An eagle turned in a low gyre over the battlefield. The red and cloying earth churned with rain and blood, turning everything to ochre in the light of a late summer. The sound of a hundred tiny battles between life and death caught in the arms of the valley.
The knight pressed through the crush of the fighting and the fallen. He fought as sunset swept unminded towards evening. Until the air itself seemed to thicken every sound and movement. And still the Red King did not yield.
Some long-forgotten blow had sheared the dulled gold armour of the Red King’s cuisse, black blood boiling through torn metal embossed with golden flowers. He stumbled in the red mud like a dying calf. And still he did not yield.
The knight bulled forwards with his shield, stubbornness and momentum overawing the Red King’s footing and throwing him over the body of a dying horse. The knight drew his sword back to make the killing blow. It took him some time to realise that his arm would not obey. He stood still as a golem shaped from blood-red clay. Only moving to draw deep gulps of air into his lungs.
The Red King’s sword fell from his hand, and he fumbled with shaking fingers at the catches of his helm. His hair and beard were the colour of polished mahogany, but his eyes were pupiless, bottomless black.
“What are your orders?” he said. “What does my brother say is to be done with me, Ser....”
The knight removed his own helm. His thoughts ached for the dirty scrap of paper secured behind his breastplate. He knew its words by heart, but the touch of the paper against his skin gave him comfort.
“The Edling of the North would have me kill you,” the knight said.
And take everything from the towns, his lord’s message ordered. Empty their stores. The North must eat.
The eithin aur on the Red King’s armour caught the last of the day’s light, gold petals of hammered metal glinting. The knight’s hand reached involuntarily for its mirror-image, shaped into his own breastplate. The eagle felt its way through the blue emptiness above them, with a mind as clear as polished glass held up before the sun.
The knight was a creature forged of the same base elements: his flesh and his bones, the blade in his hand, all birthed out of the belly of the same earth. The same clarity of purpose hammered clean through him.
He seized the Red King’s shoulder and wrenched him to his feet.
“Begin walking,” he said, turning towards the ancient forest that rolled over the foothills, beyond the slow quiet seeping out into the battlefield.
They stopped quite close to morning, beside an ancient trackway that had led them to a clearing by the river. The path curved over a huge slab of grey stone that spanned the water, pitted and worn with a thousand years of feet and wheels and weather beneath the moss and lichen. On the other side, the track cut up over the bank and disappeared back into the woods.
The knight knelt beside the stream and washed the sweat and dirt out of his hair while his courser drank deeply beside him. He spread his hands and submerged them in the river until bloody trails of red earth streamed from the knuckles of his gauntlets. The sky glanced blue through sunburned leaves, and early light caught on the metal in the water.
“It is a dangerous thing for a knight to defy his lord,” the Red King said from the shadow of a great old elm. He worked an arrowhead from his armour and lashed it onto a straight arm of fallen wood. “Aren’t you afraid of what my brother will do when he finds out that I am still alive?”
Red water dripped from the knight’s hands and dissolved into the current. “And why should I be afraid of Edling Gwyn when I have the Red King at my back?”
“The Red King? It has been a long time since any northerner has called me that, boy. Who are your family?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the knight said. “I never had any.”
The Red King took a limping step towards him, blood oozing from the torn metal on his thigh. When he came out from under the elm, he flinched and raised a hand to the sky. Tears spilled over his lashes and quickened down his cheeks.
He cannot stand the light, the knight thought. Something is wrong with his eyes. His lips parted to form a question, but the question never came.
The Red King cursed the sun and turned away, snatching up the arrow-headed spear and sliding down the bank into the shallows under the shadow of the tree.
The knight set his gauntlets down. “Are you going to try to kill me with that, Goch?”
“I was going to try and eat.” The Red King tugged at the knots holding the arrowhead in place. “Unless you would rather that I starve. Where are you taking me? Do you even know?”
The knight unfastened the catches of his breastplate and laid his armour in the sun. Beneath it, his arming jacket was sweat-yellow and blood-black. “To Dinas Pair yr Arfaeth.”
“Through the mountains?” The Red King drove the point of his spear into the water. “Taking North Road with the rest of your army would be safer.”
“The rest of my army want you dead.” The knight took his courser’s bridle and untied the barding from around her neck. “And every town and village we passed through would rather free you. That does not sound as though it fits my definition of ‘safer’.”
The Red King crouched down in the water and clamped the thrashing salmon between his hands as it died on the point of his spear. He pulled it free and threw it up onto the bank. Far enough out of the water to suffocate.
