Chapter 5: Companions

Chapter 5 - Companions

The Word Alive – “Epiphany” (fight music)

“Sing us a song!”

“No, Morgan. It’s the most annoying thing in the world,” Agravain grumbled.

“Why not? I thought that’s what soldiers do.”

“If you want music so bad, have at it,” Gaheris said as Agravain chuckled at the thought.

“Honestly, you two have got to be the dullest traveling companions ever.”

For six boring, uneventful days the three runaways rode hard and trekked hundreds of miles. So far, they’d managed to avoid confrontation and detection by traveling routes dictated by Morgan. They refrained from venturing out into open fields or flat lands, and instead confined themselves to the dense shrouded woodlands.

According to Morgan, certain areas of the forests enhanced her abilities. Of course, Gaheris was skeptical.

Three hours after sunset, the trio was still going strong. Normally, they would’ve hunkered down and sought shelter for the night. However, they were in the Woods of Frozen Dreams. The trees, rocks, and leaves were all encrusted in glowing baby blue crystals. The forest was riddled with small sinkholes full of milky turquoise water. They couldn’t ride their horses but had to guide them along narrow pathways to avoid plunging in.

Everything was so bright and gleaming that they could scarcely see without squinting. It would have been impossible to get any sleep until they left the forest, thus, they proceeded along a snake-winding trail that was just wide enough for two men to stand abreast.

Gaheris was still annoyed but he stopped griping days ago. Now it seemed as if Agravain had picked up the slack in that department because he was kicking at every crystal that stuck out at him. He kicked one pierce so hard that a chunk flew off and hit Morgan in the back of her head. She immediately turned around and started slapping him with the leather straps of her medicinal bag.

“Alright, alright. Keep moving. I want to get some sleep before sunrise,” Gaheris said as he nudged Morgan along.

“This was a horrible idea. There’s no end to this blasted forest! How do we even know we’re going the right way?” Agravain complained.

“I told you! The Hibernians make seasonal trips into the heart of Pictish territory. It’s our best bet. Also, believe it or not, but I’m drawing power from these crystals. I can feel it coursing through my veins. It’s making me sweat, actually. Damn! Are you guys hot?” Morgan said as she wiped under her neck.

“What are your powers, exactly? You know, besides possessing dogs to jump off cliffs,” Gaheris asked.

Rolling her eyes, Morgan divulged. “These concoctions I’m wearing around my bosom produce a variety of effects. The sand trap, as you already witnessed. I also have one that causes temporary blindness, one for paralysis, another for attracting hens for food, and another for convincing men they’re on fire.”

“Dear god,” Gaheris cringed.

“The rubies around my wrist were made from dragon tears. If I concentrate, I can conjure a scorching fire that burns scarlet red. I’m still a novice with my other abilities but I’m getting better. For instance, I once summoned a spell that gave me the strength to uproot a maple tree. Although I confess, I hate that enchantment. My back hurt like hell for days. I can cast illusions when people are at their worst. I can speak commands and understand almost every woodland creature if I put forth an effort. And unlike Merlin who can only see the future, I can peer into the past. That’s just for starters. Niviane says I have the potential to surpass even her,” Morgan boasted.

“Niviane is?” Gaheris said.

“The Lady of Lake Avalon. Over 400 years old and the greatest wizard the world’s ever seen. It’s who my mother’s been shipping me off to visit every summer for the past three years. Even Merlin can’t hold a candle to Niviane.”

“Is that why you killed my dog? Because of this inexplicable malice for Merlin the magician?” Gaheris barked.

“This again…” Morgan sighed.

“Silence!” Agravain hissed “Enemy afoot!”

With the jut of his chin, Agravain called attention to a horde of blue goblins feeding on the carcass of an ill-fated mule. They were three hundred yards out. These goblins had skinny bodies like skeletons with reflective fish scales, long pointy ears and razor sharp claws. Ten of them were feasting while six others were trying to mate.

“Stay, Vebby,” Morgan whispered.

