The Stone Floor
(Briton: sample chapter)
In the darkness a rat ran over his foot. He knew it was a rat by the scuffling, but there was no light to tell him which direction it came from or whether there would be more to follow. He pulled his legs tighter against his body, ignoring the pain, and rolled around until he was sitting upright. He seemed to be wedged between two boulders, but their surfaces were shaped to the touch. He reached out and pressed his palm against one, then ran it upwards: it curved inwards first, and then out to a lip. He recognised the shape as a storage jar but it was larger than any he had ever seen.
The one on the other side was the same. Leaning forward, he reached out an arm round each jar, and found more of them stretching away at either side. He placed a hand over the lip of the nearest and it rested on a stone plug, wrapped in damp cloth. He pulled the hand back and held it to his nose. He sniffed: his nostrils were caked in hard snot, inside and out, but he knew the smell of wine.
Then he felt the ground underneath him. He was lying on some kind of torn woollen cloth: when he squeezed it between his fingers, it felt slick and damp. Underneath was rock. It was uneven, like the inside of a cave.
He fell back against the wall. He wanted to stretch his shoulders against it, but the surface was pitted with indentations. It was impossible to lean anywhere without a knob of rock digging into him. So he gave up and pulled his legs up to his chin, the bad one twisted under the other, and closed his eyes to try and think away the pain. But it was everywhere – in his leg, his back, his upper arms, above all down the side of his head. He knew he was injured there, but he was afraid to reach up and touch. Instead he buried his head in his crossed arms and drifted away again.
When he next woke he had no idea how long he had been sleeping. It might have been minutes, or hours. His stomach was cramped with hunger but it had been that way for as long as he could clearly remember. He had a vague picture in his mind of being upside down, and a horse’s hooves galloping too close, and being thrown on the ground. Over and over again. But most of what he remembered had become a sort of dream that he kept returning to, no matter how much he wanted to stay away. Awake. The smell of horse dung and burning firewood. Drunken men arguing. Darkness. Awake. Cold rain falling. Branches grabbing at his hair from above. Darkness. Awake. Falling. Blood exploding behind his eyes. Pain. Darkness. Snow in his nostrils. Arthwyr, high on a mountain ledge with his back to the sky, screaming with rage. Awake.
The rat running over his foot.
Darkness. Sometimes he thought he was asleep when he was awake. He wanted to be asleep, most of the time; and he welcomed the drifting mind that meant he would soon be unconscious again. But then the real dreams were often terrible, full of fear and falling and spearpoints sucked out of his ribcage in rivers of blood. Rivers draining into the clean snow. So he would come awake with a start, confused and shaking, and smack his lips to keep himself awake and out of the dream.
Drifting and dreaming, asleep and awake, all of it hurt more than any pain he had known in his life.
When the light came, it burnt his eyes. Always footsteps first, and grumbling voices. Then the darkness turned to shadow, and a moment later the air was full of blinding light. He knew it was just a torch held aloft, in someone’s hand, but he had to close his eyes all the same, covering his face with his fingers. There was never enough time to adjust: just a vague blurring at the edges; the outlines of the jars; and the smell of food.
The light went as fast as it came, and he would have to find the bowl on the floor. Several times he spilt part of it, as he scrabbled across the rock, banging his head and hands against unseen objects. When he found the food it was never enough: crusts and some kind of vegetable slop that had been left too long, and once a merciful strip of salt pork. But he scooped it all up with his fingers, and when it was gone he stayed on his knees with his face in the bowl until all the warmth had gone.
When he was thirsty he turned to the rock and licked it. There were places there where water oozed out of the wall, and the dripping never ceased, not even in his dreams.
No-one touched him till they came to take him away. It started with the same sounds, the same concealing light. He clutched his eyes and shook his head and prayed to all the gods for it to go away, but this time the feet came closer. He could see leather straps and mildewed buckles at the edge of his vision, and then he was being lifted roughly and his hands were pulled away from his face, and he had to press his eyes tight shut against the burning. They dragged him to his feet, but he was too limp to stand. So instead they took his arms and hauled him over the rough stone with his head bowed and his feet trailing, and while they were dragging him his vision became gradually sharper.
Darkness. But not the terrible empty darkness of before. He was in the open air, and it was night. His knees and feet were no longer banging against stone, but slipping over wet grass. He could smell animals. He looked up, and there were stars in the distance.
