THE CROW KING
being the first chronicle of Gwynter ren Terare's Crusade against the mad king.
M. H. Woodscourt
Dedicated to my favorite heroes:
In particular to Dad, who is foremost among them. And also to George Washington, whose life story has always inspired me, especially in the writing of Gwyn's.
Thank you for your sacrifices, large and small. May good men always laud your names.
Part I: Journey
Mist curled over the quiet hills of Vinwen. Somewhere a bird trilled, prophesying the coming dawn, and the sun answered with a ring of gold spilling over the horizon as it peeked at the slumbering world. Lazy clouds drifted by, grey, dappled with faint pinks and yellows.
Sitting on the wooden fence, Gwynter ren Terare squinted against the hovering gloom in the valley below, eyes fixed on the road. He strained his ears for any sound beyond the faint chirrup of crickets, the song of birds, the gush of the nearby stream. A crow cawed as it landed on the fence close by.
There. Just there. A faint neigh. The rattle of a wheel against a stray stone. A cracking whip. Gwyn shoved against the rough wood post, leapt to his feet atop the fence, and only wobbled once before he caught his balance. Perched as he was, he soon made out the distant form of the coming carriage, a single lantern bobbing to pierce the predawn shadows.
Gwyn grinned widely and jumped from the fence. The crow cried out and flew off. Gwyn loped along the stream bank up toward the manor house. His shoulder-length hair flounced in his eyes but he ignored it as he cut through a protesting gaggle of geese and threw himself against the kitchen door.
"Mercy, child!" cried the cook, spoon in hand. "You look a sight. What awful trouble could there be so early as this?"
Gwyn shook his head as he gasped for air, hands on his legs, bent forward. He gulped a few times before he could utter a word. "Lawen's coming. Almost here. Down the road a bit." He straightened and headed for a bucket of water on the table, took up a ladle and helped himself to a long, cool drink.
The cook, Mavell, shook her head. She grabbed the ladle, poured water into a cup, and handed that to Gwyn. "Master Lawen, already? Surely not. He's not to come until tomorrow, so his letter said."
Gwyn nodded as he drained the cup. He held it out to let Mavell ladle him another. "But he's always early. I had a feeling to watch for him, and here he comes."
"And how do you know it's Master Lawen?"
Gwyn smiled. "I always know."
She pursed her lips but didn't argue. There seemed no point, they both knew that.
"Well," the slender woman said, rubbing her hands against her apron. "If it is Master Lawen, oughtn't you be cleaning yourself up for his arrival. Your mother will have a fit if you greet him looking like a shepherd's boy." She swatted Gwyn's backside with the ladle. "Off with you, go on."
Gwyn laughed and bolted away, out of the kitchen and into a long gallery. His feet slapped against the flagstones. He cast a glance out of the windows and saw that already dawn had brightened the world, banishing grey in favor of a thousand shades of green. He could hear the geese and chickens scurrying and dogs barking as the carriage entered the private drive leading to the house. Gwyn thought he heard the crunch of gravel and his heart leapt with joy.
Lawen was back. Home, at last. How long it had been! Gwyn had missed his half-brother terribly the past year. Mount Vinwen just wasn't the same in his absence, though none of the others seemed to mind so much.
Gwyn reached his room, brushed off his trousers to dislodge any dirt or wood splinters, and changed his coarse shirt for fine woven linen. He changed his stockings and pulled on a pair of polished boots, then caught his hair in a ponytail. A quick inspection in his mirror was met with satisfaction and Gwyn awarded himself a curt, militaristic nod. He tugged one last time on his long shirt front, clicked his heels, and headed downstairs.
In the main vestibule he found the rest of the ren Terares assembled, even Mother, though she looked stern and forbidding, with tight lips and eyes like needles. She turned to Gwyn as he reached the bottom of the sweeping staircase, and her gaze softened.
"Gwyn, dearheart. Thank you for not looking like a peasant this morning."