Their options were limited. Goblins were vicious creatures that could turn hostile in an instant. They were more agile than spider monkeys so outrunning them in the web of downed branches and razor sharp vines was suicidal in and of itself. The brothers had the same thought. They didn’t have to discuss it. Years of fighting side-by-side rewarded them with that kind of telepathy. In unison, the brothers stepped out in front of their horses and prepared for battle.

“Wait!” Morgan smirked with anticipation. “Let me show off a little.”

Morgan spread out her arms and twirled her fingers towards two sinkholes of milky water flanking the sides of the trail. As she blew in through her lips with a whirling suction, a gust of wind howled, shaking the tree branches and causing a shower of crystals to rain down.

The goblins were spooked. At once, they stopped feeding and started rambling with a confused “hoobling” noise. They turned and spotted the humans. Flashing their fangs, the goblins set off running like apes, pounding the ground with their knuckles and flat boney feet.

Agravain drew his Roman broadswords while Gaheris stretched an arrow through his bow. Morgan whispered an incantation that spewed from her lips like a gust of white frosty air. The powdery air twirled and split into two threads, quickly flowing through her outstretched fingers and down into the sinkholes of milky turquoise water. After bubbling for two seconds, geysers erupted straight up, causing the brothers to recoil with fright.

Water rushed up and gathered to form a massive dome. It remained hardened for only a few seconds before streaming down and materializing into six fearsome warriors riding on the backs of winged stallions. These were enchanted horsemen controlled by Morgan’s own mind. They were solid and chiseled as if carved from dripping wet blue marble.

These magnificent horses neighed with a vibrating siren that sent shockwaves throughout the entire forest. With the fury of madmen, the warriors flew down the trail directly into the midst of the goblin. Morgan moved like a possessed dancer the way she shimmied her hips and twirled with the fingers of a puppet master.

The goblins screamed and shrieked as the warriors fought them with fearsome barbarity. Some managed to evade the low sweeping swords. These angry goblins continued on towards the trio and Agravain was more than willing to engage.

With a sword in both hands, Agravain dashed with bloodlust and excitement. The goblins attacked with sharp claws and powerful jaws, but Agravain was too swift, too nimble, too skilled. His swords had a mind of their own the way they found exposed limbs and hacked at joints. Hard thrusts and stabs were aimed at the core, and he didn’t hesitate for a second to mete out his own coup-de-grâce.

Meanwhile, arrows whistled by Agravain’s ear as a few goblins were sniped from a distance. Gaheris was picking them off one by one. His hand was steady, his eyes unblinking. Gaheris was a sentry, standing guard as Morgan continued her magical dance.

From his left, two screaming goblins sprung from the bushes in a loud shatter and a burst of blue dust. Gaheris calmly turned and shot the closest one in its face. He used his bow to parry the claws of the second goblin and countered by hip tossing it to the ground. Pinning the creature with a knee to its back, Gaheris promptly drove an arrow through the base of its skull. By the time he looked to check on his brother, it was over.

Dead goblins were strewn about. The winged horsemen had returned to puddles and Agravain was wiping sticky blood off of his swords with the tail end of his cloak. Morgan seemed pleased. She was glistening with sweat and panting with bated breath.

“Not bad,” she said with pride.

Three days later, the companions had ventured past Hadrian’s Wall and were now approaching Antonine’s Wall. They found themselves on the grassy hills of Strathclyde, nearing the lands of the Picts and the remnant hill tribes of the Vikings. These were the rural country lands belonging to High King Vortigern. Conquered lands. Traumatized lands. The villagers were a frightened people, weary of outsiders and distrusting of visitors.

Morgan, Gaheris, and Agravain were so young and baby-faced. Aside from their weapons, they appeared harmless but the villagers took no chances. The farmers and serfs herded their children indoors as they rode by. The adolescent girls looked up at Gaheris as if caught in a dream. They’ve never seen anyone so beautiful and Gaheris felt sorry for them. If he had his way, he’d wed the whole village just to assure that they’d always be loved and secure. He wouldn’t describe himself as a pessimist, but he couldn’t ignore the possibility that it was only a matter of time before some warlord came storming through to rob them all of their virtue.

