Caradoc of the north win.., p.1
Caradoc of the North Wind, p.1Allan Frewin Jones
More from the same author:
1. Rhiannon of the Spring
2. Govannon of the Wood
3. Merion of the Stones
Copyright © 2012 Working Partners Ltd.
First published in Great Britain in 2012
by Hodder Children’s Books
This ebook edition published in 2012
All rights reserved. Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in any form, or by any means with prior permission in writing from the publishers or in the case of reprographic production in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency and may not be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A Catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 444 90488 8
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For James, with thanks
Branwen ap Griffith narrowed her eyes against the glare of the sunlit snow. Through the brittle black branches of a sheltering rowan, she could see that the sky had been swept clean of clouds; for once, winter had loosened its grip on the land and offered some brief respite from its insatiable malice.
It was a winter the like of which Branwen had never known. Relentless. Unendurable. And yet she and her small band of warriors had to endure it, live through it – fight through it.
Fain, Branwen’s falcon, was circling low in the crystalline air. ‘It seems Fain has led us a true course. That’s the place we sought, there can be no doubt of it.’ Branwen turned her head at Iwan’s words. He was at her side now, swathed in a white ermine cloak, the hood drawn down to his eyes, the blade of his sword flaring in the slanting light.
‘I see no Saxons,’ added Dera, wading up the tree-thick hillside through the deep, powdery snow. ‘Have we come too late? Have we failed in our mission?’
Branwen peered up through the branches again at the tall stone tower that lifted its blunt head among the higher ridges. ‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said. She had reason to be hopeful. Blodwedd had translated the falcon’s cries: The doorways and lower windows of the old Roman watchtower are blocked with rubble – the Saxons will be hard-pressed to clear a way through without bringing arrow-fire down upon them.
‘More likely they’ll have camped outside the walls,’ Branwen said. ‘They’ll seek to starve their quarry out rather than risk a full-on assault.’
‘And so we take them unawares from behind, and bathe the snow red with their blood,’ murmured Blodwedd, her inhuman eyes glowing like molten gold. ‘A fine plan, and good sport to warm the bones on such a day as this!’
Branwen nodded. While she did not share the owl-girl’s joy in slaughter, she understood well enough the necessities that drove this war: kill, or be killed.
The rest of her band had arrived now, plodding up the forested hillside through the pitiless snow. They gathered around her, their faces pinched and pale from the fearsome winter. Aberfa, tall and heavyset, powerful as a bear. Banon with her pale, freckled face and gangling limbs. Little Linette, bright-eyed and delicate, but a fine fighter for all that. And Rhodri, friend of friends, warm-hearted and wise as the hills. White as ghosts they were, wrapped in their heavy hooded cloaks of ermine, their feet clad in tough leather boots lined with the white fur of mountain hares.
Six months fighting a war on two fronts had changed them all. It had worn them down, hardening them like iron blades forged in fire and tempered in ice water. But it had not broken them – rather it had strengthened them, moulding a ragged band into a deadly fighting force.
The Gwyn Braw, King Cynon called them: the White Death. And it was always upon the most dangerous missions that he sent them, missions no one else would be allowed to attempt. Far from hearth and home, and always into the very deepest peril. It was a joy and astonishment to Branwen that in all these long months of warfare, she had not lost a single one of her followers.
Branwen turned from surveying the stone tower, a plan of attack already formed in her mind. Now it was time to put it in motion.
‘Iwan, Dera, Banon – you three take the left flank,’ she told them. ‘Rhodri, you, Aberfa and Linette go to the right. Blodwedd and I will take them from the front.’ As always she recited to her followers the litany taught her long ago by her murdered brother, Geraint. ‘Be calm, be silent, be swift, be still.’
Rhodri touched hands briefly with Blodwedd before they parted. This was always their ritual when death threatened – one last touch, one final moment of bonding. Just in case.
Branwen drew her sword and tightened her grip on the leather thongs of her shield. Blodwedd stood at her side, as slender as a sapling, but hiding in her slim body a fighting spirit that outmatched even Dera’s ferocity and Aberfa’s overwhelming strength.
A good companion to have at your side when danger bore down, the messenger of Govannon of the Wood – an owl in human shape, wild and ferocious and merciless to her enemies. Branwen had once thought she could never befriend such a creature – but now she could not imagine going into battle without her.
‘Caw!’ Branwen smiled as Fain came scything through the trees, his wide wings the colour of rain-washed slate, his eyes like black beads, brimming with intelligence. He alighted on a branch above her head, dislodging a steeple of snow.
‘Keep watch, my friend, but keep back,’ Branwen told him. ‘There will be arrows, for sure, and I cannot afford to lose you.’ Fain’s eyes had led her safe through the deadliest jeopardy, scouting ahead, warning her of coming perils. Without him she would have blundered blind into many a trap set for her by her enemies.
And she had many enemies. As many from within as from without. The traitorous Prince Llew ap Gelert beating upon them from the west, and Herewulf Ironfist’s Saxon hordes swarming like rats in the east. And Powys in between, pressed like a trapped limb between two crushing rocks.
