The Unig did not encourage guests, other than as an opportunity to tie them to stakes and cut their heads off. They were not essentially an evil people, but they had the misfortune to live on top of rich seams of copper and tin, which meant they found themselves being repeatedly invaded by other tribes who thought they could make much better use of the minerals. In the end the Unig decided that they would be a lot better off without any other sentient life forms who could master sentences within the vicinity.
Morwen liked being a servant, especially being the servant of one of the biggest bastards known this side of the Grey Mountains. But Cyntalf, like so many master swordsmen, lived in an almost constant black temper.
Morwen had merely been negotiating an extra apple for his daily ration with a comely kitchen wench when he felt his ear tugged and propelled to the stables and was now riding in the direction of Unig territory. He found it difficult to keep his mind off that red shiny apple and the sweet mysteries held inside it.
“Master…” said Morwen, after a while, “…is this going to be an exciting mission that will bring you great wealth and fame or can I stop worrying?”
Cyntalf merely gave him a look that indicated that he was not in the mood to talk strategy to servants.
All too soon they reached the border. It was easy to spot from the line of stakes on each side of the road, each having a grinning skull on top of it, accurately speaking, “Keep Out You Bastards!” in any language.
The Unig had let it be known that these were the skulls of their enemies who had misinterpreted the message and paid the price, although there was a rumour that Morwen had heard that any Unig who donated the head of a family member would be free of taxes for a whole year.
Cyntalf rode on as if he had not noticed these silent border guards but Morwen could not draw his eyes away from them. It was all too easy to think of the many ways by which his head might end up joining them.
After passing the skulls Morwen’s back itched with the constant expectation that an arrow thudding into it at any moment. He could not resist turning and checking the road behind them at regular intervals.
“Stop it!” said the annoyed Cyntalf.
“I can’t help it. I’m sure we’re being followed.”
“If we were I would know about it and we are not.”
Strictly speaking Cyntalf was correct. The arrow, when it came, was from ahead of them. It hit Cyntalf in the chest. For a moment he stayed in the saddle with a surprised and slightly annoyed look on his face and then quietly toppled backwards off his horse, which, like a well trained warhorse, remained perfectly still.
Morwen also remained still, his mind frozen. One of the advantages of having a master swordsman as your lord was that he never wanted you to help out in the fighting stuff. The disadvantage was that Morwen was so shocked that he could not yank his horse around and head from whence they came. All he was aware of was the warm, wet feeling pooling in his lap and starting to drip down his legs. The stillness saved his life.
Three Unig walked out of the shrubbery in which they had been concealed. Morwen wished he knew the Unig for, “Hello, I’m a really nice person when you get to know me. Let’s be friends.” All he could do was smile in what he hoped was a not too inane grin.
One of the band said something incomprehensible to him. Morwen smiled a little more. The man repeated the phrase, only louder. Morwen smiled, only wider.
The man sighed. He said something to the man to his right who came up to Morwen and pulled him off his horse. He was tied up and pushed along a track. The pushing did not seem to be malicious and Morwen hoped that this was a good sign, though his optimism was a little dampened by the fact that the man Morwen assumed was the leader was now riding Cuntalf’s horse and had Cyntalf’s head dangling from the saddle.
So they proceeded for what seemed like many miles until Morwen saw smoke rising above the tree canopy and guessed that to be their destination. Servants are not normally the centre of attention, so it was a little disconcerting to find all eyes on him as they passed through the stockade. Thankfully they were silent, they did not shout or throw anything, just stared, as if some exotic animal was being brought in.
He was pushed into a dark hut. As a servant he had received worse pushes. As his eyes acclimatised he saw that the hut was empty. It smelled of other men and their fear. He sat down against a wall and stretched his aching legs. No position he tried was comfortable. His situation was not good but it was better than Cyntalf’s, which was why he had a smile on his face when the entrance darkened and a man entered.
The thing that Morwen noticed was a very big sword hanging from his waist. “You, warrior?”
Morwen nodded enthusiastically in the hope that it would earn him better treatment. The man slapped his sword. “None?”
“My servant was carrying it for me. I’d like it back and you owe me one servant.” The other smiled.
“Why come?” Morwen looked around the hut. It was completely empty and gave him no clues so he shrugged, hoping it would make him look tough.
