Passage from chapter eleven of The Wandering Fire
The hunt started with the sunrise. The sky was a bright blue overhead, and the early rays of sunlight glittered on the snow. It was milder too, Dave thought, as if somehow the fact of midsummer was registering. Among the hunters there was an electric energy one could almost see. The erotic surges that had begun when they had first entered Gwen Ystrat were even deeper now. Dave had never felt anything like it in his life, and they said the priestesses would come out to them tonight. It made him weak just to think of it.
He forced his mind back to the morning’s work. He had wanted to hunt with the small contingent of the Dalrei, but horses weren’t going to be much use in the wood and Aileron had asked the Riders to join the bowmen, who were to ring the forest and cut down any wolves that tried to flee. Dave saw Diarmuid’s big lieutenant, Coll, unsling an enormous bow and ride over the bridge to the northwest with Torc and Levon.
It left an opening for him, he supposed, and somewhat reluctantly he walked over with his axe to where Kevin Laine stood joking with two other members of the Prince’s band. There was a rumor going about that they had gotten an early start on the midsummer festival last night, defying the orders of the two Kings. Dave couldn’t say he was impressed. It was one thing to carouse in town, another to be partying on the eve of battle.
On the other hand, none of them seemed the worse for it this morning, and he didn’t really know anyone else to join up with so he awkwardly planted himself by the Prince and waited to be noticed. Diarmuid was rapidly scanning his brother’s written instructions. When he finished, he looked up, noting Dave’s presence with his disconcertingly blue gaze.
“Room for one more?” Dave asked.
He was prepared for a jibe but the Prince said only, “Of course. I’ve seen you fight, remember?” He raised his voice very slightly, and the fifty or so men around him quieted. “Gather round, children, and I’ll tell you a story. My brother has outdone himself in preparing this. Here is what we are to do.”
Despite the frivolous tone, his words were crisp. Behind the Prince, Dave could see the eidolath, the honor guard of Cathal,
riding quickly off to the northeast behind Shalhassan. Nearby, Aileron himself was addressing another cluster of men, and, past him, Arthur was doing the same. It was going to be a pincer movement, he gathered, with the two hosts moving together from southwest and northeast.
The archers, about two hundred of them, were to ring the wood. The Cathalians were already along the line of the Kharn River, on the eastern edge, and across the northern boundary as far as the Latham. The bowmen of Brennin were posted from the Latham as well, in the north and then, at intervals, around to the south and west. The thinner copses east of the Kharn had already been checked and found empty, Diarmuid explained. The wolves were within the circle of Leinanwood itself and, if all went according to design, would soon be within the circle of the armies. The dogs were to be set loose to drive the wolves toward the forest center.
“Unless the perfidious wolves have the temerity to disobey the High King’s plans, we should meet Shalhassan’s forces by the Latham in mid-wood with the wolves between us. If they aren’t,” Diarmuid concluded, “we blame anyone and everything except the plan. Any questions?”
“Where are the mages? asked Kevin Laine. He always had questions, Dave thought. One of those. Couldn’t just get on with it.
But Diarmuid answered seriously. “We were going to have them. But something happened last night in the Temple. The sources are completely drained. Swords and arrows are all we can use this morning.”
And axes, Dave thought grimly. Didn’t need anything more. It was cleaner this way with the magic kept out of it. There were no more questions, and no time for more; Aileron had begun moving his company forward. Diarmuid, neat-footed and quick, led them across the Latham bridge to the left flank, and Dave saw Arthur’s company take the right.
They were on the southwestern edge of the wood, on the strip of land between forest and frozen lake. Around to the west and north Dave could see the archers, bows drawn, sitting on their horses where the wood thinned out.
Then Arthur signaled Aileron, and Dave saw the Warrior speak to his dog. With a howl, the grey dog exploded forward into Leinanwood and the hunting pack sprang after him. Dave heard faint answering sounds from the northern side as the other half of the pack was released. A moment the men waited; then the High King stepped forward, and they entered the wood.
It grew darker very suddenly, for even without leaves the trees were thick enough to screen the sun. They were moving northwest, before beginning their wide sweep back to the east, so Diarmuid’s flank, their own, was in the lead. Abruptly Dave became aware of the smell of wolf, sharp and unmistakable. All around them the dogs were barking, but not urgently. His axe carried at the ready, with its thong looped around his wrist, Dave strode with Kevin Laine on his left and the Dwarf named Brock, bearing an axe of his own, on his right, behind the figure of Diarmuid.
