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Thirteen

A Novel by Tabitha Hergest

Prologue: The Picts

 

It began with a dream.

It was a dream unbidden in the mind of the child who dreamt it – a child who, even though her childhood was not the long-drawn-out affair we have the luxury of affording today, was not capable of understanding its portent in any conscious capacity, but whose timeless subconscious marked every crag, every careworn wrinkle of the dream. The nightmare.

It was, in fact, a nightmare such, had it been less portentous, as would have had the sufferer up and screaming, and the whole camp around tending the poor unfortunate who, by all accounts, would sound close to dying. Not that the child did not make every effort to awaken, but this nightmare had tentacles of serious import which kept her submerged in her slumbering state ‘til it had told her all it had to tell.  By and by, morning fell upon the encampment, and so did this Kraken of the girl’s deep sleep loose its grip on her, and finally she surfaced, screaming. And yes, the whole camp tended the girl who, by all accounts, sounded close to dying. Indeed, such hysterics had not been heard in living memory for, even in the lives of the oldest and wisest, naught had been known but peace, prosperity and bliss. Even amongst this warrior tribe, as the need for militia had receded, so had the warrior’s swords grown blunt through neglect. If there was fighting, it would usually be amongst young men, drunk on mead and machismo, who
fought to the death for the right to feast on a leg of beef. The Gods were smiling on a people grown complacent on the seeds of plenty, and even the Druids of the tribe had had their wisdom blunted by it.  

But the Gods knew. And the Gods knew the only way to get through to these people before they were annihilated was through innocence, through a child untroubled by the ways of unguarded pleasure. And although, yes, this child had known more than her share of pleasure, that she was still young enough meant that she was not corrupted by it. And the Gods knew – and the knowledge of the Gods passed into the child, whose now conscious mind saw only a horror it could not understand.

“Summon the Chief Druid!” The order was being barked by the child’s mother, a small, thin woman of not quite thirty who looked ordinary enough in her simple cowled night-robe. That she had the power to summon the Chief Druid who, as was his practice, engaged in not-quite-full-hearted ritual at that hour of the morning, spoke fully of her status, and so the Druid came.

“Madam, you summoned me?”

“The child, Dynedd, the child!”

“Ah yes”, said the Druid hesitantly, “the child. Hmmm…  Ahh… yes, well…” Dynedd the Druid was just about to suggest a concoction of herbs designed to deal with a case of common-or-garden night terrors when, amidst her incoherent ramblings, she said it.

“Thirteen treasures!”

To a woman, the assembled were nonplussed and taken aback. Dynedd, however, was viewing a kaleidoscope of emotions as his memory struggled to assert itself.

“What is it, Dynedd?” The girl’s mother had witnessed the Druid’s discomfiture, and decided that, in the face of mass panic, the least insane option was the surest way out.

“Oh… no… no… no…”

“Dynedd! I command you as…”

“Okay… okay…” The Druid was hyperventilating now. “It’s probably nothing, which is why I falter, but I have heard it said, back in the days of old when the prosperity we now enjoy was not upon us, that there would be a portent of thirteen treasures that should be gathered in times of greatest need.”

“Fables, man – mythology! What use this Bardic nonsense now, when we have everything we need? You’re going soft in your old age; maybe I should think about replacing you. 

“With the greatest respect, Madam, you cannot…”

“Don’t tell me”, the girl’s mother exploded furiously, “what I can and cannot do. I’ll have you…”

“Mam!” The girl, who had been gurgling incoherently all this time, finally gave a concerted scream before falling back against the straw-filled bedding, unconscious.

“What! Oh Gods, is she dead?” 

The Druid felt the child’s jugular vein, and her forehead. “No – she lives. She is strong, with the vitality of robust youth.” Now he had caught his wind, his learning had clicked into place. “If I recall aright, she will awake ere-long, clear of the terrors which now haunt her.  Be at peace, madam.”

“Very well, Dynedd”, said she, now cognisant of the Druid’s authority. “Tend her amply, and I shall tend my other duties.”

Eventually, the girl roused, and smiled up at the old Druid. She was about to speak, but the Druid put a finger to his lips. “Rest now, little one – you have had a traumatic experience.”

