The Color of Vengeance
by Kim Headlee
Copyright © 2013 by Kim Headlee
All rights reserved
Printed with permission
Interior art copyright © 2013 by Kim Headlee
Published by Pendragon Cove Press
Audiobook Edition performed by Jim Kenyon
by Kim Iverson Headlee
The following story is reproduced with permission from the author. If you enjoy this work, be sure to visit the author’s Amazon page and purchase the full work, Morning’s Journey, from which this is excerpted.
The Color of Vengeance
PRINCE BADULF, SON of King Colgrim of Bernicia, studied the slumbering Brædan village sprawled in the valley below and waited.
Being cramped behind cold boulders and winter-stripped thickets on the hillside, the night wind freezing one’s ballocks and whipping the breath away—this part never made it into the songs.
Minstrels preferred the warm, soft luxury of the king’s hall. Details gleaned from the war-bands therefore were sketchy in some places and embellished in others.
What of it, after all? No harm in heaping an extra measure of glory upon a warrior’s name. If omitting the tedium won more young hearts into the war-bands, so much the better.
At least the flurries had blown off, though the obsidian sky portended a colder wait. Tucking his gloved hands under his armpits, Badulf returned his gaze to the sliver of moon, willing it to slip faster behind the dark breasts of the far hills.
There would be sentries to get past, of a sort, but farmers with pitchforks and scythes couldn’t hope to outmatch warriors with longswords, especially Badulf’s men. They’d amassed the highest cattle count of all his father’s bands.
Like a timid maiden dipping her toe into a pool, a tip of the moon disappeared. Badulf sensed the growing restlessness of his men: a stifled cough, the stamp of a booted foot, the creak of leather. Nothing loud enough to betray their position, though even the best eventually wearied of waiting.
More of the moon slid from view. Badulf shed the gloves and cupped his hands to his mouth. An owl’s cry drifted through the hills, answered by a gentle rustling like wind in dead leaves. He signaled again, and the men inched toward the village’s cow byre.
The lone sentry, little more than a boy, slumped beside the byre’s door, staff across his knees. As Badulf and his band crept closer, the lad’s snores buzzed in Badulf’s ears.
They’d almost reached the byre when a dog started barking. The Bræde came awake, screaming. Badulf’s brain made the connection between the lad’s cry of “Angli!” and the correct pronunciation, Eingel. Then his sword splintered the wooden staff and bit into the unprotected neck, and the warning drowned in a bubble of blood.
Too late; the village had been alerted, and the rush began.
The stone-muffled cry wrenched Dwras map Gwyn from sleep.
He didn’t bother to weigh the odds of defeating a skilled fighting force in the dark, on the snow, armed with naught but farm tools and raw courage. After wrestling into tunic, breeches, cloak, and boots, he grabbed his pitchfork.
At the hut’s door, he nearly collided with his wife.
Dressed in her thick woolen undertunic, Talya clutched their bawling infant son, Gwydion, to her chest. The gloom hid her face, but Dwras heard fear in her ragged breaths.
He stroked her hand, yanked her cloak from its peg by the door, and settled it about her shoulders, cursing the lack of time for words. Not about where to hide; he knew she’d try to cross the village, where the forest and safety lay a short dash beyond.
For what he wished to tell her, a swift kiss had to suffice.
With Talya pressing behind him and Gwydion’s cries reduced to fitful whimpers, Dwras opened the door. An appalling clamor spilled through the slit: the clash of metal on metal, the baying of dogs, the lowing and stomping of cattle, the screams of the wounded, the whoops of the raiders. Dread and fear warred in Dwras’s stomach.
The fight hadn’t reached their hut. Dwras reached for Talya’s hand. If she hurried, she still could make it to the forest…
An Angli warrior sprang at them. Pitchfork lowered, Dwras charged. The raider parried the blow, whirled, and lashed out with a booted foot as Dwras stumbled past. His knee buckled, and he fell.
Rolling onto his back, he watched the warrior close on Talya as she wailed for mercy.
Desperately, Dwras flung out a hand to catch the warrior’s foot to trip him, distract him, anything to divert his attention from Talya. The sword descended with a sickening thud. She crumpled with a gurgling cry. Spurting crimson stained the pristine snow.