Then, off to their right, Cavall gave tongue again, so loudly that even someone who had never hunted before knew what the sound meant.
“Turn!” Aileron cried from behind them. “Spread out and turn, toward the river!”
Dave’s sense of direction was hopelessly gone by then, but he pointed his nose where Diarmuid went and, with quickening heart, set off to find the wolves.
They were found first.
Before they reached the river or the men of Cathal, the black and grey and brindle shapes were upon them. Scorning to be hunted, the giant wolves surged to the attack, and even as he swung the axe in a killing stroke, Dave heard the sounds of battle to the east as well. The men of Cathal had their own fight.
He had no more time to think. Swerving down and to his right, he dodged the fanged leap of a black beast. He felt claws shred his coat. No time to look back; there was another coming. He killed it with a chopping backhand slash, then had to duck, almost to his knees, as another leaped for his face. It was the last clear moment he remembered.
The battle became a chaotic melee as they twisted through the trees, pursuing and pursued. Within his breast Dave felt a surge of the obliterating fury that seemed to be his in battle, and he waded forward through snow red with blood, his axe rising and falling. In front of him all the time he saw the Prince, elegantly lethal with a sword, and heard Diarmuid singing as he killed.
He had no conception of time, could not have said how long it was before they broke through, he and the Prince, with Brock just behind. In front of him he could see the figures of the Cathalians across the frozen river. There were wolves to the right, though, engaging the center of the Brennin ranks and Arthur’s flank as well. Dave turned to go to their aid.
“Wait!” Diarmuid laid a hand on his arm. “Watch.”
Kevin Laine came up beside them, bleeding from a gash on his arm. Dave turned to watch the last of the battle on their side of the Latham.
Not far off, Arthur Pendragon, with grey Cavall by his side, was wreaking controlled destruction among the wolves. Dave had a sudden unexpected sense of how many times the Warrior had swung the blade he carried, and in how many wars.
But it wasn’t Arthur whom Diarmuid was watching. Following the Prince’s gaze, Dave saw, and Kevin beside him, the same thing Kimberly had seen a year before on a twilit path west of Paras Derval.
Aileron dan Ailell with a sword.
Dave had seen Levon fight, and Torc; he had watched Diarmuid’s insouciant deadliness and,
just now, Arthur’s flawless swordplay with never a motion wasted; he even knew how he battled in his own right, fueled by a rising tide of rage. But Aileron fought the way an eagle flew, or an eltor ran on the summer Plain.
It had ended on the other side. Shalhassan, bloody but triumphant, led his men down to the frozen waters of the Latham, and so they saw as well.
Seven wolves remained. Without a word spoken, they were left for the High King. Six were black, Dave saw, and one was grey, and
they attacked in a rush from three sides. He saw how the grey one died and two of the black, but he never knew what motion of the sword killed the other four.
It was very nearly silent in the wood after that. Dave heard scattered coughing on both sides of the river; a dog barked once, nervously; a man not far away swore softly at the pain of a wound he’d taken. Dave never took his eyes from the High King. Kneeling in the trampled snow, Aileron carefully wiped his blade clean before rising to sheath it. He glanced fleetingly at his brother, then turned, with an expression almost shy, to Arthur Pendragon.
Who said, in a voice of wonder, “Only one man I ever saw could do what you just did.”
Aileron’s voice was low but steady. “I am not him,” he said. “I am not part of it.”
“No,” said Arthur. “You are not part of it.”
After another moment, Aileron turned to the river. “Brightly woven, men of Cathal. A small blow only have we given the Dark this morning, but better that we have given it than otherwise. There are people who will sleep easier tonight for our work in this wood.”
Shalhassan of Cathal was splotched in blood from shoulders to boot and there were bloody smears in the forked plaits of his beard, but, kingly still, he nodded grave agreement. “Shall we sound the maron to end the hunt?” Aileron asked formally.
“Do so,” Shalhassan said. “All five notes, for there are six of us dead on this side of the river.”
“As many here,” said Arthur. “If it please you, High King, Cavall can give tongue for both triumph and loss.”
Aileron nodded. Arthur spoke to the dog.