He could hear voices. They were muted, as if his head was swathed in cloth. He tried to turn his head as he was pulled along, but he was too weak even to do that. Instead he concentrated on sucking in great gulps of cold air that sank to his stomach like handfuls of swallowed snow.
Then the stars went away, and a door opened around him, and he was back inside. They dropped him, and the floor was stone: for a moment he thought they had taken him back to where he had been before, but this was no rough cave-stone. It was shaped and chiselled and broken into solid flat flags that stretched for as far as he could see. And there was light here too: the flickering gentle light of a fire burning, and torches casting comforting shadows down on the floor all around him. He scrabbled at them for a minute, but he knew they were illusions. The floor was as smooth as the rock world back on the Alaun estuary. Caressed and softened by a million waves, but there were no waves here. He leant his cheek against the stone, and kept his eyes down. Then he curled into a ball, moaning softly. Another moment or two, and someone would hurt him again.
‘Is that him?’
The voice was scarred, and harsh. The speaker, whoever he was, understood a little about cruelty. Catt drew his forearms up to his face and tried to imagine himself into a better place, but his flesh remained pressed against cold stone.
Footsteps. They were soft and padded, but they were moving closer to him, across the floor.
‘He’s just a farm boy.’ The same voice, but closer now. Still muffled. ‘Probably wandered too far from his valley.’
‘No, that’s him.’ A new voice. Younger. ‘They call him Catt.’
‘A farm boy’s name. I was expecting something more impressive.’
‘He has talents. Your own daughter says as much.’
‘I know.’ Something hard dug into Catt’s shoulders. A foot, probing. Its owner, wondering whether to kick. ‘Perhaps she made a mistake. One cripple looks much like another.’
‘She saw him clearly. When they rode in. This creature is special. She made me keep him till you arrived.’
‘Decent of her. Does he talk?’
More footsteps, moving fast. Hands grasping him by the arms. Stretching them out sideways till pain lanced through his shoulders. Fingers in his hair, grasping. Hauling his head back. Forcing him to look upwards.
For a moment he thought it was Arthwyr. The king himself, crawling out of the snow to drag him back from the dead. Then the mist in his head cleared a little and the face took on a new shape. A thick, greying beard, hanging in matted clumps. Black eyes with folds of grey flesh suspended beneath. A short, stocky torso that threatened to burst out of a thick leather tunic. Pockmarked skin. The mouth, twitching at the corner.
Like Arthwyr’s bastard brother.
‘Do you know me, boy?’
This was the creaking voice, the injured throat. Catt shook his head.
‘But you know a king when you see one. They tell me you keep company with kings.’
Catt knew. He recognised it immediately. The certainty. Arthwyr, Cynmawr, this one: they all had it. He tried to speak but his throat rebelled and all that came out was a low gurgle.
‘Is he mute as well as crippled?’
‘He speaks well enough.’
Catt twisted round. This was the other voice, the younger man. He was standing a little to one side, against the torchlight. A dark shadow, hovering.
‘Then give him water.’
A finger snapped, a stone jug appeared from nowhere. Catt opened his mouth wide, begging for the cold liquid spilling onto his lips and pouring down his chin.
Then it was gone, and the warlord leaned closer.
‘Now, boy,’ he said. ‘I want you to tell me about Arthwyr.’
In agony as he was, with his arms pinned by strong hands that threatened to rip his shoulders from their sockets, Catt managed not to react. He sucked at his lip and closed his eyes and waited for the blow he was certain would follow, but he never spoke.
No-one struck him. Instead the warlord leaned in even further. His breath smelt of foul fish.
‘They weakened you well, boy. You look terrible. But they didn’t kill you. I know you can speak, and I know what you’re thinking. You think you’re dead already, because of what my young friend Modred has done to you these last few days.’
The name must have registered on Catt’s face, because now the warlord smiled softly.
‘You know the name,’ he said. ‘The cruelty seems less surprising now, doesn’t it? You know what Modred is capable of.’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ The sound seemed to come from some hidden place in his guts, not his head. Not words at all, but gasps. Catt realised it was the first time he had spoken out loud since the horsemen had laid him out in the snow.
