Vagabond's Dagger

by Joyce Holt





Chapter One


    Gwen squinted into the blast, trying to make out land-marks. She'd trodden this way only once before, and not when battered by winter winds. Rain-heavy clouds scraped their bellies across the high moors.
    The wind tore her hood back, whipped hair into her eyes. She reached to brush them aside, losing her grip on the front of her double-thick cloak.
    Gwen gasped at the chill burrowing in, then gasped again, in awe -- for in the south the cloud wall furled back, and through the break stabbed rays of gold and amber, striking jewels across the sodden carpet of heather, moss and withered grass.
    A third gasp, this time in dismay. Far ahead, backlit by the sun's glory, the nameless boy ran with the wolfhounds, chasing a goat, of all things, across the barren landscape toward a dropoff.
    "The hounds!" she cried to Trystan and his kin as she hiked skirts and hauled herself back into the saddle. "Heading for a cliff!"
    Trystan broke from talking with his father. He threw back his hood and peered ahead, his dark auburn hair tossing in the wind. "Luel Almighty, how did he slip past us again?" He put fingers to lips and whistled.
    The wolfhounds swerved from pursuit, huffing to have their sport cut short. The goat halted at the edge of a gully and bleated as if in laughter. Then it hopped down out of sight.
    Gwen whipped up her horse and took off after her charge, who hadn't answered the whistle. The nameless lad still ran after the goat.
    She leaned forward on the grey's back, legs gripping, one hand clenching a hank of mane. The last of her braid came undone. Flame-red hair whipped free, long and tangled as a mane. She felt each strike of hoof on turf, and a thrill ran through her sinews, coursed through her bones. The wild abandon of hooves pounding, haunches churning, four legs swinging in a dance of speed and might, oh the memory! It made her heart thunder.
    With effort she shook the traces of lingering enchantment from her soul. The banished spell still had power to muddle her mind, just as the nameless boy still struggled to mend his frazzled shreds of humanity. The poor lad had spent much longer a time trapped in changeling form than she had.
    He reached the lip of the gully first, stumbled to a halt. Gwen reined in several paces away. How scruffy he looked in that torn and stained yellow tunic, his brown hair matted dark by the morning's rain. She slipped to the ground, warily took one step closer, then another.
    It was overtaking him again, she could tell. His shoulders hunched. His head cocked. His unblinking gaze fixed on the goat which now perched on the far side of the ravine, chewing its cud. The young buck -- or was it a doe? -- stared back, its forelock and beard a flaxen hue, but ears a deep russet-red.
    Gwen had no time to spare studying the beast, to wonder if that coloring meant what legend said it did. Ghostly pale creatures of the Otherworld with red ears--
    She glanced down. The dropoff wasn't long, but it was steep, and jagged rocks at the bottom. "Oh Brig," she whispered, "let music reach deeper than any spell." She hummed the start of an old lullaby.
    The boy twitched, glanced back at Gwen, blinked. A confused look came into his eyes.
    She beckoned and spoke in a singsong lilt. "Calm now, come now, come away. We're going home. Home to him, home to Melkin, welcome home." The only name she knew from the lad's past, overheard during that nightmare trip -- his father, she assumed, if she'd pieced the puzzle together aright. "Melkin. Home. Remember?"
    He shivered, and if he'd still had feathers they would have ruffled.
    She stepped backward, humming again, smiling with her eyes. The low winter sun caught like fire in her hair.
    To her relief the boy followed, away from the brink of the ravine. The mare had already turned back to its herdmates, leaving Gwen and the lad to straggle behind on foot. Better that way, she admitted. Any creature much larger than himself threw the boy into a panic -- another terror lingering from his enchant-ment.
    Gwen paused, looking about, frowning at the lay of the land. They stood on a fainter track than the one the troop had been tracing thus far. She glanced back at the gully -- and heaved a long breath. They'd taken the wrong path. This one, running beside the narrow dale, led to Melkin's hillfort.
    She waved at Trystan, who angled his body in a question. She beckoned again, and before long the rest of their group had tromped across the broken ground to join her. The nameless lad scurried out of reach, but did not go far.
    "Wrong path, that was," she said. "I must have missed a fork in the trail."
