Synopsis & Excerpt © 1989-2013, Kim Headlee of System Support Services, Inc.

DAWNFLIGHT, 2nd Edition

Synopsis

Among the misty lochs and glens of ancient Scotland, duty wages war against love on the battlefield of opposing cultures, religions, and political agendas.

Gyanhumara “Gyan” nic Hymar is a Caledonian chieftainess by birth, a warrior and leader of warriors by training, and she is betrothed to Urien map Dumarec, a son of her clan’s deadliest enemy, by right of Arthur the Pendragon’s conquest of her people. For the sake of peace, Gyan is willing to sacrifice everything...perhaps even her very life, if her foreboding about Urien proves true.

Arthur map Uther is the bastard son of two worlds, Roman by his father and Brytoni by his mother. Denied hereditary rulership by the elders of Chieftainess Ygraine’s clan, Arthur has followed Uther’s path to become Dux Britanniarum, the Pendragon: supreme commander of the northern Brytoni army. The Caledonians, Scots, Saxons, and Angles keep him too busy to dwell upon his loneliness...most of the time.

When Gyan and Arthur meet, each recognize within the other their soul’s mate. The treaty has preserved Gyan’s ancient right to marry any man, providing he is a Brytoni nobleman—but Arthur does not qualify. And the ambitious Urien, Arthur’s greatest political rival, shall not be so easily denied. If Gyan and Arthur cannot prevent Urien from plunging the Caledonians and Brytons back into war, their love will be doomed to remain unfulfilled forever.

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Excerpt, 2013 Edition

From the latter part of Chapter 13

Gyan knew every detail of her battle-gear was perfect, from her helmet down to her knee-high boots. Cynda had done a fine job of braiding and pinning her hair, and her sword and shield were in top condition. Her blunted practice sword also swung from her belt. She had even taken care to eat only a light meal of bread and tea.

Then why, she asked herself as she strode toward the training ring in the brisk, clean-scented morning, did her stomach feel as though it were trying to turn somersaults?

Arthur the Pendragon.

She banished the nervousness with a toss of her head. The object of this morning’s match, as far as she was concerned, was to show off her fighting skills to their best advantage, which would never happen if she couldn’t detach herself from her budding feelings toward this man. And if she didn’t beat him to the practice area to give herself a few minutes alone to prepare, her task would be that much more difficult. She quickened her pace.

In contrast to the previous evening, the thoroughfare was bustling with traffic: wagons and carts of every description, marching units and mounted squads, herders driving their livestock, couriers, merchants, and soldiers walking alone or in small groups. There wasn’t one Caledonach in the lot, which, though a bit disappointing, didn’t come as a surprise. She supposed they were too busy learning their new duties. No one paid her any heed; everyone seemed bent on his own mission. She’d wondered whether her duel with the army’s war-chieftain would attract attention, but now it didn’t seem likely.

The enclosure came into view. To her relief, it was empty. She presumed it was used primarily for equestrian training, since it contained no freestanding practice posts. For what she had in mind, a section of the fence would have to suffice.

Gyan left her battle sword sheathed and gripped the hilt of the practice sword. Closing her eyes, she focused on the balance of the sword and the weight of the shield. When she flicked her eyes open, the sights and sounds of the drilling troops and rumbling wagons, the prickle of the breeze on her bare forearms, and the scent of dew-dampened dirt retreated into a corner of her consciousness. And the dance began: slashes and spins and kicks and thrusts, to the rhythm of her sword and shield and boots thumping the wood.

Finally, she stopped, panting, and leaned her shield and practice sword against the fence. She dashed the sweat from her brow with the back of a hand. The clamminess of her linen undertunic she would have to live with. While in the grip of this drill, the passage of time lost meaning, and she hoped she hadn’t overtired herself for the challenge to come.

The sound of a pair of hands clapping caught her attention. She turned to behold the Pendragon striding toward her, helmet tucked under one arm, looking every inch as handsome in his bronze and boiled-leather battle-gear as in the ceremonial uniform he’d worn the night before. The ruby of his sword’s pommel sparkled above the sheath as he moved. It was the only weapon he had brought. To her surprise, he carried no shield.