“And what will you do with me when we reach the city, Ser Mercher?”
“I will bring you to the Edling of the North.”
The salmon spasmed once and gaped for air. The Red King pulled himself up onto the bank and shelled its eyes into his mouth with his thumb. He pressed them between his teeth until they burst and nodded to the curl of parchment stowed in the hollow curve of the knight’s breastplate. “It seems to me as though my brother would much rather you killed me,” he said. “And pillaged my towns to feed his army.”
“You should not have read it,” the knight snapped, tugging too sharply at his courser’s girth. The horse stamped and flashed the whites of her eyes.
“And when would I have done that? I didn’t have to read it. I know my brother, Ser Mercher. Better than you do.”
“You don’t know anything,” the knight growled, hauling the saddle off.
“I know that he would very much like to murder me and leave the south to ruin. I know that he expected you to break open our grain stores and find them overflowing with all the crops and livestock that we’ve taken, and that when he finds that they are bare, his cities will starve for the sake of his army just the same as mine.”
“What else could he do?” the knight demanded. “Your people have been attacking our villages for months now. Why haven’t you sent word of the blight to Dinas Pair?”
The Red King laughed and laid his hand upon the eithin aur forged into his armour. “You think that when my brother hears about the blight, he’ll open his granaries and forget about this precious war of his? No, he will notice that we are weak. If he is smart, he will seize his chance to strike.”
“Gwyn doesn’t understand,” the knight said. “You’ve given him no choice. When I bring him to you, you will tell him. Then he can decide what he wants to do with you.”
He frowned and stared into the current. Then he can decide what he wants to do with both of us.
The Red King cut the salmon with the point of his makeshift spear and emptied out its innards. “Gwyn, is it now?” he said. “Tell me, Ser Mercher, just how familiar are you with my brother?”
“You should still your tongue,” the knight spat, his aching shoulders bowstring-tight. “You may need it when we reach the capital, but you do not need your fingers.”
The Red King sat back against the elm and linked his hands behind his head. Metal intertwined with flesh.
“If you are so certain that all of this is a terrible misunderstanding,” the Red King said at last, “then why have you brought me all the way out here without so much as sending him word?”
The knight glanced up at the tessellated sky, clear blue behind the shifting leaves, and did not answer.
Through much of the next two days the Red King sat astride the knight’s warhorse, raising his hand to block the sky from his black eyes while the knight walked along beside him. The wound on his leg stopped bleeding when they made camp, but overnight the flesh around it turned an ugly red.
On the second afternoon, it rained, starting in a few large drops that resounded on the knight’s armour and pinged off into the grass and soon pouring straight down in the windless air.
They pressed on for almost an hour before the knight relented, pulling up beside a ring of stones perched over the old trackway—narrow shards of mountain slate projecting outwards like a crown of purple thorns. The knight tethered his horse to a twisted hawthorn that looked as though it had stood there for a thousand years. The only part of it left alive was a corona of dark green leaves clinging to its branches. The courser twisted her head to tug at them, rainwater plastering her mane against her neck.
The knight pulled the Red King from the saddle and set about removing the mare’s caparison—a stained length of white cloth emblazoned with a thousand golden flowers. “We’ll use the stone circle for cover.”
“That isn’t a circle.” The Red King retrieved the body of the young hare they had snared the night before from behind the saddle. “It’s a cairn. A group of farmers from Dirneb dug it up when I was a boy. It was full of ash and bones. Human and animal, all mixed in together.”
The knight shivered and stared into the centre of the circle: a round and gaping mouth ringed with broken teeth and half-smothered by low cloud. “Help me with this.”
The Red King took the edge of the caparison, and between them they dragged it to the cairn and struggled to spread the cloth over two of the leaning spears of stone as the rain drummed down a steady cold. The knight drove his sword into the ground to make a third hitch for the canopy and crawled beneath.
The Red King stooped out of the rain to sit beside him. “Do you even know where we are?”
The knight tried to make out the shapes of the dark mountains drifting in and out of the cloud beyond the edge of the caparison. “Heading north.”
“You realise that most of the Drysau are between us and Dinas Pair,” the Red King said calmly. “Do you know these mountains well, Ser Mercher? Because Gwyn and I grew up in them. And, if he were here now....” He turned the limp, furry body of the hare over in his hands. “He would be telling you the same as me.”
The knight looked at him sidelong. “And what is that?”
