The battle of Cynbel the Hushed and Bashful Derek
His grandfather looked much the same as when Lailoken had last seen him alive—a man of forty-nine years, squatting comfortably in the heather in his old tunic and breeks, chewing dried corn and milk with toothless gums. His body was still twig-thin from the sickness the gods had sent him, although how he had angered them, no one knew.
“You shouldn’t be here, Grandfather,” said Lailoken. “You should be enjoying your second life.”
“No, Grandfather, you should not be here,” echoed Aileen, Lailoken’s younger sister, grinning mischievously at Lailoken and screwing up her nose tightly. “You’re dead—and smelly.”
“Don’t talk to your grandfather like that,” warned their father, Nechtan, an older man of thirty-three years, his face framed with spikes of lime-washed hair. He raised his golden flagon, drinking noisily and messily, the rich, red wine cascading down his chest. Lailoken wondered at the light of the gods dawning in his eyes.
“We buried him, Father,” said Aileen, another smile passing between her and Lailoken. “We don’t want him here now. He should be with the gods. It’s spooky, and he smells even worse than he did when he was alive.”
Her older brother, Cynbel the Hushed, who looked remarkably like his father, with the same intense blue eyes and spiky, lime-white hair, and who carried himself with the same warrior’s confidence, said only, “Good to see you again, Grandfather.” Cynbel spoke little since losing his twin sister, Marcail, to the gods of the sea, five years before. As the king’s first son, Cynbel lived with a geas that he not let harm befall his siblings. Marcail’s drowning had defied his geas, condemning Cynbel to some future disaster. It shadowed his every day. Only an act of great courage and far-reaching consequence could satisfy his geas now.
This grand feast, held in the glen outside the village, there being no building big enough to hold the guests, was to celebrate young Aileen’s entry into womanhood. A sweet, innocent maiden she was, and like her brother Lailoken, dark-haired, black-eyed, and mischievous. Normally shy with men, she was outspoken and firm when challenged. As befitted a celebration for the daughter of the king, all the people of the village were there, squatting or sitting in the heather, soaking up last night’s rain and the king’s wine. A strolling bard spoke in loud, resonant tones of old battles and bold warriors, embellishing his oratory with simple music, delicately played on a two-stringed gue, the strange-looking instrument he had brought from the north.
The hum of drunken boasting was building; men were becoming rowdy. They had been drinking wine for most of the day and had eaten little, awaiting the high point of the meal. With a great, wine-soaked shout, they welcomed four strong slaves, struggling under the weight of a roasted cow. The slaves laid the beast on the wooden table before the king’s family, their relieved muscles sighing, as Nechtan thanked them graciously for their efforts. The cow was magnificent; young, meaty, and so lightly roasted that blood still oozed from the cuts where the cooks had tasted.
A warrior climbed unsteadily to his feet and toasted the assembled villagers. With wine sloshing from his goblet, he proclaimed loudly, “Send me the right hind leg.” This was Derek the Bashful, a loud, boastful, and powerful man, known for his ability to provoke trouble among the best of friends. This was trouble indeed.
A hush descended on the crowd. The right hind leg was, by long custom, given to the bravest and fiercest warrior present, but as a compliment to the king, the honour today should go to Cynbel, his elder son and brother of Aileen. Bashful Derek might have been the bravest and fiercest warrior in the village, but his claim was a direct affront to the young Cynbel, a man yet to reach his peak as a warrior, a man untested in battle, and yet already adept with sword, dagger, spear, and hammer.
Cynbel, from his place next to his father, raised his eyes from his plate but said nothing. He looked at Derek the Bashful steadily and unflinchingly.
“I remind you,” shouted Bashful, directly at Cynbel, “that when the tribes from the north attacked, I proved my valour. I saved the village while others shivered in their cellars, hiding like rats in their corn stores. I shall have the right hind leg.” His face was red and running with sweat as he stared, wide-eyed and defiant, at the king’s son. The guests watched Cynbel in murmuring quiet.
Cynbel sat in silence a moment longer, his eyes locked with those of the swaying Derek. He spoke, short and to the point. “Give bold Derek the right hind leg—of a chicken.” Amidst the laughter of the people at this most egregious insult, Cynbel returned to his wine, the matter suitably disposed of.
Derek the Bashful breathed in heavily, his face shining, his bloodshot eyes staring still at the king’s son. He strode to the middle of the floor, and facing Cynbel and the king, slowly, deliberately stripped the clothes from his body. He stood naked, magnificent, gripping his longsword in hands like hams. His heavily muscled body was inscribed blue with the gods he followed, his long-ago forebears, the battles he had won, and the heroes he had challenged and vanquished. He strutted up and down the hall, his muscles flexing, so all could acknowledge the rightness of his claim. None would dare challenge him, he knew. He returned to stand before Cynbel, and in a voice that shook the hills around them, shouted, “Do you fear me, sister-killer?”
