Last November, I blogged about my participation in NaNoWriMo. The following is an excerpt from what I wrote that month, for those who’d like to see how it turned out. Editing is minimal, principally for spelling. Although the story’s from the middle of the book, it should be fairly self-explanatory. It’s the story of Modred at the court of King Arthur, a young Modred who does not yet know the secret of his father’s identity, much less what’s coming for both of them in the future. As the excerpt begins, Modred’s about eighteen, possessed of a magical sword called Naught, and accompanied by his squire, who also happens to be the King’s bard, a somewhat older man named Taliesin …
The sun was bright; the snow shadowed by the trees. Modred’s boots crunched as he turned, his shield high. The sword of Naught was in his hand.
I was on the far side of the clearing. I saw my breath rise as steam. I had my humbler blade in my hands, and my shield. There were three ragged hungry men before me. One lay at my feet, his blood smoking in the cold. But Modred faced another knight, armed and armoured as he, and then another one beyond that. I did not care for our chances.
Then the knight facing Modred swung his hand-and-a-half blade; Modred blocked it with his shield; his shield cracked, and splintered. Oh, we had a difficult fight before us.
We had come to the wood on a winter hunt. Modred was in his mail, precisely because of the stories then circulating at Camelot of bandits and worse felons. It was four years since the death of Bron, and he had grown into the man his youth had promised; tall, clever, and close-mouthed even to me, who was as near a friend as he had. We had travelled together through Logres, and here and there had fought together, and faced adventure. But now our end threatened, and not a day’s ride from Arthur’s own castle. Well, it was Christmastime, which was the worst of the year for knights.
Modred let the ruin of his shield drop. One of the ragged men before me feinted an attack; I was not fooled, and spitted his fellow as he leaped forward. I stepped back, quick as I might, to keep the third from circling behind me. Modred swung the sword called Naught, and the sound of blades clashing echoed in the silent forest. Crows whirled above our heads.
“Is this the reason they fear Christmas at Camelot?” Modred called to me. “That bandits prey on honest men, at this point in the year?”
“Guard yourself, boy,” snarled the knight against him. Modred grunted, and I heard their swords strike each other again.
“No, there’s worse than this about,” I cried back. The two facing me had me flanked. They leaped. I threw myself forward and rolled through the snow. As well then that I had forgone armour. I spun as I got to my feet, and one of them had leaped at me, and I raised my sword to spit him. But his fellow was on me, and I could not pull my sword free so let it drop and backed away. No more of the three-on-one odds; but I was now weaponless against the cold steel of my opponent. Better or worse?
Modred fenced with the other knight; but the second knight now stepped forward. Modred began a killing stroke at the first knight, but had to turn it into a parry against the second knight’s attack. The man facing me thrust his sword forward. I jumped back. A thrusting blade; an old Roman sword, dug up belike from some grave or treasure horde. I circled around, and almost groaned aloud. A third knight was approaching.
My enemy took my momentary pause for an invitation, and thrust with a leap. I twisted to the side, and caught at his wrist. I thought I had him, but he was strong. He shook me about, and my boots swished snow across the clearing. Only just did I stay on my feet.
I saw in flashes Modred defending himself against the two knights. Naught was quick in the air. But how long could he last? And what would he do when the third knight joined the fray? I would have to help him, I thought, but what could I do against a knight in full armour? Distract him, perhaps.
Anyway, then my man pulled his arm back in a way I did not expect, and I sprawled on the ground among snowdrift, the sodden leaves it had covered, and the hard frozen earth beneath that.
He advanced, and drew back his hand to skewer me. I threw a snowball, which he knocked away by reflex with his blade. I rolled away, throwing up a screen of leaves behind me. I heard a voice say: “You need a shield, sir knight. I have one. Would you have it?”
“It would be of use,” I heard Modred answer.
“Who be you?” demanded one of the other knights.
“A gift for a gift,” said the third knight. “Will you agree?” I was staring at the man before me, the sword sticking out of his hand, his squinting eyes glaring at me; at the words of the knight I felt sick.
“Modred, no!” I cried. I don’t know if he heard me, among the sound of sword play.
“What will you have?” he called back.
“Take the shield, but give me what I’ll ask,” said the third knight. I knew now who he was.
