Song of the Sword
A Wolf Slayer Saga #5
Valka the Wolf Slayer travels to the magical Isle of Britain. While there, he meets the stalwart knight, Sir Gawain, and Britain's greatest bard, Taliesin. They challenge the black magician, Klingsor, and face the many terrors of his castle. In the process, Valka rescues the beautiful maid, Kundry, who had been entranced by Klingsor. They travel to the Castle of Maidens, where Valka battles the evil knight holding them captive. Arriving at Camelot, he meets King Arthur, champions Queen Guinevere in the Affair of the Poisoned Apple, then embarks on the Quest for the Grail.
The black stallion ambled along the narrow game trail winding through the dark, gloomy forest. Valka allowed the horse to find its own way as his grey eyes ranged ceaselessly over black twisted trees crowding the path and gnarled roots writhing like maddened serpents over the leaf-strewn ground. The sinister slither of green-spotted snakes in the branches above and the furtive rustle of leaves in the shadows were all that broke the ominous silence. Although it was well past dawn and the sun was rising to its zenith, the light barely penetrated the thick tangle of branches and foliage arching overhead. The illusive twilight and the sepulchral silence created the impression that he was riding through the Underworld or at least moving from one world to another.
Valka’s mind drifted back to the warning he received the previous day from the old ferryman when he was ferried across the strait between the mainland and this mysterious, wooded island. Raising his hand in a gesture to ward off the evil one, the ferryman told him in hushed tones that the island was sacred, occupied only by gods, Druids and faery-folk. Ordinary people rash enough to trespass upon its hallowed precincts were never seen again.
Remembering the man’s warning, Valka’s right hand instinctively caressed the leather-bound hilt of the curved sword resting across his saddlebow.
Just as he began to fear that the black woodland would never end, the trail suddenly opened out into a sun-drenched glade. Acres of tall grass flowed in an emerald expanse to the north and south. The surrounding ring of trees gave it the appearance of a walled garden. He noticed that the sunlight, although brighter than the relative darkness of the forest, was weak and diluted, as if he were sitting at the bottom of a pool and gazing up through the water.
A movement caught his eye, and he glanced quickly to the right.
At the northern end of the glade was a stone well beneath a white sycamore tree. A woman clad in a red gown sat on the edge of the well. The movement that had caught Valka’s attention was her raising a bucket and filling a crystal cup with clear water.
She held it out to him with a smile. “Come, stranger,” she called, in a deep musical voice that vibrated along Valka’s spine. “Here is cool water with which to refresh yourself. It is a dry journey through the Forest of Broceliande.”
Valka nudged the horse in the ribs and rode toward her. When he was still five feet away, he reined in and stared down in awe at one of the loveliest women he had ever seen. Thick black hair cascaded in silken waves over slender shoulders, and large blue eyes sparkled with life and vitality. Her skin was smooth and creamy white, her nose straight, and her mouth was wide and generous, with full red lips. Scooped low across the front, her gown exposed deep cleavage between heavy breasts, then tapered to a narrow waist and flaring hips.
While he examined her, the woman studied him.
Her sparkling eyes ranged appreciatively over his tall, muscular frame, lingering over his broad shoulders and deep chest, encased in a black silk tunic. She noted the black leather trousers covering his long legs and the black leather boots strapped up his muscular calves. She paused over the curious choker made from interspersed bear claws and fangs on a thick gold chain encircling his corded neck, and the broad leather belt girding his lean waist. Her gaze returned to the thick black hair sweeping back from a high forehead to his shoulders. She frowned over the long white scar flashing like a streak of lightning from above his right eye, crossing his high-bridged nose and ending on his left cheek beside his wide, narrow-lipped mouth. The scar gave his bronzed features a sinister, even demonic cast.
Then she smiled. “Come,” she repeated. “Dismount, have a drink, and refresh yourself.”
Grasping his sheathed sword in his left hand, Valka threw a leg over the saddlebow and slid down into the tall grass. He dropped the reins to ground hitch the stallion, then stepped forward and reached for the cup. A massive figure previously hidden in the shadows back among the trees suddenly caught his attention.
The man was monstrously huge. Black hair tangled over a low forehead, and a matted beard reached to fierce red-glowing eyes. Garbed in rude untanned hides, his rough hairy hands held a knotted club made from the branch of a tree. Many heads dangled by their hair from the branches around him, most yellow, some red, and a few black.
Valka’s sword leaped from its scabbard in a burst of blue flame. Jumping back from the proffered cup, he glared murderously at the woman.
