Yes, at long last, Gawain is out in the world! Here’s a quick taster (proper page coming soon when my website is updated!)
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Mhari did not trust the Grey Woman. The others might look at her and see a walking talisman, but Mhari saw her for what she truly was; an opportunist. The druid, or whatever she was, knew that Mhari’s warband was the best in all the north and she’d attached herself to them at exactly the right moment, just as things were beginning to look up. Mhari had led her band on a dozen raids since winter’s end, and the profits had been lush all the way to the eastern coast. The hard work had paid off, and Mhari had been revelling in the spoils and reputation she had gained from it. Then the Grey Woman had come, and everything had changed. She had persuaded them to target settlements further south, which Mhari would likely have done eventually anyway, and at each raid she would say her spells and throw her charms and predict a great victory for them. All well and good, except now the warriors were convinced that their string of successes were thanks to the Grey Woman’s magic, not to their leader’s cunning. Mhari frowned at them through the drizzle. Most of her warriors were brave as bears and loyal as hounds, but sometimes they could be such bloody fools.
Mhari pushed a strand of copper hair from her eyes. Both her hair and the black furs about her shoulders were drenched from the steady shower, and even the tunic beneath was growing uncomfortably clammy. She took a slow breath. The air up in the mountains was generally clean and fresh, but today it was thick with smoke as thatch smouldered in the half-hearted rain. The village wouldn’t burn down, everything was too wet for that, though brands had been thrown into several of the houses, and flames still licked hungrily at one or two of them. But rain would douse them eventually, and the majority of the wattle huts would survive. At least the folk we leave behind will have somewhere dry to die.
The Grey Woman hadn’t accompanied the warband on the raid itself, and that alone was enough to make Mhari dislike her. A druid’s magic was invaluable to any chief, but a true druid would stay with the warband when they fought, even if he didn’t do any actual fighting. Not so the Grey Woman. She’d led them through the mist, weaved enchantments against potential ward-spells, and then skulked away while Mhari and her people did the dirty work. And some of it had been dirty indeed.
The bodies of some fifty Venicones lay strewn about the settlement, most of them cut down trying to flee when the burning brands were thrown into their huts. Mhari had little sympathy for them; the Venicones were a contemptible people. For generations they’d been nothing but lickspittles to the Romans, cheerfully forgetting who they were and abandoning their ancestors’ noble ways. She walked slowly between the huts and sneered as she eyed the corpses. Well, the Romans are gone now. And perhaps if you hadn’t spat on who you were, you might have had the strength to fight back when we came. But they hadn’t, as she’d known they wouldn’t. The Venicones had sacrificed their strength before Mhari was even born; the Picts were the only true Britons left.
Her sword was still slick with Venicon blood and she paused to wipe it clean on a dead man’s cloak. Brathir was Mhari’s pride and joy, a quality blade forged from folded steel rods, a rowan-wood handle wrapped in deep red leather, and a pommel and guard that gleamed with polished bronze. Mhari’s fine black furs and crimson cloak marked her out as a woman of wealth, and the tattoos on her face marked her out as a warrior, but it was the presence of Brathir at her side that showed the world she was a chief. And with the Grey Woman’s influence only growing as time went on, it was important that the weapon be kept bright. There can only be one leader. Mhari sighed as she straightened up and saw a gaggle of her more troublesome warriors. Even before the Grey Woman had come, the nature of leadership here had never been as simple as Mhari wished; as usual, Temar was among the troublemakers.
Temar was a big, flat-faced man with beady eyes and lank hair the colour of dirty straw. Like all of them he wore heavy furs over his clothing, but though his tunic and breeches had been well-made they was also stained and poorly kept. So far as battle went he was, despite his size, one of the least valued fighters in the whole warband, being stupid, malicious, and possessed of only the merest scrap of courage. Yet by some cruel jest of the gods, Mhari needed to keep him on her side. Temar might be as much use in battle as a fish in a fistfight, but his mother was the legendary Alva mer Colm, and when Temar had come to Mhari’s band he’d brought twenty of her oath-men with him. Mhari had more than thirty warriors who were oath-bound to her and so the warband was clearly still hers to command, but if she wished to keep making daring raids then she needed Temar’s people as well. And that sometimes meant pandering to the vicious bastard. Mhari walked towards the knot of men and deliberately sheathed Brathir as she went. She didn’t want to be tempted to use it.