“Don’t do it!” I screamed. The bandit before me moved in. I cursed, and backpedaled to the edge of the clearing, underneath the trees. He followed, too quickly.
“I could simply borrow it,” said Modred. I could see him now. The two knights were pushing him back, attacking too quickly for him to respond with an attack of his own. Remarkable he had lasted so long, in truth.
“A gift, or nothing,” said the knight.
“We will do for you, sir, in moments,” said one of Modred’s foes.
“An extortion is no gift,” said Modred. “But I will agree.”
“No!” I shouted. I jumped up, and caught at a bough above me. I let it take my weight; it snapped. I felt cold snow pour over me. The bandit charged me. I leaped toward him, the bough held out before me. It caught his sword, and turned it. My left fist took him in the stomach. I dropped the bough, and kicked his legs out from under him before he could grapple with me. “No, he doesn’t mean it!” I shouted; but it was too late.
As I kicked the bandit before me in the side of his head, dropping him, the third knight threw to Modred a fine shield. It was painted green, or vert, as heralds say. “It is my master’s shield,” he said. “Use it well.”
“No!” I cried; but, as in a nightmare, nothing I said made any difference. Modred caught it, and took it on his left arm.
He blocked a thrust by one of the knights, and another, and then he caught the other knight in the muscle of his sword arm, and his return swing caught him in the face. The blood was bright, where it fell in a spray upon the snow and the green shield. I came running, too late.
Modred blocked a swing from the last of his enemies, and swung in turn, and the man was down with blood bursting from his side; the keen edge of Naught had sheared through his mail. He tried to stand, and Modred drave his sword between the man’s jaws. In such a place, at such a time, it was justice; cruel, savage justice.
“It is done,” he said. He bent over, to catch his breath.
“My master will have his gift,” said the third knight. I was near to sobbing.
“You bastard,” I said. “You bloody green bastard.”
“Taliesin,” said Modred. “What’s wrong?” He looked at me; I remember his face.
The knight said, “In one year, you must deliver to him your head, and on your head must be the crown of the Orkneys. To do less is to mark you as recusant, and forsworn. In one year, Sir Modred, at the Green Chapel.” Oh, yes, I remember Modred’s face, and what it did then.
He turned, straightening. “Wait,” he said. But the knight did not wait, striding off into the forest.
“We’ll not catch him,” I said. I sighed. “That is why we fear Christmastime at Camelot, Modred.”
I explained it to him on the way back to court. Gawaine had been the first tested. No-one had known it was a test, at the time. A knight, all over green, his armour green, his skin green, a giant of a green man, had come into the court on his green horse, and had thrown down his axe as a challenge. He would take a blow from the axe, he had said, but whoever gave it him must stand to take a matching stroke himself, one year hence, at the Green Chapel. “Arthur would have given the blow,” I said. “But Gawaine insisted it was his place. So he took up the axe, and with a single stroke cut through the knight’s neck and sent his head bouncing upon the floor.”
“And then?” he said.
“The knight picked up his head, and reminded Gawaine of his promise, and mounted his horse, and rode away,” I said. “Well, Gawaine was not right pleased, but he had sworn the oath. So he sought the Green Chapel, and found it, and a year later went to take the blow.”
“And what happened then?” said Modred. “Clearly my brother lives.”
“Have you seen his neck?” I asked. “There’s a scar there. You see, he came to the Chapel some few days early, and stayed with a knight named Sir Bercilak. Bercilak’s wife tried to seduce him. He allowed her only a kiss. Now he went on to the Chapel on the appointed day; and there the Green Knight stood revealed as Bercilak himself. He brought his axe down-and spared Gawaine, who had spurned his wife’s adultery. But for the kiss he gave Gawaine a nick on the side of his throat. And so, you see, that is why Gawaine always wears a green sash.”
“And that is who I met?” he asked. “Bercilak?”
“Some vassal of his, I should think,” I said. “You see, after that first time, we grew wise to him. But every year at Christmas he comes to test another knight. Some pass, like Gawaine. Some are never again heard from. He seems to think it is given to him to be … what? The final proof of the worthiness of a Knight of the Round Table.”
“I am not yet formally a Knight of the Table,” said Modred.
“But it’s coming,” I said. “It must be. You have grown strong, and you are skilled with that sword, and with a lance.”