The warrior turned on him. He raised his pitchfork to block the blow. The sword splintered the shaft and bit into his shoulder. Agony branded his brain. He shut his eyes. Tears chilled his cheeks.
The raider’s laughter mingled with the crunch of boots on the snow as he stalked off in search of other prey.
Dwras surrendered to oblivion.
OTHER VILLAGERS joined the fight, women as well as men. To Badulf, it mattered naught.
The cattle stomped and bellowed inside the byre. Stampede posed the biggest danger at this point in a raid. Badulf had witnessed the destruction wrought by spooked cows and had no stomach for it tonight, though not in pity for the Brædeas. Runaway cattle could be hard to capture, and often injured or killed themselves and others in the process. Too many Eingel womenfolk and children starved at home to allow such a disaster to occur.
At Badulf’s command, a pair of men slipped into the byre to calm the beasts while Badulf led the others in search of Brædan survivors and provisions and anything else of value in this squalid village.
After the Eingel warriors had secured their bovine treasure and eaten their fill of dried beef and barley cakes, washing it down with tangy ale, their appetites turned to delicacies of a different sort. Badulf inspected the trembling, doe-eyed girls who’d been herded into one of the larger stone huts while their mothers and fathers and brothers and younger siblings lay stiffening under the stars. These girls, fated to become Eingel bed thralls, wouldn’t be joining them for perhaps a very long time.
Baring his teeth in a grin, he selected the prettiest. As he ripped her tunic to the waist, exposing milk-white breasts, and fastened his mouth to the tender flesh, she cried out but didn’t struggle. Nor did any of the others as his men cheerfully followed their leader’s example.
This part never made it into the songs, either. Perhaps, Badulf mused as he unlaced his trews, bore the whimpering girl to the dirt, hitched up her skirts, and forced her legs apart, it was just as well. Some rewards ought to remain a secret. Fewer to share them with.
SHRILL CRIES and coarse laughter woke Dwras. The noises seemed confined to one place, mayhap another hut. Heaven only knew what his clanswomen were suffering at their captors’ hands.
He resolved to find out.
Instinct goaded him to wariness. The cloud-shrouded night told him nothing of how long he’d lain unconscious. More raiders could be about. As he strained ears and eyes for signs of movement, he found none. Even the animals had fallen silent.
He pushed himself up, gritting his teeth and swallowing a scream. Black grief engulfed him. He couldn’t help the survivors, for his right shoulder was a burning, bloody mess. But he was alive.
Talya and Gwydion, he learned to his horror as he gently turned his wife over, had perished, throats slashed.
Forgive me, dearest ones!
Dwras struggled to his feet, swiping at furious tears and fighting acrid nausea as his senses reported the surrounding carnage. All thoughts of burying his wife and son fled. If his wound didn’t kill him, the first raider to find him lingering here surely would.
Chieftain Loth had to be told! If Loth would give him a spear, he, Dwras map Gwyn, gladly would use it to spit these murderers over a slow fire—though that fate seemed far too kind. For Talya and Gwydion and the others, vengeance remained the only burial gift he could bestow.
Clutching his useless arm to his chest, breaths birthing gray ghosts, he lurched toward the dun hills.
TRENCHER BALANCED ACROSS his good forearm, Dwras map Gwyn returned to the eating area of Dunpeldyr’s Great Hall to find another man seated on his bench. Empty seats abounded, but Dwras was sick unto death of having things stolen from him, especially by arrogant warriors who wielded their status as an excuse to abuse decent, honest, hardworking folk.
He jabbed the offending warrior on the shoulder. With a grunt, the man swung his head around to fix narrow eyes upon him.
“What d’ye want?”
“My seat. I want it back.” Dwras lowered his eyebrows. “Now!”
“You—what?” The Lothian warrior’s laughter nearly made him choke. A grinning companion slapped his back.
“Oho, Farmer Dwras thinks he’s one of us, lads,” chortled another warrior, making a shooing motion. “Be off with you! Back to your pigs, farmer boy.”
They burst into cackles, hoots, and hog calls. Dwras felt his cheeks flush.
The warrior in Dwras’s seat found himself buried under sops and ale.
“My mistake, sir.” He grinned devilishly. “I thought this was the sty.”
