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The Kraken's Wake

Meg first heard the tale of The Queen and the Broken Spear in the tumbledown tavern known as The 'Wake.   The tavern's full name was 'The Kraken's Wake' and it was run by Meg's aunt: The formidable Maddy McAuley.   Set away from the village, hunched in a hidden cove between a low granite prominence and the breaking waves, The 'Wake huddled in a nest of driftwood and bladderwrack.   No-one remembered who had built it: The long building, tarred and barnacled, looked like a monstrous, black lobster that had leapt from the grassy lip of the cliff and half broken itself on the shingle. Perhaps the dark, splintering tavern had crept quietly one night from the sea herself and, true to its name, sheltered in the cove to brood over a narrow escape from the terror of the deep.   "Be sure she doesn't dawdle!" Meg's ma had yelled from the meadow, "... Nor drown!"   Meg ambled along the path behind her young cousin. The sun's warmth gave itself up from the baked earth through the soles of her feet. Cousin Kayla was following faeries in the long grass at the edge of the trail, or so she'd told Meg anyway. The faeries didn't seem to be in much of a hurry and Meg was in no mood to rush herself; not while the golden light still flowed from beyond the edge of the sea. It was easy enough just to encourage the girl with an occasional grunt or gentle push with a foot.   "There'll be plenty of fisherfolk in the tavern by now" Meg supposed, idly kicking at the dusty earth. Aunty Maddy would need her help and she'd probably have to work 'til late; especially if there was a Telling.   Though the afternoon was coming to an end, the warm air was still soupy with seed pod drift and insect hum. As the track left the meadow and meandered along the edge of a curtain of trees, a salty breeze swelled up from the shore, in time with the tide. It seemed to Meg that the sea herself was yawning as the evening sky stretched out over them all.   The path wound back on itself and descended to the cove through a thick copse. The thin, silver masts of birch trees sighed as Meg strolled–and Kayla skipped and hopped–under the eaves into their shadow. Meg carefully shepherded her cousin away from the berry-laden brambles which masked a steep drop down the cliffside. The light had left the path as it wound down beneath the swaying boughs and the gloom gathered the cousins in and wrapped them up with a musty warmth. The girls instinctively drew closer and made their way with more purpose, feet seeking out the familiar steps, memory serving better than sight in the deepening dusk.   The silhouette was so out of place that, as it folded from the whispering trees, Meg felt as if she'd caught herself in a dream. But when the shadow split and both parts revealed themselves, the chill up her neck made Meg wonder if she had been trapped by a nightmare. Her grip on Kayla's shoulder must have tightened sharply, for her small cousin whined and wriggled. Meg automatically soothed her, though her eyes were wide with alarm.   The smaller part of the shadow moved toward them, leaving it's taller counterpart stock still by the bend that led down to the cove. The person–Meg's heart calmed slightly as she realised it wasn't a beast–was child-sized, but didn't move like a child. It capered up the slope for a yard or two and paused, cocking its head so dramatically, that where Meg expected a wail to emerge from her cousin, a light chuckle burst forth in its place.   "But what are these, my Lady?" the small figure exclaimed in such a high, piping song that Meg laughed herself.   "Pyskies perhaps? Or maybe tiny trolls?" The strange figure hopped forward again and gave an exaggerated shiver. Meg could make him out now, from the points of his colourful boots to the tips of his twisted moustaches. The little man stopped before them and gave a simple wave.   "Not trolls, I hope?"   Meg felt herself smiling at him, but little or not, the man was as strange a thing as she'd ever seen on Hawk's Eye and she'd seen a few strange things already in her short time at the 'Wake.   Holding Kayla by the shoulders, Meg circled slowly away from the little man.   "You're in luck sir," Meg said, with a shakier voice than she'd hoped for "We are neither of us pyskies or trolls, nor giants or dragons, but what we are is in a hurry, so we'll bid you a fine evening."   And a merry life Meg thought as she turned down the path to hurry Kayla on, but the pair jumped and her cousin gave a little squeak as they all but bumped into the second figure on the trail.   