This chapter describes the first skirmish of the forthcoming war and explains how Drustan helped to win back ther castle. More wounds and scars for the 'tic-tac-toe' kid.
The Angry Mermaid 12
Y Morforwyn Dicllon 12
Mabina. The youngest daughter and Twin to
Drustan Her twin brother.
Grandpa Erin the twins grandfather.
Giana The twins grandmother
Caderyn The twins father.
Herenoie The twins wise and beautiful mother.
Morgaran The Twins oldest brother.
Aiofe The twins oldest sister. Famous for her beauty.
Tara The twins second oldest sister. Famous for her grace.
Feidlim Twins aunt (Caderyns’ beautiful sister.)
Mogantu Twins uncle (Married to Feidlim.) Chief of the Gangani tribe.
Brun. Twins 2nd cousin and the Acaman clans’ blacksmith.
Feorin. Twins second brother. Also training to be a blacksmith.
Rhun Feidlims’ son and Feorins’ favourite 1st Cousin. (Both red-heads.)
Arina Child of a Demetae fisherman, (rescued by Aiofe, Drustan and Mabina.)
Penderol Dumnonii Minor chief.
Udris Young Dumnonii warrior.
Dryslwyn High chief of the whole Celtic nation. Dwells in Brithony.
Bronlwyn Dryslwyn’s wife (and queen.)
Magab The moor who taught numbers.
Eric Saxon galley slave rescued from Corsair pirates.
Carl Another Saxon galley slave rescued by Drustan.
Torvel Celtic galley slave rescued from the same captured corsair ship
Arton. Turdetani Chieftain Holder of Gibral Rock.
Carinia Arton’s wife.
Isobel. Arton’s adopted daughter.
Appotel King of the Turdetani Tribe. (Southern Iberia.)
Bramana Queen. (Wife of Appotel)
Pilus King of the Capetani.
Shaleen Pilus’s queen and sister to Bramana.
Pedoro Lord Marshal of the Southern border region.
Lady Shulaar Lord Pedoro’s wife.
Taan. The scullery maid.
Isaar. Pedoro’s oldest son.
Ferdie Pedoro’s 2nd son
Sular Pedoro’s 3rd son
Gontala Pedoro’s youngest son.
Shenoa Pedoro’s only daughter.
All eyes turned as Shenoa walked boldly into the great hall still wearing her scullery maid’s rags though fashioned to resemble an Amazon warrior’s bodice and short skirt. Pedoro’s eyes fell disapprovingly upon his daughter’s revealing garb especially as she was standing in the presence of not one but two kings. Even streaked with mud and blood her fresh-faced beauty was still revealed and King Pilus’s only son Pinipe could not help but stare. Queen Shaleen scolded her son.
“Close your mouth boy. You’ll be catching flies if you go around like that!” She scolded as she stood hastily to remove Shenoa and the other girls to her chambers where they could be made more presentable.
Queen Bramana also excused herself for she knew that Queen Shaleen had not been introduced to Drustan’s sisters. It would not do to let good manners slip now that the castle was back to its lawful and orderly occasion. Both kings rose as their sister queens departed and Pilus turned to his son.
“Shenoa’s a pretty girl eh boy. If you want her hand you’d best speak to Pedoro here.”
It was Pedoro’s turn to be shocked.
“But my liege! My daughter Shenoa is but fourteen summers, hardly ready to become a princess. You saw how rough and unmaidenly she was. She has lived with four wild brothers. She needs a year at least at court to be taught the rudiments of decorum. Did you not see that revealing rag she wore? That was quite deliberate. She’s a provocative minx!”
“Yes, but a girl of spirit and proven courage. Good princess material I’d say. What d’you think Appotel?”
“Well there’s no question of her courage, I’ll warrant you that Pilus, but if she’s to be trained in queenly ways I’d offer my court as her school. It might be deemed unseemly for a maid to be living in the same castle as her beau.”
Prince Pinipe’s mouth frowned slightly but Lord Pedoro concurred with King Appotel.
“Yes your majesty, if my wild daughter’s reputation is to be preserved, I think that her staying at your castle would be the better solution. “
Pedoro turned to Prince Pinipe and continued.
“I warn you, your highness, my daughter is a wild thing and not easily tamed. If you would take her for a wife, you’d better prepared for a tempestuous ride!”
King Appotel just smiled and nodded his head. With four strong willed daughters of his own, he knew much about tempestuous women. With the ladies gone the men fell to discussing the forthcoming battle until the accounting of the castle’s capture was presented to them as Pedoro’s son Ferdie produced the final tally.
“Five dead my lords, two outside the Postern gate, two in the courtyard after the boy Drustan opened the gate, one during a skirmish inside this very hall.”
“Just two seriously my lords. My own brother Sular that is your son - and the boy Drustan.”
“What about my shoulder?” Protested Gontala.
“That’s just a flesh wound brother. Several men have those. The two injured are serious, with life endangering wounds.”
“That damned boy should have opened the gate sooner.” Cursed Pedoro.
“Oh hardly father,” Ferdie protested. “It was that stupid soldier who stumbled and dropped his shield. That alerted the guards. He is amongst the dead.”
“Well that’s as maybe but I might only have three sons unless that arrow wound is sorted. What did that doctor say?”
“He says wait and see. The arrow went in high but the angle was downwards. There is a small leak of blood from his mouth and his breathing is laboured, but he breathes and the arrow is out. Once again the fear is infection.”
“Bloody typical of doctors isn’t it? Wait and see; is that all he can say? We can do nothing else can we?”
“And that boy, Drustan;” Appotel pressed.
“The maid Mabina has excused herself from the ladies again and gone to see her twin Drustan, apparently she has some medicinal skills.”
“Then why hasn’t she been to see my son?” Pedoro demanded.
“I don’t think she knows about Sular yet. She’s been preoccupied with her twin’s head wound.”
“Dammit Ferdie, go and see the girl. If she’s finished with that boy, take her down to see Sular.”
In the kitchen, Mabina was talking to Esther and Taan about the herbs they used.
“Have any herbs come up with the new stores from the town?” Mabina asked.
“Probably. We haven’t opened all the sacks yet. Iago is coming back soon with another cartload of kitchen stores. We can ask him.”
“Can I look while we wait?”
“Be my guest. Taan can help you; she knows a lot of the herbs.”
Mabina exchanged a questioning glance with Taan who looked pretty much all in after the events of the last day.
“Are you up to this?”
Taan wiped her brow wearily and slumped against the table. It was obvious the girl was worn out. It was long past her normal finishing time and she been forced to work late checking the late delivery of new stores. Mabina turned to Esther.
“This girl’s done in. I’ll do it myself.”
“No! I’ll help you. He helped me, I owe him this.” Taan protested.
“Well I’ll search through the bags. You just tell me what you used the herbs for. The culinary function can often tell me a lot about a herb’s medicinal properties.”
Taan slumped onto the bench as Mabina sliced open the first sack that Taan intimated probably held some herbs. As Mabina dug down into each sack, when she produced some herbs Taan identified them and explained what they were used for. Many of the herbs Mabina recognised as the same family of her own native herbs back in Lleyn but some were totally alien to her. Eventually she had about twenty different herbs spread out on the long kitchen table. Esther had finished cooking so she came to watch Mabina checking the herbs.
As Taan and Esther described each herb, Mabina smelt them and tasted them, boiled them and cooked them to see how each herb reacted. They were busy doing this when Ferdie arrived from the great hall. He went over to look at the unconscious Drustan before talking to the women.
“Has he shown any signs of recovery yet?”
Esther wagged her head as she pulverised some herbs that Mabina had selected.
Ferdie fell silent and watched with interest as Taan, Esther and Mabina boiled up the herbs and prepared different potions with different mixes and different proportions.
“Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble, d’you know what you’re doing?” Ferdie wondered aloud.
“Not really.” Mabina replied. “Lots of these herbs are foreign to me. I’m just going by taste and smell.”
She turned to Esther.
“D’you have any vinegar?”
“Of course. It’s one of the few condiments we’ve got plenty of. The Corsairs didn’t seem to like it much.”
“Good. Vinegar makes a useful base for several medicines. When it’s boiled, it breaks down lots of herbs.”
Esther didn’t even have to open her mouth before Taan was going to the store room. She returned with a large clay jar and poured out the vinegar into a row of smaller pestle dishes that Esther had laid out on the table. Mabina watched with satisfaction. Despite the cook’s overbearing manner towards the scullery maid. The pair actually worked quite well together. Eventually, Mabina had a score of assorted potions and she tasted each one carefully. Then she explained to Taan and Esther while Ferdie listened with interest.
“I’d let him sleep tonight. Sometimes letting them sleep helps. I’ll keep a vigil here if you want to catch some sleep. In the morning we shall try to wake him. This eucalyptus oil often helps by putting it to his nose.”
Taan smiled at Mabina gratefully then motioned to the palliace under the kitchen table.
“We could both sleep on that. I want to be here when he wakes up.”
Mabina shrugged and pursed her lips. She’d slept on far worse beds, like the cold wet spare sails of The Angry Mermaid. If Taan wanted to sleep under the table too, there was room enough on the palliace and the Kitchen was a warm place. Mabina suspected Taan often slept there anyway, especially on cold nights, close to the fire were she could garnish whatever warmth she wanted.