“Well,” said Modred. He sighed. “What am I to do?”
I matched him sigh for sigh. “You have made a promise,” I said.
“Then I must finally see my mother,” he said. “I must go to the Orkneys, in despite of the Danes.”
“Ah,” I said. “Which brings another point to mind.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Gawaine has said that the knight was aided by an enchantress named Morgan le Fay,” I said. “She is the sister of Arthur, and of Morgause.”
“Morgan le Fay,” he repeated.
“It’s said she has some connection to the courts of the faë,” I said, “but also she is a witch in service to hell. Well, there are many stories.”
“Hmm,” he said, and said no more.
At Camelot, I sought out the King at once, and, kneeling, told him our tale. He and Guenevere listened, he grave, she—but who can say what she thought? I had never seen her alone with Modred since we had returned to the court from Corbin; and I knew Modred had no desire to be with her. “Bercilak is daring,” said Arthur. He considered what I had said, face impassive, still. “We will support Modred in whatever he chooses to do,” he said at last. “But he made his promise.”
“He did, sir,” I agreed. “Already he has spoken of going to his mother.”
“It is good he should meet her at last,” said Arthur. “But the Danes may hold another view.”
“As to that,” I said, “I hope to win him safe passage by my harp.” Arthur laughed.
“Go to Gawaine,” he said. “Tell him all this. Tell Modred we will give him what aid we can.”
I looked about for Gawaine; finally I found him in Modred’s chambers. He was sitting with Modred by the fire; and he was not well pleased. “Bercilak goes too far,” he was saying as I entered. “We should take all the Table Round, and crush him.”
“But we cannot,” I said, “for the Green Chapel is in Northgales, and that would be war with the King of Northgales, and with his enchantress Queen.”
“So much the better,” said Gawaine. “They are wicked, and should be expunged from the earth.”
“I’ll not disagree,” I said. “But without Merlin, how to fight her magic? As it is, only the Waste Land keeps them from Logres now.”
Gawaine stood. “God damn them,” he said. “Modred, if you want, I will go with you. Bercilak did not say I could not do so.”
“No,” said Modred. “I should go alone, I think.”
“I’ll be with you,” I said. “I am your squire; and that is my promise.”
“You are bard to the King,” said Modred.
“And thus must collect matter for my songs,” I said. “Therefore I have two offices that require I accompany you.”
Modred raised an arm, and let it drop. “As you like,” he said. “Only, Gawaine …”
“Yes?” asked the Knight of Dames.
“Will you write for me … to my mother? Our mother. Tell her … well.”
“I will,” said Gawaine. “But how will you reach her?”
Modred sighed. “The Danes have blockaded the Orkneys, is it not so?” he asked. “Well, then, I must treat with the Danes.”
Gawaine shook his head, but did not argue. How could he? Modred was right.
We made our preparations, and set out as soon as we could. Arthur gave us a ship, the Three Crowns. Gawaine had told Modred where the Green Chapel was; we hoped to be able to sail there from the Orkneys. But who could say what the Danes would allow?
So we made our way to the Orkneys, carried by favourable winds, and arrived on Main Island in a few of the short days of winter. Or would have.
But what we found was that the Danes had invested Morgause’s castle with a siege. We saw them from a distance, camped about it in their hundreds and may be their thousands, before they took to their dragon ships and were after us.
Our captain was for turning tail and running. Modred agreed—to a point. “Circle around the island,” he said. “If we get out of sight, drop Taliesin and I on the far side, or wherever we might be. We’ll make our way back overland to the castle.”
“And do what, then?” I wanted to know.
He smiled. “Why, then I shall follow you, a wandering bard who had heard of the siege and was come to see it himself. I’ll be your apprentice. We make our way through the lines, and so to the castle. Then all we have to do is find our way inside. But at least we’ll be able to scout our next move.”
It was a fair plan, I admitted, and the first part of it worked well. The time it took the Danes to get their ships into the seas gave us the time to get well ahead of them. We were dropped on a deserted cove, and then Modred and I set out over that harsh, hilly land back to his mother’s castle.
