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Sunday, December 12, 2004

"The Welcomer", chapter one

This week I shall be submitting The Promised King, Book One: The Welcomer to its second publisher, at long last. In truth, I should have submitted it months ago, but it was rejected shortly before Little Quinn was born, and I've been very slow in getting back into the writing saddle. In any event, here is the complete Chapter One of the book.

Chapter One


In the first of the dreams that Gwynwhyfar would remember, she was a bird flying above the sea.

***

Over the waves she flew, the spray from the wind-driven waters splashing upon the underside of her body. Below her, beneath the surface, she saw a pod of dolphins racing with the waves, periodically leaping up into the air and back down into the sea. Then a huge gray shape formed beneath the dolphins; it was the great body of a whale rising from the depths. The whale broke the surface of the water, blasted spray into the air from the hole on the back of its head, and then plunged down again into the deep. A sudden darkness fell, and she turned to look where the sun had gone. The clouds were gathering behind her, great black storm clouds she prayed that she could outpace. She turned and flew again, speeding in a direction that she hoped would take her away from the mustering storm.

Ahead of her there appeared a long island. She dropped down until she was just skimming the surface. The waters, inches below, were clear as glass, and beneath them she caught glimpses of many-colored fish cavorting amidst the underwater reefs. There were sharks too, including one that tried to snatch her from the sky, but she was too fast. The beaches that ringed the island were as white as snow, and the island itself was green and verdant as she flew herself flying over orchards of apple trees.

Then there was a city of alabaster buildings and wide streets paved with white stone, but she saw no people. The city appeared to be utterly deserted, even as she flew over a building that was clearly a place of worship. In the courtyard of this building there was a golden disc shaped to look like the moon, marking this place as a temple to the Goddess. After the temple she flew over a long series of grasslands and then into the hill country where she approached the three great mountains that rose from the center of the island into the sky. Their heights soared above where she could reach, and their snow-capped peaks receded into dark clouds. Soon she was flying back down toward the sea on the other side of the island where there were dense forests of pine, and in these forests she looked for shelter from the coming storm.

There was thunder then, impossibly close behind her. She turned and, hovering above the trees, saw that the three mountains had exploded with fire and smoke in great columns that tore the sky asunder. And then the storm came, and she again flew away, trying to escape the fire and rain and smoke and wind. She flew again over the beaches and out to sea, but her strength was not enough by any measure, and she was driven down, down toward the boiling waters. Rivers of liquid rock streamed down from the mountaintops, and the island of green beauty, the island of apples, crumbled and sank beneath her into the depths of the sea. The storm raged around her, finally striking her down into the sea itself. Waves crashed over her, and in a flash her strength was gone. The water was cold, very very cold and she gasped for air as the winds howled and the waves mounted.

As the last wave towered above her, she glimpsed something out away from her, something golden….and then the waves took her down, down to the bottom of the sea.


***

"Gwyn! Gwyn! Wake up!"

Someone shook her, not exactly gently but not very roughly either, and she opened her eyes. The dream was still with her; usually her dreams vanished with a quick awakening, but this one had been far more vivid than any she’d had before. She shook her head to dispel the image and looked up into Brother Malcolm’s eyes.

"Come, Gwyn! You must join me!" he said. He picked up the candle on her nightstand and lit it with his own. "Father Damogan requires mushrooms, and we are to bring them to him. Hurry and dress. I will wait outside for you. Don’t tarry!" He used the candle in his hand to light hers, and then he was back outside her chamber.

Her candle rose, and now there was enough light in the room for her to dress. Gwyn groaned as she pushed herself up out of bed. I can’t believe this, she thought. I need my rest! I have the Trials in just a month! She dug about in her oak chest for her worst shirt, the one she saved for these excursions to the caves. As she pulled it on she looked over at Dana, her chambermate, who had not so much as stirred during Brother Malcolm’s entrance. She could sleep through a goat stampede, Gwyn thought as she pulled on the shirt, a pair of wool breeches, and her sturdiest shoes. Finally she pulled on a thick cloak, tied back her long, thick, auburn hair and examined herself in the mirror.

