Every Friday Toby and I publish a new post on our House Diedne blog, a site containing our various fan-fiction pieces about a group of magi (wizards) in Mythic Europe, the fictional setting for Atlas Games’ role-playing game, Ars Magica. This week it’s my turn, and I’ve written a short story about the House’s leader, the witch Morfyð, before she founded the House. Here is a little teaser; the entire short story will be available tomorrow on the House Diedne blog.
Morfyð walked up the old Roman Road that passed by the stronghold atop Stainmore Pass. A crosswind fluttered her black cloak like a pair of raven’s wings. In her right hand she gripped her enchanted spear, called Brenin Lladdwr or King Killer, and on her left trotted a giant wild boar named Tusker. Two hundred yards from the castle she shooed the boar aside, and the 500-pound beast obediently left the road and disappeared into the tangled overgrowth. One hundred yards from the fort she left the road and started up the trail that led to the open gate and its pair of sentries. Fifty yards later a sentry called for her to stop and state her business.
“I am Morfyð verch Uryens, daughter of your lord King Uryens and sister to Prince Owein.”
“And what are you doing here?”
“I come to talk with your druid, Gwogan.”
“Where is your retinue, princess?” The taller sentry asked, a long brown mustache covering most of his mouth. “Evil times to be traveling alone.”
“How do we know you are not a Bernician spy, come to sneak inside Maiden Castle?” The shorter man asked. His hands and spear shaft were stained red from eating gooseberries. Morfyð didn’t like being questioned, especially by frontier bumpkins.
“I am no spy. I am the king’s daughter. I have come to speak with Gwogan.”
“Gwogan isn’t here,” said Mustache. “Off with you.”
“Let me speak with your lord, Adaf ap Eynon, vassal to King Uryens.”
“Lord Adaf isn’t here either.” Mustache said.
“We hear that King Uryens’ daughter is a witch.” Gooseberry said. “Are you a witch, Morfyð verch Uryens?”
“We don’t want any trouble.” Mustache said. “We have enough already with the raiders from Bernicia. It would be best if you left.”
“Was that a dog walking with you?” Gooseberry asked.
“Who rules in Lord Adaf’s absence?” Asked Morfyð. “I want to speak with him.”
“Ugliest dog I’ve ever seen,” said Gooseberry.
“His son, Madoc, holds authority. He doesn’t want to see you.”
“Where did that ugly dog go? I might want to practice my spear throwing.”
“Do you speak for Madoc ap Adaf?” Morfyð asked. “Does he know you speak for him?”
“Bugger off, witch.” Gooseberry said. “Or I’ll spear you after I spear that ugly dog you brought with you.”
“Hold it.” Mustache said to Gooseberry. Then to Morfyð: “We don’t want any trouble. I’ll take you to Madoc. The druid isn’t here. You’ll see.”
“No good will come of this,” Gooseberry said.
Mustache led Morfyð through the gate and into the fort’s yard, past two women huddled over a cooking fire, around a clump of skinny brown cows, and through a knot of old men gumming their crusts of bread. Inside the stone keep the great hall was dark and musty. Two lean wolfhounds slunk across the dirty rushes strewn about the floor. A group of children near the back wall paused their game of tag. A man with one leg sat by the hearth sharpening a knife. Mustache told Morfyð to wait while he fetched Madoc. Several tables sat in the center of the room, surrounded by wooden chairs and stools. Morfyð chose a stool and sat down, laying King Killer across her lap. The one-legged man sneezed and wiped his nose across his sleeve. The children returned to their game, loudly rushing around the large room and then out another exit.
Mustache returned with Madoc and two other soldiers. Sixteen with a puffed-up chest, Madoc sauntered to the table and sat across from Morfyð, who did not rise to greet him. The two soldiers, one with pock-marked cheeks and the other with a lazy eye, stood behind Madoc, their hands resting on the hilts of their swords. Mustache stood behind Morfyð, holding his spear in both hands. Madoc slapped both palms on the table and smirked.
“Morfyð verch Uryens, I am Madoc ap Adaf. What brings you to Maiden Castle?”
Madoc beamed, enjoying his role as castle steward. Morfyð said nothing, and Madoc’s grin slipped. He looked at his guards. Mustache shrugged. Madoc’s face bloomed red.