“We are Guardians of the Well,” she said lightly. Gesturing with her chin to the creature lumbering toward them, she added, “You cannot pass beyond this point unless you face and conquer Esclados the Red. If you fail, your head will hang with the others from the trees. If you succeed,” her smile broadened in a flash of white teeth, “you may claim me as your consort.”
Valka’s gaze shifted to the monster approaching through the tall grass. To his dismay, the creature towered head and shoulders above him. Huge arms were knotted like the branches of trees. His hairy legs were thick as tree trunks. The club he carried so easily could crush Valka’s skull with a single blow.
He glanced uneasily back at the trail down which he had come.
Reading his thoughts, the woman told him, “You cannot go back, stranger. You have come too far. Were you not warned that coming to this Magical Isle means death? Look again at the heads hanging from the trees. They, like you, chose not to heed the warning. Now you, like them, must pay the price.”
The giant halted beside the woman, planted his club on the ground and glowered at Valka.
“Who might you be, fair lady?” Valka asked, tossing the sheath aside.
She watched the scabbard sail through the air and disappear in the grass, then answered, “I am the Lady of the Lake.” Glancing back at Valka, she asked, “And who are you?”
“My name is Valka...” He stepped to the side to give himself room to maneuver. “...also called Wolf Slayer.”
“What?” she gasped with a quick glance at the giant. “You are the Wolf Slayer?”
Realizing that the encounter was inevitable, Valka focused on the monster, whose heavy brows had lowered at mention of his name. His mind barely registered the surprised tone of the Lady. He lifted his sword above his head as he moved, and the coiled dragons etched into both sides of the curved blade caught the wan light, came alive and spit fire.
With a grunt, Esclados lifted his club and moved with Valka.
Valka had hoped that, due to his enormous size, the giant’s movements would be ponderous and clumsy. To his dismay, Esclados glided through the grass with the quickness and grace of a stalking wolf. He handled his massive club with the same skill and dexterity with which Valka wielded his sword. The two men maneuvered through the grass, staring into each other’s eyes, making small feints to see how the other would react. It was apparent to Valka that the giant was an expert with his club. It was also apparent that not only could he not take a single solid blow from the club and survive, but his sword would shatter under its full impact.
At the edge of his vision, Valka noticed the Lady of the Lake standing next to the well. Her hand was at her throat, and she watched the duel with wide eyes.
The combat was a series of attacks and evasions as Esclados chased Valka around the glade. He swung his knotted club in mighty strokes, while Valka darted from left to right like a stag at bay. Even as he leaped, however, Valka’s sword lashed out with the speed of a striking serpent, finding and penetrating every opening in the monster’s guard. Within moments, blood streamed from cuts on the giant’s arms and legs, and great rents appeared in his leather jerkin.
Esclados bellowed like a wounded bull and quickened his efforts. He flattened the blood-spattered grass with his club as he rushed at Valka. But Valka never remained in the same place for more than an instant, and the club struck empty air. The giant became exhausted after several minutes of strenuous and fruitless action. The sweeps of his club, although still mighty, were wider, slower and losing focus.
In a final, agonized effort, Esclados lifted his club above his head and moved in to crush Valka’s skull. With the quickness of a panther, Valka slipped in under his arms and brought his sword around in a horizontal stroke that sliced the giant across his stomach. Esclados froze with his club suspended in mid-air and watched his entrails pour in a red wash onto the ground. Without pausing, Valka glided to the rear and buried his dripping blade to the hilt in the monster’s back.
The club dropped from Esclados’ numbed hands, and he fell to his knees with a deep shuddering sob. He hung there, quivering and twitching. Valka freed his blade, planted his feet, then swung the sword in a blood-spattering arc and cut off the giant’s head. The skull shot into the sky on a jet of crimson. The body fell forward onto the blood-soaked grass, twitched twice and lay still.
Valka walked to the giant’s head lying in the grass, picked it up by its long matted hair and carried it across the glade to the trees. Resting his sword against a tree trunk, he lifted the dripping skull to a low hanging branch and tied it in place by its hair. It bobbed in the breeze, its face a grisly mask of horror, its wide-open eyes glaring sightlessly into space.
Then, gripping his bloody sword, Valka turned and stalked back to the well.
The Lady’s face paled as she watched him approach, but her eyes sparkled like blue gems, and her breasts heaved beneath her bodice. “You have won, Wolf Slayer,” she whispered. “You have passed the test.” Her chin came up. “I offer myself as your mead of victory.”
