2020.01.23

It's Thursday.

CHAPTER 8

THE MESSENGERS

FROM THE MOMENT HE LEFT Caer Dallben, Kaw had flown directly toward Annuvin. Though it was the bird’s pleasure, aloft, to revel in the limitless reaches of the sky, to swoop and soar above the white sheep flocks of clouds, he now put aside all temptation to sport with the wind and held steadily to his course. Far below, Avren glinted like a long trickle of molten silver; fallow fields spread in patches; the treetops rose black and leafless, broken by dark green stretches of pine forest following the curves of the hills. Kaw pressed ever northwestward, resting seldom during the hours of daylight. Only at dusk, when even the crow’s keen eyes could not search beyond the gathering shadows, did he drop to earth and find haven among the branches of a tree.

Days he flew high above the clouds to profit from the wind tides that bore him swiftly as a leaf in a stream. But, as he passed over the Forest of Idris, drawing closer to the harsh peaks of Annuvin, Kaw checked his gliding flight and drove earthward, alert for any stirring among the mountain passes. Shortly he glimpsed a column of heavily armed warriors marching northward. At closer range, he saw them to be Huntsmen of Annuvin. For a time he followed them and, when they halted amid the scrub and stunted trees, flapped to a low branch and settled there. Squatting at their cook fires, the Huntsmen prepared their midday meal. The crow cocked his head and listened intently, but their muttered speech told him little, until he heard the words “Caer Dathyl.”

Kaw shifted his position and cast about for a closer branch. One of the Huntsmen, a brutish warrior garbed in bearskin, caught sight of the bird. Grinning cruelly at this chance for sport, the warrior reached for his bow and nocked an arrow to the string. Quickly he aimed, and loosed the shaft. Rapid though the Huntsman’s movements were, the crow’s sharp eyes followed them as quickly. Kaw flapped his wings and dodged the arrow that went rattling through the dead branches a little distance over his head. The Huntsman cursed both his lost arrow and the crow, and made to draw again. Delighted with himself, jeering raucously, Kaw sped above the trees, intending to circle back and find a safer listening post.

It was then the gwythaints appeared.

For an instant, bent on returning to the Huntsmen’s camp, Kaw did not see the flight of three huge birds. From a bank of clouds they plunged downward in a rush of black, beating wings. Kaw’s self-satisfaction vanished. The crow veered from their attack and strove desperately to climb higher, not daring to allow the deadly creatures to command the air above him.

The gwythaints, too, swiftly veered. One broke from his fellows to pursue the fleeing crow: the others, with powerful strokes of their wings, rose toward the clouds to renew their assault.

Kaw forced himself ever upward and the gwythaint had gained only slightly when the crow burst through a sea of mist into a sunswept vastness that nearly blinded him.

The other two gwythaints were waiting. Shrieking in fury, they dropped toward him. Behind the crow his pursuer drove him closer to the oncoming creatures. Kaw glimpsed the flash of glistening beaks and blood-red eyes. The gwythaints’ screams of triumph ripped the empty sky. The crow suddenly checked his flight, feigning confusion. When the gwythaints were nearly upon him, he summoned all his strength in a single lunge that carried him beyond the talons slashing like daggers.

The crow had not gone unscathed. One of the gwythaints had struck him beneath the wing. Despite the pain that dizzied him, Kaw fluttered free of his attackers. The open sky was no refuge for him. No longer could he rely on swiftness of flight to save him. He plunged earthward.

The gwythaints were not outwitted. The scent of blood had maddened them, and they would not be deprived of their kill. They streaked after the crow to overtake and prevent him from reaching the forest below.The highest trees rose up toward Kaw. He avoided them to drop closer to the underbrush. The tangle of branches slowed his pursuers. Without slackening speed, Kaw skimmed above the ground, deeper and deeper into the maze of bushes. The huge wings of the gwythaints which had served so well aloft now kept them from their prize. They screamed in rage, but made no attempt to venture farther into the woods. The crow, like a fox, had gone to earth.

The day had begun to fade. Kaw settled himself painfully for the night. At dawn, he fluttered cautiously to a treetop. The gwythaints had gone, but his senses told him he had been driven far east of Annuvin. Stiffly he launched himself from the tree and flapped his way aloft. Southward, Caer Cadarn lay beyond the reach of his ebbing strength. He must decide quickly, while life still remained to him. Kaw circled once, then flew heavily toward his new goal and his only hope.

HIS FLIGHT WAS NOW a constant torment. Often his wings faltered and only the wind-tides held him aloft. He could no longer travel a full day’s distance. Long before sundown, his wound forced him to alight and hide himself amid the trees. Nor could he fly closer to the sun’s warmth, but made his way only a little above the ground, nearly brushing the treetops. Below him, the countryside was springing to life with warriors, both on horseback and afoot. During the times he halted to husband his strength, he learned their destination, like that of the Huntsmen, was the fortress of the Sons of Don. His alarm grew sharper than his pain and he flew onward.