The girl gave a satisfied sigh, smiled and then, with a troubled expression, said: “Dynedd, if you had seen trouble coming, with swords and spears flashing against an unprepared army, what would you do?” 

“Why, young Rhiannon, I would probably pass it off as a nightmare.” The Druid tried to sound light of heart, but that his deeknowledge caused him a tremor of worry was not lost on the girl.

“Only… well, it wasn’t a nightmare – not really. I’ve had nightmares before, and, well, this was different. It was… it was like I was watching it happen before me: I could see and hear the battle raging, obviously, but also I could smell the sweat of the participants, feel the ground shake beneath me and taste the rage on one side and the fear on the other. Worse, I could sense other things that weren’t part of the bodily senses, such as bitter regret come too late, and a sense that this is the end for our people. Then I heard someone say that we should have collected something called the thirteen treasures while we could, because our way of living was vulnerable to outsiders envious of it. It isn’t the end, is it?”

“No, girl”, was all the Druid could think of to say. In reality, he was quaking now; the reality was that he, too, had been given these auguries, but he had dismissed them as extreme nonsense. Nothing of the kind had been heard for over a hundred summers, and everyone from the rich merchants to the rulers of the tribe had forbidden talk of such an eventuality with such force that even he stood in fear of his position, so morally enfeebled was he by the curse of easy living that had blighted his people for so long. 

The child, though, was wise – wiser than even she knew. Seeing the Druid was deeply troubled, and having the same affection for him as for a doting grandfather, she decided to let the matter rest – at least as far as he was concerned. “Poor Dynedd”, she thought, “he’s so distracted that he wouldn’t even know I was pretending to sleep if I just shut my eyes.” And so it proved.

When Dynedd the Druid was satisfied that Rhiannon was asleep, he lingered for a while before deciding his time would be better spent in conversation with the Gods, so softly he wandered from the roundhouse where lay the child to his own spiritual sanctum, the grove of oak from whence he could commune. Once he had gone, Rhiannon peered covertly from beneath an eyelash and, once she was satisfied that nobody was paying her attention, as a shadow she slipped from her soft billet into the harshness of survival. As young as she was, if nobody else was going to take her seriously, she figured, she would have to take matters into her own hands.

Her first port of call was the army’s quarters. Rhiannon slipped into the garrison’s building, waking the guard on duty as she brushed past. 

“Wurrrr… wassat?” The guard gathered his senses in time to stop himself reaching for the nearest weapon, and beheld the girl, not quite ten but, in her bare feet and night clothes, very precocious. “What are you doing here, young lady? This is no place for a child, especially one dressed for bed. Who are your parents? Where are they?” 

“What do you know about the thirteen treasures?”

“What? Never heard of them – sounds like Druid talk to me.  Go home, young lady, or some people are going to become very cross with me.”

“You do know that we are going to be over-run with vicious hordes jealous of our wealth and trade, don’t you?”

The soldier, not being especially bright, gave a hearty guffaw.  “Well now you are talking soft. There’s nothing to touch us, young lady – or we’d have been overrun years ago. You need your bed. Tell me where your parents are and I’ll take you to them.” He made to grasp her arm, but she was too quick for him and, undaunted by her failure, went on her next visit. The Druids.

Alas for her, her visit to the Druids met with much the same response. Although Dynedd, the Chief Druid, had shown – if not expressed – concern for her alarum, the main body of Druids, from whom, for reasons of intellectual rigour, he was somewhat detached, were even less inclined to disturb the status quo than was he. There were mutterings of the Queen being overbearing and, ‘though it was not seemly, she had dispensed summary justice on those who had dared question her.

Rhiannon drew a blank with the farmers, the toilers, the Bards and the Ovates too, although one story-teller did fill in her knowledge of the thirteen treasures’ importance – but he finished by saying that it was unthinkable that any such crisis in which they be required would ever befall the tribe, any more than it was possible that the sky could fall in. “Such things”, said he, “are fantastical stories, that’s all.”

Crestfallen, Rhiannon went back to bed. She was amazed to discover that nobody had noticed her absence – but then she reasoned that the straw on which she slept must have formed a reasonable facsimile of her slumbering form to anyone not looking too closely. And she further reasoned that perhaps nobody wanted to examine her too closely lest she start screaming again. 

