Authors: Mary Gillgannon
Tags: #Historical Fiction
The Dragon Bard
To Jim Morrison, for believing in the power of words and music to change the world.
Copyright 2012 by Mary Gillgannon
Cover design by Rae Monet, Inc. Designs
E-Book design by A Thirsty Mind
All rights reserved.
No part of this may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the Author
Off the southern coast of Scotland, 541 C.E.
They were going to drown him.
The grim truth struck Bridei ap Maelgwn as he lay shackled in the filthy bottom of the hide and wicker boat and listened to his Irish captors discussing his fate. They probably didn’t realize he knew their language, but in his years as a traveling bard he’d picked up many tongues. The skill seemed pretty useless now. Better if he’d trained as a warrior like his brother Rhun. Then he might have had some chance of escaping when the Brigante chieftain’s men dragged him out of the guest lodge and marched him to the coast.
He still didn’t know what he’d done to anger Dolgar or why the northern chieftain wanted to be rid of him. It was one thing to sell him to the slavers. Quite another to pay these ruthless men to throw him into the sea once they were away from the coast. For that was surely what they intended. Having heard “how far?” and “don’t want him to wash ashore”, his heart had begun to hammer in his chest. The feel of the metal shackles on his wrists and ankles was horrible enough, reminding him of the last time he’d been enslaved. But now he knew the purpose of the heavy chains was to make sure he ended up on the bottom of the sea.
He imagined the weighty shackles dragging him down. The cold, choking water filling his lungs. The sea creatures feeding upon him until there was nothing but a still-shackled skeleton in the cold, dark depths.
He fought off the sick horror the images aroused, and tried to think of a way out of his predicament. His only hope was to convince these men he had value to them beyond the price they’d been paid to be rid of him.
Perhaps he could suggest that if they took him south to Gwynedd, his father would pay a substantial sum for his freedom. Although Dolgar had once taunted him that his father cared little whether he lived or died, Bridei felt certain Maelgwn wouldn’t want him to be at the mercy of the Irish, the bitterest enemies of his people.
But for the same reason, Bridei knew it was unlikely these men would be willing to venture into the territory patrolled by his father’s warriors. These men would likely consider ransoming him to his father a very risky venture. He would have to think of something else.
Maybe the fact that he was a bard would sway them. He’d heard the ability with words was greatly prized by the Irish. They called their bards “filidh” and accorded them as much respect as they would a prince. The thought filled him with sudden hope and he raised his head and shouted out in Irish: “I’m a bard! Let me go, or face the wrath of the gods! If you kill me, it will be a much greater evil than killing a warrior. Are you willing to live with such an awful deed weighing upon your spirit?”
He could tell the three men were startled by his outburst. As they stared at him, he met each man’s gaze in turn, then continued in a voice that rang with confidence: “Consider this, if you keep me alive and unharmed, you can sell me for gold once we reach your land. In addition to my ability with a harp and my gift for telling tales, I can read and write. I would be of value to some chieftain as a scribe. I don’t know what Dolgar paid you to be rid of me, but you can likely get tenfold more if you keep me alive.”
As the three men continued to gape at him, Bridei began to wonder if they had any idea what he was saying. They might be so backward and uneducated they didn’t even understand the notion of the written word. He started to explain, but the man with bad teeth, who he’d heard the others call Lun, glared and him and shouted, “Silence!”
Bridei clamped his lips together. He’d give them a little time to think about his threat. Let their dread of the spirits and the unknown arouse their fear and anxiety.
His captors returned to their rowing and started to talk among themselves. Bridei listened intently.
“It seems a waste of a sound and healthy man who will fetch us a nice pouch of silver,” said the youngest of the slavers, a brawny fellow with dark red hair.
“But what about the bargain we made with Dolgar?” Lun responded. “He warned us our victim was a clever fellow who would try to talk us out of killing him.”
“Who cares about Dolgar? The Brigante will never find out what we’ve done,” the red-haired man asserted. He gestured to Bridei. “If we cut out his tongue, he won’t be able to tell anyone who he is. Our betrayal will never get back to Dolgar.”
Bridei suppressed a gasp of dismay. Death was almost preferable to losing the ability to speak. Words were his gift, the attribute that compensated for all his other lacks. He might not be as tall or brawny as Rhun but he could talk circles around his brother. He might not be able to inspire men into following him into battle like Arthur, but he could bring them to tears with a sad tale or make them laugh with a merry tune. He’d never desired the life of a warrior, even if most people thought it the only choice for a man of noble blood. Instead, he believed as his mother once told him, that to be a bard was to be blessed with magic, a power much greater than prowess with a sword. Words shaped the future, she said, much more than any battle ever would.
“But if he’s a bard, cutting out his tongue would make him next to worthless,” put in the third man, whose graying hair marked him as the oldest of the bunch.
Lun made a sound of disgust. “He’s no bard. No man his age could have learned all the tales necessary to become a
. And where’s his harp?”
Bridei jerked his head up and shouted, “They wouldn’t let me bring it! Give me a harp and release my bonds and I’ll show you what I can do!”