After checking Drustan’s condition, Mabina was happy. He was breathing regularly and Mabina suspected that the unconsciousness had become a deep sleep. Obviously the wound was not distressing him. Scalp wounds often looked spectacular for their bleeding but apart from his pale complexion, Drustan seemed set for a peaceful night.
As the girls made moves to bed down under the table Ferdie intervened.
“Uuhhm, aren’t you forgetting something?”
They looked up askance as Taan asked.
“The other wounded warrior; Sular, my brother, the arrow in his chest!”
Taan sighed wearily.
“Can’t it wait? I’m shattered!”
Mabina however simply breathed deeply and got to her feet again. She knew it couldn’t wait but in her tiredness she had completely forgotten about it.
“Okay then. I’ll take some of these potions but I’m not sure what good they’ll be. Is he conscious?”
“Yes and the arrow has been removed.”
“Did the arrow-head come out?”
“I don’t know. The doctor will tell you that.”
“If he’s got a doctor why d’you need me?”
“My father wants him to have every chance. We learned of your skills with herbs.”
“Appotel’s daughters and their mother Queen Bramana.”
Despite the late hour, Mabina decanted some of the medicines into some large clay pots and placed them in a bag that Esther had rustled up. Then she gave the heavy bag to Ferdie.
“I’m too tired to carry it. You take it.”
For a moment Ferdie stared at her. He was about to protest that he was the son of an earl and did not carry chattels about like some beast of burden. Then Mabina’s challenging look persuaded him. He took the heavy bag of stoppered pots and slung it carefully over his shoulder. Mabina followed with some assorted poultice pads and a bag of clean bandages. Like Esther, she also believed that cleanliness helped the healing process, and like Esther, she didn’t know why.
They arrived at the town doctor’s house were Mabina found Sular lying on a blood stained palliace in a hot sticky room and with dirty, fly-blown dressings covering the wound. Mabina almost retched at the smell but fortunately it was not the stench of infection or gangrene. It was the stink of the un-cleaned lavatory right next door with flies buzzing in and out. Mabina tried to be tactful as she ignored the doctor and turned to Ferdie.
“Why does your brother remain here?”
“He’s near the doctor.”
“The castle would be better.”
“Is it safe to move him? The doctor isn’t sure if the entire arrowhead came out and it was a very deep.”
Mabina turned to the doctor and asked to see the wound. Reluctantly the doctor untied the dressing and eased back the bloody bandage to reveal an entry hole perfectly reflecting the arrow’s shape and course, downwards, and from high above on the castle battlements..
“There may be fragments of wood or steel in there. When we removed the arrow, we found the head badly deformed and chipped. It must have struck the bone as it entered. The bent head damaged the wound further as we removed it.”
“Can I see the arrow head please?”
The doctor went to another room and recovered the pieces. Mabina studied it and frowned for there was a clear fracture where some iron had splintered off. The doctor agreed that in all likelihood, this iron was still inside the wound. As Mabina knelt beside Sular she gently palpitated the wound, Sular let out a low moan.
‘Good’, she thought ‘he’s still alive and kicking.’
As she got up she instructed Ferdie to have his brother moved to the castle where she would meet him later.
“Where are you going?”
“To get some equipment from my bag.”
Ferdie gave the instructions then begged to accompany Mabina. Mabina sensed that Ferdie was attracted to her. She wasn’t keen to have a man follow her round alone in the dark from the town back to the castle for nightfall had finally come to cloak everything in darkness. She spoke to the doctor for she had seen a young woman in the house waiting discreetly in the wings. Mabina asked for her to accompany her as a chaperone. Ferdie frowned a little and Mabina sensed the hurt but she was a hard-bitten woman now that puberty had arrived with her attractiveness. Mabina well knew the ways of arrogant sons of the nobility. The doctor’s daughter duly accompanied her to the castle and Mabina went immediately to her bags. A sleepy Taan met her outside the lady’s chambers where Queen Shaleen had called her in to praise her and thank her for her part in the fighting. Having been formally invited to enter the queen’s chambers had informally elevated Taan’s station to higher than that of common scullery maid but for now, Taan remained Taan, - the lowest menial in the castle, the scullery maid.
The luggage had been sorted by now and Ferdie looked at Mabina’s two modest bags.
“Is this all you brought? Appotel’s daughters filled two wagons with their stuff.”
“I travel light, my brother even lighter.”
“Yes, I noticed; a sword, a dagger and a loin-cloth.”
“Well, he usually wears a battler jerkin and breeches as well. They serve him sufficiently. His needs are usually small.”
“Except when he gets injured.”
“Then his needs become my needs. These bags are my needs.”
As she said this Mabina hoisted the smaller bag and rummaged about to produce a box of medical instruments gifted to her by King Dryslwyn and a narrow rod of iron with rounded ends. It looked perfectly ordinary amongst the shiny bronze instruments but it was one of the several magnetic irons that served as her compass and Mabina treasured it well. She had often wondered if its power would serve to attract an iron weapon head out of a wound, now was her chance to find out. The magnetism was particularly strong in this particular rod. To disguise its secret she emptied the box of bronze instruments and asked Taan to go and boil them as Esther would explain. Taan took the doctor’s daughter with her and returned a few minutes later with the sterilised instruments. It had been a simple matter to scald the equipment for there was always a pot of boiling water bubbling away over the kitchen fire. It was one of Esther’s little peccadilloes. Meanwhile Mabina had collected some balsamic vinegar from Esther to sterilise Sular’s wound. She dipped her precious rod into the vinegar and let it soak for she had been warned that heating the rod destroyed its magic magnetism.
They returned to Sular to find him shivering and barely conscious. Mabina realised there wasn’t much time.
‘At least the poor bugger was out of it now,’ thought Mabina, ‘he won’t feel what I’m about to do.’
The next part was the hardest. Getting everybody out of the room so that none would see what she was doing. Mabina had little faith in her idea and if others saw her invading the wound yet again, there was no knowing what reactions her efforts might invoke. She demanded privacy and finally got it. Ferdie was more than keen to do anything for his dying brother.
With infinite care, Mabina tried to slide the rod down into the wound but she met with resistance. The wound had already started to heal. Reluctantly she withdrew the rod and was forced to insert a sharp bronze blade to reopen the wound’s pathway. Blood started to flow again but Mabina had little option other than to push on. The lady’s bed upon which Sular lay was now blood soaked but eventually Mabina felt the blade fetch up against something hard. It was the fragment lodged between Sular’s ribs and just piercing the pulmonary cavity. Mabina could hear air whistling through the tiny perforation. It made breathing a little difficult but by no means impossible. She felt the tension flow from her tired shoulders as she quickly withdrew the bronze blade. Then she inveigled the magnetic rod into the wound until she located the iron arrowhead fragment again. She felt a surge of hope as she sensed the fragment click against the rod as the powerful magnetism worked its magic. The wound pathway was considerably bigger than the fragment for the complete arrowhead had cut its way down into Sular’s chest. The rod came out painfully slowly for the magnetism was only just intense enough to resist the drag of the wounded edges. Several times, Mabina had to reattach the rod to the dislodged fragment.
Eventually she saw the end of the rod with the fragment clinging to it; emerge from the bloody pool that covered the entrance to the wound. To her surprise and delight, she also found some much smaller fragments attached to the larger fragment by inducted magnetism. The magnetism had swept the arrow’s pathway fairly clear of several iron fragments. With her job done, she next had to stem the bleeding. Firstly she inserted a narrow bronze pipette into the wound and blew a liberal mouthful of balsamic white vinegar into the pipe until the vinegar flowed back up and out of the wound around the narrow pipe. Then she called Taan into the room to help pack the wound with a herbal paste. Taan had to hold the edges of the wound apart as Mabina gently worked the fine herbal paste deep into the wound. Eventually both girls sighed with relief as the blood started to clot.
“Job done I think.” Sighed Mabina as she sagged with exhaustion.
“Did you find the fragment?” Taan asked.
Mabina reached back into her instrument box, and smiled with a deep satisfaction as she showed Taan not one but several fragments. Taan gasped in wonder.
“How the hell did you get all those out? How did you manage to find them inside the wound?”
Mabina tapped her nose salaciously and retired to her bed as Taan explained to Ferdie and other waiting bodies like Lord Pedoro and the kings Appotel and Pilus.
“Was there any fragment inside the wound?” Demanded Lord Pedoro.
Taan smiled as she replied.
“Yes indeed my lords. There were three biggish ones and several other smaller ones. Please don’t ask me how she got them out.
I just don’t know. Two of the fragments were but narrow splinters but sharp and dangerous if left inside the chest wall.
Fortunately the arrow slid down outside the ribs and did not penetrate the chest cavity but for the last inch or so of travel. That’s where the arrowhead fractured. That’s where the largest fragment was pressing against the lung. Please don’t ask me how she managed to reach inside and capture the fragment. I have no idea. The lady sleeps now. She will show the fragments in the morning. And please my lords, if I might respectfully beg you. I am tired also.”
Pilus nodded sagaciously, indeed, everybody was tired.
Dawn broke to a light cooling rain that brought comfort to everybody but particularly Sular and Drustan.
Sular woke as Mabina crept into his chamber and he smiled as he whispered hoarsely.
“I remember you last night woman. You came to me in a dream.”
“It was no dream sir. You were hallucinating but yes, I came to you. How do you feel?”
