Saturday
Sep272014

The Outpost

Joe Aguilar and Kate McIntyre


 

One day, we were rolling dice on the battlement when Merfyn spotted a rider who galloped toward us with such force the valley shook. Our two archers rose ready.

Behind the first rider emerged another man on a tiny horse, a ridiculous sight, but soon we saw the horseman was a giant on a big horse. I moved behind a turret where I hoped Merfyn wouldn't notice. Something rattled behind me. It was Degrevant trembling. I took his hands in mine and we peeked through an arrow slit. The first rider was a woman. A woman! Her hair flailed out around her shoulders as she bent forward, whipping the horse with her fist. The giant loomed behind her. It made me sick. The woman's horse saw our dogs and it bucked her and fled. The giant grabbed her by her hair but he fell with arrows through his throat.

Degrevant and I hurried down to join the other men. The giant was dead, and the woman was unconscious. Around her throat a necklace clamped so tightly that blood scabbed the gold and we could not remove it. Her dress was gory from a puncture in her side. Merfyn and I carried her to a bed and she didn't wake when Merfyn left so I could bathe her. I washed her tenderly, sponging the blood from the wound, which, though deep, was clean. Her ribs were fine as needles.

 

Degrevant thought she might be an idiot but Merfyn didn't know. She wandered through the outpost with one hand on her hurt side and the other feeling over walls. Her large eyes were unevenly sized. Her hands were smaller than ours. She would slump alone in our kitchen, poking her cut of meat, her neck bruised around the necklace. It began to snow over the trees, in the hills.

 

The woman called us to her room. She said her name was Blodeuwedd. She had been taken from her father's house in Gorllewin Cymru by a horseman in red armor and she was held in his castle. Each night the horseman told her to sleep with him but she wouldn't, so he locked a necklace on her neck that matched his own, and it tightened each day she refused. He demanded thirty cows from her father, who hired a mercenary to get her back, but the red horseman killed the mercenary and stabbed her with his spear. She stole a servant's horse. The red horseman's giant chased her for three days. She happened on our post. "Please," she begged us, "you have to kill the horseman and help me get back to my father."

"What if we kill him and then we can't get your necklace off?" asked Merfyn. An astute question.

"It will unlatch when he dies," Blodeuwedd said, and on a map, our tracker Nils found the borough she had fled, in the wilds, far from Owain's battles. Merfyn and I and a few others promised to track down the horseman in the morning, though I worried about going on a long journey for a dazed woman we didn't know. Degrevant seemed to agree, saying, "There's no quest like a futile one, and no futile quest like one for a lady!"

Blodeuwedd turned her larger eye on each of us. Merfyn stared back with frightening intensity. I couldn't meet her look long. Later Offa told me he felt the winter in her gaze.

 

"Such a beautiful lady," Degrevant said. "But I don't trust her."

"Why not?" said Merfyn.

"Instinct."

"Your instincts are wrong," said Merfyn.

"Oh, but a quest!" cried Offa.

"We are getting fat," I said.

"But what if we kill the horseman and her necklace chokes her anyway?" Degrevant said. "She'll die before we're back."

"We won't execute the horseman without getting the necklace's secret," Merfyn said.

"Torture!" said Offa.

"For Glyndwr," said Merfyn. "By any means."

"I like it," said Offa.

"I don't know. The outpost won't be safe while we're gone," said Degrevant. "Not enough swords."

"We'll leave the archers. They murdered that giant," Merfyn said.

Though I loved Merfyn, I questioned his bold talk. He hadn't killed anything but chickens. His courage, I hoped, would carry us through.

 

Late that night, I snuck to the larder, looking for dried meat to gnaw. Although I'd drunk plenty at supper, the quest kept me up. Candlelight glowed near the entrance. Somebody was inside. The air smelled like strawberries. I shone my torch forward. "Hello," I called, "Nothing like a midnight breakfast, brother," but even as I said it, I saw not a brother, but a fiend slobbering over the jam pot, hair in its face. When it saw me it leaped at me and shoved me over. My torch went out. To my astonishment I heard it scurry up the wall, out the high window. I righted myself and ran down the stairs to a lower window. Nothing could have survived such a fall, but the moon showed only the plain.