Bellowing, the warrior shot to his feet. Soggy bread flew everywhere. Dwras ducked the blow. Upon connecting with a bony chin, he sent the man sprawling across the cluttered table. The warrior’s humiliation more than balanced the pain lancing Dwras’s healing shoulder. The audience’s jeers redoubled with vicious glee.
The warrior stood, ale-streaked face darkened with rage and fist cocked. “You filthy whore’s son, I’ll—”
Trailed by a detachment of guards, Chieftain Loth strode across the hall, toppling benches and shoving servants from his path. Fists lowering, the adversaries stepped apart.
Dwras bowed his head to accept the chieftain’s harsh judgment. From the corner of his eye, he saw the warrior reacting in much the same manner, and it gave him a perverse surge of satisfaction.
“You.” Loth thrust a finger close to Dwras’s face. “Your doing?”
The truth died in his throat. Surely Chieftain Loth would believe his own warrior over a mere farmer.
He sighed. “Aye, my lord.” Perchance the end would come quick and painless. On the other hand, he’d never been that lucky.
“Hmph.” The chieftain turned to address someone behind him. “This is the farmer who brought me word of the raid. I told you he’s too much trouble to keep here.”
Here it comes, Dwras mused, banishment. Mayhap the chance to join his wife and son sooner, a fate for which he dared not hope. He certainly had nothing left on this side of eternity.
The man Chieftain Loth had addressed stepped to the forefront of the gathering. Dwras felt his jaw go slack.
If any woman’s son had ever claimed divine descent, this one ought. To call him fair of face would be a gross injustice when his countenance radiated strength, confidence, and intelligence in equally great measures. His face seemed both young and old at once, accustomed to receiving instant respect and obedience: the face of a god.
“I think he has more to tell.” Even the man’s voice resounded godlike in its commanding yet compassionate authority. Profound sympathy shone from his intense blue eyes. “Don’t you, lad?”
“What’s to tell, Arthur? Dwras was causing trouble.” Loth nailed Dwras with his stare. “Again.”
“I want his story.”
As he loosened his tongue to describe the brawl, his head reeled like a drunkard’s. What name had Chieftain Loth given this man? Arthur? Loth’s brother-by-marriage, the Pendragon himself, here in remote Dunpeldyr? In the dead of winter?
This warrior came dressed for the part, aye, sporting more finely spun linen, well-tooled leather, and freshly polished bronze than Dwras had seen in his entire score of years. Scars adorned those hard-muscled arms and legs, too, thin white ribbons left by only the sharpest blades.
The Pendragon, indeed.
He couldn’t believe his fortune. Rather, his misfortune, for he felt utterly foolish for boring Arthur with such a trivial matter. He dropped his gaze to the floor rushes.
“Dwras, I commend your courage for alerting Chieftain Loth, as badly wounded as you were.” Arthur’s hand rested lightly upon Dwras’s uninjured shoulder. “This may be cold comfort, but you helped spare many more villages. And I like your spirit. Even if it’s a bit—misdirected.” Dwras dared to meet those unwavering eyes. Their fire branded his soul. “I would like to put that spirit to better use.”
For the second time in as many minutes, he thanked God that his jaw was hinged to his head, else it surely would have hit the floor. Had he heard aright? Was the Pendragon asking him to trade his pitchfork for a spear? Giving him a chance to avenge his loved ones? A chance his own chieftain had denied him?
More to the point, was he, Dwras map Gwyn, a simple son of the earth, truly capable of doing such a thing?
If grief for his family and friends had begun to ebb, hatred for their Angli murderers would smolder as long as blood flooded his veins. Now, icy conviction tempered the molten hatred.
Thrusting out his chin, he raked the astounded Clan Lothian warriors with a defiant glare.
“When do we leave, Lord Pendragon?”
“Can you ride?” Arthur asked.
Placid farm beasts, aye, not the fearsome dervishes warriors favored, but no power in heaven or on earth could force him to confess that to Arthur. “Aye, my lord.”
Arthur nodded slowly, as if pondering the truth of the claim. For one terrifying moment, he believed the Pendragon could read his thoughts and discover the lie.
“Pack your gear. We depart at dawn.”