“That if you keep following this track....” The Red King sawed the hare open on the edge of the impaled sword. “Then you shall have to go over the shoulder of Y Brenin before you reach Dinas Pair yr Arfaeth. He would tell you that between us and that mountain, there is a valley at the foot of Caer Pwyll filled with nothing but reeds and marsh that is difficult to cross even on a fine day. For a horse, and two men in armour....”
The Red King held his hand out into the rain pouring off of the caparison and rolled his shoulders in a shrug. The knight wrapped his arms around himself, but wet metal-against-metal brought him little comfort.
“And what would you suggest?”
“Take the east fork in the road, half a day from here.”
“Through Bannik and Gerwester?”
The Red King nodded.
“Through two villages sympathetic to you, and a stone’s throw away from the North Road?” the knight asked stonily. He shook his head. “We go north.”
The Red King sighed and spread his hands in frustration. He studied them for a few moments, smeared with blood and rain, then began to strip the fur away from the dead hare in his lap. “You know,” he said, peeling the muscle away from the bone and biting into the slick red meat. “I’m certain that I recognise you.”
The knight watched the Red King suck down raw flesh and fought against a knot of nausea. The Red King chewed methodically, staring out into the rain. This close, the knight could see that his strange black eyes weren’t pupiless at all, but rather that the pupils were so swollen that the brown of his irises was almost swallowed up...
“Is there something that you want to ask, Ser Mercher?” the Red King said.
The knight hugged himself little tighter and looked away. “Caer Isel,” he said under his breath. “You wanted to know where you’ve seen me before? You appointed me, and five other guardsmen, to keep watch over Edling Gwyn when you consigned him to live and die in that tower.”
“You’re the traitor.” The hard bark of a laugh lodged somewhere in the Red King’s throat. He swallowed another sliver of raw meat and shook his head. “The one who helped my brother to escape and take the north from me. And Gwyn knighted you for your trouble, did he? Well then, I suppose that it turned out well enough for you.”
Well enough? the knight thought. It has ended in nothing but war and blight and famine. It has broken this land more deeply than you ever managed to alone.
“So, tell me.” The Red King wiped some of the bloodied fur off of his hands. “I’ve heard that you sleep beside Gwyn. On the floor, like a trained dog. And that the two of you have spent the last two summers bathing in the Ysprid together like a pair of newly-weds. So, I’m intrigued. Does my brother fuck you well enough to compensate you for all the trouble you have put yourself through for his sake?”
The knight clamped down on the plume of rage and embarrassment and watched the rivulets of rain catching on blade of his sword. “You don’t know a damned thing about me!”
Something quirked at the corner of the Red King’s mouth. “I see. He hasn’t had you yet, then. Do you think that’s because he’s ignorant of your feelings, or because he simply doesn’t care?”
The knight swept to his feet, tearing the caparison aside and drawing his sword out of the earth. The Red King watched him calmly and did not move to stand. His lips and chin were smeared with hare’s blood and water.
A gust of wind surged up the side of the mountain and whistled between the leaning stones, turning the low cloud into unformed shapes that hurried through the cairn. The knight shivered and sheathed his sword at his side.
“Mount up, Goch,” he said. “If you freeze to death, I’ll leave you for the crows.”
“This is madness!” the Red King shouted from the saddle as they crested the wide green saddle of Caer Pwyll and descended down into the marsh, raising his hand to block out the light. “We must turn back.”
They had abandoned most of their armour not long after the cairn, but the sky was still grey and thunderous, and the knight’s feet sank up to the ankle as the track became a stretch of churned-up mud then petered out entirely.
The Red King dug his feet into the stirrups. “Mercher!”
The knight ignored him, leading the courser by the bridle towards the mountain in the east: a low black tangle of granite looming in grey sky. If I can reach that mountain, he thought. Then perhaps the way will be a little easier over its feet.
After an hour, the knight’s legs burned. His courser’s feet dragged in the stagnant water. And they had come less than half a mile.
The knight stopped to swipe the sweat off of his brow, and his courser’s feet bubbled down into the fluid earth.
“You’ll have to dismount,” the knight said, trying not to draw too hard for breath.
The Red King eased his injured leg over the mare’s back and lowered himself out of the saddle. Moss and marsh gave way like flesh under his feet.
“Lovely,” he said. “You know that you’ll kill us both before we reach the city, don’t you?” The Red King checked the empty waterskin on his belt, knelt, and drank from the grey mire with cupped hands.