Her stomach began its gymnastic routine anew. She ignored it.

“A marvelous display, Chieftainess.” He offered his sword hand. As she gripped his forearm, a tingle rushed from her arm beneath his fingertips, straight to her heart. He let go to point at the section of fence bearing the scars of her practice session. Some of them, she realized with a flush of embarrassment, were quite deep. He arched an eyebrow. “But if you insist on chopping down one of my fences, I think you’ll have better luck if you use an ax next time.” As their laughter faded, his gaze intensified. “Joking aside, Chieftainess, I would like to know: was that drill something you developed yourself? Is it the same each time you practice it, or do you change it? Do all warriors of your clan use some variant—”

Grinning, she held up both hands in mock surrender. “To answer your first question, no. It’s a drill my father taught me, that he learned from his mother, and so on. Originally, there was only one form of the routine, but over time most clans have developed variants to incorporate moves to symbolize the clan’s creature.” She chewed her lip as she cast about for an appropriate example. “Clan Alban’s routine, for instance, contains a stylized leap, to represent their lion.”

“And Argyll’s variant?”

“None, actually. But since our symbol is the dove, we strive to perfect the grace and speed of the moves.”

“I could tell.” His smile was but an echo of what he had displayed the night before. By the time he donned his helmet and drew his sword, the smile was gone. She wondered if she’d seen it at all. “Ready?”

Her brow creased. “Don’t you need to prepare first?” Arthur had seen at least part of her exercise and doubtless had noted some of her strengths and weaknesses. She was glad she hadn’t made any mistakes in the routine this morning, but she had hoped to have a similar opportunity to observe him.

Shaking his head, he raised the flat of the blade before his face in salute.

So be it. She imitated his gesture. Swords at the ready, they began stalking each other. Gyan had lost count of how often Ogryvan had preached what to do at this point in the fight: evaluate the adversary. And that is exactly what Arthur became to her, not a potential consort but a potentially dangerous adversary, as the litany of her father’s lessons marched through her mind.

The first thing to note was the body armor, style and material, and the apparent vulnerable places. Since this was practice, to end when one warrior knocked the other down, finding the spots where the deathblow could be struck was not the object. But drawing first blood was a vital first step toward victory, and locating unprotected areas increased chances dramatically.

His torso and shoulders were covered with a muscled bronze breastplate and backplate. A fringe of thick, metal-studded leather protected his groin and thighs. The gold-tipped scarlet horsehair crest of his helmet shimmered in the sunlight. It all added up to formidable protection, even without a shield. To draw first blood, she would have to get past his guard to nick a forearm or strike with a low lunge to the legs.

Of equal importance was the shield: how much of the body it could protect and how the opponent held it. A skilled warrior used it for offense as well as defense. Arthur was not using his shield, Gyan reasoned, because his sword was probably easier to control with both hands. In battle, she never would have forgone the protection her shield could offer. But she suspected she’d have the advantage of speed and agility with her lighter weapon, so she let the shield stay beside the fence.

The final and most important part of the evaluation involved the body itself: the stance, the gait, the limbs, and the face.

In a solid stance, the warrior’s balance was centered perfectly, front to back and side to side. Fighting on the balls of the feet was a grave weakness. Those who fell prey to this habit often found themselves struggling to regain balance after taking a hard blow, if they were lucky enough to maintain footing at all. Another weakness was stiff joints—knees, shoulders, elbows, wrists—all easily exploited by an aggressive attack.

Arthur’s stance was as good as that of any warrior Gyan had ever seen.

Body movements usually betrayed how much tension the opponent was feeling. A certain amount was to be expected. Too much could be fatal. Hunched shoulders, a too-tight grip on the sword, and an uneven gait were more weaknesses to shorten the fight.

Many swordsmen swore the key to victory lay in watching the enemy’s eyes. Sparring with Ogryvan had made Gyan adept at keeping others from reading her actions in this manner. He had taught her to focus on the opponent’s chest and the elbow of the sword arm, and to let her peripheral vision absorb what the shield and feet were doing.