Neither speaking nor slackening pace, Valka moved to within striking distance and raised his sword above his head. “Give me one good reason why I should not split you from black crown to groin,” he grated through clenched teeth.
She raised her hands as if to push him back. “Stop! I am a Guardian. It is my responsibility to test, to punish brashness, to instruct and,” her red lips parted invitingly, “to reward courage and victory.”
Valka stared into her eyes for a long moment, then, with a sigh, lowered his sword. He pulled a silken handkerchief from the sleeve of his tunic and wiped the blood and gore from the blade. Then he moved past the well, found his scabbard in the grass and sheathed his sword. Only then did he address the Lady. “I believe I will now take that cup of water.”
* * * *
Carrying his sheathed sword, Valka walked down the trail beside the Lady of the Lake. She moved with supple grace, her golden slippers spurning the ground. The stallion ambled along behind, pausing occasionally to nibble at the grass. The dark, gloomy atmosphere of the forest gave way to rolling hills covered with tall grass and dotted with stands of oak, cedar and beech. The sunlight, although weak, felt good on his shoulders. A carpet of flowers spread in a riot of color over the hills and under the trees.
“The land has changed from what I experienced earlier,” he commented to break the silence.
“What seems harsh, forbidding and threatening at first,” the Lady replied, “tends to become pleasant and supportive once one has passed the test.”
“You keep referring to tests,” Valka pointed out. “Why this constant emphasis on trials? What are their meanings?”
She gestured expansively. “We live in a magical universe where only the strongest and most skilled survive. Within that universe, set like a priceless jewel in a king’s crown, lies the most enchanted of isles—Britain, also called Logres. Here, the magic breaks through, as it were, and rules our lives. Therefore, in their wisdom, the Guardians of Britain make certain that all who come to this land of heroes and those who wish to participate in the wondrous adventures that take place here are men and women of great stature and high accomplishment.”
“When I was a boy at my father’s court in the far North,” Valka commented, “I heard the scalds sing of a Magical Isle lapped by the blue-green waters of the western ocean.” The animals—stags, deer, squirrels, and birds—that crowded the trail and perched on the branches of trees to watch them pass startled him. “After all these years, I believe I have finally found it.”
Silence stretched between them for several minutes, then the Lady asked, “What brings you to Britain?”
“I have been traveling in the direction of the North for some days,” Valka explained. “I have not been home for many years. When I was riding along the coast of the mainland, I happened to spot this mystic isle across the strait. Its white cliffs rising ghost-like from the sea and wooded crests obscured by mysterious mists called to me, and I felt compelled to explore it.” He laughed. “When I was told that to come here meant death, the allure became irresistible.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “You have come to us at an important time. One Age is dying, and another is struggling to birth.” At Valka’s quizzical expression, she continued, “The death of one Age and the birth of another are always heralded by cataclysmic events. Only the wisest and most stalwart heroes can stay the course and guide events in the way they must go. King Arthur has called together such a group—the Round Table Fellowship. But as order gives way to chaos, the situation in Logres is disintegrating, and Arthur is having difficulty holding things together. He needs the mightiest heroes to stand at his side during the crisis.” She glanced somberly at Valka. “You are such a hero, Wolf Slayer. I do not believe you are in Britain merely by chance. The call you felt from our island was real. Arthur needs your assistance during these perilous times.”
“I have heard tales of Arthur,” Valka mused. “He was a victorious war lord, and he is a great king. It was he who united Britain.”
“He brought order out of chaos,” she added. “He is the great culture hero of our people.”
They arrived at a point where the trees thinned out, the land flattened, and the grass was shorter and hardier. To the right of the trail, a blue lake spread placidly northward. White banks gleamed about three feet all around the surface, indicating a low water level. Still, it was pleasant there, and a zestful scent wafted on the breeze from the flowers surrounding the lake.
The Lady of the Lake halted and faced Valka. “This is the limit of the Forest of Broceliande, which is the limit of my domain. I go no further. You must go on from here alone.”
Valka’s fierce gaze raked over her supple figure “What was it you were saying about becoming my consort if I defeated the giant?”
She chuckled, and tiny flames glimmered in her eyes. “I will be with you when you need me most,” she replied. “But, as much as I would like to, I see now that I cannot offer to take you with me into the lake as I have done with other heroes. You are too important to Arthur. Still,” her grin broadened, “I can offer you a night of pleasure here, beneath the stars.”