The trio stopped to replenish at the scenic River Clyde, letting their horses drink as they refilled their canteens. A cool breeze rippled across the glassy surface. It was a breathtaking day with birds chirping and rich autumn colors painting the tree line just beyond the other side. And yet, Gaheris stood fixed in melancholy. He couldn’t shake the disparaging sight of the villagers. They all seemed so empty and hopeless as if their death warrants were already etched in stone. As if they were dead already.

“One day I’m going to wipe all the wicked men from the face of the earth. So greedy and ruthless! They’d sooner cast their own mother into the fire if it brings them closer to power. You mustn’t be like those men. You hear me, Agravain. Gaheris. Be like your brother, Gawain. Always.”

Gaheris turned to Morgan and really took a moment to examine her frame. She put up a strong front but he could tell Morgan was just sad as he was, maybe even more. Even Agravain seemed transported. He didn’t have to anything. The fire in his eyes said plenty. Gaheris gave the little brother a pat on his head as Agravain capped his water jug.

“Look!” Agravain said with the jut of his chin.

On the other side of the river, a group of armed men were escorting a horse-drawn carriage with an iron cage. Inside the cage was human cargo and packed to capacity. The prisoners had long unkempt hair. All of them, wet and dirty as if they were just dredged up from the sea.

Morgan’s heart swelled. Her eyes widened with hope. Gaheris and Agravain knew exactly what she was thinking.

Wasting little time, the trio ferried across the river and rode to catch up with the wagon. It was on a fluctuating terrain out in the open. Aside from the twenty captives riding in the cage, there were only six armed soldiers guarding it. The soldiers heard the horses approaching.

Just as a soldier drew his sword, Gaheris put an arrow in his heart. The remaining five stood petrified until they noticed the charging Agravain was just a pubescent squire. They assumed they could best him. They were wrong. Gaheris picked off one more soldier but Agravain slew the rest.

Morgan hurried to the back of the wagon and used her scarlet flame to work on the lock. Within seconds, the metal was soft enough to break. She whipped the cage door open, prompting the prisoners shrunk back with fear.

“Gawain!” Morgan called out.

“Step aside!” Gaheris said as he moved Morgan out of the way and raised himself into the cage.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now,” Gaheris told them.

“Don’t lie! They’ll never be safe!” Morgan yelled before she looked around to see if anyone else was coming.

Gaheris scanned the prisoners. They were mostly women with a few male toddlers. All of them were fragile, severely malnourished, and clothed in sooty rags. As frightened as they were, the sight of an angelic Gaheris put them at ease, as he expected it would.

Agravain was wiping the blood off of his sword when he heard the faint tapping of hard gallop in the distance. He couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from, only that it was a large enough force to stiffen the hair on the back of his neck.

“This isn’t good. We need to go!” Agravain shouted.

“We can’t leave them here!” Gaheris asserted.

“We can’t take them with us! Stay the course, damn it!” said Morgan.

Gaheris’s heart raced as he jumped down from the cage and considered his options. Morgan tried to shove him toward his horse but Gaheris aggressively whipped her away. He pointed with an intense glare in his eyes.

“We are not leaving them! If Gawain were here he’d say the same! Aggie, ride with Morgan! Protect the rear!”

Gaheris then closed the cage and hurried to the driver’s bench. Taking the reins with both hands, Gaheris whipped the horses and drove north towards the tree line. He figured getting lost the woods was his best option.

“YAH!” He ushered.

Agravain and Morgan followed on horseback. Just as they entered the thick of the woods, Agravain glanced over his shoulder and saw the military force in pursuit. The soldiers were carrying a red and gray banner featuring a winged Norse god holding a hammer and pike. Finally fear gripped Agravain’s stout heart as he recognized the sigil. It was a sect of Danes belonging to the brutal army of Hengist and Horsa.

Everyone was afraid of Hengist and Horsa. They were Vortigern’s twin warlords who imposed his bloody reign over the vast stretches of Britannia. They were guilty of savage atrocities, famous for overthrowing entire kingdoms and reducing fortified castles to smoldering piles of ash. Hengist and Horsa had no concept of human compassion. They called themselves the descendants of Cain and ate the flesh of their enemy if they had to work too hard to conquer them. It was a brilliant, yet ruthless tactic. Their enemies usually gave up without putting up a fight. Mercy and restraint just wasn’t in their vocabulary. That animalistic mentality trickled down through the ranks.