The knight grabbed the back of the Red King’s shirt and hauled him to his feet. “You certainly will be if you insist on eating every raw dead thing and drinking from every stagnant pool between here and Dinas Pair,” he said. “What’s wrong with you? Keep walking.”
The knight took another step towards the mountain, but his courser was sunk almost up to her hindquarters. She whickered with panic when she realised that she couldn’t move, and the knight took her bridle in both hands to calm her. As soon as she stopped fighting him, they pulled. Straining against the air together, the mare occasionally freeing a foreleg only to slap it back down into the swamp. Then the strength was out of her and she just stood there, panting hard.
“Gather as many of these reeds as you can,” the Red King said. “Give her something to stand on.”
The knight muttered a few half-believed words of reassurance to her and did as he was bade. He’d only walked a few heavy, aching steps when he came upon the bodies.
They were three, he thought. Two adults, and a child. But it was difficult to tell. The marsh had turned them grey. Their faces were bloated and fly-blown. Flesh wrinkled like the skin of an elbow, and open eyes turned to the milk-white of cut quartz. By his reckoning, they had been dead about a week.
The knight tried to remember how to breathe. “We are not the first ones to try this way,” he said.
The Red King waded through needles of marsh grass to his side. “Southerners,” he said. “Farmers, most likely. The blight has driven most of them out of their homes. Since your great and noble master has been turning back any refugees on the North Road, most of them try the old paths through the hills in the hope of better fortune.”
“Do you expect to make me pity these people?” the knight demanded. “To turn my back on Gwyn?”
“No.” The Red King stood. “I don’t.”
They worked in silence after that, laying out whatever they could find around the courser. Somewhere far away a peal of thunder trembled in the mountains. When they had done all that they could, the Red King put his palms to the mare’s hindquarters and the knight took up her bridle. She was tired now, and without her help they were soon sweating and breathless.
“You never answered my question.” The Red King stood back and rubbed his watering eyes.
The knight gave one last pull, raised both hands in defeat, and sank down to his haunches. “What do you want now, Goch?”
“Where are you from?” the Red King asked. “Who were you, before you became a bloody bane in my side and set my brother back upon the north?”
“I was no one,” the knight said. “Just another unwanted bastard weaned in an orphanage in the wildwood. A farmer paid them for me when I was ten.” The courser slumped down defeated, stretching her neck out until her nostrils were barely above the water.
“Old enough to work,” the Red King said.
The knight made a soft sound of agreement. He put his hand under the courser’s jaw, lifting her head enough to breathe. “He wasn’t a cruel man,” he said. “But he wanted his money’s worth from me. Worked me like a draught horse for six years before I managed to slip away and enlist with your guard. Six summers of the sun on my back and the breath of the wind in me. Six winters digging in those blasted, frozen fields.”
“Do you miss it?”
The knight looked towards the southern horizon. “Sometimes.”
“Let’s try again. Come here, maybe you can push better than I can. Use those shoulders of yours, plough boy.”
The knight put the flats of his hands to her hindquarters and pushed until his muscles shook. The courser shrieked and thrashed at the pulled grass until she finally found footing. Then she heaved forwards, screaming and kicking out with her powerful back legs. As she came free, one of her shod hooves slammed into the knight’s chest like cannonshot.
Concussion rang in his ears, and the marsh reached out to catch him as he fell. He found that he was looking down on his own body—his chest imploded, ribs dashed into the hollow space of his lungs, and the whole marsh shifting and surging underneath him like a wave.
An explosion of coughing pain brought him back into himself. He strained for a breath that wouldn’t come, but the front of his shirt was drenched with marshwater instead of blood, and when he put his hand to the ache in his chest his ribs did not feel broken. The Red King offered down his hand, and the knight took it, pulling himself back up.
He followed the grim look on the Red King’s face to where his courser stood, three-footed. One of her hind legs was snapped at an impossible angle below the knee, bone puncturing bay fur and blood dripping from her hoof.
A deep calm drove down into the knight’s fingertips, and he forced his voice to soften as he took her head up in both his hands. He let the steadiness of his body pass into hers and bowed his head until it touched her muzzle.
“Gwyn gave her to me,” he said softly, his voice twisted out of shape. “I had her from a yearling.”