Dwras felt smitten by an intense wave of unworthiness. Who was he that the mighty Pendragon would take a personal interest in him?
One glance into those intense yet compassionate eyes told him all he needed to know. Mimicking the Pendragon’s warriors, he squared his shoulders and raised his fist to his chest in an unspoken pledge to devote himself to Arthur’s service to the very best of his ability.
BRIGHT AS DAY, the moon lit the ice-crusted rocks and brush where Prince Badulf and his band hid in shivering misery. The valley stretched below in an endless swath of white, broken only by the stone huts, byres, sheds, and pens of the Brædan village. The stillness, the snow and ice, the cold, the full moon—alone, any of these factors would challenge the hardiest war-band. Together, they added up to one conclusion.
He’d chosen an evil night for a raid.
These factors could be overcome by courage, skill, self-discipline, and luck. The first three, Badulf’s men owned in abundance. He hoped luck wouldn’t prove to be in short supply.
For the past fortnight, a host of omens had fueled Badulf’s foreboding: a rope coiled like a striking snake, a raven-shaped puddle of spilled ale, a cloud piercing the heart of the moon like a spear, the sky blackened by an enormous flock of crows, a pack of starving dogs devouring each other in bloody desperation.
Badulf pulled his cloak tighter about him, a thin shield against the cold.
Nothing could shield him from his dread.
For his men’s sake, he buried his feelings behind a brave mask. None of them had seen the omens, as if the gods had penned their message for him alone.
His death he could face. The possibility of leading his friends to theirs made his gut writhe, as if he’d downed a vat of poison.
He glanced skyward and spat a curse; the moon seemed determined to stay above the ridge. Instead of cutting across the meadows under cover of darkness, his band would have to hug the tree line, a much longer distance, to be sure, but much safer.
Badulf signaled his men, and they began the tedious process of moving from tree to rock to bush. Sometimes running, sometimes crawling, sometimes slithering, always trying to keep something between themselves and the village. At least it kept them warmer.
The famine that had sprouted from the stubble of the ruined harvest had begun to gnaw at the bellies of even the thriftiest Eingels. The success of Badulf’s mission—indeed, the success of all Colgrim’s war-bands—was crucial.
DWRAS MAP Gwyn chafed his arms beneath the wolfskin wrap and stomped his feet, but nothing could dispel this blasted cold.
Life in the Pendragon’s service bore no resemblance to what he had expected.
He’d expected action. At the very least, he’d hoped to be trained by the other warriors to one day send the accursed Angli raiders to their gods.
Expectations held no truck with reality.
Reality meant being posted with a handful of Arthur’s men to guard another Lothian village, one so deep in Brytoni territory that the Angli threat had to be slim at best. Reality meant enduring the endless pitying glances of the villagers, who knew he’d witnessed his family’s slaughter. Reality meant helping with their winter chores—chopping wood, tending livestock, mending tools—not from a sense of duty or kinship, but to combat mind-murdering boredom.
Reality meant knowing the Angli never would raid this God-forsaken village.
Occasionally, the guard captain deigned to show him a few tricks with sword or spear. Spear, mostly, as if he didn’t believe Dwras capable of mastering the art of swordsmanship. Usually, Dwras cleaned armor and weapons, fetching this and hauling that and doing whatever chores the soldiers deemed unworthy of their station.
Including nightwatch sentry duty. The others took their turns, true enough, but it seemed he stood at this post much more often.
A warning prickle froze his mental complaints.
The moon-bathed meadows gleamed serenely before him. Not even a stray leaf stirred. Abruptly, the night seemed eerily quiet. Something had invaded the valley. A wolf?
He studied the frost-bound birches and pines at the valley’s fringes. No movement there—wait. That tumble of boulders and broom far off to his left…somehow didn’t seem…right. Nothing he could describe, exactly, just a feeling that refused to abate.
The shadows shifted and stopped. After a handful of breaths, another shifting—a bit closer—then stillness again.
His fingers curled around his horn. If he blew it now, the soldiers and villagers would have time aplenty to respond. The thrice-cursed Angli whores’ sons wouldn’t set one bloody foot in this village!
But if he acted too soon, the raiders might flee, and he wanted nothing more than to take his spear and spit as many as he could. If the raiders escaped unseen, he’d be rebuked for sounding a “false” alarm. Imagining the taunts, he groaned softly. The soldiers would never let him live it down.