It was not yet January, and I reckoned that the Danes still kept their feast of Yule. I knew their tongue, and Modred told me that in his youth he had been taught all the speech of men in these islands; he had told me little of his childhood, and I added what he said to the scanty store of knowledge I had. We made our way across the island, its low hills, its rock and cold soil. Once, we hid from some foragers out raiding for the siege; there were three of them, one a good fit for Modred, and so we lay an ambush and left them unconscious—for Modred would not use the sword of Naught when there was no need—so that he could be clad in the humble garb of an everyday Dane. We took also their weapons, for in those days even bards must go about with iron and steel.
So we came to the main camp. It was near night when we arrived, and the fires were starting up everywhere before the high stone walls. The castle was like to an outgrowth of the island rock, solid and square. The men before it were like violent ants. They were gathered in knots here and there; I saw no sign of any battle being planned, and every sign that they had been there some time. There was a long hall of wood they had set up, from which came the noise of harping in their tongue, and singing, and the smell of meat. Well for them; but they seemed to have no siege engines. I guessed that their plan was to starve the defenders into submission.
As I had thought, it was Yuletide. We passed men drinking from horns around their fires. Once or twice I played a song for a group here and there, and Modred was competent enough a singer to keep company on my harmonies. We drew closer to the castle.
“Can you see a way in?” I asked. “A postern gate, a low window?”
“No,” said Modred. We stood between two fires, men roaring to either side of us. “But it’s grown dark. If we got closer—what’s that?”
What it was, was a drunk youth bellowing at an old beggar-man. The youth wore the fine clothes of a noble among the Danes, though they were stained now with wine. “Feeble fool!” he bellowed at the older man. “Do you dare step into me!”
“Your pardon, lord,” said the beggar. He bowed his greybearded head; the youth, probably no older than Modred, snatched his wide-brimmed hat up and beat him about the shoulders with it.
“Who are you to lurk by my fires?” bellowed the youth. He dropped the hat, and cuffed the old man, who fell to the ground, his travelling staff falling from his hand. The youth went to pick it up, and swung it over his head as though to give the old man a thrashing.
Then Modred stepped forward and caught at the staff. “Surely you’ve taught him his lesson,” he said. Ah, dear, I thought, I don’t like this. It was kind-hearted what he’d done, and just; but dangerous. I looked around. None had yet seen us.
“Idiot bardling,” snarled the youth. “Do you stand before me?” He let go the staff, and pulled out his sword.
“A misunderstanding, lord,” I said, but he was too far gone in rage. He swung his sword. Modred stepped back, out of his way, then leapt forward and caught his wrist.
“This is not just,” he said.
The youth struggled to pull away. “I say what’s just!” he cried, and threw his weight into Modred. Modred fell back, pulling the youth with him, and turned to throw him onto the ground. He was on top of him in a moment, and thumped his head onto a rock. The youth was still.
“I thank you, master,” said the old man. I returned to him his hat and staff. He was thin, his clothes soiled from long travel, and he lacked his right eye from some long-ago wound. This gave me pause; but at that time there was no shortage of maimed and scarred old men. “How may I serve you?”
“No service is needed,” said Modred. “I can’t stand by when I see something I believe to be wrong.”
“Ah, as you get older, you’ll learn that sometimes standing by is the wisest course,” said the old man. “What will he do when he wakes? However, selfish as it may be, I am glad you took action.”
“Perhaps you can tell us something, then,” I said. “We’re looking to enter that castle—to get the attention of the men inside it, and so enter. Can you say how this could be accomplished?”
“Oh, certainly,” he said. “For two men, that is not hard. Only for an army is it difficult. Do you follow me. We will walk a road stright into the fortress.” He started to lead us toward the castle. I looked at Modred, shrugged, and started after him.
As we walked a mist rose from the ground. The men drinking and singing around us did not seem to notice. “Why did man ever come to this cold, bitter land?” I grumbled.
“It’s a fine headland from which to ride the dragon ships south,” said the old man. “And also there are those who would settle here. In times to come this shall be a land of my people.”
“Well, may they have joy of it,” I grumbled. I thought of his saying ‘a land of my people.’ “Pray tell, what is your name?” I asked him.
“I have many names,” he said, “for I have lived long. You may call me Grim.” As he spoke, the mist thickened. The noise of the camp was curiously silenced, and I could see only shadows around us. Even the light of the fires grew dim.
“Where are you taking us, Grim?” asked Modred.