He approached and kissed her cheeks. "Good morning, Mother. I thought this occasion warranted the change."
She sighed faintly. "Yes, I suppose the master is home today." Her tone was annoyed, but Gwyn turned away, ignoring it. He could understand her resentment in a way. Last year Tynveer ren Terare, Gwyn and Lawen's father, had been killed in a skirmish against the Ilidreth. Now Lawen was the master of Mount Vinwen, and Mother suspected that he would soon send her and her three children to live at some other of his estates, but Gwyn knew better. There was no kinder soul in all of Simaerin than his elder half-brother.
The sound of crunching gravel outside the front doors ceased as the carriage rolled to a stop, and Gwyn's younger sisters bounded forward, laughing as the servants pulled the doors aside to admit the Master of Vinwen.
"Sila, Neirin," cried Mother. "Do try to behave like human beings." Though her tone was harsh, she wore a fond smile as she followed them out onto the wide porch.
Gwyn came last, clamping down on an urge to rush forward and barrel into Lawen as soon as he descended from the carriage. He couldn't wait to see Lawen's uniform. That rich red tabard glittering beneath the silver armor worn in the Crow King's service.
The footman jumped from his perch behind the carriage and came forward to open the door. Lawen unfolded himself from within, and Gwyn felt his excitement crescendo, then die in the next instant. Indeed it was Lawen, though he wore no uniform, but rather a shawl wrapped around his shoulders. His complexion was pale, his eyes sunken, and his hair was lank and damp with sweat. Even so, a smile adorned his lips as he took in the sight before him.
"My beautiful family," he said, extending his arms to greet them. Gwyn's heart twisted, and he hurried forward just in time to catch Lawen as the man staggered forward. Gwyn steadied him, feeling the brittle thinness of his brother's arm in his grasp.
"My dear Lawen," exclaimed Mother. "Are you wounded? We heard nothing of any battle."
Lawen shook his head. "Just a little ill, that's all. I've been given an extended leave to care for myself until this passes. Don't fret over me." He turned to Gwyn. "My word, little brother. You've outgrown me, and only fourteen years of age. That should be against some ancient law of birthright or something." He coughed, a throaty, ragged sound. "I could do with a little water."
"Of course," Mother said, motioning inside. "Gwyn, bring him into the parlor. I'll have Cook bring water and something to eat."
Gwyn obeyed, aiding Lawen inside and past the staircase into a parlor off the main gallery. He helped Lawen to sink into a plush wingback chair, alarmed by the man's panting breaths.
Sila and Neirin hovered at the door, anxious and confused. Lawen smiled at them weakly, then let his head rest back against the chair. He closed his eyes. "Needn't worry so much. Just a bad cold."
Gwyn arched an eyebrow. "I've never seen such a cold as this."
Lawen's smile stretched. "You worry too much, Gwynny."
Gwyn pulled back, affronted. "I'm not six any more, Lawen. It's Gwyn now."
"Such a grownup." Lawen coughed, and it grew into a fit that doubled him over. Gwyn watched with humming fear, helpless. At last the man sat straight and let his head fall back and roll to the side. He panted. "You...really need to...enjoy your childhood a little...a little bit longer...you know..."
Gwyn sighed. "I'll not take that advice from a man who joined the Crow King's army to get away from growing crops."
Lawen chuckled hoarsely. "Very well, very well. Your point is made, although one might argue that my advice is now the voice of experience. Enjoy your crops, Gwynny. Killing people isn't...quite the glory...our Sovereign King would like us to believe..."
Gwyn rested a hand on his brother's thin arm. "Enough of that for now. Just rest. You've come home to recover, not to pawn your estate off on me."
Lawen laughed again. "Justly rebuked. I shall repent by taking a nap."
In the next few days it became clear to everyone, excepting perhaps Lawen himself, that he was far more ill than he led on, and getting worse rather than better. On the fourth day after the master's homecoming, Gwyn stood with the house steward and family doctor. He listened as they discussed a strict menu for Lawen, something to add meat to his bones.