Eyes could deceive. The true secret was the elbow. The elbow controlled the sword’s basic movement, modified to a lesser extent by the wrist. By watching the elbow, an experienced swordsman could accurately anticipate the enemy’s moves. Gyan had often seen Ogryvan unnerve opponents by seeming to know their next move even before they did. Caledonaich called this skill ”blade-cunning,” and it was won only through years of relentless practice. She was a long way from becoming a lann-seolta master; today, her limited experience would have to suffice.

They circled for what felt like half an eon. He appeared to be inviting her to attack first. She noticed him favoring his left leg a wee bit, as though troubled by an old wound. Bearing full weight seemed to be a problem reflected not only in his gait but occasionally in his eyes, too. A clever warrior might feign such a weakness to trick his opponent into doing something foolish.

There was only one way to find out.

She lunged toward that side. He parried the blow with ease and answered with a counterattack so forceful, it was all she could do to block the bone-jarring blows. Injury or no, the Pendragon knew his craft. And she was half dismayed yet half pleased to recognize that, unlike in her matches with Urien, Arthur was holding nothing back. As the ache in her arms and shoulders mounted, she knew she had to devise some other tactic, or this would become the shortest bout on record.

After parrying one of his lighter blows, she spun away to disengage, catch her breath, and collect her thoughts. Sword cocked, she resumed circling him, relieved that he didn’t seem anxious to reengage. Briefly, she noticed a crowd forming along the rail; soldiers, mostly, gesturing and shouting words she couldn’t understand, nor did she wish to. She blotted them out to open all her senses to her opponent, even down to the huskiness of his breathing and the tangy odor of his sweat, trying to think of anything that might work to tip the balance in her favor.

An image flashed to mind of a bout with her father, fought on the eve of Urien’s arrival at Arbroch. Inspired by the outcome of that fight, she swiftly formed a plan. It carried high risk and no guarantee of success. She never would have attempted such a move in combat. Here, the only danger if she lost would be to her pride. But if she won...she bit her lower lip to keep her face from betraying her intent.

She let Arthur initiate the attack. While advancing to meet the blow, she stumbled, fell, and rolled to her stomach. As expected, he quickly moved in to claim the victory. The crowd cheered. But before she could feel the prickle of his sword on her neck, she twisted aside and hooked his legs with hers. Luck favored her; with a startled yelp, and equally startled noises from their audience, he went down. She scrambled to her feet and pinned him under the point of her sword. Amid the overall roar of disappointment, she could pick out phrases like “Trickery!” and “Not fair!” But the taunts didn’t bother her; victory had never tasted sweeter! Her only regret was that Ogryvan and Per and the rest of her clan couldn’t savor it with her.

Studying Arthur for a reaction, her grin soured. For several seconds, he stared at the sky as though stunned; whether physically or mentally, she couldn’t tell. Her concern rose as she wondered if she had injured him. Finally, he shook his head and attempted to sit up, but her sword barred his way.

“I concede the match, Chieftainess.” He released his sword and waved his open hand. “I won’t try anything unique. You have my word. Thank God my enemies aren’t half as devious as you are.” His grin could have stopped the sun in its course...and it was having an arresting effect on Gyan’s heart as well. “But I wouldn’t advise using that move in battle. Much too risky.”

“Oh. Yes, I—I know.” Chiding herself for how silly she must sound, she sheathed her sword and thrust out her hand. He tugged off his gloves and accepted her unspoken offer, gripped her forearm, and hauled himself up.

Pain stabbing her arm forced a strangled gasp from her throat. He shifted his grip to her hand and gently turned her arm to expose the underside. A long cut lay perilously close to one of the veins, seeping blood. He traced the vein lightly with a fingertip.

“When did I do this?” His voice was a hoarse whisper.

Staring at the cut, she wondered the same thing. Probably during their initial clash, though she really had no idea. She shrugged. Even that motion made her wince.