Lun squeezed past the other two men. Hunkering down in front of Bridei, he pulled a knife from his belt and held the weapon to Bridei’s throat. He smiled, showing brown, rotted teeth, and his stinking breath filled Bridei’s nostrils. “You’re no bard, but a spoiled, arrogant prince. The son of the great Dragon, Dolgar said you are.”
“Aye, I’m Maelgwn the Great’s son. All the more reason to let me go. You know my father will pay handsomely for my return.”
“Will he now?” the slaver sneered. “And what makes you think I want his gold?”
The knot of fear in Bridei’s stomach tightened as the Irishman pressed his knife against his throat. The Irishman barred his ruined teeth like a snarling wolf. “Your father killed my brother. 'Twould be only fitting if I did the same to you.”
Bridei could see the irony of his situation—that he should die at the hands of one of his father’s enemies. Perhaps he should tell this man that Maelgwn had no love for him and wouldn’t be particularly grieved to hear of his death. But he doubted his captor would believe him.
Nay, he must think of some other way to keep the Irishman from cutting his throat. No argument he’d set out so far had convinced the slavers. These were hardened, desperate men, who risked their lives every time they went to sea. What would possibly persuade them?
Bridei gazed into the scarred, weathered face of his captor and beseeched the gods for inspiration. All at once it came to him. He drew back from the blade much as possible and spoke in his most powerful voice. “If you’ve heard of my father, you must also have heard of my mother, Queen Rhiannon. She’s a sorceress and she has taught me of some of her magic.”
“Magic?” Lun sneered. “What sort of magic?”
Bridei made his voice thunderous. “Hear me now. I’ll call upon Taranis the Thunderer to bring a storm that will fill the sky with lightning and make the rain pour down and fill your boat. I call upon the hag Cailleach to send the wind to churn the water into a seething whirlpool. I call upon the god of the sea, who you call Llyr, to send great waves to overwhelm this vessel and send it to the bottom of the ocean. Then, the goddess Rhiannon, the dark lady of the death, will gather together your souls and carry them away on her white horse to the twilight realm of the Other Side. Your spirits will dwell there for all eternity, trapped forever between worlds and never able to find peace!”
The Irishman shrank away, his eyes wide with dread. Bridei got to a sitting position, then awkwardly stood. The boat swayed beneath his feet, nearly pitching him over, but at least he’d put a little distance between himself and the knife. He closed his eyes and stretched out his arms in supplication.
Let them believe me
, he thought, sending a silent petition to whatever gods might listen.
Heed my plea. Don’t let them kill me.
As he stood there—the weight of the shackles dragging at his shoulders as he struggled for balance on the pitching boat—he felt a little foolish. Of all the things his mother had taught him, calling down curses wasn’t one of them. And the idea that she was a sorceress was only a tale spread by the priests who resented her influence over his father. But these men couldn’t know that. The gods willing, he might have at least bought himself a little time. Time to reason with them and make them see it was to their benefit to keep him alive.
Bridei opened his eyes as the sea grew rougher. All three Irishmen were staring at him, their mouths agape. The wind shifted and a gust of cold, damp air struck him from behind. At the same time, a wave caught the boat. The vessel floated upwards, then crashed down. Bridei landed hard in the bottom of the boat, icy sea water splashing over him. When he lifted his head, he saw the slavers lashing themselves to the sides of the vessel. They were muttering what sounded like curses, or maybe they were praying. Bridei raised his head higher and saw the sky had turned an ugly gray-green color. Huge, white-tipped waves swirled around the boat, foaming in angry ferocity.
By the wheel of the heavens, what have I done!
I didn’t really mean to summon a storm!
His stomach began to roil and churn like the sea around them. He sank into the bottom of the boat, which reeked of fish, saltwater and leather. The vessel continued to rise and fall in a sickening rhythm. Bridei’s stomach convulsed and he struggled not to vomit.
* * *
The storm raged, a tumult of cold, lashing rain, brutal wind and heaving waves. Bridei was aware of little, his consciousness sucked down into the maelstrom of his own misery. But gradually the boat no longer pitched and tossed like a piece of driftwood caught in the rapids of a mountain stream. He willed himself to raise his head. Two of the Irishmen were using hide buckets to bail seawater. Lun—the one who’d threatened Bridei with the knife—scanned the sky, as if trying to determine how far the storm had blown them off course.
Bridei wondered the same thing as he imagined them floating helplessly past Eire and disappearing into the realm of sea monsters and other fateful dangers at edge of the earth. He shivered, half from dread and half from the cold seeping through his rain-soaked tunic. Had he truly summoned the storm gods? It hardly seemed possible.
One of the slavers noticed he’d roused. The man’s blue eyes went wide and he made a sign in the air, an ancient symbol against evil. Then he called out to his companions: “Lun. Colla.” He pointed to Bridei. As the three men watched him warily, Bridei considered his precarious situation. If the slavers decided his presence in the boat was a bad omen, they might yet throw him overboard. He must encourage them to keep him alive. “If you get me safely to land,” he said, “I vow I will call off the curse.”