Sunday, May 27, 2012

Thirty-sixth excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

Gwilym and his family spent every sunny day wading in the water and building castles and whole cities out of sand. Jac was a boy who could not sit still and ran everywhere, getting into adventures. Llawen was more content to work on his sand cities, filling moats with water, digging tunnels and building bridges.
Both little boys looked to Bleddyn for advice on how to spend the days. Often Bleddyn would set his brothers to work on different jobs while he transcribed a scroll or worked with Fred on spelling words. Llawen would join in on the latter activity and soon he had caught up with Fred and was spelling alongside him. Jac was busy doing somersaults and handstands during the day.
Late into the warm, summer nights, all the boys would gather in the lodgings and listen carefully as Gwilym read stories out of his many scrolls to them.
Gwilym talked one day with Tirion, the midwife, about his suspicions of Tarrant. “I watched him kill a man and I’m convinced now that he was responsible for your daughter’s disappearance. I’m so sorry that he slipped through my fingers. It won’t happen again. When I find him, I’ll bring him to you for justice.”
“If you discover that he killed my daughter,” Tirion choked out. “Find out where he left the body so I can have some comfort. But don’t bring him back in front of me. Rather, kill him yourself. I don’t want to see that bastard.”

One warm, summer day, Gwilym was playing with his sons on the beach when Tegid approached them. Tegid was a 15 year-old lad who was known for almost never talking. When he came close to Gwilym, the latter greeted him and asked. “How do ye fair, Tegid? Enjoying the day?”
Tegid shifted his weight around on his feet, scratched his face and then murmured, “Stranger in town, askin’ about ye.”
“Thank you Tegid. Where might I find him?”
Tegid pointed in the direction of the church.
“Thank you again Tegid. Would you like to stay with my sons and keep an eye out for them while I find him?”
The boy nodded and squatted down next to Gwilym’s sons.
Gwilym instructed his boys to be careful, listen to Tegid’s words and stay out of the water until he returned. Then he set off in the direction of the church to find the stranger.
On his way there, he was stopped by Reese, the old busybody of town. She told him the same story with less reticence. “There’s a man in town asking about ye, Gwilym. I told him I believed I knew where you were and he seemed very interested. But when I offered to take him to you he said a curious thing: ‘That’s all right ma’am, I’ll go to him presently.’ I told him you were at the beach but he set off down the road to Cornwall. That’s him just climbing the rise there.”
Gwilym saw a figure cresting the hill to the south. An uneasy feeling disturbed Gwilym’s stomach. Was this someone from his past? Or some more of Tarrant’s mischief? It did not bode well that the man had left after ascertaining that Gwilym lived here. When the man was out of sight below the hill’s crest, Gwilym took off at a run and followed.
The road became more wooded in the south and it was easy to follow the man without being seen by keeping to the edges of the wood. He knew this road and only came close enough to be seen when the man reached the crossroads and had to choose between the road to Cornwall or Calleva. The stranger looked around but Gwilym had melted into the forest before he was fully facing the right way. Gwilym glimpsed his face during this encounter but did not recognize him. The man continued toward Cornwall.
Gwilym was torn about leaving his children but decided to continue following the man to see what mischief was brewing. He’d rather face it now than
have it hanging over his head later. He continued following from the edge of the road for three hours.
The road opened up at this point to a crossroads tavern which the stranger entered. Gwilym increased his pace, watching carefully for other people. The tavern was a low-roofed building with a door in the front. About 20 feet in front of the tavern was a well. There was a horse tied by the well with its sides wet and his head down. A knight-errant was lying, propped up against the wall of the well. His clothing and armor were torn and dented, his face stained with blood and mud. “Good yeoman!” he called to Gwilym as the latter approached. “Pray fetch a drink of water for my horse and me.”
Gwilym raised the bucket and poured some into the pitcher held by the knight and the rest into the horse-trough. Both drank it down at once so Gwilym repeated it with the next bucket, all the while watching the entrance to the tavern. The stranger had not stopped at the knight so he figured that this was a coincidence but his defenses were up as he asked the knight. “How came you by these wounds, Sir Knight?”