Temar’s warriors had gathered around a water-barrel in front of what passed for a chief’s hall in this place. Most of the survivors of the raid had been ancients who’d be left to die in their own time, or young women and children who’d be taken back north as slaves. But one or two men of fighting age had been fool enough to be taken alive, and Temar and his cronies were enjoying themselves with them. Mhari watched as they dragged a half-drowned Venicon from the barrel, laughing as the man retched water onto the mud. Despite the time of year the powdery rain had been constant for days and the barrel was overfull, and when they thrust the man’s head back in again, water sloshed out over the sides. Temar laughed the loudest as the man thrashed and kicked helplessly, but two burly Picts were holding him down, and only when his struggling started petering away did they haul the fool out again.
The Venicon sputtered and coughed up more water, and would have collapsed had Temar’s man not been holding him up. Mhari frowned. She didn’t approve of games like this, but if it kept Temar’s warriors from straying to another warband then she could put up with it. Besides, the man had been weak enough to be captured, which meant it was no worse fate than he deserved. The Venicones as a people were generally a wretched lot, living complacent lives in their fertile lands while true northerners were driven to banditry. Can they really expect us not to hate them for that?
A cry sounded from the huddle of prisoners and a woman, presumably the man’s wife, wrapped her arms tight around a boy who was struggling to break free from her hold. His voice was high with youth and cracked pitifully as he wept.
He looked maybe ten years old and was clearly trying to reach his father. He shouted curses, both at his mother and at Temar’s men, and Mhari had to give him credit; he was bolder than most of his kind. Maybe he had some Pictish blood in him.
Mhari took a step forward and glared at them, her hand on Brathir’s pommel. For all his spirit the lad cowered away, and his mother put a protective arm about his head. It felt shallow to be threatening children, but better he learn now than later; Venicones did not give orders to Picts. Naturally, Temar had to make things worse, and he grinned unpleasantly at the boy.
‘I bet you thought your da was strong, eh?’
He dragged the coughing man up by his collar and kept his eyes on the child as he rammed his father’s head back in the barrel. A few of his cronies laughed and the boy began to sob. Mhari just spat into the mud. Why did Temar have to be such a bastard to everyone? She knew the answer of course; it was because beneath all his bravado he was a coward, and it took a coward’s heart to inflict misery on a child. Not for the first time Mhari toyed with the idea of killing him and having done with it, but she needed Alva on her side, and it would hardly endear her to the old warlord if she murdered her eldest son.
Unfortunately, just as Mhari was making peace with having to keep the worthless cur around, Temar decided to press his luck. Mhari had half-turned away, intending to find Conn and see what they’d managed to gain today, when Temar dragged the Venicon out again and winked at his cowering wife.
‘Don’t worry about him, my lass. You need a stronger man than this.’ He tilted his head towards her half-drowned husband. ‘I’ll be done with him soon, and then I’ll come and take care of you.’
He nodded to his warriors and Darr took a step towards the prisoners. Mhari sighed. Must he make everything so difficult? She interposed herself between Darr and the woman and, without preamble, smashed her right fist into his face. Mhari was both tall and strong for a woman, and with her flaming hair and swirling tattoos, men said she was the image of a warrior queen of old. In thirty years of living she had spent sixteen of them fighting, and all told she was justifiably confident in her skills; but she wasn’t fool enough to be cocky. Darr was big, and in a clash between a strong man and a strong woman, the man always had the edge if the fight was fair. This was, of course, why sensible women didn’t fight fair. Mhari had trained herself to strike quickly, had attacked Darr without warning, and, as usual, was wearing heavy rings on every finger.
