Here we have another of my Caledon Short Stories – this one taking place a few months before Wildcat, enjoy!
The Blackwood Ship – Part I
Good weather on the coast was both a blessing and a curse; storms and downpours might be inconvenient to the townsfolk of Mobryn, but at least they kept the Dariniae away. Bevan son of Bradan stood on the promontory and watched the sea, wondering, not for the first time, whose side Morannan was on. Both the Caderyn and the Dariniae made offerings to him after all, casting gold and silver bracelets into his waves at summer solstice, and draining goats’ blood into the salt water in winter. In return both tribes had been blessed with good fishing and safe voyages, but for all that Bevan couldn’t help but ponder whether sometimes, the Sea God just liked to toy with them. After all, good seas for one tribe could mean bad times for the other, and today it seemed the Dariniae had the better end of that bargain. Maybe the islanders just offer him more than we do? Or maybe Morannan just likes a good fight?
Today the sky above the Glaswair was cloudy enough to promise rain, but it wouldn’t be falling anytime soon and the waves beneath were steady. And it wasn’t just the easy sea that made Bevan think the Sea God was favouring the Dariniae. Today the western wind was strong enough to send the watching Caderyn’s cloaks flying about them, and Bevan was glad of the braid that kept his hair out of his face. He was less glad of how that western wind was filling the black sails below them, driving the raider’s ships ever closer to his home. Though he’d say this much for the Dariniae; at least they were honest thieves.
Breiryn from the south had raided the coastline a few times and more often than not they had flown white or grey sails, as though they were merely harmless traders. Trade was common enough between the tribes and these Dariniae might easily have done the same thing; they could have disguised their intent and fallen on the Caderyn before they could prepare themselves, winning an easy victory and carrying off plunder with minimal effort. But the islanders had their pride. When they raided they flew black sails as a challenge to their victims, and to show they weren’t afraid of a fair fight. Bevan watched closely as the ships below drew closer, and it seemed that the lead vessel even had a blackwood hull. Whoever led these raiders, he was fearless.
The young warrior felt a flush of shame as he realised his hands were shaking, and he pressed them hard against his legs, hoping no-one around him had noticed. Though he wasn’t far from his twentieth summer, Bevan hadn’t been in a battle before, and visions of death and maiming kept flashing through his mind. Why couldn’t they have lingered last time? Then this time I’d be prepared for them. Last year, when Ierryn himself had been raiding up the Eryn, Chief Carradan had gathered a great host to defend the river, but by the time the Mobryn warriors had got there the Darin chieftain had been and gone. Bevan had been disappointed but also, to his shame, a little relieved. He wanted to be a warrior, he truly did, but on the ride there all he’d thought about was what it would feel like to have a knife driven under his ribs, or an axe slammed into his guts. But at least if you’d been there then, you’d be happy enough today. His palms began to sweat and he took hold of Brackenthorn’s hilt, gripping it tight. The feel of the leather and the cool iron of the pommel gave him a little comfort, but not much. Damn it man, control yourself! Bevan squeezed the sword-hilt tight and ground his teeth together, trying desperately to drive away his fear.
He watched the ships nearing and noticed that they were coming in at an angle that would take them just north of the town, towards the wide beach below the clifftop he was standing on. For a moment it made no sense but then Derwen spoke from behind him. Bevan tried to hide his jolt at the sudden sound.
‘Looks like Arran’s signal worked.’
Bevan understood and once again had to give a grudging respect to the raiders. Arran had ordered fires to be lit on either side of the beach, a signal to the Dariniae that there were warriors here ready to fight them. Rather than try to raid into Mobryn itself and simply steal what they could and flee, the Dariniae were responding by accepting the challenge to battle. They have guts, I’ll give them that. He dragged his eyes from the ships below and turned to face Derwen. His friend was a little shorter than Bevan, with thick brown hair and a scruffy-looking beard. And he was either unafraid of the fight to come, or else he was hiding his nerves behind an eager smile.
‘Time to paint, I suppose.’
Bevan nodded and glanced behind them at the Mobryn host. Along the ridge stood the fifty Caderyn who would defend their town today, and already warriors were handing out bowls of woad for the warband to paint themselves in readiness. Nearest to them he saw Garan and Berian drawing lines and spirals along one another’s arms, the two brothers slopping the blue paint on with more enthusiasm than skill. Past them Ceriad and Shoned were applying their battlemarks with a little more care, painting what looked like entwining serpents from their necks down to their shoulders. For a shallow moment Bevan’s eyes strayed to the view down Ceriad’s tunic but he looked away a moment later. This was no time to be ogling girls.