The knight drew his sword slowly so as not to startle her. A murmur of metal against leather, a few more gentle words, and one sharp, deep thrust that drove the blade up to the hilt in her chest. Her howl filled up the whole valley as she wrenched away, overbalanced, and fell hard onto her side. A huge flower of dark blood blossomed out into the grey water. The knight knelt and put his hand on her neck. Her eyes rolled white. She sucked down a lungful of mashwater, spasmed, and fell still.
“I’m sorry,” he said, catching his tongue between his teeth. “I’m so sorry.”
He grasped the bloody hilt of his sword and worked the blade out of her body.
“Come here,” he told the Red King. “I’ll need your help to butcher her.”
Y Brenin rose out of the valley like the arched back of a fish: a high ridge of bare jagged granite sculpted by time and weather into a host of peaks, buttresses, and gulleys. More a wall than a mountain, dividing the southern high places from rich northern lowlands with a serrated ridge of bare granite. They approached it swathed in the fog of a grey morning, rounding a scree slope that sank down into a high valley filled with a crooked finger of black lake. A heron raised its head on the far shore, poised between the worlds of fog and water, looking more a spirit than any living thing.
The knight raised his eyes, tracing line from the quiet of the water to the mountain looming in the cloud. His breath tangled in his throat and a shiver of recognition cut through him as an indistinct figure all but crawled over the ridge behind him. Until he saw the colour of the hair and the blackness of the eyes, the knight was certain that it was not the Red King that walked towards him out of the mist but his lord.
“He looks fierce from down here, doesn’t he?” the Red King said, the fog smothering the sound of his voice. “From the north, Y Brenin’s as smooth as glazed ceramic and blue-grey as a thundercloud. But the sun never touches the south face, and so it’s gouged by ice and wind and water. Nothing more than an accident of circumstance, when you think on it.”
“You talk too much, Goch,” the knight said, his voice harsh with dehydration and his tongue so swollen that he could barely speak.
He shrugged the Red King’s hand away and glissaded through the scree to the waterside, boots sliding in great strides through loose sharp stones.
The water was smooth as jet, and when his fingers broke the surface it was cold enough to hurt. He knelt and drank his fill, until his stomach and his throat burned with cold and his hands were white-numb.
The Red King slid down behind him, favouring his good leg. “We shall have to go over the eastern slope,” he said. “There’s a shepherd’s track that cuts down into the valley on the other side. It’s steep, yes, but passable.”
The knight splashed the dark water into his face and stood. “Do you not understand what it means to be a man’s prisoner, Goch?”
“Someone may have tried to explain it to me once,” the Red King said. “But I’m not sure I listened. I tend to forget these things rather quickly when my captor seems determined to lead us both into a certain, painful death. Or would you rather ignore me and die the same way as your horse?”
The knight turned around too quickly and grabbed the Red King’s shoulder. “I’ve had my fill of you,” he growled, clenching his jaw to stop his teeth from shivering.
“Why?” the Red King asked. “Because I am right and you cannot bear to admit it? Or because I sound too much like my brother, and you are afraid that you might fall pathetically in love with me?”
The knight’s grip tightened until his arm shook.
“Tell me,” the Red King said. “When all of this is over and I am returned to my throne, do you think that Gwyn will give up his lands and his riches to live out his days with some ignorant little plough boy? Until he is old and bitter and you must nurse him to his death? Or do you think that he will continue ordering you around like a kicked dog? Sending you off into every pointless battle that he wages against me in the hopes that one day you just don’t come back?”
“You think that I care?” the knight spat. “So long as I get to stand at his side on the morning that they hang you?”
The Red King shrugged. “If you wanted me dead, then you should have killed me on the battlefield and had your fill of it. My brother might even have been grateful enough to let you up into his lap for the night.” He frowned for a moment and made a small, amused sound. “Only you don’t really care if I hang, do you, Mercher? It isn’t me that you are in a rage with, it’s yourself. My brother might forgive you if you beg and grovel at his feet for long enough, but it will all taste like ashes in your mouth. You know that you’ve failed him by refusing to carry out his order on that battlefield, and you shall always know it. It will haunt you in the dark quiet of the night between now and the day that you die.”
The knight seized the Red King’s shirt and found his lord looking back at him accusingly.
His curled fist slammed into the Red King’s jaw. It would have thrown the Red King from his feet if the knight hadn’t gripped him by the hair and kissed him hard and full on the mouth.
The Red King tensed in response. His body curling like a windless flag, and his fingers running over the clinging thinness of the knight’s shirt to the hilt of the knight’s sword. Metal rasped on leather, and he broke away to draw the blade into his hand. His laughter sang off of the south face of Y Brenin.
