A must-read companion piece to the Khryterdon Saga!
The saga begins with Distant Eyes
THE GREAT GWYNNAN
THE GREAT GWYNNAN
Long ago in the days when the forces of enchantment were as common in the mortal world as acorns scattered about the heels of mighty oaks, there dwelled at the court of the High King Khrytrec a brotherhood of warriors. The fame of their deeds did honor to their king, especially the renown of Gwynnan, a warrior peerless in courage and prowess. Impetuous by nature, the blood that heated his veins craved ventures of deadly peril.
Gwynnan earned his fame in his youth. Eager to prove himself, he traveled a nomadic path in search of combat with man or beast. He came upon a king’s fortress, and his stature confirmed his boasting when he displayed great cunning at the royal tournament. The king bestowed his favor upon Gwynnan, asking for his pledge of loyalty in return. This, Gwynnan willingly gave, not eager to leave the company of the king’s youngest daughter, a maiden as fair as spring lilies and as light-hearted as a finch.
Her elder sister, whose name was Malsaire, a guileful practitioner of their mother’s fairy arts, was never far from the pair. So in love were they that they failed to notice the scorching jealousy flickering behind Malsaire’s hardened stare. When she presented a brooch set with powerful fairy stones to Gwynnan in an impassioned attempt to lure his affection, the warrior had it refashioned into a splendid pendant for his beloved. Delighted, the young princess showed it to Malsaire for her compliments; Malsaire praised Gwynnan’s gift with smiles as hatred burned her heart. She trembled with suppressed rage when her serving woman whispered the rumor that the pair were soon to pledge their troth. Malsaire fled to the subterranean cell where her tomes of incantations and jars of herbs and powders filled the shelves.
Malsaire mixed a potion to be served to Gwynnan at the feast honoring a neighboring prince. The potion would cause a man to fall eternally in love with the first woman upon whom his sight rested. Malsaire sat next to Gwynnan and placed a goblet in his hand. Her sister sat at his other side and amorously commanded his attention by demanding kisses. The maiden suspected Malsaire’s tricks and insisted that Gwynnan drink only from her goblet. The tainted goblet was set aside and unwittingly taken up by the honored prince. The unfortunate young man’s eyes rested on the queen. His uncontrolled displays of passion outraged the court, and the two kingdoms quickly went to war. Naturally Gwynnan was to lead the troops demanding redress for the dishonor shown to the queen.
“I shall return to you victoriously,” Gwynnan promised his beloved princess, “and upon that day we shall wed.” The two sisters watched Gwynnan, the king and their brother Prince Hreowig lead the warriors; Malsaire’s eyes glittered with calculating coldness.
The war lasted many months. At its welcome conclusion the king anxiously returned home, for he had heard many distressing rumors about the state of his kingdom. Tears coursed down his battle-hardened face as he sat upon his throne and listened to Malsaire’s dramatic telling of the tale. No sooner had the warriors departed, she said, than a hideous dragon, sensing the vulnerability of the fortress, carried off her dear sister. Each night since then, it carried off another victim to be devoured by its five ravenous heads. Several men tried to slay it but they only met death by its fiery breath. Malsaire concluded the grievous tale by saying that the queen had consulted her fairy kin and had learned that only the greatest hero alive could slay such a dragon. All eyes turned to Gwynnan. The sorrowing warrior raised his sword.
“Upon my life and heart, I vow before this royal court that the creature shall pay death for death for its wanton murder or my life shall be forfeit.”
That night Gwynnan waited outside the fortress where the victims’ bones lay scattered. Though from afar, he was assaulted by the noxious stench of the dragon’s breath. Its ten cavernous nostrils caught Gwynnan’s human scent, and it advanced, salivating for its gruesome meal. Gwynnan’s sword flashed in the shadowy moonlight. Fire from the center head lit the sky as brightly as the glow of ten thousand torches. Gwynnan raised his shield but the heavy leather-covered boards turned to cinder. Gwynnan darted about, slashing at the groping talons. The warrior cursed the beast with every sort of abuse as he fought. As if enraged, the dragon struck him soundly with its scaly tail. The impact thrust Gwynnan against the stone wall of the fortress, and he slumped to the ground. The dragon seized Gwynnan’s sword with one claw, its talons unscathed by the blade, and Gwynnan’s hair with the other. Hurling fiery flares high into the night air, the dragon dragged the warrior away. From the fortress parapet the king sadly watched. Malsaire set her jaw disdainfully, chiding herself for wasting her heart on one who evidently was not the greatest warrior alive.
Yet, death did not come to Gwynnan that night. The awakening dawn showed him that his head rested upon a pillow of tender moss. His sword lay near a shallow pool of cool water as did an odd assortment of bowls. Gwynnan examined them. Their fairy craftsmanship was unmistakable. He understood that he reclined in an enchanted glen. The contents of the bowls gave off delicious aromas, and Gwynnan thanked his unseen benefactors as he ate the hardy food. Within minutes he felt his health and strength completely restored. Gwynnan searched for the way out of the glen, and he discovered the dragon’s tracks clearly imprinted in the soft ground. Gwynnan followed them.