“To the castle, of course,” he said. “I know my ways. Behold.” Now the mist began to thin around us. We were in a different place. There were no fires. There was only the bare stone of the castle courtyard, inside the walls.
“How did you do that?” asked Modred; but the mist had swirled around Grim, and then dissolved, and the old man was gone. I sighed.
“There are many powers in these lands,” I said. “And some that have been brought from elsewhere.” But what, I wondered, did that one have to do with us? Also I wondered: had he stumbled into the youth just to catch the eye of Modred? If so, there was a premeditation involved that chilled me more than the mist.
But then the watchmen had seen us, and the alarum was raised. We threw down our weapons and named ourselves friends. Was it surprising they did not trust us? They took us to a cell below the castle, but Modred gave to them the letter from Gawaine. And so after some little time we were brought into the castle’s hall, and before us in the smoke of torches there was the Queen of Orkney.
She waved to her men, and they left; we were alone with her, saving one young knight that stood by her throne, his hand on his sword-hilt. Her hair was grey, but her features were fine, taut and handsome. She fixed her gaze on us and well I knew then that she was the mother of Modred. “Gawaine says you are our son,” she said her voice flat and direct, and well I knew then that she was not well pleased with this fact. “Why have you come to me now?”
“I have made a promise I must fulfill,” said Modred. “I have promised the Green Knight Sir Bercilak that I will present myself to him, so that he may take my head and the crown of Orkney. I have therefore come to beg you for the crown.”
“Shameless wretch,” growled the knight by the Queen’s side. He was perhaps as old as Modred. He stepped forward, knuckles now white on his sword-hilt. “Shall I strike you down?”
“I have no sword,” said Modred.
“Let him be, Sir Lamorak,” said Morgause. At that name I blinked; but it was no concern of mine, surely, so I said nothing. “Sir Modred,” said Queen Morgause, “why should we give you our crown?”
Modred considered this question. “I can think of no reason,” he said. “Unless I can give you something of equal value.”
She nodded. “Had you hoped our heart would be softened toward you by reason of your blood?” she asked. “It is not so.”
“Who is my father?” demanded Modred suddenly.
The hall was quiet, but for the snapping of the torches.
“What right do you have to ask that?” returned Morgause at last. “Where have you been, these past four years? Away in the south, leaving me to face my enemies all but alone.”
“We did not know about the siege,” said Modred. “And my brothers were at the court.”
Morgause sighed. “Do you know how many years it has been since I have seen them?” she asked. “And the last of my sons will go as soon as he can to Arthur’s court as well.”
“May I see him?” asked Modred.
“What right do you have to ask for favours?” demanded Lamorak, stepping forward. This time Morgause did not restrain him. He strode up to Modred, glaring into his eyes. Modred, impassive, stared back. I could sense it between them, the violence implicit, the violence that had been. All those brutal young men, and all the causes they fought for; and where are they now, and what has become of the causes for which they gave battle? In this world what comes is what will come, as mere history decrees. Or so I have seen it, in my years.
At that moment I thought it best to speak. “I know who you are,” I said. “Lamorak de Galis, son of King Pellinore.” I bowed to Queen Morgause. “Your majesty must know he bears your family enmity for the actions of your other sons.”
“And where are they?” she asked. “Again I ask: where? Only Lamorak is here, to be a comfort and an aid. Will you both now stay with me, as he has done these years past?”
Modred laughed. “Why did you send me away?” he asked; there was no merriment in the question, only the ill-fitting mask of irony. “I was put in a boat, when I was weeks or months old. Why did you let that happen?”
Morgause raised her face from him. She was pale. She was grey, grey as the light of the occluded sun. She moved her head, ever so little, a bit to the left a bit to the right, a denial in miniature, but denial of him or of his question or of herself? It would need a wiser man than I, with a greater insight into a woman’s heart, to say; I am only so wise as not to guess. “It was what must be,” she said, almost in a whisper. It was quiet in the hall. “More than that … is not for you to know. Do not look to learn these things, Modred.” She lowered her eyes, to gaze directly into his. “They will destroy you,” she said, with a horrible earnestness.
“I will lift the siege,” said Modred. Confused, I turned to him. But he seemed serious. “I will convince the Danes to leave,” he said, “and in exchange I ask only your thin circlet of gold.”
