This is the final part of this particular short story, though I won’t deny it’s tempting to write some more along these lines. We shall see…
The Blackwood Ship – Part III
Bevan staggered back up the path towards the town, his legs wobbling and his hands shaking uncontrollably. For some reason the bloodlust that’d raged through him in the battle had abandoned him almost the instant a halt had been called, and now the cold fear had returned with a vengeance. He felt unaccountably frail and tired, and his stomach was twisting so unpleasantly it was an effort not to vomit. Damn it, why are you afraid again? It’s all over, we won. He couldn’t explain it. All he knew was what he felt, and what he felt was weak and frightened.
A light rain had begun to fall on the beach that had hosted their battle, making a fine mess of the woad and blood coating the warriors, both the living and the dead. Bevan paused in his walk and turned to watch the waves lapping further up the shore, gently touching some of the bodies before withdrawing again. The Dariniae had almost finished hauling their dead back to the ships, and soon enough the black sails would be vanishing on the horizon. And good riddance to them. Most of the Caderyn had been collected as well, and tomorrow there would be burials for the thirteen warriors who’d died today. Bevan felt a heaviness in his chest at the thought. More than twenty Dariniae had lost their lives in this fight and the islanders had left behind bracelets and swords as a tribute to the victors. He ought to have been elated. His first battle had been a victory, and he had acquitted himself well. But still his stomach churned and his hands shook, and he looked at the scattered bodies and felt no sense of satisfaction.
The young Caderyn turned away from the sight and began plodding up the path again. He could at least thank Taran that none of his friends had died today. Garan had lost some teeth and Shoned’s arm had been broken but both were alive, and the others had emerged with little more than scrapes and bruises. He felt a little pang for Rhys, Mobryn’s hornblower, who’d lost his life to a Darin’s axe. Rhys and Bradan had been good friends for many years, and Bevan knew his father would be grieving tonight. But compared to what might have happened today, the Caderyn have escaped this raid practically unscathed. So why can’t I rejoice in that? Again, he couldn’t answer his own question, and the young warrior trudged on.
Eventually Bevan’s watery legs led him to the bank of the little river than ran close by the town. It wasn’t large as rivers went, a mere trickling extension of the mighty White Rush, but it would be clean and fresh, and he was feeling so light-headed he was worried he might faint. And a fine sight that would be of a headman’s son after a battle! He squatted down awkwardly, his back still aching from the spear-haft that had clouted him, and splashed some water on his face. The drizzle might be refreshing but the river-water did a lot more to clear his head, and even his roiling guts seemed to calm down a little. He stared absently at nothing for a while and by the time he looked up again most of his comrades had passed by him, heading up to the town and the feast his father would be preparing. Bevan frowned pensively. Am I a weakling for staying here like this? He hadn’t seen anyone else in such a state, most of them had been elated at their victory on the sands, clapping shoulders and laughing, swapping stories of how close each of them had come to death. Bevan clenched and unclenched his shaking hands. I am the chief’s son, I ought to be with them, telling tales of how hard I fought and how many raiders I sent to meet Annwn. But instead he was squatting here, staring at the falling rain and willing his hands to stay still.
He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there when a friendly voice came from behind him.
‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to loiter about in the rain?’
He was too tired to start at the sudden noise and turned slowly to see Arran striding up the path, his arms full of bracelets and taken weaponry. The Gadarim was smiling at him.
‘Be a shame to win a battle only to catch your death of a cold.’
Bevan tried to smile back at him but it was a struggle, and he suspected it looked more like a grimace than an expression of joy. The warrior came a step closer and nodded to the spoils in his arms.
‘Give me a hand with this, will you?’
Bevan nodded obligingly. Standing up took a lot more effort than he’d thought and his back screamed at him as he rose but he managed to keep his response limited to what he hoped was a manly grunt. He took an armful of scabbarded swords and Arran nodded his thanks.
‘You did well today, my lad.’
Bevan wasn’t sure what to say to that. He hadn’t run from the fighting or anything but he certainly didn’t feel heroic.
‘I did my best.’
The effort of carrying the swords was keeping his hands steadier than they had been but all the same Arran’s eyes flicked down to them for a heartbeat. Bevan felt his cheeks warm up and he wondered what he could say to defend himself, but the Gadarim simply grunted and kept on walking.
‘Feeling some after-battle shakes, eh?’
There was no point trying to conceal it and Bevan bobbed his head. He waited a moment, still embarrassed, then decided to confide in the older man.
‘I felt fine while I was fighting. I was nervous going in but once things started the fear sort of faded away. Now though…’
He tailed off uncertainly and Arran gave him a small smile.