‘No, it doesn’t matter. You’re a farm boy. No-one cares. You’re as ready to cross over as the next man. But we might make it slow, Modred and I. Cut the truth about Arthwyr out of you, slice by slice. A finger here, a knife hole there.’ He reached out and ran the tip of a sweaty finger down the side of Catt’s cheek. ‘You could watch yourself die, little Catt. Or you could tell me the Bear’s plans and all you’d need to suffer would be a cord slipped around your neck and twisted. They say you pass out first, that way.’
Catt squirmed and tried to spit, but there was nothing in his mouth. Just the same words, forming again.
‘It. Doesn’t. Matter.’
The warlord drew himself up and turned. ‘You see, Modred. This is how the Bear rules. Blind fear. This cripple has family in Trigg, I imagine. He’ll say nothing for fear Arthwyr hurts them. You might as well have left him to die in the mountains.’
The shadow moved forward, and for the first time Catt saw his face. Sharp features, the nose as hooked as a puffin’s bill. Flowing dark hair. Cold eyes, as blue as the moonlight.
‘There’s always the girl,’ he said.
The warlord tilted his head. ‘Ah. Perhaps some loyalty there.’
‘They were taken together. Close together.’
A new pain. No, not a pain. A fear. Catt felt as if his head would burst with panic. He began to struggle, moaning.
The warlord smiled. ‘Modred,’ he said. ‘You never fail to surprise me.’
Modred scowled. ‘If you intend to destroy Arthwyr -’
‘I know what I intend. Bring the girl.’
They threw him down. Curled in a ball again, back on the cracked stone. No longer held, but unable to move. He twisted his head, petrified, and tried to look across the hall. He could hear people shouting and running. The warlord was far away now, still staring at him.
They will not, he thought. I will not let them.
When they dragged her in he thought for a moment she was unhurt. Her hair was still black, her cheeks hollow, her clothes common and ragged. She looked the same.
Then she turned her head against the light, struggling and shouting to the troopers to let her go, and he saw the colour of her skin. The bruises, on her face and forearms. He groaned, and twisted against the floor, pushing himself up on his haunches. Trying to find his knees so he could get to his feet and help her. But nothing worked any more. He fell forward, slobbering spit, and looked through one eye at the faraway troopers.
Non, hissing and kicking and biting. Non, screaming something he couldn’t understand, barely audible over the humming in his head. Non, falling as they threw her down.
Non on her knees, scrabbling with her fingers, crawling away. The troopers, grinning as she threw herself across the floor towards Catt.
Soft arms, folding around him, protecting him. Non, sobbing in his ear. Her breath on his damaged face. His eyes, closing in peace.
Slowly he opened his eyes. There was a foot there now, inches from his face. Stiff new shaped leather, lashed with soft thongs. Fur-trimmed hide leggings. The shadow was standing over him. Non was curled around his back, her face buried in his neck, her chest rising and falling rapidly against his shoulders.
He could feel her heart.
Then they were dragging her off him, her fingers clawing at his clothes, her face white with terror as he looked up and they peeled her backwards away from him like a layer of skin.
He knew then that there was no hope, because he could feel Modred’s triumph. They would threaten Non, and force Arthwyr’s plans out of him. And he would tell them, because it was her. And then they would slaughter them both anyway.
‘Now then, Catt. This is your last chance.’ The warlord again, but Catt had no idea where he was. His eyes were fixed on
Non, as if just by looking at her he could give her the courage she needed.
‘Tell me, boy. What is Arthwyr doing? Who joins forces with him?’
Modred stepped forward, a knife in his hand. He grabbed Non by the hair, lifting it high as if her head was already disconnected from her body, and pressed the tip of the blade against her gullet.
Her eyes closed. The knife stroked downwards. A thin trickle of blood ran down onto her chest. A shallow cut, testing him.
Modred raised an eyebrow. ‘We can make this as painful as you like, boy.’
He stroked her with the knife again, and another shallow rip appeared, running across her chest from neck to breast. Catt could see the blood pulsing out of her as her chest heaved with the pain.
‘Tell me, boy.’ The warlord again, angrier now. Shouting from behind him. Hands gripped his shoulders, lifting him in the air, twisting and grasping. Modred’s blade, cutting her again, this time on the face.
‘No. Stop this.’
The sound was so shrill and clear that he thought it must be inside his head. He knew his voice would never carry in the air like that. Then he saw that it fell like ice on the hall – the hands on his shoulders ceased twisting, the troopers holding Non straightened their backs, and Modred’s knife hand dropped slowly to his side as he turned.