Lamorak cuffed him across the face. Modred fell back. “Cease, Lamorak,” murmured the Queen. “No more, not yet.”
Lamorak glared down at Modred. Modred did not respond, nor look back to him, but fixed his ocean-blue gaze upon his mother. “You are arrogant, and a fool,” said Lamorak. Modred did not answer.
“How could you do what you promise?” asked Morgause. She had barely moved in all the time the interview had gone, nor did she now give any hint of what she felt. Again I thought: he is her son.
“I will go to them,” said Modred. “I will ask them what I must do for them to have them leave. They will kill me, or give me some task which I will then accomplish. I am a knight of Arthur’s court.”
“But not of his table,” said Lamorak.
“Not yet,” said Modred. Morgause sighed.
“Oh, Arthur,” she said. For once, she turned her head aside. “I owe my brother something,” she said. “Well, let it be this. Go, Sir Modred, and see what you can do.”
Modred drew himself up, under Lamorak’s glare. He bowed. “I ask again,” he said. “Will you tell me who my father is?”
“I have sworn an oath that I shall not,” said Morgause in a whisper. An inkling stirred me.
I cleared my throat. “Have pity, my Lady,” I said. “Who can say now who shall seek vengeance on him for his father’s crime; or, if he should marry, who can say if his bride might be his father’s—”
“Go!” shouted Morgause. “Go now, if you will go!” I bowed. The seed of a dreadful suspicion had taken firm root; but it was not worth the speaking of it aloud, not then. And what if I had spoke it? What then would be different? Perhaps none of it; perhaps all. I torment myself betimes, thinking I must thereby bear responsibility for how it all fell out, in the years that followed.
So we went, and were given again our weapons and gear, and prepared the next day to set out for the hall of the Danes. Properly, they were a tribe called the Scyldings, in the language of these times; their chief was a man named Healfdene, a vicious fighter and cruel, but one who kept to the codes of his people. For what that might be worth.
Came the hour the gates were opened, and we set forth, I before Modred, bearing a flag of parley, he in his armour and tabard, wearing the device of King Arthur, and his own shield, with his arms painted upon it. Danes near the castle fell back as the gates opened and we approached, expecting a sortie; when one did not come they drew near us, brandishing weapons. We paused. Then the youth Modred had fought the night before came striding up to us, as the rumour of our arrival disturbed the camps of the Danes. “Who speaks for the Danes?” I cried, thinking I must get our say in before we were attacked again.
But the boy only crossed his harms on his chest, under his boy’s beard, and said, “I am Hrothgar, son of Healfdene. Who are you to speak in the camp of the Scyldings?”
“I am Modred, Prince of Orkney,” said Modred. “I have come to parley with Healfdene, and ask him to lift his siege.” Hrothgar laughed.
“And what will you give us for this favour?” he asked.
“I must speak with King Healfdene,” said Modred. “Then he shall know.”
Hrothgar examined us. A scowl spread upon his face. “Well, come, then,” he said. “Play the fool before my father.” He led us through the camp, toward the longhouse. Armed men fell in behind us. I saw swords, hatchets, shields, all the iron of war. Hrothgar did not look back to us. I found myself warming to the lad; at least he didn’t hold grudges. Unless, I thought, this was his way of paying us back.
Entering the longhouse my eye was drawn to the thralls in their iron collars, with their close-cropped hair. Was this to be our lot? The hall was perhaps twenty feet long, and almost ten times as long. A curtain blocked off the far end. Hrothgar bade us wait at the fire, which was in the centre of the hall, under a hole in the turf ceiling, as he went behind the curtain to fetch his king. I looked around. The walls were peat and loose stone from the shore. Benches lined with fur were upon the walls; some men were huddled upon them, and of those some watched us carefully.
Then from behind the curtain came Healfdene and his huscarles. He was of middle age, perhaps as old as Arthur, a strong-built man, though not overly tall. His beard was full and red; like all the Danes, his hair was neatly combed. He said something to Hrothgar, who left the hall at a quick trot. “You say you are the son of Morgause,” said Healfdene. “I will speak to you, when my men have gathered.” He stood across the fire from us, and crossed his arms on his chest; the stance I had seen in Hrothgar. “Do you think you are brave?” he asked, as though making idle talk.