He chewed a gloved knuckle. Each silent moment brought his chance for revenge that much closer, but too great a delay might cost him his life and the entire village with him.
Inspiration hit. If he feigned sleep, the raiders might show themselves sooner. Not a sure wager, but a better plan than playing this damned guessing game.
Dwras map Gwyn felt astonishingly calm as he inched down the byre wall and let his head slump. With one eye closed, he kept the other half open upon the valley. The spear slowly came to rest across his lap. His other hand, hidden in the wolfskin’s shaggy folds, clutched the horn. He gripped the spear and waited.
Without doubt, he’d never done anything as hard as pretending to be asleep while judging when the raiders had crept far enough from the forest. He feared his hammering heart would wake everyone by itself.
A few more steps…just a few…more…
AS BADULF and his men left cover to approach the village and its lone, dozing sentry, the man jumped up, bleating the alarm. The huts spewed shouting men and women brandishing scythes, axes, pitchforks, and staves. Surprisingly, many of the men wielded swords. The sentry raced toward them, howling to wake the dead, spear leveled.
But not Loth’s. These men fought with skill and discipline the likes of which Badulf had never seen. As the sentry neared, the moonlight bouncing off his cloak-pin revealed not the rearing Bear of Lothian, but a raging dragon. The omens, Badulf realized with bowel-loosening despair, had been true!
KILLING CAME to Dwras with incredible ease. The first foe tasted the spear point through the throat. That, for Talya! The second died with the spear sprouting from his belly. For Gwydion! As he yanked it free, he caught another warrior in the chin with the spear’s sharpened butt. He whirled to see the man staggering backward, arms flailing. Dwras gladly helped him enter the realm of the Angli gods.
He lost count after that, remaining oblivious to how the others were faring. Everything melded into a blur of snow churned with mud and blood in dawn’s ashen netherlight. Sometime during the skirmish, his spear shaft broke. He didn’t recall picking up a dead man’s sword, yet there it lay in his fist, and just as useful as his spear had been.
Passion for vengeance flourished within him. Each man he felled spawned the lust to kill two more. To his fierce joy, there seemed to be an endless supply.
IN ANGUISH, Badulf watched another man fall beneath the sentry’s spear before his sword became too busy trying to save his own skin. Hoarsely, he bellowed retreat, fervently praying that his surviving men could hear him.
He broke away from the skirmish line. As he lumbered across the meadow, with the enemies’ pursuit thundering in his ears, he drank hope from the sight that some of the others had escaped.
THE REMAINING Angli warriors bolted for the woods.
No! They have no right! I want them all dead around me!
As Dwras began to follow, something snagged his heel. He glanced down and laughed. A fallen raider was feebly attempting to hinder his pursuit. Smirking, he raised his sword for the finishing blow.
The man blurted a single word that sounded a lot like…
He pressed the sword to the wounded warrior’s throat. The captive looked up at him through pain-hazed yet hopeful eyes.
Talya had begged for mercy. Had this man’s companions shown mercy to her or Gwydion or the others? Would they have shown mercy to him, had they found him alive that night? Or tonight? Fresh hatred gusted through him. Did this Angli dog deserve what had been denied to Dwras’s loved ones?
Could this be the man who had murdered Talya and Gwydion?
He stared at his enemy’s grimy, blood-smeared face, racking his brains for the tiniest trace of recollection.
But it had been so dark, and the warrior had struck so quickly…Dwras abandoned the effort. Proof or no, it mattered naught. If this man hadn’t killed them, another Angli warrior had. By heaven, he, Dwras map Gwyn, would make them pay! Every last stinking fatherless son!
He tightened his grip. The captive’s eyes squeezed shut.
I like your spirit. The memory of that voice surged forth as real as if the Pendragon were standing beside him, ankle-deep in the icy mud and gore. I would like to put it to better use.
Surely there could be no better purpose than to help Arthur rid Brydein of these Angli vermin.
Yet he couldn’t forget the fathomless compassion welling in those eyes. When Chieftain Loth had been prepared to pass sentence, Arthur the Pendragon had bestowed mercy.