Oh, wonderful, Gwyn thought, Brother Malcolm will think that I am ill, if I am this pale. She was, in fact, naturally pale. Her small nose slightly turned up at the end, and her eyebrows slanted ever so slightly. The effect made her look like one of the Fair Folk, or so she had been told many times over her twenty years. She had never seen a Fairy, so she didn't know; the Fair Folk were not to be found unless they themselves wished it. Gwyn had long since grown accustomed to her Fairy appearance – in fact, she had grown into it and was quite lovely now that she had almost reached adulthood.

She extinguished her candle and joined Brother Malcolm in the corridor. Malcolm was the Priest Prime of Tintagel, and as such was second only to the Lord Priest, and therefore most of the routine tasks of upkeep fell to him. Gwyn had been his Adept since she had come to Tintagel at the age of ten. His bald head seemed to have frost on it; it was then that Gwyn noticed how un-naturally cold it was.

"Are you ready, Gwyn?" he asked.

"Always," she said. "But couldn’t you have taken another? I do have the Trials to worry about, you know."

"In a month," he said. "Surely one night’s spoiled sleep will not undo your years of training and study." Malcolm cast an eye at her. "It is a great honor to assist the Lord Priest and the Priest Prime in this, you know."

"The honor of assisting you somehow isn’t the same as a warm bed on a cold night." She tightened her cloak. "It seems more like punishment. Will the mushrooms not still be there in a few hours, when the sun is up?"

"They will be there indeed, but Father Damogan works on important things, and he has asked me personally to take you to fetch the mushrooms. Will you defy the Lord Priest of Tintagel?" He now bore the smirk of victory on his fifty year old mouth. She was not about to defy Father Damogan anything, and he knew it.

"Let’s go," Gwyn said. "The least we can do is be done with it as quickly as possible," Gwyn said.

"Excellent!" Malcolm said. "Besides, my dear, the day is likely to be very cold despite the weather. Waiting for the sun would make little difference." He was positively beaming now. Gwyn fastened the iron brooch that secured her cloak, drew herself up and looked squarely at Malcolm.

"I'm ready," she announced.

"Good." He turned to head down the hall, but then he turned back to her and held up his candle to study her features. "You seem pale this morning. Are you feeling ill?"

Gwyn sighed.

***

Since it was before dawn, they had to exit the monastery through the rear entrance. This required walking through the main sanctuary itself and through the doors behind the altar, into the corridors that typically were only used by the Priests and Priestesses. Soon, after the Trials, she would be able to walk back here without Brother Malcolm – or anyone else – on her arm, and she would be free to study the highest lore, which was restricted to those who had passed from Adept into the Priesthood.

They arrived at the rear entrance, where there stood a large bin that held unlit torches. Now Gwyn could hear the wind howling outside, through the great oaken double doors that led to the stable courtyard. If she had begun to feel that perhaps this trip wasn't totally unnecessary, the sound of the outside weather now brought her doubts screaming back. The storm from her dream flashed through her mind again. Her dreams never stayed with her this long.

"Unusual weather for this time of year," Malcolm noted. He dug deep into the reserve of torches and came up with a blue-banded one. There were three types of torches, each type being more resistant to the wind and rain that was so common at Tintagel. The Priests had marked the torches with swatches of cloth, with blue being the most unlikely to be blown out, keeping the longest and steadiest flame. Gwyn had rarely been outside at night in weather that required a blue torch.

"Are you ready?" Malcolm asked as he lit the torch from a nearby wall-sconce. Without waiting for a reply, he lifted the heavy oaken bar out of its niche and unchained the door. Now unfettered, the doors began to rattle with the wind. The quaking of the doors resonated throughout the stone corridor like thunder. Using all of his weight, Malcolm pushed open the door, and they stepped out into the elements.