"I've bled him," the doctor said. "But he only seems to get weaker."
Gwyn felt an itch on his neck, and rubbed it, turning from the two men to study the world outside the upstairs window where he stood. Little Sila was chasing the geese, Neirin looking on and laughing. Several milkmaids swept past them on their way to the barn. Gwyn's eyes moved to the forest beyond the estate's cultivated fields. A half dozen crows rested on the fence-line. His neck itched again.
Mother's voice turned him around to find her at the top of the staircase, and he offered a solemn smile. "Yes, Mother?"
"A letter just arrived from Lawen's commanding officer." She lifted it. "I thought you and Doctor Hesegg should be aware of its contents."
"Of course, Lady Mair," said the doctor.
She swept forward, skirts rustling against the stone floor. "According to the General's personal physician, Lawen is dying."
Gwyn's heart convulsed. His light eyes danced between Mother and the doctor, both shorter than him, and he felt as though they shrank in his sight, farther, farther. He was floating away. Not Lawen. Please not Lawen too.
"Lawen knows," Mother went on. "He knows and he's said nothing."
Gwyn's feet found solid ground again. "He doesn't wish to worry us, Mother."
Her grip tightened on the letter, crinkling it. "Doctor, is there anything you can do?"
"I've tried every treatment I can think of, my lady, and none have aided him in the least. All that is left in my power is to keep him somewhat comfortable until he either recovers or..." He shrugged.
Gwyn slipped away from Mother, the doctor, and the steward, to approach Lawen's door. He entered the darkened room and thought he might choke on the close, stale air. It smelled of sweat, blood, sickness. It smelled of death, not unlike when Father lay so still in his coverlets, ghost departed.
"Gwyn?" came a harsh whisper from the dark lump in the giant bed.
He moved silently forward. "Yes, Lawen. I'm here."
"You sound so grim. Is the doctor taking my cold too seriously?"
"General Cadogan sent a letter to Mother. We know how sick you are."
A deep sigh sounded in the gloom. "I am sorry he did that, Gwyn. I didn't want to worry you."
A surge of hot anger stabbed Gwyn's heart. He fisted his hands and trembled against an outburst. When he spoke, his voice was low and soft. "Did you think to deceive us until the very end, Lawen? Did you think the truth would be easier to bear when it was too late for farewells?"
The coverlet rustled and Gwyn thought he saw a thin hand rise from the darkness. "Come here, little brother."
Gwyn came, anger rolling away as affection filled him. He knelt beside the four-poster bed, clasped Lawen's hand, and felt tears prick at his burning eyes. He sought out his brother's face in the gloom, so gaunt and tight with illness, a sheen of sweat on his brow.
"Forgive me a coward's decision," Lawen whispered. "I didn't think I could abide seeing my death reflected in your eyes. In truth I've been sick a long while; Father alone knew of it, but I begged him to say nothing. I've sought help from all sorts of doctors, some less than reputable, but to no avail. And then Father was killed by the Ilidreth, and..." His voice broke. "Oh, Gwyn, I nearly died then. Father went to the Ilidreth for my sake. He heard they could cure what others can't, but of course it was folly for him to try. The Ilidreth hate humans."
Gwyn stared in horror, imagining how Father must have begged to be spared, if only long enough to save his son. Rage rang in his ears, but he swallowed hard and urged it to be silent. Anger, Father often told him, should never be given purchase in a man's mind; not if he wanted to be respectable. Not if he wanted to be wise.
When the rage stilled enough, Gwyn squeezed his brother's hand in reassurance. "I would forgive anything of which you're guilty, Lawen, but I don't see how you could be. I've never faced death for myself. How can I know how it feels?" He bowed his head to rest his brow against his brother's knuckles. He trembled, afraid, grieved. Lawen was so strong, so noble, an officer in the Crow King's army and... He swallowed hard. "The Ilidreth are so cruel."