Back in our bedroom, I tried to shake Merfyn awake, but he was too drunk. It would be stupid to disturb anyone else. I didn't know what I'd seen. It must have been a raccoon. Though how could a raccoon push me over, how could it climb the wall? I decided I had seen nothing at all.

 

We were: Merfyn, myself, Degrevant, Offa, Nils the tracker. Merfyn allowed me his second best horse, Breiddon, who was gentlest. Our gear was in good shape considering its lack of use. Merfyn, always moderate, could just fit in his suit and helmet. Offa, the fattest of us, gave me his leather tunic. Degrevant's suit fit snugly in what he claimed was the fashion of the continent.

 

It was invigorating to ride through the snow-driven hill pathways to the gnarled mountains, wrapped in capes, telling jokes. I was like Saint David or Saint Teilo, outdoors, free. We felt alive, the Great Mortality that had taken our fathers long over. The muscular rear of Merfyn's horse shifted in front of me. New snow whiffed under hooves. The sun was bright.

"This is good," said Offa. "I hope we never find the horseman."

"Smell that bracken?" said Nils. "It's so thick the scent comes through the snow."

When we stopped to look back, the outpost was only a smudge in the valley white as bone.

"You've got to wonder how much the outpost matters when it looks so small," said Merfyn. The piney air smelled nice after the manure and sawdust in the stable, though I do like those smells. Our Lord was born in a stable. I hadn't been in the mountains since last spring when we poked bouquets through holes in our shirts and rode our horses through the wildflowers.

We camped under a rock at the forest's edge and played memory games by the fire, like boys.

 

The next morning we entered the forest. We heard only the occasional thump of a tree shedding snow. But then there was a squeal. The noise seemed animal, maybe even human.

"Let's keep going," Degrevant said.

"If someone's in trouble, we have to help her," Merfyn said.

"A badger, I bet. I can't tell if it's a sow," Nils said.

It squalled louder. "Shut up!" cried Offa.

"In here," said Merfyn, guiding his horse off the path.

We found a white hind fallen in a ditch with its leg under a boulder. When she saw us approach, she struggled and cried louder. I couldn't believe she'd survived being trapped under such a big stone.

We heaved it away. She sprang up on three legs, the fourth dangling, and she began to whine and paw at the edge of the boulder. We helped her dig. We uncovered a door flat in the ground, behind which a man seemed to thump and howl. Even Offa couldn't break the lock. The butts of our swords didn't work either.

I suggested we come up with a new plan, but Merfyn said Blodeuwedd's problem was too urgent, and we didn't have enough food. I tried to talk the others into it, but Degrevant said if you try to save all men you'll save none, and I felt surprised by the condescension in his voice. I'd had no issues with him.

Mouths near the door, we reassured the hind's buried master. "We'll be back soon," I said. Nobody should face death without hope. I lay a handful of grass I had dug from the snow over the door.

 

I rode behind the company carrying Merfyn's other sword, his gold, his helmet, his breastplate, and his holy water. I hoped that the buried man had no hungry children waiting, or, Lord help me, trapped with him.

I heard a rustle. The hind limped behind us. She looked like a ghost. I didn't tell the others. What if she were a fiend sent to punish us? When night fell I lost sight of her.

 

We crossed hills, trotted valleys, forged over a slick ancient bridge built from a polished green stone Nils couldn't name. We saw the distant peak of Yr Wydda, the highest point Nils knew. We passed rings of crumbling rock, hill forts abandoned when, Nils explained, weather changes made crops fail. Nils said we should find the fortress any day. I kept any doubt private.

One night by the fire, I watched Nils studying his map after the others had fallen asleep. He looked at it, then turned it upside down and looked more. He gave it a quarter-turn to the left.

"Are we close?" I asked.

"Definitely," Nils said, "whether the map agrees or not."

 

Our tunics hung on us. Our helmets wobbled. I ran my hands over my chest and felt muscle. It was like touching a better man. The cold worsened. Our horses tired quickly. We knocked holes in frozen ponds so they could drink. A haze filled the air and blew up to a blizzard that blurred our vision. The horses sat down. We made our camp. Wind carried Nils's map away. Our lips bled. One morning Breiddon lay upturned on his side. Mucus had frozen around his nostrils and his eye stared. 