“A joust with a worthy opponent. I came across him in a meadow near at hand and salewed him. He raised his spear in challenge and charged toward me at great speed. I turned my good horse and he and I thundered together. His spear burst upon my shield and mine on his and we were both thrown from the saddle. I avoided my horse, dressed my sword and shield and challenged him on foot. We fought for nigh on three hours and gave each other such strokes! The blood stained the earth! Finally I gave him such a buffet on the helmet that he fell to the earth in a swoon. I loosened his helm to take off his head when I saw to my surprise that he was a Saracen! I put my sword to his throat and asked him if he had yet been baptized. He said that he must be worthy of such a sacrament and must win twelve jousts before he allows himself such a boon. I ordered him to go to Caerleon at Pentecost and present himself to the King in my name and do as the king wishes. Ahh! It was a glorious battle!”
Gwilym, meanwhile, was watching the tavern to see that no-one exited and listened with only one ear to the tale of the knight. He had also noticed a vaguely familiar scent on the knight: something spicy that he couldn’t exactly place. It was faint but unmistakably there. What was it?
He never understood this blood-lust of the knights, killing each other when they should be banding together to keep the marauders from Britain’s shores. If the other knight had been baptized, he would have been dead. Yet these two had never met each other before and had no reason to quarrel. They were like wild stags, fighting any other that entered their territory. Why didn’t they start by talking rather than by fighting?
Gwilym excused himself from the knight, thanking him for his story and walked up to the far side wall of the tavern where he found a large crack he could peer through. It took a few minutes before his eyes became accustomed to the dark but then he made out the features of the three men inside. The man behind the bar was known to Gwilym. Another had his back to him but was clearly the man he had been following for three hours. The third was Tarrant.
Just as Gwilym became aware of this enemy, he heard a hammering of hooves coming down the road. He removed his head from the crack. Peeking around the corner of the building, he saw the approach of another knight. How tiresome. He knew what would follow, more salewing and challenges and a joust and another fight on foot and, most likely, another dead knight who could have been protecting this land instead.
As the knight at the well rose wearily, the approaching knight leveled his lance and ran the unarmed knight through. Gwilym was shocked into paralysis. This was not the way he had seen it done. This was murder. The new knight dismounted, tied up his horse and walked into the tavern, not noticing Gwilym on the side wall.
Gwilym ran to the knight’s assistance. His blood covered the ground from a wound in his side. “Why?” were his only words as his face turned grey and his eyes rolled up. Gwilym blanched at the amount of blood, knowing the man was dead. He laid the knight down carefully, closed his eyes and smelled that spice again, stronger this time. What was that smell? Almonds, Cloves, Pepper?
He walked back and resumed his post at the crack. The knight was talking with wild gestures to the other two. Gwilym overheard: “Huish? Which way and how far?” and he recognized the voice. All was confirmed when the knight left the table and exposed his face. Palomides! His enemy from childhood. The knight strode out, swung up on his horse and galloped off towards Huish. The color drained out of Gwilym’s face when he realized what would happen if Palomides reached Huish. He ran after him at full speed.
After a few hundred yards, Gwilym saw how fast the galloping horse was outstripping him so he turned back to the dead knight’s warhorse. Standing in front of the horse he pulled the bridle to his face and pleaded to it. “I’ve never been much of a horseman but I need you now. Take me to the murderer of your master and I’ll reward you well.”
He moved to the side of the horse but it turned to avoid Gwilym. He made a grab for the reins and used his strength to hold on to the side. The horse stopped turning and snapped at Gwilym, barely missing his face. He placed his left foot in the stirrup but, as he tried to rise and swing his right leg over, the horse spun again, flipping Gwilym off the other side. Weeping with frustration and anxiety, Gwilym leapt upon the horse’s back, holding tight to his mane and swinging his feet to gain purchase in the stirrups. The horse reared and whinnied, then stomped its front feet while bucking his rear legs, flipping Gwilym over his head and landing him on his back with a whoosh of breath.
Defeated, he started running again for town as soon as he had regained his breath. He heard jeering behind him, glanced back and noticed Tarrant standing in the door of the tavern, shaking his fist.

To read the entire first draft in one shot, click here:

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