"Not without reason," Lawen said with a sigh. "We've stripped them of their pride and forced them deeper into the woods as we've cut down their forest. We've been cruel to them, far more so than they to us."
"But the Ilidreth are a savage race," Gwyn said. "Had we not driven them off, they would kill every last one of us."
Lawen shook his head. "Would they, Gwyn? Or does the Crow King merely tell us so?"
Gwyn startled. He had never heard his brother speak of the king with anything other than the deepest respect. "Don't say such things, Lawen. If the king--"
"If the king weren't so blind, perhaps we would live in harmony with the Ilidreth. Perhaps our lands wouldn't be so impoverished. Perhaps the sun would be just a bit warmer, a bit brighter, because those who live under it would do so without the eye of a tyrant bearing down on us."
Gwyn stared, appalled. "Lawen, you mustn't--"
Lawen pulled his hand free of Gwyn, and gripped his shoulder with brittle fingers. "Listen to me, Gwynter. It seems a bittersweet gift is born in a dying man to see what he couldn't before. But perhaps my newborn sight will aid others where it avails me naught. The Crow King is not the great man we thought."
"Lawen," Gwyn said sharply. "You're ill. You're not thinking right."
Lawen hissed and his hand fell to his side. His breath grew more ragged. "I served him...Served him with high honor...Drove Ilidreth to their deaths, and--and did so many other horrible things. Things...I would undo if I possibly could. The Crow King is mad, Gwyn. Mad."
Gwyn's throat constricted. He fought to swallow and took Lawen's hand to clasp it tightly between his. "Hush, brother. You mustn't speak like this. 'Tis treason."
"What can the Crow King do to me now? I am dying."
Gwyn bit his lip. A crow beyond the curtained window gave a sharp caw, and wings beat hard against the air as it flew off, perhaps to the nearby wood. Gwyn let his mind's eye imagine the tall, ancient trees of that wood, where the Ilidreth dwelt. Father thought they had the cure.
He turned back to Lawen, but his brother had grown still, breaths deeper, though still so weak.
"You cannot die, dear brother. I won't let you die."
Perhaps Lawen's reckless words against the Crow King were infectious. Gwyn felt nothing whatever about the king himself, but that defiant spirit filled his being. Was it possible? Were the Ilidreth misunderstood -- those strange, ethereal beings who dwelt in the wooded vales of the world?
Father must have thought so, and he perished for it.
But if there was a cure, dare Gwyn not risk it?
He rested Lawen's hand on the coverlet, stroked his fingers once, and rose. Gwyn was only fourteen years of age. He was young, he knew that. But he was tall, and strong, accustomed to hunting, riding, and he knew the woods and how to navigate untamed lands.
Mother would never stand for him to go, especially in order to save the life of Father's first wife's son. But Gwyn loved his brother more than anyone in the world. If there was a whisper of hope, he must answer.
He would leave almost at once, under the pretense of the morning's chores. It would be hours before he was missed, and then Mother would find a note explaining his departure. By then it would be too late to stop him. None of the servants, none of the serfs or slaves, would venture into the woods even for their master.
The woods were lively as Gwyn trotted his dappled mare, Tia, along the well worn path. So near cultivated lands no Ilidreth would dwell, and so humans used the woods for lumber, trapping, hunting, foraging, or whatever else they could to secure a trade. Gwyn often came to hunt, or to learn the lay of moss or the turning of a leaf, as Father had taught him. Gwyn wanted to be a guide when he was young, but then Lawen joined the Crow King's army, and Gwyn decided to follow in his brother's footsteps. That would require the same skill-set he had spent his childhood honing.
It would be very handy now, especially when he left the path and entered less hospitable realms.
Gwyn packed light, only carrying two extra sets of clothing in order to make more room for food and medicinal supplies, a hunting knife, bow and arrow, and a short sword. Tia bore her burden well, content to walk the old familiar path, as she had countless times, oblivious of their objective.
