own way. Perhaps they would wish ill to one who would rule them."
"Was there nothing in the shadow that you could identify?" Dinaswyn pressed.
Gwydion shook his head. "Nothing. It was a figure made of darkness and it threatened the eagle. But who-or what-the figure stands for, I cannot tell."
"Do you think it one person, or many?"
"I think ... I think that it is one person. But I cannot be sure."
"Than we leave it for now. If the Shining Ones had meant for us to understand who the shadow is, they would have sent some detail to help you. Perhaps they still will. We move on, then, to the identity of the High King."
"Yes, who?" asked Amatheon curiously.
Gwydion continued to pace. "I don't know."
"For something that important, there must be a clue. There must be something," Dinaswyn insisted.
"I tell you, there was nothing," Gwydion said impatiently, still pacing. "Color?" Dinaswyn asked.
"Color." Gwydion paused, frowning, trying to remember. And he did. And as he did, he hesitated. Two out of the three people in the room he would trust with his life. But the third ...
"Arianrod," Gwydion said sharply, "go to bed."
Arianrod bristled. "Why?"
"Because you aren't doing any good here," Gwydion said pointedly.
"I see," Arianrod said, her voice beginning to rise. "You are getting almost as good as Aunt Dinaswyn in sending people away."
"Arianrod," Dinaswyn began. Her face was impassive but her voice strained, for the bone of contention between them was old and much gnawed over.
"Wait and see, Gwydion, what your welcome is the next time you are begging for a place in my bed," Arianrod went on, as though Dinaswyn had not even spoken. "If you are expecting ..."
"As always I expect nothing from you," Gwydion said swiftly. "Not even the common courtesy to do as I ask."
Fuming, Arianrod left the chamber, slamming the door behind her.
Amatheon whistled and shook his head. "You are a brave man, Gwydion. There aren't many who would give up the chance to spend their nights with Arianrod."
"I didn't give up the chance," Gwydion said absently. "She'll take me back."
"Because it's not really you she's angry with," Dinaswyn said quietly. "It's me."
"And that will never change," Gwydion said.
"Unless you somehow produce her parents for her, safe and sound after all these years," Amatheon said. "And I don't believe you can do that."
"I sent them away," Dinaswyn said, "to Corania, as my dream demanded that I do. I cannot help it if they didn't come back."
"True, Aunt," Amatheon said. "So when will you stop trying to make it up to Arianrod?"
"We have wandered far from our task here," Dinaswyn said sharply. "The question was, who is to be the next High King of Kymru?"
"I know who," Gwydion said quietly. "The eagle was brown. And his tail feathers were blue. Bright, sapphire blue."
"Blue and brown. The colors of Gwynedd," Amatheon said slowly.
"Uthyr of Gwynedd's son?" Dinaswyn inquired.
"Uthyr doesn't have a son!" said Amatheon.
"Not yet. But Ygraine's time will be soon. Their first child is due within the week," Dinaswyn replied.
Gwydion stopped pacing. "My brother's son," he whispered. "The High King."
"Maybe," Dinaswyn said cautiously.
"Maybe? You just said ..."
"You have to be careful with these things," she said mendaciously. "Dreams are rarely so straight-forward. You should know that by now."
"Dinaswyn," Amatheon said abruptly. "Did you dream at all tonight?"
She stiffened as she turned to face her youngest nephew, rage in every line of her body. She stared at him, but she did not speak.
Excerpted from Night Birds Reign by Holly Taylor Copyright © 2005 by Holly Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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