The black colt had turned out to be all Beric had hoped of him: not tall, but gentle and willing, with strong legs and a mane and tail that grew long, a fine source of bowstrings.
He cantered across the green headland, the salt wind in his face blowing his hair back and the crying of the gulls all around him, and looked down: down across the sunlit rocks, spring-bright with violets and yellow primrose just showing in the shelter of the crags, to the sea, and the spray that flung wild and white from the Killer Rock.
Some might think he should have a grudge against that rock. It had taken his birth-mother and his birth-father on that wild night of shipwreck, years ago.
Sometimes he wondered what they had looked like, what they might think of him, that Roman soldier and his wife, who had lived a life so entirely different to Beric’s. They had known the familiar shore of home only as a terrible roaring in darkness.
There had been days when he had looked down at it, dark among the surf, and mourned. There had been that bitter time, just as he had begun his weapons training when the other boys had called him Roman, stranger, even though they had known him since he had been a few weeks old. He had had to fight Cathlan to keep his place among them, and for a little while nothing that his new mother and father could say or do dulled the hurt.
But that was over long ago. Cathlan was his best friend now, and in the end, the Killer Rock was just a rock raising spray in the warm sunset light. There had been the bitter hungry winter this year, and the fever that had come with spring had set a few people in the village muttering about the Roman orphan brat and ill-luck. But Cathlan had stood by him, and his father had set a hand on his shoulder and told him not to worry about the bleating of foolish old men. Now lambing was over, the fishing-boats would be going out soon and that would mean more to eat for everyone.
He smiled at the thought of his mother’s fish stew, hot from her fine, big cooking-pot, and urged the colt back towards the village, his brindle hound running lightly at heel.
They leaped the small stream that ran under the old apple tree as one, hound and horse together. When he could see the tall pointed roof of home ahead in the dappled evening shade of the hazel woods, he dropped lightly from the colt’s back and let him take his own path back to the rest of the horse-herd.
He ducked through the doorway into the dim firelit room, and his mother’s little black cat came trotting up to greet him, almost tripping him as she danced joyfully before his feet, winding her thin body between his ankles.
But his mother looked strained and was frowning worriedly into the stew-pot. His father Cunori was elsewhere, at the Council fire — discussing him. “You must bide until you are summoned,” Mother said grimly. Beric’s stomach knotted and his appetite vanished.
“They all think it was through me that the lambing was bad this year, and the pestilence has come,” he said, feeling the bitter unfairness of it. “Why do they think that?”
Mother had an unhappy twist to her mouth. “Not all of them,” she told him. “Not all of them, Little Cub, remember that, and remember that we love you. It’s that fool Istoreth, stirring up trouble again. I think he’s forgotten he ever wanted me as his wife; the gods know I never gave him any reason to. He only remembers he has a grudge against your father, and that means he has a grudge against you.”
Father came in then, looking worried and upset, and he could not meet Beric’s eyes, which upset Beric too. “Come down to the fire,” he said. “And... you had best bring your weapons with you.”
Beric took up the feather-tufted spear and shield, and drew a deep breath. He was proud of the spear, with its long blue-grey heron feathers, but he would very much have liked to leave it in its place, and sit by the fire with his father and his little brothers. Foster-brothers, he thought unhappily, and that felt wrong. He had known Arthmail and Arthgal since they were small and red and squalling, could remember no other mother than Guinear who was watching him now, her face pale and hurt.
The sun had set behind the tall hillside behind the village, though there was still a clear light in the sky. In the center of the village, the people were gathered, red light from the great fire in the centre glancing on faces. Men, women, children, hounds. Many eyes, watching as he came down the well-known path out of the dusk and stood before Amgerit the Chieftain’s place near the fire, while Amgerit called for counsel. He caught Cathlan’s eye where he sat among the men, and saw that Cathlan too was afraid.
Istoreth spoke first, fierce and vengeful, his face flickering red in the firelight, accusing Beric of bringing down ill-luck upon the Clan, not by will, but by his very blood, which called the disfavour of the Gods upon them.
Father tried to oppose him, as he had clearly been doing all evening; saying that Beric had done nothing wrong, that he had obeyed all the laws of the Clan, but the Chieftain’s face was turned to Istoreth, and he did not seem to be listening.
Rhiada the old harper spoke, calling on Beric to speak and defend himself, as he had done once before. But a cold hard stone was forming in Beric’s chest, formed of misery and despair, and all he could think of was that the people he had thought his own did not want him.
He made a small, hopeless gesture with one hand. There was no fire left in him to fight any more.
