25th year of the reign
of the King of North Rheged:
Cynmarc the Dismal
From the catwalk Gwen glared down at the fields below, fingers tightening on her distaff. "Fat lot of good it does to come this late in the day, you lout," she muttered, throwing wordplay into her complaint for good measure.
A mountain pony cantered upslope toward the hillfort, but by the hue of the rider's cloak Gwen soon saw it wasn't the one she'd been watching for since dawn. She set her drop spindle to whirling again, still frowning. She recognized those round shoulders. Her nuisance of a cousin, Rhys, returning empty-handed from the hunt.
A dragonfly whirred in circles around Gwen's head. She batted and muttered, "Pest!" -- aimed more at Rhys than at the winged creature. That scoundrel was spurring his mount at a reckless pace up the flanks of Raven's Crag. Why was he riding so hard on the approach? The poor pony. Her own chest tightened, knowing the labored breath and the lathered flanks better than anyone else among mankind ever could. She tossed back her braid of flame-red hair, remembering the feel of mane on a long arching neck.
On the trail behind Rhys, emerging from the eaves of the wildwood, plodded a string of pack ponies led by someone on foot. Still not the one Gwen watched for, but that had become a useless vigil anyway. A trader and his wares would serve as welcome distraction from her sour mood. Gwen tucked her spindle under her belt, slung the distaff by a strap over her shoulder like a sword ready for battle, and skidded down the ladder from her perch on the palisade.
Not so welcome the stranger proved after all, for the tidings he carried came as a jolt to all the folk at Raven's Crag. "The war with Gwynedd is over, and badly ended," he said as they gathered in the courtyard. "Hadn't you heard?"
"Indeed we have not." Grandfather Penn clamped a hand onto Gwen's shoulder. She felt the weight of Taid Penn tremble like a distant landslide before he steadied himself. The troubling news quieted even the young cousins who'd been dancing about. Gwen's cheeks flushed hot from a lofty shame on behalf of the kingdom, shame at the disaster of defeat in battle.
"Only two warriors rallied from our ridge," said Grandmother Heulyn, "that short-handed we are. Neither has returned. We haven't heard any tidings at all."
Gwen's shame turned to horror at the deeper meaning of this news. Had Aunt Enit fallen to the sword? After all that ill will Gwen had hurled her way? "How long ago?" she asked.
"Nigh a month past, the troops shipped home," the trader said. "In great disarray, I hear."
Guilt curdled Gwen's guts, scouring away the last traces of that old faded envy. Penn let go, regaining his poise. She wished he'd still hang on, for then she'd take a turn at clinging.
Taid Penn and Nain Heulyn shared a long silent gaze, their pain plain to see. Grandmother Heulyn was first to shake herself free. "We'll not be jumping to conclusions," the old woman said, voice brisk. "Chances are, Enit'll be the next one riding up the trail. Penn, bear word to the lads then take yourself over the ridge and ask the folks yonder if they've had word from their warriors. Youngsters, back to gathering bracken and beech leaves. Rhys, for the sake of Luel, walk your horse until she's cool. Don't even think to paddock her so lathered as that. Where'd you leave your wits today?"
As Grandfather Penn strode away, the trader cleared his throat. "Salt I'm carrying this fine autumn day, and ingots of iron and copper. Pots and pans and tools."
The nearest packhorse whuffled at the air, sidled close, snuffled at Gwen's hair and blew a whoof
of grass-scented breath in her face. She pushed the beast away. The horses hereabouts had at last lost interest in the odor of sorcery that still trailed in her wake. "Off with you now," she told the pony, fending another nuzzle.
Rhys punched Gwen in the shoulder. "I saw you pining on the piney-wall," he said, nodding toward the palisade. "Been up there all day, have you?"
"Your horse," she growled and aimed a return blow. "She's blown and trembling, you fool!"
Rhys ducked and grinned. "First, a bit of news for you. He's not coming."
"Who's not coming?"
"The one you're a-pining for, up there on the piney palisade. I hear he went grouse hunting today instead. Too bad I couldn't bring you word any sooner. Spent all day up there, have you?"
"This is no time to be stirring up mischief, you lackwit," Gwen snapped.