It was midday before Gwyn eased Tia off the path and into the thick canopy of towering trees. Everything was vibrant green after the night's spring rain, and the ground was soft. Tia left prints behind for anyone to follow, but Gwyn knew they wouldn't.
Another twenty minutes passed before Tia nickered faintly, ears flicking in agitation.
"Easy, girl," Gwyn said, running a soothing hand along her neck. "Easy." His eyes darted around the trees, but he saw nothing strange. He urged her onward, and she obeyed, though reluctantly.
Again, five minutes later, she faltered and backed up. "Whoa, Tia. What is it?" He leaned forward to pat her neck, and stiffened as movement caught his eye. There, right of his course. A flash of color slinked behind a tree.
Gwyn straightened in the saddle and reached down to finger his hunting knife, wishing he'd had the sense to unstrap his bow from his pack before he entered the deeper wood. A stray breeze rustled the leaves overhead, stirring Gwyn's ponytail. Something stirred behind the tree Gwyn studied, and he thought he smelled blood.
Movement came again, and Gwyn realized what he'd been watching. A sleeve. A red sleeve from an army tabard. There was no arm in that sleeve and it stood too high to belong to a man. Gwyn felt his hair rise as he understood. He dismounted, wrapped Tia's reins around a branch of the nearest sapling, slid his hunting knife from the saddle scabbard, and crept toward the tabard.
He knew what to expect before he saw it. Rounding the tree, he lifted his gaze to find the red uniform pinned by arrows to the tree trunk. Despite its color, Gwyn recognized the dark stains on its front for what they were: Blood. Lots of it, especially near the heart and neckline. Lowering his eyes to the ground, Gwyn saw the telltale signs of a burial at his feet, where the ground had been raised and packed down under dancing feet.
The message was clear: Go no farther.
Gwyn returned to Tia, sheathed his blade, and swung into the saddle. He urged her onward again, grim but determined. He knew the risks. The warning of the Ilidreth made no difference.
Despite the gruesome sign, there was no incident as the day stretched on toward evening. Dusk settled over the wood early, stretching shadowed fingers across the green world. Gwyn knew better than to travel by night in this foreboding realm, and he set up camp at the first decent site he found. It was a wide dip in the earth, whose far side opened up to reveal a trickling stream of clean water. Fallen logs were plentiful, covered in moss, and dead branches littered the ground. He gathered these, along with what dry kindling there was, and used his flint and steel to make a flame. Soon a fire roared, chasing off a growing chill, at least for a while.
Gwyn next tied a canvas from the nearest fallen log and stretched it to the ground, pinned it there, and unfastened his bedroll to sleep beneath the makeshift shelter. He set a small pot of water over the flames to boil, then selected a long, straight stick from the ground to draw a circle around his little camp. Finished, he fingered a leathern cord at his throat, and murmured a prayer of protection. It wasn't much, perhaps superstition tied to faith, but Gwyn couldn't be too careful. Not with the Ilidreth.
He checked on Tia, tied to a nearby tree, fed her what wild grass he could find, and drew a circle around her to be safe. While he sought the Ilidreth, he wasn't about to let his guard down where one might find him and kill him before he could even open his mouth. Worse, he didn't want Tia to suffer. Ilidreth were said to be as cruel to animals as they were to men.
A quick cup of hot tea, a few bites of bread and cheese, and Gwyn curled up for the night. Despite how weary he was from the day's ride, his thoughts churned. For the first time he doubted himself. What had he been thinking, going off on his own in search of man's enemy? Yes, perhaps the Ilidreth did have a cure that would save Lawen's life. What good was that, if Gwyn died here, alone, just like Father?
He turned on his back and sighed, letting his thoughts drift out with his breath. The decision was already made, the journey begun. He could not turn back now, when this was his final hope. And if he succeeded, he felt as though he would not only be saving Lawen's life, but somehow he would be rescuing Father.
No, Gwynter ren Terare would not return home empty-handed.