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March, 655 AD
Cade had been dreaming of the battle in Arawn’s cavern. His stomach hurt from clenching it in his fear and desperation. Even with Arawn’s defeat, his people were still in danger. Geraint and Tudur would soon face a host of demons which Arawn had unleashed, in such numbers as Geraint could never hope to counter.
“Goddamn it, Cade, don’t scare us like this.” That was his Rhun’s voice. His foster brother had always been one for telling Cade what to do.
“Oh please, please, wake up, Cade.”
Cade’s eyes snapped open.
Rhiann gazed down at him, her face six inches from his. They looked at each other for one of her heartbeats before she threw herself at him and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I was so worried! It was as if you were really dead!”
Cade’s arms came around Rhiann. He reveled in the feel of her, kissed her forehead, and patted her several times on the back, trying to get her to look at him again. Tears tracked down her cheeks as he brushed her hair out of his face with one hand.
After another reassuring look, Rhiann released him to sit back on her heels. Cade pushed onto both elbows, studying his friends who formed a circle around him: Rhun, whose deeper voice he’d heard; Dafydd, a bit wide-eyed, clenching and unclenching his large fists; Goronwy and Hywel, mirror images of each other, not in looks but in temperament, their swords out and half-turned away, ever watchful of potential menace; and Taliesin, who gazed at him reflectively while leaning on his staff.
“From the seer who no longer sees, I, Taliesin, speak of Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon—who calls usurpers to account, who vanquishes demons, who, with his magic sword, banished Arawn to the Underworld—”
“All right, all right. Enough.” Cade scrambled to his feet. “Next you’ll say something about escaping Aberffraw without help, or battling the storm that shipwrecked us in the world of the sidhe and saving you single-handed.” He glared at Taliesin. “None of which would be true.”
Cade’s critique didn’t seem to affect Taliesin. “You are not normally one to sleep.”
“I haven’t slept too long, have I? The sun isn’t yet up, is it?” Cade checked the skyline above the trees that surrounded the clearing in which the companions found themselves. No light showed on the eastern horizon and Cade allowed himself a moment of relief. Then he noted the location of the moon, and stared at it, puzzled, for it was in the same spot it had been when Arianrhod had visited him after they defeated Arawn. He could have sworn their conversation had occurred hours ago, but if he’d really slept, perhaps that wasn’t something he had the ability to gauge.
“Not for a long while yet,” Rhun said. “Or, at least that’s my feeling. I don’t have a good sense of the hour.”
“Nor I,” Taliesin said. “And that disturbs me.” He studied Cade some more. “Has something happened we should know about?”
Cade bit his lip. His friends weren’t going to like this. “Arianrhod visited me.” There was no good way to say it, except straight out.
Taliesin narrowed his eyes at Cade. “And …”
“She apologized, not so much for giving me the power of the sidhe but for bringing us into such danger.”
“She apologized?” Rhun said. “That’s—that’s—”
Taliesin finished for him. “Unprecedented.”
“She also thanked us for doing what she could not,” Cade said.
“You’re being polite.” Goronwy glanced at Cade, flashed a smile, and then looked away again. “She thanked you, you mean.”
Cade had to acknowledge that Goronwy was right, though he hadn’t wanted to say it. “If that was an oversight on her part, allow me to thank you now, if not for her, then for myself. I couldn’t have defeated Arawn without you.”
“Modesty at last,” Goronwy said.
Cade ignored that, as Goronwy deserved. “She also gave me two gifts.”
Taliesin took a step towards Cade, his face paling. “Don’t tell me you accepted them! A gift from a goddess is never without price!”
Cade choked on a laugh. “Did I have a choice? Need I remind you how little control I have over the goddess?”
“That would be none,” Rhun said.
Taliesin nodded and subsided, his expression grudging. “She made you so you could do her bidding. I have not forgotten.”
“I would like to think these new gifts were in thanks and not in expectation of future services,” Cade said, “although I suppose I’ll have as little choice in the matter then as now, were she to ask more of me. As it is, she gave me the gift of sleep, as you saw.”