A surge of humiliation snarled through the knight, bleeding into the love and hate, loyalty, and the fury at his own stupidity.
Then the edge of his own sword was coming for him.
Instinct pulled his body out of the way of the blow. His feet touched the lake, and a deep quiet smoothed all his thoughts down into nothing. He reached for the shield slung across his back and trusted his feet to keep him out of the way for long enough to fasten the enarmes.
When another strike came, the knight was prepared. He brought his shield out to block, and the sound of metal-against-metal burst in his ears. The next swing was swift and terrible, and the knight had no choice but to turn away to catch it. He twisted fully, kicking up stones and water and drove the point of his shield hard into the Red King’s belly.
The Red King laughed and heaved for breath, wiping the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand and leaving a long black streak up the length of his arm. “Do you expect to beat me?” he said, stepping out and forcing the water to the knight’s back.
“You’re half-crippled with that wound, half-crazed with the infection, and I’ve already beaten you once,” the knight retorted, crouching down to scoop up a handful of small wet stones. “So yes, I rather rate my chances.”
The Red King feinted left then swung around hard right. The knight brought his shield out to cover his flank, too late. He barely noticed the notched sword tear through his hip but felt the sudden weakness in his leg.
Quick blood ran down his body into the water, and the Red King touched the black wound on his own thigh. “Evened things out a little, wouldn’t you say?”
The knight gritted his teeth and rolled his shoulders into a shrug. “Only seemed fair, the way you’re flailing that sword around,” he said. “It was either let you land a blow, or give up my shield and see if you could fare any better against an unarmed man.”
The Red King laughed, and when the knight thrust forwards he stepped carelessly aside. “You have a quick tongue on you, boy,” he said.
“And you have the eyes of a cave-dwelling rat. Shall we see how well a rat fights blind?”
The knight moved to make another blow, but when the Red King brought up his sword, he threw the handful of scree and dirt into his face, then struck him with the shield’s edge. The Red King crumpled down into the lake. His red hair drifted into black water, and when he made to regain his feet the knight straddled him and pressed the top edge of his shield against the Red King’s throat. In response, the tip of the sword pressed into the soft flesh under the knight’s jaw.
In the sudden quiet, their breath echoed off Y Brenin and came back to them out of the fog.
“I could lay your throat open,” the Red King said, spitting water. “Leave you here to bleed to death.”
“The edge on that is as blunt as a tourney sword,” the knight said calmly. “Do you think that I would die before I broke your neck?”
“You need me,” the Red King insisted. “You’ve nearly killed us both out here. You’ll die from exposure, like those poor bastards in the marsh.”
“And you will be dead from infection long before you manage to drag yourself back into the south.”
“I thought you meant to bring me before my brother alive.”
“Maybe,” the knight said. “Perhaps it would be easier to carry out my lord’s will, rather than allow the disloyalty to... what was it? ‘Haunt me in the dark quiet of the night between now and the day that I die’?”
The Red King made a short, sharp sound that started as a laugh but which quickly descended into coughs. “What are your terms?”
The knight relaxed the pressure on the Red King’s throat, although he noticed that point of the sword stayed firmly where it was. “Show me the path around Y Brenin,” he said. “I’ll bring you before Edling Gwyn and vouch for you. Ask him to spare your life so that this war can end. For all of us.”
“You had better hope that Gwyn has allies to the north with deep grain stores and deeper pockets, little knight,” the Red King said. “Nothing short of the goddess herself will save this land from ruin now.”
The knight stared down over the silver flex of his shield and pressed a little harder.
“What faith can I place in the word of a plough boy?” the Red King complained. “Tell me, is my brother in the habit of giving you everything you want, Ser Mercher?”
“I do not often ask,” the knight said quietly. “But he hasn’t yet refused me.”
He drew back and offered down his hand. When the Red King let go of the sword, the knight pulled him to his feet. They stood together, shivering and bleeding, waiting for the other to move.
Finally, the knight knelt for his sword—resting on the black bottom of the lake, looking as though suspended in the dark.
“Start walking,” the Red King said, turning towards the mountain. “The path is treacherous by day, but deadly on a moonless night. We need to be on the valley floor before the sun sets. With us both limping like old men, it shall not be an easy climb.”
Across the lowland vale spread out beyond the foothills, the city of Dinas Pair yr Arfaeth boiled with smoke and flame. Voices rose from its cauldron and radiated into the morning fog, while behind its curtain wall a dozen thatched roofs oozed ugly smoke. Others were reduced to bones of blackened timber.