Silver, bronze and gold all cracked into Darr’s cheek, tearing the skin cruelly as his head snapped to the side. Mhari was willing to put up with a great deal from Temar, but everyone knew that she didn’t hold with rape, even of weak fools like the Venicones. Sometimes Mhari wondered if she was a fool herself; once the women were taken north and either kept by warriors’ families or sold on to another, there was every chance their masters would ravage them day and night. Perhaps defending them here was a wasted effort. But this is my warband. And in my warband, the men obey my rules.
Darr staggered but kept his feet, and though he didn’t dare say anything he scowled at her with anger in his eyes. Mhari stared back, impassive, watching the blood dribble down his cheek into his beard. Behind him Temar looked furious, and he and his men began squaring up to her, ready for violence. Mhari’s eyes made a quick count. There were nine men with him who looked ready for a fight, and only half a dozen of her own warriors were close-by. If it came down to it then more of her people would come running, and Conn and the others would make short work of Temar, but by then she might very well be too dead to care. She cursed in her head. There was no need for this; neither band wanted to be weakened by infighting, but Temar had crossed a boundary and Mhari had no choice but to respond.
Temar himself was keeping back, of course, but Darr and the others came forward and one or two even had the gall to be fingering their weapons. Mhari let a hand rest casually on Brathir’s pommel and for a moment, their advance faltered. They know the first to come at me will die; likely the second and third as well. None of them wanted to be one of those three. She was wondering what she ought to say to calm them when she felt a presence behind her and, even in the drizzling rain, she recognised Conn’s scent. She held back a smile. Her lover was a clever man, and would have signalled to the others to join him. Already she could hear footsteps behind her as her own warriors gathered to stand with their leader. Temar’s men hesitated, and Mhari took a step forward, making sure to sound neither too weak nor too derogatory.
‘There’s no sense wasting our time on a squabble. We have loot to gather and slaves that need binding.’ She jerked her head at the prisoners. ‘Now let’s get to work, we’ve a long road ahead.’
Some of the tension left the glaring warriors. Mhari hadn’t set out to belittle any of them and they could back away now without losing much face. No more than Darr has lost already, anyhow. She wanted to sigh with relief but she kept her posture firm, and slowly the warriors began to disperse. But then the Grey Woman appeared among them as if from nowhere, and she raised a pale-skinned hand. Mhari was disgusted at how quickly they all froze in place.
Like Mhari, the Grey Woman’s hair was red, though hardly any of it could be seen beneath the hood of her mist-coloured cloak. Beneath it she wore a long, pale robe, like a druid, the garment so baggy it was impossible to see her shape. From the size of her wrists Mhari guessed that she was slim, and from what little she saw of her face she guessed she was around her own age. It looked like a fair face, with no sign of scars or blemishes, and with a pair of dark eyes that always seemed a little wider than was natural.
When she spoke she had the sharp accent of a Pict, but tinged with something that made Mhari think she’d spent a good deal of time down south.
‘There will be plunder and glory for all when we move on. There is no sense in fighting amongst ourselves.’
Mhari frowned. She’d made exactly the same point seconds before, but she knew that the Grey Woman would now take credit for having calmed down the warband. The druid began mumbling to herself and reached into the bag she kept slung beneath the cloak. Mhari had seen her pull all sorts of strange objects from there and, sure enough, when her hand emerged it held a dozen tiny bones, along with what looked like a heron’s feather. The Grey Woman crouched down and the warriors edged cautiously forward, keen to see what she was doing, but fearful of her magic all the same. Mhari took care to hide her wariness as she moved forward along with the others; she might not like the Grey Woman, but only a fool ignored a druid.
The robed woman made nine slow circles with her clasped hands then dropped their contents to the muddy ground. She hunched forward and stared intently at the bones, though Mhari was more interested in the feather. In the old times heron feathers were used for the tufts of spears, and while the tiny bones were a mystery to her, there could be no arguing with what the feather meant; the white tip was pointing directly south. Mhari hadn’t been the only one to see it and a murmur went around the group, though it died when the Grey Woman looked up. Her too-wide eyes roamed about the circle of warriors.
‘The Thunderer would guide you south, to where greater riches lie, but the path ahead is not an easy one.’ She ran a hand over the scattered bones, her palm not quite touching them. ‘Six fine men and one shall die before Lughnas.’