“It hurts, but I breathe easier. Each breath does not cut and stab now.”
“Good. This was the cause of that.”
So saying, Mabina showed the sharp edged fragments and Sular’s eyes widened as he recognised the partial remains of an arrowhead. Mabina explained.
The town doctor removed the arrow stump and its broken iron head, but I had to remove this big piece from inside the wound where it was lodged between two ribs and stabbing into your lung. You’re lucky. The lung was not penetrated. That’s why you breathe easy now.”
“Then I owe you my life woman.”
“I am not a woman. I am but a maid and a young one at that.”
“Are you the sister; the twin of Drustan Scar Arse?”
“The same sir.”
“I would love to meet him again. He has some tales to tell. Bring him to me.”
“I can’t, he was also wounded, and I go now to check.”
“Oh. Is it serious?”
The monosyllibilic finality of Mabina’s answer made Sular realise that Drustan was seriously injured and Mabina was concerned. He was left staring at the empty doorway as Mabina left quickly without even excusing herself from the presence of a noble.
In the kitchen Mabina found the ever watchful Taan tending the fire as she kept an eye on Drustan. Mabina had little need to ask but she did just to make conversation.
“Any movement from him yet?”
Taan shook her head and twisted her lips despondently.
“Nothing. Nothing at all but he’s breathing regularly.”
“That’s all we want. Sleep is the best thing for him. If he woke now, his head would be in agony and the distress might make him worse. The longer he sleeps the better.”
“But he must feed!”
As they talked, Esther appeared accompanied by Shenoa. They asked in unison.
“How is he?”
“Sleeping.” Taan replied, glad that Mabina allowed her that special status of spokesman.
Shenoa sighed wistfully.
“I pray that he returns to us. And thank you already for giving me back my favourite brother. He’s eating now and already giving his brothers hell.”
“That’s good.” Mabina replied distractedly; still worried and preoccupied with her twin’s condition.
Shenoa sensed Mabina’s otherliness and discreetly departed as Esther gave Taan some mundane tasks to allow Mabina privacy with her brother.
“Just keep the fire in good heart girl so the boy stays warm but not hot. You tend the fire and let Mabina tend her brother; it’ll give her something to occupy her mind. By the way, you did well yesterday. We’ll make a cook of you yet, - or a bloody soldier!”
Both cook and Scullery maid chuckled at this and Taan felt a wave of relief well up through her breast. It seemed that she had somehow made her rite of passage into Esther’s good books. What she didn’t know was that Queen Shaleen had been so impressed with the girl’s efforts at the postern gate that she had decided to take Taan as one of her ladies in waiting. In her bed that night she had laughingly told her husband King Pilus.
“It’ll be useful to have a good swords-woman at my side should somebody ever try to capture me again.”
Esther the cook was getting two new girls from the town to replace Taan. When they arrived, Taan would be moved upstairs.
That night Drustan at long last regained consciousness. Mabina was dozing at his side and Taan was sleeping literally beside the warm ashes and close to the glowing embers at Drustan’s other side. She stirred occasionally to silently place another faggot on the fire. The whole castle was at peace save for the men at arms patrolling.
A low moan alerted both girls who sat up instantly and turned to the boy. Drustan gave a low grunt then winced and struggled to sit up. He felt dizzy and collapsed again onto the palliace. Taan immediately took a pitcher of clear, cold, water fresh from the well and handed it to Mabina. Drustan’s twin gently held it to his lips as both girls gently eased him to sit upright and the boy took his first liquid. He coughed and the movement made his head ache but he persevered and eventually the water was finished. Mabina burst into tears with relief. Taan ever the practical scullery maid took some broth she had kept simmering in a pot hanging over the eternal kitchen fire. She cooled it and placed it into Mabina’s shaking hands.
“Try him with this.”
“Thanks Taan. You’re a gem d’you know that.”
Taan smiled as a tear of relief finally pushed its way through her work-worn mask. She was glad that the boy was awake, but now she felt her task would be deemed finished and the daily drudge of the kitchen would become her lot again. She threw a couple more faggots into the fire and stared pensively into the flames as Mabina spoon-fed her twin brother.
After Mabina had fed him, she handed the bowl back to Taan and captured her mood.
“What’s wrong? You should be happy. He’s on the mend.”
Taan turned from the fire and shrugged.
“Then what?” Mabina wondered aloud.
“After you’ve all gone; I’ll still be the scullery maid.”
Mabina’s jaw sagged. It was common knowledge amongst the ladies that the scullery maid was to be rewarded for her efforts. ‘Did the girl not know?’ Mabina asked herself
She asked Taan to wait and she scurried off directly to Queen Shaleen’s chambers. Outside the door a guard flung his halberd across her path and Mabina cursed him.
“Who goes there?” He demanded.
“Who the hell d’you think!?”
“No one passes without identity. Kings Orders!”
Mabina cursed and struggled to remember who she was. It had always been her brother who had done the introduction thing. After gathering her thoughts she took a deep breath.
“I am Mabina, merch am Caderyn, wyres am Erin of the Gangani tribe.”
The guard blinked uncomprehendingly then Mabina had a brainwave as she added the final piece de resistance.
“And twin sister of Drustan Scar-arse who lives and is now awake!”
At this news, the guards eyes widened and he smiled eagerly as he forgot all formality for the whole castle waited on the news.
“Is he okay?”
“Yes and Queen Shaleen won’t be happy to learn that you learned of it before her. Now open the bloody door!”
At this the door opened from within and both sister queens stood together confronting Mabina as the guard stood rigidly to fearful attention. Queen Shaleen spoke.
“God forbid girl what’s all the noise!?”
“It’s my brother your majesties. He lives and is awake!”
“Oh excellent news.”
“That is your majesties but the other news I bring distresses me as much as my brother’s recovery pleases me.”
The sister’s faces clouded as Queen Shaleen asked Mabina to explain.
“It’s the scullery maid, Taan. She still doesn’t know she’s been elevated to your bed-chamber.”
“Yes, and she will know of it as soon as her replacements are arrived.”
“And that will be?”
“Tomorrow perhaps or the day after.”
“Meanwhile she scrabbles amongst the ashes while resentment grows within her breast. Resentment that is fairly felt. She sees all others rewarded while she seemingly remains as scullery maid. It wounds her. I’ve just come from her side where we nurse my beloved brother. In the kitchen still and by the fire. The girl should know, and know now.”
“And what will she then feel, knowing she is newly appointed as lady of the queen’s bed-chamber and yet still to work in the kitchens until her replacements are found and trained?”
“She will wear it. It’s the knowing that will give her hope and happiness.”
“How would you know?”
“Because I count myself as her. I once hewed wood and drew water. I once swept floors and tended fires. I was once a drudge such as she! I can tell you with all the knowledge of those who have to work that the knowledge will benefit her, the kitchens and the whole castle. She is not one to try and lord it over those she once served. Taan is not that type.”
“Very well then, if you say so. You may go and tell her now. You may be the one to have that pleasure.”
“No. I will tell Esther the cook. She can have that pleasure but Taan will know that I delivered it to Esther, that way Taan will not feel that she’s been somehow kept apart in this. The fault lies up here, tormenting the poor girl by letting her dangle in the wind. That is not the way!”
Queen Shaleen was a little taken aback by Mabina’s forthrightness and she backed off as she turned to her sister Queen Bramana.
Mabina paid her respects and left to deliver the news. Queen Shaleen turned with a mildly shocked smile to Queen Bramana.
“Well there’s a girl who knows her own mind!”
Bramana just wagged her head resignedly.
“They all do sister. That Gangani tribe must have been something to behold. If the women are like her think what the men must have been like.”
Shaleen nodded her head vigorously.
“We already do Bramana. We’ve got a crazy fourteen-year-old specimen living right here under our roof! I’ve yet to meet him; but the men already think of him as some sort of a hero.”
“Well it’s too late for queens to go poking in kitchens at this time of night. In the morning my love, you and I shall visit him; surprise him. You will meet and learn of this furious, crazy, daring boy warrior.”
Mabina returned silently to the kitchen to find Taan still pensively poking at the newly added faggots on the kitchen fire. Drustan was sitting up but neither of them was talking. The only sound was that of Taan’s poker stabbing at the un-burnt wood. Mabina turned to her twin first.
“You should be sleeping again.”
“Can’t sleep sis, my bloody head hurts.” He murmured as Taan turned in response to Mabina’s light footfall and soft words.
“He won’t take the sleeping draught you made for him.” She declared.
Mabina turned to Drustan again.
“You’d better take it brother, they’ll be coming in droves tomorrow to speak with you, to interrogate you and simply just to gawp at you. Your deeds are already becoming the stuff of sagas.”
Taan turned angrily.
“There were others at the Postern gate you know, Shenoa, Gontala, - me,” she added softly, bitterly.
Mabina decided that Taan needed to know immediately. The girl was seething with resentment. She gently tugged the tearful scullery maid to her feet.
“The deeds have been noted love. Yours included. You are to be rewarded but it’s not my place to tell you how. That right and privilege has to be Esther’s. She is to have the pleasure of telling you what your reward is, yours is the privilege of enjoying it. Now go to sleep. It’s also a long day for you tomorrow.”
Taan’s eyes brightened with hope and she fell to bawling her eyes out as the girls hugged each other. Drustan looked on with the usual lack of understanding or compassion. At fourteen he just couldn’t understand why girls cried over the daftest of things.
