STORM ON THE COAST
THE gale, which had lulled for a little while, came swooping back with a shriek and a beating as of great wings against the village that crouched on the bare hill-shoulder, huddling close to the ground, as though for safety. In the house-place of Cunori, the Chieftain's brother, the hearth-smoke came billowing back in stinging clouds from the smoke-hole in the low turf roof, and the seal-oil lamp hanging from the roof-tree leapt and fluttered and sank, bringing the shadows crowding in, so that for a moment the storm and the things of the storm seemed to have broken through into the small round stronghold of warmth and safety that was Cunori's home. But the gust passed, as the others had done, and the lamp steadied, and the side-driven flames leapt up again on the hearth.
Cunori, sitting beside the fire, listened to the gale beating its wild wings all round the house-place, and was glad that the lambing was over and he need not go out again to-night. He leaned forward to catch the light on the spearhead to which he was fitting a new shaft. The old shaft, notched and splintered and warped from many hunts, lay beside him; and the new ashen shaft was satisfyingly white and straight as he fitted it into the socket; and the long, slender head caught the leaping firelight, so that it was like a tongue of flame between his hands. Three hounds lay a-sprawl on the rushes, with their bellies to the warmth: huge, brindled, wolf-seeming creatures. And on the far side of the fire--the Women's Side --Guinear sat spinning.
Cunori glanced at her from time to time as he worked, but she never raised her eyes from the whirling spindle with its growing spool of greyish wool. He wished that she wouldlook up; he wished that she would stop spinning for a moment; he wished he could think of something to say that would make her laugh. He liked it when she laughed. That was one of the reasons why he had asked her of her father, two summers ago: so that he could have her laughter by his own fire. But she had not laughed for half a moon now--not since the babe died.
Cunori was sorry about the babe, though not so sorry as he would have been if it had been a son. Daughters could be set to help in the field-strips and so on, but almost as soon as they were large enough to be any use you had the trouble of getting them married, and once they were married, you might as well have never had daughters at all--better, indeed, because you had to give some of your own weapons to whoever it was who married them, to seal the bargain. Sons were quite another matter: they went with you on the hunting trail, and they brought their wives home to work on the family field-strips, and when you were too old to hunt, they hunted for you. When you had enough sons, it might be good to have daughters; a daughter before you had any sons at all was really something of a misfortune. But he knew that it did not seem like that to Guinear; all Guinear cared for was that it had been hers, and that it had lived only a day.
'If the harvest is good, I will give her a set of amber pins for her hair,' he thought, laying down the wolf-spear and taking up another that was in need of burnishing. 'And some cooking-pots; and if the harvest is very good, I will give her a length of fine striped cloth such as the merchants sell, to make a tunic.'
But he knew that the amber pins and the cooking-pots and even the fine striped cloth would not comfort Guinear for the loss of the babe; and that made him feel helpless, and feeling helpless was a thing that always made him angry; so he scowled at the spear-blade, rubbing harder and harder, as though he hated it.
The gale seemed to be rising higher than ever, and under the beating and howling of it a new note was swelling, nowlost beneath the shriller overtones of the storm, now sounding clear: the deep, reverberating boom and crash that was the sea. The wind was going round to the north, piling the seas on to the black rocks of the headland, flinging in wave after wave like the blows of a hammer, as though to batter the cliffs to pulp.
He looked up with a start, and even Guinear checked her spinning, as a gust wilder than any that had gone before hurled itself upon the house-place with a drumming that shook the very roof-tree. Luath, the pack leader, opened eyes like twin yellow lamps in the wildly flickering gloom, and growled softly in his throat, then sprang up, followed by the rest, their hair rising along their necks, as the leather apron over the low, shielded entrance was plucked aside, and a figure came ducking in with the eddying gale behind it.
Cunori was afoot as swiftly as his hounds, grasping his hunting-spear in one hand while with the other he made the sign to avert evil. But the new-comer was neither live enemy nor storm-driven ghost, though from his appearance he might have been either; and as he came into the leaping flame-light, the great hounds ceased their sing-song snarling and lay down again, and Cunori tossed aside his spear. 'Flann!' he cried disgustedly. 'You were never nearer to a spear between your ribs ! What brings you abroad on such a night?'
Flann was gasping for breath as he stood before the entrance, shaking the wild hair out of his eyes. 'The red mare, in the first place,' he panted. She broke out again, and I have been right away over the sea-cliffs after her, and it was so that I saw it. There's a ship caught in the bay and trying to beat out round the headland. She will be on to the Killer Rock by now!'