A tall, broad-shouldered woman stood before them, leaning on a polished staff and staring up into the boughs of the trees above as if they were full of ripe, golden apples. Her hair was hidden under a patterned scarf and her face looked old, but it seemed to Meg that something mischevious was pushing uncaring past the lines and creases. Something youthful.   Meg began to stammer, but the woman raised her hand and patted the air softly to placate her. When she spoke, her voice was deep and dripping with an accent Meg hadn't heard before, but she sounded calm and gentle as a warm gust, blown about a fire.   "Don't tease these young ones, my faithful Minnow, this is their home, not ours" She turned her head away toward the pair, but as she went on to address the empty air past her shoulder, Meg realised that the old woman could not see them.   "Well met, young woman of Hawk's Eye, I am known as the Lady Augur and my companion here is Minnow. We have travelled to your island from Tanza Night and we come in peace."   Meg felt a little flummoxed, but tried to sound as casual as possible, "Fair enough Lady. I'm Meg. This is Kayla. Glad to hear it's peaceful business you're about, but we have business of our own at the 'Wake, so you'll excuse us."   The tall woman smiled and her unseeing eyes crinkled too. "We shall leave you to your business Meg, but before we do, I must ask: Have you any kin away across the sea? Any of your own blood fighting against the tyranny of the Queen?"   Meg held her tongue for a moment and frowned at the little man, who did nothing but grin toothily at her. She looked back to the tall woman and felt strangely trapped in her unseeing gaze. The question was out of the blue and Meg felt an odd tingle; as if her senses were warning her against trickery, but how? And why? She had no idea.   "Even strangers such as yourself must know that all of the Islands have taken the fight to Alba." Meg paused for a second, trying to think of how Maddy would deal with this strange pair.   "Though it is none of your business, we'd be poor hosts not to give an honest question an honest answer; so I don't mind telling you ... I'm proud to tell you ... that both my oldest sister and my father fight under the Orl's banner."   The old woman chuckled and nodded.   "It is indeed, none of our business and I mean you no discourtesy young lady. It seems Hawk's Eye raises fine folk, eh Minnow?" she reached forward toward them and Meg had taken the woman's hand in her own before she'd had time to think. The woman patted hers and nodded again. "I shall pray to the gods that you are one of the lucky ones" She continued to nod, her eyes staring off into the trees, but the smile slipped away. "Come now Minnow! This young woman has work to do and we have a way to go before we find a bed" and turning sharply, the woman was striding away from them with the little man capering after her.   Meg turned and all but dragged Kayla down the path, the woman's words echoing about her head.   As they emerged from the trees, the hiss and clack of the shingle washed the sounds of the 'Wake toward them in greeting. Laughter and chatter lilted and swayed from the dark carcass of the tavern. Bright orange portholes ran along its side, glowing through the dimpsy and the storm lantern swung darkly from atop a weathered mast.   Figures were gathered outside the tavern's mouth, shared jars of ale sloshed between them. Kayla toddled away toward the 'Wakes tail: A tapering scuttle of rooms where Maddy and her brood nested. The girls aimed for the sliver of light they could glimpse from under a long awning.   Whether you came in through the kitchen to work or strolled in through the worn porch to fill your cup, there was no question about who ruled the tavern. Meg's aunty Maddy slid between the wooden trestles and benches with the idle menace of a well-fed shark. All manner of business was negotiated in the Wake's secretive nooks but none took place without Maddy's knowledge, nor her say-so. Newcomers were swiftly led to an understanding; that when goods, silver or information changed hands, Maddy would be taking her cut.   Kathy MacLee was stirring a deep cauldron of stew as Meg slid into the kitchen. She spoke in her usual gruff way without looking up.   "Put a scarf about yer head girl and girt that round yer waist" she grunted, handing Meg a greasy apron.   "We don't want those fisher boys taking liberties with you now, do we?"   Meg eyed the sorry rag critically and shrugged.   "Mother MacLee, you know full well my Aunty would take the hand off the arm of any fool that was to bother one of her girls, as soon as swat a fly."   There was a curt cough from behind her and Meg turned to see her Aunt Maddy right there in the flesh, hands full with three precarious stacks of bowls and brows arched above a pair of ices so icy blue, they could chill the North Wind.   "That's as may be" Maddy tutted, "but some of those fisher boys are as fresh as yesterdays winkles and it would not look so well if one of them had to lose a hand on his first night in the 'Wake to blind ignorance." She nodded at the greasy apron. "Just button up and give me a hand clearing. The Teller is warming himself up this minute and I won't have dishes clattering while tales are told."   Meg knew better than to argue with her Aunt, but she tossed her a snotty look anyway, to show that she wasn't a complete pushover. Meg had realised years ago that standing tall in the face of Maddy's glare, rather than drooping like a wet dishcloth, was one of the reasons her aunt gave her more time than most. Meg hid her pleasure at the promise of a Telling behind a mask of sulk in case Maddy took a cruel turn and sent her out back to pot wash where she'd miss the stories completely.   With the scarf about her head and braids tucked away, Meg wrapped the apron about her middle, so her legs were hidden and pushed between the leather curtains that separated the galley from the bar and long hall.   Einar gave her a nod as she pushed around the bar and out into the crowd. The benches were already cosy. Fishers and traders clung to the trestles like limpets. On the small platform in front of the firepit, a red-faced old man sat astride a stool; happily fiddling with the tuning pegs of a small, black harp.   The narrow hall bubbled and spluttered with conversation and laughter. Meg's familiar ear could sense one or two over-excited voices, but she judged that the 'Wake was in no danger of tipping into violence any time soon. Perhaps it would stay peaceful all night if the tales were pleasing.   By the time four piles of platters had been ferried to the pot wash, Meg had already had both feet stepped on twice and her arm pinched by an unidentified hand. She drew a pot of ale from the barrel and set about filling the cups of those at the bar with tin tankards. The crowd was steadily growing; bodies squeezing into the steamy crush, arms waving for jugs of ale. The hubbub rose until, all of a sudden, the fishers hushed one another and the harpist began to strum.   Meg felt a poke in her ribs and turned sharply into Aunty Maddy's bright glare.   "Now you're to keep the Teller's pot filled with mead," she hissed "And only that from the best barrel or he'll most likely throw a huff." Maddy grasped Meg by her shoulders and pushed her forward. Gangly fishermen hopped aside, making way like snow before a shovel.   The Teller stepped to the stage. Tiny bells sewed to a green sash and a light wave of a stout-looking stick announced his arrival. He stepped up onto the platform then lowered himself heavily onto a stool, which creaked to the point of collapse before accepting his prodigious weight.   The Teller's name was Padraig Howley, though Meg heard folk call him 'Holy Pat' when they were trying to be clever, or simply 'Fat Pat' when they couldn't be arsed. Fat Pat's face was as ruddy as his waist was round; the skin on each cheek pocked and lumpy beneath a crown of copper curls. He had a mean, sneering way of looking at you, but when he was telling the tales, his expression leapt between one character and another like a pike chasing guppies down a stream. If Fat Pat's expressions garnished his Tellings, it was his voice that gave the tales flavour. Some Tellers, like Ma Bones or Fey, delivered the Tales in just one voice: That being their own. Ma Bones' deep soulful lilt lent gravity to each word and made poetry of the slightest piece of gossip. Fey did his Telling with a voice like a running brook, which left everyone feeling clear and true and full of new ideas about the world. Fat Pat though: He had a voice for every part. When he spoke as the Queen, he was aloof and sharp; petulance ringing down the narrow hall. As the Viking; White-Of-Eye, he was rumbling and terrible and he made you feel as if you were part of the world that was quaking before him - ripe for the taking. When he spoke as Askar, Orl of Hawk's Eye, his voice made you want him as your friend. It promised warmth and laughter. Meg loved all the Tellers but, though Pat was a foul beast to look upon, she loved him best of all.   