The knight and the Red King stood on a hillside swathed in the yellow flowers of the eithin aur which rolled out into deep folds of low pasture and bleating sheep. At their backs, Y Brenin pierced the blue morning like smoked glass.
“You are at war, Ser Mercher,” the Red King said.
“Do you have a second army that you’ve sent north to lay siege?” the knight said, trying to stop some unnamed thread from tightening in his chest. “No. There is no war. The city has fallen in upon itself. There is nothing to eat, and the guards cannot keep order. The situation was bad when we marched south. Now the vassal lords have returned with nothing to show for all their battles. No relief, no salvation. Just the coming winter, and the famine.”
The Red King tried vainly to keep the rising sun out of his face, his black eyes watering painfully. “You can’t take me down there,” he said. “That city is at war with itself. If you were to bring the Red King into the middle it, you and he would both be dead before we reach the keep.”
The knight’s shirt clung to him, mottled with sweat and dirt, marshwater, and blood. A low ache radiated out from his hip, and his left leg trembled when he tried to put his weight on it. But now they were out of the mountains, the ground was more solid under his feet than it had been since he stayed his blow on the battlefield. A shadow passed over their heads—was that an eagle, gliding north towards the city?
The knight watched it go, and realised what he had to do.
“You must leave,” he said, very quietly.
The Red King frowned but did not turn his head. “Why now? Why listen to me now, when you have spent the last week ignoring every word I’ve said?”
“Give me your parole,” the knight said. “Return to this place a year and a day from now to parley. Offer your word, Goch, then follow the North Road until you find a village, and take a cart back down into the south where you belong.”
The Red King rubbed his watering eyes. “And why would I keep my word?” he asked. “Hasn’t Gwyn told you I don’t have a shred of honour? What’s to stop me mustering whatever people I have left and marching back along this road to give my brother what he deserves?”
The knight studied the Red King. For the first time, he saw the whole of him: the set of the Red King’s jaw that was so much like his lord’s, and the same curl to his hair, but the narrowness of his black and watering eyes and the thinness of his mouth that set him apart as something other.
The knight smiled. “What happened to your eyes?” he asked.
The same smile twisted the corner of the Red King’s mouth. He nodded and placed a hand on the knight’s shoulder.
“You aren’t as stupid as you look. For a plough boy.” The Red King turned away. “A year and a day, then. For what it’s worth, you have my word.”
The knight’s hands were sweating, and he could barely hear the screaming of the crowd or the crack of burning houses over the roaring in his ears as he climbed the stairs of the keep.
Three years ago, he had freed his lord from a tower much like this one, one cold clear night at the very cusp of winter. The guardsmen had feasted on soulcakes spiced with cinnamon and made as offerings to the dead, while the crows croaked to one another and the knight ascended the stairs of Caer Isel with a key clutched in his gauntlet.
Now the crows had come to Dinas Pair yr Arfaeth as the city collapsed into a heap of smoking timbers. This time the knight did not hold the key in his hand but felt it in his chest as he climbed. His fingers clenched and crept to the hilt of his sword. All of it evaporated the moment that he opened the door to see his lord standing before the window.
The white light streamed in through thick glass, catching in the silver strands of his lord’s dark hair and on the golden flower of the eithin aur embroidered onto his surcoat. Unnoticed, the door craned slowly shut, and the whole room seemed to fill with an impenetrable silence.
The knight closed the space between them to kneel, although his left knee buckled more than it folded.
“This is not the first time you have come when all my heart has gone to ruin,” his lord said. “To deliver me from following it.”
The knight drew his sword with clumsy hands and laid it on the flagstones. “And I will always come, my Lord.”
His lord stared out into white light and warped glass. “Where is my brother?”
Breath knotted in the knight’s throat. He forced it to come slow and even. “I let him go.”
The crack of his lord’s palm against the stone sill was like the sound of breaking bone. “Then you have cursed us all. I trusted you. With my most important duty. And you have betrayed me.”
“This city was cursed the moment that we sued for war, when we should have been petitioning our allies for aid,” the knight said. “I have done everything you’ve asked... But that... I couldn’t do that, Gwyn. And I could not bring him here. It would have undone everything.
“The south is blighted. Even if I had killed your brother, taken his lands, done everything you’d asked of me, all you would have to show for it would be more dead bodies when the snows come. There has to be a better way, Gwyn. A better way than more suffering and death.”