The man at his feet lay wounded, unarmed, and helpless. Killing him would make Dwras no better than his family’s murderers.
So be it. He cocked his sword.
Talya never would have approved.
“No!” Stiffness seized Dwras’s newly healed shoulder as he flung the weapon away. Arcing across the sky, the sword flashed golden in the sun’s first rays before plunging into a clump of heather.
Conflicting emotions collided within him. Feeling faint, he cast about for something on which to brace himself, but no tree or boulder or building stood close enough. He bent double, hands to trembling knees, panting. His gaze fell upon the warrior he’d spared, who was regarding him with tearful gratitude. Dwras’s vision misted.
His mind’s eye beheld his beloved wife standing before him, not—thank God—as on that fatal night, but smiling broadly, arms outstretched in loving welcome. How he ached for her touch! For the assurance that she’d forgiven him for failing to protect her and Gwydion—and for the ability to forgive himself. Face in hands, he dropped to his knees, heedless of the slushy chill soaking his leggings, his shoulders shaking from the force of his sobs.
Invisible warmth enveloped him in tingling waves. After his salty well had run dry and the warmth dissipated, he inventoried his emotions, amazed to find that his rage and hatred and frustration had yielded to new sensations of lightness, of cleansing, of deliverance. And forgiveness.
“Well done, Dwras map Gwyn!” A hand clapped his shoulder. Wiping his eyes, Dwras scrambled to his feet to gape at the grinning unit commander. “Or should I say, Dwras Gwyn Peldyr?”
Dwras Gwyn Peldyr? Surveying the pale heavens, he pondered the name…and liked it.
Farmer Dwras, son of Gwyn, had died with his village. This day had witnessed the birth of a warrior, Dwras White Spear.
He saluted his commander and gave the wounded Angli captive a hand up. The blood-price for Talya and Gwydion had been paid in full. Dwras Gwyn Peldyr vowed to spend the rest of his life in the Pendragon’s service, honoring their memories with deeds of valor.
If you enjoyed this title, purchase Morning’s Journey (The Dragon’s Dove Chronicles, volume 2) on Amazon. Kim Iverson Headlee is a talented author with a great voice. Follow her on Twitter and check out some of her great works.
About the Author
KIM HEADLEE LIVES on a farm in the mountains of southwestern Virginia with her family, cats, fish, goats, Great Pyrenees goat guards, and assorted wildlife. People and creatures come and go, but the cave and the 250-year-old house ruins—the latter having been occupied as recently as the mid-twentieth century—seem to be sticking around for a while yet.
Other published works by Kim Headlee:
- King Arthur’s Sister in Washington’s Court by Mark Twain as channeled by Kim Iverson Headlee, illustrated by Jennifer Doneske and Tom Doneske, ebook edition, Lucky Bat Books, 2014.
- Snow in July by Kim Iverson Headlee, ebook and paperback, Pendragon Cove Press, 2014.
- Morning’s Journey (The Dragon’s Dove Chronicles, volume 2) by Kim Iverson Headlee, ebook and paperback, Lucky Bat Books, 2013; cover and interior updated 2014.
- Dawnflight (The Dragon’s Dove Chronicles, volume 1) by Kim Iverson Headlee, 2nd Edition, ebook, paperback, and audiobook editions, Lucky Bat Books, 2013; cover and interior updated 2014.
- Liberty by Kimberly Iverson, 1st Edition, paperback, HQN Books, Harlequin, 2006.
- Dawnflight by Kim Headlee, 1st Edition, paperback, Sonnet Books, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
- Liberty by Kim Iverson Headlee, 2nd Edition, Pendragon Cove Press.
- King Arthur’s Sister in Washington’s Court by Mark Twain as channeled by Kim Iverson Headlee, audiobook edition, performed by Caprisha Page.
- Raging Sea (The Dragon’s Dove Chronicles, volume 3), Pendragon Cove Press.
- King Arthur’s Sister in Washington’s Court by Mark Twain as channeled by Kim Iverson Headlee, illustrated by Jennifer Doneske and Tom Doneske, hardcover, Lucky Bat Books, 2015. Features more than a hundred illustrations, only fifteen percent of which are shown in the ebook edition.
- Prophecy, the sequel to Liberty, Pendragon Cove Press.