Gwyn was surprised to find that there was no rain; in fact, the sky was clear. The wind, though, hit her in the face like a slap. While Malcolm shoved the door back into place, she shrank back against the stone wall of the building. She could see nothing in the darkness; the torchlight revealed nothing of the other buildings that she knew were there. On a typical day one could hear the pounding of the surf on the rocks below the cliffs from here, but now nothing could be heard save the persistent howl of the wind. Malcolm finished working with the door and headed out into the weather, beckoning her to follow. She did, never taking her eyes off what little of the ground was illuminated by the torch.

They made their way through the cluster of buildings, past the larders and the stables, from where Gwyn caught a strong scent of wet hay. After the stables, however, they were outside the confines of the monastery, and walking along the short road to the bridge. Gwyn pulled her cloak tightly about her shoulders, but the wind seemed to cut right through it, and she was soon as cold as she had ever been, even though it was the start of summer. At one point, she looked up at the one-quarter moon above. It seemed to shine no light upon them: the wind was even blowing away the moonlight. This is absurd, she thought. I can't believe that this cannot wait until daylight. Surely the mushrooms will still retain whatever magic Father Damogan needs until the sun is up!

She felt a tugging at her arm. Brother Malcolm was pulling on her sleeve. In her concentration on the ground, she had not noticed that they had already come to the stony path that led down the cliffs to the sea-caves. As she turned to follow, she stole a glance at Malcolm. His jovial smile was gone, and he looked positively grim. He had disliked going down to the sea since his closest friend, Brother Llyad, had vanished at sea after taking out one of the fishing boats a year before. Gwyn swallowed and followed him down the trail.

The path wound down amidst the rocks along the cliff wall. Over the years rock slides had made the cliffs of Tintagel less steep, and the trail was actually very safe. The wind slackened a bit, as they now had the comparative shelter of a rock face looming ever higher above them. Gwyn had walked this trail many times, and she knew its dips and rises very well. This, though, was a new experience, and now she didn't feel that she knew the path at all. She was very careful to keep a strong hold on Malcolm's cloak. Someone meeting him for the first time might well take him for a weakling cleric whose nose was always firmly planted in the pages of some book, but he was actually a very strong man. One had to be, to live on Tintagel. There were no weak Priests or Priestesses here, and those who grew infirm with age left for the temples inland.

As they moved farther down the cliff face, the pounding of the surf below could now be heard as well as felt. There was a constant rumble that Gwyn always thought came from the innards of the Earth itself, as if the Wyrm himself was stirring in his sleep below the waves. The moon disappeared from view, behind the rockface that was growing above them. Now the only light was from the torch, which burned steadily despite the wind. A briny mist soon filled the air, and Gwyn knew that they were now within what Malcolm called an arrow’s flight of the sea itself. Just over those rocks, thought Gwyn.

Malcolm stopped in his tracks and turned to her. "Be careful! The rocks will be getting slippery!" Again without waiting for a reply, he turned and resumed the march for the caves.

"Of course they will," she muttered. These rocks were slippery even on the warmest, sunniest days of summer.

Finally, they reached their destination: the small system of caves that had been opened up by the sea in ages past. Malcolm led Gwyn to the entrance, and looked around suspiciously. This made Gwyn nervous. What was going on? Before she could actually ask that question, however, Malcolm had entered the cave and tugged Gwyn along with him.

"Why did you stop just then?" Gwyn asked.

"I thought I heard something," Malcolm replied. "It was nothing. Come."

Once inside the cave the noise died down considerably. The torch clearly illuminated the beds of mushrooms that covered the floors and walls. Gwyn had recently finished her first study of The Mushrooms, and knew that more than half of these breeds grew nowhere else, having been created through the work and research of the Priests and Priestesses of Tintagel.

"What kind are we to get?" she asked, looking around her at the hundreds of different varieties. They were carefully cultivated by all of the Brothers, under Father Damogan's supervision.

"Red-caps," Malcolm replied as he turned and led her toward the rear of the cave, where the red-caps grew. He was careful to step over the deep pool of water that was permanently collected in the cave. Only rain came into this cave; its shape kept all but the highest waves out.