However, now that Taan’s mood had brightened considerably, he was happy to return to sleep.
“Am I going to get that sleeping draught or do I have to climb out of my own sick bed?”
Taan untangled herself from Mabina’s arms and quickly supplied her patient with the draught. Then the girls dragged their palliaces from under the kitchen table and laid them alongside Drustan’s. Drustan’s eyes widened but any licentious thoughts were soon extinguished. By the time Mabina and Taan had finished arranging the blankets, the sleeping draught had kicked in and Drustan was sending home the cows. The girls lay either side of him and soon joined him in sleep as silence enveloped the kitchen.
It was after dawn when Esther the cook found them still fast asleep. Normally she would have scolded the scullery maid unmercifully but this was a special day and Esther knew the girl had fought and worked unceasingly for nearly two days before, during and after the re-capture of the castle.
Esther let them sleep on as she tended to the remaining embers herself and re-kindled the kitchen fire. It was a task she was well capable of but hadn’t done for many a year. She was just washing her hands after silently placing more faggots on the fire when the sister queens arrived unexpectedly. Esther nearly dropped the precious soap as the queens startled her.
“Your majesties!” Esther whispered as she curtsied then pointed to the sleeping trio. “I’ve let them sleep. They needed it.”
The two queens glanced at the sleeping trio and smiled as they stood over them.
“Well sister! Would you just look at that?” Queen Shaleen chuckled as they slipped into the kitchen.
“Well indeed dear sister!” Queen Bramana replied with a grin. “I’d be tempted to say ‘To the Victor the spoils,’ were it not that the young lady farthest from the fire is his twin sister.”
Their voices brought Taan immediately to her senses. In her short career as a scullery maid her body had become attuned to reacting to any voice when she slept. She rose with a start and stared stupidly at the two most important ladies in the castle, not to mention her immediate boss and mentor. Taan’s face greyed with fear as she struggled to simultaneously stand, courtesy and yet make herself modest. The queens exchanged knowing smiles with Esther as Taan’s efforts finally disturbed the sleeping twins.
“Yo! - Your majesties! I, - I’m sorry! I. I. I overslept, I was, - I’m sorry your majesties.”
“Calm yourself girl!” Queen Shaleen reassured her. “There’s no need to apologise. It is us who have come to thank you. “
Taan’s jaw sagged uncomprehendingly as she tried to form words in her paralyzed throat.
“But you majesties, I,-.”
“Be still girl. Esther, tell the girl, please before she loses all sense.” Shaleen continued.
Taan turned uncomprehendingly to her boss Esther who stood with arms folded whilst still holding a large soup ladle that rested ‘spoon side up’ hooked over her shoulder.
Taan greyed again for Esther usually took this stance when she was about to scold the girl or give some important advice. Then Esther spoke.
“You’re leaving the kitchens girl. You are to work elsewhere in the castle.”
Taan held her breath for there were a score of other tasks in the castle. It could only mean some sort of promotion because scullery maid was the lowest of the low. She was too afraid to ask so Esther continued.
“You are promoted girl, but you already knew that for the scullery maid is the very bottom rung. You are to be promoted my girl, to ‘lady in waiting’ to the queen!!!”
Taan’s jaws simply worked soundlessly as she tried to comprehend. Then Mabina flung her arms around the girl. Partly to reassure the girl and partly to save her the embarrassment of finding words. Poor Taan was completely overwhelmed.
She turned uncomprehending tearful eyes to her monarch and mouthed a soundless ‘thank you’ as breath for speech refused to come.
The sister queens grinned hugely then each reached over Mabina’s shoulder to kiss the ex scullery maid on her sweat smeared, ash stained forehead.
“Yes my child. You are now the Lady Taan and you are to be my lady in waiting and companion. For you the drudge is over.”
Then they were distracted by a familiar voice and Mabina sighed with joy as she recognised her brother’s familiar tones.
“What does one have to do to get some food around here?” Drustan croaked.
“It’s always bloody food with you isn’t it brother?”
Drustan didn’t answer. He was feeling the tender scab on his head and checking out the wound on his thigh. Mabina looked at him and frowned.
“More scars!” When will you learn? When will you stop?”
“I need a wash.” Drustan replied, totally ignoring the concern in his twin’s voice as he got to his feet.
There was a stunned silence as both queens, Esther the cook and the younger girls now got a clear look at Drustans chest. There was no denying the maidenly forms growing where a boy should be flat and hard. Drustan caught their concerned looks and frowned as he remarked defensively.
“So! So I’m growing tits. Can I help it that I’m cursed? Just don’t tell those bloody men or they’ll accuse me of being some form of witch; and I’m not!”
“You’d better cover them then or they’ll soon notice them.” Queen Bramana cautioned him as she handed him a short, none-descript top. “Good God boy! If any of the princes saw those they’d want to take you as a maid.”
“And be killed in pretty short order if they tried.” Drustan whispered menacingly as he added. “I don’t understand and I don’t care, just tell your sons to stay clear of my sword.”
He made some spectacular moves with his sword that Taan had returned to him earlier and the queen’s realised Drustan’s threat was very real. Whatever form his body was taking; he still swung a pretty mean blade. It seemed that already his scars were no longer disabling him and Mabina looked again with foreboding.
“Eat some food first.” Queen Bramana ordered as she brought Queen Shaleen forward.
Having never met her before Drustan stared blankly for a moment then extended a bloodied hand in as brusque and casual a manner as either queen had ever encountered. Both Mabina and Queen Bramana wagged their heads resignedly as Taan and Esther gave little gasps. Each woman was asking a similar question in their minds.
‘Does this rough, bloodied, warrior know anything of the niceties of good manners? He had just been introduced to a queen. Where was the bow and the ‘Your majesty’?
Instead Drustan released the queen’s hand and turned again to Taan.
“Where can I wash? I stink!”
‘Well at least the boy’s clean.’ Shaleen thought. ‘Maybe that’s the maid in him.”
She decided to offer him her bed-chamber and the services of one of her chamber ladies.
“You can wash in my chamber. Then you will be presentable to my husband.”
“I don’t need anybody to assist me.”
“Perhaps not. But I will see that famous scar and know you for future reference.”
“It’s no secret anymore. Here, take a look. God knows! Everybody else does.”
Without any affectation, Drustan casually lowered the rough homespun loincloth and exposed the now famous feature. All the ladies eyes widened partly in shock and partly in amusement. The boy had technically just ‘Bared his arse’ to the queen. All the women started to chuckle as they realised just how un-courtly and uncouth the boy was. Nevertheless, Shaleen couldn’t resist bending down to take a closer look and Bramana also seized the opportunity. To their womanly eyes, the buttocks bearing the scar were of a particularly peachy and maidenly texture.
It was at that very moment that the men folk appeared in the kitchen accompanied by Aiofe and Shenoa. King Pilus’s jaw sagged with shock and amusement as he encountered his own lady wife, a queen noted for her courtliness and etiquette the length and breadth of Iberia, bent over the exposed arse of a boy already known for his rough, unpolished manners. Here was a chance for some gentle humour.
“If you fancy the boy that much my lady, take him as your stable lad.”
Shaleen was every bit as good as her husband at ripostes. She looked up as she slapped Drustan’s bum.
“A colt as hard used as this one will never be trainable my lord. Best use him for a war-horse or a hacking hunter. He’ll always be a wild thing!”
“Will people stop talking about me as though I wasn’t here?” Drustan growled. “All I asked for was a bath. I stink!”
The women turned as one. In their vast experience with the males of the species, the chances of a fourteen-year-old boy declaring that he stunk was zero. Drustan sensed the shocked silence and cast around bemused.
“Now what have I said?”
The women remained stunned and silent so King Appotel interjected.
“Well. It’s an honest stink lad. Best you go and wash. We will talk with you this afternoon.”
“War I’m sorry to say,” King Pilus added, “My cousin Portega is mustering his forces as we speak. Yours is an extra sword. And we would welcome your counsel this afternoon.”
“Me!?” Squeaked a surprised Drustan. “It’s not me you should talk to it’s her, Aiofe, my older sister. She helped plot the fight against Blueface. My part was minimal. She’s the cunning one.”
All eyes turned to Drustans older sister who tried to shrink behind the other women.
“Is this true my lady?” King Pilus asked. As he peered between the sister queens who parted for him to connect with Aiofe’s eyes.
“Well; not entirely. I discussed my brother’s part in setting up the trap and then added my idea for us to contribute without endangering my sister Mabina and me. We are but maids after all, and we do not have strong sword arms. Mabina and I used the Angry Mermaid to close the trap as the battle was fought on a beach. We just stood off and fired arrows into the back of Blueface’s shield wall. This forced him to quickly rearrange his defences and further reduce his advantage in swords facing Penderol’s men. My sister and I might only have killed or injured one or two but our efforts distracted Blueface because his rear was no longer secure and he could not get at us as we stood off in The Angry mermaid. My part was small.”
Drustan snorted derisively.
“Huh. Don’t you believe it your Majesty. It was her who suggested an ambush but more importantly, she chose the ambush spot. It was perfect. Blueface’s men were forced into a small bay with cliffs either side where their superior strength and numbers could not tell. They had to turn their backs to the sea then Aiofe’s attack came from the sea where Blueface least expected it. She’s clever when it comes to planning a battle.”