They led to a cave high in a craggy hillside. Gwynnan accustomed himself to the stench and entered the cave. The dragon appeared to be waiting for him. Ten yellow eyes stared at him, and the center head spit fire as if to remind the warrior that he must slay or be slain. Gwynnan fearlessly raised his sword. He pitched several diversionary stones and charged forward.
The ensuing battle lasted four days. Each night Gwynnan retreated to the glen, bearing one of the dragon’s loathsome heads. Each dawn, strengthened by the fairy food, he returned. The fifth day witnessed the fiercest struggle. His flesh raw from the flames, he battled feverishly. Seizing the dragon’s neck from behind, Gwynnan plunged his sword deep into the dragon’s heart. Shrieking, the beast collapsed and sent Gwynnan sprawling. The warrior sprang to his feet to take the creature’s last head. Gwynnan’s jaw fell open in a gasp of horror and his sword clattered on the ground.
The dragon’s body trembled, and the shimmering scales melted away revealing the unclothed form of a beautiful maiden, his beloved princess. Blood reddened her wounded breast, and the shadow of death was upon her face. Gwynnan gathered her tenderly in his arms and gazed mutely at her with stricken remorse.
Forcing a brave smile she told of the curse set on her by her sister. For all her days, trapped in that grotesque form, she would have to endure the unbearable and ceaseless horror of devouring her kinsmen.
“Every minute of every hour I was tormented by the knowledge that my fate would only be released by my death,” she whispered. “And that my death would come at your hand.”
She begged forgiveness for the pain she had inflicted during their battling; the dragon’s nature would not allow her a passive death. Yet, her love transcended the curse and spared him. It was her spells that had given him the nourishment in the enchanted glen. The princess held his hand tightly as her end neared. Desperately she murmured of her parting gift to him, which she had prepared months ago in anticipation of this day. There was in a protected crevice of this cave a basin containing a potion. Beside it was the pendant he had given her.
“Dip the pendant in the potion. Chant the invocation written on the basin.” Her words were labored and she paused often. “Pour the potion into the pool...in the glen. Bathe. It will make your skin invulnerable.”
Tearfully Gwynnan thanked her. With his kiss upon her lips she died.
Heavy-heartedly Gwynnan bathed in the pool mingled with magic, though he neglected to remove the ring of his clansmen. He returned to the king. The mist of grief in which Gwynnan dwelled dissipated in the flames of vengeance when his eyes beheld Malsaire. Her eyes, in turn, narrowed vindictively when she saw the pendant he now wore. She had not intended for him to cling to her sister in death as in life; for Malsaire alone his heart would beat—or beat no more.
Before the court, Gwynnan told of Malsaire’s deed. Stammering in horror, the king demanded that his daughter confess the crime or swear her innocence. With an impish smile Malsaire confessed. As the guards’ hands tried to restrain her, she laughingly slipped away. The queen knew her daughter’s mind but before she could stop her, Malsaire threw up her arms and vanished. In her place was a snarling wolf. The animal bounded across the room and leaped through a window. Deaf to the men’s shouts and evading their spears, it disappeared into the woodland.
Tales of his adventures traveled before Gwynnan, and a noble welcome awaited him and Prince Hreowig at Khrytrec’s court. At the tourneys, Gwynnan again displayed his prowess by unhorsing all opponents, including Prince Hreowig and Waelhlem, Gwynnan’s trusted friend from his youth and a brother warrior of skill second only to Gwynnan himself. The warriors marveled that his flesh was proof against wounds and agreed that Gwynnan enjoyed the favor of a powerful enchantment. Many whispered that the pendant was the source of the charm; the full story was known by Hreowig and Waelhlem alone.
Gwynnan, Hreowig and Waelhlem did not stay long at the High King’s castle. The call of errant ventures lured them across the breadth of the land. They sought Malsaire. Though Prince Hreowig knew his sister’s ways, his guess was no better than his companions’ as to which hide or feather might cloak her. Their travels led them into dangers too numerous to recount here. The bards’ songs tell of marauding warriors, beasts of sea and air, and wicked trolls, all felled by the High King’s Champion and his loyal friends. Some songs, too, are unflattering and describe the arrogant and reckless jeers with which Gwynnan baited his opponents.
Years passed before the pattern of these exploits was altered. Prince Hreowig was summoned to serve the court of the Queen of the Spear Castle, the dreaded and powerful sovereign of his mother’s kinfolk. Gwynnan and Waelhlem returned to the court of the High King. In celebration of their homecoming, Khrytrec ordered days of tournaments and nights of dancing. Maidens of the court, charmed by his reckless reputation, pressed tokens of admiration into the Champion’s hands. Gwynnan responded to their attentions with high spirits, neglecting to see the sad dejection in the earnest eyes of Khrytrec’s daughter Myrgena, whom the High King wished him to wed and whose hand he duteously accepted.
Khrytrec commanded that a nuptial feast of unparalleled splendor be set for his daughter and his Champion. The gates of the castle were opened to all; even tables for beggars were not lacking. A wrinkled woman, bent with age, shuffled to her seat among the lame. Her portion of the delectable meats was seized by the others as she sat stiffly, her brooding, hardened gaze fixed on the beaming bride and on the groom’s splendid pendant. Hemming disagreeably, she shuffled away to discuss with the steward a matter of employment in the royal household.