Grey Cavall walked to an open space by the riverbank where the snow was neither trampled down nor red with wolf or dog or human blood. In a white place among the bare trees he lifted his head.
But the growl he gave was no sound of triumph nor yet of loss.
Dave would never be sure which caused him to turn, the dog’s snarled warning or the trembling of the earth. Faster than thought he spun.
There was an instant-less than that, a scintilla of time in the
space between seconds-and in it he had a flash of memory. Another wood: Pendaran. Flidais, the gnomelike creature with his eerie chants. And one of them: Beware the boar, beware the swan, the salt sea bore her body on.
Beware the boar.
He had never seen a creature like the one that rumbled now from the trees. It had to be eight hundred pounds, at least, with savage curving tusks and enraged eyes, and it was an albino, white as the snow all around them.
Kevin Laine, directly in its path, with only a sword and a wounded shoulder, wasn’t going to be able to dodge it, and he hadn’t a hope in hell of stopping the rush of that thing.
He had turned to face it. Bravely, but too late, and armed with too little. Even as the bizarre memory of Flidais exploded and he heard Diarmuid’s cry of warning, Dave took two quick steps, let go of his axe, and launched himself in a lunatic, weaponless dive.
He had the angle, sort of. He hit the boar with a flying tackle on the near side shoulder, and he put every ounce of his weight and strength into it.
He was bounced like a Ping-Pong ball from a wall. He felt himself flying, had time to realize it, before he crashed, pinwheeling, into the trees.
“Kevin!” he screamed and tried, unwisely, to stand. The world rocked. He put a hand to his forehead and it came away covered with blood. There was blood in his eyes; he couldn’t see. There was screaming, though, and a snarling dog, and something had happened to his head. There was someone on the ground and people running everywhere, then a person was with him, then another. He tried to rise again. They pushed him back. They were talking to him. He didn’t understand.
“Kevin?” he tried to ask. He couldn’t form the name. Blood got in his mouth. He turned to cough and fainted dead away from the pain.
It hadn’t actually been bravery, or foolish bravado either-there had been no time for such complex things. He’d been at the back and
heard a grunt and a trampling sound, so he’d been turning, even before the dog barked and the earth began to shake under the charge of the white boar.
In the half second he’d had, Kevin had thought it was going for Diarmuid and so he yelped to get its attention. Unnecessary, that, for the boar was coming for him all way.
Strange how much time there seemed to be when there was no time at all. At least somebody wants me, was the first hilarious thought that cut in and out of his mind. But he was quick, he’d always been quick, even if he didn’t know how to use a sword. He had no place to run and no way on earth of killing this monster. so, as the boar thundered up, grunting insanely and already beginning to raise its tusks to disembowel him, Kevin, timing it with coolest precision, jumped up in a forward somersault, to put his hands on the stinking white fur of the boar’s huge back and flip over it like a Minoan bull dancer, to land in the soft snow.
In theory, anyway.
Theory and reality began their radical bifurcation around the axis formed by the flying figure of Dave Martyniuk at precisely the point where his shoulder crashed into that of the boar.
He moved it maybe two inches, all told. Which was just enough to cause Kevin’s injured right arm to slip as he reached for the hold that would let him flip. He never got it. He was lying sprawled on top of the boar, with every molecule of usable air cannonballed out of his lungs, when some last primitive mechanism of his mind screamed roll, and his body obeyed.
Enough so that the tusk of the animal in its vicious, ripping thrust tore through the outer flesh of his groin and not up and through it to kill. He did his somersault in the end and came down, unlike Dave, in snow.
There was a lot of pain, though, in a very bad place and there were droplets of his blood all over the snow like red flowers.
It was Brock who turned the boar away from him and Diarmuid who planted the first sword. Eventually there were a number of swords; he saw it all, but it was impossible to tell who struck the killing blow.
They were very gentle when it came time to move him and it would have been rude, almost, to scream, so he gripped the branches of his makeshift stretcher until he thought his hands had torn through the wood, and he didn’t scream.
Tried one joke as Diarmuid’s face, unnaturally white, loomed up. “If it’s a choice between me and the baby,” he mumbled, “save the baby.” Diar didn’t laugh. Kevin wondered if he’d gotten the joke, wondered where Paul was, who would have. Didn’t scream.
Didn’t pass out until one of the stretcher bearers stumbled over a branch as they left the forest.
© Guy Gavriel Kay