Authors: Keith Taylor
The wilderness of oak, ash and thorn that men call the Forest of Andred existed long before the Saxons entered Britain, or Caesar’s legions pressed against Kentish resistance, and even before the first iron-using Celts set foot on the island. Here lived the clan of mandrake – the strange gnarled vegetable folk. Here trod the unicorn, with blue vapor curling softly from nostrils soft as a woman’s breast and dainty, precise hooves lethal as maces. Here were the sacred groves long abandoned, where Druids once fed the trees with human blood.
Through this forest of sorcery and a society governed by the sword travels Felimid mac Fal – Bard of Erin, descendant of Druids and the Tuatha de Danann, the ancient faery race of Ireland – armed only with his harp and the fierce magical power of his poetry.
“For I send east and I send west,
And I send as far as my will may flee,
By dawn and dusk and the drinking rain,
And syne my sendings return to me.
“They come wi’ news o’ the groaning earth,
They come wi’ news o’ the roaring sea,
Wi’ word of spirit ghost and flesh,
And man, that’s mazed among the three.”
FUGITIVES IN WINTER
who had wandered east from Ireland. He guested for Yule that year with King Oisc of Kent. Although it was the first time they had met, it made the third time Felimid had seen that savage king.
Oisc had been storm-driven and shipwrecked on Ireland’s coast a dozen years previously. He’d been received well, and aided to return home with the survivors of his crew. It had seemed to Felimid that Oisc should receive a son of Erin courteously for the sake of that kindness.
He’d been right, more or less. At least, nobody had killed him on sight, or riveted an iron thrall-ring on his neck. He was being fed in exchange for his songs and stories; that seemed as much courtesy as these wild Jutes had it in them to show. However, it couldn’t be said that they honored bards as the people of Erin did, where a bard was respected for his learning, his wisdom-and above all his magic.
Felimid’s hand moved idly on the bright, glittering strings of his harp. A scattering of notes flew like moths on the smoky air. He thought of the second time he had seen King Oisc.
That bad been at Badon, where the greatest Saxon warhost ever gathered in the isle of Britain had been broken and scattered. Felimid had fought on the side of the Britons; he still rather wondered why. It hadn’t been his fight. Probably because of the British war-leader – there was something about that man. . .
He’d said nothing about Badon here in Kent.
Bard glanced toward king. Oisc had been grey even at the time of that long-ago shipwreck. He’d since turned white, but the old wolf had kept all his fangs. Fell and scarred he sat, in his high chair of oak and mammoth ivory from lands where night lasted half the year. He laughed at death. he laughed at time. He stood taller than any man in his hall, save one; was demonstrably stronger than any, save that same one, and he called Oisc master. Oisc, but nobody else. This was Tosti Fenrir’s-get, the grim loner among the king’s companions, a terrible man. He stood inches above the king, which made him huge indeed. His pale eyes stared from a hideously scarred face, the work of a desperate foe armed with a sword snapped half a foot from the hilt, as they grappled in the mud of a ford running bloody with war. Tosti had broken the man’s arm and then tom out his throat with his teeth, so the story went. And Felimid knew the story. He’d made a song about it.
Other stories were told of Tosti, none pretty. He wore at all times the entire skin of a huge white wolf, its scalp resting on his head like a cap, the fanged muzzle shadowing his face. Rumor made him a shapeshifter, and whispered that the skin was his own. He held third place in the hall, after king and king’s spokesman. He’d been drinking enormously, as had most of them, and now his attention was caught by the Bard. His voice resounded throughout the hall.
‘You, boy! Is that smooth face because you cannot grow a beard like a man? Have not your balls dropped yet? Or have you none? Hey? Are you a girl disguised, come here to find a man for yourself! By Wotan, you needn’t look further. if that’s so!’
His comrades guffawed. None imagined the bard would do other than grin and accept-a pretty harp-twanger, and Irish at that? He’d never have the guts! Felimid took up his harp.
These men were ignorant of the powers wielded by a bard of the old Irish blood. They didn’t know that Felimid claimed descent from Cairbre, the bard of the Tuatha de Danann, the faery race of ancient times. They didn’t know that his harp belonged to Cairbre. once. They didn’t know what she could do.
Her black oak frame sheened like silk from generations of loving use. Within its curve, subtle, cardioid, were stretched golden strings like lines of light, slanting through fine holes. Felimid’s long-fingered hand moved across them, setting free a surge of enchanted sound. It summoned powers of growth and increase. The noises and scents of spring came into Oisc’s hall. Dogs sniffed the air in bewilderment.
The raucous feasters grew silent, and the bard harped on, smiling.
He made a can trap in the Jutish dialect of Kent; although not fluent in that language by his own standards, he was proficient enough. The words came together in the chanted, alliterative fashion of the Jutes. Then Felimid turned the forces he had wakened upon Tosti. The fellow esteemed beards, did he? Let him wear one to make all others insignificant!