Cunori's disgust was gone on the instant. He remembered the last time a ship had driven on to the Killer. There had been many things washed up by the sea afterwards. He said nothing, but his eyes met Flann's, and a fierce excitement leapt between them. Then, swinging round on the woman,who had risen also, he demanded: 'My cloak! Quick! Bring me my cloak, Guinear.'
Flann had already disappeared again, to spread the news throughout the village, as she brought it to him. He caught it from her and flung it round his shoulders, stabbing home the bronze pin, and plunged out after Flann into the buffeting darkness, thrusting back the hounds who made to follow him. The wind almost took his breath away as he made his way down between the crowding huts to the gate of the stockade. Clearly he had not been the first to whom Flann had cried his news, for other dark figures were heading in the same direction, and when they reached it they found the thorn bush which normally blocked the gap at night had already been dragged aside by those who had gone before. They left it so, for those who came after them, and turned seaward, heads down and shoulders hunched, leaning into the wind.
The moon, which was near to full, seemed racing across the night, now lost behind great banks of tattered cloud, now sailing out into ragged fjords of clear sky; and as it came and went, the tribesmen were now engulfed in bat-winged darkness, now flooded with swift silver radiance, as they struggled seaward.
The whole Men's Side of the village was out and heading for the coast and the promised wreck, streaming out hound-wise across the hills, eager for whatever harvest Camulus the Lord of Storms had sent their way. And among the rest, Cunori came at last over what seemed to be the edge of the world into the full onslaught of the shrieking gale and the salt taste of spindrift on his lips; and crouching against the thrust of the wind that strove to pluck him off and whirl him away like a blown leaf, looked down. From where he stood the cliff fell away in a gigantic tumble of turf-slopes and granite ledges, ending in the jagged thrust of rocks round which the water boiled in yeasty turmoil, whose farthest rock of all, lying hidden beneath the water save at low tide, was the Killer. And out on the Killer, caught and battered and already breaking up, was the ship that Flann had seen.
The moon, riding clear of the clouds at that moment, showed her clearly: a mastless, broken-backed thing that had once been a Roman merchantman. The watching tribesmen on the cliff-top had seen many such--transports and galleys, too--plying up and down to the great Legionary Station of Isca Silurium. Sometimes it happened, in a north-easterly wind, that a vessel would get embayed somewhere along the coast and be driven on to the rocks, and when that happened there were seldom any of the crew left to tell the tale; but afterwards their cargoes and their gear came ashore along with their drowned bodies.
Cunori held back the hair that whipped across his face, and gazed out towards the wreck, wondering how long she would hold together. Not long, he thought, not long in this sea; and he spared a moment to think that it would not be good to be in that ship now, before he plunged on down the narrow, swerving cliff-track to the sea.
Half-way down he all but fell over a squatting figure, and realized that it was Merddyn the Druid, Merddyn the old and crazy, who had once been powerful. The old man was crouching in the shelter of an outcropping rock, crooning to himself and swaying to and fro as he watched the scene below him. He looked up as Cunori halted an instant beside him, and laughed, with a high, inhuman, seabird note in his laughter. See there!' he cried above the wind. 'See down there! A fine sight--a sight to warm the hands at as though it were a fire! Aiee! That was a great wave! Right over them! Another as great, and there will be one ship's crew the fewer of the Eagle People, to strut in the sun! One more wave. Oh, wave and king among waves, great white-maned, stallion-crested wave, come swiftly and trample with your hooves and make an end, that the old heart of Merddyn the Druid may rejoice!'
Cunori left him and went on down the steep track, crouching against the wind. Below him the great waves thundered in, pounding upon the rocks, pounding upon the doomed ship; but indeed it was no ship now, only a pitiful broken thing thatgrew smaller with every wave. On a level patch a little above the foot of the cliff the tribesmen were gathering. From here a man might almost have hurled a spear into the wreck; but the moon was dimming into the clouds again, and through the flung spray and turmoil of the storm they could see no sign of any life on board, nor hear any cry. There was nothing that the tribesmen could do to help, and even if there had been, they would scarcely have thought to try. To take from the sea was unlucky. If any man got ashore living, that was another matter; they would give him food and shelter, tend his hurts, and send him on his way. But from this wreck, in this sea, no man would get ashore living.