But it was not the time to dwell on the tribulations of this double-edged war. It was not even the time to ponder the implications of this latest desperate mission.
This was the time to fight.
‘This is most strange,’ murmured Blodwedd. ‘Where is our enemy?’
Where, indeed? thought Branwen.
The two young warriors had climbed up the snow-shrouded hills, almost to the very feet of the half-ruinous old stone tower. It loomed above them now, surrounded by the winter-scoured forest, ancient and ominous with its head bowed under a heavy cap of snow. As Fain had reported, the lower windows and square entrance way were blocked with rubble. From the little snow on the heaped stones, Branwen guessed they had been crammed there by the defenders, probably gathered from the remnants of some age-gnawed wall within.
They were at the edge of a forest clearing, in a place of boulders and rocks, keeping low behind humps and ridges blurred by snow as thick and soft as silken pillows. As they stared from cover, they saw ahead of them a wide, flat area in front of the tower, where the snow was churned up and tramped down by the passage of many feet. A few arrows lay in the snow, and others stabbed down into the earth.
But a curious silence wrapped the tower, and of
‘Gone?’ Branwen muttered uncertainly. ‘Surely not?’
‘They would not have departed, if they knew who was within the tower,’ murmured Blodwedd.
‘Perhaps they did not know?’ mused Branwen. ‘Perhaps it was no more than bad fortune that brought them here. If so, they may have thought the siege not worth the effort.’ She glanced at her companion. ‘That’s rare good fortune, if it proves true.’
To gain their prize and return to the king’s court at Pengwern without bloodshed would be a rare treat. It would also remove from her mind an ominous shadow – the unshakeable fear that tragedy would accompany this mission.
‘Let us pray that the Shining Ones gift us with good fortune and an easy task,’ Branwen said, glancing at Blodwedd. The owl-girl made no comment. It was a long time since the Shining Ones had shown themselves to Branwen, for good or ill – not since she had turned her back on them in the high summer and ridden hard to King Cynon to offer him her fealty in the brewing conflict. It was a promise she had made to a dying man.
Unless, of course, this monster of a winter was Caradoc’s doing. Branwen half believed it might be so – some petty but deadly retribution meted out by the god of the North Wind to rebuke her for her temerity. Not that he had cause to be angry with her. She had rescued him from a hundred years of captivity.
All the same, he was a wild and a dangerous elemental; the reasons and actions of the Shining Ones were not easily understood, and defying gods was no small matter, as Branwen knew only too well.
Blodwedd’s slender arm jutted forward. ‘Look!’ she hissed.
Some thirty paces away across the disturbed and trampled snow, Branwen saw movement in the blocked entrance. The plug of rubble burst, spraying outwards, the stones rolling black in all the whiteness.
A figure emerged from the sudden dark hole. A Warrior of Brython, clad in chain-mail and with a red cloak and a face as lined and worn as old leather. There was grey in his heavy moustache, and grizzled hair showed under his helmet. He bore a sword and on his arm was a shield that displayed the red dragon rampant of Powys. He stepped out into the open and several more armed men followed.
Branwen gave a hiss between her clenched teeth.
Captain Angor ap Pellyn of Prince Llew’s court in Doeth Palas. Treacherous follower of a treacherous prince; merciless killer, sly tactician and one of the most cunning leaders in Llew ap Gelert’s rebellion against the king.
Branwen had often wondered how long it would be before she met this man in battle. Had she known he would be in the party coming over the mountains, she would not have been so quick to agree to King Cynon’s orders to bring all of the travellers safe to Pengwern. And how would Iwan react to meeting again the man who had threatened to torture him to death in front of his mother and father?
‘Be wary, men,’ she heard Angor call. ‘We must be sure our enemy is gone ere we bring the princesses out.’
So, it seemed that Angor was as puzzled by the disappearance of the Saxons as she was. And what a curious web fate was weaving, that Branwen and her band were here for his succour. A month gone, they would have fought to the death.
Branwen rose to her feet, pulling back the hood of her ermine cloak. She leaped up high on to a boulder, her white shield up, her sword ready in her fist as she revealed herself to the men of Doeth Palas.
‘Angor ap Pellyn!’ she called. ‘Do you know me?’
Angor started at the sight of her, his heavy-lidded eyes growing wide, his knuckles whitening around his sword hilt. ‘I know you, indeed,’ Angor shouted. ‘You are Branwen of the Dead Gods – the shaman witch girl of Garth Milain, a shame to your kin and a blight to this fair land.’
‘In the eyes of such as you, for sure,’ Branwen laughed. ‘But heed me! I have come in search of the daughters of Llew ap Gelert. Are they safe, Angor ap Pellyn?’
His eyes narrowed, glittering like garnets. ‘What is that to you?’
‘I am here in King Cynon’s name,’ Branwen said. ‘I have been sent to lead Llew’s daughters safely to the royal court.’ She turned, making a wide gesture to the east with her outstretched arm. ‘No way is secure between here and Pengwern,’ she said. ‘The land hides Saxon raiding parties aplenty. But I will guide you true, Angor, if you will follow my lead.’