“I do what I think I must,” said Modred. “Where is the bravery in that?”
Healfdene grunted. “You are a Queen’s son. Tell me why you think you must do things.”
“Because they are right.” Healfdene nodded.
“Right is in the strongest sword-hand,” he said. “Ask your bard. Who tells a tale? The man that’s left alive when the fight’s done. Every man thinks they are right. Is this not so?”
“Rare is the man who accepts he is wrong,” I said. “But there is greatness in it, often.”
“In being wrong?” Healfdene shook his head, slow and regretful. “I think you were a fool to come to me, Prince Modred.”
Hrothgar led several men back into the longhouse; then more men came in after them; and in minutes the great hall was filled. “Listen, all of you,” called Healfdene. “Prince Modred is the son of Morgause. He has come to us to speak. Well, speak.”
“I have come to ask you to leave my mother in peace,” said Modred.
Healfdene nodded. He did not laugh, which I thought might be a bad sign; he was too terribly serious, the lack of humour of a man who planned always how to crush what was in his path. “Why should we do so?” he asked. “This is a useful land for us, these islands.”
“I am a knight of the court of King Arthur,” said Modred. At there there was muttering in the throng. Well they knew that name, as who did not? “Say to me what I may do for you in exchange for peace in these lands, and I will do it.”
Healfdene shrugged. “Give them over to us,” he said. “What more is there?”
“Set me a quest, King Healfdene,” said Modred. “I will accomplish it.”
“There is no quest,” said Healfdene. “There is only land and power.”
“This is not so,” said a familiar voice. The men behind us shifted, and gave ground. Sitting upon one of the benches at the walls was the old man from the night before. He stood, and took his staff, and walked toward the fire with a steady step. He raised a hand. There were shouts outside, and the cries of what I thought were dogs; and then the men by the door began pushing each other back, and a pair of wolves came tearing through the longhouse to crouch at his feet. Above, there was the shrieking of crows. Through the hall in the roof where the smoke rose two vast black ravens came circling, and settled upon his shoulders. Ah, I thought, it is as I feared, and after all we are only pawns of the gods.
“Binding even on the powerful is the force of law,” said the old man named Grim.
The men in the longhouse were silent, unmoving. Until Healfdene said: “What is your will, father of fathers?”
“The prince has spoken fairly,” said Grim. “He has challenged us for the land of his mother. Let us try him; and if he should pass his test, then let us leave his people in peace.”
“As you have said,” spoke Healfdene. The old man turned to Modred.
“Do you accept this?” he asked.
“I do,” said Modred. “But … what is this challenge?”
“You have claimed the land,” said Grim. “Therefore you will do battle with our champion for it.”
Modred nodded. “Where shall the fight be held?” he asked.
“There is a small island near this place,” said Grim. “There will be a ring of stone upon it, and that will be your battlefield. With you shall go your skald. With Healfdene’s champion shall go his son Hrothgar. That way all will know that the battle was done fairly.”
All was as he said. He led us to the shore, with Healfdene and his men following behind us, and there we found a small boat, with nine women within it. We took our places, Modred and I, in that boat with Hrothgar and Grim. Healfdene grunted, and waved his hand. A man came forward. “This shall be my champion,” he said, “my son, who is named Heorogar.” Heorogar was a tall man and very strong, clad in a wolf-skin, with a spear for a weapon. He took a seat in the boat, and glared at us. Hrothgar said nothing, but looked from his father to his brother to us.
We set out. The boat was silent for some time. The women rowed us easily. I could not help but stare at Grim. His face was thin, the bones prominent. The knuckles of his hands were scarred; he had fought much when he was younger, I thought. As we neared the small island, he stirred. “Do you know me, man of Wales?” he asked.
I cleared my throat. “I have heard that the harpers of your people, who do not know Christ, say that the king of ghosts and poets keeps a court beyond the rainbow, attended by wolves and ravens and nine maidens,” I said. “They say he gave his right eye for wisdom.”
Grim nodded, as if to say, this is so. Then we landed.
The island was like most of Orkney that I had seen: rock covered with grass. We climbed the cliffs, and came to a place as Grim had said, where rocks the size of men’s skulls were set in a circle. Modred stepped at once into the ring. Heorogar walked after. He had a shield along with his spear. Hrothgar looked as if he might have said something; but he did not. Then Heorogar raised his shield to his mouth, and began to gnaw upon the rim. Hrothgar sighed.