‘What kind of hell is this? Who permits this cruelty? Is it you, Maelgwn of Degannwy?’
Catt’s eyes remained fixed on Non. Her eyes flickered open, glancing around, and he felt a whisper of hope.
He knew the voice too, muddled as his head was. He fell forward as the hands released him again. On his hands and knees, he twisted his head to look up.
It was Mabena telling them to stop.
And it was Modred who answered her first. ‘This is not your business, priest-woman.’
‘As long as I serve the queen here in Dinas Emrys it is my business. This is ungodly.’
She strode forward now, as tall and manly as ever, her head shrouded in the hood of her robe, and her arms folded across her chest, trapping the cross.
‘Get the witch out of here.’ It was the warlord speaking now, from somewhere behind Catt. Maelgwn. Mabena stopped, but showed no fear, and the troopers were slow to obey.
‘They told me you were a great leader,’ she said. ‘Dragon of the Island. Strongest and bravest of all the kings of Wales. Is this how you came to rule? By torturing cripples and slaves?’
Maelgwn stepped up to her, his short frame eclipsed by her height. ‘I’ll have you flung from the rock,’ he screamed.
‘Oh. Now you persecute women too.’
Modred coughed, and slapped the knife handle against the palm of his hand, the point of the blade balanced between thumb and forefinger. Maelgwn turned away and spat.
‘You’ll leave this hall, priest-woman,’ he said. ‘What takes place here is by my authority.’
‘No, father. This is not your hall. And it is not your authority.’
Another voice. Another woman, but so soft-spoken that Catt could barely pick out the words. He forced himself back to his knees and saw her, standing in the entrance to the hall, far back beyond the rigid figure of Mabena.
With the puppy Teithrin in her arms. Just like the first time he saw her, at Kelliwic.
Maelgwn pushed Mabena aside. ‘Gwenfyr. Child -’
‘I am your blood, but in this place I’m not your child.’ Her voice stayed measured, one hand curled around the puppy’s neck, tickling its ear. ‘Dinas Emrys was your bequest to me. For coming home. There’ll be no killing here.’
Maelgwn straightened his back and craned his neck upwards. ‘And if I choose otherwise?’
‘Then your revenge won’t be any more complete than mine.’
Modred crossed in front of Catt and placed a hand on Maelgwn’s shoulder. When he spoke, it was so softly that only Catt, kneeling close behind, could possibly have heard.
‘Later,’ he said. ‘When the Bear is gone. She will come to me then. And do as I say.’
Maelgwn exhaled, and raised his arms to Gwenfyr in a gesture of embrace. ‘What you wish,’ he said, ‘Is what you shall have. I didn’t have Modred bring you back to Gwynedd only to do battle with you. There’ve been too many lonely years.’
Gwenfyr smiled – a sharp little smile, free of any kind of fear. ‘I’ve been a queen, father. I can be your daughter again as well, but I remain a queen.’
Maelgwn was grinning now. ‘With a queen’s loyalties, I see.’ He turned and pointed at Mabena. ‘Your own chaplain, no less.’
‘Sister Mabena is my comfort. It wasn’t her wish to stay with me, but I persuaded her to teach me of God’s kindness. I’m in need of this kindness, father. You would have known that, if you’d spent more time with me since your arrival from the island. And less time on these sufferers.’ She dropped her eyes, and when she looked up again it seemed to Catt that she was staring straight down the hall at him. ‘I was only told a moment ago that they were locked up here. And I would ask Modred of Lleyn to consult with me the next time he brings prisoners to Dinas Emrys.’
Modred nodded and bowed.
‘You must forgive me, daughter,’ Maelgwn said. ‘So many years since I was last a father. I find I’ve forgotten what it means.’ There was a puzzling hint of sadness in his voice. He gestured to the troopers, and they raised Non to her feet, the blood still trailing from her face and neck. Mabena lifted the girl’s chin, and it flopped forward, her skin as pale as a winter dawn.
‘My house,’ said Gwenfyr. ‘Now. Catt too.’
Strong arms again, lifting him. Legs like bladderwrack, flopping pointlessly beneath him as they dragged him back across the stone. The world spinning around him, pounding at his aching head with flashes of noise and light. The shadow and the warlord, drifting out of sight.
One thought in his mind, as he strained to keep his head raised and watch them carry Non’s limp body out of the hall ahead of him.
She was still alive.