“My servant’s fault. He took the wrong turning.”
The other smiled evilly. “He paid.” And he slid his finger along his throat. Then his face fell.
“Servant good clothes. Better…” He pointed at Morwen’s less than good clothes.
“Disguise. Dangerous place. You shoot him before you shoot me. I am no threat. You can let me go.”
Again the other smiled, again with a malicious tint to it. He beckoned to someone standing outside the hut who then entered, a very tall warrior, who threw a bundle he was carrying in Morwen’s direction. Then they both left, although the tall warrior remained lurking outside the door.
Morwen looked at the bundle. It was Cyntalf’s clothes. They still stank of him and of blood. Then he realised that these were his clothes. They expected him to put them on. He did so. The still wet blood was a bit unpleasant but, apart from that, they felt good, empowering. Of course he had washed them tens of times but now wearing them, light, unscratchy, he felt bigger.
Despite the rather trying circumstances he could not help smiling. The tall warrior looked in and saw that he had changed. He nodded to someone else and Morwen heard a great cry of anticipation. Then the warrior beckoned him to come out. It was blinding in the sunshine but the roar of the crowd as they saw him made his stomach churn and his legs go weak. He could all too clearly picture himself lying in the dirt and the crowd baying with triumph.
As his eyes focussed he saw a great number of people in front of him who parted to disclose the first warrior standing in an empty place. He was carrying two swords and a smile on his face. Then he added insult to terror by twirling them around his hands the way that Cyntalf used to do when he was feeling malicious. Without warning he threw the one in his left hand towards Morwen, who did what any sensible person would do, ducked out of the way.
There was a gasp of horror from the crowd. Obviously another people who had a fetish about swords. Quickly covering up his mistake, Morwen made a graceful bow, in the process picking up the sword. Of course it was Cyntalf’s. He had cleaned it often enough. Now with a sneer on his face the warrior advanced towards Morwen, who held the sword, not terribly convincingly he feared, in front of him.
There was a beautiful blue sky behind the warrior and Morwen did not want to die. A look of suspicion came into the other’s eyes. Then suddenly he made a cut at Morwen’s head. Instinctively he raised his sword to meet it but already the cut was coming at his right thigh. Morwen gave a yelp and jumped backwards, barely managing to stay upright as the other’s sword swept in front of him. He heard Cyntalf’s ghostly laugh at the back of his head. The way he had always laughed when he had made Morwen duel with him. It had always been a humiliation like this but this time he was going to die.
Already the warrior was coming towards him again. Half-heartedly he raised his sword, only to have it contemptuously swept aside then felt the wind of the other’s sword as it passed within an inch of his head, which seemed to amuse the crowd.
Now he was angry. Holding the useless sword by its middle, he flung it at his tormenter. Hours of pitch and toss in the barracks had not been wasted. It came unexpectedly and the point ground into the warrior’s belly. With a look of astonishment he pitched forward.
Morwen jumped out of the way and felt sick as he saw the blood stained blade sticking out of the back of the still warrior. He felt warm and awake and tried to hide the smile that was trying to burst out on his face. Something hit him on the back of the head and he too fell into blackness.
Pain, that was what he awoke to. His brain was bursting out of its skull. Then he realised that he was alive and the pain did not seem quite so bad, although he would have been happier to be alive and be without it.
As he struggled back into consciousness he realised that he was back in the hut, although it was dark now so a good many hours had gone by. He also felt that there was somebody behind him. Whirling round, which was not good for his head, he saw the shadow of a man sitting close to him.
“Very clever. You had me fooled for a time.” Morwen was instinctively going to say that he had not been fooling anyone but he thought better of it and concentrated on assuming a vertical position.
“But what is true in this world is that it takes one to know one. I too was a slave for many years and no lord can act the drooping shoulders, the beaten dog look. Only a slave can look like that.”
“Not a slave, a servant.”
“If your lord clicks his fingers you come running. Every day you do what your lord tells you, not what you want to do. Slave or servant?” The man shrugged his shoulders.
Morwen tried to think of some cutting response but he could not. “Now your lord is dead and you are a hero for besting our champion. You have some freedom in your life. What do you intend to do with it?”
Morwen gulped. “I imagine that mainly depends on you.”