“Oh so we not only have the killer of Blueface but we have a skilled warrior princess amongst our ranks. This gets better yet!” Pedoro observed.
Drustan’s eyes flashed defiance.
“You’re not to endanger my sister, she is betrothed to Magab and I have to get her to Carthage.”
Aiofe and Mabina exchanged surprised looks. Neither of them could ever remember anybody formally charging Drustan with this task. It must have been something dreamed up by their brother. However the ‘getting to Carthage’ bit was true for Aiofe was betrothed to Magab. Somehow Drustan had got this fixated in his head and associated it with his perceived responsibilities. Aiofe gave a discreet nod to Mabina who grasped her meaning.
‘Let Drustan carry on with this sense of duty for it was certainly Aiofe’s hope and intention to one day marry Magab and the contract day of the betrothal was getting close.’
For now however, it seemed that the needs of their hosts were more pressing. If this western cousin Portega had allies amongst the Berber pirates then that made them Drustan’s enemies and that made them his sister’s enemies. Aiofe finally admitted her part in the plan of battle that brought about Blueface’s defeat. King Pilus’s eyes widened with a new respect. It seemed that the sisters were every bit as battle blooded as the crazy brother. He made his mind up there and then.
“Very well Lady Aiofe. If you are good at planning ambushes then I will instruct you to accompany my trusted Lieutenant Pedoro to study the terrain and report back. It will be another week before our forces are mustered in sufficient strength. Meanwhile this crazy, dirty, stinking brother of yours can get washed and heal his wounds.”
He turned to his queen Shaleen and smiled affectionately.
“Your offer of a decent bath is a good one my darling. Clean the boy up and get him some proper britches. He looks like some ragged savage from the darkness of Africa.”
“More like a demon from Hell.” Taan added softly but loud enough for many to hear.
Queen Shaleen turned to the scullery maid.
“You speak as if you know more of him than most.”
Taan caught Drustan’s stark terrified stare of beseechment and decided to hold her tongue. It would do nobody any good to disclose the cannibalism incident, and the boy had clearly been starving that day. Besides, if Taan remembered correctly, (and she knew she did,) the meat he had taken with him and then shared to the starving royal family had also been pieces of the butchered soldier’s flesh. That would have technically made Queen Shaleen, and her children and Appotel’s herald Maguel cannibals also. Best let such dark secrets lie. She just wagged her head and repeated.
“He’s a wild one that lad. From the first time I met him stealing food from the kitchens while the castle was taken, I knew he was a rum-un’.”
Queen Shaleen’s eyes widened with curiosity. Here was another bit of the saga of Drustan’s part in saving the castle that had yet to be told. Shaleen decided to tackle Taan about it in the privacy of her chamber while the boy was getting washed.
Drustan being still a fourteen-year-old boy, did not sense the flicker of understanding that flashed briefly between the Queen and her newly appointed lady in waiting.
As the ladies and Drustan left the kitchen for the royal chambers, Taan quickly reassured Drustan as he limped beside her. She whispered in his ear.
“Don’t worry, I won’t mention the cannibalism.”
“You better hadn’t, some of your priests of this new single god of yours are likely to have me burned or something. They’re crazy bastards and their god is a cruel god.”
“That is not true. Some of them are kindly and give succour to the starving.”
“We’ll see. Now, where is this bath chamber?”
“I don’t know,” Taan confessed, “I was a scullery maid until a few moments ago. I have never been near the royal bedchambers.”
Drustan stared at her and grinned.
“My how the humble have risen.”
“All thanks to you Drustan. I owe you that.”
“No. I was away with the demons when that decision had already been taken. They were just sorting out your replacements and leaving you to resent it. Mabina’s a good girl. She told me how she forced the queen to advance the news.”
“It’s good to know you are twins. It means there is a softer kinder side to your mother’s love.”
“I cannot talk of my mother, she died soon after having us. Only Aiofe can speak of our mother. They said that everybody could see our mother in Aiofe. Aiofe says that you can also see her in Mabina.”
“Yes. Your sisters are alike. Your mother must have been beautiful!”
“Well I am not beautiful. I am filthy and wild. Let us go and find this bath.”
Taan smiled and stared at him.
“Oh I don’t know Drustan; you’ve got a fine face, still boyish but a nice, firm, slender turn to your jaw. I suppose it will grow heavier as you become a man.”
Drustan frowned, unable to decide how to take the compliment.
Eventually they were directed to the bath chamber where Taan was surprised to find two baths being prepared. She was not surprised when Drustan simply slipped off his ragged top and filthy blood stained breech cloth then stepped unconcernedly naked into his bath. It was the act of a young still innocent boy. Taan smiled as she realised that for all the boy’s feminine features and fearsome reputation as a soldier and sailor, he was still at heart a boy and a fairly immature one when it came to those things that separated adults from children. The only thing he did do of note was to reverentially place his long blood-stained dagger in the bath beside him. This was the famous dagger that had finished the dreaded Blueface. She wondered why he seemed to give it a token washing alongside his body and if there was some significance to his act of cleansing.
As Drustan lowered himself into the water and completely immersed himself, Taan caught the serving maid’s eye. She seized the opportunity and swiftly slipped out of her own meagre rags and slipped silently into the other bath. By the time Drustan emerged again, Taan was modestly covered with the first hot bath she had ever experienced. They fell to laughing as they both revealed that they had never had hot baths and soon the pair were splashing water at each other like the typically naughty children they were. Taan was still a girl at heart despite her early apprenticeship into a life of drudgery. She also had the body of a woman albeit not yet fully rounded.
Then Mabina arrived with a gown and under clothes for Taan and a pair of britches and jerkin for her twin. She caught them squealing and laughing but simply smiled. They were still kneeling in their respective tubs and the serving maid doubled as a chaperone. Yes, Taan’s maidenly breasts were visible, but they were separated by the space between the tubs. What worried Mabina was the condition of her brother’s chest. There was no mistaking the maidenly forms adorning his chest it even embarrassed Mabina and she dearly loved her brother. Fortunately there was no licentious contact between Taan and Drustan so Mabina got down to the nitty-gritty as she charged her brother.
“Have you washed your hair?”
Mabina scolded her twin and grabbed the soap.
“Still a scruffy, bugger aren’t you?” She turned to Taan who was watching curiously. “He’s got lovely hair if he just chose to wash it. Watch this.”
She took the pitcher of hot water being proffered by the serving maid and grabbed Drustan by the scalp.
“Oooowww. You stupid cow. Easy sis! That’s my sword wound!!”
“Oh. Sorry brother.”
Tenderly she ran her fingers through the hair and saw the extant of the wound as she noted Shenoa’s needlework. Then she wet the hair and worked the soap deep into it's golden strands. The wound stung as the hot water gently poured down over Drustans shoulders but even Taan gasped at the amount of blood and dirt that sluiced off Drustans hair. Despite having cleaned the wound when stitching it, Shenoa had not had time to wash Drustans whole scalp. Days of soil, blood, sweat and kitchen ash flushed out of Drustan’s hair until it presented as almost another colour. Taan gasped at the impossible fairness of Drustan’s hair. It was paler even than Mabina or Aiofe’s notably golden heads. As Mabin gently massaged the soap through her brother’s tender scalp the hair became even paler. Taan gasped as the long tendrils of corn coloured hair cascaded over the boy’s shoulders. A total contrast to her own glossy black crown that was now emerging from the herbal shampoo that Mabina had given her. As Taan rinsed her hair Mabina took the remaining herbal and gave her brother’s head a final wash. Even the serving maid’s eyes widened. The boy had a more spectacular head of thick ash blond hair than even his two sisters. That, coupled with the boy’s immature, fine-lined jaw gave him an even more feminine appearance. As Mabina rinsed her brother’s hair, Taan took the opportunity to step out of the bath and slip into the beautiful clothes that Mabina had brought. She caught herself preening herself in the mirror until she got a brief glimpse of Drustan emerging. It seemed that Mabina was well used to seeing her brother’s body for neither seemed at all concerned. Drustan took a towel from the serving maid, dried himself and dressed before turning again to his sister.
“You’re not going to make me comb it are you. It’s clean, isn’t that enough?”
Mabina simply slapped the comb into his hands and pointed to the stool beside Taan.
“You’re going to meet two queens, formally, as a guest in their most private bed chambers. This is probably the last time you’ll be allowed into a lady’s chamber as a child. It is midsummer’s day tomorrow, our day of ascendency to adulthood our fifteenth summer. You’ll be of an age to be counted amongst men, properly that is, by law and convention. We will no longer be allowed to meet as we just have. You will no longer be allowed to enter a lady’s bedroom without chaperones.
This is the last time that our mother’s reputation for her children will count for anything. I won’t have you besmirching our mother’s reputation by appearing before two illustrious queens like a vagabond. Now comb your hair.
“I’ve never besmirched our mother’s reputation,” Drustan protested.
“No. Not by your behaviour or reputation. I can vouch you are brave and honest and kind, but if you are ever to find a wife, you have nothing but your reputation. Our lands are forfeit we are poor. If you are clean in body as well as spirit, you’ll have a better chance of a wife!”
“Huh! I’ll probably be dead before I reach an age to marry.”
“Yes. The way you constantly fight, you probably will die before long, - but not before you fulfil your self-made promise to deliver Aiofe to her beloved Magab.”