 

That night around the fire, Degrevant sautéed slices from Breiddon's flank with chestnuts and wild onion. It surprised me I didn't feel more regret. My friends lowered their heads into their hands. The firelight shadowed Merfyn's flat cheeks. The light of the fire and moon shone too brightly to lie: We were changed, and the easy days were gone.

"Why are you staring like an idiot?" said Degrevant.

"We're in bad shape, men," I said, "We've got to turn back if we aren't going to find this horseman."

"How can you suggest such a cowardly thing?" said Merfyn.

"We have lots of meat," said Offa. "But my stomach hurts."

"Hear hear," said Degrevant. "And the terrain is treacherous."

Nils laughed and said, "We are definitely on track. The map may be gone, but you see the dry compass?"

It was shaped like a turtle—a lodestone filled its belly and a wire ran to the tail, which should have pointed north, but the tail spun around, which made me doubtful. Nils kicked the tail off. "North is where I say it is," he said. "I know how the conifer moss grows," he said. "I know the way in my bones. Don't worry," he said. He was laughing softly, looking at the palms of his hands, turning them in the firelight.

"Chins up, everybody!" Merfyn said. "Soon we'll reach the red horseman's fortress and we'll kill him. Maybe Blodeuwedd will be so grateful she'll marry one of us." Merfyn was the only one who wanted a wife.

 

Nils disappeared overnight, taking his pack and horse and most of Breiddon's meat and the dry compass's lodestone, though he left the turtle's tail behind. Merfyn grasped the tail and pointed the way. We didn't know what else to do but follow. I rode with Offa on his horse, what remained of poor Breiddon bouncing in saddlebags by our feet.

Miraculously, our trail took us the right way. Seven red towers rose below us in the valley. Merfyn puffed his cheeks in pride and I recognized my friend.

The red fortress nestled near a dry riverbed, the banks clogged with birches and willow. We tied up our horses to a tree and pulled on our armor.

We crouched in a thicket to scout and Offa settled in an awkward squat that made him pitch forward so his helmet fell off, rolling far down the hill, dinging off roots and rocks, until it caught in a birch near the fortress wall. Merfyn swore quietly and Offa scrambled back to position. Merfyn held up his hand for silence.

A small man appeared at the edge of the moat with his hands on his hips. He lowered the bridge and walked to where the helmet dangled in the tree. The small man turned toward us. "Hello," he called. "Who is it?" We huddled closer.

"He can't see us," said Degrevant.

"Hey! I see you," yelled the small man.

"He sees us," I said.

Offa vomited loudly.

"Who's sick? Can I help?" the small man asked, drawing his hand to his brow and peering theatrically toward us. Merfyn rose and stepped out, though I tried to catch his sleeve. "Cover him," I cried to the others. Degrevant crouched lower. Offa rolled onto his back to rub his belly.

I scrambled after Merfyn, who now stood with the small man. "Hello," said Merfyn, "I am Merfyn, scion of Maglocunus the Conquerer, progeny of Cunedda and atavus of Maelgwn Gwynedd the Exalted. We're looking for the red horseman, who we've heard lives here." He gestured toward the fortress.

"Excuse me for not meeting your eye, Merfyn," the small man replied, "As you can see, my back is bent, and I can't raise my chin." He turned to show us his hump.

"My uncle Robert ap Gwilym Ddu the Mighty had the same problem. He couldn't ride a horse," Merfyn said, his eyes filling.

"I can't swing a sword, or set a cooking pot over a fire, or raise my head properly, or do anything. Plus I've been sick lately."

"Is the red horseman home?" Merfyn said.

"No," cried the small man, "he's been gone two weeks. He told me he was off to hunt some hinds, but he packed only one day's provisions. I was sure that you were him, or that you had news of him."

"Chin up, brave lad," Merfyn said. The men in the thicket snickered.

"Thanks. Please come in. It's so lonely without Ieuan. We kept a giant, too, who wasn't good company, but I'd welcome him even now."

"Where's the giant gone?" Merfyn said.

"Oh, he's wandered off, like giants do," the small man said airily.

"Come out, men," Merfyn shouted. "Tonight we sleep in safety."