Then Cathlan stood up, and pushed through the crowd to stand beside him, shoulder to shoulder, and held up a hand before he could speak.
“Listen to me, O my brothers!” Cathlan cried out to the torch-lit village, his round freckled face filled with passion. “Listen, O Chieftain! You have said that Beric here is not of our blood and that through him, the ill-favor of the Gods has come to the clan. But I am of your blood, is there anyone to challenge that?” He glared around, meeting surprised and angry eyes. Beric felt a sudden rush of warmth around the coldness in his chest, as Cathlan laid his raised hand on Beric’s shoulder.
“We have heard all sorts of talk tonight of how old Merddyn the druid said that Beric would bring evil times upon the Clan, he and his blood of the Red Crests. But old Merddyn was the last of his kind. They are dead and gone, and have the Red Crests suffered for that?”
And old Rhiada the harper, sitting on his deerskin, raised his head as if at the sound of a distant trumpet, and said: “No. The songs of old that I learned when I was a youth spoke of terrible woe that would come if a Druid’s word should be denied, if they were not given their choice of beast and children, if any chieftain should march against them. But we all know that the Red Crests marched on the Isle of Môn, and the Druids died. I can see no sign that the Red Crests have suffered for that.”
“Exactly!” Cathlan exclaimed. “They sit fat and happy in Isca Dumnoniorum! Their armies marched through our land, and their traders sail our coasts for all the curses that Merddyn and his kind poured out upon them.”
Amgerit the Chieftain frowned and pulled on the ends of his moustache. “You say that Merddyn had no right to foretell?” He made the sign to avert evil with his hand, and there were many among the crowd who did the same.
Cathlan had clearly run out of things to say, and he shot a desperate look at Rhiada.
“I say that old Merddyn was...mistaken.” Rhiada answered in his clear, melodic voice. “Beric was a child cast up upon our shore, a gift of the Sea. If he had been old enough to claim guest-right, all would have thought it would bring ill-luck to refuse him food and shelter, and yet that is what Merddyn would have had us do. I say that Merddyn was old, and heard strange voices in his ears that he mistook for truth.”
Mutterings in the crowd at that, and Istoreth said “Would you also challenge the Gods? I say he is unlucky!”
Cathlan’s face flushed dark under his freckles at that, and his grip on Beric’s shoulder tightened. “And I say the blood of the Red Crests is strong,” he said. “Strong enough to slay a wolf that came to take one of our sheep. He would have had me by the throat if Beric had not stood beside me. It was the best of luck for me that Beric was there and not off among the Red Crests. I say we keep that good luck by us!”
“The Gods do not always speak with one voice,” Rhiada said, lifting his own voice so that he could be heard among the hubbub.
Amgerit’s eyebrows flared upwards, and he looked for the first time as if he were having second thoughts. “What do you mean?”
“You have heard me sing of Nodens, of his kingdom of the Sea,” Rhiada said, and his voice was lilting now, as if he were almost about to sing. “Nodens is a hunter, a master of hounds and a healer of fevers, and I have heard that he is no enemy of the Red Crests, for they too worship him in their own manner.”
There was uproar among the crowd at those last words. People were no longer muttering to one another, they were talking out loud, and some of them were shouting and waving their arms. Istoreth was trying to say something, his face dark with anger but Beric could not hear him.
Beric felt torn in two. Half of him wanted to have done with it all, to walk out into darkness and leave them all behind. They didn’t want him? Well then, he would find someone that did. But Cathlan met his eye and gave him a determined grin, and his father was looking at the Chieftain’s frowning face with that hurt, puzzled look in his eyes.
The noise of the crowd was dying, and Beric was going to have to say something. It would be better, really, if he went away. Better for everyone, he thought, and could not quite make himself believe it. Heads in the crowd were turning away from him, and he wondered what they were looking at.
The crowd parted, though not in the way that it had parted for Beric, with scowling disapproval. This time, the Clan hushed and drew apart in respect, as a tiny grey-haired lady leaning heavily upon a stick limped towards the fire. It was Veloriga, the Chieftain’s mother, and behind her, gnawing at her thumbnail, her eyes narrow and desperate, was Beric’s mother Guinnear.
“Amgerit!” the lady Veloriga said, in a thin high voice that was somehow audible to everyone present. She made her way slowly over to him, and tapped him with the end of her stick when he did not move quickly enough to allow her to sit down. “What’s all this that Guinnear tells me about banishing her Beric?” She waved her stick at Beric to emphasize her words.
“We are still having words about that,” Amgerit told her, frowning and playing with the ends of his drooping mustache. “A good many of the Clan feel the lad’s unlucky. It’s the bad blood in him, the blood of the Eagles, making the lambs miscarry, and bringing down the fever on us all.”