“So you were sleeping!” Rhiann said. “I could hardly credit it.”
“… and the ability to do this.” Cade reached for Rhiann again, pulling her to him. She fit perfectly in his arms—as he remembered from their brief interlude underneath Caer Dathyl—tucked under his chin with her slender arms tight around his waist, holding on. Laughter bubbled in his throat at how natural it felt to hold her.
“So this means you can touch me now—can touch any one of us—without fear of doing us harm?” Rhiann leaned back to look into Cade’s face.
“So it seems,” Cade said.
Rhun stooped to pick up Caledfwlch, which lay on the edge of the blanket, a yard from Cade’s feet. The companions gazed at the sword and Rhun held it out. Rhiann took it, with a wary look at Cade. “You told me when we first met that your touch had the power to kill. I’ve seen you use it. And struggle to contain it.”
Cade had been unable to touch anyone—unless he meant to kill them—since Arianrhod had changed him from man to sidhe two winters earlier. From the moment he’d found Caledfwlch at the enchanted Caer Ddu, however, the sword had given him both a strength and a control over his power that he’d never known before. He’d only allowed himself to admit to loving Rhiann because of it, because the sword gave him a chance—a slim one, but a chance—at a normal life.
Rhiann drew the belt around Cade’s waist and buckled on his sword, fumbling a bit with the stiff leather. He studied her downturned head and then looked at Taliesin. It was he who would best understand what Arianrhod had done to him and what she’d changed.
“I still have the power,” he said. “But it’s quiet, as if it’s waiting for me to use it rather than waiting to use me.”
“That’s all to the good,” Taliesin said, “but something tells me that Arianrhod isn’t finished with you yet.”
“And if she’s not done with Cade, we’re all in for it,” Rhun said.
“I’m sure you have the right of it,” Cade said, “but for now…”
“For now, we need to move,” Goronwy said. While they’d talked, he’d surveyed the entire perimeter of the clearing. It was thirty feet across, surrounded by leafless trees. A fire pit sat at its center, the flames still burning brightly, though to Cade’s knowledge, nobody had stoked it. “I, too, am confused about many things, but I do know that we still have the demons from Caer Dathyl to deal with. Geraint and Tudur need our help.”
Demons came in all shapes and sizes, often with horns or fur: the manifestation of a child’s nightmare, only worse. Much worse, because they weren’t created in a dream, but were real, sent through the black cauldron by Arawn, Lord of the Underworld, to haunt the field and forests of Wales. Few were able to pass as human as Cade could and he’d met no other demons who possessed his particular gifts, if one could call them that, nor his degree of power. It seemed that Arianrhod had bestowed his affliction only on him.
“Where are we?” Rhun said. “That remains our most pressing question, although some information as to how we got here wouldn’t go amiss.”
Cade checked the moon again. It still hadn’t moved from its initial position. Come to think on it, the moon was nearly in the same place in the sky as when they’d entered the caverns underneath Caer Dathyl.
“As to how, we can certainly make a good guess,” Taliesin said. “Arianrhod took us from the cavern, set us to rights, and has put us on a path of her choosing. As to where…”
“I know where we are.” Dafydd turned slowly on one heel, studying the trees and the sky above them. “We’re still in Arfon, not far from Caer Dathyl. I came through here when I fled the fortress after Teregad gave me leave to go, back before I fell in with you.”
“He gave you leave to go, only to hunt you down afterwards,” Goronwy said, correcting his younger brother, “but that’s past and done. Are we near the road?”
“It lies a hundred yards to the west, no more.” Dafydd peered at the skyline. “I believe Arianrhod has placed us just to the north of where Geraint and Tudur were supposed to set up camp.”
“What—so now we can fly?” Rhun said.
Gone was the jesting tone of before. His words came out bitter and Cade catalogued the list of crazed events that had happened to them in the last twelve hours, wondering which of them most troubled Rhun and caused his anger.
“How helpful of Arianrhod not to put us in the path of the oncoming demons,” Goronwy said. “Just think if she’d put us between them and Geraint’s camp.”