‘Get you gone!’ shouted Angor. ‘I was a seasoned warrior two score years before you were born. The princesses are under my protection and want for no other.’ Cold contempt came into his voice. ‘Most especially not the aid of one who worships ancient demons.’
Branwen smiled grimly. It was a long time since barbed words such as that had caused her any discomfort. ‘We are the Gwyn Braw!’ she called, ‘the king’s reavers – and you are surrounded. Do as I command, and all will be well.’
Branwen saw fury transform the old soldier’s face, but before he could spit out a response, the sounds of fighting erupted from Branwen’s right. All heads turned at the noise; nothing could be seen through the shrouding trees, but there was shouting and howling, the thud of weapons on shields, the clash of iron on iron, the hiss of arrows.
And above all, Branwen could hear Aberfa’s roaring voice. ‘Gwyn Braw! Gwyn Braw for the king!’
It seemed the Saxons had not departed.
They had been lying in wait, hoping to lure their enemies into the open – and now they had struck.
An arrow cut a dark path through the air, thudding into the chest of one of Angor’s soldiers. And then came another arrow from the hem of trees, chiming as it glanced off the wall of the tower. A third flew, catching a man in the leg.
‘Saxons, curse them!’ Blodwedd cried. ‘I should have known they were close by! I would have, if not for this deadly cold numbing my senses!’
More arrows came flashing out of the woods to the right. Several men fell. Some crawled back towards the entrance to the tower, others made no further movement.
‘To cover!’ bellowed Angor. He ran for the dark entrance, arrows slicing all around him. With a liquid reflex that would have been astonishing in a man a third his age, he swung his sword, striking an arrow in mid-flight and deflecting it into the sky.
‘Gwyn Braw to me!’ howled Branwen, throwing herself over the boulders and racing towards the sounds of conflict. She was aware of Blodwedd at her side, and as she ran she heard cries from behind as Banon, Dera and Iwan came charging from the tree-cover.
A Saxon soldier came out of the trees ahead of Branwen, running at the half-turn, slashing behind him as Linette pursued him with her sword whirling. Straight on to Branwen’s blade he ran, almost knocking her off her feet as he collapsed with a groan.
A spear sang close by Branwen’s head, the sound of its passing fierce in her ears. A spear flung from behind! She turned. A score or more Saxons were swarming from some hiding place behind the tower, streaming out now, brandishing swords and axes and screaming their deadly war cries. ‘Ganghere Wotan! Hel! Gastcwalu Hel! Hetende Tiw!’
They crashed into Dera, Banon and Iwan, driving them back, their feet slipping in the slithering snow.
This new assault trapped Angor and his remaining men in the open, some few Saxons racing along the tower walls to cover the entrance while the others attacked with all the ferocity of their warlike race.
Shouts and screams rang through the frozen air and hot blood sprayed high as iron cut deep into flesh. Yet more Saxons were running from the trees now, cloaks billowing, mouths open like red wounds in their bearded faces.
With a deep howl, Blodwedd flung herself at a tall Saxon warrior wielding a double-headed axe. Her clawed fingers tore at his eyes, her mouth open at his throat.
The man blundered back, snatching at her as she clung to his chest. Blood spurted and he toppled backward. Blodwedd rose like an avenging spirit, gored to the chin, her eyes blazing, seeking new prey.
A man came at Branwen with a spear. She pranced aside, bringing th
Her sword rose and fell and his open-eyed head rolled like a boulder in the snow. Even before the severed head came to rest, Branwen was poised on the balls of her feet, shield up, sword ready – eager for her next enemy to come.
As Blodwedd had said: this was good sport to warm the bones on such a day!
Branwen sprinted into the trees. Through the lattice of trunks and branches, she saw Aberfa, tall and solid, like an oak tree herself, a spear in one hand and a sword in the other, while Saxons crowded around her like pack-dogs. Branwen had no fear for Aberfa – she could deal with twice the number that assailed her.
But where was Rhodri? True, he had learned much of the art of war; it was a long time now since Branwen had cause to keep him from harm’s way, and his skills with shield and sword had grown with each encounter. But she still worried about him. He did not like shedding blood and he lacked the killer instinct of a natural warrior. She feared that one day he would look into the eyes of the man in front of him, and hesitate one second too long.
Branwen ran forward, and caught sight of Rhodri. He was being beaten back step by slow step by a mighty Saxon with an axe in either hand. Tall and broad-shouldered as Rhodri was, his opponent towered over him, blows ringing down like hammers on an anvil.
But with a fiendish howl, Blodwedd was upon the giant’s back, her nails feeling for his eyes, her arms pulling his head back as her sharp teeth sank into the exposed neck. There was a gurgling cry cut short, and then the man came down in a flurry of fine snow, like a felled tree.
A hard-won instinct made Branwen turn the moment before a sword would have taken her in the back. She fended off the blow with her shield and stabbed quick and true. Her enemy fell. His hot blood steamed in the cold air.
Caradoc of the North Wind by Allan Frewin Jones / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes