Book 1: Chapter 1

by Barbara Boyer

[Wherein Lord Shoban of Tairne fights his yearly war.]

The eyes, two sharp points of life encased in dead metal, stared back at him. The eyes disappeared. Gareth saw only the eagle now, wings extended, sharp beak opened in a scream, talons poised, shedding drops of ruby. A slash of metal cut the eagle in two. The eyes, green flecked with brown, returned, but wavered.

Steadied for a blow, Gareth’s shield arm went up. The eyes turned. Gareth saw only the gray metal and underneath the metal a sliver of pulsing skin. He focused on the skin, a point of life like the eyes, and brought his half-raised sword down. A brilliant red fountain sprayed Gareth’s shield and tunic and turned him to stone. The fountain disappeared. The eyes were gone.

His stallion swerved underneath him and startled Gareth back into the battle. Suddenly, Gareth saw what the eyes had seen – Castwell’s entire line was down. Their nostrils flaring and their mouths streaked with bloodied foam, the riderless stallions were trampling the maimed and the dead. Other horses, ones with riders, caught the wild ones, calmed them. Underneath Gareth, Duir remained steady.

Another pair of eyes came toward him. Not hazel, light brown, eyes Gareth thought he knew. A hand clapped him on the shoulder. Flinching, Gareth tightened his grip on his sword. “Well done, Sir Gareth.”  Gareth recognized the voice, one he’d heard before. “You’ve taken out the Lord of Castwell!”

The voice was loud, but not angry. The tone was hearty, approving. Unable to understand the words, Gareth frowned. Tightening his grip on his shield and the hilt of his sword, Gareth listened with total concentration and the world around him erupted with moans, shouts, and dreadful screams. Gareth’s mind reeled, his body swayed slightly right before everything, sharp like a sword, sliced into his consciousness. He was at war again and this battle was over.

The dense cloud of dust raised by the fighting was beginning to settle now, sift through the air onto the bodies of the slain and the mortally wounded. Anyone down would never be able to crawl out of this mess and live. Gareth raised his eyes and saw the sun shining warmly in a brilliantly blue sky. A cool breeze blew across the field and dried the blood on his face and hands. Very thick, the blood caked on his skin.

“Castwell won’t bother Lord Theor of Lamesly again.”  The words, underscored with unpleasant laughter, came from behind Gareth’s back. Another hand clapped his shoulder. Cautiously, Gareth turned his head around and found himself surrounded by swordsmen. He tensed until he saw the patches of Tairne’s rich green on their blood-splattered tunics. They were Tairne’s swordsmen, then. The battle is over. They’re congratulating me. There’s a look of pride in Dayne’s eyes. I wish I could remember what I’ve done.

Settling a little more comfortably in his saddle, Lord Shoban of Tairne brought his right hand to rest over his left hand holding the reins. His sharp blue eyes watched his six officers, his closest advisors, congratulate his second son. That was more luck than skill, boy, he thought. Don’t get too full of yourself. Lord Shoban’s lips twisted into a smile before he tugged his reins to the left. His bay stallion swerved, and then picked its way through the corpses.

“Shoban?” Gareth was able to ask, now that he knew where he was and that Dayne was the man with the light brown eyes.

“You don’t have to worry about the Lord, Sir Gareth.”  Dayne smiled. “And he won’t have to worry about you after this. You are your father’s son.”

Though no hand touched him, Gareth flinched again. “My brother?” he asked quietly.

“Sir Shoban’s been wounded.”

When Gareth’s eyes went down to the tangled mass of bodies, Dayne assured him, “We managed to get him off the field before he fell.”

“His shield, right?”  Gareth’s voice went up in imitation of the boy he’d been a few days ago. “He forgets his left arm when he focuses too narrowly on his sword. Just like you warned him, Dayne.”

“Did I?”  Dayne shrugged.

“You did. Remember, Dayne, training on the practice field just a month ago.”  Gareth’s voice was earnest, pleading. He had to know.

“If you say so, Sir Gareth.”  It mattered less about the eldest son now that he’d seen Gareth fight this battle. The boy had shown promise and talent from the beginning, but now, he was well on his way to being one of Tairne’s best swords. Lord Shoban had a worthy successor.

“Remember, Dayne?” Gareth insisted too quietly to be heard over the moaning, shouting, and the noise the horses made when the six officers moved away.

Most of the horses were gone and servants, on foot, crawled around the field to sort the wounded from the slain.

“I remember Dayne told Shoban to watch his shield arm,” Gareth explained to his horse right before he dismounted. Standing over the hazel eyes, still opened, but dead like the metal helm that surrounded them, Gareth saw the black tunic woven with Castwell’s eagle, the fine metal work on the shield, a lord’s shield. Gareth glanced at his own, plain and serviceable.

His brother Shoban’s shield was embossed with Tairne’s crest, two swords crossed at the center, the moon in her four phases in the quadrants, like the Lord of Tairne’s shield. Sir Shoban the Younger, though, had raised the shield with Tairne’s crest too late, the way he did far too often in practice. Didn’t like it pointed out. “It’s only practice, Gareth!  You’re an irritating little slug, brother.”  If you can’t do the moves smoothly without thinking during practice, you won’t be able to do them in a battle. All the men say that, Shoban, not just Dayne. See, they’re right.

Something stung Gareth’s eyes and he wiped them with the back of his hand. The blood, moistened again, smeared across his face and Gareth blinked rapidly until his eyes cleared. He saw the Lord of Castwell’s sword was gone. He won’t be buried now with his arms folded across his sword. Gareth saw the empty arms, a peasant’s burial. Gareth of Tairne, a voice mocked, lords have more than one sword. He smiled sheepishly. The Lord of Castwell has other swords in his castle.

The thought cheered him for a while, but then he sadly shook his head. The Lord of Castwell had no castle, not any more. Lamesly with Tairne’s help had stormed it. Gareth turned his head. The dust had completely settled now; the air was as clear as the sky. He saw the castle, the turrets pushing up above the gray stone walls. He watched Lamesly’s crimson banner slowly ascend to the top of the central turret. The bright white in the center, Gareth knew, was a ram’s head.

Like a sharp crack from the back of his father’s hand, the banner brought all of Gareth’s senses to life again. In front of him was Castwell’s castle, Lamesly’s now, and behind him the tents. He was standing alone on the battlefield strewn with Castwell’s dead swordsmen, the dead lord at his feet. I killed the Lord of Castwell.

A shudder started deep inside, radiated out to shake his limbs, weaken his knees. His stomach wrenched. He willed his stomach under control, stiffened his knees, and forced his arms to stop shaking. His hands trembling slightly, he removed his shield from his arm and looped it over the saddle. Clutching the reins tightly, he picked his way, through the fallen bodies, back to the camp. Shoban is wounded, he thought.

Near the camp, the silence of death gave way to the loud voices of living men, shouting, laughing, and singing off-key – grating sounds. Fires crackled and the smell of roasting flesh was stronger than the smell of blood. The air was acrid with the odor of ale, mead, and wine, flowing already as the blood had flowed.

Tensing, Gareth walked into Tairne’s camp and kept a wary eye on his father’s tent. When he saw the flap was closed, Gareth exhaled with relief.

“Boy!” someone yelled and Gareth stiffened, his nerves tensed again. “See to Sir Gareth’s horse.”

Another boy, not much younger than Gareth, ran up and put his hands on Duir’s reins. A little frightened, the boy looked up. “Sir Gareth?”

“What?” Gareth snapped nervously.

The boy glanced down at Gareth’s hand holding the reins in a death grip. When Gareth forced his hand to relax, it opened and the reins fell. Without another glance at Sir Gareth or the swordsmen who were approaching him, the boy pulled Duir away.

“I can see to the horse myself, Dayne.”

“Not any more, Sir Gareth.”  Dayne’s hand thudded on his shoulder. “Take off your helm, sir.”

Responding immediately as he always did to one of Dayne’s orders, Gareth gripped the helm with both hands and tugged it off his head. The cool air touched his thick black curls matted with sweat.

“Come with us, Sir Gareth,” Dayne commanded.

His blue eyes opened wide, Gareth turned his head from side to side and saw four swordsmen moving closer, preventing his escape. Afraid to ask but terrified not to know, Gareth croaked, “Is something wrong?”

“Wrong!”  Laughing, Dayne put his arm around Gareth’s shoulders and propelled him forward.

Because he felt like crying, Gareth bit down sharply on his lower lip, licked at the blood. Dayne would report any tears to the Lord. Concentrating on keeping himself under control, Gareth didn’t notice the small knot of men loosen to receive him and move tightly together again until he looked up and saw Edgar facing him. The man’s face was dirty and his tunic soiled. None of the men had changed yet. Of course not, they’ll be drinking for a while. Gareth’s eyes clouded with wariness, but Edgar smiled at him. Edgar’s smile was too friendly and Gareth tensed.

Very alert now, Gareth saw Darrold was on Edgar’s right and Jerret on his left. Dayne was still standing with his arm around Gareth’s shoulders. Gareth glanced quickly to his right. Lother. His left. Rikulf. And if those six retainers, the Lord’s officers, were here then –. Yes, the Lord was here, standing a little to the side. Without moving his gaze from Gareth, Lord Shoban raised his large silver cup to his lips and drank. He lowered the cup so he could move the corners of his mouth into the semblance of a smile.

Because he had to focus his eyes on something besides his father’s face, had to look away from the smile that meant one thing and the cold, hard expression in the Lord’s blue eyes that meant something very different, if he didn’t want to lose the little control he had, Gareth saw the sword Edgar was holding in his hand and saw every mark of careful etching that had formed the eagle on the hilt.

“Take it, Sir Gareth,” Dayne encouraged.

Puzzled, Gareth looked up at Dayne. The men laughed.

“Are you sleepwalking, Sir Gareth?  Edgar has Castwell’s sword. It’s for you, sir. Your trophy.”

Smiling, Edgar held out the sword to Gareth. From the corner of his eye, Gareth saw the Lord watching him – a trap.

“Castwell’s sword belongs to the Lord of Tairne.”  Gareth was surprised he’d managed the words; his mouth felt so dry. “I fight for the Lord. The glory is Tairne’s, not my own.”

“Take it, boy.”  Lord Shoban’s voice was low, but it sliced through the other noise in the camp. “The men insist you have it. And I think it’s a fitting reward for not soiling your hose this time the way you did the first time you fought for Tairne’s glory.”

The smiles were gone now, but Gareth didn’t notice, didn’t feel Dayne remove his arm from his shoulders because he was fighting the flame burning up his neck and threatening to spread across his face. He lost the battle and turned scarlet with humiliation.

“Take it, boy. I know what’s due to me as Lord without a reminder from you. I want you to have it. Tairne’s not greedy.”  Lord Shoban laughed.

As if Shoban’s laughter were a signal his men were waiting for, they relaxed and smiles appeared on their faces again. When the Lord started walking toward him, Gareth reached out and quickly took the sword from Edgar. Unprepared for the weight of the sword, Gareth almost dropped it. Gripping it with two hands so it wouldn’t slip, he struggled to keep his balance.

“Good boy,” Shoban said and laid his hand heavily on Gareth’s shoulder.

Gareth knew that touch. The Lord was thoroughly displeased and Gareth was going to pay for that displeasure for a very long time.

“The boy looks parched, men. What will you drink, boy?”

Gareth forced his roiling emotions deep inside. The move’s been made. Nothing I say or do now will change things. I wish, though, that someone right now was handing Gareth of Tairne’s sword to the Lord of Castwell and I was the blessed corpse on the field. No, Gareth, that’s not right. No one would want Gareth of Tairne’s sword.

“Ale, my lord.”

“Not mead, boy?”

Knowing the sweet taste would make him vomit, Gareth shook his head. “No, my lord.”

“Of course not. It’s a man’s drink.”

Shoban’s fingers dug into Gareth’s shoulder and he felt the chain mail bite his skin even through the woolen undershirt. The pain cut through Gareth’s despair.

“I’d like some ale,” Gareth announced in a firm, steady voice. “I worked up a thirst that mead won’t quench.”

Gareth braced himself for another wrenching pain in his shoulder, but Lord Shoban removed his hand. The Lord’s mouth curved again into a half-smile.

When Jerret handed him the cup of ale, Gareth moved Castwell’s sword to his left hand and drank thirstily. One by one all the men raised their cups to Gareth.

While they drank, Gareth asked quietly, “Dayne, is Shoban badly wounded?”

The Lord lowered his goblet. “He better be,” he growled.

In the silence that followed the Lord’s words, Gareth saw the men carefully avoid glancing at one another and knew what they were thinking. Four battles. Four wounds and none of them serious. He’s awkward with his shield, Gareth almost made the excuse aloud, caught himself in time.

“You’re dismissed, boy.”  The Lord turned his back to Gareth.

Waiting for the Lord to turn on him again, Gareth held his breath. Lord Shoban did turn back. “And clean up, boy. Lord Theor will decide when he wants to enter Castwell in triumph. I want Tairne ready when he does. Since my eldest son is wounded, you’ll take his place.”

“Yes, my lord,” Gareth exhaled the words. “Yes, my lord,” he repeated, bowed, and slowly started to back away. Lord Shoban turned around, raised his hand, and his officers followed him back to his tent.

The moment the tent flap slapped shut behind his father’s back, Gareth whirled around and walked quickly away, past his own tent and out of the camp. As soon as he reached the woods, he started to run. His own sword and the Lord of Castwell’s sword banging against his leg brought his attention back, reminded him to stay alert. He slowed his steps and stopped. Looking up through the branches at the shards of sky, he noticed that the sun’s rays were slanting now, turning the leaves a dark, shaded green.

You’d better get back to your tent and get ready, Gareth. He wants you to disobey him, make some mistake so he can punish you for slaying the Lord of Castwell or because Shoban was stupid enough to get wounded. Gareth leaned forward and vomited the ale. Trembling a little, he walked back toward the tent he shared with his brother.

Too expansive to be held in by the fabric of the tent, Sir Shoban’s laughter rang into the camp. Gareth stopped in front of the tent flap and listened to his brother and the other voices. Shoban was never alone. Horik, Lord Theor’s eldest son. And Gefmund. Who else?  Gefmund couldn’t breathe except in Sir Shoban’s presence. The moment Gareth’s hand moved the tent flap, the laughter ceased and Shoban moaned. Gareth forced the anger out of his face so it settled like a rock in the pit of his stomach.

“Sir Gareth.”  Gefmund took one look at Gareth’s face – daily, it seemed, Sir Gareth grew to look more and more like the Lord of Tairne, the same thick, black curly hair and the same hard, cold blue eyes – and leapt off Gareth’s cot.

Ignoring Gefmund completely, Gareth bowed slightly to Lamesly’s next lord. “Sir Horik.”

About to dismiss Tairne’s second son with a brief nod, Horik saw the sword in Gareth’s hand and remembered. “Sir Gareth.”  He bowed deeply.

“There’s no reason to call Gareth, ‘Sir,’” Shoban groused.

Horik’s lips curved in a tight smile. Ah!  But there is Shoban. And possibly in the future there’ll be more reason to do so. Horik made certain that Sir Gareth saw the respect in his eyes before he glanced back at Shoban. “Mend quickly, Shoban. I sincerely hope you’re well enough to attend this evening’s feast.”

“I shall try my best to find the fortitude to overcome the pain.”

“Think of Castwell’s daughters, Shoban. That should help. At the moment, they’re without a protector.”  Horik winked at Shoban and then at Gareth. “A wonderful place, this world. One man’s bad fortune is another man’s good.”  Horik raised his hand in farewell.

As if he’d heard a good jest, Shoban laughed. When he saw the expression of distaste on Gareth’s face, the laughter ebbed quickly.

Gareth turned away from his brother and walked over to his cot. He dropped Castwell’s sword. It bounced once, and then lay perfectly still.

“If I’m not needed,” Gefmund said to both young men, “I’ll leave and get cleaned up from the battle.”

Gareth turned his head slightly and noted how little evidence of the battle remained on Gefmund’s clothing, as little as on Shoban’s. Gareth tore his splattered tunic over his head.

With a small nod to Shoban, Gefmund inched to the tent flap and escaped. The moment he was gone, Shoban started to moan softly and then louder.

“It’s good to hear you laughing, Shoban.”  Half way through another moan, Shoban snapped his mouth shut. “Good to know you weren’t badly wounded.”

“It is bad, Gareth,” Shoban protested and pointed to the bloody bandage just above his left wrist. “I almost lost my hand. If I hadn’t had the courage to grit my teeth against the sharp bite of the pain, I would have lost my hand.”  Shoban narrowed his blue eyes and watched Gareth shove Castwell’s sword to one side, sit heavily on the cot, and tug off his boots. “But you know nothing about wounds and suffering, Gareth. Your third war and not a scratch on you. That’s nothing but luck, Gareth,” Shoban spat the words and then glanced at Gareth, who wasn’t paying attention to his elder brother.

“If you were the one who was wounded, brother, I’d be concerned about you, but it serves your interests better if I’m dead and you next in line to be the Lord of Tairne.”

Refusing to swallow his brother’s old, rusted hook, Gareth stood up, stripped off his hose, stood over the wooden washing bowl, and splashed water on his face and arms.

Surprised his goad had failed, Shoban tried again. “You don’t understand what it’s like to be the eldest son. I’m forced to look over my shoulder at the brothers coming up behind me, every one of them longing for my privileged position.”

“Shoban.”  Gareth started, but closed his mouth. It was pointless to argue when Shoban was in this mood.

Suspicious and jealous, Shoban scrutinized his brother’s naked body, the hands and face darkened from the sun, the rest pale, glowing a little in the dark tent until Gareth started dressing in his black hose and Tairne’s formal tunic. Gareth’s features were smooth, but Shoban thought he saw a flicker of anger or hatred in his brother’s eyes.

When Gareth sat down to put on a pair of clean boots, Shoban challenged, “Say it, Gareth. Spit out your black thoughts. No point in holding them in. I already guess at the treachery in your heart.”

Gareth raised first his eyes and then his head. When he smiled his teeth seemed very white in contrast to the black hair that was just beginning to form a beard and mustache on his face.

“If you truly fear I want your privileged position in Tairne, why don’t you kill me while I’m asleep?  You know where my bed is. You’ll have one brother out of your way then. Gordon’s only twelve. That gives you some time before he’ll be a threat. When he turns sixteen, murder him. Then Brandon, Culann, and finally Duncan.

“Or don’t wait. Murder us all the minute you get back to Tairne. Yes, I think that’s your best move. A baby, a three-year-old, an eight-year-old, even a twelve-year-old won’t be able to put up much of a fight. I give you my word I’ll say nothing about it to our brothers. I don’t think Lord Shoban will mind too much. I’m sure he plans to watch every one of us die young in one of his wars.”

Gareth stood, looped his sword belt around his hips, and buckled it. “But wait until your wound heals, Shoban. Even a small boy like Culann can turn in his sleep, fling out his arm, and start the first bite of that pain again. We, none of us, would want that.”  Gareth crossed the tent, opened the flap, and flung it closed.

Dumbfounded, Shoban stared at the tent flap. What the hell is wrong with Gareth?  Brushing his thick, wavy auburn hair away from his eyes, Shoban bellowed for his servant.

********

The Lord of Tairne’s laughter rang out and filled his tent before it spilled through the partly opened flap. Even though he’d told the jest himself, Lord Theor of Lamesly was not comfortable with Tairne’s laughter. He was even less comfortable with the fact that the afternoon light entering through the open tent flap placed Tairne in the shadows while it lit, with harsh light, his own face. He wanted Shoban relaxed, maybe a little drunk, but he was neither.

The laughter stopped and Shoban leaned forward to refill the goblets. With his cold eyes, the Lord of Tairne stared at Theor. “You didn’t come to jest, Theor. What’s on your mind?”

Although Theor had planned to ease into this discussion, he saw the Lord of Tairne wasn’t going to allow it. “Your sword cut Castwell down, Shoban. The next move now is yours.”

Laughing again, this time with considerably more humor than the last, Shoban leaned back in his chair. Without warning, Shoban cut the laughter short and slammed his hand on the small table. The unexpected move made Theor flinch and he didn’t bother to hope that Shoban hadn’t noticed his reaction.