At length, in the numbing cold of the mountains northeast of the River Ystrad, he dimly spied what he had been seeking. Surrounded by sheer walls of cliffs, the valley was a green nest amid the snow-capped summits. A small cottage came into sight. The blue surface of a lake flashed in the sunlight. Against the protected side of a hill slope stretched a long, boat-like shape, the vessel’s ribs and timbers overgrown with moss. Beating his wings feebly, Kaw dropped like a stone into the valley.

He was vaguely aware, as his eyes closed, of jaws firmly about him, lifting him from the grass; then a deep voice asking, “Now, Brynach, what have you brought us?”

The crow knew nothing more.

WHEN HE OPENED his eyes again, he lay upon a soft nest of rushes in a sunny chamber. He was weak, but his pain had left him; his wound had been bound up. As he feebly fluttered his wings, a pair of strong hands deftly reached to hold and calm him.

“Gently, gently,” said a voice. “I fear you will be earthbound for a time.”

The man’s white-bearded face was as gnarled and weathered as an ancient oak in a snowdrift. White hair hung below broad, knotted shoulders, and a blue gem sparkled from the golden band circling his brow. Kaw, without his customary squawking and jabbering, humbly bowed his head. Never before had he flown to this valley, but his heart had always known such a refuge awaited him. A secret sense, like some hidden memory he shared with all the forest creatures of Prydain, had guided him unerringly; and the crow understood he had come at last into the abode of Medwyn.

“Let me see, let me see,” Medwyn continued, knitting his heavy brows in search of something long stored in a corner of his mind. “You would be—yes—the family likeness is unmistakable: Kaw Son of Kadwyr. Yes, of course. Forgive me for not recognizing you immediately, but there are so many crow clans I sometimes get them mixed. I knew your father when he was a spindly-legged fledgling.” Medwyn smiled at his own recollections. “The rogue was no stranger to my valley—a broken wing to be mended, a leg out of joint, one scrape after the other.

“I hope you do not follow his example;” Medwyn added. “I have already heard much of your bravery and—a certain bent, shall we say, for boisterousness? It has reached my ears, as well, that you serve an Assistant Pig-Keeper at Caer Dallben. Melynlas is his name, I believe. No—forgive me. That is his steed. Of course, Melynlas Son of Melyngar. The Pig-Keeper’s name escapes me at the moment. But no matter. Serve him faithfully, Son of Kadwyr, for his heart is good. Among all the race of men, he was of the few I allowed within my valley. As for you, I judge you and the gwythaints have been at close quarters. Have a care. Many of Arawn’s messengers rove aloft these days. But you are safe now, and will soon be up and winging.”

Perched on the back of Medwyn’s chair, an enormous eagle studied the crow. Beside the old man, the wolf Brynach sat on his haunches. Lean and gray, with yellow eyes, he wagged his tail and grinned up at the crow. A moment later, another wolf, smaller and with a white blaze on her breast, trotted in and crouched beside her mate.

“Ah, Briavael,” said Medwyn. “Have you come to greet our visitor? Like his father, no doubt, he will have a bold tale to tell us.”

Kaw spoke then in his own tongue which Medwyn easily understood. The old man’s features turned grave as he listened. When the crow had finished, Medwyn was silent for a time, deeply frowning. Brynach whined uneasily.

“It is come,” Medwyn said heavily. “I should have so guessed, for I sense a strange fear among the animals. More and more find their way here, fleeing what they themselves only dimly know. They tell of Huntsmen abroad in force, and armed men. Now I understand the meaning of these tidings. The day I had ever feared has come upon us. Yet my valley cannot hold all who would seek refuge.”

Medwyn’s voice had begun to rise like a wrathful gale. “The race of men face the slavery of Annuvin. So, too, the creatures of Prydain. In the shadow of the Land of the Dead, the nightingale’s song will choke and die. The galleries of badgers and moles will become prison houses. No beast, no bird will roam or fly with the joy of a free heart. Those who are not slain—theirs will be the fate of the gwythaints, long ago made captive, tormented, broken, and their once-gentle spirits twisted to Arawn’s vile ends.”

Medwyn turned to the eagle. “You, Edyrnion, fly swiftly to the mountain eyries of your kindred. Bid them rise up in all their strength and all their numbers.

“You, Brynach, and you, Briavael,” he commanded, as the wolves pricked up their ears, “spread the alarm among your own brethren; among the bears, with paws to smite and arms to crush; among the sharp-antlered stags; and all forest dwellers, large and small.”Medwyn had risen to his full height. His hands clenched as tree roots clench the earth. The crow watched, awestruck and silent. Medwyn’s eyes flashed and his deep voice came as a wave of thunder.

“Speak to them in my name and tell them: such are the words of one who built a ship when the dark waters flooded Prydain, of one who bore their ancient sires to safety. Now, against this flood of evil, each nest, each lair must be a stronghold. Let every creature turn tooth, beak, and claw against all who serve Arawn Death-Lord.”

Side by side, the wolves loped from the cottage. And the eagle took flight.

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