When she awoke next morning, all was madness. Her parents were rushing around with furious expressions on their faces, and dozens of slaves were busily trying to avoid being subject to their wrath. Even Dynedd – especially Dynedd – was skulking around, trying to look invisible which, up to a point, was working: Rhiannon’s parents were so busy looking metaphorical daggers at each other that they had no thought of anyone else. But Rhiannon knew it was not a very good place to be at that moment. She got out of bed, even though wise, old Dynedd the Druid had motioned pleadingly for her to stay where she was. But it was no use – she had been seen.

“You!” Her mother and father screamed in unison, as they bore down on the petrified child. “What”, continued her father, “in the name of all the Gods and Goddesses have you done! You’ve only gone and sown disquiet amongst our people, meaning that our life of plenty is imperilled. By the Gods I should have you killed! Come here!”

Her father grabbed her roughly by the arm, and was about to strike her with all the force in his body, when Dynedd said: “stop!”

Open mouthed in wonder, her father let her go and both he and her mother said: “What?”

Rhiannon having rushed over to him, now grasping him by his rough woollen tunic, Dynedd said: “If you harm this child, you’ll have me, and”, he waved his boline in the direction of the opening, where the rest of the Druids of the tribe appeared, “the rest of us to consider.  Now, I know I’m an old man, and physically I’ve left my best behind many summers ago, but these ladies and gentlemen are under my command, and they boost my power considerably. By treating the girl roughly you show yourself unfit to rule, and therefore have no power over us. And you may have made us cower in the past, using your wealth and its shadow of tyranny as a cudgel, but from now on be on notice that you cannot rule without us: without us, all will be anarchy.”

Rhiannon’s parents were pole-axed.

“You cannot…” suggested the King, eventually.

“I’ll have you slaughtered and fed to the pigs – and the child too”, interjected the Queen.

“Such bravado”, scoffed Dynedd. “I suggest you try, and then we will see who is the wiser. Anyway, by my reckoning your daughter is wiser than you are, both; if the auguries are right, there is a band of warlike Picts advancing upon us with evil intent: if you have your way, we’ll all be slaughtered and fed to whichever beast takes its pleasure on us.”

“Slaves”, yelled the Queen, “seize the Druid and the child!” But as one, the slaves cowered, backing away from the huddle of the old man and the young girl, who seemed, to them, to be glowing with energy. These slaves weren’t destined for Druidic lore, but they were aware of some things that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, things which couldn’t be sensed with the other mortal senses. They felt something menacing emanating from the Druid, through the girl and out towards them – an aura of brutal coldness and loathing for anyone or anything that dared to cause them harm. What’s more, the aura had teeth.

“Damn you!” The Queen exploded with rage at the sight of her frightened slaves. “Do I have to do everything myself?” The Queen herself was now beginning to get nervous, although she was used to wearing a mask of rage to disguise it. She grabbed the bare arm of one of her slaves, and tried to drag the poor woman in the direction of the Druid, but she was as immovable as granite, so the Queen took herself, and her husband, in the direction of the old mage, whereupon the assemblage of Druids themselves advanced on the King and Queen.

Just then there was an alarum. “Ships”, cried the messenger, as fast as his little legs would carry him. “Ships… on the river… bearing the Pictish standard!” The young boy, barely older than Rhiannon, collapsed at the entrance to the roundhouse, exhausted. He was followed by a hullabaloo of consternation and raised voices demanding answers as to what was to be done. Immediately, the King and Queen abandoned their crusade against the Druid and the girl, and rushed to their hoard of treasure to watch over it. Dynedd, however, gave a sign to his company and as one they went down to the river bank to welcome their visitors with as much force as was visited upon them. While the Druids were not of the same class as the warriors, nevertheless they were able to hold their own against many fighters, with the advantage of Cunning ways to back them up. And, as this Pictish invasion was made up of a rebel, breakaway tribe rather than the representatives of the relatively peaceable tribes of Picts, who would never make such a bold dash south anyway, the likelihood was that they would have few Druids in their number, if any at all.