“We are not a vindictive people. We honour bravery. You are free to go, free to do what you want, but first there must be a feast.”
The man rose. Morwen felt his hand grabbed and instinctively pulled back but the tug was insistent and he also had to get up and follow the man out of the hut. It was bright outside from the light of a hundred torches and a great cry went up from the crowd as the two came out of the hut. Morwen’s stomach muscles tightened but then the cheering began and he was walking with the man in procession through the torches, the heat increasing the sweat pouring down his face.
He was placed at what was clearly the place of honour in front of the large bonfire and given a bowl of something that smelt fermented and strong. After a few of these bowls and large hunks of roasted meat that he had only ever seen in other men’s hands, he was starting to feel good about himself. Whatever else these people were they had good food.
He gave a sigh that was almost contentment. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a family, a mother and two small children being brought towards him. The children looked tearful and afraid, the woman, who must be less than thirty, looked angry but proud.
Morwen looked enquiringly at his new best friend who beckoned the family to come closer, which they did, the children being dragged by their mother, who glared defiantly.
“The wife and children of the man you defeated. They are yours now.”
Morwen spat the beer in his mouth into the bowl he was fortunately holding close to his face. “What, you think we are barbarians who do not look after our widows and orphans? You killed their provider so it can only be a fair custom that you now have the duty to look after them.”
A place was made for the woman on his right hand side. She ignored him but tried to encourage her children to eat though she took nothing. Morwen had also lost his appetite. He managed to get through quite a few bowls of the liquor, but still the atmosphere was tense as the new family made its way to the hut that now seemed to be Morwen’s own.
The children, already more asleep than awake, were put to bed in a corner. The man and woman looked at each other, there were no smiles.
Morwen banged his chest, “Morwen!”
She understood. “Pyrdferth,” she replied. There was a challenge in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said but she looked uncomprehending so he indicated that she should go and sleep by her children while he curled up in a space the other side of the hut. He lay facing her because he half expected a knife at his throat sometime in the night, but she lay with her back to him.
He woke with a start in the dawn. He had slept sounder than he had wanted and was slightly surprised to find himself still alive. The hut was empty but he could hear the chatter of children outside. He stretched like a cat and lay still for a moment, because no one would tell him to get up.
Reluctantly he rose; outside was a scene of domestic bliss that he was unprepared for, the children engrossed in feeding the fire and the woman intent on stirring something wonderful in a cauldron. The chattering ceased as he poked his head out of the entrance. Three narrowed pairs of eyes looked at him but the woman got a bowl and ladled out some of the porridge and offered it to him. With some wafting of his hands he indicated that they should share.
For a while they sat, all four, watching the village come to life. It suddenly struck him that he had a place in the world. So life continued over the next few weeks. He made himself useful to the village. Being a servant who had been used to hunting and fetching for his master, he found he had talents that were useful.
He let the woman sleep with her children all this time though many nights he was willing her to cross the floor when her children were asleep. It never happened.
So life settled down into a new normality. He was no longer a servant, but a respected member of the community. He felt like an imposter.
Towards dawn one day he was woken by urgent shouting. His stomach lurched, that sound could never be good. He rushed to the door, conscious of the woman close behind him. It was barely light but the village swarmed like a disturbed ant’s nest. Hardly thinking he picked up his sword. He saw the chief and ran over to him.
“Your tribe are approaching in force. They come for revenge.”
Morwen thought of the woman, still huddled in the door way, the children clutching her skirts. He ran forward, past the young men who were hurriedly assembling their weapons, through the gate. An angry shout behind him and an arrow flipped into the grass ahead of him. Obviously they thought he was going back to his own people.
Ahead he saw them. He raised his arms, conscious of the bows raised until someone recognised him and shouted for patience.
“Cyntalf is dead, but I avenged him.” Someone laughed and it was taken up by several others.
“See, I have his sword.” The laughter stopped.
One of the warriors approached, whom Morwen recognised as Fyrnig, Cyntalf’s rival for war chief. He laid his sword along Morwen’s neck.
“This is true?” Morwen nodded. “Then there is nothing for us here.”
He signalled to his men to turn back and grabbed hold of Morwen’s collar. “Then you are my servant now.” So Morwen returned to being a servant. It was not a bad life but he often caught himself thinking about the family he had lost, and saved.