Gwyn's thoughts raced as she picked her way over the rocks behind Brother Malcolm. The mushrooms that grew in this cave were different from the types of mushrooms that grew in the fields or in the forest. For one thing, they were all edible - every last one of them, with the exception only of the Golden Spangles. The collected lore of Dona’s Priesthood spoke of the various effects of eating the varieties here, some of which were decidedly unpleasant. The red-caps had the highest reputation of these - swallowing one was said to bring visions of the past, the future, and realities that were not ever to be. The visions were said to last for days, and to bring almost impossible sadness at the end. Only the most skilled practitioner could make use of the red-caps’ powers. They were so rarely used that the tiny bed before them, consisting of eight fully-grown mushrooms, was sufficient. Another would grow in the same spot, and reach adulthood in ten years. The red-caps took that long to grow to maturity, at which point they were only as tall as Gwyn's thumb.

Now was the time for Gwyn to serve her usual function in the mushroom cave: she took the torch from Brother Malcolm and held it as the cleric bent down to look over the crop. He kneeled at the bed of the red-caps, and examined each one for defects. The red-caps were so named because of the almost unnatural crimson color of their caps. Gwyn shifted on her feet, shivering as Malcolm meticulously examined each of the red-caps, and then examined them again. They may have been sheltered from the wind, but this cave was still bone-chillingly cold.

"Pick one, Brother! I'm freezing!"

"One must not choose in haste," Malcolm muttered. "One does not want unnecessary defects in one's work. Ah, this one shall suffice." He had selected the mushroom that was to be used and picked it with one quick jerk of his wrist. He held it up to his eye, examining it once more, although he knew that it was too late -- this one would have to do. He wrapped it in a swatch of cloth and tucked it away in his cloak. "That will be all, Gwyn. We can go back now." Straightening back up, he took the torch from Gwyn and turned to walk back to the front of the cave.

"Thank Dona for that," Gwyn muttered as she followed him, using the same route they had just taken. As they neared the mouth of the cave, the wind came up again, howling as loudly as before. But this time there was something different about it, as if it had a human voice.

A human voice….

"Do you hear that?" she said. "It sounds like someone screaming!"

Malcolm had already stopped, and was listening intently. After a moment he nodded, a disturbed expression on his face. Gwyn pointed down the trail, to where the trail met the sea.

"It's coming from down there! Is that what you heard before?"

Malcolm peered into the darkness, a look of fear forming in his eyes. Down there was where the boats were kept. The sky was shifting now from black to a deep violet; sunrise would come within the hour. But down here it would be dark for hours to come.

"Should we wait for light?" Gwyn asked.

Brother Malcolm looked up at the sky and back down at the water, which could now be seen somewhat as a great roiling black mass. A wave struck the rocks below where they stood, and a fresh blast of sea spray washed over them. Finally he shook his head.

"No," he said. "We must go down there now. If someone is hurt, they will need attention now, rather than waiting for the light. It is most likely a fisherman…." His gaze met hers. "I would rather you went first, though. Your footing will be better down there."

"Are you sure?" she said. He nodded and handed her the torch.

"I will be right behind you," he said. "I know that you are good at climbing on the rocks."

She nodded, remembering that when she had come to Tintagel in her twelfth year, eight years before, she had wound up in trouble a number of times when she was caught climbing alone on the rocks below. One time she had even been taken to see Father Reynold….that was a memory that even now made a twenty-year-old woman shudder.

Gwyn turned and began making her way down the path, toward the sea. The path led to a tiny beach where the Brothers kept the monastery's boats tied. Once in a very long while one of the Brothers actually took to the sea to fish, but none had been out since Brother Llyad had vanished out there. Gwyn climbed down the trail toward the place where she could hear the screaming punctuated by the pounding sea. Once in a while she turned to see if Malcolm was still behind her, and he always was.