All muttering amongst the huddled fishers ceased and–in the manner of the Isles– Pat began the Telling:   "Tidings! Tidings freshly dragged from the surf! Tidings from the mainland! Tidings from afar and abroad!"   The harpist strummed vigorously and the gathered throng called their response, Meg adding her voice to theirs:   "Be they tidings of joy, or of woe?"   Fat Pat grinned widely, spreading his arms and presenting his fat, pink palms to them as he sang the answer the Teller always sang:   "Hear ye both! For as ye all well know: To one this tale brings happiness and to another, sorrow!"   The harpist settled back and lowered his playing to a gentle thrum.   "This tale is a fresh one!" Pat bared his teeth with diabolic glee, "Unheard of yet on Hawk's Eye, I bring to you the Tale of the Queen and the Broken Spear!"   Meg clutched at her apron strings and caged her excitement behind a tight-lipped smile. She loved hearing tales of the Queen, even the old worn-out ones. Even the tired tellings said second-hand that made young ones skip away and the old folk grumble.   "Now, the young Queen of Moonstone gnashed her teeth and beat her clenched fists against the golden skins that lined the floor before her oaken throne, in the castle of Leyster-Fayre."   "She stamped and she kicked and she marched up and down before her noblemen and her diamond-clad priests. She squealed in frustration and screeched her rage before all the fine ladies of the Moonstone court; who covered their own mouths and turned their heads, lest they too were possessed by the vexatious spirits that ailed her so."   "The Queen smashed her precious pots and shredded her linens for–once again– her wide-ranging armies had been thwarted by the Islanders!"   Pat nodded and grinned and took a deep draught of mead while he waited for the hubbub and hoorah to simmer back down.   "Oh yes! The legions of Moonstone had once again been halted and not by just any old chief to lope, banner rattling, down from the glens. No! The victory was claimed by none other than your own laird! Askar! Orl of Hawk's Eye!"   As the applause erupted again, Pat drained his jug and waved it lazily. Meg shuffled forward, keeping her eyes low to avoid catching the Teller's eye. Pat gave a self-satisfied smirk as Meg collected his jug and continued with his telling:   "For it is well-known to the folk of the Isles that Askar carries the Spear of Lauch, a weapon of such power and magic, only a true Saffyran warrior, well-versed in our lore may wield it. Time and time again, Orl Askar had drawn the captains of Moonstone into single combat, ending the battle with no blood lost but their own. This time proved no different. Though the Islanders held the high ground, they were vastly out-numbered. The clansmen had harvests to bring in, flocks to tend and nets to mend. The Queen's armies numbered in the thousands: Seasoned veterans paid in copper pieces to soldier all the year round and greedy to add the wealth of the border clans to their spoils."   "Seeing that the resolve of his kinsmen was thawing and hope of all but a heroic death melting away, Orl Askar shook the banner of Hawk's Eye and struck into the ranks of Moonstone: And so the Spear of Lauch drew blood. Under Askar's banner, the clansmen rallied, broke from their wall of shields and struck at the Moonstoners and once again, the Spear tasted blood. Now, such a thirst cannot be quenched even when wielded in such righteousness and it was all Askar could do to hold the Spear back from bringing doom down on them all."   "Now, the Spear of Lauch stands two men high and is of ash. Most foes fear the beaten iron of the spears' head, for its rounded leaf is graven with the terrible face of Lauch, screaming from his Deepworld cell. Yet it is the shaft of the spear which holds the fey spirit inside. Winding all about it, the symbols of the sun, of death and of the broken-hearted are carved. The Spear thirsts for blood and wails like the dying for the lust of it."   "Once Askar, Orl of Hawk's Eye, had taken twenty heads; he ran before the Moonstone shield wall. Laughing freely, he called, 'Hear me now soldiers of Moonstone, while your heads yet remain on your shoulders! Each of the islanders you face is worth twenty Moonstone heads, as I have shown. To spare you further slaughter; let us decide this battle by single combat. Let your best come forth and claim these rewards; should I fall: Firstly! Conquest of this; the domain of Wesmorlan, for none but the Queen of Moonstone. Second! Rightful claim on my own Orldom, The Isle of Hawk's Eye and the loyal service of its folk!'"   