    "Luel's luck you discovered the error," muttered Trystan's father Kynan, who had snagged her horse's lead rope. "This is no place to wander willy-nilly."
    "Good luck indeed." Gwen thought about the goat's diversion as she led out on this new track. Perhaps Brig had answered her pleas for aid in this quest. By sending a shapeshifting goatling? She laughed at the thought.
    The wind herded another towering wall of clouds over the top of the world. Dark purple masses swallowed the sun, turned the moors back to a realm of greys and dull browns. Gwen wrapped tighter in her cloak and wished she could convince the nameless lad not to toss aside his own.
    One of the scouts rode in to ask about the change. No sign of Anguls, the woman reported before galloping off to inform her fellows. No creatures abroad on either two legs or four, other than their own troop. And one goat.
    When Trystan joined her, Gwen asked, "What does your father say?"
    "He's still thinking about it."
    "Hope he decides against."
    "A great help you are," Trystan growled. "I'd nearly won his permission before you started yammering in his other ear."
    "It wasn't you I was yammering about, not you nor your plans."
    "It all came around to the same thing, it did."
    Gwen looked east into the swirling murk of early evening. "A worse threat in the east, far worse," she said. One of the scouts rode on the horizon, flanking their group. She stared a moment longer, noted the easy posture of the rider, and shrugged at the tension in her shoulders. No danger looming, not yet.
    "So you keep saying, little lass."
    "Little lass?" she asked in mock outrage then threw some wordplay at him. "Listen, this little lass has but one winter less than you, lispy lad."
    "Humph," came a baritone retort. Some lad Trystan had nineteen winters, a well-earned swagger, and a fine start on a mustache.
    "A lispy lad with no business seeking to join the king's war-host," she pressed, but he didn't rile. Gwen wished he'd rise to the taunting, the only heat they were likely to find on their trek. She sighed. "You don't believe me about the danger in the east."
    A shrug rumpled Trystan's rain-darkened crimson cloak. "Oh indeed, lass, I believe you, but the east can wait. The battle in the south comes this summer. Let's put down the usurper in Gwynedd first."
    "Gwynedd!" Gwen hunched her shoulders. "I'm not caring who carries the title of High King."
    They both drew up hoods again, for new veils of rain came sweeping across the moors. While Gwen walked she kept an eye on the boy. Wolfhounds milled around him once more, and he ran his fingers through their fur. Trystan's younger brother Brannoc came along with the dogs, and without a break chattered to the nameless lad -- who never said a word in answer. Brannoc didn't seem to mind. He said enough for the two of them.
    Brannoc, who had nine winters, stood half a head shorter than his silent companion. Gwen guessed the older boy's age to be ten or eleven. "How long," she asked him, "did you spend banished from your human form, my friend?"
    Of course, he made no answer.
    They followed the upper bank of the widening ravine through another torrent of rain before the trail scaled downwards. They came across a fallow field half-hidden among the alders and willows of the sheltered dale. Trystan called his hounds to heel. Gwen spotted the wide thatched cone of a hut.
    "Ho, there!" Kynan bellowed. Rain slicked his black hair and thick mustache. "Is this the land of Melkin?" he asked the Bryt who ducked out from beneath the overhang.
    "Who wants to know?" The man carried a spear. A woman appeared behind him, javelin in hand.
    Kynan's voice drummed with each word. "Clanlord of Black Tor, am I. We hail from Cynmarc's realm."
    "What has Rheged to do with Craven?"
    Trystan narrowed his hazel eyes and whispered to Gwen, "Friendly sort up here in the moors."
    "They've got a right to be wary," Gwen murmured.
    "Rheged and Craven have no feuds," Kynan replied, red plaid cloak swept aside to reveal hand on sword hilt. "Kinship binds close the Bryts of mountain and moor."
    "So we would hope," the man growled back.
    Gwen called out, "We come to return to Melkin something once stolen. Please let us pass. We are cold and wet."
    "And hungry," Trystan muttered.
    The Bryt looked over the bedraggled group. "How many are you?"
    "A dozen, hailing from the ridges of High Raise in the west."
    The ten from Black Tor, plus Gwen and her cousin Rhys from Raven's Crag, gained an escort for the final leg of their journey. When Kynan asked about the threat in the east, the Craven folk grew grim. No sight nor sound of Anguls these last few months. They would say no more, leaving the matter for their clanlord.