Meanwhile, Dynedd took the girl to the relative safety of the grove, a sacred space even this strain of Pict would respect, and stood guard by her whilst conducting his own counter-insurgency efforts remotely. He knew the Druids themselves would not hold out without reinforcements, so he worked to get the others onside. This would be a vital battle, and he could not risk his comrades fighting alone. His scrying-mirror also told him that the river would not be the Picts’ only line of attack, and another band were at this moment travelling to find the optimum avenue for a push from the north. In all, there were about two thousand souls – men and women; a thousand by ship and another thousand marching; fortunately, the two contingents would be battle-ready disjointedly: but what of the local tribe? Dynedd was working on that.

Now the Druids had engaged the enemy. Baffling and blustering with blasts of Cunning “foo” from the rearguard, and with those who selected themselves as infantry trading swords, the Druids were holding their own, although Dynedd was well aware that they couldn’t last: the Cunning was a very draining method of warfare, even for those well versed in its practice. 

“Come on, my beauties!” The Druid piqued the interest of the farmers and villagers, their slaves and other helpers from near and far who took an interest in the welfare of the tribe. Already roused by talk of thirteen treasures, and all that it entailed, they had begun to gather implements for the quest – although as the fight was upon them almost as soon as they had heard the rumour, they had barely gathered anything.  Nevertheless, seeing the Druids fighting for their very existence, they were drawn into the mêlée – men, women, old folk, young folk and all.

“Yes… yes… yes!!” Dynedd was ecstatic, but he knew even this was not enough. Indeed, his scrying-mirror told him of untold carnage by the river, even if equally shared by the invaders.  

Next for the Bards and the Ovates. These weren’t fighting people, except for those who had taken rudimentary steps towards Druidry. But they were young, fit and agile, for the most part, and for the most part they had a good understanding of lore, and of military guile. More importantly, they did as they were bidden by the Chief Druid, who communicated directly into their minds where absolutely necessary, as now. There were also plenty of them, for many were attracted by the path to Druidry even if most of those fell by the wayside.  Of these, half were seconded to the battle at the waterfront, while the other half were sent to rouse the warriors who, flabby and blunt after many summers as mere status symbols, were extremely reluctant to actually fulfil their destiny.

By now, Dynedd was starting to flag. Rhiannon could see the toll the effort was taking on him, and asked: “What can I do?”

Dynedd took some persuading, as he didn’t want to use such a young, innocent flower in the crashing tyranny of war. But Rhiannon was adamant: “There are children younger than me being slaughtered down there. If you don’t use me, I’m going to go down and do my bit in person!”

“Oh Rhiannon, Rhiannon!” The Druid knew the girl had beaten him, in this battle. “Oh... as you will”, he said finally. “But listen, you must – must, I tell you – do exactly as I say. This is deadly serious.”  The girl understood well the gravity of the situation – the dream had seen to that. “Now, hold my hands, and look into the scrying-mirror.”

She did as he asked and stared beyond her and the Druid’s reflection in Dynedd’s highly-polished gold block, blessed and anointed with unguents and handed down through many incarnations of Chief Druid.  Slowly, the scene changed from the battle to the warrior’s garrison, and Rhiannon beheld the same guard she had spoken to the previous evening, but this time he was in heated debate with a gaggle of Bards and Ovates.

“Friend, I don’t care what your songs and tales have to say about the”, the guard shuddered at the vague recollection of the innocent night-garment clad reminder of peace and happiness trying to tell him about war and doom, “the thirteen treasures and the attendant portents – there’s no way anything could happen, not now!”

“But it is happening – right now, right on the banks of the river”, said the spokesman for the group. “If you don’t believe me, go down and take a look. Go on.”

“Okay, I… ahh – wait a minute; you’re just trying to get me out of the way so you can pilfer our stores, aren’t you?”

The spokesman banged his head against the rough, lime-washed wattle-and-daub wall of the garrison in exasperation. “What do I have to do…”

The Chief Druid bent down and whispered to Rhiannon: “Now, concentrate as hard as you can on the wall and speak passionately to that guard. Tell him what is happening, and what will happen if he doesn’t ready his troops.”