At this, Fat Pat was forced to pause in his telling, until the howls of indignation had subsided. Marvelling herself at the way Pat's voice had transported her, Meg watched the salty folk of Hawk's Eye berate their teller as if he were Orl Askar in the flesh, imploring him not to act so freely with their loyalty, nor to abandon them to the Queen of Moonstone's rule.   Pat waved his listeners down to a reluctant hush and, as he continued to report Askar's challenge, Meg's imagination replaced the ruddy-faced ogre before her with the dashing figure of the Orl himself.   "'The third reward, should your champion defeat me, is this very spear I hold. The spear of Lauch! Doom-bringer! Blood-drinker! Bane of the mainland!' and a cheer went up from the warriors of Hawk's Eye behind him. At this, the soldiers of Moonstone wailed like beaten whelps–for though Askar shamed them–the steady flow of Moonstone blood the spear of Lauch untapped, had caused their courage to waver."   The Queen's captain could stand the shame no more. A nobleman of Southaxe, proud and beautiful in his youth, Aelbirt of Brighthelmstone rode down to slay the hero of the Isles and claim the glory for his Queen. Askar saw that his taunting had pierced the pride of the young captain and–though it pained him to send such a bold warrior to his doom–made ready to bring an end to Aelbirt and an end to the battle."   "And so we return to the furious Queen. The news of Aelbirt's death and the defeat of her army so vexed her, that for six days and nights the Aelfrida raged. Her fury evidenced by the shattered remains of her broken treasures and the raw backs of her beaten servants. As the sun rose on the seventh day, she called for her armourer and her swordsmith. Girt in her mother's armour, just sixteen years of age, Queen Aelfrida took up her father's sword and before the nobility and the common folk of Leyster-fayre, had the crown her grandfather had forged set upon a bright helm and placed upon her stormy head. Raised she then the sword that had brought the lion's share of Saffyr to her father's heel and beaten the houses of Southaxe and Eastaxe into submission and before her folk, she made this vow:   'Good people of Moonstone! I swear now on this; my father's sword and this; my mother's shield: I shall not rest until all of the Northern clans and the last of the farthest-flung islanders bow before your Queen and all of Saffyr is united under the banner of Moonstone! I shall defeat the armies of Zaffre and of Hawk's Eye, of the highlands and all the splintered Isles! and I shall break the bloody spear of Lauch in two!'   As she made a slow march North, tidings of this oath, sworn by Aelfrida, spread throughout the Queen's domain. Hundreds of warriors made willing by her bold vow, flocked to her banner, for the words of such an oath fly more swiftly than any army might march. Orl Askar was busy sowing his noble seed about the well-ploughed farmlands of Narumblan, when the Queen's promise reached his ears. It is said he jumped up in such a hurry from the long grass of some fallow Summer lea, that he left a maiden fallow there too, breathless, ruddy and with the soles of her feet waving at the blue skies above. Askar was in no way dismayed–far from it!–for in the storm of the young Queen's wrath he spied her undoing."   "Now, as one too young and green to have yet learned to fear the bowmen of the Isles, Aelfrida rode at the very head of her army, save for one nobleman; the bearer of the banner of Moonstone and uncle to the Queen, Saxraed!"   Meg waited impatiently for the usual laughter and profanity which erupted at the mention of the Queen's uncle, to run its course before Fat Pat could continue. Tales of Saxraed 'The Plum of Morcia' were well-known on Hawk's Eye. In the children's tales, he was portrayed as a figure of foolishness and misrule, but in the true telling, the full extent of his misdeeds was often graphically recounted. As soon as the jeering had died down, Fat Pat continued:   "Yes, to the 'Plum of Morcia' the honour of bearing the banner of Moonstone had fallen, though few expected him to bear it into the thick of battle. Even the Queen would be forced to concede that–for all her uncle's skill at wielding the mead flagon and the bone flute–he could never be relied on to know whether to stab with a sword or to sheathe it! Saxraed had brought his carousing ways with him, so that much of the journey North seemed more a roving festival of flowers, than a march to war."   "Taking but two of his most trusted clansmen, Askar donned his party in the black robes of the Brothers of the Faith: Warrior priests such as those fighting the Holy Wars east of Rubia. So disguised, the three Islanders joined the Queen's army, pledging their service to her cause. It was an easy enough matter for Askar and his men to fall in with the plum of Morcia and his gaggle, for the Queen's uncle is known for his attraction to the uncommon and these three 'monks' no doubt had him waxing lyrical deep into the wee hours. Orl Askar and his fellows drank in Saxraed's circle by night and marched under the Moonstone banner each day and while they marched, Orl Askar could scarcely tear his eyes from the banner. When Saxraed planted it before the Queen's pavilion, Askar would sink to one knee before it and the Queen's uncle would smile in approval at this strange cleric's devotion to his niece."   "Of course, Askar had no such loyalty. While his head dipped in submission, his twinkling eyes studied the banner and committed its appearance to his memory. Its shaft had been made from her grandfather's lance - the very weapon the old bastard had wielded when his house had reigned over nought but Morcia and the Kingdom of Moonstone itself was nothing but a wild dream. The carvings about it were of lions and oak leaves, the pennant red leather, three lions rampant; stitched in gold. Askar studied it and saw his plan could work."   "Once more in Wesmorlan, the two armies tramped and wheeled ever closer. The mass of the clans, the Islanders and the Highlanders forced back by the huge Moonstone army, twice their number, that sought to surround them. On the eve of the solstice, Askar and his fellows plied the nobles of Moonstone with their mead and Saxraed especially. When the Queen's uncle was well and truly in his cups and his warriors snoring, Askar stole before the Queen's pavilion and uprooted the banner of Moonstone. Swiftly, he removed the pennant and affixed it to a sturdy oak stave, before replacing it once more outside the Queen's pavilion. Then, taking the lance, Askar and his companions made a stealthy passage beyond the Moonstone watchmen and on through the night to the campground of the clans."   "At sunrise on the longest day, Askar rallied the clans and made ready to attack. The soldiers of Moonstone were rushed into action by the sounding horns of their watchmen and barely had the Queen time to don her armour than the clansfolk were upon them. After the first blood was drawn and the explosive wrath of battle ignited, each side formed their lines and shield walls bristled with iron. Heroes on both sides were made and slain but, little by little, the soldiers of Moonstone forced the rebels back and made to encircle them. Seeing once more that the tide of battle was turning the way of the Queen, Askar stood back behind the shield wall of Hawk's Eye and made ready with his plan."   "The Queen saw then that victory was winging its way to her hand. Dragging forth her sore-headed uncle, she brandished her father's sword and Saxraed did his best to hold the Moonstone banner steady, as the pair rode to the front lines and readied about her the doughtiest lancers the Duke of Narumblan could muster. Scarce one hundred strides from her the pride of the clans waited. Naked spearmen, bodies painted blue for the Goddess Lyre and the green shields of the clansfolk of Chluaidh, stood fast before the coming onslaught. As Aelfrida made ready to sound the charge, the two Saffyran tribes parted and the lone figure of Askar strode from between their ranks. The Queen's temper worsened then, for she could see the easy way the Orl of Hawk's Eye grinned at the Moonstone army. Defying her will as if her thousand spears were of less concern to him than an idle herd of milking goats."   "The Queen held fast, scarcely able to believe her eyes. Her wrath waxed at the impudence Askar showed as he strolled toward her, swinging the spear of Lauch from one hand to the other, its broad-leafed head flashing in the sun of the longest day. Aelfrida witnessed Askar raise the spear on high and proclaim:   'Young Queen! This prize of Lauch is what you came for, nay? I would offer you the same honour as I have your poor slain captains, but I own, I cannot!'   The Queen held her barded warhorse steady as her teeth clenched in anger. Askar had reached midway between the two armies: Well within range of bow or spear and no shield to thwart either. The Queen trotted forward to answer him.

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