Part of the fun is supposed to be adding excerpts and links to published or soon to be published stories set in the areas we write about. Since I don’t have any of those, though I have plenty of WIPs I’m posting the beginning of my story A Fierce Reaping.
Cynfal, doubly bereft and down on his luck, heads north to join the war band of King Marro of Din Eidin. First impressions count so he sets about making one.
“There are worse ways to travel,” Cynfal reminded himself. He lifted his head to eye the scuffed toes of his boots. The cart, even though it reeked of fish and had an inconveniently lively load, was far better than walking. The piglets, four of them, all with efficient and productive bowels, probably didn’t agree but then their fate when they reached their destination didn’t involve a warm bed and a gallon or so of mead.
Cynfal let his head fall back against one of the tied piggies and ignored the squeak. Above the sky was blue, scattered with clouds just tinged on their west sides with the gold of afternoon, with more clouds, greyer, threatening, to the west. Cynfal pulled his cloak more closely around him and wondered if he would get wet.
Cynfal hitched himself up, turning to address his host. “No, just thinking. Why?”
The carter grinned, a darker toothless gash in his dark beard. “We’re almost there, see,” he said. “Got a good sight of the dun now we’re out of the trees. You won’t forget will you?”
“Of course I won’t, Luath,” Cynfal said. “Your pigs are fit for the king’s table. I’ll tell the steward myself.” But his mind was less on promises than on the rock, hulking against the pale northern sky, plumed with smoke from the hearths of its inhabitants.
More than a year ago now, word had gone out. A hosting at Din Eidin, gossip said. Nothing like it since Arthur breathed his last. The bravest and best. Cynfal, who would once have demanded to be included in that band, had grinned at Rhunna, bounced the baby on his knee and told the child, “You can’t go. Not ‘til you’re bigger.” Rhunna had laughed but Cynfal had seen the relief in her eyes. No, he wouldn’t have gone. Not even when word came again. Strong men, good with sword and spear, to ride in the company of princes. King Marro of the friendly mountains offered his hospitality. Feasting and mead. A good cloak and a gold ring to all comers.
“I have a good cloak,” Cynfal said. “And what would we do with a gold ring? Give it to little mochyn to teethe on!”
He still had the cloak, a densely woven chequer in grey and brown wool with the oil left in – Rhunna had taken all their first winter together to make it.
Cynfal smoothed the warmth of it over his shoulders and set his mind on where he was going rather than where he had been. That way was still too painful a path to tread. With nowhere else to go, feasting and mead sounded pretty good. And not much further to go.
Cynfal had lost much but still clung to his pride. Better by far to arrive at Din Eidin on foot and carrying his few possessions rather than on his back in a cart full of piglets. He shook out his cloak, repinning it at the shoulder, settled his belt around his waist and tied his sword to it to ride against his hip. His bundle – spare shirt and breeks, bowl and spoon, eating knife, all tied up in his blanket – he left in the cart for the moment and went to stride alongside Luath. He had never seen Din Eidin before and was hard pressed not to show how impressed he was. The great rock soared above the cluster of bothies and horse lines at its foot. The roof of the hall at its summit, patched pale with new thatch, stood high above the surrounding buildings, which clustered close like partridge chicks under the wing of their mother. The turf ramparts were steep.
Alongside their path sheep, cattle and small bands of fine looking horses grazed the oat stubble. Cynfal could see boats on the loch, children romping in the shallows, cavalry watering their mounts. It was a peaceful scene, rich, yet one to lift the heart of a sword for hire.
The sun was behind the rock by the time they reached the edge of the dun.
“Luath!” one of the lads on guard greeted Cynfal’s companion with a broad grin. “What have you brought us this time?”
“Fine young pigs, Cipno,” Luath said, waving to the cart. “Fat and ready for the slaughter.”
“Five young pigs?” Cipno stared boldly at Cynfal. “I’d have said the one in the cloak is a bit long in the tooth to make a good meal.”
Cipno had a shield and a spear. The first gloss wasn’t yet off the blade. Cynfal shrugged his cloak back from his shoulders to display his own battered weapon and scarred forearms.
“How does your commander feel about brawling on duty?” he asked. “Because we can go at it now and you’ll be in trouble as well as getting hurt, or we can meet up later and I might go easy on you.”
Cipno flushed and took a step forward. “When I’ve finished my duty then. Down by the shore. It’ll be easier to wash your guts off my blade.”
Cynfal couldn’t fault the lad for pride, but he clearly hadn’t the sense of his fellow who tugged at Cipno’s arm urging him back. Or perhaps the sound of hooves, soft on the damp ground, meant more to them than it did to Cynfal?
“Cipno, Rhys.” A dappled horse pulled up at Cynfal’s shoulder, the rider looking down his nose at him. “What are you doing? You’re supposed to be greeting visitors not brawling with them?” His cloak was richly dyed, chequered green and gold, his hair dark, his expression alive with malicious amusement. Everything about him gleamed.
“We weren’t,” Rhys protested. “Cipno made a joke’s all. This one,” he nodded to Cynfal, “just didn’t think it was funny.”
“No sense of humour?” The rider glanced at Cynfal again. “That’s a pity. What, sir, is your name and business in Din Eidin?”
“My business in Din Eidin is my own, “Cynfal replied. “My name is Cynfal everywhere.”
Rhys was a lanky lad covered in freckles, He snorted a laugh and nudged Cipno.
“Cynfal Everywhere,” the rider said, “my name is Moried. Perhaps I can guide you on your way? I assume that you want the barracks rather than, say, the tannery or the church?”
“I can find my own way,” Cynfal said. “Please, don’t let me keep you.”
Moried chuckled and kicked his horse into a walk. “I will wait for you at the gates,” he promised. Cynfal nodded and followed Luath’s cart up the incline towards the hall. He didn’t spare a glance for either of the boys having a greater opponent to watch out for.
Moried was as good as his word. As Cynfal approached the gate to the hall he spotted the horseman, his bridle over his arm, talking to two other men. “Ah here they are now,” he called when he noticed the cart. “Luath and his five little pigs.”
“That joke’s a bit old now,” Cynfal called. “Old and stinking. Can’t you come up with anything new?”
“This is Cynfal Everywhere,” Moried performed the introductions. “He wants to see someone at the barracks.” His raised his eyebrows suggestively.”
“Dear me,” one of the other men sighed, “we’re not as badly off for girls as all that. On the march though …”
Cynfal nodded. “And who are you?” he asked. “I like to know a man’s name before I carve his lights out.”
“Cynon ap Clydno.” He was tall – almost as tall as Cynfal – with a thick brush of dark hair and a beard that came well up his cheeks. His weapons were clean but they too had a scar for every visible inch. A worthy opponent, Cynfal thought, but the man’s smile seemed more appreciative than aggressive. He obviously knew the game inside out – that half laughing half intense banter of threat and joke that men used to test each other for weakness and strength. It wasn’t a game Cynfal appreciated any longer, but he knew he could play it if he had to.
“I am a man of the barracks,” Cynon added. “Come and see me. Moried – I think you were wrong. I think this one is answering our sovereign lord’s summons, not hoping for a job in the butchers.”
“My mistake,” Moried said with a grin and bowed Cynfal and the cart past.