‘It’s common enough. The blood pumps hard in the fight and once it’s over it can leave you shaky and nauseous.’ He shrugged. ‘Better that than be shaky in the fight itself, mind. I’ve seen men hurl their guts up midway through a battle before; you’re obviously a sensible man for waiting until later, eh?’
Bevan wasn’t sure how much he was joking but he was grateful for the reassurance.
They had almost reached the town by now and he figured he ought to thank the Gadarim for his words, but before he could say anything the sound of hoofbeats came from the road ahead, and a few moments later a party of horsemen appeared through the rain. Bevan looked up at their leader, a red-haired man of some forty winters, and was surprised that he didn’t feel more irritated at the sight of them. This was Madoc and their reinforcements from Bryngarth, at least a hundred warriors by the looks of it, and he knew he ought to have been angry at them for turning up when they did. Had you been only a little sooner we could have routed the Dariniae in moments. Then Rhys might still be living, and Garan would have all his teeth. But he had no energy left to be angry and simply viewed them with mild annoyance, hoping that he didn’t look as feeble as he felt.
The first few riders swung down from their ponies and strode towards them. Arran shuffled his armful of weapons and extended a hand to the leader.
The First Man of the Caderyn’s Gadarim traded grips with him and smiled.
‘Bloodclaw.’ He glanced at the taken weaponry. ‘It seems we’ve come too late?’
‘As if you were ever needed?’
Madoc’s smile widened but Bevan noticed that one of the warriors behind him bristled at the jest. She stepped forward and even through the rain Bevan was struck by the sight of her. She was perhaps a year or two younger than he was, very short and slight, with soaking black hair and bright blue eyes. She was also stunningly attractive, and Bevan forgot some of his after-battle fears as he worked hard not to stare at her. The woman spoke to Arran, politely enough but with a subtle iciness in her tone.
‘Had we been here your victory would have been that much more impressive.’
The Gadarim looked at her with good humour and seemed about to reply, but before he knew what was happening Bevan found himself speaking first.
‘I’d say it was more worthy of song without you. It meant we fought a larger force and won against the odds.’
He wasn’t sure what had made him say it but the reaction in garnered was not a favourable one. The dark-haired woman glared at him, her eyes somehow shining through the drizzle.
‘Did I ask what you’d say?’
Bevan felt his fears and shakes fade into nothing as he squared up to look down at her.
‘No more than I asked you how much more impressive today would have been if you’d managed to ride here a little faster.’
She was not at all intimidated by the difference in their heights and kept looking at him with disapproval that bordered on anger.
‘Maybe next time the Dariniae come in force we’ll just stay at home and let you heroes deal with them yourselves?’
Even his weariness was leaving him as Bevan warmed to the argument. Striking or not this girl was arrogant, and judging by her age and her tone, he suspected she was frustrated at having missed out on a chance for battle. Maybe this would have been her first fight too? Well, that was no concern of his. Bevan matched her look.
‘You might as well have done, for all the use you’ve been today.’ He looked up at the rest of her party, who were watching them with badly-concealed amusement. ‘I suppose you just expect us to be grateful that you’ve brought us a hundred more mouths to feed?’
The woman’s eyes flashed and Bevan couldn’t help but think again about the legends of their forefathers fighting naked. If we still did things that way, maybe I’d have been glad for her to have joined us. The passion in her was stirring, even if it was covered by a hefty layer of pride. But I could get used to that.
She took another step forward, clearly readying a sharp retort, but then Madoc appeared and placed a hand on her shoulder.
‘Come now, the fighting is done. Let’s not start a battle between ourselves.’
The woman looked ready to argue but then seemed to remember who had spoken. She took a slow breath and nodded to the Gadarim.
‘As you say.’
None of the fire had left her eyes, and when Madoc spoke again Bevan was sure she would erupt with fury.
‘Now trade grips you two, and remember you are comrades.’
Bevan almost smirked at how indignant she looked, but there was no arguing with the First Man. Madoc was not angry, if anything he appeared to be holding back a smile, but his words had been unshakable. The woman nodded again, then extended a hand to Bevan with obvious reluctance.
Bevan shifted the swords in his arms, making sure she could see how many he held, and then put out his own hand. He would have to make sure to talk with her later when they feasted. For all her short words the fire in her eyes was fascinating, and he determined to get to know her better before the day was done. He smiled as he reached for her hand.
‘Bevan, son of Bradan.’
Her grip was strong on his wrist and her blue eyes blazed with passion as the dark-haired woman gave her name.
‘Rhianwyn, daughter of Carradan.’