Rhythmically, remorselessly, the great waves came in, hurling against the rocks and breaking with a booming thunder that made the solid ground shudder under Cunori's feet. He was drenched with spray, dazed and stunned by the sheer stupendous tumult of wind and sea. The dimmed moon was brightening again, and by its light he saw, through the curtain of flying spume, the dark shape of the wreck; and even as he looked, a huge curled and crested wave reared up, arching over it: the great wave that Merddyn had called for. It broke with a crash that seemed to shake earth and sky, plunging and pouring down. Black reef and black wreck were engulfed in it, hidden in a boiling turmoil from which the spray burst upward in a spreading sheet and was whipped away by the wind. And when it cleared, the white water was sluicing down the crannies of the reef, boiling over the hidden Killer; and of the wreck there was no sign.
Even as the tribesmen watched, a great, silver-fringed cloud swept across the moon, and the world was quenched in darkness.
The gale, as though it had accomplished its purpose, began to abate from that moment, and it was in a spent grey dawn that the tribesmen went searching among the rocks along the Seal Strand a little back from the headland for the things that the storm had brought them.
A high grey sky, veined with blue and silver, arched above a gale-swept world, and the dying wind had gone round, so that in the lee of the cliffs it was almost still. But the great combers came rolling in in white unbroken ranks to crash and cream among the rocks and on the little shingle beaches. The tide was out, leaving the narrow beaches littered with the things that had come ashore already from the wreck: spars and timber and cordage that would all come in useful; a few carcasses of sheep; wineskins that came rolling in, and were gathered by men who made human chains and waded out to meet them; drowned seamen who must presently be given burial, lest their wet ghosts come dripping to the hearths of the village. With the next two tides there would be more, more of everything, all along the bay. No more after that.
Cunori, searching under the headland, with a mass of dripping cordage under one arm, was the first to find two bodies among the rocks. Most of those they had found so far had been seamen, but these were of a different kind. They were a man and a woman, held close in each other's arms with a clasp so strong that not even the rocks had been able to break it. They were both young. The man looked as though he were a soldier--a look which Cunori, himself a warrior, recognized: maybe a soldier going to join his Legion. The woman's long, wet hair, outflung across the rock, and trailing among the grey and olive sea-wrack, was golden brown. Lovely it must have been when it was dry, Cunori thought. He bent to look at the two more closely, and as he did so, something stirred between them.
With a startled exclamation, he drew back; then stooped closer, to investigate.
He found a wonder; one thing that had come alive out of that raging sea. Tightly lashed with what looked like strips torn from a cloak, into the hollow of the man's shoulder, was a very young baby. It was the rocks, Cunori thought, rather than the sea, that had killed its mother and father, and their bodies had shielded the babe. Now it stirred, making a tiny, sick, crowing sound as it tried to breathe. It was blue, andhalf drowned: quite soon, if it were left to itself, it would be dead, too. And for a moment Cunori hesitated. It would be much less trouble to leave it there. Then, hardly knowing why, he took his hunting-knife from his belt and cut the strips of cloth that held it to its father, and lifted it clear. It was a man child, not more than four or five moons old, and it was quite unhurt. 'I must get the water out of this thing, or it will die,' Cunori thought, and he held it upside down and shook it. A little salt water came out of its mouth, and he went on shaking it. Suddenly it began to wail: a thin, bleating cry like that of a new-born lamb, but desperately weak. Cunori turned it right end up and looked at it in wonder, feeling the tiny life of it fluttering and fighting for existence between his hands; then with a hurried and almost shame-faced gesture bundled it into the folds of his wet cloak and stowed it in the crook of his arm against what little warmth there was in his own chilled body. Food, he thought; he must get it to food and warmth quickly, or that fighting spark of life in it would go out.
He cast one last uncertain look at the man and the woman. He did not think that they could have had any thought of saving the babe--not in such a sea and such a coast: they must have meant only that the three of them should be together. But they had saved the babe; and Cunori wanted it. He wanted it for Guinear, because it might comfort her better than amber pins or a new cooking-pot could do. Holding it close against him, he turned to go.
He found himself face to face with Merddyn the Druid, and checked, startled. It was never pleasant to find Merddyn close to one unexpectedly; his eyes were yellow, cold and bright and hard as jewels in a face so gaunt that it was like a skull; uncomfortable eyes that went through a man and let in a cold wind behind them. Those eyes of his were fixed on Cunori now; he shook back the wild white hair that hung about his shoulders, and demanded, 'What thing is that you have under your cloak, Cunori, son of Cuthlyn? '
'It is a man child, and it lives, Old Father,' saidCunori, perfectly aware that Merddyn knew that as well as he did.
'And what do you do with the man child?'
'I take it to my woman, in place of her own that died half a moon since.'