As if to remind him of how serious today was, his next sight was of Druid Gerwyl, wandering among the warriors giving blessings to them. The white-robed man had on his usual stern expression, and Bevan hoped the holy man hadn’t seen his thoughts from a moment ago. Looking at pretty girls was hardly a crime but this was supposed to be a time of focus, and he doubted if Gerwyl would consider staring at breasts an appropriate way to prepare oneself. At least it took my mind off blood and death, if only briefly.
A moment later Bevan saw a living embodiment of the prepared warrior in the form of Arran, the strongest of the Mobryn men. The Gadarim’s beard was bleached white with lime and his tattooed battlemarks had been painted over with fresh woad, and seemed to shine even in the wan sunlight. Arran had eyes the same grey as the clouds above them, and looked sickeningly calm as he approached the cliff edge and looked down. Bevan tried to guess how many Dariniae would be crammed into those ships, and whether knowing their numbers would have done anything to change Arran’s attitude. Probably not.
From what Bevan knew, the average Dariniae vessel could hold about twenty warriors, thirty at the absolute most, and some of those would be staying aboard to guard the ship. That meant that when the raiders disembarked they would be bringing perhaps seventy of their warriors with them. Hardly a great host, but still enough to outnumber the fighters from Mobryn. Bevan tried to calm himself by clutching at a fool’s hope. Riders had been sent to the White Rush in anticipation of this, and Carradan had sent warriors to Durolwg barely a moon ago. If Taran was willing, there would be more Caderyn on their way here even now. Bevan sighed. But they’re not here yet. And they won’t be here in time to win this fight for us. For now, the warriors of Mobryn stood alone.
Somebody walked by them and interrupted his thoughts by thrusting a bowl of woad at him. Bevan blinked himself back to reality, but by the time he’d nodded his thanks whoever had handed him the bowl had gone. He shook himself back to his senses and dipped a finger into the paint, whispering a quiet prayer as he did. Holy Taran, see us by these marks. Bring us victory.
Silently, he began painting battlemarks on Derwen’s skin, even as his friend drew shapes onto his. They were supposed to focus on the War God when they painted their marks but Bevan was struggling to keep his hand steady as fear nagged at his thoughts. What if today is the day you die? The Dariniae would be painting these exact same shapes and saying these exact same prayers, what if Taran followed Morannan’s lead and looked on them with more favour than he did on the Caderyn? Even if you’re not fated to meet Annwn today, what if some Darin hacks off your hands or lops off a foot? What if the Caderyn win but you are left blinded or crippled in the aftermath? Sweat beaded on his brow despite the breeze and his legs felt weak beneath him. Derwen pretended not to notice. Bevan frowned and clenched his teeth together. He had to beat back these fears before they overwhelmed him and made him a coward.
Further up the line he saw his father, Bradan, painting battlemarks on Rhys’ face. Like Bevan, Mobryn’s headman wore his blonde hair in a long braid down his back, the better to keep it from flying about in the wind. Bradan looked calm as he daubed blue swirls on Rhys’ cheek, and Bevan envied him his easy focus. He gripped the bowl tight with his free hand and tried to keep still as Derwen began drawing on his arms. The sleeveless tunics they wore meant the wind was chilly on the skin, but the more visible a man’s battlemarks were the better the War God would see them; Arran had gone so far as to fight bare-chested, with more bright paint shining over his tattooed marks.
There was a legend that their ancient forefathers had fought naked so that their whole bodies could be painted, though Bevan was a little sceptical about that. In autumn it was chilly enough in a sleeveless shirt, and he doubted that enemies would be that impressed by gooseflesh and the sight of shrinking manhoods. Though at least the women would be spared that problem, he supposed. A foolish thought struck him and despite his fear he held back a smile. It might even make for some nice views before a fight. Along the line Ceriad and Shoned had almost finished preparing their battlemarks, and Bevan decided he wouldn’t object at all to bringing back the old ways if it meant seeing them fight naked. He’d even paint the woad on them himself. But then, you’d also have to see your father go to war with his wedding-sword out, and that would probably spoil your enjoyment of the rest.
Derwen stepped away and nodded, but before he could nod back he saw Rhys produce a brass warhorn in the shape of an open-mouthed dragon. The happy foolishness in Bevan’s head was doused like embers in a rainstorm, and the young man felt his stomach clench uncomfortably. The elder raised the horn to his lips and blew a long, low note that seemed to echo around the clifftop. Bradan drew out Longthorn and held it up above his head.
‘To them lads! Caderyn!’
A roar erupted from the crowd around him and Bevan tried to keep his voice strong as he joined in. He was a chief’s son, and to show his fear now would shame his father before the whole town. He drew out his own sword and squeezed the grip hard as he raised it. Out loud he shouted for the Caderyn and for victory, while in his head he whispered a final, silent prayer. Holy Taran, do not let me shame myself.