Kady was transfixed by the claw marks in the man’s skull, the crimson rivulets welling above the eyeless sockets. His terror-stricken mouth yawned and he sucked in a breath but instead of a scream a strident melody sounded. When onlookers roared their approval the vision receded, leaving only perspiration coursing down his features as his rich baritone reached the song’s finale. With a theatrical sweep of his arms he bowed to accept the thunderous acclaim.
Torean clambered atop the table he’d been pounding with his fists in time to the harmonies. The brawny chieftain grinned while steadying himself to raise his wineskin. “Fantastic, Telor! You sing like a fucking robin. A plump, red breasted robin.” A furious belch ruined the image. “The rest of you drunken bastards ... charge whatever you happen to have your snouts in and thank our Gods ... and thank Telor, our wonderful robin ... bard ... for his fitting tribute to Kai, our druid. Everyone ... to Kai ... druid of the Dumnonii … the heartiest of best wishes on your fortieth year!”
“To Kai!” the glowing toast echoed around the hall, signalling vessels to be thrown back, or their contents simply heaved into the air to splatter like sweet rain. Torean leapt into the arms of his bemused bodyguards, the trio collapsing in a dishevelled heap and prompting further ribald roars.
Kai weaved his way through the cordial mayhem, accepting the flurry of handshakes, wincing with each goblet tossed over his already drenched tunic. Reaching Telor he slapped the bard across his broad shoulders. “My friend! I thank you for the fine aria. I feel truly honoured. Torean was right. You sang beautifully as a robin.”
“If robins were in the habit of quaffing flagons of Cornish ale,” he scoffed, swiping the back of his hand over his lips. “I’m surprised I recalled the words … forty verses I composed specially in your honour, Kai … telling the story of your years serving the Dumnonii as their druid … and not just the Dumnonii, my friend … each of the neighbouring tribes has had cause to rely on your powers … many times … especially my own, the Durotriges.”
Kai thrust an arm around the bard’s much bulkier frame. “I cast spells, I help those who need help. I’m a druid, Telor. That’s what I do.”
“And I’m a bard, Kai. I sing. Tell sagas. I entertain. Mostly. That’s what I do! But now my entertaining is concluded. Now I drink!”
“You deserve it … after all, you’ve travelled some way to be here … among this riot!”
“A day’s ride on my trusty horse. I’ll collapse on this floor in the small hours, snore loudly, break my fast heartily long after the sun has risen, then I’ll be back in my own village by the morrow’s sunset.”
“There are many guests here who’ve arrived from far and wide, Telor. I’m flattered. It’s just like the old days.”
“Indeed, Kai. These gatherings have all but died out since the invasion.”
At the mention of the German barbarians who had conquered vast swathes of land far to the east, Telor seized a drinking horn from someone blundering by who remained oblivious. He took an expansive drink then burped. “Tonight we toast our druids, our ancient guardians. Ah … Kai, your beautiful green-eyed daughter approaches! Kady!”
The druid turned to the striking redhead weaving through the scrum of inebriated figures. Although she was smiling at the condition of her father and his friend, a troubled look flitted across her face. Failing to notice, Telor wrapped her in an embrace. “Kady!”
“Telor. You’re soaked through! Are you drinking to toast father’s birthday or merely emptying it over yourself?”
“A bit of both, beautiful one.” With that he drained his horn before tossing it over his shoulder.
“I’ll bid you good drinking, Telor,” concluded Kai. I would have a word with my daughter.”
Telor grasped Kady’s hand, kissing the back of it, repeating the gesture with Kai. Then he about turned, becoming enveloped in the boozy gaggle beyond.
Kai’s grin remained in place even as he lowered his voice and bowed closer to the teenager. “You appear puzzled, Kady?”
Pausing for a moment while she considered her response, she sipped from the goblet clutched in her slender fingers, studying the intricate patchwork of tattoos flourishing from her right shoulder to the back of her hand. “Telor’s face …”
“As you said, Kady, he is soaking. His hair and clothes will reek of ale!”
Kady glimpsed the bard through the crowd. He caught her eye and winked. For a moment she saw the vision again – his features bloodied, bruised, disfigured – before the image faded into his jovial self.
“No father, that is not it. I keep seeing ... imagining things.”
“Premonitions? Good. I’ve been seeing them, too, daughter. In time you will be able to channel your visions of the future ... and the past. Of many things.”
“It’s Telor ...”
“Yes. I will urge him to be cautious on his long journey eastwards. There are bandits in the forests. And wolves.” But Kai relaxed, linking arms. “Even a few months ago you would’ve only seen a drunken bard, Kady. I’m aware of your druid powers growing stronger with each new sunrise. And you know your destiny, Kady. When I pass, you will become the tribe’s druid. You will inherit my magical powers. You will be a powerful enemy for anyone who would harm the Celts.”
Kady nodded. But she’d already sensed a shift in her latent powers, a rising awareness of the abilities that would be transferred to her one day. Glancing at her father she wondered if this was perhaps some indication of his impending mortality. She was about to articulate this when something else demanded her attention. Dancing in the background were the party of guests who’d travelled furthest, from the marches where the age-old Celtic realm of Dumnonia bordered the kingdom their enemies now called Wessex. For a flickering second their figures were not dancing but jolting from the impact of numerous arrows, and their garments were wreathed in flames.