‘Chief with the tongue of a churl or child,
I chant a charm that your chaff has earned,
Choke on the beard of your cheeks and chin!
‘Fain let it grow like a fire in furze,
And free as the wind which fans the flames–
Fork and curl from your face to your feet!’
Felimid’s victim looked baffled, as nearly as could be told from his bearded and hideous face. Then, as something crawled hairily over his hands where one held a drinking horn and the other drummed irritable fingers on the table before him, he was moved to look down. His yell of astonishment drew every eye in the hall.
His beard had spread across his chest like a great flowing glacier and was now twisting, curling, writhing over the table, growing at a rate of yards each minute. Tosti stared at it, stupefied. He wasn’t alone. Slackly open mouths and huge round eyes were common property from king’s throne to barred and guarded hall door.
‘Now feel it lie on your limbs like lead,
And load you down as with links of chain,
Nor cease as long as my lilt shall last.’
The proliferating beard had the mass of several fleeces. It spilled from the far side of the table towards the floor. Tosti lifted it helplessly in his hands, glaring. Then came the first great chortle of laughter, from King Oisc himself, like the crash of thunder that heralds a storm to shake earth and sky. Eighty strong warriors were present. They roared, they stamped their feet, they pounded the tables, they hammered each other’s backs, they rolled on the floor. they turned black! But Felimid laughed the hardest of all.
His laughter put an end to his chant. Because he had stated and specified, as long as my lilt shall last, Tosti’s beard stopped growing at once. Tosti slashed it frantically short with his dagger. That set the sea-wolves whooping again.
The bard sauntered across to where Tosti sat. He eyed the great mound of hair and said, ‘You have the makings of a fine soft mattress there. Are you not going to thank me?’
More laughter, more bellows and snortings and gasps. Tosti’s dreadful face convulsed in temper. With no warning whatever, he tore a sheathed sword from the wall behind him, sprang over the table and rushed at Felimid, his blade leaping out.
Felimid ducked a slash that would have rolled his head on the rushes for the dogs to gnaw, and dodged around the hall’s great central pillar. There were yells of ‘Coward!’ which he did not deign to listen to.
‘King Oisc!’ he cried. ‘I am your guest––’
Oisc Hengist’s son grinned ferociously from his oak and ivory throne. ‘You brought this upon yourself,’ he said. ‘Save yourself if you can. I give you leave!’
A thunder of delighted anticipation rose from the benches. The sea-wolves considered it a dull feast that did not see at least one fight to the death.
‘Frightened, harper?’ sneered Tosti. ‘You should be! I’ll teach you to work your puking magic on a man!’
Felimid feigned a dart away from the pillar, shifted instantly the other way, and sprang over the nearby firetrench. Its withering heat smote up at him. He made an agile bound between two eaters on a bench, then launched himself over the table, gaining the far wall where his own sword hung. Tosti came close behind him.
The huge Jute stopped abruptly as Felimid’s sword came out of his sheath with a dazzle like white fire. He wasn’t in the least afraid, merely too experienced to charge into a confined space where an armed man waited for him. He backed into the central part of the hall again, and waited for Felimid to come out from between the table and the wall.
Felimid saw clearly that he had no choice. He was the stranger, the one here on sufferance. The sea-wolves wanted to see a fight. If he disappointed them, he’d forfeit such sympathy as he’d won; and that was ephemeral enough. With a wry grimace, he trod forth.
Tosti and Felimid circled each other. The bard was not a large man. Lithe and supple, a mere finger’s length above middle height, he was so smoothly proportioned, so deft in all his motions, that he seemed smaller. He had strength beyond his bulk, but hardly strength beyond Tosti’s bulk. Tosti was the hugest man he’d ever seen.
The giant held his Jutish broadsword in his left hand, having lost important fingers from his right long ago. It didn’t weaken him. Long hard practice had made him more than proficient with the other. Felimid was not dismayed; he was left-handed himself. It felt almost comfortable to fight a man whose grip matched his.
But not for long.
Tosti came with a leap, hacking at his head. Felimid caught the stroke near his hilt. The force of it drove him to one knee.
, this Jute was strong! He cut at Felimid three times before he could rise. The bard parried each stroke, though he dared not catch them full on his blade as he had the first. He deflected them smoothly, his hand and eyes tested to the utmost. Tosti’s blade skidded the length of Felimid’s with a harsh metal shriek each time. It left the bard’s arm numb Then his opening came. It wasn’t much of one, but he was in no case to wait for a better. He thrust at Tosti’s leg, felt his point dog into the fleshy part of the Jute’s knee. That surprised him. In his second’s respite, the bard sprang to his feet and a full yard backward. He felt the wind of a bright edge as it flashed past his eyes. There were few more ugly or intimate sensations in the world.
He’d given Tosti something to think about. The giant’s own sword had a rounded tip. In his philosophy, a sword was for slashing and hacking. The only part of it that mattered was the edge. But Felimid’s weapon was pointed like a spear. Tosti’s eyes narrowed as he realised it.