“Your prince will die,” he said. Modred waited for Heorogar.
“Well, will you fight?” asked the prince. Heorogar was breathing loudly, grinding his teeth upon the shield. He shuddered. Foam flecked his beard.
Then he ran forward, howling like no human thing. He swung his spear; Modred took it upon his own shield, and gasped. The spear, driven by a strength I could not easily guess, had punctured the shield and barely missed his arm. Alertly, Modred ducked to the side, twisting his arm so that the spear came out of Heorogar’s hand. Modred then threw his shield out of the circle, and the spear with it.
“He doesn’t seem to be doing so badly,” I observed.
“You misunderstand,” said Hrothgar. “I do not love my brother. But he is now not to be hurt by iron or fire.”
Modred stepped in to Heorogar, and swung his sword. The blade Naught darted above the lip of the shield, striking Heorogar in the jaw. He did not notice, and struck Modred a buffet with the shield.
“Ah,” I said.
“He is an Ulfhedinn, a berserker,” said Hrothgar. “He is stronger than a man.”
“Modred!” I cried. “Iron will not hurt him! Modred!”
“I have heard!” Modred called back, falling back before the howling Heorogar, who was swinging his shield as a weapon. He threw it at Modred, who let himself fall below it, then sprang back to his feet to avoid the now-charging warrior. “If you have thoughts on tactics,” he called out to me, “this would be a good moment to say so.”
Heorogar charged him again. Modred held out his sword, hoping to impale him; but instead the sword was knocked from his hand. Heorogar cuffed him hard. Modred fell and rolled back. Heorogar picked up Naught, then howled and let it fall. He staggered over to Modred, dazed now. He swung clumsily, and Modred dodged. Instead of following after Modred, though, Heorogar stumbled back to Naught, and kicked it out of the circle. He howled again.
I ran to the sword, and picked it up. “I have it,” I called to Modred.
“Good,” he said. “I see what I must do.”
He turned, to me, I thought at first, but he fell to one knee and lifted up one of the boundary-stones. But Heorogar was racing to him again. Modred smiled at me, turned, and ran back. “Mother, your kingdom in my hand!” he cried; then Heorogar had him in a bear-hug. A grip such as that would crack his spine, I thought.
But his hand was free. He brought the stone down upon Heorogar’s temple. Herogar howled, and he hit him again. Herogar’s grip slackened; Modred broke free, and hit him a third time. But Heorogar’s hand flashed out, and knocked the stone away.
Modred fell back a few steps, as Heorogar struggled to keep his feet. Then Modred took off his tabard, and snapped it around so that he held it in both hands, and twisted it into a thick rope. Heorogar staggered forward. Modred circled around. I saw that Heorogar had a cut on his forehead, and blood was trickling into his right eye; so Modred moved right, into his blind side.
Then he took a quick step forward, another, and slipped the rope of the tabard over Heoroger’s head and around his neck. He pulled it tight. The Danish warrior tried to cry out, but could not breathe. He gripped the cloth at his throat, and tried to shake off Modred. But Modred leaped upon his back, and bore him to the ground. For a minute they struggled; then grew silent.
Finally Modred rolled off his foe. “It’s done,” he said, standing.
Hrothgar nodded, his face unreadable. “I see it,” he said.
“Let us then return,” said Grim; and so we did, Modred and I and the pale yong Hrothgar and the unconscious Heorogar, and Grim the old man and the nine silent maidens.
Our coming was watched for, on the Danish shore. Hrothgar stepped from the boat first, and told what had happened in a few words. His father stared at him, and at us, and at Grim, and then said, “We will leave, Prince of Orkney. But I have not promised not to come again.”
“Let there be peace among us,” said the old man suddenly. “Let us be allies, in days to come. Will you pledge it, Prince Modred?”
“I will,” he said, “and so long as you and your people keep to the right, and do no harm to the lands and people of my mother or of my Lord Arthur, then will we have peace.”
“And how long will that be?” asked Healfdene. “But I will pledge it.”
So we left them on the shore, and walked back to the castle as the Danes began to break their camp.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His blog is Hochelaga Depicta.