This sect of Danish warriors was only one of seven branches from the Hengist and Horsa army. But if they were there, the twins themselves couldn’t be far behind. If there was ever a worse case scenario for the brothers, getting caught by the twins was it. The ferocious Danes picked up the pace, combing through the forest and closing the distance.

After five minutes of hard riding, the pursuit carried over into the wetlands of Seven Lochs. The soil was soft and swampy. Trepidation rattled Gaheris’s teeth as he drove head first through a thicket of vines and low hanging branches that snapped across his chest. The horses were slowing down. He could barely see through the leaves in his path. The prisoners held on for dear life and twice the wagon came close to overturning.

Then, just fifty meters ahead, he spotted one of the seven lakes the land was named after. Yanking on the reins, Gaheris came to a skidding stop and ran to the back of the wagon.

“Wait here! If it looks like I’m about to die, just run for your lives!” Gaheris told the women and children.

“GAHERIS!” Morgan yelled over her horse. “I don’t want to die here! Damn it, this is not why I left home!”

“Morgan, just help me! Do this for me and I promise I’ll never bring up you killing my dog again!”

“Bleeding Christ! Who are you people?!” a woman cried out.

Agravain hustled to move the horses into thick shrubbery before coming over to stand by Gaheris’s side. The brothers shook off fear and fatigue, standing ready to defend the women and children to the death if need be. As the military force came closing in, Morgan stood at the forefront. The brothers exchanged glances, wondering what she was about to do. After taking in a deep breath, Morgan closed her eyes and focused.

The Danish were riding in a double file formation, sixteen lancers, all armed to the teeth with a range of weapons fit for the Coliseum. They were over eighty yards out and closing in at a fast, aggressive pace.

Morgan removed another glass vial from a sleeve across her breast. She clapped her hands and shattered the vial. Dark potion trickled and mixed with blood from her cut fingers as she brought her hands to her lips. She tasted the saline on the tip of her tongue. As soon as she did, her entire body turned into a transparent figure of hot purple fumes. And like a possessed spirit, she dashed forward covering twenty paces in a single stride. She then thrust her open palms and shouted, “VERUPTIA!”

A tremendous explosion discharged from the earth and launched soldiers into the air with the force of a small volcanic eruption. The first four soldiers on horseback were obliterated. Their remains turned into projectiles raining with chunks of rock and ash over their own comrades. As awesome as it was to see, Gaheris and Agravain didn’t gawk or stand idle. They attacked, taking full advantage of the confusion.

Gaheris picked up a pike and swung as hard he could, but they weren’t up against middling swordsmen. The enemy was affiliates of Hengist and Horsa, one of the strongest military forces Britannia’s ever seen. Aside from the first six immediately affected by the blast, the rest were merely dazed. They recovered quickly. Gaheris and Agravain were faced with the daunting task of defeating fourteen formidable soldiers.

Agravain crossed blades with one man and had to dodge the sweeping ax of another. Seeing how close his brother was to death, an enraged Gaheris skewered the ax-wielding knight with his pike and was promptly clubbed in the back by another. The female prisoners saw Gaheris fly face-first into the mud and groaned with despair.

The blow cracked King Mark’s bow that was strapped across Gaheris’s back. He rolled over just in time to kick at the knee of his assailant. The knight tripped forward and Gaheris capitalized by plunging his short sword through his throat.

It was too soon to celebrate. As Gaheris rose to his feet with mud clumped in his curly locks, he was now staring down eight angry knights ready to avenge their fallen. Agravain was still dancing with another knight and finally disemboweled him with a spinning swing that was too low for the knight to deflect.

“Off with their heads! The lot of them!” they barked.

Gaheris and Agravain tightened their grip with callus hands prepared for another onslaught when all the sudden a blur of gold came running out of the bushes. Still barefoot in the same clothes from nine days earlier, Tristan was a madman wielding a long double-edge sword. He cut down two men before the rest figured out what was going on.