Taan gasped in shocked disbelief at Mabina’s apparent acceptance of Drustan’s suicidal perspective. Mabina sensed Taan’s shock and explained.
“We are children without parents, from a clan that was massacred, of a tribe without a land, and now a defeated people. Once Aiofe is settled and wedded to Magab, Drustan and I must make our own way or ways. There is no certainty in our lives. All I have is my supposed beauty, my learning and my numbers, all my brother has is his ship and his sword and the same numbers. I must find a husband or a safe haven, Drustan will probably have to hire out his sword until he either dies in battle or collapses at the sweep of some filthy stinking slave galley.”
“But you could live here.” Taan protested. “King Pilus would gladly offer you a living and maybe even land.”
Drustan intervened as he gently tested the hair on his torn flap of scalp. It was sore.
“I want our own land back. The land that Blueface’s hordes have stolen. The land of my fathers.”
“And that’s a tall order.” Mabina finished, for she also longed to see Lleyn and Fon and the Menai again.
Taan fell silent as she finally removed the last few snags in her hair and savoured the long easy painless sweeps of the comb from crown to waist. Drustan’s hair was also finished except for the acceptable tangle of knotted hair where it was too tender to comb around the wound.
Mabina knew the queens would accept that small flaw. It was a wound and badge of honest courage. As Taan decorated her hair and compared the shiny black lustre against her new, beautiful red gown, Mabina placed a metal band around Drustan’s head and the hair was simply stopped from brushing forward into his eyes. Otherwise it simply hung in a thick mass down his shoulders. Its brilliant pale, golden colour alone would make all the women of the court jealous. Mabina had also noticed the slightest development of true muscle on her brother’s maidenly frame. She felt her brother was truly a paradox and that she and he were growing apart as the mysteries of growth changed them from twin boy and girl, - to brother and sister, - to man and woman.
Mabina new with sadness that she would grow to miss her brother if or more likely when their wandering lives forced them to separate.
Mabina frowned inwardly as she looked at her brother’s hair and fiddled with a few stray strands.
‘If her brother did but know it, his beautiful long straight hair was going to break women’s hearts when he was older, - that was, - if his crazy lust for vengeance over their family’s massacre ever let him get to be older,- She reflected stoically.
With the bathing done to the best of Mabina’s ability she led the pair to be presented formally to Queen Shaleen.
Both sister queens were at ease in Shaleen’s state chambers sitting on high seats that resembled thrones but only served to establish the status of various visitors to the queen’s state chambers. Mabina led the pair in and Taan bowed deeply, to emphasise her utmost respect. Drustan limped in and stood looking at the opulent decoration with mouth slack jawed and agape.
Mabina tugged violently at his arm and hissed angrily.
“Bow you stupid oaf. You are now at court!”
Drustan got the message and promptly made a clumsy un-practiced bow.
Both sister queens smiled indulgently. ‘The boy was not rude, just rough and rustic’. Shaleen invited them to rise and approach her seat. She spoke to Taan first.
“Right young lady, I recognise that you are new to courtly ways so my young daughters will be set to teach you. Do not take any nonsense from them. I have warned them to be fair to you and treat you properly. They are all younger than you and they will respect you! I have warned them on that. You are no longer just a servant, a drudge, a ‘go-for’, - you are to be my lady in waiting. Much of the time you will be at my side and keeping me company. You will learn that much of a queen’s work is boring and tedious.”
“Yes your majesty. I understand ma-am.”
“Well that’s a good start my girl. You got the address right.”
“Thank you ma-am.”
Shaleen smiled then turned to Drustan.
“So what of you boy warrior, saviour of castles, feeder of queens? You are truly a strange one.”
“T’was the least I could do miss. I heard you talking to Maguel about the children being hungry.”
“Yes, but more importantly, you gave us hope. My son Pinipe had already seen the men of the castle slaughtered un-necessarily.
He was badly shaken and afraid.”
Shaleen was disturbed by Drustan’s total lack of reaction to the mention of slaughter.
‘Obviously, the boy was inured to such atrocities. He’d seen more action in his short life than some men saw in sixty years’. She reflected. ‘God what sort of life was it for a boy not yet a man?’ She changed the subject for the talk of death and battle was hardly what her lady companions wished to hear about, especially her young daughters. She tapped her finger thoughtfully and Queen Bramana leaned forward to whisper advice to her sister.
“Get him to talk of his ship. It’s his pride and joy and it will take his mind of the carnage.”
Shaleen took the advice as she led the group from her chambers to the dining hall where her husband and the other nobles were gathering to eat. It was a huge banquet to celebrate many things but Drustan felt overwhelmed. He chose a seat between his sisters and fell into a reflective silence. Shaleen’s efforts to draw him out of his shell were met with monosyllibilic replies. Drustan was already preoccupied with the forthcoming battle to face Portega and his powerful army. Eventually, Queen Shaleen shrugged her graceful shoulders and turned to others for conversation. Drustan took the opportunity to chat to Aiofe about any ideas for the forthcoming battle. Aiofe lost patience and scolded him for his suggesting he should go and fight.
“Listen little brother. Take a rest, take a back seat, your wounds are still raw and unhealed. Look; already your new britches are stained from your leg wound. Even the crotch is stained. You should have lain abed for another couple of days to rest that leg. You’re still limping aren’t you? Now when this banquet is over, get some rest for once.”
Mabina reinforced their older sister’s advice and secretly, Drustan was glad to take it. King Pilus had one of the courtiers’ direct Drustan to a bedroom and the boy was asleep as his head hit the pillow. Explanations about the various parts Drustan had played in the recapture of the castle would have to wait.
Whilst he slept the clock around, Aiofe joined with Pedoro and Maguel as a reconnoitring party was sent out to help prepare a battle plan. Pilus’s cousin Portega had been preparing his treacherous plan for several years and he had a powerful force at his command. It was taking time for Pilus and Appotel to muster sufficient forces at short notice for King Dorian’s allies from the north were nowhere near ready to join forces. The outcome of any battle was by no means certain.
When they returned from their first reconnoitre the three had little good news to impart. Portega was well established at the approaches to the Pass of Talave and that served as a turn-key to the central regions of Pilus’s kingdom. Whoever held that Pass could control nearly all the traffic passing from south and west into Central Iberia. Portega had always known that his wealth and access to the rest of the old Roman Empire would be better served if the pass was in his hands. Holding it would also control Pilus’s influence and association with other tribes and kingdoms like Appotel’s Turdetani tribe. Clearly, Portega’s plan was to somehow separate the two kingdom’s physical contact and eventually destroy the central alliance. Capture of the pass of Talave would be a huge step in forwarding Portega’s ambition. His having camped at the approaches to the pass already meant that he had invaded Pilus’s kingdom and that was a de-facto declaration of war.
Pilus had to act quickly. The recapture of his castle had given Appotel and him some breathing space but not much. Appotel’s main force was still on the march and several days away from reinforcing Pilus’s meagre border force that held the pass. Pilus’s main army also had to march west to meet Portega’s force.
In an ideal world, if Appotel’s army and Pilus’s army could squeeze Portega from the South and the east, they had a strong chance of victory but for the present, Portega had the advantage. He was already in position and nearly ready to attack the pass.
With further situation reports bringing such bad news the council of war went badly. Pilus and Appotel could not agree on a strategy that would work in time to allay Portega’s attack for indeed there was no viable strategy available. Unless the garrison at the pass put up a heroic resistance, it would fall.
The mood in Pilus’s castle darkened as hasty preparations went apace to reinforce the pass and troops arrived piecemeal and underequipped.
All was not lost however for Aiofe had spotted a possible subterfuge to lure Portega’s forces into a trap. After Pilus had led his army out of the castle and Appotel had dashed south by a steep mountain path to meet and lead his own forces coming north, the great castle at Toledo was virtually empty of men at arms. For Pilus, the rapid reinforcement of the pass had been an ‘all or nothing’ strategy. He had been forced to denude the castle of virtually all its remaining garrison. Only the women folk and those essential to the castle’s basic operation remained. Drustan found himself as but one warrior recovering from his wounds as the women fretted on the outcome of the battle. Strangely though, he still had his older sister Aiofe and his twin Mabina for company. He remarked upon this on the third day after the kings’ departures as he walked without limping for the first time. Risen at last properly from his hospital bed he dined for the first time without serious pain with his sisters and Shenoa and the other ladies in the great hall. The only other male at the table was Gontala, Pilus’s youngest son who would now sport a permanent scar on his shoulder.
Amongst the sombre diners, Drustan spoke softly to Aiofe.
“I would have thought you would be helping King Pilus.”
Aiofe shrugged. Celtiberian men tended to have a chauvinistic macho attitude towards their women and Pilus had compelled Aiofe to remain with the rest of the women. His reasons had not been entirely chauvinistic because Pilus knew his chances of holding the pass were genuinely slim and no alternative strategies or tactics had been determined. It looked like a simple, hard, bloody close quarters fight and Pilus could only trust to his garrison holding the best positions in the pass in the first place to stop or at least delay Portega’s superior forces’ advance.
As the other women talked of escape to the east and the north if the situation became grave, Aiofe talked quietly and at length with Mabina, Drustan, Shenoa and Gontala. These were the only remaining occupants of the castle, apart from Taan, who had any idea of fighting. Taan was bound by her new station of ‘Lady in Waiting’, to remain close by her queen’s side.