 

The hunchbacked chinless man showed us to a room with dozens of beds. A servant swept the room as we bathed and dressed in new robes. We joined the small man in an enormous dining room with windows that let us see each other in the light. Degrevant's forehead was grooved like an ocean shore. Skin hung around Offa's jaw. Merfyn had gray in his beard.

We were served caws pobi on oat bread with bowls of salted cockles and tumblers of bitter aperitifs. As we ate and drank our faces brightened and our tongues loosened. "How do you know the red horseman?" Degrevant asked the small man. "You don't act like a servant." I felt embarrassed by Degrevant's rudeness. We were guests.

The small man said, "I'm his younger brother."

"What do you do in the fortress?" Degrevant said. Offa and I looked at each other uneasily.

"Oh, I'm a handyman and caretaker when my brother's gone," the small man said. He stood and bent to gather the dirty dishes and his robe opened, exposing a necklace. The man hastily tied the robe. Merfyn smiled. He had seen.

"What's your home like?" the small man said.

Offa launched into a long story of a turkey-cooking competition, a story he liked because his bird won. He was explaining the nuances of the rub, the herbs he collected and stuffed in the bird, the hand-churned butter he'd smeared in the cavity, when Merfyn jumped on the table, sword drawn. The horseman's brother shielded his face but Merfyn beat the brother's arm away and held the sword at the brother's throat, demanding the truth.

The brother opened and shut his mouth, as if gathering enough saliva for words. "Merfyn, I haven't lied since you arrived at my door, and it's rude to stand in boots on my table. I'm sick."

We had our hands on our hilts, but the brother appeared unarmed. The vein pulsed below the necklace. His lips sputtered soundlessly. He did look sick. "You're lying," Merfyn said. "What's around your neck? Blodeuwedd had one like it when she came to us for help. She says the red horseman wore it too. What do you have to say to that?"

"I admit I'm the red horseman, but you are wrong, because that woman," the brother began, "oh, that woman is death." This was the red horseman's last sentence, for Merfyn slipped his sword through the horseman's throat and the horseman sunk facedown into a pudding.

"The liar lies dead," muttered Merfyn. We waited. The horseman's neck gurgled on the table.

"He's taken the secret of the necklace to the grave," Degrevant said.

We ran through the halls with our naked swords in our fists and the servants fled.

 

Merfyn suggested searching for clues to the red horseman's true nature among his belongings. At the very least, we could steal some valuables. We found the red horseman's bedroom. We broke the door down. I poked a long-handled broom under the horseman's bed but only found nutshells. We searched the anterooms. We scoured the chests of drawers, the feather mattress, the suits of armor, the tapestries, even stinking garderobe chutes.

"Hey hey!" said Merfyn, emerging from a red robe hung on a wall. "Look at this." He pulled the robe back to reveal an oak door. Merfyn told us the door's engraving said: "DO NOT OPEN AT RISK OF MORTAL PAIN." We pushed inside.

It was dark and smelled like dust and old wax. Offa sneezed, which stirred the dust, and soon we all sneezed, bent with the force of our exhalations. A light shone behind us and we turned to see Degrevant, who passed his torch to Merfyn, who lit torches along the walls. The room was long and narrow. Two deal tables ran along either side, and a writing table loomed at the back. Above the writing table hung a coat of arms, gules, a lion rampant regardant or, a border engrailed of the last. Scrolls were everywhere. Some were rolled neatly on rods, while others were folded or laid in sheathes or wadded up.

"Nothing worth looting here," Offa said.

"Wait," said Merfyn. He snatched a clutch of scrolls and read aloud. They were filled with miscellanea: one listed goose recipes, another had embarrassing bits of a poem the young red horseman wrote about a tutor ("how when she bends to fix the tense/she dusts the dust/from that which beats inside my breast"), another revealed torments he'd endured from an adolescent giant gardener. Merfyn flung the scrolls down and left for the bedchamber. Everyone except Degrevant followed, and soon we'd found a drawer of gold rings, one with a ruby, a pearl-handled dagger, and a silver chalice with a lion on it. In the armory we traded our armor for lighter and richer gear. We found the cellar, which we investigated so thoroughly that we emptied a hogshead of Madeira.

Degrevant found us drunk in the cellar late that night. He marched us back upstairs, where he forced us to hear him read aloud from a scroll he'd found in a secret desk compartment:

"9 June: Odd, beautiful woman wandered out of wood. No horse. No memory. Took her in.