Cade eyed both Goronwy and Rhun, and then took charge before the others caught their discontent. “Lead on, Dafydd. It’s likely we have very little time, if we have any time at all, before the demons reach Geraint’s position.”
Dafydd set off at once through the trees, Taliesin close behind, the little light on the end of his staff lighting the way. Rhiann, who’d found her quiver and bow and slung them on her back, followed with Hywel. Cade, Goronwy, and Rhun brought up the rear.
“What’s gotten into you two?” Cade said, once the others had moved a bit ahead and the three of them could speak more privately.
He pushed through a blackberry bramble: the rich, sweet scent of sun-warmed berries saturated the air. In another life, Cade would have eaten them but now they would taste like nothing more than sawdust in his mouth. The bramble had found a niche at the edge of the trees, cascading over the edge of a rock as it sought sunlight, rather than thriving in the darker, shadier places, like raspberry or blackcurrant. Or me.
“This is wrong,” Rhun said. “I may not be sidhe, but even I can feel it.”
“Which part?” Cade said.
“Which part isn’t?” Goronwy said.
Rhun made a dismissive gesture. “Not so much the goddess, though I’m none too fond of the way she’s manipulated you—and through you all of us—these last weeks. But this is too easy; too pat.”
“We defeated Arawn—”
“Begging your pardon, my lord,” Goronwy said, “but we didn’t, not really. You may be sidhe and by that power able to silence him for a while, but his actions against us—against Wales—and our reactions, with the help of Arianrhod, are the start of what looks to me like open warfare between the gods—and maybe between the gods and men.”
“That’s exactly it.” Rhun nodded and punctuated his words with a finger to the sky. “The gods haven’t interfered in our world since the Romans came. They didn’t even step in to save Vortigern as he lay dying and the Saxons overran all of Britain but our small corner. Why do they arise now? And what role do we have to play in it? Do we have to be on Arianrhod’s side just because she made you? Are there other sides besides Arawn’s or Mabon’s?”
It had been Cade’s ancestor, Vortigern, who’d invited the Saxons into Britain after the Romans left, hoping they would stand as a buffer against the even more barbaric Picts who raided Briton’s shores at every turn. As he’d been fighting the Picts in the northeast, the Scots in the northwest, and the Irish along the coast of Wales all at the same time, one could hardly blame Vortigern for latching onto a convenient solution. He’d given up too much land to the Saxons, however, and was betrayed in the end by the very people he’d sought to befriend. Cade’s people had been fighting these interlopers ever since, backing further into the mountains with every year that passed.
The Saxon lords had divided the Welsh into small pockets, with the western lands the last untouched bastion of Britain. As recently as two years ago, Cade’s uncle Arthur, the great king of Gwent, had sent a lone rider from his seat at Caerleon to Bryn y Castell to warn of the events to the south. Like his northern compatriots, Arthur had fought many battles against the Saxons and feared the Welsh would be reduced to ever shrinking circles of land, fighting back to back as the invaders attacked from all sides.
Cade’s birth father, Cadwallon, had formed an alliance with the Saxon King Penda of Mercia, in an attempt to forestall the attacks and regain land for the Welsh. Upon his death, the usurper Cadfael had pledged his forces to the same treaty. But the Welsh had gained nothing from either alliance but time.
Cade swallowed hard. “I’m sorry. I can’t answer any of that. And Taliesin…” His voice trailed off.
“Doesn’t see anymore. Yes, we know,” Rhun said, “even if he tries to make light of it.”
Cade didn’t know how to respond to that either and they continued in silence, eventually gaining on their companions. Cade was both disgruntled by his friends’ observations—since he’d been thinking things were going pretty well for once—and dismayed that he heard truth in their words.
Behind Cade, back in his more cynical, jaded, and ultimately humorous shell, Goronwy grumbled yet again about knights not walking.
Rhiann overheard, glanced back at him, and shot him a wicked smile. “You know, Goronwy. You say that knights don’t walk, but since I’ve known you, you’ve done quite a bit of walking. Either knights do walk, or perhaps you’re not a real knight?”