Cynbel took another sip from his wine goblet and calmly raised his eyes once more to Derek. “Does life’s burden weary you, Bashful? Do not provoke me further.”
Derek’s longsword crashed on the table in front of Cynbel. It was an old sword, bronze, worn, but polished and wickedly sharp—a tool used by a fighting man to slice through living flesh, sinew, and bone. “I will have the right hind leg! I am Derek the Bold, the gods know I am the fiercest warrior in the land, and if I must”—Derek loomed over the table towards Cynbel—“I will kill you.”
The naked Derek dominated the scene like an ox. His chest muscles worked and shimmered as he swung the heavy sword around his head. An immensely strong man at thirty years, and though passing his prime, he had an unrivalled reputation as a warrior; and he was angry.
The challenge hung in the air. Cynbel could not ignore it. He must either kill Derek or die himself. The room rippled to a hush as Cynbel rose and stripped off his own clothes—the shirt and breeks in his father’s pattern—revealing the tattoos of his own gods and ancestors. He had no battle markings; large areas of his skin were blank, ready for the inscriptions of glories yet to come.
The two men faced each other, and Derek shouted at Cynbel as if he were in the next village, rather than a sword’s length away.
“I am Derek the Indomitable, and today I will kill you! Your body will be pulp, your most precious parts will stain the ground with blood, and your head will guard my door. Prepare your ancestors to receive you, for today you die!”
Cynbel said only, “You are Derek the feeble and noisome.”
Cynbel crouched with his longsword held across his body, on guard against an attack. His iron sword was a rare, expensive item, stronger and sharper than Bashful’s and just as deadly. The blade flared in the centre, the added weight adding power to dismember and behead. It was surely a prince’s sword, but a fearsome tool nevertheless. Seventeen years old, Cynbel was as heavily muscled as Derek, and now, steady-eyed, he raised his sword high behind his shoulder, inviting Derek to strike. They had no shields; this would be a battle with swords, and it would end in death.
“Sister-killer,” mocked Bashful, softly, so few but Cynbel could hear. Cynbel showed no reaction except, perhaps, a little regret. Bashful, looming over Cynbel by a head, swung his sword at his neck. Cynbel’s parry was swift, the clash of iron on bronze echoing from the hills and setting the young women’s hearts aflutter. Again, Bashful swung, and again the clash of swords shredded the air. Bashful, smiling broadly, moved forward and swung, forcing Cynbel onto his back foot, the sword brushing him so closely that blood tipped his nose. Derek, confident now, followed through, swaying with the wine he had drunk and swinging his heavy sword back towards his foe.
It was a lower, disembowelling move, but Cynbel stepped forward within the sword arc, swung his body, and kicked Bashful deep in the kidneys. The accurately placed foot should have left Derek crawling on the floor in agony, but wine-dulled Bashful only grunted and brought his sword up in a slashing curve, crafted to open Cynbel from groin to chest. Cynbel turned sideways, the stroke passing harmlessly behind, and while Bashful’s sword was high, Cynbel made to hack at Bashful’s side as if to lessen the weight on his stomach by freeing his guts. It was a feint. Bashful lowered his sword to parry, but Cynbel twisted his sword in an arc, reversed flow, and wheeling on his feet, pulled his sword high and accelerating in a wide circle. If unhindered, it would remove Bashful’s head at the shoulders. Bashful’s own sword, with similar intent, swung wide and fast at Cynbel’s neck. One head must fall, and indeed, a blood-spewing head bounced on the ground, rolling a short distance before stopping. In the eyes, a last look of alarm glazed quickly in death. A body followed the head, crashing to the ground, blood puddling out of the neck and staining the thin heather and peat.
Slaves appeared, unbidden, and pulled Bashful’s body away by the feet, quickly laying heather and peat over the blood. The new heather smelled fresh and fragrant against the earthy blood-smell of the roasted cow.
Cynbel returned to his place and to the congratulations of his family. The feast resumed, perhaps now with more laughter and more noise, the demise of the scarcely loved Bashful a cause for celebration rather than sorrow. The bard resumed his tale, interjecting a hastily composed ballad of the battle of Cynbel and Derek. The mood affected even the slaves, and they served the right hind leg of the cow to Cynbel with a grand flourish, accompanied by a rousing cheer from the guests, who viewed the son of their king with a new pride. Cynbel accepted the honour with quiet grace, smiling briefly towards the guests.
“I’m so glad your blood is not spilt,” said Aileen, who worshipped her elder brother and now beamed at him proudly. “What a mess it would have made—bits of brother all over the glen. It might have spoilt our appetite.”
“I’m so glad I’m not a warrior,” said Lailoken, the Druid apprentice, clapping his brother on the back. “You do not know fear like others do.”
“The gods favoured me” was all that Cynbel said, yet he lowered his head briefly to the smiling Mata, the man who had taught him the move that had vanquished Derek.