“Chieftainess, I didn’t mean to—” A stricken look shattered his bearing. He squeezed her hand. “God in heaven, Gyanhumara, I am so sorry.”

She wanted to reassure him that she’d be all right; the wound looked clean and wasn’t much deeper than a scratch. In fact, it was the least of her concerns. Enchanted by the sound of her name on his lips and mesmerized by his gaze, she felt the world seem to collapse to just the two of them. His face hovered over hers, his lips a handspan away. The warmth of his nearness had an intoxicating effect. She was acutely conscious of the tugging of her heart, as though it was trying to pull her closer to him. It wasn’t an unwelcome idea.

But breathing became an effort. She yanked off her helmet and dropped it as dizziness overcame her. Not now, she silently pleaded to the One God, no! She could only stare down in disbelief as her traitor knees started to buckle. Before she could fall, his arm wrapped around her waist. The backs of his fingers felt cold against her cheek.

“You’re burning up, Gyanhumara. I’ve got to get you to the infirmary.”

Arthur tried to take a step with her, but she refused to move. “No, please, I don’t need—”

“You must allow me. My lord.”

She and Arthur glanced up to see Urien crossing the ring, a displeased set to his features. Why hadn’t she realized he could have been watching? Rebuking herself for the idiot she was, she pushed away from Arthur as Urien drew near.

Urien offered her his hand, which she readily accepted; it seemed the wisest course. He gave her an appraising look. “My dear, are you all right?” She nodded, and he regarded the Pendragon. If his eyes could have shot daggers, Arthur would have died on the spot. “You weren’t trying to kill my bride-to-be, were you, Lord Pendragon?”

Up went that mask of Arthur’s. “Far from it, Tribune. If you had watched our match, you’d have seen her best me.”

“I saw enough.” Expression softening, Urien caressed her cheek. “Come, my dear. Arthur is right; you really do feel too warm.”

She shook her head. “It’s the exertion.” That was mostly true, she told herself. She wasn’t about to admit the rest of it, to either of them. “I’ll be fine after I rest awhile.” And after she left the presence of the man who was stealing her heart. She hoped.

“That may be so.” Urien gestured at her wound. “But you must have that seen to. I insist. The fort’s physicians are excellent.” Gyan sighed; Cynda had dressed far worse wounds than this. But she was too exhausted to argue. Obviously pleased with her acquiescence, Urien moved to her left side and placed her uninjured arm on top of his. “And I also insist,” he said, leveling another hard stare at Arthur, “that there be no more of these matches between you two.”

Fists on hips, Arthur said, “An order, Tribune?”

“I was merely expressing concern for my beloved.” The kiss he planted on her lips was surprisingly gentle.

Panic seized her with the thought that she had to act as though she were enjoying Urien’s attention, or he might suspect something was happening between her and Arthur. So she closed her eyes to imagine that her lips were pressed to Arthur’s, that she was clasping his body to hers, running her fingers through his red-gold hair...

The kiss ended. To savor the moment, she kept her eyes closed.

“Get her to the infirmary, Tribune.” The harsh sound of Arthur’s voice startled her. She opened her eyes to see him whirl and bend to snatch up his sword, slam it into its sheath, and stalk from the field, his cloak a blazing billow behind him.

She glanced at Urien, who seemed decidedly smug as he watched Arthur’s retreat. With a start, she realized how her response must have appeared to Arthur. To Urien, too, for that matter. It was without doubt the stupidest thing she could have done! Desperately, she wanted to call out to Arthur and explain what had happened, despite what Urien might think. Or do. But it was too late. Arthur was gone, taking a piece of her heart with him, although he would never know it, she admitted miserably.

Urien clasped the hand of her uninjured arm, smiling broadly at her. “Come, my dear Gyanhumara. The infirmary is this way.”

Gyan felt numb to the core, devoid of strength and will. There seemed to be nothing left but to do Urien’s bidding. And to get accustomed to the idea that she’d be doing his bidding for the rest of her life.

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Revised 13 October 2013