The warriors began exchanging looks. Seven of them would die, but since they didn’t know which seven, that was a risk most of them would take. The Grey Woman was right about the south being a place of riches and if Taranis thought it right for them to go, then seven lives was a small price to pay. Mhari kept looking at her. She was young to be a druid, and Mhari suspected she was really some rejected student of one, half-trained and dangerous. But she’d guided them well on three raids now, taking them to settlements hidden away up in mountains, and if she was right about this then they might all become rich before long. Riches would tempt more warriors, and more warriors meant more glory; Mhari liked being called chief, but if she led enough warriors then soon enough she’d be called lord. It would be risky, raiding too close to Lothian meant inviting King Lot’s wrath and southerner or not, Lot was a tough bastard. But Lord Mhari does have a pleasant ring to it, and Lothian must fall someday. Maybe even at my hand? But that was a grand ambition, and Mhari shoved the thought away. For now.
The Grey Woman spoke what so many of them were thinking.
‘There is risk, of course, but a month of good raids in the south will keep you all rich for a year and more.’
She hated to agree with her, but Mhari nodded.
‘We shall head home with this lot first.’ She gestured vaguely at the smouldering village and cowering Venicones. ‘Once done, we can head south.’
There were nods of assent all around; they didn’t need slaves and livestock slowing them down. Besides, Mhari had to show who was in charge here. The Grey Woman bowed her head, as if acquiescing, but then spoke just as Mhari was turning away.
‘You would be wise to make sacrifices to the Thunderer first.’
Mhari wanted to disagree but once again, the druid was right. It was Beltane Eve and they had no time for fires and rituals, and little enough sheep or cattle in any case; far quicker and simpler to appease Taranis here and now. She nodded once, and Temar was naturally the first one to move. He would enjoy this for all the wrong reasons. Temar is no friend to the Thunderer; Taranis loves only the brave.
The big man dragged his soaked captive to his knees and jerked back his chin with both hands. Mhari saw that the wife and child had fallen silent, the woman holding the boy’s head to her chest while she shook and cried into his hair. Weakling! At least your man’s dying for a purpose now, not just for some fool’s amusement.
The Grey Woman produced a bowl from her bag, and the men’s eyes were drawn to it like flies to a corpse; it looked like solid silver. The druid didn’t seem to notice their looks, though Mhari was sure she missed nothing, and walked slowly towards the doomed man. She muttered the whole time, but they were either words Mhari didn’t recognise or they were spoken too quietly for her to hear. When she reached the kneeling Venicon she leaned close to him and whispered in his ear, stroking his sopping hair almost lovingly as she spoke. The terrified man seemed to calm a little, and if Mhari had blinked at the wrong second she would have missed what happened next.
The druid’s one hand left the Venicon’s hair and a bronze dagger just seemed to appear in it, while with her other hand she smoothly placed the silver bowl against his chest. The cut was so fast Mhari doubted if the kneeling man even felt it. His eyes went wide and bright blood gushed from his throat, but whatever else she was the Grey Woman knew her trade, and the silver bowl caught nearly all of it. A few spatters of red struck her face and robe, but she paid them no mind. Instead she focused on the blood still pouring into the bowl, and Mhari recognised at least one word of her chant, spoken over and over with obvious reverence; Taranis, Taranis, Taranis.
All around the druid men were fondling talismans or kissing their weapons to show respect to the war god. Mhari touched her fingers to Brathir’s pommel, and beside her she saw Conn put his lips to his spear-blade. As a rule Mhari left spoken prayers to the druids, she honoured the Thunderer by deeds, not words, but she felt the strange need to make an exception, and whispered a prayer under her breath.
‘Taranis, be with us.’
She could see that the Grey Woman was watching her, and there was self-satisfaction in those too-wide eyes but Mhari looked past it. This was a time to show reverence to the Thunderer; she could deal with petty rivalries later. She let her hand wrap around Brathir’s hilt, and whispered once more to the god closest to her heart.
‘Taranis, bless your warriors. Taranis, bring me victory!’