    This dale opened into a wider valley, and in its depths a river raged downstream to the east. Their trail dropped in great steps of limestone, swinging left to stay high above the torrent. A footbridge carried the track over a beck that came crashing in full spate from the heavy rains uphill. Where the waters poured over a rocky shelf, Gwen was startled to catch sight of an ugly face in the waterfall -- the same face she'd seen months before, along this very path -- the same long muzzle and russet-red ears as the goat up on the moors.
    Gwen stumbled on an uneven log in the bridge over the stream. "Did you see that?" she gasped to Trystan.
    "What?"
    "The goatling in the waterfall!"
    Trystan halted and stared, but the face had vanished. "If you say so," he said, his sparse mustache quirked up to one side.
    Gwen bit back a sharp reply. The tone of his voice carried not scorn but somber acceptance. Then she noticed the nameless lad, who stood frozen in the middle of the span.
    It wasn't in fear of the goatling, for his back was to the waterfall. Nor was he preparing to leap from the bridge in doomed flight. He stared about wide-eyed at his surroundings, and across his face spread a look of terror. He wailed, turned and dashed back the way they had come.
    The wolfhounds darted in pursuit, glad to play chase. When one of them tripped the lad, he tumbled, and they milled about, hemming him in. Gwen reached the spot to find him huddled on the ground, shaking and weeping.
    She knelt by his side. "But this is home, isn't it? Melkin, that's your father, isn't he? Don't tell me I've riddled this all wrong!"
    The boy flinched from every touch, would not respond to song or melody or plea. At last Kynan picked him up like a sack of turnips, flung him over his shoulder, pinned his kicking legs together, and tromped the last stretch of their journey, the lad sobbing all the way. "A good thing it is, he being not much more than skin and bones," Kynan growled.
    Brannoc and the wolfhounds followed close behind, puzzlement in their eyes. The trail wound around an outcropping, and through curtains of rain they could now see a hillfort perched on another headland jutting above the valley. The squall passed before they reached the settlement but more rainclouds surged in its wake.
    Gwen caught sight of the clanlord with hands on hips awaiting the newcomers, his cloak glimmering through the dusk in bright yellows and greens. She stepped forward. "Greetings from Black Tor and Raven's Crag in North Rheged," she called. "Lord Melkin, though you will not recognize me, I stood here once before in the fetters of a fiend from the east, an Angul sorcerer. Did he steal away your son?"
    The stocky man's face turned darker than the stormy sky. "Why wound me with such words?" he growled.
    "Is this -- himself?" Gwen asked, and Kynan set the lad down.
    The clanlord's chest froze in the middle of a breath, and his gaze opened like the dawn. He staggered a step forward, his hands rising, fingers spreading in amazement.
    The lad took one look, wrenched aside, tried to flee, but Kynan grabbed his shoulders and held tight. Again the wail rose, wordless, heart-rending, as the boy flailed and fought.
    "Gavin!" Melkin breathed, voice breaking, then his face folded. "Gavin, what fear is upon you? Come to me!" He knelt, holding his arms wide, begging an embrace.
    But the boy refused even to face him. He writhed and shuddered and sobbed in Kynan's grasp.
    Tears blurred Gwen's sight as she glanced from one to the other. The lad had back his name, the lad had back his home. What then filled him so with terror?
    A young woman pushed her way through the gathering throng, cried out, and ran to the boy. "Gavin, Gavin, you're found! At long last!" She caressed his face.
    The boy's sobs cut off at the sound of her voice. He blinked up at her first word, then grabbed her hand from his cheek, snatched her other wrist, climbed up her arms, wrapped her in a hug so tight she gasped for breath as she blinked away tears. "You're back, you're safe," she crooned, rocking him from side to side like a small child. "You're home."
    A new onslaught of rain and sleet began, drenching the young woman who wore no cloak nor shawl, plastering her tan and gold gown to her body and streaming from her light brown braid.
    Gwen winced at the clap of Melkin's hand on her shoulder, gripping like the talons of a hawk. Through clenched teeth he said, "Come inside and tell me everything. Where he's been. Why he won't speak." A long breath hissed. "Tell why he fears me."


Copyright 2018 by Joyce Holt



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