“My son has no bad blood in him...” Guinnear began to protest, but Veloriga lifted a thin and knobbly finger for silence, and she broke off.
“Amgerit, my son, I am only your poor old mother, and have no loud voice to speak among your hunters,” Veloriga said, her thin high voice wavering, and the Chieftain pulled up his shoulders defensively. “And yet, surely the Clan has not forgotten that it is not only lambs that have been lost this last spring. Here is a fine strong young man, who has no fever on him, just coming into his full strength.”
“Yes, but...” Istoreth began, and the knobbled finger raised again to silence him.
“I am still speaking, Istoreth,” she said, and a strange silence settled across the crowd, as if they had been, all of them, engulfed in a night-mist rolling silent in from the sea. Only the sound of the fire crackling to itself could be heard for a long moment.
“Beric!” she said, suddenly, and broke the silence like the thin morning ice on a puddle. “Do you wish to stay here among our people?”
Beric looked at his mother, and answered in one word. “Yes!”
“So then,” she said, nodding her ancient head. “So then. And who speaks for you among the hunters?”
“I do!” Cathlan said, so quickly that his father’s voice was like an echo, half-a-beat behind.
“So then, the friend and the father and the mother speak for him. And so will I.”
“And I,” Rhiada said swiftly, and met her sharp glance with the beginnings of a smile.
“And who among the hunters of the Clan speaks against?” the Chieftain said, his voice half-protesting.
Beric tensed for the voices, but the silence spun around the fire fell again, and Beric’s heart leaped for a moment in hope. Then Istoreth said, defiant. “I do. And old Merddyn foresaw that he would bring ill-luck upon us, for Beric has the blood of our enemy running in his veins!”
“The blood of our enemy!” the Chieftain’s mother said, and laughed a high, silvery laugh. “Ah me. And I remember too, in the days when your father was a young man, Amgerit, and Istoreth’s was a sticky babe, we rode out, your father and I, and saw the Eagles when they came marching west, a great iron snake of them across the land. I have seen the Red Crests at war, I, alone of all the Clan, remember them as they were then. I would not anger their Gods if I were you, Istoreth, for they have long memories, and a heavier hand than ours.”
“But if the blood of the Red Crests angers our own Gods...” Istoreth argued, with an angry look at Beric and his father.
Veloriga cut him off. “They came here long ago, Istoreth, and as armies do, they left their mark. The heather grew across the ashes of their fires long ago, but their blood... ah, Istoreth.” She looked out meditatively over the faces staring at her in the firelight, seeking out one, and then another, and another, and fixing them with her eyes. “They were handsome men, those Romans. Not tall, but well-made, and... generous with gifts.”
One of the old women in the crowd let out a sudden coarse cackling laugh, and Veloriga beamed at her, an old-woman smile, bright with mischief. Beric blinked in astonishment as his mother stifled a laugh.
Amgerit the Chieftain said hastily, “Mother, enough! This is a matter for the men of the Clan, and Rhiada has told us already that it may well be that Beric is under the protection of Nodens, and sent to us as his gift. So then. Are we agreed, O Hunters of the Clan, that Beric should stay among us?”
There were eyes darting from side to side in the crowd, and Istoreth looked as if he might be about to explode, though he did not say anything more. But Beric’s mother came up on the side where Cathlan was not standing, and she took Beric’s hand, and he knew that he had a place here after all.
“The Clan is agreed, then. Beric will stay. But I cannot have this foolishness rearing its head again,” the Chieftain said, and there was indignation in his voice, the indignation of a man who had made up his mind and then had been forced to change it. He frowned at Beric, and then at Cathlan, russet eyebrows bristling. “Since the two of you are young and strong, and the wolf-winter is well past now, you two shall go out with the fishing boats, instead of running with the hunters or working the sheep. Thus, the hunters shall be spared any anger of the gods of the land, and if Beric is indeed favored of Nodens, the fishing-fleet will catch all the more.”
Beric caught his breath. “Cathlan too?”
“Yes, Cathlan too! I will not have my hunters butting heads like stags in autumn. If both of you are out on the water there will be no more of this nonsense,” Amgerit declared, and grinned at the pair of them and then at Istoreth.
Beric caught Cathlan’s eye, and then they were both smiling, a little sheepishly, while Beric’s mother threw her arms around him, weeping.
It would be a new adventure, and not an easy one. The Clan’s fishing-boats ranged up and down the coast, and even across to the lands of the north, and the life could be a hard one, they both knew that. But they would go into it together, and together would come home to the Clan where they belonged.