After the meal was finished, Drustan spoke with the others.
“Perhaps if we went back to the pass and had another look.”
“Yes I’d like to,” Aiofe replied, “there were several situations I wanted to look at further but Pedoro and Maguel were anxious to get back with the situation as it stood. They were more interested in counting numbers than looking for traps and snares.”
“Ambushes, you mean.” Drustan smiled knowingly.
“Not much chance of that brother,” Aiofe confessed. “Pedoro and Maguel were right on that score. It would be virtually impossible to ‘ambush’ such a large army. The head of the army would be emerging from the Eastern end of the pass before the tail had entered the western end.”
“And that would require a large number of our men lining the full length of the pass.” Drustan concluded correctly.
“Men Pilus hasn’t yet got. Nobody was prepared for war.” Aiofe finished.
“So, it's another stratagem then sister?”
“That’s why I wanted to study the terrain more. There must be something but I need to have a proper look.”
Drustan, ever ready for action stood stiffly from the fireside where they had been talking after the queens and their ladies had left.
“So, we need to go and look. Come on. No time like now.”
Aiofe was slightly startled by Drustan’s unseemly haste but she could see the need. Knowledge and speed were paramount to the success of any plan. She glanced at Mabina, Shenoa and Gontala who shrugged unconcernedly. For them anything was better than just hanging around in an undefended castle. Without any words of farewell or forewarning, the five slipped out of the castle with but a few essential supplies loaded onto a single accompanying pack-horse. Nobody challenged them because the town was unguarded, all the men at arms having been called away by King Pilus. By the morning, the five of them were on a high ridge that looked down on the pass and gave a panoramic view of Portega’s massed forces on the western side of the steep ridge whilst Pilus’s forces were slowly gathering on the east. The small picket force of Pilus’s men on the ridge had recognised Shenoa and Gontala as they climbed the steep narrow path to the crest and they had let the party into their encampment.
“So what brings you here my lady Shenoa?” The sergeant of the guard asked for the picket was so small as to not warrant an officer.
“These three are skilled in subterfuge and ambush.” Shenoa replied as her hand wave encompassed Aiofe, Mabina and Drustan.
“And what ambush do you envisage from this distance? We are out of arrow range. Our job is simply to watch and report.”
Aiofe studied the Sergeant’s platoon and asked.
“So why then do you need a dozen men. Two, or three at most is all that’s needed.”
“In case that damned Portega tries to take this vantage point. We can at least put up a fight.”
Aiofe kept her counsel. Looking over the gorge she had spotted something across the gorge with potential so she asked the sergeant.
“That narrow hanging valley. Does the river always flow over that water-fall?”
One of the sergeant’s men who had been born and raised around the pass nodded.
“It’s fed by a large spring that flows all the time. It’s one of the reasons the pass is additionally important. The spring never dries up, even in the hottest summers.”
“Show me.” Aiofe ordered as Drustan’s equally sharp tactical eye studied the water-fall and began to suspect Aiofe’s plan.
The hanging valley opened onto the narrowest part of the pass where the road and the main river shared the narrow bottom and were but meters apart. The river flowed wildly for a few hundred meters and much of that wild flow was accountable to the spring fed waterfall that plunged into the river to give it such force. Where the waterfall fed into the river, a high narrow bridge
crossed the gorge and under the bridge the joining rivers met in frenzy of white water. The bridge’s size was severely constrained by the valley’s narrowness and the meeting of the two rivers. The narrow bridge would also serve Aiofe’s plan. It was a choke point where it provided the only practical access point into the heart of the pass. However, Portega’s men had recognised the importance of holding the bridge to march their armies into the pass. An earlier, unexpected raid had beaten off the undermanned garrison and now Portega held the bridge. The site was nearly a mile below the garrison fort and actually out of sight because of the twists in the pass.
After some brief negotiation with Shenoa and Gontala employing their noble status Aiofe managed to get the sergeant to release the local picket soldier to accompany Aiofe and the others across the pass to the hanging valley. They crossed at night above the enemy occupied bridge and studied the valley in moonlight to avoid being seen by either army or its scouts. As they stood by the spring, Aiofe turned to the picket soldier.
“Is this flow constant?”
“Yes Ma-am, my village depends upon it.”
“Your village!?” The startled Aiofe repeated.
“Yes Ma-am. As I said I was born and bred around here.”
“Oh! This gete's better and better! How do the people of the village feel about this forthcoming battle?”
“They are fearful Ma-am. A score of summers ago, this land was invaded by Portega’s people and we were treated cruelly. His reputation for cruelty has not diminished with the years. He has not mellowed with age and he is still greedy for land and power.
Then King Pilus’s father, King Pilip, won it back. He kept the pass and these lands high in the mountains as part of the treaty of the Olive Groves. We have always been Capetani people.”
“So the village is loyal to King Pilus then?” Aiofe concluded.
“Of course! Who questions our loyalty?” The picket soldier asked, fearful that he was possibly having his own loyalty questioned as well as that of his village.
Aiofe quickly reassured him.
“No, no. I trust you. Can I trust the village?”
“Oh stop calling me Ma-am as though I’m some sort of royalty or nobility. I am of common stock just such as you.”
“Very well Ma, - so what shall I call you?”
“I am Aiofe; plain and simple Aiofe.”
The soldier smiled and visibly relaxed. Shenoa and Gontala smiled to doubly re-assure the man as Aiofe started to look down the valley. Drustan followed her gaze and remarked quietly so others would not hear.
“Thinking of an ambush sister?”
“Sort of,” Aiofe replied, “maybe an untimely flood to wash away that flimsy bridge just after half of Portega’s army has crossed. The front column would arrive just level with the fort or thereabouts and then if we destroy the bridge after the front half has crossed, the back half won’t be able to reinforce his attack because the pass is impassable without the bridge. Just look at the raging torrent in the gorge. It’s virtual chasm! The road is the only way forward for heavy equipment and carts. We will split Portega’s forces and make it easier for Pilus to hold the pass until Appotel arrives.
“But Portega already holds the bridge. How will we get to it?”
“We don’t have to. If we dam the stream up here overnight so that Portega’s men don’t realise the flow is reduced then we can release the dammed up waters and the raging wave of water will surge over the falls and smash away the bridge.”
“It’ll take a lot of water and a pretty big dam.” Drustan observed.
“So. We have all the villagers to help if our comrade is right. We can build a sluice dam, put a sluice in it then release it at the best moment. Let’s talk with the soldier.”
The picket soldier listened avidly as Aiofe explained then he grinned enthusiastically.
“My village would willingly help. Shall I alert them now?”
“Sooner the better. Portega will be scouting these mountains even as we speak. We still hold the high ground but it’s thinly garrisoned.”
“That I know right well lady.” The soldier concurred thoughtfully. “There isn’t even a garrison in my village. We must defend ourselves If Portega’s scouts find the way up here. However we have the path protected and it will be difficult for troops to get up the path from Portega’s side. The escarpment is very steep and the path nothing but a single foot track.”
The plan was quickly set in place and by the noon hour a useful wooden fence was stretched across the stream with a sluice gate arrangement. It simply remained to drop the sluice board into the slot and the stream would quickly back up. Overnight a huge pond would appear behind the dam. It was at this point that a village elder approached Drustan and Aiofe as they were putting the finishing touches to the trap. The sluice would be lifted at the critical moment when Portega’s army passed over the bridge to cut his forces in half.
The village elder had a suggestion that he put to Drustan, thinking that Drustan was the leader. Drustan immediately pointed him towards Aiofe who had stopped to eat with the rest of the labouring villagers. Her physical efforts had impressed the villagers to superhuman efforts and everybody sat eating as they viewed the dam with satisfaction. For now the water still flowed freely and there was no indication to Portega’s troops that a dam even existed high up in the hanging valley. The village elder explained.
“My lady, if we were to stack up a large thin wall of boulders balanced on the rim of the waterfall. When the flood surged over the lip it would carry the boulders down onto the bridge and double the probability of destroying the bridge.”
Aiofe thought about the plan and looked for flaws.
“The troops might look up and see it.”
“Not if we place it back far enough. If it is flimsy and precariously balanced, the torrent will carry boulders along but a few meters to tumble over the fall.”
“And what of the noise of construction?”
“If we erect it as the vanguard crosses the bridge the noise of the battle train will drown out our efforts. Another thing is to gradually reduce the flow over as long a period as possible to disguise the reduction in flow. They will think we are taking the water for irrigation. It is mid-summer after all. Our crops need water. We won’t need many stones to build the wall. The falls are high and the impact will be immense. I have seen what floods can do in this pass. The power of water and debris is un-stoppable.”
Aiofe liked the plan and turned to the villagers who had worked hard.
“It will mean toiling with big boulders for the rest of this day.”
“We are willing my lady,” the elder countered, “we are farmers and used to moving stones from our fields. This is high mountain pasture; the ground is rocky and stony. Besides it will be getting more rocks out of our fields. Every villager will benefit.”
Aiofe smiled. The old man was wise and shrewd. She asked for a show of hands and the response was unanimous. Wearily she stood to join the men but the old man restrained her.
“No young lady. You and your companions have done enough. You are tired. I know that the boy is named Drustan Scar-arse who still carries wounds and the rest of you are but maids and a child. Let us village men do this. We farmers know how to build a fragile unstable wall.”