"11 June: Likes sweetmeats. Brushed my hair by the lake. Prefers old mead to new. Long fingernails. Killed a fly between her hands. It resurrected. She seemed surprised.

"12 June: I woke to find her looking at me. Her hair flew. She dropped her candle. Her hands grabbed my neck. I struggled but desire to struggle left me. In the morning, an adamantine necklace was where her hands had been. In a burst of joy—for wasn't this a sign she loved me—I searched for her. Larder emptied. Precious objects gone. Ceiri and his saddle missing. The other horses dead. Horrors! Found the giant in the fields. Armed him with spear and sent him after her. Dark now. My body hurts."

 

Merfyn grabbed the scroll and held it to his face. Offa trembled. Degrevant spat. I pictured Blodeuwedd as we'd seen her first, terrified, pale, odd. I remembered the fiend in the larder. What evil!

"We've been pursuing the wrong villain," Degrevant said. "I pray our friends at the fortress are safe from the demoness."

"Demoness?" cried Merfyn. "On top of all she's suffered, you question her name in my presence?"

We gaped at Merfyn as if he'd grasped his sword by its blade.

"Merfyn," Offa said, "You're very chivalrous. But isn't this maybe a little thick? How do you explain the scroll?"

"Simple. He knew we were coming, through some psychic power, and wrote it to confuse us."

Degrevant snorted. I wanted to accept this explanation, I tried, but I couldn't. I thought of revealing what I'd seen in the larder to the men but what was the point? If we had a long journey ahead we needed hope to carry us through.

"Why then," forgive me Lord, I traitorously asked, "if he wanted us to see the hidden scroll, did he lock it in a drawer?"

"Easier to deceive us," Merfyn said. "If he really didn't want us to find it, he would have burned it or buried it. Instead he left it where it could be found with only a bit of work. Clever."

Offa nodded and stroked his beard but I couldn't help myself: "But why wouldn't he confess his deception when you had the sword at his neck? It would be crazy not to!"

Degrevant said, "I agree. Merfyn, we must hurry home."

"My poor brothers," said Offa.

"Blodeuwedd! That fiend!" I said.

"You fool," said Degrevant.

Merfyn gazed upon me alone, his large dear eyes dark with disappointment. "I've warned you not to talk bad about her. And I don't think we've seen the last of the horseman. I've heard of men who are able to stop their hearts for weeks, men who can heal themselves of mortal wounds. I swear I saw his chest rise and fall ten minutes after I killed him."

 

But when we returned to the dining room, swords raised, the horseman slumped where we'd left him, facedown in the pudding. He was definitely dead.

But Merfyn made us stretch out the body on the floor. Merfyn drew up a velvet chair nearby and sat with his sword on his knees. He watched the dead man's face and wouldn't move. We asked him to reconsider. We urged him to come with us to check on our brothers at the outpost. He said that the best we could do for our brothers was to make sure the horseman didn't rise again.

I lay in bed that night and imagined the fiend clinging to the ceiling above me. My secret made me nauseous. I didn't sleep. I swore to the Lord I would leave shepherdesses alone. The thought of their sparsely haired thighs repulsed me. I bargained with the Lord and I listened in the darkness but I didn't hear His voice.

 

In the morning, the red horseman was still dead. Merfyn asked Offa to take the next watch. Why hadn't he picked me? Degrevant stalked back to the cellar alone. I volunteered to watch the horseman after Offa. The red horseman began to stink. Blue bottles clumped in his ears and flickered in the gash in his throat. I breathed through my hood. The horseman's lips blackened. His hands swelled. A rat circled his boots and I crushed its head.

Degrevant and Offa entered the dining room. "That man smells," Degrevant said. "He's dead. Saddle the horses. Maybe some of our men will be alive."

We left Merfyn bowed at the red horseman's corpse. I mourned how the world will ruin a man. We smelled the smoke before we saw it.

 

Sons and fathers, listen: When a tower lies battered, prayer can't rebuild it. A fire can burn through snow as easily as summer hay. The silence of birds is louder than the rush of water. A tree torn up by its roots is past replanting. An eye can dangle from a sprig of teasel. What pain you'll feel to find the blood still warm.