Enjoying their newly wedded life, Gwynnan and Myrgena failed to notice the old, bent weaverwoman observing them from the shadows. The weaverwoman waited with eternal patience for the novelty of marriage to wane. All too soon for Myrgena, the yearning for perilous travels heated her husband’s blood, and Gwynnan returned to leading his brothers-in-arms throughout the land, settling the squabbles of kings and princes in the name of the High King.
Though united in battle, the brotherhood also squabbled among itself. None would deny that the invulnerability of Gwynnan made him the greatest warrior but they challenged Waelhlem’s position as second. His naturally gentle temperament disappearing in the face of the challenge, Waelhlem deftly defended his right to sit at Gwynnan’s right hand. One defeated challenger named Goeric, smarting from Gwynnan’s arrogant and disdainful laugh, watched the High King’s Champion with eyes of spite.
“He would not laugh so,” thought Goeric, “if he had not the protection of that pendant.” Goeric formed a plot to steal the pendant, certain that he who wore it would be the greatest warrior in the land. With deceptive promises of greatness, Goeric drew some of his brother warriors into the conspiracy. They bided their time, waiting for the return to Khrytrec’s castle where a scapegoat would be easily found among the servants.
Through the drafty castle rooms Myrgena restlessly strolled. Her husband was to return on the morrow and she could not decide how to greet him. She hoped the news that she was carrying his child would bring him joy but she was not certain it would. She had seen him often gazing at the pendant, gazing at the memories it conjured, and she knew that some other woman held his heart. She mumbled in rumination as she paced.
“What maketh thou sad, mistress?” the weaverwoman asked as Myrgena absently toyed with the loom’s flaxen threads. “Thy lord whilst soon be with thee.”
Myrgena smiled a blank smile, not wanting to confide her feelings to a servant, and made evasive remarks. They appeared to satisfy the old woman, and she asked Myrgena her opinion concerning the design upon her loom. The princess made suggestions and soon found herself sitting with the weaverwoman changing the pattern of the cloth. To her surprise she found that through their hours of work she had confessed her sadness about Gwynnan’s pendant. The old woman’s shriveled lips formed a smile of compassion.
“A man holdeth in his heart she who beareth his son,” the old woman stated as if it were an oracle. “He loveth eternally she who honoreth his son. Give thy son a pendant. Take thou thy husband’s clansman’s ring and do thou reproduce the arms of his ancestors upon it in gold as a medallion for thy son.”
A bright smile lit Myrgena’s face; such a token would make Gwynnan’s heart swell with joy. And swell it did. Gladly he surrendered the ring to the goldsmith for the sake of his son. But his joy suddenly exploded into fury when, dressing for his homecoming feast, he could not find his pendant. Waelhlem offered to aid the search as Gwynnan proceeded to the feast, though in foul humor. Goeric grinned slyly at his conspirators and expressed his sorrow to Gwynnan. Off-handedly he implied that maybe Myrgena took it. The princess was aghast.
“That pendant is your charm, Gwynnan. I would never take from you that which makes you the greatest of all warriors.”
Waelhlem entered the hall, his hand firmly upon the arm of a trembling young woman. The old weaverwoman discreetly shuffled in through a far door. Waelhlem bowed before the High King and Gwynnan and announced that his search led to this maid. He held up a chain of fine silver. Gwynnan confirmed that his pendant hung upon that chain. Waelhlem told how it was found among the woman’s things. Gwynnan demanded that she return the pendant. Weeping, she insisted she was innocent.
The weaverwoman shuffled forward. The maid was innocent, she told the court. She knew where the pendant was but her information would cost Gwynnan. And the price she demanded was a kiss upon her shriveled lips. Gwynnan scoffed at her proposition. The weaverwoman shrugged and shuffled away. Reconsidering, Gwynnan commanded her to halt.
“I shall strike your bargain, old woman, but I warn you well: you shall feel my sword pierce your heart if your news fails to recover my property.”
The old weaverwoman took his hand in her bony claw and passed her other arm around his neck. As her embrace tightened, Gwynnan felt the shriveled lips soften with youthful passion. The court gasped when the woman’s veil slipped back to reveal the beautiful face of Malsaire. Gwynnan struggled to release himself from the sorceress’ embrace but she held him with unearthly power, entwining her fingers around his. Pricked with sudden pain, Gwynnan tore himself from her. Blood trickled from his ring finger. Malsaire tossed back her head and laughingly exclaimed, “My brother betrayed you, Gwynnan: he talks freely when intoxicated.” Her laugh echoed like thunder in Gwynnan’s ears. He staggered dizzily, unable to breathe. Waelhlem rushed forward to support his friend as warriors apprehended Malsaire. The sorceress shrieked and melted from view. A fly buzzed around them and darted out the window. Watching the moonlit sky, the warriors sighted a hawk speeding off in the distance. Arrows were uselessly shot at it. Waelhlem called the warriors around him. He gazed sadly at the High King. Gwynnan was dead.