“Did you not hear me? What brings you here?”
“You know why I am here.” Morfyð said. “I’m sure Mustache told you.”
” ‘Mustache?’,” Madoc laughed. “You mean Thomas?” He pointed at Mustache. “She called you “Mustache’.” Pock-Marked and Lazy-Eye laughed with Madoc.
“I’m sure ‘Mustache’ told you that Gwogan isn’t here.” Madoc said.
“Where is he?”
“How should we know? Druids have their own ways. Or have you forgotten now that your father has started worshiping the One Christ God?”
“Like our enemies from Bernicia,” said Pock-Marked.
“We heard that your father and brother drove the druids out of the royal court at Erechwydd.” Lazy-Eye said. “Is that true?”
“Yes. Is that true?” Madoc asked.
“My father’s wife asked the One God priests to come. So did my brother’s wife. They convinced my father and brother to worship the One God. The priests wanted the druids gone. Not my father.” Morfyð said.
“And we heard that the king’s witch daughter is roaming the kingdom of Rheged looking for druids to kill.” Madoc said. “Kill all the druids in Rheged, yes? Is that why you want to find Gwogan?”
“No. As I said before, I want to talk to him.”
“Well, he’s not here.” Madoc stood. “Time for you to go.”
“Is he with your father?”
“Did he go raiding with your father?”
“Raiding?” Madoc shot stares at Pock-Marked and Lazy-Eye. “My father isn’t raiding.”
“All the frontier forts have been told to remain behind their walls to repel forays from Bernician soldiers. My brother, Prince Owein, rode to all the forts on the Old Road last month and told them so. I know some forts have already fallen. I have seen the remains. I think that some lords might use this opportunity to settle old grudges.”
Madoc blanched and looked to his guards for advice. Both Pock-Marked and Lazy-Eye stared at the sitting woman, their faces tightening. Morfyð heard Mustache take a step away from her, making room to use his spear if he had to.
“Has Lord Bleddyn repaid the cattle he stole from your father last year?”
“By the balls of Bel,” gulped Madoc. “She knows.”
“She doesn’t know anything.” Pock-Marked said. Lazy-Eye swept his sword from his scabbard. Madoc took a step backward.
Morfyð stood. “I should go.”
“She knows!” Madoc cried.
“You aren’t going anywhere.” Pock-Marked reached across the table.
Morfyð thrust King Killer into the air, squeezed her eyes shut, and yelled, “Camulus!” The spear’s blade flared a flash of brilliant white light, catching the eyes of Madoc and his three warriors, and momentarily blinding them. Pock-Marked crashed against the table, scooting it into Morfyð’s hip and bouncing her back against Mustache. Colliding with the taller man, Morfyð rolled to her left to keep her balance. Snapping her eyes open, she rammed King Killer’s butt into Mustache’s face, breaking his nose with a red burst of blood, then pivoted and jabbed the spear blade across the table into Pock-Marked’s armpit, beneath his chain mail tunic. He screamed, as did Madoc once he heard the warrior’s shrill cry. Lazy Eye blindly swung his sword back and forth, catching Madoc on the bicep with his back swing. Morfyð ran from the room. Passing into the yard, she could hear the yelling behind her, cries of help and demands that she be stopped. She sped past a bewildered warrior standing in the courtyard. The gate was still open, and she could see the Old Road a mere 100 yards away. She rushed through the gate, running to freedom, when a gooseberry-stained hand reached out and grabbed her long hair and yanked her off her feet to land heavily on her back.
From the thorny cover of the underbrush Tusker watched Morfyð fall. He saw the man who pulled her down start kicking her prone body, while a second guard appeared from the gate and joined in the booting. By the time he’d mounted the road and started up the trail two more guards had joined the tangle. One pointed at the boar, and he and a second leveled their spears. Two more guards joined the group, waving swords. Snorting, Tusker turned and trotted north, his hooves clacking off the road’s ancient cobblestones. The guards dragged the unconscious Morfyð inside Maiden Castle.
More tomorrow. I’ll publish in the morning, but then I’m on the road to Boston for the day, so I can’t advertise it on the various forums I haunt. If you like this, kind reader, and think others will fancy it, please pass it along.