Aiofe was grateful for the rest, she had not slept throughout the previous day and night and it was already approaching the second evening without sleep. Her companions were equally tired. As she and her companions slept the villagers toiled manfully. By morning she and Drustan awoke to find their plans had been completed not a moment too soon. As the group peered secretively over the rim of the falls, they saw the dust rising from Portega’s army. The greedy tyrant was on the march. Aiofe was also much pleased to see that the dam was full. The villagers had diverted the water they were extracting for irrigation back into the stream below the dam. Whilst the dam was filling the flow over the falls had hardly changed. Aiofe had not thought of this but the villagers were experts in water management. Aiofe smiled to realise that the trap was already primed and the soldiers below were blissfully unaware for their casual behaviour betrayed their ignorance. Had they but known of the horror about to befall them they would have sent troops to attack the dam and warned their king Portega of the trap. Aiofe hugged herself and her brother. The plan was working. The villagers were not content with their efforts and continued to stack stones at every strategic place to cast down onto the troops below.
However Portega was not completely ignorant of the dangers of the pass. Already a detachment of his light mountain troops were approaching the narrow path with a view to taking the heights above the pass. The villagers guarding the narrow foot-path faced an implacable foe as did the sergeant and his tiny garrison on the opposite side of the pass. Portega had made careful preparations.
As Aiofe, Drustan and the rest of the party returned from the falls one of the villagers approached the group and spoke to the village elder. He had come from the defenders of the path and his news was bad. He seemed reluctant to talk with Aiofe and Drustan listening.
“You make speak with us all man. Out with it.”
“Bad news sir. There is a large troop coming up the path, we are vastly outnumbered.”
The elder turned to Aiofe.
“Have you any plan?”
Aiofe stood thoughtfully looking over their careful preparations. The trap must be sprung or all was lost. The path had to be held. But Portega would not move until he was certain of a safe passage through the narrowest part of the pass. That would mean somehow convincing Portega that his troops had taken the heights and the village. She turned to the village elder with a grave expression.
“We have to beat the troop and none of them must escape.” She turned to the messenger.
“Give us an estimate. How many troops are there?”
“About a hundred miss.”
Then she turned to village elder.
“How many men have we in the whole village?”
“About one hundred but we are poorly armed.”
“But we are above the attackers and defending the path. We also have the element of surprise so the odds are not too bad. What of the women and children?”
The old man’s eyes widened nervously.
“Are you serious?”
“Never more so. If I and Mabina can fight, so can your women. Shenoa also fights and she is Capetani, just like your women.”
“But what must they do?”
“Throw rocks down onto the attacking troops. The more rocks the women throw down, the more of the tyrant’s soldiers that are injured. Sometimes, the simplest tactics work best.”
“And if we fail?”
“We die, just as if we had never fought and simply surrendered. You said it yourself. Portega is a monster.”
The village elder nodded sagely. Aiofe’s logic was cruelly accurate. There was little option but to fight. With shoulders slumped, he trudged to the village and gave the bad news. Every able-bodied person would have to fight. They simply could not afford to lose. Having established the reality. The villagers set about loading rocks up on the high ledges overlooking the path. The women were to wait high above and just fling down the rocks and then anything else they could bring to hand whilst the men had to somehow block the path. Aiofe’s wickedly accurate long bow would serve as an important deterrent. Mabina’s lesser bow would contribute its share to the hoped for massacre while Shenoa and Gontala also had bows to add to the destruction.
Drustan and the single soldier from the Sergeant’s picket line would set themselves further down the path to let the troops go past and then prevent any messengers or retreating soldiers from returning to Portega to advise of the progress or failure. They chose a particularly narrow piece of path that clung to the edge of the rock as the choke point to confront any retreating soldiers.
Aiofe’s desperate plan was to hopefully destroy the troop whilst Portega would not learn of it. Then the villagers could steal their uniforms and make a pretence of the high ridge having been captured. Her only problem was that she had no idea of any signals that might carry the message to Portega. If they could extract this information out of a captured enemy prisoner, then it would double their hopes of the plan succeeding. With the first trap set, the villagers could but wait.
As the marching troop approached, the villager’s nerves began to fray. Just standing and waiting played havoc with their resolve. Aiofe heard several women start to weep nervous tears and it took great resource to go about them offering encouragement and support. She was just as fearful herself of the uncertain outcome but she dared not show it. Eventually the head of the column reached the ambush zone and Aiofe launched the attack. A hail of stones and arrows poured down upon the column as it slowly wound its way up the most tortuous part of the path. The column’s advance faltered for a moment then the encouragement of the better armoured officers gave the troops heart and they advanced again. This second advance also faltered but by now the women had exhausted their arsenal of stones.
It was left to Aiofe and the other bowmen to halt the advance. The battle swayed to and fro for nearly an hour before Aiofe dared to hope that they might be winning. Eventually the column was forced to a halt and the remaining troops were forced to sue for quarter.
As Aiofe prepared to negotiate with the remaining troops, Drustan and the Picket soldier appeared limping up the path. Aiofe sighed again wearily and turned to her younger sister Mabina.
“Go and check out our brother! It looks as though he’s managed to get himself wounded again.”
Mabina pulled a wry smile and approached her bloodied brother and the equally bloodied picket soldier.
“What the hell happened to you two?”
The picket soldier frowned painfully then winced as he tried to indicate with his injured thumb.
“About eight of them concluded the battle was lost so they decided to face Portega’s wrath and tell of their defeat. This crazy bastard stopped them.”
“How?” Mabina demanded.
“Like Hector on the bridge. Except it was a narrow cliff edge of path. A horse couldn’t have negotiated it with a rider on its back. The path is deadly at that point. You were one hundred percent right. Numbers don’t count. One man can face an army off at that point of the path.” The picket soldier continued in a quieter vein.
“Please, after my wounds are treated, I would speak with Aiofe alone.”
“Why?” Mabina asked as she set his injured wrist in a sling then checked out the several sword cuts to his arms and leg.
“After I’ve spoken with your older sister. It’s about your brother.”
Mabina drew a deep tired breath of resignation.
“What’s he done now?”
“Your sister will know first. She will most probably tell you. It’s about the boy.”
Mabina felt a cold weight settle in her stomach. ‘What had her brother done now?’ She wondered.
With his wounds dressed and treated with medicinal poultices, the soldier thanked Mabina and left to speak with Aiofe. Mabin attended her brother whose wounds appeared only slightly less than the picket soldiers. Modest cuts to his arms and legs but nothing deep or serious. She looked at his face, caught her brother’s eye and couldn’t help smiling as Drustan asked.
“Are there any cuts on my face?”
Mabina smiled at her fresh-faced younger brother.
“No. You won’t grow up to frighten the ladies or the children brother. Your face is still your own and you know, it’s still quite a pretty face. Anyway; why do you worry about scars to your face? Many warriors are proud of battle scars on their face.”
Drustan grinned shyly as he reluctantly confessed to a perverse juvenile vanity.
“Everybody calls me Scar-arse. If I had a scar on my face they would all start calling me Scaramouch. There are hundreds of ‘scar-faces’ around. Every tribal leader usually has honour scars or battle wounds to their faces. My scar-arse has made me famous. And another thing sister; it doesn’t do my reputation any good by calling me ‘pretty’!”
Mabina smiled and wagged her head.
“You are too vain brother. One day that vanity will cost you! But you are pretty you know. I suppose your manhood will kick in soon but you’re later than the other boys. Though I still love you and you are quite the bravest cleverest brother I know.”
“By the way how did your fight go? The picket soldier told me there were eight of them to two of you.”
“Their numbers were no advantage. The path is a narrow cliff edge at that point; barely a man’s width. We tied ourselves loosely to the cliff so that we could not overbalance. The picket soldier showed me how. He’s walked that path since childhood and knows every step; he’s also used ropes to climb the rocks to gather bird’s eggs. When the retreaters came delicately treading along the narrow edge it was but an easy task to strike at them and push them over the cliff. None survived the fall for we went down the cliff on the ropes to check. The picket soldier taught me about ropes and rocks. It’s very useful knowledge to add to my climbing skills we learned in the mountains of Y Wyddfa.”
A cloud flashed across Mabina’s smile as she recalled those happy childhood days when her cousins took her from Lleyn to Yr Wyddfa for a summer in the hills. ‘She and her brother had travelled so far since those halcyon childhood times.’ She returned to the here and now again.
“Yes. I can imagine.” Mabina finished as she treated the last wound and gave it a sisterly kiss. As she hugged him her breasts pressed against Drustan’s treacherous swellings and she gasped as she stared at the noticeable lumps. They were quite noticeable now that she had his jerkin off and only the thin under shirt covered his wounded torso.
Drustan caught her gaze and frowned as he held her in a firm grip to prevent her seeking further. He blushed at first then grinned.
“Stoppit sis. You’ll make the other men jealous.”
“But, but brother; they’re growing more maidenly every day!”
“You don’t have to tell me sister. I think I must have offended Rosmerta the goddess of fertility and abundance.”
Mabina frowned thoughtfully.
“Are they sore? I’ve seen you secretly rubbing them sometimes.
Drustan fell into a thoughtful silence then answered nervously.
“Sometimes sis, when Blueface’s wound troubles me.”
“And how often is that?”
“I don’t know, usually when you are gru-, oh shit! The moon! It can’t be. Dramara's call! Not that as well!”
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