“Do you really think Tairne has any interest in this petty little land so far from my borders?  I’ll have the war price we agreed on and two-thirds of the spoils from Castwell’s castle. You, Theor, can do what you please with the rest.”

A wide smile spread from Theor’s mouth into his eyes. “Tairne always keeps his word.”

“Always.”  Shoban didn’t smile.

Cedric of Penvale had spoken the truth about Lord Shoban. Satisfied, Theor felt expansive enough to divulge his plans. “I’ll put the boys to death. Spare the women.”

An excellent move, Theor, considering that the boys are Denndred of Roarke’s nephews. Shoban smiled. The Lord of Roarke will wait awhile, though, two years, maybe three, but then he’ll be ready and eager to crush Lamesly to a fine powder. He’ll ask Tairne’s help in that little war and pay me very well to do it. Shoban swept his hand above the table.

“As I said, you can do as you please with the rest. An excellent strategist like yourself doesn’t need my advice.”

“Good.”  Theor clapped his hands on the table and stood up. “You’ll have first choice of the ladies. Second and third choices to your sons.”  Theor smiled at his own generosity.

“The first choice is always mine, Theor.”

Theor’s smile grew forced. “Your choice, too, of the man who beheads Castwell’s sons?”

“No.”  Shoban shook his head slightly. “No. That’s Lamesly’s choice. Lamesly’s deed.”

Lamesly’s mouth curved up again. “We’ll enter Castwell before sundown.”

“Good, Theor, I’m ready.”

The Lord of Tairne didn’t get up, but Lamesly ignored the insult. He had what he wanted from Lord Shoban. The discussion had gone very well.

When Lamesly was gone, Shoban spat on the floor to express his opinion of Lord Theor, and then he yelled, “Ferghus!”

His manservant appeared immediately. “My lord?”

“I want Sir Shoban here, right now.”

Convinced that if something happened to the Lord’s eldest son, he was the one who would be blamed, Ferghus hesitated.

“Now!” Shoban bellowed.

“Yes, my lord.”

********

Standing motionless in the darkened tent, staring at this father’s back, and waiting for him to turn around made the pain in Sir Shoban’s arm worsen. Keeping his neck straight and his head still, Sir Shoban moved his eyes to glance down at the bandage on his arm. He couldn’t be sure, the tent was too dark, but he felt the wound was bleeding again, staining the bandage. His arm felt sticky and so did his hands. All the blood seemed to be draining from his face right into the wound. I could be bleeding to death. Weak, his body started to sway. I’m going to pass out.

When Shoban took the first step toward the campstools, the Lord turned around and ordered, “Don’t sit down, son.”

“I feel weak, my lord.”

“You are.”

Relieved that the Lord was sympathetic, especially since he rarely was, Shoban felt steadier, began to relax a little.

A spark of amusement in his eyes, Lord Shoban stared at his eldest son. “You’re not an intelligent young man, Shoban, certainly not as intelligent as your brother Gareth. So, I’ll be short and direct. If you manage to get a minor wound again early in a battle to avoid fighting, I’ll run you through with my sword and enjoy it. I’ll be father to no cowards. Do you understand?”

Sir Shoban’s dry tongue felt glued to the roof of his mouth.

The Lord slammed his fist into his hand. “Answer me, boy.”

Sir Shoban felt beads of perspiration form on his forehead. The wound started to bleed again. He swallowed hard. “I understand, my lord, but the fault’s not mine. The shield slipped. I was trying a new move that Gareth taught me.”

“Gareth’s the one at fault then. Not you?”

“Yes, my lord,” Shoban said quickly.

“Then Gareth will be twice pleased.”

“My lord?”  Sometimes, it wasn’t easy to understand exactly what the Lord meant.

“I did promise to be direct. Gareth will be pleased when I kill you because then he’ll be the next Lord of Tairne. It’s what a second son wants, Shoban, the death of his elder brother. In this case, your death. And then he’ll be pleased because he had to do nothing more than whisper a stupid suggestion into your ear to achieve his end. Gareth’s fault or yours, if it happens again, you’re the dead man, Sir Shoban. You’re dismissed.”

Shaken to his core, Shoban tried to turn sharply on his heel, but he stumbled.