Nain Heulynn broke off from dickering with the trader. "Rhys!" she barked. "Your horse! See to it!"
"Wretched Runt," Gwen growled. "You ought to be barred from borrowing a mount."
"Frizzle-Frazzle Freckle-Face!" Rhys dashed off to the paddock.
Little did that matter now, in the shadow of the king's defeat and Enit gone missing. And not Enit alone. Gwen turned at the sound of her name wailed from outside the palisade. At the gateway a disheveled figure lurched into sight, a dark-haired young woman big with child, one hand to her belly, the other clutching at the gatepost. "Gwen, oh Gwen, my Neb, what's befallen him?" she cried. "The war's over, and he hasn't come back!"
"Llinos, what's happened?" Gwen cried as she took her friend by the shoulders.
"My Neb!" sobbed the young woman. "He can't have fallen in battle, he can't!"
"To you -- what's happened to you?
Your face, your hands, oh misery, your feet!"
"What does that matter? Neb hasn't--"
"Neither has Enit. We're seeking more tidings from across the ridge. Don't carry on so. Nain!" Gwen called. "Nain, come look."
"Brig help us," Heulyn said. "You've swollen up like a bladder, Llinos."
"I'll just be camping in the lower field then," the trader said to no one in particular, for that's all the more audience he had left. "I'll be leaving at midmorning, my goods and all." He rattled a string of cowbells.
Heulyn ordered one of the cousins to serve the man stew and ale, then beckoned to Llinos. "Come inside and lie down." She turned to the great cone of thatch that roofed the hall.
Gwen ushered Llinos after her grandmother, ducking under the low eaves and into the darkness within. While Nain Heulyn set to brewing raspberry leaf tea, Gwen led her friend to the sleeping platform that ringed the wide circular chamber. "Sit, sit, catch your breath, do," she murmured and wrapped an arm around Llinos' shoulders. "You spoke with the trader, then?"
"Indeed, and ran ahead of him until I remembered the kiln. Went back to douse the coals and pack a bag, else I'd have been here all the sooner." She turned to Heulyn. "Please, may I borrow a horse? I must ride to Caer Luel and hunt for Neb!"
Nain Heulyn rose from the central hearth and joined the two. "How long have your hands and feet been so swollen, lass?"
"I can still hold reins. No matter there. Please, may I?"
"A day or two." Llinos braced the heel of one pudgy hand against her temple, grimaced, shook her head. "Aren't you listening? I must ride to Caer Luel, quick as may be!"
Gwen wiped a tear from her friend's cheek, swollen round as the full moon. "Llinos, you can't, not so far along with child as you are."
Heulyn felt Llinos' plump arm and fingers. "Tell me, lass, have you any pains?"
"Not due to come till Winter's Beginning, they aren't."
"Not those pains. Your head, perhaps?"
"What of it? Not nearly so sore as my heart!"
"The sun's setting. Not a time to be riding anywhere." Heulyn's voice softened. "You'll stay with us overnight, and perhaps hear tidings in the morn from Black Tor."
"He wouldn't have gone there! He'd have come straight home."
"Do stay," Gwen put in. "We won't stand between you and your Neb, but there's no riding tonight. Lie down here. Let me roll you a cushion, then I'll fetch a cold rag for your brow." She saw to Llinos' comfort, shushed the cousins when they came frolicking in from their chores, glared Rhys into silence.
Llinos wept and murmured for her husband while the folk of Raven's Crag settled in for the night. Rhys banked the coals. Darkness veiled all. The youngsters whispered and giggled a while. At last the hall fell quiet -- except for their guest's stifled sobs.
Long into the night Gwen stared into the blackness, listening -- and fretting. Wrack and ruin, disaster in battle. The grim tidings haunted her thoughts, gnawed her mind sleepless. She rolled to her back and rubbed her upper arms, trying to massage away the guilt. Had her own ill will doomed the warriors who had rallied from the mountains, doomed them all to fall in battle?
Gwen shook her head at the folly of the idea. Ill luck for her Aunt Enit, perhaps, but not for the whole army. One lass of seventeen winters could hardly be blamed for the king's defeat.
She kneaded at her left arm again. It felt so bare without the armband. She blinked at the gloom overhead and tried not to think of loss.