Her foot slipped, causing her to almost fall from the trail, but she caught herself and continued downward. The rocks here were very slippery indeed, and they went even slower now, needing to be sure of each footstep. Now they were being doused with steady spray as waves crashed over the rocks. The sea was very close indeed, but so was the screaming. Finally they emerged onto the beach, where three wooden boats sat chained to a post. The waves rolled in relentlessly, but a natural barrier of fallen boulders softened their impact here, making this the only ideal launching point for boats on all of Tintagel. Gwyn stopped and listened for the screaming, which started again. It was coming from the next series of rocks, beyond the beach where no trail went. She glanced at Brother Malcolm, who nodded.

Gwyn knew of a tiny cove beyond the jumbled wall of tumbled boulders, and she knew that this was where whoever it was had landed. This was the longest and hardest part of the climb down here, and the young Adept clawed and picked her way across giant rocks while being soaked by sea spray. Her fingers were almost numb, and at one point she slipped on a rock and cut open her right shin. She bit her lip in pain, but soon went on. She hauled herself over the last boulder and dropped to the flat stone below. Malcolm was right behind her. His fingers were bloody, and he had a cut on his own shin nearly identical to hers. They now stood on a giant, flat rock that hung over the small inlet. This place was somewhat shielded from the waves, creating a relatively tranquil grotto. Gwyn moved to look over the edge of this rock, to the water that was about ten feet below.

"Blessed Dona," she gasped. A wooden boat, big enough for two people, had crashed here amongst the rocks, and sprawled out on one of the boulders were the two passengers. Gwyn lowered herself onto this boulder and approached the two victims. One of them was unconscious. The other was screaming to the heavens, completely unaware of the two rescuers.

"Are you hurt?" Gwyn shouted, but the man kept on screaming. Blood was streaming from a wound on his arm, and she could see a serious gash on the forehead of the unconscious man. Suddenly unsure of herself, she turned to Malcolm. The Priest stepped forward and grabbed the screaming man's shoulder. Almost instantly he stopped his pitiful wailing and looked at Malcolm. The light of recognition sprang to his eyes as he eyed Malcolm's brooch, which was in the sign of Tintagel: a spiral knotwork.

"Tintagel! I am come to Tintagel! Oh, thank you, merciful Dona!" Tears flowed from his eyes. Malcolm glanced at Gwyn, who was now examining the unconscious man.

"He lives," she said, "but we must get him to Sister Moyra." This injury was beyond anything she had ever seen; she was sure that even Sister Moyra would not be able to help him.

"Aye, Gwyn. That we must." He turned back to the formerly screaming man. "Who are you? Why have you come here?"

Gwyn got a good look at the man now. He was a muscular man with long, dirty black hair and a black beard. A scar ran from his left eye to his mouth, and he was newly missing two teeth. He was garbed in simple woolen clothes, similar to what Gwyn was wearing herself. The man looked deep into Malcolm's eyes.

"Have I changed that much, Malcolm?"

Brother Malcolm stared at the man who knew his name, and Gwyn saw it in his eyes when the recognition came over him like a flood.

"Brother Llyad?"

The man nodded. "You must take me to Father Reynold. I bring tidings that will concern him."

"Reynold is dead, Llyad. Damogan is Lord Priest now."

A cloudy look passed through Llyad's eyes.

"Reynold is dead?" He seemed to grapple with the news for a moment, and then he blinked. "Then take me to Damogan. Please. You must take me to Damogan." He grabbed Malcolm’s cloak and pulled him close. "Do you hear me, Malcolm? It is beginning!"

"I will take you to him, Llyad. But it might help if you let go of my cloak. What of your companion?" Brother Llyad released his grip on Brother Malcolm and stiffly turned his head to look over at his traveling partner.

Gwyn was still examining the other passenger. Suddenly her blood ran cold. She grabbed Malcolm's arm.

"What is it, girl?"

"Look!" She pointed to the unconscious man. He was a very tall, thin man, whose garments were green. Around his neck hung a silver pendant in the shape of the moon. And on his arm, a small tattoo of an oak tree. Malcolm looked at the man for a moment, and then looked into Brother Llyad's eyes. The missing Priest had not only returned, but now Malcolm knew where he had gone: to Mona, the Isle of the Druids, and he had now brought a Druid to Tintagel.

End of Chapter One

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