The brothers stood aside as the knights swarmed Tristan all at once. The ruckus they created was reminiscent of a bar room brawl. And when Tristan slung a man against a tree as if he was beating a rug, Agravain tilted his head with a disturbed wide-eyed look.

“Crap. He is pissed.” He whispered.

Gaheris raced to open the cage. “Get out! Run for your lives! Save yourselves!”

The women and children hopped out barefoot and cringed as they sank ankle-deep in the muddy swamp. A few girls tried to give Gaheris a hug but he urged them on.

Tristan was tossing knights back by their collars, hurling them about as if they were bales of hay. He snatched a spiked club away from one knight and started swinging at everything that moved. Shields were dented in as if they were foil. Breastplates and helmets caved in as if they were made of paper. The Lion of Dumnonia ripped into these poor souls for twenty violent seconds. It ended when he left the club lodged in a man’s chest. Three injured survivors fled but they wouldn’t get far.

Tristan was foaming at the mouth. He had blood on his writhing hands and after slaughtering five men he wasn’t even tired. Thin trails of muddy sweat trickled down his face. His dirty gray shirt clung to his chiseled body. His feral eyes turned and landed on the two teenage boys he’s been hunting all this time.

“You rotten…little…shits…” Tristan snarled with a menacing twitch as he approached one mud-stomping step at a time.

Agravain gasped with fright. He heard something else in the distance. “Great! More horses?”

“That’s not gonna work on me, boy. I’m gonna give you such a thrashing you’ll not be able to saddle for a month!” Tristan giggled on the verge of insanity.

“Wait! More soldiers are coming!” Agravain insisted.

“Where’s Morgan!? Did she ditch us?!” Gaheris said, looking around.

“Oh don’t worry. She’s gonna get the grunt of it. Believe me,” Tristan hissed.

Emerging from the branches behind Tristan were three horsemen in impressive black shiny armor. They didn’t carry a banner or any insignia to indicate which lord or kingdom they served. A horseman raised the visor of his helmet and took in the view.

“Wow…” the horseman gawked.

“Who are you?” Gaheris asked.

The horseman approached on his black stallion and leaned over to examine Gaheris’s pretty face. “Thank you for asking. We are the Brood of Black Blood. Mercenaries, young man. My name is Kanish. That’s Barxy and that one there is Jeremy.”

Kanish dismounted and examined the dead with a disarming smile. “Looks like our job is done. Hope you boys weren’t expecting a percentage. The contract was exclusive as we were led to believe.”

Barxy and Jeremy chuckled at the thought. They’ve been hunting this group of Danes down for weeks. The Brood of Black Blood consisted of six top-notch swordsmen. Kanish, being the oldest in the group, was personally relieved to see the job was done. He was nearing forty and had a bum knee. Still, Kanish had guts and a mind for liberty. He’d rather die for a cause of his own choosing than that of some highborn on a throne.

Agravain and Tristan remained en garde as Kanish approached. Then he felt the scathing stare of Tristan burning into the back of his neck and turned around to examine the young lion.

“Where have I seen you before?” Kanish inquired.

“I know who he is,” said a smirking Barxy. “That’s Tristan of Cornwall. I saw him fight in the Elmet Games. It was ridiculous. They call him the Achilles of the East. They say he can kill a bear with his bare hands and from what I saw it ain’t hard to believe.”

“Bullocks. A bear?” Jeremy scoffed.

“Oh, mate! You should have seen him! No one could touch him,” Barxy insisted.

Suddenly, there was a rumble of grumbling laughter. It seemed to emanate from the swaying branches above or perhaps from behind the thick trunks of the surrounding beech trees. An ominous feeling washed over the brothers but Tristan recognized the bass-heavy chuckle. His blue eyes squinted as he turned and settled on a willow with a curtain of long glittery vines.

The three remaining Black Bloods approached from the swaying vines like three bristled wolves returning from a kill. One of them stood out more than the others. The mercenaries all had the same black armor, the same serrated claymore strapped to their backs, and they were all relatively young. Oddly enough, the youngest was their leader.

“Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum! Looks like we found some Cornish rum. Tristan will fetch us a pretty penny if we hold him ransom,” the young leader grinned.

“You’re welcome to try…Pellinore” Tristan said with a grin of his own.

The young and eager Pellinore had an unnerving laugh that sounded like he was chewing on jerky. An eye-catching red scarf was tied around his neck, distinguishing him from the others. He was just as tall as Tristan with a similar build. And when he removed his helmet he proved to be just as handsome and twice as charming. In fact, the very sight of him made Tristan roll his eyes, which astounded Gaheris and Agravain. To the brothers, it was like the collision of two planets.

Pellinore had short black spiky hair and a trimmed beard, not too long, not too short. Perhaps his most defining and intimidating feature was the three-inch vertical scar over his left eye. He could still see out of it, but it was forever painted red with blood that never washed away. His dark stare and thick brows turned heads wherever he went. This was a man born to dominate.

It’s been over five years since Tristan last laid eyes on him and even back then he was nothing but trouble. He was only a year younger than Tristan but almost on the same level in terms of swordsmanship and prowess. It wasn’t the first time Gaheris and Agravain met the man either, but they were both too young to remember.

“Ello, Pellinore! I see you’re still up to no good,” Morgan said as stepped out from hiding amongst the reeds and dropped her hood, letting her brown hair flow.

Pellinore squinted his scarred eye and examined the teenage enchantress. The memories came flooding back and he couldn’t help but lean back with hearty laughter.

“Morgan?! Ha! What’s a stupid little harpy like you doing all the way out here?”

Morgan smiled as she inserted herself in the midst of all the strapping young men. Tristan fumed through the nose, glowering over her while Pellinore couldn’t wait to hear what mischief she’d been up to.

“Pellinore, four years ago Queen Iseult of Hibernia abducted Gawain and forced him to become a slave. These are his brothers, Agravain and Gaheris. We’re heading north to save him,” Morgan explained.

“No. You’re not. All three of you are coming with me or so help me God I drag you back kicking and screaming,” Tristan said.

“Please, Pellinore! I’m not lying. We haven’t seen Gawain in years. We’ve come all this way. Just the three of us. This is our only chance to save him! I promise, you’ll be amply rewarded at Tintagel. I assure you,” Morgan stressed.

“You’re not listening! You’re coming…WITH ME!” Tristan screamed.

“Tristan,” Pellinore said with a smirk. “Why don’t you go on home like a good little boy, eh. I’ll take the children and head north.”

Pellinore nodded and threw a wink at Morgan. An emboldened Morgan nodded back. Tristan chuckled to himself he walked over and retrieved his double-edged sword that was lying in the mud.

“Amazing,” Tristan scoffed. “I did not think it was possible for me to get any more furious.”

Ever unflappable, Gaheris walked over in a smooth undaunted stroll.

He gave Tristan a pat on the back and said, “This is happening, Tristan. Best let it settle in.”

With that, a weary Gaheris wandered off to wash the mud from his hair. A triumphant Morgan pulled Pellinore away to catch up on old times and his Black Blood mercenaries followed. Tristan was left alone with Agravain as he gradually let the sword slip from his fingertips.

“Thanks for your help. Those Danes were a lot stronger than I expected,” Agravain said as he returned his swords to their holsters on his back.

“It doesn’t get easier, Agravain. It never does,” Tristan warned.

“Good. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Would you? In this world where only the strong survives?”

The logic hit him like a ton of bricks. It was an immature, foolish kind of logic, but the kind that watered the seeds of self-growth.

Tristan was so consumed with tracking down and capturing the three runaways that he never even stopped to consider their feelings. They were risking their lives to find Gawain. No one was forcing them. They were young and naïve, but strong and capable. Even if Tristan did catch them days earlier, he wondered if he’d be enough to stop them…without maiming them, that is.

“Hey!” Agravain called out.

Tristan’s blue eyes elevated to see a joyous Agravain holding a slain squirrel.

“They got meat!”

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