Just as instructed, Rhiannon concentrated so hard that her image appeared to the guard, projecting off the white wall of the hut.  The guard blinked his eyes in astonishment, and checked himself for delirium. “This can’t be happening”, he said, weakly.

"Guard”, said Rhiannon, “you didn’t listen to me yesterday, and now let me tell you what the results of your inattention are. Our people are being slaughtered by Pictish invaders on the riverbank by the village of Pinvedik, and there are a thousand more invaders expected from the north through the valley of the Avon Mat river in the next twenty degrees of the sun. Either you mobilise your warriors now, or our tribe will be annihilated.”

“She’s right”, interjected the Druid, whose image appeared behind hers. “Look at the carnage already inflicted on our people.” The scene changed to the riverbank, and the guard’s legs momentarily turned to jelly.

“Oh Gods,” he bellowed, “We’re not ready for this. Battalion”, he shouted into the garrison chamber, “make ready!”

“On who’s ord…” The warrior chieftain appeared, nonplussed at the summons. “Gods – no!” He, too, was struck by the imagery played out on the wall. Instantly, he reiterated the guard’s command to make ready, and as one the entire army piled out, carrying whatever weapons they could find.

“The Chief Druid suggests this might be the best course”, said the elder of the Ovates, who was but five summers from Dynedd himself. 

“Does he now?” The warrior chieftain was an ill-humoured person, especially when summoned from pleasurable reverie by anyone other than the Queen herself. “And I suppose we have to take your word for that.”

Dynedd was furious, and appeared on the track as a fiery vision in front of the startled soldier. “No you do not”, he roared, before disappearing into calmed invisibility.

“Right… nature trail outing it is then”, replied the chieftain, sarcastically.

When they got to the valley of the Avon Mat river, they found that the Picts had been there before them, due to the truculent chieftain’s habit of regularly stopping en route. However, the rapidly advancing woad-covered figures were still in sight, and had begun looting and burning houses – both of which activities had slowed them down.  Before the massed ranks of warriors, Ovates and Bards could reach them, however, they came upon the place where was the treasure of the King and Queen – with the King and Queen huddled desperately over it. It was short work for the chieftain of the Picts to despatch the couple – as neither the Queen or her husband had learnt to fight, the few pathetic jabs they managed with the bejewelled swords in their collection drew nothing but derision from their malefactors.

Too late, then, the defenders reached the invaders. When they saw the Queen dead in the dirt, some of the soldiers lost heart and wept, and were slaughtered where they were. But others were injected with an overwhelming desire for revenge. They went berserk, losing all pretence of control, much to the consternation of the Bards and the Ovates, who now had to battle on their own, gingerly picking up the weapons of those warriors who had been slain.

Eventually, the last of the invaders was killed. But at what cost?  The warriors were all decimated, save three who had run back to the garrison clutching gashes which lost them much blood and later killed them through infection. The Bards and Ovates fared little better, with perhaps ten Bards and twelve Ovates surviving. Of the Druids, a dozen survived out of a total of eighty, and fewer than a hundred farmers, villagers, slaves and other interested parties survived – and many of them were children who had fled the battlefield or hidden in boats at the water’s edge. There were, however, many people abroad in the country and throughout the world, merchants and tradespeople, cultural ambassadors and diplomats who would return when word reached them of the carnage. Although now thoroughly exhausted, Dynedd still knew that such news would have to travel discreetly, lest a fresh wave of attacks be drawn on the weakened tribe.

Just then, the messenger boy entered the grove. “Is it all over, now?”

“Ah, Morfydd”, said Dynedd wearily. “Yes, it is over. But I may still have a little task for you.”

Content

Prologue: The Picts

Chapter One: The Awakening

Chapter Two: The Quickening

Chapter Three: The Maturing

Chapter Four: The Understanding

Chapter Five: The Gathering

Chapter Six: The King

Chapter Seven: The Shock of the New

Chapter Eight: The First Test

Chapter Nine: The Initiation of Rhiannon

Chapter Ten: The Complete Set

Chapter Eleven: The Dreaming

Chapter Twelve: The Revival

Chapter Thirteen: The Calm After the Storm