“And who are you to decide what’s best for this land?”
The knight clenched his jaw. “You are alive now because of me. Because of the night I freed you. But all that helping you to escape has brought this kingdom is more pain. You are a better man than that, Gwyn. If I didn’t believe it, I would have left us both to rot up in that tower.”
“You have disobeyed my orders, and disappeared into the mountains while my whole kingdom falls apart. I have not known this last week whether you even lived.”
“I....” The knight ran his tongue over his lips and looked back down at the floor. “I did not know the matter was of any importance to you, my Lord.”
“You take my bastard brother captive and drag him off into the hills, then set him free, and you don’t think that matter is of importance to me?”
“Of course,” the knight corrected quickly. “I should have sent word. I’m sorry. That is....”
“Enough.” His lord’s expression creased with pain. On the other side of the glass, a raven with gloss-black feathers perched on the ledge and looked down into the burning city dispassionately. His lord watched the raven watching the kingdom burn and pushed his hand through his hair. “What shall I do, love?”
“We have to leave this city,” the knight said.
His lord nodded slowly and drew a breath. “We can go north,” he said. “Lady Freuddwyd has long been our ally. She will give us sanctuary.”
Pain roared in the knight’s hip as he pushed himself to his feet, but he gritted his teeth against it. “Her lands are three weeks’ hard ride from here, Gwyn. We cannot go so far, not while people are starving. Not while our homeland is on fire.”
“You would have me stay in my lands and die here?”
“I would have us stay and live, Gwyn.”
“You think I haven’t tried to seek aid?” his lord snapped. “Every eagle that comes back from our so-called allies bears nothing but excuses and apologies. Lord Michael is too sick to care, and Cardington too greedy....”
“Then we can go south. Beyond Y Brenin,” the knight said. “Into your brother’s own lands.
“You know more about the things that grow in this country than anyone I’ve ever met, Gwyn. We can stay on the road, move from village to village and teach the people which things they can take from the land to feed their families. Which ones they can use for medicine. You and I can help this kingdom and its people to recover, from what you and your brother have done to it. You have a knack for healing, Gwyn. I’ve seen you do it. I... I know you.”
“It’s suicide,” his lord whispered. “You want us to go into his lands alone? My brother will throw everything he has after us. I’ll not go back into that tower, Mercher. I can’t.”
The knight felt the weight of the memory more than he saw it. A high place shaped from grey stone and hard wind. The crows upon the battlements. The warmth of the key in his hand.
“Edling Goch has given his sworn word to meet us a year and a day from today,” the knight said. “To parley.”
“Parley?” His lord’s voice curled with anger. “Have you lost your senses? You think that I will beg for scraps from the table of the man who poisoned this land in the first place?”
“You shall have to, Gwyn,” the knight said, pushing the window open. “Or all you shall get is more of this.”
The old-bonfire smell came first, then the sounds of raised voices, breaking glass, and screams.
Guilt and pain tore through his lord’s face, and he turned aside too late to hide it. The knight reached out for his hand. Fine bone china against hard skin, dried blood, and calluses.
“I will protect you, Gwyn,” the knight swore. “I freed you from Caer Isel and I shall free you from this. But you must trust me. If I am right, this land will eat again. Its people will recover. They will thrive. Even flourish.”
His lord pressed his tongue against his teeth. “And if you are wrong?”
“Then they shall have to sever every fighting part of me before they harm you.”
His lord tried to smile. “It is a long road south. And if the southern lands are blighted, then those furthest from here will need our help the most,” he said, the white silence pierced by the mounting certainty in his voice. “You’ll need your wound tended. Fresh armour. A whetstone for your blade. If we can last until a year from now, surely we will have earned this land some peace. Although.... Although I shall have to re-learn how.”
“In all the years I have known you, I have never once seen you fail at something, once you have set your mind to it,” the knight said, saluting with a closed fist to his heart. “It will be done. By your will, my Lord.”
“We shall have to pray that we will be alive to see it. The North Road is not safe for two men travelling alone. Let alone for you and I.” His lord watched the raven rise through the smoke towards the dim disk of the sun, lips pressed together into a bloodless line. “If something happened... before I could do anything to fix this....”
“The North Road is not the only way into the south,” the knight said, tightening his grip on his lord’s hand. “There is a path beyond Y Brenin, through the marshes and the mountains.
“I know where it lies, Gwyn. I will show you its way.”