Goronwy growled back at her and Rhiann’s eyes lit with amusement. She knew not to take him seriously and Cade’s heart warmed to have her with him. That part of the world was going right at least. He was just happy to have all his friends in the same place and in one piece. Although Arianrhod hadn’t realized it, that was reward enough.
As the companions trotted on, Cade kept checking the sky, expecting the sun to rise at any moment but it stubbornly refused to show itself. Normally, that would have pleased him, but the oddness of not being able to locate himself in the dark, or in time, only disturbed him instead.
He tried to pass off his disorientation as a result of the heavy cloud cover which had blown in since they’d left the clearing. And when it released its rain a few moments later, it only seemed inevitable, given the way the day and night had gone so far. In Wales, cloud cover in March was more normal than not. Cade told himself he was imagining trouble where there wasn’t any, or at least not in the weather. Nobody else gave the rain any notice, other than to pull up the hoods on their wool cloaks.
“I can’t believe we’re heading back to Caer Dathyl,” Hywel said.
They turned onto the road and picked up the pace, able to move more quickly even though the road had become a slough and their boots were coated with mud.
“Hopefully, Siawn’s in charge now.” Rhiann skirted an enormous puddle by moving to the edge of the road where it met the grassy rim of the forest and Cade followed suit. “He left the cavern just before Arawn fell and I’d like to know for sure what’s become of him.”
“And Teregad,” Hywel said.
“And Mabon,” said Rhun. “He has my knife.”
Goronwy snorted laughter. “As you left it in his throat, you can hardly blame him for not giving it back.”
“It was his knife initially,” Cade said. “Do you really want to keep something of his?”
“I suppose not,” Rhun said.
“Unless a weapon from the world of the sidhe is the only way to harm him, just as with Arawn,” Goronwy said.
Taliesin grunted assent and everyone turned to look at him. “I suspect that is true.” And then he elaborated further, “I find it likely.”
“How about a good punch to the nose?” Dafydd said. “He certainly deserves one.”
Even Taliesin laughed at that. “That I could not say. You’ll have to try it next time you see him.”
“Be that as it may,” Cade said, “Arianrhod told me that Mabon has been returned to her.”
“What?” Taliesin halted in the middle of the road, down which he’d continued to boldly move, ignoring the puddles, even though his cloak was now six inches deep in mud. “What did you say?” The rain dripped off the end of his pointy nose, which he directed at Cade.
Cade shrugged. “That’s all I know. The conversation was rather one-sided and I didn’t dare ask what she meant by it.”
“My lord!” Ahead of them, Dafydd broke into a run. “Men call to one another ahead of us!”
Taliesin shot Cade another look—a despairing one—which was an expression Cade had never before seen on Taliesin’s face. The other companions ran after Dafydd, but Cade caught Taliesin’s arm before he could follow. “You fear the demons?”
“The demons?” Taliesin said. “Why would I fear them?”
“It’s Mabon,” Taliesin said. “Arianrhod may have given you gifts, for which we can’t help but be grateful—and which I hope we won’t come to regret—but that Mabon is with his mother instead of banished to the Underworld with his father is the worst news possible.”
Another shout came from ahead of them as their friends disappeared into the woods to the west of the road. “We must hurry,” Cade said. He wished he could question Taliesin more, but they had no time. “We’ll talk later.”
“We’ve dragons everywhere we look, my friend,” Taliesin said, now jogging beside Cade. “And I suspect that I’m not the only one who is having trouble with his sight.”
“You can’t mean Arianrhod?” Cade said. “Her plan worked out just as she intended, don’t you think?”
“I think she left a great deal to chance. I suspect that she would have found several possible outcomes acceptable,” Taliesin said.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” Cade said.
“The gods are taking sides in our world. That can’t be good for any of us.” Taliesin reached out a hand to Cade and caught his arm. “I cannot see, and because the gift has deserted me, I cannot help you. I have lost my bearings.”
And though Cade had never understood Taliesin’s reliance on his sight, he could see the dread in his friend’s face. And share it.