'It is unlucky to rob the sea,' Merddyn said, licking his lips. 'If you bring it among us, it will bring sorrow on us all--sorrow and to spare on those who rob the sea.'
'The sea does not want him,' Cunori returned stubbornly, instantly stiffening in his determination to have the thing, at the first hint of opposition--just as the first thing that had made him determined to have Guinear had been the discovery that a hunter called Istoreth wanted her. 'The sea has refused him and cast him out. He was not born to be drowned, this one.'
'Nonetheless, evil will come of it, evil and the wrath of the gods, if you bring the thing among us! It is a Roman whelp, and what have we to do with such--we, the Free People beyond the frontier? It is of the breed that tore apart the Holy Places and slaughtered my brethren, sixty winters ago, and reft from us the power that was ours--ours to us, who were the holders of the secrets of life, the moon-crested, before their coming!' The old man's voice had risen to its seabird note, and drawn by it, tribesmen were gathering from all directions, scrambling towards them over the rocks to discover the reason for the outcry.
Cunori was exasperated. Quite suddenly he wondered how it was, if the Druids had indeed been the masters of all power, as Merddyn claimed, that they had allowed themselves to be overcome by the Eagle People. He flung the thought away from him in a scared hurry, furtively spreading the fingers of his left hand to avert evil. But all the same, he was going to have the babe. 'Old Father,' he said, 'I will give you a black ram lamb for the gods, so that they may not be angry.'
And he stepped past the old man, his fingers still spread hornwise, and set off along the shore towards the cliff path.Some of his Spear Brethren crowded in on him as he went, and he cried out to them, half laughing, half angry: 'Off! Get off! I must get this thing home to my woman, or it will die.' And he strode past them, leaving them to stare after him, leaving Merddyn the Druid muttering and mouthing in their midst, torn by the cruel awareness that sixty winters ago no man would have dared to withstand his will, nor sought to buy the gods with a black ram lamb; and the young soldier and his wife lying with their arms round each other on the wet rocks.
Istoreth--that same Istoreth who had wanted Guinear--cried out a charm against ill luck, and spat towards Cunori as he passed him. Cunori laughed and spat back, then turned to the cliff path. He reached the cliff-top, and set off at a swift wolf-lope for the village. His dogs came out to meet him as he drew near to his own house-place, whining and thrusting round him; and he ordered them off much as he had done his Spear Brothers. 'Off, Luath. Off, Keri! Back, I say!' He ducked under the low lintel and plunged down into the warm gloom of the house-place.
Guinear was stirring the morning stew, and she sat back on her heels, still holding the pottery spoon, and looked up at him, questioningly. 'How went the hunting?'
'Well enough,' Cunori said.
'Did many things come ashore?'
'Wineskins and timber, and a few carcasses of sheep, on this tide.'
'And--drowned men? No one saved?'
Cunori hesitated, and as he did so the babe under his cloak gave a little sick whimper. Guinear started as though she had been struck. She put both hands to her mouth, and pressed them there, staring at him with widened eyes. 'What have you under your cloak?' she asked after a moment, in a harsh whisper.
Cunori squatted down beside her, almost in the warm ash of the fire, and put back the wet folds. 'See,' he said; 'I brought it for you. Take it.'
But she made no move to take it. 'Not!' she whispered. 'Oh no, no!'
'It is a fine little cub,' Cunori persisted, thrusting away with his free hand an exploring grey muzzle that came under his arm.
'It is not mine,' she said flatly.
'If you do not take it soon it will not matter whose it is,' Cunori said. 'And I might as well have left it on the rocks below the headland where I found it, to die with its mother.'
She raised her eyes swiftly to his face. 'Its mother?'
Cunori told her how he had found the babe, and she listened, looking from him to the tiny spent thing in his hands and back. But she only said again: 'It is not mine; not my babe.'
'Nevertheless, do you take it. It is a fine cub, a man cub!' Cunori poked the baby at her, hopefully, but she flinched away. The warmth had begun to revive the faint life that still flickered in the creature, and suddenly it set up a thin, exhausted crying. Cunori looked anxiously at Guinear; he had been so set on bringing her the babe--it had seemed as though it was meant for her; he had not thought about it very clearly, but he felt very clearly indeed that she had lost a child and it had lost its mother, and somehow it was right that they should be put together. It fitted, and he liked things to fit.
But the terribly thin wailing did what all Cunori's urging could not do. Quite suddenly, with a little sound that was almost a sob, Guinear leaned forward and reached out her hands. 'Give him to me,' she said. 'It is not so that you should hold a babe.'